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.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Golden Gate by Amy Chua

(25. - 1208.) The Golden Gate by Amy Chua - In 1930, 8 year old Iris Stafford, a granddaughter in the prominent Bainbridge family, dies  at the elegant Claremont “White Palace” Hotel in Berkeley, California. She is found at the bottom of a laundry chute. 

In 1944 Detective Al Sullivan of the Berkeley Police Department is called to the hotel where presidential candidate, Walter Wilkinson, is murdered twice. The first time he is shot at, the bullet misses. Moved from his room for protection he recklessly returns to his original room and is shot in the head from two feet away and his mouth is stuffed with various objects including a jade cube.

Because of Wilkinson’s status it is the biggest murder case in the Bay area.

Back in 1930 Isabelle “Issy” Stafford, the 6 year old sister of Iris, is deeply traumatized by her sister’s death. She has conversations with Iris. She slips away from reality. Her mother, Sadie, drinks constantly and has mental health problems. Her architect father, Roger, withdraws into himself. No one is left to parent Issy.

In 1940 Wilkinson had turned from being a progressive Democrat to being a flamboyant Republican. Unwisely toning down his campaign he loses the presidential election to Franklin Roosevelt.

Moving to 1944 Miriam is the daughter of Sullivan’s half-sister. The precocious 11 year old niece works part-time to support herself and her wayward mother. She calls him Al. She has aspirations to “be way better than my current self”.

Iris is known as the Claremont’s “ghost child”.

Isabelle has two cousins, Nicole and Cassie Bainbridge. The trio form the surviving granddaughters of the redoubtable Genevieve Bainbridge. As the family matriarch she dominates the Bainbridge family. Reputation is all important.

She is unhappy with Detective Sullivan investigating her granddaughters and prying into family history.

Sullivan refuses to back down and methodically follows up information.

The plot involves Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Mei-Ling Soon) who spent the second half of WW II in the Berkeley Hills.

Isabella is working part-time as a reporter.

American politics and international intrigues add further complexity.

Following up on a report of a monk going to the hotel on the night of the murder Sullivan goes to the Benedictine Abbey near the hotel. Sullivan is left ill at ease as Brother Gratian, the abbey beekeeper who delivers honey to the Claremont, has taken a vow of silence. He refuses to answer or physically respond to Sullivan’s questions. Sullivan is unaccustomed to losing the initiative. 

Interspersed in the book are excerpts from a deposition and a statement given by Mrs. Bainbridge as she seeks to protect her granddaughters. I did not like the excerpts. They were a distraction from the brilliant investigation of Sullivan. 

Isabella, as a child, had states when “she’d suddenly take on her sister’s voice and mannerisms”. As a teenager she has vivid dreams of Iris calling out to her to find Iris’s necklace.

Mrs. Bainbridge sets out the curse of beauty in her sisters and her daughter Sadie and her granddaughters. It is a curse many would envy.

Isabella is a heartbreaker enticing men to love her and then discarding them.

The investigation takes Sullivan into Chinatown. The Chinatown Squad of the SFPD “arranges” an interview for Sullivan with Eddie Gong, “the head boss of the Hip Sing Tong”.

District Attorney Diarmuid Doogan, an aggressive resentful middle class Catholic, aggressively pursues an indictment seeking the fame that will accrue to the man who solves the Wilkinson murder. Doogan is the worst sort of prosecutor. He forms an opinion on guilt and seeks facts to prove his opinion. Tunnel vision is evil.

Sullivan refuses to accept a convenient murderer.

In a raucous hearing on a Saturday Doogan is left frustrated.

Sullivan patiently eliminates suspects closing in on the killer.

Chua has created plausible complex characters from the wealthy and powerful of California. The Depression had no effect on how they lived their lives and World War II made them richer. At the same time she demonstrates the vast chasm between their lives and the way of life for the working folk of Berkeley which was even greater for Black and Asian people. 

