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, December 30, 2011

Saskatchewan Mystery Authors Explain their Sleuths with Families

This post concludes a series of posts discussing the role of families in mysteries. Almost all Saskatchewan mysteries have strong family involvement. My last post Saskatchewan Sleuths with Families sets out the varied families. I asked several Saskatchewan mystery authors why their sleuths had families. Anthony Bidulka, Nelson Brunanski and Gail Bowen graciously provided me with the following thoughts.

From Anthony Bidulka, author of the Russell Quant series:

Hi Bill,

This is an interesting topic. One I must admit I hadn't thought about before now. And maybe that is your answer right there. For certain writers - Saskatchewan writers? - family is such a major part of our lives, that to write about a main character who does not have family in his life, would be like writing about a Saskatchewan detective who doesn't own a winter coat (interesting idea though... but I digress.) It is second nature to us.

I wonder if the fact you've seen an upshot of the family centric mysteries post 1990 is related to the growth of mystery genres in that time, and the popularity of the shall we say, less than traditional mystery. Whereas the noir and procedural thrillers are still successful, there has come to be more room for the type of book I write, which I often refer to as 'traditional with a twist', which allows for a little less mystery, and a little more character development. With that, in Saskatchewan at least, and I'd guess elsewhere too, family involvement (entanglement) quickly comes to the forefront.

Thanks for the thought-provoking question, Bill. I'll be interested to see what your collection of sleuth-creators has to say.

To you, and all you hold dear, have a splendid Christmas season.


From Nelson Brunanski, author of the Bart Bartkowski series:

Hello Bill

Thanks for your interest in my Small-town Saskatchewan Mysteries.

My reasons for including family:

1) The family provides plenty of drama for sub-plots, to which average people can relate.

2) Families are involved in the mysteries by virtue of the protagonist's (amateur sleuth) involvement and therefore suffer the same perils.

3) My murder mysteries rely on character, customs and the social fabric as much as on the crime itself. Families naturally provide links to these subjects.

4) Families thrive in small-towns and provide a real context for story telling, evoking prairie values as well as idiosyncratic attitudes.

5) I draw on my experience growing up in small-town Saskatchewan where family ties are strong and everybody knows everybody else's business.

6) Characters without families (or characters who are new to the town) provide an opportunity to draw comparisons and bring unorthodox points of view to the stories.

I hope this helps,

All the best


From Gail Bowen, author of the Joanne Kilbourn – Shreeve series:

Here you go, Bill.  Happy 2012!

Gail Bowen – Blog entry on Saskatchewan crime fiction and the fact that our protagonists have and love their families and domestic circumstances.

The question Bill Selnes raises is a good one.  Certainly the protagonists of crime fiction in England and the U.S. tend to be lone wolves, fighting the institutions that they believe corrupt others and themselves.  Not surprisingly, the first institution these protagonists reject is family. These protagonists trust nothing and no one and that includes those to whom they are tied by blood and history.

 A second reason why many crime writers separate protagonists from their domestic circumstances is pragmatic. For all of us family is the most complex and formative relationship in our lives.  And for many crime writers this is a good and sufficient reason to cut their protagonist loose from the web of relationships that link protagonists to their families.  Simply put, for writers whose fiction is plot driven, families are a distraction that keeps them from the real business of their work: developing plot.

But Bill Selnes’ question centres on the fact that when it comes to families and domestic circumstances, Saskatchewan writers of crime fiction tend to deviate from the ‘norm.’ I’m certain the reasons for this deviation are many and varied, but I can offer one that is true of my work.  

This summer a reader approached me at the Farmers’ Market and told me that she and a friend had posed a general question about fiction writers than intrigued them. Here’s their question:  “If you could live in the fictional world that you have created, would you?”  My answer was that I do live in the fictional world that I’ve created.  Mine is a world that centres on the people close to me. Nothing matters to me more than my husband, my children, my grandchildren, my friends and my community.

Alastair MacLeod says that ‘writers write about what worries them’. What worries me is anything that threatens the safety or the happiness of the people I love. I believe this is a universal fear, but certainly it is a fear that is shared by the people to whom I’m closest, and they are largely Saskatchewan people.

