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.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Irreconcilable Dispositions

In Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny there is significant discussion about wills, a topic with which I deal almost every day at the office.

I had a couple of concerns with process in the book.

It distresses me when authors get basic legal matters wrong. There is reference to holograph wills being valid in Quebec. That is correct. What is incorrect is that witnesses are required. What makes holograph wills unique is that they do not need two independent witnesses.

More important there is discussion over changing a will when the testatrix, the maker of the will, is suffering confusion. The plot has the notary decline to allow the testatrix to change the bequests in a will because of concern over the mental capacity of the testatrix. At the same time he allows the testatrix to change the liquidators. If she lacked capacity to change beneficiaries the testarix equally lacked capacity to change liquidators.

What was most interesting was the exploration of a perverse will made long ago.

There were references in the book to people who have made bizaree wills such as giving a penny to everyone who attends their funeral.

In the book the “Baroness” Bertha Baumgartner has made a fairly simple division of her assets but no one believes she died with enough assets to be giving $5 million to each of her children.

In the book we learn of a bitter rivaly between the Baumgartners and another family, the Kindroths, to whom they are related that extends back to central Europe. At the heart of the family conflict is an inheritance dispute that has lasted 132 years.

There was a will made in Europe late in the 19th Century in which a Baron’s whole estate was given to each of the Baron’s two sons. The will’s terms are impossible as no priority is given to either son. (The Baumgartners and Kindroths are the families descended from the respective sons.) 

Court battles in Austria over the will began in the 19th Century, carried on through the 20th Century and reached resolution in the book almost 20 years into the 21st Century.

Giving the same bequest to two beneficiaries reminds me of Solomon in the Bible trying to decide between two women on who is the mother of a baby.

Curious about what a Canadian court, outside Quebec, would do with such a will myself and my associate, Brandi, did some research. It took us longer than expected as we searched for the same bequests to different people or conditions on bequests or double bequests. 

Eventually I found the answer when a case on double legacies led me to irreconciliable dispositions. At least back to the 19th Century the law of England and Canada has been that if there are irreconciliable dispositions the last of the irreconciliable dispositions takes effect. Thus in Penny’s fictional will the twin who is named second to receive the estate would get the estate. Canadian courts will strive to avoid making such a ruling including looking at other clauses in the will or extrinsic evidence but if the dispositions are irreconciliable the beneficiary who is designated last gets the property covered by the disposition. The principle is that the last of the dispositions made by the testator (male) or testatrix (female), the maker of the will, reflects the final intention of the testator and therefore should be upheld. Though not stated in cases and texts the principle would accord with how Anglo - Canadian wills are traditionally started as “the last will and testament of ….”.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny - In bitter winter Armand Gamache and Myrna Landers are called to a decrepit farmhouse by a notary. They are joined by a young builder, Benedict Pouliot. To their combined surprise they have been named liquidators (executors) of the estate of Bertha Baumgartner. None of them knew Baumgartner.

In discussion with Ruth they learn that she was the cleaning lady they knew as the Baroness. She insisted on the title when being addressed.

At the same time Gamache remains suspended from his position as Chief Superintendent of the Surete du Quebec as investigators probe the chaotic firefight and arrest of a major Quebec drug dealer. Gamache is at risk because he let a shipment of opioids enter Quebec rather than compromise the investigation of a major drug cartel. Politicians and ambitious members of the Surete are ready to crucify him if the drugs reach the streets.

At the Academy he dismisses Amelia Choquette, the young woman of the streets he had allowed entry when he was Commandant, over drugs found in her room. At the same time he has her followed.

Both Choquette and Gamache read Marcus Aurelius and contemplate his thought:

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.

Choquette’s return to the streets felt contrived.

The task of Gamache as liquidator becomes entangled with his professional duties when the eldest son of the Baroness, Anthony, is murdered within the abandoned farmily farm home.

With Anthony a financial adviser the issue of money draws to the forefront. Old money and new money are equally dangerous.

Secrets abound in Kingdom of the Blind. Anthony has presented a facade to the world. Gamache is pursuing personal agendas within the Surete. Choquette tells the street she wants into trafficking.