There was a touch of too much history though I recognize all the real life historic characters needed some explanation.

Chua is skilled in creating multiple credible suspects. Few writers of crime fiction can develop multiple believable scenarios for a murder.

Chua brilliantly weaves all the strands and twists of the plot together.

The Golden Gate is an impressive crime fiction debut. It is a book ready to be filmed. Hollywood loves the rich and the famous and the beautiful caught up in murder.

Monday, May 20, 2024

What Would You Do If a Suffering Loved One Asked You to Kill Him/Her?

In Denial by Beverley McLachlin the subject of MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) is an important issue. The murder victim, Olivia Stanton, was suffering from cancer. She repeatedly expressed the desire to have her life ended.

Under Canadian law at the time the book is set she cannot have MAID because, though her cancer is incurable, death is not imminent.

Vera’s best friend, Elsie Baxter, is an active member of Dying with Dignity, a group that promoted a change in the law to allow Canadians such as Vera to access MAID. 

McLachlin, in her former position as a Canadian Supreme Court judge, has long favoured medical assistance in dying.

In Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General) in 1993 the Supreme Court split 5 to 4 against allowing medical assistance in dying. McLachlan wrote an opinion in dissent in favour of medical assistance in dying.

In 2015 in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General) the Supreme Court revisited the issue and decided in favour of medical assistance in dying. With McLachlin, as Chief Justice, the Court issued a unanimous decision.

Subsequently, Parliament created the MAID statue which was in place when McLachlin wrote Denial.

The law was changed in 2022 after Denial was written to provide that it is no longer a requirement that death be “reasonably forseeable”. At the same time the law denied MAID if the sole medical condition was mental illness. The law is to change in 2027 to allow application for MAID if the sole medical condition is mental illness.

Incrementally, the eligibility for MAID has steadily increased. 

The next issue will be whether a person can have an advanced health care directive directing death in such situations as dementia.

I acknowledge a reluctance with MAID. As a Catholic and a lawyer who has dealt with many people in difficult situations I consider all lives meaningful, as I stated in a recent post on my niece, Alanna, who was profoundly disabled from birth to her death at 34. 

There are procedures in place in MAID to safeguard applicants from hasty decisions but I will never be comfortable with assisted death.

People can change their minds. In Discourtesy of Death by William Broderick, Jenny Henderson, paralyzed in a fall and suffering from terminal bowel cancer, changes her mind about wanting death. She tells Father Anselm in a powerful passage:

‘Now? she replied. ‘I want my life. I was ready to die before but now I want my life. I know that in one way it’s broken, disappointing, limited, worthless, empty and insignificant … but it’s mine. It’s all I’ve got. I’m still me. And I know it will soon become messy and painful and frightening, but I still want it. I want to live what I’ve got … do you understand? It’s as valuable to me now as it ever was. I’m still … full of something … and it can exhilarating, despairing, violent and peaceful - every state you can think of - and I just want to keep hold of it … for as long as possible.’

MAID is irreversible.

I have never been in the situation of representing someone seeking death.

McLachlin has personally been in that situation. In the late 1980’s her first husband, Rory, was dying. 

The Globe & Mail, in reporting on McLachlin’s memoir, Truth Be Told, said:

Years before Beverley McLachlin urged the Supreme Court of Canada to legalize medically assisted dying, her husband, dying of cancer, asked her to end his life with a massive dose of morphine.

In a CBC interview on the memoir she said:

And at one point he told me that he wanted to take
his life, but he wanted me to help him. And I had
been unable to do that.

(Interviewer) He asked you to inject him with morphine.

Well, not an injection, but yeah. And I just - whether lack of courage or whatever - I could not bring myself to do it.

In Denial Olivia is killed by an injection of morphine.

Vera, as with McLachlin, said she could not kill her mother. In her evidence at trial Vera said:

“Did your mother ever ask you to help her die?

“Yes, several times.”

“What was your response?”

“I told her I couldn’t do it.”