I’ve always believed that Joanne Kilbourn-Shreve is a very Saskatchewan protagonist.  She is driven by her love for those around her but she is also driven by her awareness of the inequities of her world. Like J.S. Woodworth, Joanne believes that “What we desire for ourselves we wish for all.  To this end, may we take our share in the world’s work and the world’s struggles.”  In Kaleidoscope, the 13th novel in the JK-S series, Joanne commits herself even more fully to the world’s work and the world’s struggles.

As someone who taught fiction (International, U.K. and American) I’ve been tantalized by the question of a writer who has ‘created’ a world. Would they wish to live there?”
Thank you to each of Anthony, Gail and Nelson. Each of you has given me more to think about with regard to sleuths with families.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Saskatchewan Sleuths with Families

I have been discussing the role of families in mystery fiction. In this post I will discuss several of the Saskatchewan Sleuths with Families alphabetically by author. The earliest post in this series was Sleuths without Families setting out the basis of my opinion that most sleuths before the 1990’s did not have families. My second post was Sleuths with Families providing a survey of 41 mystery sleuths I have read since 2000.
            The most recent Saskatchewan mystery is The Mystery of the Moonlight Murder by Roderick Benns. It is a young adult mystery set in rural Saskatchewan in 1908 featuring a young John George Diefenbaker, a future Canadian Prime Minister. John, 12 years old, lives with his parents, William and Mary, and his brother, Elmer, on the family homestead. Through the adventure Elmer is his constant companion.
            Anthony Bidulka has an excellent series featuring Russell Quant, a gay Saskatoon private detective who is a former police officer. While Russell lives alone his mother, Kay, is an important part of his life often coming into the city from the farm to spend time with Russell. While Russell loves her hearty Ukrainian cooking he frets over the impact on his waistline. One of the funniest moments in my recent mystery reading history was Russell finding out that he and his mother have independently bought the same model of Mazda van known thereafter as the “Babamobile”. His troubled and hard living sister, Joanne, has also appeared in the series. Russell and his mother have a strong loving relationship.
            The dean of Saskatchewan mystery writers is Gail Bowen. Her character, Joanne Kilbourn, has been in 12 different mysteries. When the series starts she is recently widowed and the mother of a teenage daughter, Mieka, just leaving for university and teenage sons, Peter and Angus. During the 20 years of the series the children have matured and grandchildren have arrived. A girl was adopted. There have been passionate love interests. Finally, Regina lawyer, Zack Shreeve, came into her life. They fall in love and marry. They have challenges but are committed to their marriage. It is striking that Zack is a paraplegic. I have not read another series where the sleuth marries a paraplegic who becomes an important character in the series. I have come to look forward to the next developments in the lives of Joanne’s families as much as the mysteries.
            Nelson Brunanski grew up 85 km from Melfort. His series features Bart Bartkowski. He is happily married to Rosie and they have a pair of children, Stuart and Annie. They are an average family. In Frost Bite the family wrestles with the demands and stresses of a large rural Saskatchewan wedding. The description of Annie’s wedding and reception are vivid and accurate. The impact on the family of the diagnosis of Bart having prostate cancer reminded me of my own experience.
            Anne M. Dooley has written one Saskatchewan mystery, A Plane Death. Her Saskatoon sleuth, Elie Meade, is also married with children.
            Alison Gordon has written a series with Kate Henry as the sleuth. My last post is about Prairie Hardball, the mystery in which Kate returns to Saskatchewan for the induction of her mother, Helen, into the Saskatchewan Baseball of Fame because she had been one of the Saskatchewan women who travelled to the United States in the 1940’s and 1950’s to play professional baseball in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. Her husband, Andy, a Toronto police officer is making his first trip to Saskatchewan. Meeting her mother’s old teammates and friends gives Kate a new perspective on her mother.
            Rob Harasmychuk wrote a unique mystery in The Joining of Dingo Radish. It is no surprise the title condenses the main character’s full name, Dingonaslav Marion Radashonovich. Dingo lives a small town in Saskatchewan with his brother, Pitch, who is mentally challenged and his sister, Marty, who is often involved in casual sexual relationships. With their parents dead Dingo is struggling to meet the needs of his family. It is infrequent to find a sleuth with a challenged sibling being a character.
            I have thought often why almost all Saskatchewan mysteries have a strong family component. On Thursday, December 30 I shall provide comments I have obtained from Saskatchewan mystery writers.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Prairie Hardball by Alison Gordon