Anthony’s siblings and ex-wife, Hugo and Caroline and Adrienne, are stunned by his death and thought they knew all of Anthony’s secrets.

Once again the intrigue of the murder works better for me than the intrigue within the Surete and the hunt for the opiods from the shipment that Gamache allowed to enter Quebec. Penny writes beautifully about the emotions of people but not about thriller themes. I did not enjoy the plot line in The Nature of the Beast of an apocalyptic huge gun or Gamache as an action hero in the previous book, Glass Houses

In Kingdom of the Blind there is a desperate pursuit of drugs as set on the blurb inside the front cover:

Enough narcotic to kill thousands has disappeared into inner-city Montreal. With the deadly drug about to hit the streets, Gamache races for answers.

I do not see Gamache as a racer.

The issues over the “Guilt of an old inheritance” concerning Baumgartner’s will work well. My next post will discuss the unusal will.

Unfortunately, the plot line involving financial advisors was not convincing. There were too many flaws for me.

The power of Penny’s books comes from the interactions of the characters. I think of Penny as the Canadian equivalent of P.D. James. As far as I know James never drifted into thriller themes. My reading of this book in the series is almost a year late for various personal reasons. I hope the newest Gamache mystery, A Better Man, just published leaves the thriller to other authors.

The very best part of the book came after the ending and the acknowledgements. Two of the businesses, the bakery and the bookshop, in Three Pines were inspired by actual businesses in the small community of Knowlton where Penny resides and the neighbouring town of Sutton. Owners of those businesses write about them and provide photos. Each is as charming and inviting as the fictional stores in Three Pines.

Though  Kingdom of the Blind is not one of my favourites in the series the pages flowed easily. Penny is a gifted writer. I look forward to the next Gamache book.
Penny, Louise – (2005) - Still Life; (2006) - Dead Cold (Tied for 3rd Best fiction of 2006); (2007) - The Cruelest Month; (2009) - The Murder Stone (Tied for 4th Best fiction of 2009); (2010) - The Brutal Telling; (2011) - Bury Your Dead (Best Fiction of 2011); (2011) - A Trick of the Light; (2012) - The Beautiful Mystery (Part I) and The Beautiful Mystery (Part II); (2013) - "P" is for Louise Penny - Movie Producer and Review of the Movie of Still Life; (2013) - How the Light Gets In; (2014) - The Long Way Home; (2014) - The Armand Gamache Series after 10 Mysteries - Part I and Part II; (2015) - The Nature of the Beast (Part I) and The Nature of the Beast (Part II); (2016) - A Great Reckoning The Academy and Comparisons and The Map; (2017) - Glass Houses - Happiness and Unhappiness and Getting the Law Wrong; Hardcover

Friday, September 6, 2019

Detecting Deception

Nora, the sleuth from the streets, in The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal has a unique talent honed by a lifetime of surviving. She is a human lie detector.
To detect lies she likes to ask a provocative leading question.

 Trying to determine where a witness was the night before she might ask:

“Were you fucking the cashier from the gas station yesterday between 9:37 P.M. and 10:18 PM?

If the questioned responds with “questions of his own to discern how much you actually know” she is dealing with a liar.

She also carefully catalogues the body language of the liar:

A flicker of the eye. A twitch at his lips. Tapping fingers or an involuntary clench of the jaw. An almost imperceptible shift in tone.

Where Nora studies the words and body of a person she is questioning fictional sleuth, Decker Roberts, in The Junction Chronicles trilogy of David Rotenberg is a different form of human lie detector.

A synasethete Roberts, while listening to someone, can close his eyes and from the patterns he sees know if the truth is being told. It is a gift for which he is well paid and a curse for the danger posed by those who fear him listening to them.

While her techniques work for Nora I have found them of limited assistance in questioning witnesses in court.
Asking an aggressive question is likely to produce a defensive reaction where it can be hard to determine whether the response reflects dishonesty or simply anger at the question.