“Why did you feel you couldn’t do it Mrs. Quentin? Was it the fact it would be illegal?”

“No, I didn’t think about whether it was illegal or even immoral, as it is in the view of some. All I knew was that I could not do it. I knew in my heart that if I gave her the morphine, I would be calling 911 within minutes to have it pumped out. Every person has their limits. There are some things they just can’t do. I knew myself, knew what I could not do. It wasn’t rational; it was visceral.” Her eyes slid to the jury box, willing them to believe her. “Killing my mother, killing anyone, is something I know I could never do.”

I believe McLachlin was talking about herself and Rory in that excerpt providing the explanation she was not able to articulate in the CBC interview. 

Who knows what we will do in a terrible situation? In Saskatchewan, Robert Latimer killed his 12 year old daughter, Tracey, on October 24, 1993. She was grievously suffering from cerebral palsy. He asserted it was a mercy killing. A jury convicted him of second degree murder. It was a hard case. I think he should have been found guilty of manslaughter which would have enabled a shorter sentence than the 10 year minimum for second degree murder. Advocates for the disabled argued he should be convicted for murder as all life is meaningful.

In Denial Vera was charged with second degree murder and declined a plea bargain to manslaughter with a sentence of 2 years which would have meant her release in about a year.

In Denial McLachlin has a powerful thought on the moment of death that is reflected in the real life judgments she wrote:

Olivia never knew  that death awaited her, never, as she drifted off to sleep, that she would not wake again. But that unawareness brings its own cruelty. To die is part of life, the last great act, and Olivia was denied the right to live that act with dignity, as she would have wished.

Deciding life and death is a perilous process. Unfortunately, I believe we have become a society that does not value all life as meaningful.

****

McLachlin, Beverley - (2018) - Full Disclosure and Full Disclosure Within Full Disclosure; (2024) - Denial and The Law in Denial

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Friday, May 17, 2024

The Law in Denial by Beverley McLachlin

Be warned. In this post I discuss aspects of Beverley McLachlan’s legal mysteries, Full Disclosure and Denial that are spoilers in the sense that more information is provided than some potential readers of the books may want to have before reading them.

After reading McLachlan’s first legal mystery, Full Disclosure, I wrote a review and then a post about the meaning of full disclosure in the contexts of information from clients and the duty of the Crown in Canadian criminal prosecutions to fully disclose the Crown case to the defence. In particular, I focused on a peculiar trial ruling in the book. The judge found that the Crown had disclosed a statement of the accused to the defence through a comment of the Crown prosecutor’s wife to defence counsel at a party.

I said the trial judge was wrong and was surprised that the former Chief Justice of Canada, with extensive experience dealing with the principle of disclosure in criminal law, had her judge make such a bad decision.

When I read Denial I was surprised again because the conviction of Vincent Trusssardi in Full Disclosure had been successfully appealed by defence counsel, Jilly Truitt, on the ground that the statement had been wrongfully admitted because there had not been proper disclosure.

McLachlin had lured me in Full Disclosure into thinking she had made an inexplicable error in law when she was actually setting up an appeal to be revealed in the next book.

I am not sure how many readers beyond myself were aggrieved by the wrongful admission of evidence at trial but I am grateful McLachlin knew the decision was a major error at law.

In Denial there was also a significant error. A lawyer, when questioning a witness the lawyer has called cannot put leading questions on anything significant to the witness. Leading questions are for cross-examination.

In Denial a lawyer “suggested” to a witness he had called that a certain sum of money was being bequeathed to Dying with Dignity. It was an important issue. The answer was given before opposing counsel could complete an objection. In real life the trial judge would have been very upset with the questioning counsel. There was potential for a mistrial and certainly a ground of appeal.

I accept the leading question was undoubtedly more dramatic than properly asking the witness what was said about bequests.

There was a dramatic issue of admissibility of evidence concerning a witness that is important to the resolution for which I provide further warning.