27. – 588.) Prairie Hardball by Alison Gordon – I re-read my favourite Saskatchewan mystery as I was not writing reviews when I read it the first time. I love the book because it is set in rural Saskatchewan, has a baseball theme, focuses on the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame of which I am Second Vice-President and features the induction banquet for the Saskatchewan women who played in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League which I attended in the mid-1990’s. Over half of the 50 plus Canadian women who played in the league were from Saskatchewan. I examined every character in the book carefully but none resemble me.
            In the book, Kate Henry has returned to Saskatchewan to accompany her parents to Battleford where her mother, Helen Henry, will be one of the inductees. She had played several seasons for the Racine Belles. Joining Kate is her partner, Andy Munro, a Toronto police inspector on his first trip to Saskatchewan.
            Gordon’s description of Kate’s hometown, Indian Head, is a perfect portrayal of small town Saskatchewan. She has been a skilful observer of us.
            At the banquet Virna Wilton creates a grand entrance by wearing her old uniform over 40 years after she last played baseball. (I can vividly recall the actual lady who wore her uniform to the induction banquet. She looked great.)
            The banquet was Saskatchewan charming. It is hard for me to distinguish real life memories from Gordon’s description. It was a nice evening honouring a group of women who had never received the recognition due them.
            In the book everyone is shocked when Virna is murdered. Andy is asked to help the local RCMP. The nosy Kate demands to know everything going on in the investigation. The probing of lives brings out secrets that startle and even shock Kate. Life in the AAGPBL was more complex than she realized.
            The book goes into some detail on the AAGPL which existed from the early 1940’s to the mid-1950’s. The movie, A League of Their Own, with Madonna, Geena Davis and Tom Hanks was a Hollywood version of the league. It was not sensationalized as much as many Hollywood movies but Gordon’s description of the league is far more factual.
            Within the book Helen was a woman professional baseball playing pioneer and Kate was a woman professional baseball sports writing pioneer. (In real life Gordon was the first woman journalist to cover major league baseball in Canada.)
            Those young woman who went South from Saskatchewan to play baseball were an intrepid group leaving friends and family to play sports at a time when travel was limited and society offered little support for women making any career let alone an athletic career. I met several of the actual players from Saskatchewan and wrote about them for the sports column I write in Melfort. They were as gracious and lively as the women described by Gordon.
            The mystery flows well. I know I am enjoying a book when the pages glide by and there is no consciousness of time passing. It is the best rural Saskatchewan mystery. (May 21/11)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sleuths with Families

Last week I wrote a post on Sleuths without Families setting forth my position that it was uncommon for Sleuths to have families, especially spouses and children, before the 1990’s. Since the 1990’s I believe far more mysteries have sleuths with families as important to the plots. 

To provide some personal statistical analysis I reviewed the mysteries I have read and reviewed since January 1, 2000. From the 629 books, including fiction and non-fiction, I settled on 41 series. In most of them I have read 2 or more books in the series. The series go back as far as Sherlock Holmes. Most are series that had books in the 1990’s or more recently. 

As I am sure readers are aware statistics can tell many different stories depending on how they are assembled and arranged. I certainly acknowledge my mystery reading is not done with the intent of putting together a scientifically reliable cross-section of the mystery world. As well I am trying not to write lengthy posts. If any reader wants a full list of the 41 sleuths and authors please send me an email. 

Overall there were 21 sleuths with spouses and/or children as characters. Breaking it down further there were:

1.) 11 sleuths with spouses and children;
2.) 9 spouses with no spouse but with children; and,
3.) 1 sleuth with a spouse but no children (William Monk and Hester).