Subtle body language is too often misleading. Unless you know someone well you cannot tell whether a “twitch” is a sign of the untruthful or a personal tic or nervousness in an unfamiliar setting.

As for the approach of Roberts I often wish I could close my eyes and tell if the person I am talking to is truthful. Alas, I must rely on my observations and experiences.

While it is useful to be alert to non-verbal cues you cannot predict a witness will show any.  

With regard to non-verbal cues in 2012 in R. v. S. (N) the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a woman in a sexual assault case had to remove her niqab while testifying to provide a fair trial. 

In Assessing Truthfulness on the Witness Stand: Eradicating Deeply Rooted Pseudoscientific Beliefs about Credibility Assessment by Triers of Fact published in the Canadian Criminal Law Review a trio of psychologists challenge the benefit of the demeanour of a witness in assessing credibility.

They set out the majority position of the Supreme Court:
For instance, the Chief Justice wrote that ‘‘non- verbal communication can provide the cross-examiner with valuable insights that may uncover uncertainty or deception, and assist in getting at the truth”, and that ‘‘covering a witness’s face may also impede credibility assessment by the trier of fact, be it judge or jury.” Furthermore, she stated that ‘‘on the record before us, I conclude that there is a strong connection between the ability to see the face of a witness and a fair trial.”
The Chief Justice said the court would re-consider its position if there were compelling evidence to the contrary.

In good academic language they are exploring “deception detection”.
They conclude:
As reviewed above, several meta-analyses of the detection deception research showed that most cues to deception are too faint for reliable detection, most facial expressions and other non-verbal cues are unrelated to deception, legal professionals (and others) are unable to accurately detect deception beyond chance levels, and that training people to use non-verbal cues to improve their deception detection is unviable.
I agree, as set out above in my personal observations, that such non-verbal cues as facial expressions can be unreliable in isolation. Where I disagree with the psychologists is that I believe such cues can be useful in a trial when added to the other factors involved in assessing a witness. In many trials witnesses are trying to be deceptive. No judge relies solely on demeanour. At the same time how a witness reacts when contradictions within their evidence or documents or past statements or other witnesses are put to them is important. How they speak when giving evidence that accords with agreed facts against how they speak on facts in dispute is relevant. 
Most often I seek to determine credibility from the extent of contradictions and statements proven wrong and descriptions of events that are unlikely to incredible.
The topic of “detecting deception” is vast and this post but touches upon some of the issues. It is of daily interest to me in crime fiction reading and real life.
Here is a link to the article referred to in the post - http://www.mun.ca/psychology/brl/publications/CCLR.pdf

Kamal, Sheena - (2019) - The Lost Ones 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal

The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal - Nora Watts is deeply shaken. Sitting in a coffee shop, after responding to a 5:00 am desperate phone call, she is told by Everett and Lynn Walsh they have searched her out as they are looking for their runaway daughter, Bonnie, who was given up for adoption by Nora 15 years earlier. Bonnie had been obsessed over finding her biological parents. 

Nora helps search for people. She is a receptionist, research assistant and lie detector. Her bosses, Leo and Seb, are a gay couple. Leo is a private investigator. Seb is a journalist and author,

Nora’s mind is in a turmoil:

She (Bonnie) still occupies a space in my consciousness. In all these
years, I’ve never allowed myself to think about just how much real estate
she actually owns there.

Unlike most fictional heroes Nora is not beautiful. She recognizes her appearance as a professional benefit during surveillance:

There is nothing more invisible than the middle aged woman ...

She may be ordinary in appearance but she has a “rich, husky contralto” voice and sang professionally over a decade earlier.

Nora is an alcoholic whose recovery has been aided by Whisper, a dog, who showed up outside her door on the gritty streets of East Hastings. They drift along on  streets all over Vancouver through long nights.

As she starts searching for Bonnie she calls upon her former sponsor, a police detective, when she sought sobriety. She shames him into helping her by saying the police are not interested in searching for the missing girl because she is “not blond enough”. Nora’s paternal heritage is indigenous.

Nora has a horrific past that has left her perpetually wary. She flinches at a touch. 

