About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Exchange with Janice Macdonald on Eye of the Beholder

After reading The Eye of the Beholder by Janice MacDonald I exchanged emails with the author. I greatly appreciate the depth of her responses.
Dear Janice

I appreciate Turnstone Press providing me with a copy of The Eye of the Beholder.

I enjoyed the book and thought it the best of the Randy Craig mysteries I have read.

If you are able to reply to this letter and willing to have your reply posted I will put it up when I post this letter. I have already done a pair of posts on the book. 

Hi Bill,

Nice to hear from you, and thank you for your thoughtful reading and reviews of my Randy Craig books.

As I read the wonderfully descriptive opening section of the book on Puerto Vallarta I could visualize the city I have visited. The preciseness of the murder location led me to look it up on Google maps and I included a screen shot of the site in my second post. Did you use Google maps to help you in writing the scenes in The Eye of the Beholder? More specifically did you ever Google the murder spot?

I didn’t google any of the sites in Vallarta, but my husband was dragged along on two or three “murder days” during our last couple of visits (we go once a year for a fortnight) wherein I took photos of places I knew would be part of things, and checked how long it would take to get from one place to another. 

I have a couple of photos of the spit, where I mostly saw little kids with old men fishing, but once, a few visits ago, I caught sight of a lone woman, which had a lot to do with the start of this particular plot. (see below) My husband thinks that posting some photos I’ve taken during our murder walks would be a good idea, so thank you for that!

I am glad Randy and Steve have wed.

Me too. 

The image of Randy bringing 17 liquor board boxes of boxes to the condo she will share with Steve was neither startling nor unusual to me. There are a lot of books in our house. In the home office where I am writing this letter there are approximately 800 books. I enjoy the custom made light golden wood book cases in which they rest every day I am in this room. In the rest of the house I estimate there are another 700 books. The phrasing in The Eye of the Beholder led me to believe you have a lot of books in your home. I would be interested in knowing how many books would be in your home.

Well, we have downsized from a five-bedroom, two storey house with finished basement to a two bedroom condo and two-thirds of everything we owned had to go. We went from 25 bookcases to nine… we had even had a bookcase in the downstairs powder room of our old house. So, I figure we only have about 1800 books now. I spent many years after graduating as a book reviewer for the Edmonton Journal, which helped to build up the collection, but any English major is just programmed to buy books, I think. You can’t walk through a bookstore without buying at least one book, and one-click shopping on Amazon is criminally easy. I used to joke that we had insulated our house to R40 with books. Please don’t ask me how many books are living on my kindle!

A significant majority of my books are crime fiction. I have some shelves of history, especially World War II history. My largest collection of biographies involve the lives of lawyers and judges. Over the years I have purchased at least 75 books about real life lawyers and judges. I would be equally interested in a breakdown of your book collection.

I did my MA thesis on detective fiction, and then had a review column called “If Words Could Kill” for several years. Nowadays, there are fewer mysteries on the shelves than there were. I read a lot of Canadian writers, support Alberta writers, look out for newly released books that sound good from Guardian and NYT reviews, and pick and choose amid thrillers and psychological mysteries. I tend now to pass books along to a friend, who shares them with her mother. That way I don’t feel quite so guilty about overspending my budget. I am planning to spend more time at the library this year, because there really isn’t any more room in here.

I thought Randy and Steve’s enjoyment in a winter snowshoe walk through the bush near Edmonton a great illustration of how Canadians enjoy being outdoors in our cold winters.

The snowshoes were a nice touch. Few people in the world outside Canadians use snowshoes. When I was a boy on the farm I often used the bulky wooden laced snowshoes of my father. He was a trapper in the winter and found snowshoes better in the bush than skis. I never found them easy to use and you certainly learn a new way of walking with them. My younger son now has them mounted on the wall of his law office in Calgary.

Are you a snowshoer? If so, do you like the new metal snowshoes? They certainly look more practical though I admit a nostalgia for the traditional snowshoes of Canada.

I have an old pair of gut snowshoes, but no longer use them. We had plastic ones for the girls when they were little shaped in that old tear drop style, too. Nowadays, my husband and I use the aluminium and plastic ones, though we’ve not had enough snow the last couple of years to warrant them. I no longer ski, but I do like to get out in the winter air and do something, so snowshoeing has made for some fun outings. The newer shaped snowshoes make me feel as if I’m cutting a slightly more elegant figure, though I might be fooling myself.