Out of the 22 sleuths without spouses and/or children I made a further division:

1.) 16 of the sleuths had no family involvement; and,
2.) 6 of the sleuths had significant family involvement other than spouses or children.

The last group of 6 refers to such sleuths as Russell Quant created by Anthony Bidulka. The Saskatchewan gay detective has been engaged but never married. While having neither spouse nor children Anthony has made Russell’s mother an important character in the series.

There were 7 series I was reading whose authors commenced writing them before the 1990’s. Of these 7 sleuths there were 5 sleuths with neither spouses nor children in the series. They were Adam Dagliesh, Sherlock Holmes, Spenser, Nero Wolfe and Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte. Of the quintet I do not recall any of them having a significant role by other family members. Two of them, Travis McGee and Rebus, had a child. I appreciate that while Spenser and Susan Silverman were definitely a couple I never saw in the books that they considered themselves as a common law couple. Arbitrarily I have placed Bony in the category of having neither spouse nor children because, though they existed, I have not seen them play any role in the books I have read in the series to date.

Of the 34 series starting in the 1990’s or later there were 17 sleuths without spouses and/or children. Adjusting the analysis to consider significant other family characters it would be 11 sleuths without families.

Every study needs to define its terms. I describe sleuths with families as including spouses, children and significant other family members. Based on my personal parameters:

1.) 2 of the 7 sleuths earlier than the 1990’s were sleuths with families; and,
2.) 23 of the 34 post-1990 sleuths were sleuths with families.

In 6 days on December 28 I am going to write a further post about sleuths with families devoted to Saskatchewan mysteries. Of that sub-genre 8 of the 10 authors, including all 3 series, have sleuths with families. As a bonus I will have explanations from some of the Saskatchewan authors on why they have sleuths with families.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Another Man’s Moccasins by Craig Johnson

22. – 485.) Another Man’s Moccasins by Craig Johnson – Sheriff Walt Longmire is back in Durant helping Cady recover from the injuries she suffered in Philadelphia. The body of a young Vietnamese woman is found just off the highway near the Hole-in-the-Wall. Longmire is exploring a large nearby culvert when a pile of refuse explodes into a 7’ Crow Indian who is barely subdued by a collection of officers. Finding the woman with a photo of himself and a bar girl taken in Vietnam in early 1968 sends Longmire flashing back to his war. As he works on the puzzle of a Vietnamese woman, who could not be a daughter, seeking him out 40 years later Longmire relives the war where he was a Marine investigator investigating drug trafficking. In Vietnam he endures intense trauma from which he has never truly recovered. Moving back and forth in time Longmire also occasionally finds himself in the spirit world. Ruby, his longtime administrative assistant, says he cares more about the dead than the living. I was surprised to read Longmire is a skilled pianist especially on popular favourites of the first half of the 20th Century. As noted in my last review the relationship of Longmire and Henry Standing Bear reminds of Spenser and Hawk. Each duo is a pair of big powerful men of different races accustomed to violence who have reached middle age. Longmire and Spenser share a classic stubborn integrity. They differ in that Standing Bear, unlike Hawk, is a moral man. The mystery unfolds fairly but I never saw the solution coming. It is a rare mystery that could combine parallel stories from Vietnam and Wyoming. Longmire reminds of the even more tortured myster veterans of World War I – Ian Rutledge (Charles Todd), John Madden (Rennie Airth) and Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear). Ninety years after the Great War Longmire bears the physical scars and suffers the emotional turmoil of his war. I raced through the book eager to know what was on the next page. At their best Michael Connelly and Robert Crais are just as compelling. I can hardly wait for my next chance to return to Absaroka County. Excellent. (June 6/09)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Publish or Perish by Margot Kinberg