Guilt churns inside Nora as she thinks about Bonnie being unhappy enough to run away. Nora had thought giving up Bonnie for adoption would mean a better life for her daughter. She had turned away from holding her daughter after birth.

But why are members of a large security firm conducting surveillance on the Walsh’s?

At the same time Nora is searching for a missing witness in a murder case.

Bitterness has controlled her soul for so much of her life but she finally tries to connect with people on a personal basis.

Trusting no one, except Whisper, means Nora is dishonest with everyone including those who are trustworthy. She feels shame over her betrayals but cannot stop herself. And the lure of alcohol is constant for Nora. 

Trying to stay sober is so hard:

An alcoholic cannot afford to be depressed if sobriety is still a goal. She cannot allow despair to gnaw at her self-control until it consumes her, until she no longer recognizes where she begins and the sickening feelings of doubt and shame end.

I admired Nora’s guile and resourcefulness. I regretted Kamal sending Nora through a series of scrapes and chases.

The search is for Bonnie is convoluted. For a time I thought it involved some vague conspiracy. I was wrong. The connections between the villains and Bonnie are all too plausible. She may have run away but staying away is not because she is a runaway.

The thread to the investigation frays on credibility at times as Nora is given entry twice based on mistaken assumptions of her status because of her appearance.

As common in Canadian crime fiction the weather and the vast spaces of our nation have roles in the plot.

Nora has a dyfunctional approach to life but her mind is quick and her problems never leave her unable to think. A woman who has survived foster homes, near death and addictions on a lone quest to find her missing daughter may be the most dangerous person on earth.

Kamal is unusual in crime fiction in being uncompromising with regard to Nora from the beginning to the end. I was impressed by The Lost Ones. I intend to read Ms. Kamal again.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Magic of St. Denis and Three Pines

As I read Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker I thought about the Armand Gamache mysteries of Louise Penny set in Three Pines, a village an hour away from Montreal. Bruno’s community of St. Denis is larger, about 3,000 inhabitants, but it is still a town.

Three Pines has a mystique that comes from not being upon the map. St. Denis is known and its business leaders would like it to be better known but its tourist industry is modest.

With each community, whether Bruno in St. Denis or Armand in Three Pines there is a close, even intimate, connection between the residents.

There is a moving description of what the community provided Bruno, who has modest resources, when he bought a run down home in the countryside:

His colleagues at the Mairie had chipped in to buy him a washing machine. Joe, his predecessor as chief of police, brought him a cockreland half a dozen hens. It seemed that every housewife in St. Denis had prepared him jars of homemade pate or preserved vegetables and jas, salamis and rillettes. Not a pig had been killed in St. Denis over the past year without some of it reaching Bruno’s larder. The tennis club brought him crockery. The staff of the medical clinic gave him a mirror for his bedroom and a cupboard with a first-aid kit that could have equipped a small hospital. Fat Jeanne from the market gave him a mixed set of wine and water glasses that she had picked up at the last vide-grenier jumble sale, and the staff at the Bricommarche had donated a set of cooking pots. Michel and others from the public-works depot gave him some old spades and garden tools that they had managed to replace by juggling the following year’s budget. The gendarmes bought him a big radio, and the fire department gave him a shotgun and hunting licence. The children in the tennis and rugby clubs whom he taught to play had put together their centimes and bought him a young apple tree, and everyone who came to his housewarming brought him a bottle of good wine to lay down in the cellar that he and Joe had built under the new wing.

Having retired, though now re-activated, to Three Pines, Armand and his wife, Reine-Marie, host Friday night barbecues with neighbours bringing food.

Other days and nights they enjoy visits in other homes.

In Three Pines the community congregates at the bistro of Olivier and Gabri for good food and drink. In Kingdom of the Blind there is a winter breakfast of “warm blueberry crêpes, sausages, and maple syrup, and a café au lait”.

In St. Denis there are more choices in restaurants Bruno favours Fauquet’s where the usual  morning repast is a modest croissant and coffee. But if it is Saturday morning he will be at the market to savour “a small glass of red wine with the thick hunk of bread stuffed with Stéphane’s rabbit pâté”.

