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.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Maureen's Reply on The Woman Who Married a Bear

In my previous post I wrote a review of The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley in the form of a letter to my friend Maureen. She replied and her response is below. (Not all of her essay was included for reasons of editing and spoilers.) I appreciate her personal and thoughtful response.
Hello Bill,

I’m sorry that I took so long to answer your email. I'm making up for it with an overly long message, and I apologize for that too.

I was so pleased that you enjoyed The Woman Who Married a Bear. I wrote a short response to the novel for one of my classes this past winter, and in it I think that I actually answer some of your questions. I’ll write a bit here, but you might get a kick out of my mini-essay as well so I’ll attach it at the end.

So, I think that Straley does a good job in presenting Alaska accurately. Now, my classmates thought he did a better job portraying Sitka and Juneau (where he’s lived and worked) than he did of the north and interior of Alaska. Straley travelled all over the state with his job, but he knows the southeast best. I wonder if because we knew his history that we were a little more critical of his descriptions of landscapes farther north.

You asked me how I integrated with the land and people and culture of the North, the Saskatchewan prairies being so different. It’s odd, but I often tell people that not too far north of where I grew up you come to the boreal forest (say Nipawin, Waskesiu or Candle Lake) and that’s a lot like the Yukon, except without the mountains. The winters in Whitehorse are a little darker, but my Grandfather watched the Whitehorse temperatures those first years I was in the Yukon and he remarked that Whitehorse temperatures were pretty much the same as Prince Albert (my Grandpa Eckdahl’s farm was between Choiceland and Snowden).

I’ll have to think more about the culture and people in the North. Early on we fell in with young people very much like ourselves—fresh from college, outdoorsy—from all over Canada. Whitehorse is somewhat transient, so it has always been easy to be new and to meet people. Taking a view of the larger Yukon society, it’s also been an interesting time in the Yukon as we arrived in the midst of land claims, which I think has been an advantage for Yukon First Nations—that opportunity as opposed to the reservation experience in other parts of the country. It hasn’t been all good, but it’s had definite advantages.

Getting back to Straley’s book, I visited Sitka for the first time this past year, and it’s a much different place from the Yukon and from Fairbanks where I’m living right now. It’s temperate rainforest, connected by plane and ferries, with different vegetation and climate. Alaska is so darn big, but it’s also a number of completely different ecosystems, geographies, people… It’s also America. I was here in the late 90s, and Alaska did not feel so different from the Yukon. I’m not as comfortable here now as I was then.

You wrote, “I appreciate crime fiction writers who can make the setting integral to the story and, subject to your comments, I could not see this story taking place anywhere but Alaska.” I think you got this exactly right. I can’t remember who told me this, but someone said that John Straley wanted to write books about Alaska and chose to write mysteries because that genre would allow him to make the place central. 

I hope some of that helps. I don’t think much of the above is worth putting on your blog, but maybe there is a passage or two from my short paper that you might be interested in using.

I’ll watch for your review on your blog. Let me know if you want anymore Cecil Younger books. By the way, Straley is working on one right now, where Cecil’s teenage daughter Blossom has a significant role and there is, apparently, a Nancy Drew subplot. My daughter Jane is very excited, being a fan of Nancy.

Hope this finds you well,

My essay from last winter. It has spoilers: 