69. – 630.) Publish or Perish by Margot Kinberg – Nick Merrill is a graduate student in the Department of Educational Studies at Tilton University in Pennsylvania. He is making steady progress in his program. He has developed some promising educational software called Learn It!!! His promising academic career is enhanced when he wins the departmental fellowship.
            Personally life is more complicated. He has been carrying on an affair with Carrie Woods, a professor in his department, while also in an intimate relationship with Angel Shaftson.
            Merrill’s personal and professional lives collide shortly after he gets the fellowship. After discovering the interdepartmental relationship Rose Shelton, another graduate student, is convinced the affair gave Merrill an unfair advantage in the fellowship process. Shaftson is equally angry when she learns of the affair.
            Within the university Merrill is facing conflict with his departmental supervisor, Connor Hadley, over Hadley’s use of the Learn It!!! software in support of his tenure application.
            There is no shortage of suspects when Merrill is murdered.
            Professor Joel Williams, a former police officer, had known Merrill who had been observing his classes. Wanting to find out what happened he starts making discreet inquiries around the campus and with former colleagues.
            The investigation proceeds logically. It is a well plotted book that gave me insight into the turbulence of academia. The competition for place and advancement is fierce. It is a complex world. Trying to keep track of the roles within the department and the committees is challenging. Not surprisingly, with the author a university professor, the book is at its best inside the department.
            At the same time the book lacked drama for me. Everyone at the university is so earnest. All are efficient and good at their jobs. Beyond the major conflicts setting up the suspects things go so smoothly. There are no minor irritations or disagreements.
It is an unusual investigation in the scrupulousness of all involved. Everyone at the university is careful not to interfere with or bother the police.
I wish I could have learned more about the characters. There is little information on their backgrounds and motivations.
Margot kindly provided me with a copy of the book. I appreciate her sending it to me. Having read her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, for almost a year I can see her voice in the book. She also sent me the second book in the series, B-Very Flat. I am looking forward to reading and reviewing it in the new year. (Dec. 17/11)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sleuths Without Families

A week ago Margot Kinberg, in her blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist (a wonderful blog with daily meditations on the world of mysteries), wrote a post called From a Distance in which she discussed: 
Sleuths have to keep a certain amount of distance between themselves and others because it protects them from what they see and sometimes have to do.”
She discussed a number of sleuths who prefer to live alone. The post set me thinking about sleuths and families. I am going to be posting a trio of posts on the issue over the next 10 days.
            It is my observation that mystery series written before the 1990’s will generally have sleuths without families. Not only were they single the personalities of several major sleuths were clearly suited to the single life.
            The Sherlock Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle had a brother, Mycroft, but neither spouse nor children. It is a challenge to see the demanding impatient imperious Holmes being either a husband or a father.
            In this generation Laurie R. King has written a different Holmes. He is entranced by the brilliant young Mary Russell and eventually marries her. They share adventures and solve mysteries jointly. More surprisingly Holmes finds he has an adult son, Damian, and most surprisingly he has a granddaughter. The Holmes of King credibly displays paternal and grandparental affection.
            Moving forward the sleuths of the Golden Age were usually without families and, if they had a spouse, rarely had children.
            As Margot points out Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot live alone without spouse or children. Each character, especially Poirot, lives a life in which a partner and children would cramp their lifestyle. It is hard to see the vain Poirot sharing his apartment with a wife.
            P.D. James in Talking About Detective Fiction states about writers from the Golden Age:
“Subsequent writers tended to agree with Dorothy L. Sayers that their detectives should concentrate their energy on clues and not on chasing attractive young women.”
On this side of the Atlantic Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin made it through over 40 years of novels and stories without getting married or having children. Once again the personalities were not conducive to matrimony. In particular, no woman would put up with the irascible Wolfe with his rigid routines.
In Australia, Arthur Upfield was writing the Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte mysteries over almost exactly the same time period as the Wolfe mysteries. He has a variation on the single theme. Bony has a wife and children but, in the mysteries I have read, Bony investigates and solves crimes far away from home. In the Bushman Comes Back he actually buys a wife but does not keep her.
P.D. James, in Adam Dagliesh, created a remarkably likeable character. Yet, when starting her series almost 50 years ago in 1962, Dagliesh is without family. She said:
“So I decided to begin with a less egregiously bizarre character and ruthlessly killed off wife and newborn son in order to avoid involving myself in his emotional life, which I felt would be difficult successfully to incorporate into the structure of the classical detective story.”
However, 47 years later in The Private Patient Dagliesh becomes engaged to Emma. We shall see if the Baroness is as ruthless with Emma. I hope not.
      It is my proposition that it became common in the last 20 years for the sleuths of crime fiction to have spouses and children. I shall have a post next week on the subject.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Judas Window by John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson (1938)