You integrated visual artwork so well in so many ways into the plot.

I was caught by the interest of Randy and Steve, especially Randy, in the paintings of Maria Pace-Wynters:

I loved her series of paintings dealing with dress forms and corsets, but couldn’t imagine Steve being keen to look at dressmakers’ dummies on his wall every evening.

I agree with her conclusion that such paintings as the one beside this paragraph  would not be a painting a guy would be “keen” to look at every day. (I don’t think this one is available any longer)

In the book they chose a painting of blue poppies, perhaps like the one at the top of this post. I enjoyed the paintings of the blue poppies but liked the vivid red poppies of Pace-Wynters more.

Might you have one or more of the paintings of Pace-Wyneters? If you have any of her work were you, as Randy, smitten by the blue poppies?

I actually DON’T own any of her blue poppies, though I do have prints of her red poppies in my office at work, and my husband has a lovely print of “Hopes and Dreams” in his office. We have a print of her magpie, two of her koi pond prints, a small Christmas cactus print, and a few others. We have one original poppy, and I get her calendar every year. I am quite smitten with her peonies, but don’t have any of that series. I do actually have a print of the dressmakers’ dummies, which I love.

I also do own John Wright’s “Sunflowers” and one of Larry Reese’s magical paintings of a grain elevator, and a water colour by Veronica Rangel from Puerto Vallarta, all of which are mentioned in the novel. We have a small Jane Ash Poitras oil painting that I am very fond of, too, though I didn’t mention that, because my kids would have teased me mercilessly. (They say they were instructed as children to grab the Jane Ash Poitras and my purse if the house ever caught on fire. I probably said that once.)

You spoke in your acknowledgements that The Eye of the Beholder might be the swan song of Randy Craig. I hope not for I can see many opportunities for Randy and Steve to solve crimes together in creative ways. Should it be the final Randy Craig mystery thank you for writing them. You have provided fine reading with the series.

All the best.
Bill Selnes

You are very kind. In much the same way that Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane had to move along when romance got in the way of mystery, I think this may indeed be the end of the line for Randy Craig. However, I don’t think it is the end for my writing, and I hope you will review whatever else gets published in the coming years.


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Wild Justice by Arthur Haberman

Wild Justice by Arthur Haberman - A clever title taken from a quote of Francis Bacon:

“Revenge is a kind of wild

Detective Sergeant, Daniel Miller, of the Toronto Police Service Homicide honours his father on the anniversary of his death but it is only a gesture of respect for his father’s faith:

“.... God and I don’t get along very well. As you, I have a very Jewish position on Him. I don’t believe he exists and I argue with him regularly.”

The divorced Miller has an easy relationship with his 14 year old son, Avi.

Miller’s family is modern Orthodox Jewish rather than ultra-Orthodox. Despite his comments about God he keeps a kosher kitchen though he is less concerned about Jewish dietary rules when he eats out.

A 42 year old veteran officer Miller has a new partner in Detective Constable Nadiri Rahimi. She is in her early 30’s and a new detective.

A genuine surprise was the revelation that Miller plays the violin in an amateur chamber orchestra once a week. One week they are practising Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in C Major. His son refers to him as a Mozarthead.

In what might be a surprise were the book set in America the new detective team work two weeks before they investigate a murder.

A doctor recommends to a deeply troubled unnamed 37 year old man that he needs to develop a new program to change his life. He decides to seek out the men who committed “unspeakable acts” upon him 25 years earlier.

James Frawley, a 40ish Catholic school teacher, has been beaten to death in his apartment by a chair. He also has broken fingers. He appears to be a “secular monk” who wears rough uncomfortable hair underwear and self-mortification. He is a member of the Opus Dei.

There are short excerpts involving the unnamed man set on vengeance.

Another murder comes their way. Halima Nizamani is 20 when she was strangled and thrown off the bluffs in Scarborough. Her Pakistani father was unmoved by her death. He had cast her from the strongly Islamic family saying she is no longer his child for adopting Western ways.

It was unusual and intriguing how there is a start to a thoughtful examination of the lives of the average and the devout in three faiths - Judaism, Catholicism and Islam. Few works of crime fiction delve into the actual practice of faith in the 21st Century.