I will skirt around the details but it was a Perry Mason moment in which a witness stands up in court to state the witness is retracting their evidence and confessing. In 49 years of practice I have never seen such a moment.

I was prompted to see what I could find in Canadian law. I found a case in which McLachlin discussed when the Crown could call evidence during or after the defence has presented evidence.

In R. v. G. (S.G.) in 1997 the Supreme Court of Canada was dealing with a case in which the accused, the mother of other defendants, was alleged to have incited three adolescents to kill another adolescent boy because he “ratted” to the police about either the illegal activities of herself or the other boys. There was no corroboration for the evidence of one of the killers who said she did incite them. The accused went on the witness stand to deny any incitement. After her evidence was given, a young woman who had given a statement that she was in the basement came forward and implicated the accused. She was allowed to testify and the accused was convicted.

For good reason the Crown is not to be allowed to call evidence during or after the defence case. It is fundamental to justice that the Crown cannot split its case. As inevitable in law there is an exception. At common law there was a colourful evocative latin phrase on when the Crown could produce such evidence. The situation would have to be ex improviso - “if some matter arose which no human ingenuity could have foreseen”.

The majority at the Supreme Court ruled the evidence should not have been admitted. I agree. McLachlin disagreed. She said the trial judge was correct to have admitted the evidence.

I believe there will be at least another Truitt book. While I know the trial judge was wrong in how she admitted the late evidence in Denial I do not expect an appeal. Unlike Full Disclosure, what happened after the trial ended in Denial would preclude an appeal. Still, with all the twists McLachlin tossed into Denial, I would not be surprised if there is an unexpected consequence in the next Truitt book related to Denial.

****

McLachlin, Beverley - (2018) - Full Disclosure and Full Disclosure Within Full Disclosure; (2024) - Denial

Monday, May 13, 2024

Denial by Beverley McLachlin

(24. - 1207.) Denial by Beverley McLachlin - “The Fixer” is vexed and desperate in Vancouver. Joseph Quentin is famous for “fixing the messes the rich and powerful get themselves into”. What he cannot fix is the murder charge against his wife, Vera, for killing her mother who was suffering from incurable cancer. Vera has driven off two prominent defence counsel and refused to agree to the plea bargain Joseph had arranged where she would have served less than a year in jail. Vera will not plead guilty. The twice postponed trial is 3 weeks and 5 days away.

Quentin asks, then pleads with Jilly Truitt to take the case. Truitt wants to decline but is touched when she realizes Quentin is honouring the vows of his marriage. He committed to caring for Vera 25 years ago and will stay with her to the end. 

Truitt decides to take the case. I knew she would, even without Quentin’s commitment to his wife, for once a litigator meets a potential client protestations of busyness and not wanting to take on a losing case fade away. If a lawyer genuinely does not want a case the lawyer does not meet the proposed client.

The facts are challenging. Vera, long depressed, abuses both powerful drugs and wine. Her mother, Olivia Stanton, is on multiple medications. Vera is spending the night with her mother and administering medication to her. While ill her mother does not qualify for MAIDS (Medical Assistance In Dying). In the morning Olivia is dead.

Her death was caused by a fatal injection of morphine.

Morphine and needles were stored upstairs but when Vera takes the police the morphine kit is no longer there.

Vera swears someone else secretly entered the house and killed her mother. The “Mysterious Stranger Defence” is one of the hardest defences in the world of criminal defence.

Truitt muses on guilty clients claiming innocence:

In the end, it’s usually self-delusion, an inability to accept what they have done, the brain playing tricks - denial.

After disclosure arrives in a banker’s box the defence lawyers and their investigator read and read and read. 

There is no sign of forced entry. All keys to the house are accounted for by the police. There is no physical evidence anyone was in the house that night but Vera and her mother.

Truitt knows she needs more than her client protesting innocence.

The murder takes place in Kerrisdale, one of Vancouver’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.

