About Me

My photo
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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

My Choice for Winner of the 2020 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

Each year I read the shortlist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. As usual I have written reviews of each book. I follow personal tradition in this post of determining my winner from the shortlist.

This year’s books were:

1.) The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey;

2.) An Equal Justice by Chad Zunker; and,

3.) The Hallows by Victor Methos.

In considering which book should be the winner I am guided by the primary criteria for determining the winning book. It directs the judges to award the Prize “to a book length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”

Set in 1922 Bombay’s first female lawyer, Perveen Mistry, in The Satapur Moonstone travels to the princely state of Satapur to resolve a dispute over the education of a 10 year old maharaja. His mother wants him to go to boarding school in England while his grandmother wants him tutored in the family palace. Each fiercely believes she knows what is best for the boy.

As in the first book of the series, The Widows of Malabar Hill, Mistry is retained because she can meet personally with women who are in seclusion.

Mistry has a precise logical mind which serves her well as a lawyer. Her analysis of the options for the maharaja’s education and her recommendation are well done.

Along the way Mistry solves the mystery of the deaths of the boy’s father and older brother.

The book “illuminates” a “role of lawyers in society” providing counsel on what is in the best interests of a child. Where family members struggle with objectivity a lawyer can, by weighing the facts and the applicable principles of law, provide an opinion that is focused on the child.

It is hard to see where the story sees a lawyer effecting change. Mistry, as a woman lawyer, shows women are as capable as men in providing legal advice in complex factual situations. She is leading the way for women entering the legal profession. Her life effects change.

In An Equal Justice by Chad Zunker a new graduate of the Stanford Law School, David Adams, joins a powerhouse firm in Austin, Texas where he will be a civil litigator. Determined to never being out-worked he arrives at 5:30 am for his first day of work.

He soon learns the firm is corrupt and involved in wicked actions. Discreetly investigating the death of a colleague he encounters a group of homeless men living in “The Camp” on the outskirts of Austin. Christian men, they neither allow drugs nor alcohol in “The Camp”.

Zunker does solve the murder but no legal skills are involved. He could have been a young executive in a variety of businesses.

Adams does take on the defence of a homeless man charged with murder. In my review I described it as surreal that a new lawyer would take on a murder defence.

Zunker does treat the homeless with respect.

I found it hard to understand why the book was on the shortlist. His role as a lawyer in the book is to represent huge corporations. He purchases some property to provide a place for homeless people but it was not because he was a lawyer and his actions did not involve his legal talents.

In the winning book, The Hallows by Victor Methos, the charismatic Tatum Graham, talented in all the wiles of the big time American defence lawyer abruptly leaves Miami after a client, just acquitted of murder, strangles the sister of the victim in the trial.

He returns to rural Utah where he joins the county sheriff’s office to prosecute the murder of a 17 year old girl. Using his abundant legal skills he shores up a sloppily investigated case.

With the accused’s wealthy father financing the defence, a prominent New York attorney is hired to represent the teen aged accused.

It is an entertaining story on the preparations for trial in a major murder trial.

I recognize that the “role” of lawyers is to represent the State and the defence in criminal charges. Graham is good at both roles. I could not see how he was effecting “change” because he was using his legal talent to seek a conviction.

It bothered me when I read the news release announcing Methos as the winner where one of the judges was quoted:

“.... we watch Tatum Graham come to terms with the profound personal failures associated with his professional successes,” Crank said. “His redemption comes in the form of a dogged pursuit of justice, even though it means waging war on the very people and institutions that created him.

I take exception to “profound personal failures” being related to his criminal defence work and that he achieves “redemption” as a prosecutor. The tactics he used as a defender are continued by Graham as a prosecutor. Indeed, at the end of the book he breaks the law to get the killer. I saw no “war on the very people and institutions that created him”. He became part of the establishment when he became a prosecutor.

There was a personal change in Graham by switching from the defence to prosecution which probably benefited society but I do not see him effecting change in how criminal law is practiced.

I agree The Hallows deserved to be the winner out of this shortlist but I am hard pressed to see any of the lawyers effecting “change”.


  1. Thanks, Bill, for your thoughts on this. It's interesting to consider what the criteria for the prize is vs what's actually on the shortlist (and which wins). The Hallows does sound like an excellent book, and one that, as you say, deserves to win. Still, It's interesting to think about how the judges actually go about selecting entries.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Many Awards are quite general in criteria but the Harper Lee Prize is specific. I may have disagreed with a judge's comments but I am glad the judge rewarded the book the judge felt best met the criteria.

  2. I've only read Massey's book, which I loved.
    I agree with what you said about The Hallows and defense attorneys and prosecutors. I will probably read the book since I read about the conundrums you describe, although I am almost always a cheerleader for the defense and have friends who are public defenders and Legal Aid lawyers for people who would otherwise have no lawyers.
    This is why I like many of Grisham's books.
    But your points interest me and I'll put the book on my list.

    1. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. I wish American legal mysteries could actually respect both defenders and prosecutors. Most portray one side as the good and the other side as the bad.

  3. True. The protagonist is either a defense attorney or a prosecutor. Or as with Michael Connelly's books, Mickey Haller is a defense attorney, except when he prosecuted a case. And Harry Bosch brings in the cop's viewpoint. I am usually on the side of the defense because defense attorneys in mysteries usually get their clients acquitted and find the guilty person, a la Perry Mason. Or many others. So I'm on their side. Steve Cavanagh's Eddie Flynn, the ex-convict defense attorney takes on innocent clients and then finds the real perpetrators.

    1. Kathy D.: As a lawyer who has been on the defence side for all but a handful of cases I lean to the defenders.

  4. I really enjoyed this comparison, and all three books sound worth reading.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. It was a good shortlist this year.