68. – 628.) The Judas Window by John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson (1938) – James Answell has come to London to meet his future father-in-law, Avory Hume. Uneasy about the interview he gingerly enters the office at the back of Hume’s house. The former banker has fortified the room. There are steel shutters on the two windows. The only door is heavy and tight fitting.
            As they start their conversation Answell spins into unconsciousness after taking a drink from the whiskey and soda poured for him by Hume. When he awakes Hume is dead beside the desk an arrow driven 8 inches through his chest. The arrow had been part of a display on the wall behind the desk. Answell’s fingerprints are on the arrow and dust from the arrow on his hand. Hume had been an accomplished archer with the Woodmen of Kent.
            Compounding Answell’s problems there is no sign that any whiskey and soda had been poured and, worst of all, the door has been locked from the inside with a stiff dead bolt.
            No one is accepting Answell’s explanation that he was drugged and framed. He is soon in the dock at the Old Bailey facing a capital murder charge.
            Answell insists Sir Henry Merrivale, K.C. (better known as H.M.) defend him though the veteran court warrior has not tried a case in 15 years. Merrivale could have been a prototype for Rumpole of the Bailey as portrayed by Leo McKern. Both are aging, aggressive, blustering, colourful barristers who enjoy a cigar.
            The evidence against Answell is straightforward and devastating. Merrivale is facing a set of facts that would have called out for a guilty plea was not the gallows the punishment.
            The examination and cross-examination of witnesses are very well handled. The rules of evidence are followed. I was surprised to read that while Carr was the son of a lawyer he was not a lawyer. Few non-lawyer authors are as skilled as Carr in knowing what can actually be said in examination, cross-examination, re-examination and argument.
            Merrivale’s defence is predicated on the room having a Judas Window but the only windows are locked and shuttered. (In England a Judas Window is a type of prison cell window where guards can see a prisoner without being seen by the inmate.) Dickson has created a locked room which would challenge any defence counsel not a mystery writer. As a mystery reader I certainly saw no solution.
            After careful investigation Merrivale challenges pieces of evidence. An alternative to Answell stabbing Hume with the arrow is offered. Yet how will Merrivale show the murder took place within the locked room without Answell committing the crime?
            By the end of the book Carr has provided a plausible explanation and solution that could have been determined by a reader who is rigorously logical in reviewing the evidence. As with many solutions it requires elimination of what is impossible and then a determination of how what is not impossible could have been done. I neither came close to figuring out how the murder was done nor the identity of the killer.
            Through blogging I have become more interested in Golden Age mysteries. I enjoyed Carr’s book Death Turns the Tables. It was a good book. The Judas Window is a great book. Sergio in his blog Tipping My Fedora had an excellent review of The Judas Window that prompted me to look for it in bookstores. His review includes interesting information from other sources about the book. As noted in a previous post J.D. at Sleuth of Baker Street in Toronto found a copy for me. It is a fine hardcover 2nd edition from 1938. I am going to look for more Sir Henry mysteries.
            I liked the cover at the top of the post which was on my copy and features a diagram of the locked room. On the other hand the cover here at the bottom of the post would be the one to get my attention in a bookstore. (Dec. 13/11)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bad Debts by Peter Temple (1996)