Olivia’s 70 year old house and lot have been sold for $4.5 million. The house is being demolished by the buyer. Olivia had lived there for 52 years. 

There is distance between Vera and Joe and Nicholas. Joe wants to believe her but he negotiated the plea deal not wanting her to spend 10 years in prison. A practical man but not accepting of her statement of innocence. 

Nicholas, a pianist, in a jazz band is also a reluctant law school attendee. 

Finally, a legal mystery where the lawyer is struggling to prepare for a major trial while constantly dealing with other cases. In real life litigators cannot simply put on hold all their other files while getting ready for an upcoming trial. Only in fiction does a lawyer have the time to just deal with the big case.

Michael Connelly’s lawyer, Mickey Haller, used to juggle cases when he was truly the Lincoln Lawyer but he has evolved into a regular fictional lawyer with all his time for the case featured in a book.

My credibility was being stretched when Truitt has no defence planned 3 days before trial. Be the defence of denial strong or weak it is Vera’s defence.

They know they must offer at least a name of a potential alternative to Vera. Of the options only Nicholas is possible but Vera forbids Truitt raising his name.

Truitt attempts again a relationship with former lover Mike St. John. Each believes she/he is ready for a commitment to the other.

The cross-examinations by Truitt and the prosecutor, Cy Vance, are elegant, even brilliant. I could see the lawyer, the witness and the accused. As I find in an actual trial, my focus was upon the witness and the lawyer. Nothing else matters during evidence.

McLachlin is improving as a fiction author. She moves the plot briskly while retaining an eye for convincing detail.

McLachlin adds a brilliant ruthless twist I never saw coming. 

Then there are more developments. I was suddenly in a Jeffery Deaver plot. I have mixed emotions about the ending. It was compelling but incredible. 

I hope McLachlin continues to write legal mysteries. She can be the successor on the West Coast to William Deverell but not yet as Deverell has a new legal mystery being published this month.

****

McLachlin, Beverley - (2018) - Full Disclosure and Full Disclosure Within Full Disclosure

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Death of an Englishman by Magdalen Nabb

(22. - 1205.) Death of an Englishman by Magdalen Nabb (1981) - Marshal Guaranaccia is summoned from his sickbed to the apartment of A. Langley- Smythe. It is just before Christmas and he is worried he will be sick with the flu in Florence instead of being with his family in Sicily. Langley-Smythe, a man about 60, is dead, shot in the back.

The Marshal continues to suffer from an eye condition. In sunshine he “weeps”. Black sunglasses help.

The Marshal, while “large and fat”, is a precise man. He “drank half a litre of red every day with his evening meal, never more not less, and a drop of vinsanto on Sundays”.

Chief Inspector Lowestoft and Inspector Jeffreys are dispatched by New Scotland Yard to Florence to aid in the investigation and prevent unpleasant publicity for the victim’s sister’s husband is a man “of some influence”.

With City hotels filled up the pair are staying with the Vicar of the English church.

With the Marshal driven to bed the investigation continues with the Captain and Carabiniere Bacci. The well-to-do residents of the Englishman’s building have neither seen nor heard anything except for a young girl, Giovanna, who insists she heard two loud bangs at 2:45 in the morning with the first being a door bang and the second a gun bang. The huge outside doors also close with a loud bang.

Miss White, an English lady in her 60’s, is devoted to a dead English poet, Walter Savage Landor. She does not speak Italian and her swiftly spoken English stream of consciousness befuddles the Captain and Carabiniere Bacci.

The English library of Florence has an unpleasant combination of mould and damp. Its patrons, which include the Englishman, are eccentric.

The police determine that the Englishman ate alone every night at his table in the modestly priced Casalinga restaurant. He would have his 1-2 courses, drink quite a bit of wine and read his newspaper. He was always alone.

The investigation turns to antiquities and the pace accelerates.

The English Chief Inspector clearly thinks the English are superior to Italians. The Captain has equal disdain for the British visitors. 

