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.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

6. – 695.) The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau – Sister Joanna Stafford is a wonderfully different sleuth. A Dominican novice at Dartford Priory in the mid-1530’s she is a spirited young woman committed to her vows. Unlike many sleuths of any era she does not seek sexual adventure. She loves the Catholic Church. She realizes there is corruption within the Church but recognizes there are far more religious who are devout and faithful. She is intelligent without being cynical.

She is a challenge for her superiors. When she learns her cousin, Lady Margaret Bulmer, is to be burned at the stake for participating in the northern rebellion against King Henry VIII she leaves the convent, without permission, determined to provide personal comfort to Margaret. Her journey is difficult but she reaches the execution site and manages to throw rosary beads to Margaret.

After her father, Sir Richard Stafford, unexpectedly intervenes to hasten Margaret’s death Joanna is arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Her future is grim as few leave the Tower except to be executed. Officials doubt she had no role in her father’s action.

Sister Joanna had been a lady-in-waiting for Queen Katherine, the King’s first wife, and attended her at the time of her death.

While aggressively questioned, though never tortured, Sister Joanna maintains her intentions were limited to aiding a cousin she loved dying a cruel death.

Sister Joanna is unsure why she is not charged and brought before the Courts until the Bishop of Winchester arrives and makes a proposition. If she will return to Dartford, search for and find an ancient crown hidden there he will spare the life of her father. Unwilling to martyr her father she agrees to the proposal and is returned to Dartford.

The time she spends in the Tower was long for me in the book but once she is back at the abbey the story started flowing for me.

While grateful to be able to resume her life as a nun, Sister Joanna finds it difficult to lie about her release.

Within the abbey it is a time of turmoil as King Henry has already dissolved many northern monasteries and is now turning his attention, through Cromwell, to the southern religious houses. Will the abbey survive or be forced to close?

Sister Joanna learns of the sacred nature of the Crown for which she is searching in the abbey. With regard to the Crown the book has a touch of The DaVinci Code and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The history of the Crown is well done.

I appreciated how Bilyeau portrays the Dominican sisters and their cloistered lives. Where I struggled with how Louise Penny dealt with monastic life in The Beautiful Mystery I thought Bilyeau did well in showing how the women loved God and sought to live good lives together.

There is murder in the book but I feel setting out the details would give way too much of the story. It becomes a challenge for Sister Joanna to determine who, in the closed confines of the abbey, would kill.

The history is very well done without being obtrusive or overbearing. Sister Joanna is a credible medieval rather than modern character. Lest readers doubt a woman could have a major role in that era the book is set in the same century Queen Elizabeth I reigns over England.

It has been some time since I read a good historical mystery. Reading The Crown reminded my how history comes alive in the best historical mysteries. I thank Marian at the Sleuth of Baker Street Bookstore for recommending the book to me. I look forward to more mysteries featuring Joanna Stafford. (Jan. 25/13)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Heiress vs The Establishment by Constance Backhouse and Nancy L. Backhouse

Margot Kinberg at her excellent blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, had a post essay today about the use of breach of trust in crime fiction. The post reminded me of a real life prominent Canadian case from over 80 years ago that reads like fiction and has a great heroine. I looked up my review of the book about the case and it forms tonight's post. Do drop over to Margot's blog. Her daily meditations on crime fiction are always worth reading.
40. – 295.) The Heiress vs The Establishment by Constance Backhouse and Nancy L. Backhouse – In 1922 Elizabeth Bethune Campbell finds an unsigned copy of her mother’s will and is forced to pursue her inheritance as Toronto Trusts and a prominent law firm initially deny its existence. After a forced settlement she finds her mother’s trustee, 80 year old Uncle William Drummond Hogg, has mishandled her mother’s funds and cannot provide a proper accounting. When she takes court action Ontario’s legal and judicial communities close ranks to protect their “distinguished” colleague and bencher. With no justice available in Canada she appeals in person to the Privy Council. A woman of great determination and intelligence she perfects the appeal, researches the law and argues the appeal (the first woman to argue her own case before the P.C.) Justice is done when her appeal is successful. The situation strongly resembles the personal quest for justice of Florence Deeks (see The Spinster and the Prophet – No. 43). While Deeks fails Campbell is successful because her facts are beyond doubt (Hogg should have been disbarred and jailed) and she is a full member of the Canadian Establishment. Her self-published memoir, Where Angels Fear to Tread, is included. So well written and compelling I read it in a day. (Aug. 29/05) (Tied for 3rd best non-fiction in 2005)
Anyone interested in reading the actual Privy Council decision from 1930 in Elizabeth Bethune Campbell (Appeal No. 56 of 1929) v William Drummond Hogg and others (Ontario) [1930] UKPC 39 (1 May 1930) can read the decision at http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKPC/1930/1930_39.pdf. It is polite but scathing of Mr. Hogg and the Canadian judges who dealt with the case.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Reviewing World Best Crime Fiction of 2012