23. – 486.) Bad Debts by Peter Temple (1996) – J.D. Singh has raved about Temple’s books. I enjoyed the first, Iron Rose, I read but did not find it great. I decided to try his Jack Irish series with the first written in the mid-1990’s. Irish is a middle aged widowed barely practicing lawyer who makes his living working with a betting group who set up horse races (honestly finding an under-recognized horse and priming it for the right race) and searching out and collecting from debtors for which the law has no solution. He is a tough guy lawyer! (I cannot think of another.) I wanted him to be great. He is an intriguing character. His avocation is making furniture. In the great tradition of tough guys around the world he is troubled when a former client, Danny McKillop, seeks his help but misses him and then is murdered. Irish starts poking around on the death of the client and whether he was rightly convicted of vehicular homicide and sent to prison almost 20 years when Irish was functioning poorly after the murder of his wife. Irish finds himself drawn into the murky world of government land transactions. The young woman allegedly killed by McKillop was an activist against the closure of some questionable low rent housing. As Irish begins to unravel the mystery the schemers push back violently. Bodies start piling up around Irish. He finds love with journalist, Linda Hillier. Irish has a strong moral code in the manner of Spenser.  Irish’s Melbourne is a hard town with its full share of bad guys and corruption. I found the book very good but not great. I have an ongoing prejudice against high body counts in a mystery. I want to read the next to see how his life develops which is always a good sign for a mystery series. Paperback by choice. (June 10/09)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Raven Black by Ann Cleeves

67. – 627.) Raven Black by Ann Cleeves – The Shetland Islands had been a distant place for me somewhere north of Scotland until I read Raven Black. As with the best mysteries I now have a sense of those far away islands.
            It is mid-winter in the Shetlands. Snow has blanketed the islands. It is cold. On New Year’s Eve Catherine Ross and Sally Henry, 16 year old girls, drop in on Magnus Tait, a senior living a reclusive lifestyle. It is a minor adventure for the girls to enter his home. While Tait is a simple man he has a disquieting reputation. Having grown up in rural Saskatchewan I am familiar with each person acquiring a reputation in the community.
            Shortly after Catherine is found slain in the snow near Tait’s home. The description of the lovely young woman lying on the brilliant white snow with the killing red scarf around her throat “the fringe spread out like blood” was a cold striking image.
Community suspicion is focused on Tait just as it had 8 years previously when Catriona Bruce had disappeared. While never charged the islanders have remained suspicious of Tait.
            Detective Jimmy Perez starts the investigation and is immediately joined by a team sent from Inverness led by Roy Taylor. The investigation concentrates on Tait but Perez is skeptical.
            The Shetlands were a closed community which has been forced open by the oil boom. There is continuing tension between the generational islanders and the incomers who have recently arrived on the islands.
            Though an incomer, Catherine, had fitted more easily into Anderson high school than the islander, Sally. I found it interesting that the parents of both girls feature prominently in the plot.
            Fran Hunter is an incomer who has married and separated from the charismatic islander, Duncan Hunter. She is trying to adapt to island life with her daughter, Cassie.
            Perez has grown up on the even more distant Fair Isle. (Can there be a more romantic name for a place?) Over 20 years later he is still affected by having to leave the island and go to Lerwick to live in a hostel when he was 12 to attend school. I went away to a boarding school when I was 15. I can relate to the loneliness and difficulty fitting in for a shy boy gone away from family and farm for schooling. It may be a challenge for those who have grown up in cities but I did not find life on the farm more isolating than my subsequent residences in urban places.
            As winter and the investigation progress the focus of island life is on the annual celebration of their Norse heritage, Up Helly Aa. It is the most important winter event.
            It took me some time to get involved in the book but I was glad I kept going as I became more and more intrigued by the characters. The conclusion was a breathtaking rush.
            I know I shall return to the Shetlands for more of the series. Excellent. (Dec. 10/11)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child