During the night the Marshal’s fever breaks and he joins the investigation after attending the funeral of the wife of the cleaner of the building where the Englishman had his apartment.

Without having seen and interviewed anyone it is the Marshal who solves the case having reflected on the person everyone has overlooked. As in the best mysteries his insights were open to all but I never deduced the killer. 

The motive is as sad as any I have read in crime fiction and all too believable.

Nabb is great at building interesting characters and giving them convincing voices. Her Florence is a place of culture whose streets buzz with Christmas shopping and anticipation. The mystery is deftly done. And it takes but 172 pages.

I regretted that the flu laid low the Marshal for over half the book. I will need to read another to fully appreciate him. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Defector by Chris Hadfield

(21. - 1204.) The Defector by Chris Hadfield - It is the day before Yom Kippur in 1973. Russian Air Force pilot, Alexander Vasilyevich Abramovich whose call signal is “Grief”, flies a Mig-25 “Foxbat” on a reconaissance mission along the coast of Israel. The Israelis fire a Stinger missile at him. They have never hit a Russian plane flying at 72,000 feet with a Stinger. Unexpectedly, the Foxbat starts rapidly losing altitude but there has been no explosion observed. Suddenly Grief starts flying the plane towards the Lod airport at Tel Aviv. Israeli fighter jets hold their fire carefully observing the plane. It is soon clear Grief intends to land the jet. A civilian jumbo plane veers away. Grief lands the Foxbat and quickly enters an open hangar. 

Grief has defected so cleverly the Russian military does not even know his plane was not destroyed. The Israelis instantly create a fake crash site at sea including some small burned pieces of the Foxbat.

Grief has brought to Israel a priceless fighter jet and his vast personal knowledge of Russian aircraft and air force plans.

Grief advises the Israelis he wants to go to the U.S. Beyond the immensely valuable assets of his jet and himself he knows Israel is about to need major American assistance.

Zac Zemeckis, NASA flight controller and former fighter pilot and test pilot, is in Israel on holidays with his girlfriend, Laura Woodsworth when Grief defects. He is swiftly drawn into the analysis of the plane and pilot at one of the CIA’s most secret bases in America.

Zac, lost an eye because of a bird hit some years earlier and has been grounded from flying military aircraft. With the aid of a sympathetic general and recognition that there is a history of one-eyed pilots of fighter jets he is cleared to fly again.

Laura, a lunar geologist, dreams of becoming an astronaut. She lacks the training to pilot but she could be a spacewalker conducting experiments.

The war, to begin at sunset on Yom Kippur according to a spy, starts earlier in the day.

The Americans put the MiG 25 in a giant C-5 supply plane and take it to Area 51 in the desert near Las Vegas where it is taken apart and then re-assembled.

In the U.S.S.R. Svetlana Gromova, the first female cosmonaut, is tapped to be a member of a three cosmonaut team to link up with an Apollo spacecraft. She is famous for walking on the moon! 

Irina Moldova, a Soviet nuclear physicist, is working on a nuclear engine to power spaceships. Success would be a leap forward in space travel. It would be “light and efficient”. Yet problems abound. 

American pilots are excited to fly the MiG-25. Flying at Mach 3 it can go higher than any other fighter jet reaching 120,000 feet. Grief provides invaluable information on how to fly the plane.

There are underlying currents. As always in espionage secrets and deceptions abound. Who can be trusted?

Intrigues proceed at several levels.

This is a book which deserves a Hollywood ending with fighter jets and stalwart men and a few capable women. I appreciated that the body count was not as high as I expected. I expect real Hollywood will make a movie of the book and add more bodies to make it more thrilling and I doubt I will attend.

Hadfield is an excellent writer. He drives the narrative. His characters are plausible. Hehas a deft mix of information and human interaction. I have no background to understand the technical details of war. Hadfield was convincing in his descriptions. I was reminded of the early Tom Clancy novels. Reading his bio on the inside back cover is humbling. He has already had a remarkable life.