There is a good book in the concept. I think it would have been better had the story of the unidentified vigilante killer been dropped and the plot focused on the differences between the faith of the faithful, including doubters, and the rigidly devout.

I admired there were family suppers where those present enjoyed themselves and had discussions that ranged from the routine to the serious.

I appreciated that Miller, unlike obsessive fictional detectives, such as Harry Bosch does take time off and is encouraged to have days away from work.

At least at the start it is almost a textbook on investigation - precise procedures are followed.

It was interesting to have cases that did not involve the central mysteries. Those cases made the book more like the life a real life detective.

The narrative does drive toward a conclusion.

There are no apparent flaws in anyone but the murderers. There is an earnestness to all but the bad guys that is uncommon in crime fiction. While I dislike books devoted to dysfunctional characters there are few paragons in the world.

Unfortunately, the dialogue does not always feel natural. Still Haberman does have a vivid statement on the why of a murderer:

“I had nothing for all this time. I wanted something. I thought if I could
act, then I could ….. I don’t have the words …. lose the past.”

The resolution was abrupt and not convincing to me.

I think there could be a series for Miller like the Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series but Wild Justice is not there. It is a good first novel. I think I would read another in the series to see how Haberman progresses as a writer.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Reckoning by John Grisham

(1. – 973.) The Reckoning by John Grisham – War hero Pete Banning is back on his farm in Ford County, Mississippi in October of 1946 thinking:

    Finally, as the first trace of dawn  
    peeked through a window, he 
    accepted the solemn reality that it 
    was time for the killing.

He rises. He has his usual breakfast. He goes to the next farm to see his sister. He climbs in his new truck with his dog and drives slowly to town. He goes into the Methodist Church. He says to the Reverend Dexter Bell that Bell knows why he is here and that Bell will be the first coward he has killed. Bell exclaims that if it is about Liza he can explain. Banning raises his .45 and kills Bell.

Clanton is stuned. A prominent minister has been slain by a prominent citizen. Such violence does not happen among the prominent white citizens of the community. There has not been a murder of any white resident of the county for 10 years and that killing involved a pair of sharecroppers.

Banning refuses to say anything to the Sheriff or longtime family lawyer, John Wilbanks, about why he killed Bell.

Wilbanks pleads with Banning to give him information that will give him some defence or at least a mitigating factor. Nothing.

Banning insists on a trial where there is no defence. For Wilbanks:

Why couldn’t some other lawyer sit benignly at the defense table and captain this sinking ship? From the perspective of an accomplished trial lawyer, it was unsettling, almost embarrassing.

Trial lawyers are very competitive people. To sit passively is torture. I could feel the dismay and frustration of Wilbanks. What is the purpose of this charade of a trial?

The trial and conviction and sentence and execution unfold with an awful predictability. Grisham does not shy from executions.

At this point I wondered why a third of the book had recounted a story inevitable in its telling and totally lacking in “why”.

The next third of the book involved a long exploration of Pete’s experiences in the American Army in the Philippines. The Japanese Army brutally treated the American and Filipino soldiers who surrendered. 

For the first time in quite awhile I felt Grisham had drifted from the theme of the book. The section on WW II, while interesting, could either have been shortened or more connected to the legal issues related to those facts.

The final third sees the civil reckoning as Bell’s family relentlessly pursues a civil action for the killing of Pastor Bell.

The how of this section is as inexorable as the murder trial and execution. The facts allow no legal defences.

What The Reckoning illustrates is why the “law” cannot be driven by emotion. The widow and children of the deceased pastor are innocent victims of the murder. They have suffered grave personal and financial loss. Pete’s children, Joel and Stella, are equally innocent. Their father has murdered a man and his action has devastated their family and financial future.

It is not for the law to decide which victims are more innocent. If there was wrong done the defendant or his estate is liable to pay damages.

In Canada a policy decision was made long ago not to compensate the surviving family members of a wrongful death for pain and suffering. It was decided awards for pain and suffering would be limited to living victims. This policy restricts wrongful death cases to proving pecuniary damages (financial loss).

In The Reckoningthe focus is on financial loss but the jury increases the compensation by awarding substantial punitive damages. I doubt the punitive damage award would have survived appeal in Canada.