Reading Response:
“A Fur-Bearing Animal Trying to Claw Its Way out of My Stomach”:
John Straley’s The Woman Who Married a Bear
            On the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, 1994, on the recommendation of a clerk at the Babbling Book Bookstore in Haines, Alaska, I picked up a copy of John Straley’s first book The Woman Who Married a Bear. I gobbled it up. While friends fished for salmon and watched eagles, I read, feigning naps to sneak off to the tent. With the temperate rainforest around me, I remember feeling such pleasure—the hopefulness of reading a good first novel and recognizing the privilege of experiencing it in its appropriate and new-t0-me-at-the-time landscape of Southeast Alaska. Over the years I have read the rest of Straley’s Cecil Younger mysteries, making a ceremony of buying them only at the independent bookstores in Skagway or Haines. Returning to the world of Cecil and Sitka once more made me think about all the interesting things that Straley does in this first novel: setting the stage for six Cecil Younger novels to follow (and maybe more), Straley’s grounding in the animals and landscape of the Alaska Panhandle, and his incorporation of the Native characters and mythology, particularly raven and bear.
            Cecil Younger is a great creation, a complicated and likable character, someone interesting enough on which to hinge a series, and someone about whom readers will want to learn more. The novel begins with one of his haikus, and when he breaks out a book by Wendell Berry we know Cecil is a man who might have been an English professor, newspaperman, poet, or any number of devious professions of truth seekers, if he hadn’t stumbled a few steps along the way into the private eye game. He is an alcoholic, not-so-successful private investigator, son of a respected judge—“the sainted Judge Younger”—and brother of a successful law school professor. Cecil knows his community must view him as wearing an aura of “failure.” As a loveable screw-up, Cecil does have the affection of everyone from cops and investigators to bartenders and tramps, and good women, who fall for this smart and sensitive soul with a heart the size of Sitka.  He is kind to his autistic roommate Todd, who in the early part of the novel, takes a bullet meant for Cecil. Normally it is Cecil who is the guy that can’t catch a break, but maybe it is even worse when it is the unfortunate Todd who gets in the line of fire.
            Straley incorporates Native mythology into the novel, both subtly and overtly, and legends of two of the most culturally powerful species, ravens and bears. In the opening scene, Cecil breaks off some bread for a raven with a curious red thread tied around his leg. Cecil ponders, “Maybe someone had tried to snare him” and alludes to Native legend: “Raven the trickster: The missing piece of darkness” (4). When Cecil returns to the park bench where he has left his book, he notes, “It was just a little damp and the corners were frayed where it looked like a raven had been turning pages” (13). Ravens are a good bird for Cecil to note, as he has something like that himself—a mixture of brilliance and disaster, humour and pathos. Later at the prison in Juneau, Cecil sees “a raven hopping outside the fence line with a waxed-paper bag of French fries dripping from his beak. Raven who stole light from the darkness” (64). Indeed, raven, like Cecil, was meant for better things. Finally at the end of the novel Cecil sees an old acquaintance:  “A raven circled from over the landfill and flapped the dense snowy air above me. He landed on the stop sign in the main intersection in town. He had a red thread wrapped around his foot” (225).
            Straley’s incorporation of the Native legend of “The Woman Who Married a Bear” is interesting to examine on a number of levels. The bear as a recurring motif adds unity to the story, but also complicates and compounds the mystery. 

Straley, John - (2019) - The Woman Who Married a Bear

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Woman Who Married a Bear (1992) by John Straley

Dear Maureen,

Thank you for giving me The Woman Who Married a Bear (1992) by John Straley. He is a remarkable writer. It is a rarity in my experience of crime fiction to read a superb work of fiction that happens to feature a crime investigation.

Cecil Younger is a great character. He does not fit the classic mould of a hard boiled P.I. He gets around by hitchhiking, taking cabs and walking. He does not carry a gun. He has but one scar from a 6th grade altercation. He likes to read poetry and writes haikus. I am confident I have not encountered another sleuth who reads the New York Times Review of Books.

At the same time he is a self-indulgent drunk. I am not fond of sleuths caught up in their private demons. Fortunately, Younger is a multi-dimensional character not totally absorbed in himself.

While Younger differs from the usual hard boiled P.I. he has their defining characteristic in that he lives by a strong moral code. 

Some years ago I read and reviewed books by Toronto author, Jill Edmonston, whose sleuth Sasha Jackson was a tough girl P.I. In exchanges Jill provided me with her definition of the hard boiled P.I. 

While working on her MA at Athabasca she had studied women in mysteries focusing on Canadian mysteries. As part of her work she wrote an essay titled “From Spenser to Yeats: Feminism’s Answer to the Hardboiled Sleuth is on the Wagon and Rides a Harley

In that essay she stated:

Toughness and raw, pared-down characters and styles seem to be uniformly present within hardboiled fiction, but those characteristics alone do not identify or define hardboiled fiction.  Many of the genre’s hallmarks have to do with the characters’ attributes and conduct (Blade 69), both of which are, or have in recent years become, malleable and elastic. One feature, however, is stoically present in all hardboiled fiction, whether classic or contemporary.  Eclipsing habits and foibles as hardboiled imperatives is the “moral code” or “code of honour” (Blade 70). The private eye may drink or not, he may have a family or not, but the one inviolable tenet of the prototypical hardboiled detective is the ever present, often unique and occasionally contradictory moral compass.  Chandler stated this moral compass may permit the spoiling of a duchess, but commands respect for a virgin; in doing so Chandler defined by omission the unfailingly amorphous internal value system that guides a hardboiled sleuth in all matters.   

Younger’s  roommate, Todd, is classified by Social Services as “mentally and emotionally challenged”. Straley provides a moving description of Todd that belies the harsh official designation:

…. the woman who used to love me said he had too gentle a heart to live
in the real world.

When Todd, instead of Younger, is shot by mistake Younger is bound by a sense of honour to pursue both the original quest and the shooter of Todd

Younger’s introduction to the reader further illustrates his personality. He is working his way through a nasty hangover and considering the various ways he has dealt with past hangovers. He will sort out what has happened to his credit card after he sees Mrs. Victor at the Pioneer Home.

