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.

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith

(38. - 1063.) The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith - Ulf Varg is a thinking detective in the Department of Sensitive Crimes in Malmo, Sweden. He is at ease in discussing Kierkgaard and Kant.


Ulf loves his “ancient light gray Saab” car gifted to him by an uncle and sums up the car as “... perfect. Real leather. Everything works. Everything.” Driving this wonderful car may be more therapeutic than his sessions with a psychoanalyst for a drive relaxes and refreshes Ulf. 


The team from the Department investigates a stabbing of a market trader in an “unusual locus” - the back of the knee. The victim Malte is an honest man with eczema who is a Harley-Davidson aficionado. Malte’s wife, Mona, is “the one who decides what they do, generally”. The team swiftly determines Malte was stabbed through a slit in the back of the tent housing his market stall.


Puzzled about the crime Ulf uses “thinking time” to ponder the case. With little physical evidence and no obvious suspect he turns to my favourite crime fiction question - “why”. Some more thought and he decides to focus on what is unusual - why was Malte stabbed at “knee level”.


A deepening friendship with Anna, a member of the Department, troubles Ulf for he is a virtuous - a work not often used in the 21st Century - man whose sense of honour prevents him from an intimate relationship with Anna who is long married to Jo and has two children. Confirming her comment that they need to have only a friendly professional relationship Ulf says:


“I’m very sorry,” he said. “I spoke out of turn. Forgive me, it was my fault entirely. I was forgetting that some things simply cannot be, no matter how much one might wish otherwise.”


In his innate sensitivity Ulf is a gentleman.


I was struck by how sensitive the officers were in their investigation. They are as concerned about the victims and the criminals.


It took me over 100 pages ro realize these sensitive investigators deal with sensitive people undergoing sensitive experiences. There is nary a hint of the hard boiled nor the bleakness of noir in their cases. Humans struggling in loneliness occupy their investigations. The investigations, ostensibly about solving crime, are really efforts at restorative justice to correct a wrong with sensitivity for all involved.


The Department is aided by a regular police officer, Blomquist. He lacks sensitivity. He is less insensitive than oblivious. He is a keen observer who cannot resist expressing his observations which are supported by his immense knowledge of trivial facts. Listeners glaze over as he opines on high intensity exercise and the benefits of unpeeled potatoes. I read of the earnest Blomquist with a touch of uneasy. My personal success in trivia contest reminds me I have a lot of trivia in my mind.


And then an investigation veers into a person of interest borrowing books on lycanthropy (a man turning into a wolf). Can she believe her hirsute husband is a werewolf? For Ulf Varg whose first name and surname both mean wolf the subject is a touch jolting.


McCall-Smith is clever, with a style that is neither parody nor condescending, but conveys an ironic amusement concerning the decidedly non-busy Sensitive Crimes Unit. The back cover blurb from the Philadelphia Inquirer - “Droll, droll, droll” - is apt. I have the next in the series on my desk and will read it soon. It is hard to explain why I have not read an author I greatly enjoyed in 2004 for 16 years.

****

Smith, Alexander McCall – (2004) - The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Best fiction in 2004); (2020) - The Department of Sensitive Crimes

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Unlocking Season by Gail Bowen

(37. - 1062.) The Unlocking Season by Gail Bowen - It is Easter and Joanne Shreeve (Kilbourn is in her past) is 60 and Zack is doing well and Taylor is in love and her other children are happy and her grandchildren are thriving. Life is good.


Joanne is feeling her way through the development of a 6 part television series, Sisters and Strangers, based on her youth and the startling revelations she has just learned about the identity of her father.


Roy Brodnitz, formerly a dancer, and now a writer for 20 years had been working on the script of the series with Joanne’s aid but he has not progressed beyond the opening two episodes. While in northern Saskatchewan seeking locations for shooting the series Brodnitz disappears. When found he is disheveled and frantic. He has a massive heart attack. He survives the flight to hospital but has another heart attack in the night and dies.


Though a dramatic opening I was not immediately drawn into the book. I think it was because Joanne was not involved. Others are telling her about events. When she gets a greater direct role about 80 pages in I was taken in by the story.


Joanne is caught up in a different form of the arts. Previous books such as Murder at the Mendel, The Gifted and A Darkness of the Heart have explored the artistic mind and the consequences of extraordinary creativity. In The Unlocking Season it is the world of script writing and film production.


Georgie Shepherd, the executive producer and new writer for the series at Living Skies Productions, seeks Joanne’s assistance in developing the script. (With our provincial motto being “Land of Living Skies” it is the perfect name for a Saskatchewan film company.) When Joanne demurs referring to her professional writing experience being a biography Georgie is unmoved:


“They both use sentences,” Georgie said curtly. “Can you be at my office tomorrow morning at nine?”


I can see the author, Gail, being equally no nonsense with a writing colleague.


As always Joanne is on time. As they work the book has excerpts from the script with discussion on structure and purpose and language.


As Joanne is caught up in the excitement of a T.V. production there is a pang for Taylor is leaving home. Through the series readers have experienced Joanne’s joys and fears in raising a talented artist. Now Taylor is an adult. Joanne’s last child will soon be a visitor to her home.


Film is a labour intensive creativity. Where writers and painters work alone a table meeting  on the T.V. production involves 25 people.


Ainsley Blair, who had been Brodnitz’s dance partner, is now the director of the series. Withdrawing into herself after his death creates anxiety within the production.


With so many people involved and a major amount of money invested and creative egos all about there is constant tension around the series.


When Buzz Wells, a slick unscrupulous successful New York film producer / writer, arrives with his own vision on how to make the series a commercial success the tension becomes intense.