I can just imagined the frustration of Wilibanks who represents the Estate in the civil action. An implacable adversary and a hopeless case. I felt his helplessness for the facts were so stark they could lead to no other endings to the criminal murder charge and civil claim for damages. It is the first of Grisham’s books set in Ford County in Mississippi that left me disappointed.

Ultimately there is a “why” in The Reckoning and it is credible. Part of the “why” could be anticipated but Grisham does create a surprise.
Grisham, John – (2000) - The Brethren; (2001) - A Painted House; (2002) - The Summons; (2003) - The King of Torts; (2004) - The Last Juror; (2005) - The Runaway Jury; (2005) - The Broker; (2008) - The Appeal; (2009) - The Associate; (2011) - The Confession; (2011) - The Litigators; (2012) - "G" is for John Grisham - Part I and Part II; (2013) - The Racketeer; (2013) - Grisham's Lawyers; (2013) - Analyzing Grisham's Lawyers; (2013) - Sycamore Row; (2014) - Gray Mountain and Gray Mountain and Real Life Legal Aid; (2015) - Rogue Lawyer and Sebastian Rudd; (2016) - The Whistler; (2017) - Camino Island; (2017) - The Rooster Bar and Law Students and Integrity; Probably hardcover

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Bill's 2018 Best of Non-Fiction and Most Interesting

My last post set out my favourite fiction of the year. This post will list non-fiction and most interesting, books that were neither the best in fiction or non-fiction but I found very interesting.

In Non-Fiction Bill’s Best of 2018 are:

1.) Sleuth – Gail Bowen on Writing Mysteries– Gail has written a 144 page master class on the art of writing mysteries. I loved her use of examples from her own writing.

She explains why she uses first person narrative:

I like getting inside a character’s head, and I like imagining what life must look like through her or his eyes. It’s a personal call, and I seem to slip into it easily, but it might not be for you.

She encourages writers to make notes of “encounters with people who fire your imagination”.

Whether for reader or aspiring writer it is an excellent book.

2.) Decisionsby Jim Treliving – A co-founder of the immensely successful Boston Pizza restaurant chain Treliving writes about making personal and business decisions. He also provides recommendations on business.

He encourages readers to:

            Trust People with More Confidence in You Than You Have in Yourself

Treliving emphasizes the importance of enthusiasm in life creating stamina and momentum.

In the book he discusses missteps in the development of Boston Pizza. 

He is blunt and invariably direct.

I have kept the book as a reference on making decisions.

3.) Dear Pope Francis– Children around the world were invited to ask a question of Pope Francis. 259 responded with drawings and questions with 30 chosen for this book.

Children ask direct questions and appreciate equally direct answers. Pope Francis is not a conventional Pope. He has reached out to the members of the Catholic church and people in the world who are not Catholic.

There is humour, profoundness and poignancy in the book.

Among the most moving questions was Luca’s question on whether his Mom in heaven would grow angel wings. The Pope’s answer can be found at - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhIyA-7J8qw

For Most Interesting my choices are:

1.) Full Disclosureby Beverley McLachlin – It is a good legal mystery involving a young female defence lawyer, Jilly Truitt, in Vancouver defending, Vincent Trussardi, a wealthy businessman against a murder charge.

The title reflects the requirement in Canadian criminal law that the Crown prosecutor is required to disclose to the defence the evidence assembled against the accused.

More subtly in the book there are examples of people, including the accused, failing to provide “full disclosure” of what they know to the lawyers.

What made it Most Interesting for me was the author was the Chief Justice of Canada until the beginning of 2018. Within a few months of retirement she is a successful author.

2.) The Vicar of Christby Walter Murphy -This sprawling saga of an amazing fictional life was written over 40 years ago.

Declan Walsh is a war hero, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and Pope. Murphy makes it all credible.

It reached the list because Declan Walsh becomes a Pope much like the current Pope Francis including the adoption of the name of Francis when he is chosen Pope.

It is a reminder of how many issues involving the Church remain issues from generation to generation.

And then there are the claims of miracle cures attributed to the touch of Francis.

3.) Escape Velocity by Susan Wolfe – It was a legal mystery that did not  need the murder solved in the book. I was intrigued by the legal issues involved in a billion dollar Silicon Valley software company.

The corporation is being driven by a CEO who frustrates long term employees through a short term emphasis on maximum profits while not maintaining a hard earned tradition of quality products.