66. – 626.) Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child – For no specific reason I had not read a Jack Reacher thriller until I picked up Bad Luck and Trouble for $2.00 at a used bookstore in North Vancouver two weeks ago. It is excellent escapist fiction.
            Reacher is aimlessly wandering the Pacific Northwest when he finds an unexpected deposit in his bank account. Frances Neagley, a former comrade with the special investigators unit of the U.S. Army Military Police, has reached out to Reacher in a unique way. The amount of the deposit is the number of a military code that an officer needs urgent assistance.
            The members of the unit have a special bond that remains strong 10 years after they had left the Army. Their connection is so powerful that a member will instantly go to another member in need.
            Reacher immediately leaves for Los Angeles. When he arrives he learns another member of the unit, Calvin Frantz, has been murdered. He has been thrown out of a helicopter.
            Reacher and Neagley soon determine other members of their 8 person team are missing. At the same time they are joined by other members of the unit. The survivors are determined to track down Frantz’s killers.
            It is hard to find a starting point. Frantz had been living a simple life. What could he have uncovered that would cause him to call on his fellow investigators and then send killers after him and other members of the unit? Reacher’s current team finds some evidence overlooked by the police and the killers and follow the trail towards the killers. The special investigators are relentless.
            In their investigations past and present they operate by a basic violent code - don’t mess with the special investigators. Old Testament justice is at the core of their code.
            As they investigate I was puzzled for a long time why the killers did not pursue Reacher and his colleagues with consistent aggression. Child has a simple but clever reason that I did not foresee.
            In Reacher I cannot recall another character so unencumbered by material goods. Determined to travel with no more than his folding toothbrush he will own but a single shirt so he will not start accumulating property.
            While Reacher operates by a stern morality of retribution for wrongs done he is amoral in acquiring money. He has no moral qualms about stealing money from drug dealers and then spending the drug money for his personal needs.
            Child is a smooth thriller writer. The pages flow swiftly. I know I will read more Jack Reacher adventures. (Dec. 6/11)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Anthem for Doomed Youth

64. – 624.) Anthem for Doomed Youth edited by Lyn Macdonald -In my last post I listed four series of mysteries I have read where each sleuth is a veteran of World War I whose post-war life remains deeply affected by their service in the war.

In the midst of the dreadful carnage of that war moving poetry was written by the young men who fought. Anthem for Doomed Youth is an anthology of the war poetry starting with the optimistic poems of men on their way to war, continuing with the experiences of battle and ending with the thoughts of those who had survived the conflict. Their eloquence resonates across the decades. 

Rupert Brooke’s poem The Soldier is one of the best remembered:

     If I should die, think only this of me:
         That there’s some corner of a   
         foreign field
    That is for ever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
  A dust whom England bore, shaped,
                                     made aware,
               Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
            A body of England’s, breathing English air,
               Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

            And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
               A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
                  Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England
            Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
               And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
                  In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

The last stanza of The Machine-Gun by John Hobson evokes the feeling upon the battlefield:

            Here do I lie,
                        Hidden by grass and flowers,
            With my machine-gun,
           Ghost of modern war.
           The sun floats high,
            The moon through deep blue hours,
I watch with my machine-gun
At Death’s grim door.

Wilfred Owen was one of the poet soldiers who addressed the horror of the war. In Dulce et Decorum Est he talked about a gas attack. In the last verse he speaks about a soldier wounded by the gas and states there is no glory in dying for your country:

            If in some smothering  
           dreams you too could pace
            Behind the wagon we flung
            him in,
            And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
            His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
            If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
            Came gurgling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
            Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
            Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
            My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
            To children ardent for some desperate glory,
            The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
            Pro patria mori.
For Canadians the poem In Flanders Fields by John McRae is our national poem of remembrance. Every child in Canada for over 90 years has read the poem. Most of us memorized it at school. On November 11, Remembrance Day, it is recited in every community across Canada:

            In Flanders fields the poppies blow
            Between the crosses, row on row
               That mark our place, and in the sky
               The larks, still bravely singing, fly
            Scarce heard amid the guns below.

            We are the Dead, Short days ago
            We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
               Loved and were loved, and now we lie
                  In Flanders fields. 

            Take up the quarrel with the foe:
            To you from failing hands we throw
               The torch; be yours to hold it high.
               If ye break faith with us who die
            We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
                  In Flanders fields.

Of the poets almost half died during the war. Considering the brilliance of their poetry it is certain the world lost many great writers during World War I. 

It is a book of great imagery and powerful emotions. A reader is prompted to reflect on life and death and sacrifice and courage and waste.