Taylor’s partner, Vale, is the star of the series. She is young enough to play the teenage Sally (Taylor’s mother and Joanne’s best friend as a girl). Having been an actor through her teenage years Vale can appreciate Sally leaving Canada at 14 with an older man for New York where she became a successful artist at a grave emotional cost.


Joanne seeks to keep in perspective the prejudice of a few who see the same sex relationship of Vale and Taylor as sinful.


The resolution is cleaner than A Darkness of the Heart. It was predictable but the joy of the series is more in the characters rather than plots that challenge the reader’s ability to identify the killer.


Ultimately, I did not connect as deeply with this book as with most in the series. The Joanne Shreeve books have been rooted in Saskatchewan experiences. I thought this book, the second in a row that involved film making, was not really a Saskatchewan based story. I realized my conception of Saskatchewan stories is based on the province I grew up in. The province has evolved in my lifetime. Films, while not as many as a few years ago, are made here. Gail has a better understanding of contemporary Saskatchewan.


I did wish there was more of physical Regina and Saskatchewan in the book. There are touches of the city and country extending to the film studios but much of the setting is in studios that are bound to be generic.


The family relationships keep expanding. There are a full set of children and their partners and grandchildren. Many of the best scenes in the book are family vignettes.


It would be hard to enjoy the book if you have not read the previous book in the series, A Darkness of the Heart. It is really a continuation of that book. While Gail provides background the emotions are better understood from an understanding of what occurred in that book.


I enjoyed the book but I hope the next book in the series leaves the world of T.V. series.

****

** Bowen, Gail – (2000) - Burying Ariel (Second best fiction of 2000); (2002) - The Glass Coffin; (2004) - The Last Good Day; (2007) – The Endless Knot (Second Best Fiction of 2007); (2008) - The Brutal Heart; (2010) - The Nesting Dolls; (2011) - Deadly Appearances; (2012) - Kaleidoscope; (2013) - Murder at the Mendel; (2013) - The Gifted and Q & A; (2015) - 12 Rose Street; Q & A with Gail Bowen on Writing and the Joanne Kilbourn Series; (2016) - What's Left Behind and Heritage Poultry in Saskatchewan Crime Fiction; (2017) - The Winners' Circle(2018) - Sleuth - Gail Bowen on Writing Mysteries / Gail the Grand Master - (Part I) and (Part II); (2018) - A Darkness of the Heart and Email Exchange with Gail on ADOHHardcover


Sunday, October 4, 2020

Thoughts at the End of Summer in 2020

It is a quiet Sunday afternoon in early October. There will be no more sitting outside reading and writing this year. A few golden leaves are still upon our huge elm outside the den window. The winds of Saskatchewan have shaken most from the tree. Yet a stubborn touch of summer has lingered through the early frosts of autumn. A couple of flowers below the window still bloom. The photo is of these last flowers of 2020.

I have been letting my mind drift about books.

Most of my reading is random except for the shortlists for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and what was called the Arthur for Best Crime Fiction Novel in Canada. (I say “was” as the directors of the Crime Writers of Canada have chosen to change the logo and name of the annual Awards for reasons that did not convince me.)


Only when I was involved in the memes for the Crime Fiction Alphabet which was hosted by Kerrie Smith at her blog, Mysteries in Paradise, did I consciously read books because of the alphabet. Thus it is a coincidence that I happen to be reading the books that will be first and list in my page of authors read which is arranged  alphabetically.


Leading the list will soon be Mycroft Holmes by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse. The book got off to an unpromising start describing the murders of small children at a beachfront community in Trinidad. It improved dramatically with a young Mycroft providing unsolicited advice to the oarsmen of Cambridge about to take on Oxford in their annual race. I was captured when Mycroft spoke of his passion for Georgiana and plans for marriage. I have to find out what happens.


Ending the page which now extends to 1,061 books will be An Equal Justice by Chad Zunker. I recently posted a review of the legal mystery set in Austin and provided my evaluation of the book as a part of my examination of the books on the shortlist of the 2020 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.


There will not be many books that will have author names before “Ab” or after “Zu”.


Occasionally I check on Google for what might appear on a search of my name. To my surprise I found that Sharon Bala had written on her website about the imagined judgment I prepared as an ending for her amazing book The Boat People. She had left the fate of her characters unresolved in the book. Her book has gained her fame around the world. Her comment with links is:


I’ve received approximately 700,000 questions about The Boat People’s ending. So many that I addressed the ambiguity in my FAQs. Dear Reader, You be the adjudicator, I essentially said. Do Grace’s job. Decide Mahindan’s fate.


Bill Selnes, a lawyer and reader in Saskatchewan, took me up on the challenge. Friends, this is really, really good. Fan fiction of the highest order. Bill has written an imagined judgement and you can read it on his blog Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan. And there’s a bonus post script where he tells us how Mahindan and Sellian are doing now.


In a book club recently, I tried to explain (probably incoherently) that The Boat People doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s out in the world, being read by total strangers. Each reader brings their unique perspective to the book and the story changes subtly each time it is read, by each new person. One of the pleasures of being an author is knowing that your characters are out there living their own lives, separate from you, totally out of your control. Whenever readers tell me about their experience of the book, how they feel about this character or that, it’s a bit like receiving a dispatch from the other side, Mahinder et al sending messages via emissaries. In Bill Selnes’ imagined universe, Mahindan and Sellian are thriving. And I’m really glad to hear it!


Thank you for the kind words Sharon.


Almost inevitably thoughts on the challenges and worries of the pandemic that has dominated the spring and summer crept into my mind as I read of the passing of Northern Ireland poet, Derek Mahon. Included in the obituary was his poem Everything is Going to be All Right. I want to share it with you as it reflects how I do my best to approach trying times:


How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.