Last year I wrote a review of Blackwater Bluff by S.M. Hurley. The author is actually Shelagh Mathers who practised law in rural Ontario. We recently exchanged emails on the practice of law in rural Canada and Blackwater Bluff. I appreciate Shelagh's response and am looking forward to her next book.
I appreciated your email concerning my review of Blackwater Bluff.
Rather than ask an author questions directly (examination in chief) or in a leading manner (cross-examination) I like to include some questions within a letter (written interrogatories I guess).
As with yourself I practise law in a rural setting. Melfort has about 6,000 people while I see Picton is in the range of 5,000 residents. I came to Melfort as an articling position was available in 1975 and I was familiar with the community having grown up about 35 km. away. What brought you to Picton?
I have enjoyed living and working in Melfort and have been here 45 years. Law students occasionally ask me what is attractive about being a lawyer in Melfort. I start by saying I like being able to walk to work. Is there an aspect of life as a rural Ontario lawyer that you like to highlight when talking to students?
Few authors of legal fiction feature “country” lawyers. Looking through the dozensof legal mysteries I have reviewed on my blog only a handful are rural lawyers. Even fewer are in communities the size of Melfort or Picton.
In Canada the only other mystery I have read with a rural lawyer is Wishful Seeing by Janet Kellough which takes place in rural 19th Century Ontario not far from you at Coburg.
John Grisham is unique in creating lawyers who work in both rural and urban areas of the United States. His mysteries set in fictional Ford County Mississippi are my favourites. Jake Brigance is an excellent lawyer. I think Sycamore Row is his best book.
Yet, while big city lawyers occupy most legal fiction, the most famous legal mystery of all, To Kill a Mockingbird, is set in rural Alabama. Atticus Finch’s fame circles the globe.
Were you tempted or even “encouraged” to set your mystery down the 401 in Toronto? Saskatchewan author, Anthony Bidulka, told me he was pressed to place his Russel Quant mysteries in America rather than Saskatoon.
I am glad you chose to have Augie de Graaf practise law in rural Ontario. I was instantly attracted to the book.
I like reading about fictional lawyers whose personalities are reflected in their offices. It is my experience that you can learn a great deal about a real life lawyer from their office. I was taken with the lawyer in the book who had live butterflies in her office. I also have a butterfly collection though my butterflies are ceramic creations. Looking at my colourful butterflies brightens every day at the office. Might you have a collection or display of butterflies or other objects within your own office?
The opening scene in Blackwater Bluff where Augie is attacked and injured by a criminal defendant during a trial brought to my mind a real life story I recounted in my review of a young prosecutor who broke her leg while rushing about in the courtroom during a jury trial. Was the attack in your book inspired by a real life event?
Having been a lawyer in the same rural area for decades often means I have represented clients and family members in multiple ways. I may have acted with regard to criminal charges or family breakups or estate disputes or buying a house or drawing up a will or probating an estate. For a few families I have had all those experiences. By dealing with all their personal legal needs there is often a significant personal relationship. I believe those connections take place infrequently in large cities. Would your experience be comparable?
Extending those connections to fellow lawyers I see Augie knows well the lawyers of her community. Big city law also has personal connections. I spent time in Toronto, especially during the Krever Commission in the 1990’s, on blood litigation. My sons, who are lawyers in big firms in Calgary, know a lots of lawyers well. I would say I know the lawyers of Northeast Saskatchewan better. I think our modest numbers and constant interaction, professionally and personally, creates a closer bond. I would be interested in your thoughts on this aspect of rural practice.
I hope your next book is soon published.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Thanks for your letter! Certainly the most pleasant written interrogatory I’ve come across.
If I had been single, without 2 kids under 3, and husband with a job in the small town, I might have made my way to Toronto or Ottawa to practice, but in hindsight I would have been miserable I think. When we moved to Picton, and “The County” in 1987 it was a bucolic backwater that had not yet been found by Toronto types who later discovered there was a direction besides north.
Now that I am retired (which I highly recommend) and The County seems to be the only vacation destination for an endless stream of folks with Covid cabin fever, the ability to escape to the family cottage is a blessing. We’ve been here for a month and a half with only a few excursions to town. I grew up here, it’s in my bones, so I guess I’m just generally inclined to small places and not many people.
I know Janet - she lives in the County and she and Vicky Delaney invited me to participate in last year’s Women Killing It mystery writer’s festival they have been putting on for a few years. Janet and Vicky are both delightful.
The only settings I’ve ever contemplated for the books are the County, and the cottage area (my older son keeps poking at me to set something in this area). The County setting is constrained by its natural water border and readers seem to love the various known locations. The cottage area is just somewhere I know, from the location of the lichens to where I can usually find a butterfly chrysalis or two.
In my former life I was a biologist and quit my PhD program to go to law school. I have quite a soft spot for all manner of 6 legged creatures (except cockroaches and wasps and hornets). Visiting butterfly conservatories is a delightful past time, so I thought “why not put one in a lawyer’s office”.
The opening scene was indeed inspired by a courtroom brawl. My client wanted to talk to his girlfriend and the cops said no and my client tried to get up to do so anyway, and they tackled him. I’ll never forget his face squished into the carpet. It was so unnecessarily brutal.
Being a small town lawyer was a delight, but I think one has to be comfortable with mushy boundaries. I like my professionals to be humans, so I’m fine with being seen buying potatoes and booze. Not all the professionals I know want to be ordinary mortals. I enjoyed being a part time Crown attorney, and for the most part, when I saw the folks I was prosecuting, later on the street, they were pleasant, and sometimes they would hire me for matters after the fact! Continuity through generations was also something I experienced, having practiced from 1988 to 2020. What I learned about other lawyers told me how a file would progress - if it was Suzie Q it was going to be trouble, and if it was Jim Bob we would be settling sooner rather than later.
When talking to prospective small town lawyers ( a dying breed ) I do highlight the benefits of a 10 minute walk and going home for lunch every day, and similar things. I also mention that if you’re in it for the money look elsewhere.
Thanks for your email! Good questions!
****Blackwater Bluff and Sitting in the Dock by S.M. Hurley