Mrs. Victor is a striking minor character in a book filled with such characters. Sitting in a wheelchair and smoking she wants Younger to find out why

… her son, Louis Victor, the Indian big-game guide. The Brown Bear Man, was shot with a high-powered rifle by a crazy man. His body had been consumed by the bears near one of his hunting cabins.

I was captured by the “why”. It is my favourite question. Younger was equally caught up by the question.

I found the plot to have the feel of a Shakespearean tragedy brought to the 20th Century. What started as a routine investigation into motive developed into the unraveling of a troubled and complex family. The result is aptly described bu Shakespeare’s phrase from Hamlet “murder most foul”.

The title, taken from an Indian story, draws upon the universal conflicts often consequent upon a stranger entering the family of another culture. I refuse to say inevitable because I do not believe cross-cultural unions are bound for tragedy.

I find it compelling that the Nathan Active mysteries of Stan Jones, another mystery series set in Alaska, also feature a character, Active, in the midst of cross cultures in that he was born Inuit and raised in a white family. He has his struggles but is more successful in working his way through the cultures in his life than the Victor family.

I found a lyrical quality to the descriptiveness in Straley’s writing:

I remember picking each berry. The stains on my fingers and thumb. The sweet bitter taste of the seeds resting in the back of my tongue and my teeth. I held one berry up to the light and looked at the tiny hair coming from each sack. I saw the membrane surrounding the juice as thin as the surface tension on a drop of water. An occasional horsefly would create a small disturbance in the still air and the wind would stir the trees above us, mixing the shadows in a warm broth.

The book further evoked for me a deep connection between the story and the land, history and people of Alaska.

What could be more vivid than:

An almost subsonic groan percolated up from below and the surface of the water broke. Giant ovoid forms heaved up out of the water, abstract at first, ten feet of curve, texture, and confined space. The water boiled with little silvery fish dense on the surface like a trillion dollars in quarters spilling onto a sidewalk. Then, the surface of the water actually bent as the huge bulk continued to rise and the two forms closed together, combining into one, slippery gray-black monument. There was a massive exploding breath and the damp smell of fish and tideflat, a cloud of vapor drifting away. As the form tipped to the side and lay in the water, a narrow rubbery wing lifted out of the sea and slapped the surface: curved and scalloped, knobby and limber. It popped the water and the form lengthened as it tipped to the plane of the horizon, as if it spilled out of itself. Then, an eye, an eye the size of a softball ….

The Woman Who Married a Bear reminds me of Cool Water a book written by Dianne Warren of Regina and set in southwestern Saskatchewan. It was another book in which weather and the land and the past and characters were all vivid and real to me.

I further thought of Cool Water during my reading of The Woman Who Married a Bear as it had been given to me by a friend. It proved a special gift. The Woman Who Married a Bear is also a book I will treasure.

My review of Cool Water (here is a link - https://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2014/12/cool-water-by-dianne-warren.html) was a letter to Cody, the young man who gave me the book. I wanted to get his thoughts on Cool Water. I equally want to engage with you on your reaction to The Woman Who Married a Bear.

Having never visited Alaska I would like to ask how well The Woman Who Married a Bear portrays Alaska in all its facets?

You went from Saskatchewan, a land of farming and broad open spaces and little rain, to the Yukon and currently Alaska where forest in the lower regions of the state dominates the landscape and rain, especially in coastal Alaska, is ever present. If it is not too personal how have you integrated with the land and people and culture of the North?

Are there any aspects of Emma, the widow of Victor who came from San Francisco, and became an Alaskan that resonate with you?

I appreciate crime fiction writers who can make the setting integral to the story and, subject to your comments, I could not see this story taking place anywhere but Alaska.

If you are able to reply and are willing to have your reply posted I would be glad to put it up on my blog.

All the best.

The above review in the form of a letter was written to a friend, Maureen, who loves and teaches English in the Yukon. She grew up in Melfort. As set out in the letter I appreciate her introducing me to John Straley.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Danish Chestnut Dolls in Fiction and Real Life

In reading The Chestnut Man I was struck by a couple of matters.

The plot reminded me in several ways of The Keeper of Lost Causes, the first mystery of another Danish author, Jussi Adler-Olsen.

In The Keeper of Lost Causes Carl Mørck is a senior homicide detective, just recoverd from a major injury, when he is assigned to the newly created Department Q to investigate cold cases. He does not want to be there. He wishes he were in the regular homicide unit.

In The Chestnut Man homicide detective, Naia Thulin, is putting in time as she strives to be transferred to the cybercrime unit, NC3.