It was Most Interesting for me in that the author made the main character a paralegal, Georgia Griffin, instead of a lawyer. She explained to me in an email that Georgia was a paralegal so she could legitimately attend major meetings with the participants being unguarded in their comments because she was a paralegal not a lawyer.

As well Georgia has “special skills” for dealing with people from her the con artists of her family.

All the best to readers in 2019.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Bill's Best of 2018 Fiction

Holding with personal tradition I post my choices for the “Best” of the year at the end of the year. In this post I provide my list of “Best Fiction”. My next post will cover “Best Non-Fiction” and “Most Interesting”.

Of the works of fiction I read in 2018 the best were:

1.) Bluebird,Bluebird by Attica Locke – I am a year behind most reviewers who picked Bluebird, Bluebird as a top book of 2017 because I read it in January of 2018.

With the hero, a 21st Century Western lawman, a Texas Ranger no less, in Darren Mathews who has a .45 on his hip and a big truck to ride there is a memorable character to lead the story.

As Mathews is an African American, Locke created dynamics that made the story extraordinary. The white citizens of East Texas are in a quandary. Centuries of prejudice against African Americans run up against a profound respect for the Rangers. To their fictional credit the respect outweighs the prejudice.

The story is the classic tale of the American West with a lone lawman fighting a criminal gang as he investigates a murder. That the gang is formed of white supremacists is credibly modern.

That the first victim is a black man is no surprise. When the second victim is a white woman expectations are again confounded. Revenge against black men for even slights to white women had been ingrained in the American South but here the timing is reversed.

It is a brilliantly told work of crime fiction and is the first in a series to be set along Highway 59 in East Texas where Attica’s family roots run deep. FX will be developing the books into a television series.

2.) Testimony by Scott Turow was my choice for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. It lost out to Proof by C.B. Tobisman. Testimony is an exceptional legal mystery.

Bill Ten Boom gives up a successful career as a mid-America lawyer and an unsuccessful marriage in his early 50’s.

He is enticed into joining the International Crimes Court in the Hague as a prosecutor where he is assigned the investigation of an alleged massacre of 400 Roma in Bosnia approximately 10 years after the end of the Bosnian civil war.

The book makes clear how the Roma remain reviled and disdained in Europe.

Among the potential suspects are the American military and Bosnian Serb paramilitary.

An intriguing element of the book are aspects of forensic science such as comparing the traces of minerals absorbed by buried bones against soil specimens from the earth where the bones were found. The analysis can determine if the bones were placed there at the time of death or later.

There are discussions of the purpose and limitations of current international criminal prosecutions. America, fearing the possibility of charges against the American military, will not even provide information to investigators.

Testimony is the opposite of the cartoonish thrillers that are being churned out in Hollywood.

3.) CutYou Down by Sam Wiebe – Little of my crime fiction reading involves noir. Rare is the work of noir that reaches my annual “Best of Bill” lists.

Vancouver’s Sam Wiebe, a swiftly improving young writer, has crafted a compelling story.

Dave Wakefield is a tough P.I., a former policeman, whose primary investigative technique is poking around. Drug dealers and organized crime poke back.

At the same time he is bright and often witty.

In the search there are a pair of important female characters.

Assisting him in the search is half sister Kay, formerly known as River. She is a lively character.

At the same time he has an ongoing personal and professional relationship with his ex-lover, Sonia, a serving Vancouver police officer.

I will be interested to see if Cut You Down makes the shortlist for the 2019 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Criminal Novel.

3.) Scrublands by Chris Harper – This Australian bestseller came my way from the publisher in late 2018. Harper grabs the reader on the opening pages when Anglican pastor, Byron Swift, kills 5 men standing outside his church one Sunday morning in rural Australia.

A year later struggling journalist, Martin Scarsden, is assigned to a story about how Riversend is dealing the with murders.

While in the town he is drawn into the great unanswered question of “why” did Swift kill that morning. How his alleged pedophilia could cause him to kill has troubled many in the town.

As Scarsden starts probing more bodies turn up and he is suddenly at the center of the biggest story in Australia.

Scarsden must delve deeply to find the “why”. While many would like to know “why” at least as many would prefer no investigation into “why”.

It is an absorbing book about to be released in North America. I have predicted it will be a bestseller.