Celebrations are personal. In St. Denis two old members of the Resistance proudly carry flags of remembrance in parades. In Three Pines there is a winter carnival with a snowshoe race around the green.

Sorrow is personally shared. When Hamid al-Bakr the elderly patriarch of the family is murdered Bruno visits his son and grandson to personally rather than professionally extend his sympathy. A stained glass window in the church in Three Pines commemorates the deceased young men of Three Pines who died during World War I.

There is a warmth to each community. From knowing each other, caring about each other and enjoying each other the people of St. Denis and Three Pines are so inviting.

I had a comparable feeling growing up in Meskanaw in rural Saskatchewan. We were close to our neighbours and knew we could count upon each other. There is a bond in the country that cannot be maintained in the large populations of the city. Walker and Penny in their respective series capture that feeling of togetherness. They portray the best of life in the country.

It is not utopia to live in rural communities. Evil comes to the country as well as the city. There are problems between neighbours. Yet country folk have a feeling of community that is absent in the city. I love visiting St. Denis and Three Pines in my mind.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker (2008) - There come moments that make me so glad I read. When I start a book and a sense of wonder comes over me drawing me into the world created by the author. Before the end of the first chapter I wanted to visit Bruno Corrèges and the town of St. Denis in the Dordogne and stay awhile and enjoy the fine food and wine. It is the same feeling I had when I read Still Life the first Armand Gamache mystery by Louise Penny and was introduced to the mythical village of Three Pines. I may write more of the similarities in my next post.

A former army veteran who served in Bosnia Bruno, no one addresses him as Chief, has been the town Chief of Police for 10 years. He enjoys people.

His aversion to computers reflects his method of policing:

They tended to get in the way of the kind of police work he understood,
which was mainly about getting to know people.

When a crime is committed he is likely to know the perpetrator before even starting his investigation.

He follows a tradition allowed fewer and fewer police. He uses discretion in enforcing the law. Small transgressions are not always prosecuted. Modern formal systems of alternative measures have had to be created to avoid criminal records for minor breaches of the law. I doubt our enforcement of law has been enhanced by bureaucratizing discretion.

Bruno is content and his community free of major crime until the elderly Hamid al-Bakr, a Harki (an Algerian who fought for France during Algeria’s war of independence) and had a Croix de Guerre on the wall of his modest home is murdered. Upon his chest has been carved a swastika.

A hate crime stirs the attention of politicians in Paris.

Tension within the nation has built as millions of North Africans have emigrated to France. The anti-immigration Front National, once limited to the far right, has been gathering support from a broader cross-section of French society. 

Yet Hamid and his family do not fit the stereotype of idle North Africans practising Islam and raising large families.

Hamid was a soldier of France fighting in Vietnam as well as Algeria. His son is a math teacher. The family is secular.

Mayor Mangin and Bruno are anxious to solve the murder not only to because the killer took one of their community. They fear damage to the reputation of St.Denis and the tourist trade if the murder is widely publicized.

Can it be that there are violent members of the Front National in the commune of St. Denis? None of the residents has displayed the virulence of a true believer in the Front.

It is in Bruno’s character to care. An orphan since he was a young child he cares for all around him. It makes Bruno a better policeman. 

There is sorrow in Bruno’s past. It is hard to have a new relationship when lost love, a decade later, still hurts. Bruno is doing his best to move on.

I have been unhappy with stereotypes of rural people as unsophisticated simple folk. Here there is the stereotype of a magistrate sent from Paris as a member of the urban elite with a superior attitude.

The investigation takes Bruno back into the dark days of the Nazi occupation of World War II. It is uncomfortable for there were collaborators as well as resistants. Can there be events over 60 years earlier that provoke murder?

Bruno, Chief of Police is a brilliant book. It is so convincing in its images of the land and the people of St. Denis. The story flows easily. Bruno is a great character you want to know better. It is one of my favourite books of 2019. I wish I had started the series sooner. (August 20, 2019)