In both books an outsider comes to the Department.

Mørck is assigned an assistant, Assad, to aid him in cleaning and administrative tasks. The industrious Syrian immigrant through his enery and enthusiasm inspires Mørck to become engaged with his work.

Thulin is assigned Hess, it is some time before she learns his first name is Mark, as a partner. He has been returned from Europol to the Danish police. Initially indifferent to the investigation he proves himself clever and dedicated.

In each book the original detectives Mørck and Thulin come to  grudgingly accept the competence of Assad and Hess.

The investigations share a theme in that both look into a long missing person thought dead.

And both missing persons are connected to Danish politics. In The Keeper of Lost Causes it missing politician, Merete Lyngaard.  In The Chestnut Man the missing Kristine is the daughter of Minister of Social Affairs, Rosa Hartung.

I have taken a quick look around the net but have not found any reviews that comment on the common elements of the books.

The second issue involves the evocative ``chestnut men`` left at murder scenes. They are described as being made by Danish school children each fall.

Having a Danish friend, Bente, I asked her about children making chestnut dolls. She advised me in a message that:

Yes, children in Denmark make chestnut dolls, chestnut cows, dogs, cats, giraffes and whatever aninmal they can imagine from chestnuts.

Not having found any photos of chestnut figures made by her children she went out and found some chestnuts and ``made a man and his cown and dog``. The photos at the top of the post are photos she sent to me of her figures. Thanks for sending them to me Bente. They make chestnut figures so much more vivid.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup

(48. – 1019.) The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup as translated by Caroline Waight - Gruesome murders of 30 years ago and the present open the book.

Young Danish homicide detective, Naia Thulin, is assigned to pick up Hess, a liason officer with Europol who has been abruptly dispatched home. He is:

Tall, upright, yet somehow a little down at heel. Unkempt, rain-soaked hair, worn and sopping Nike shoes, thin, baggy pants, and a short black quilted jacket that also looked likeit was thoroughly drenched.

His left eye is green and his right eye is blue. He declines, politely but firmly, to explain why he joined Europol.

As they examine the body of a woman, Laura Kjær, tortured and murdered, Thulin notices a figure hanging near the body:

Two dark brown chestnuts placed on top of each other, the top one small and the bottom one large. Two holes have been scratched into the smaller chestnut to make eyes. Matchsticks have been poked into the larger one, representing arms and legs.

I can see the “Chestnut Man” filling the screen of a movie. (After reading the book I learned you can expect to see it as a series on Netflix.)

The casual attitude of Hess towards the investigation irritates Thulin intensely. Even before the exasperating Hess comes into her life Thulin has applied to be transferred to the cyber-crime unit, NC3.

Rosa Hartung, Minister for Social Affairs, and her husband, Steen Hartung, who is a prominent architect, are coping with the disappearance of their 12 year old daughter, Kristine, a year ago. A paranoid schizophrenic young man, Linus Bekker, confessed to sexually assaulting and killing Kristine. He was convicted and is in a psychiatric institution. A phrase - “grief is love made homeless” - reflects their aching loss.

As Hartung resumes her duties as Minister there are some crude anonymous threats made against her.

When Kristine’s fingerprint is found on the “Chestnut Man” everyone is thrown into turmoil.

Hess, initially indifferent to the investigation as he desperately wants to return to Europol, cannot resist the lure of a mystery. He is a clever dedicated investigator who startles Forensics by buying a dead pig and dismembering the pig with a machete to see if the results support the confession of Bekker of killing Kristine.

Kjaer’s killer toys with the police.

And then another woman, Anne Sejer-Lassen, is tortured and killed. And there is another “Chestnut Man” with Kristine’s fingerprint.

The investigation accelerates and the pages fly by.

I was reminded of the diabolical killers in the Lincoln Rhymes series by Jeffery Deaver who play deadly games with the police.

Thulin finally learns Hess’s first name is Mark and grudgingly gains respect for his fierce determination to solve the case even if he offends superiors and fellow officers.

Hess is a lonely voice asserting there is a connection between Kristine’s abduction and the murders of the women. No one in the police is ready to concede that their massive effort to find and convict Bekker was wrong.

I was swept up in the twists and turns of the plot struggling with Hess and Thulin to grasp an ever more complex investigation.

The killer is a master manipulator and meticulous planner.

The investigation turns on careful examination of the evidence and a refusal to accept official conclusions that does not accord with the evidence.

I was reminded of the pace and excitement I had while reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The last 100 pages are almost impossible to put down. The Chestnut Man is what a thriller should be at the end. There is drama, twists, tension, violence and a convincing, all too credible, finish. The resolution left me intensely sad.