What were the best crime fiction books in 2012? On my blog I did a post highlighting four books as my Best of 2012 Fiction. All happened to be mysteries. Blogger Kerrie Smith at Mysteries in Paradise has gone far beyond her own list. She has compiled lists from 28 different bloggers around the world. In recent posts she advised that there were 366 books chosen by the bloggers. I encourage readers of this post to go see the posts Kerrie has done on the Best of 2012 crime fiction. I appreciate the time she has spent putting the information together.

Bloggers define their own criteria for best of or favourites. I include books published before 2012. A book is eligible for me if I read it in 2012. I am glad that Kerrie lets each blogger set their own rules for eligibility.

What is striking is the diversity in books. Out of the 366 no books were chosen by 4 or more bloggers. Only 12 were nominated 3 times. An additional 36 were nominated by 2 bloggers. Thus there were 258 books that received single nominations!

The top 12 are:
1.) Another Time, Another Life by Leif G.W. Persson;

2.) Broken Harbor by Tana French;

3.) Dare Me by Megan Abbott;

4.) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn;

5.) Lake Country by Sean Dolittle;

6.) Last Will by Lisa Marklund;

7.) Phantom by Jo Nesbo;

8.) The Caller by Karin Fossum;

9.) The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty;

10.) The Gods of Gotham by Lindsay Faye;

11.) The Nameless Dead by Brian McGilloway; and,

12.) What It Was by George Pelecanos
I did not read any of these 12 books. In 2011 I had read several of the top choices.
It is a significant change from the 2011 lists when 7 books were nominated by at least 5 bloggers with the top choices of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin and The Keeper of Lost Causes (also published as Mercy) by Jussi Adler-Olsen on 7 lists.
Out of the authors there was slightly more consensus though it came from multiple books. Two authors had 5 nominations:

1.)   Deon Meyer for Blood Safari, 7 Days and Trackers

2.)   Jo Nesbo for The Bat and The Phantom

I certainly concur on Meyer. I have read all 3 of books nominated and included Trackers in my list. I think he has become one of the world’s best mystery / thriller writers.

My top choice for 2012 was The Suspect by L.R. Wright which was actually written in 1985. It was also nominated by another blogger. Going into the year I would never have expected a book written 27 years ago would turn out to my best of 20112.

On why there was little accord between bloggers in 2012 I am going to do some reflecting. With over 65 cm of snow around and on the house and more coming and the temperature at -15C it is a good evening to stay inside and think about books.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Bone is Pointed (1938) by Arthur Upfield

The Bone is Pointed (1938) by Arthur Upfield – In the vast spaces of western Queensland a small station is the Gordon place of 300,000 acres. Their neighbours, the Lacey’s own the huge Karwir station.

The Gordons have taken upon the unusual role of protecting and offering a place to live to the Kalchut tribe, a group of about 60 aborigines. They have shielded them from de-tribalization by governments and missionaries. The Kalchuts are amongst the last tribes in Australia living a traditional lifestyle.

Old Lacey, a vigorous 70 years old, dominates Karwir clearly intending to run Karwir until he dies.

Jack Anderson, a stockman for Karwir, disappears while checking fences during a rare heavy rain. The local police investigation is unable to even determine if he is dead let alone whether he has been murdered. Many suspect the Kalchuts as Anderson has brutally assaulted two members of the tribe and never faced criminal charges. At the same time all acknowledge that he was disliked by almost everyone in the area of Opal Town.

Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte is summoned some months later to undertake a new investigation. Heedless of time he advises he will take months if necessary to determine what happened to Anderson.

His knowledge of tracking and keen skills of observation are well described by Upfield. Yet Bony also embraces modern science. A microscope is used in the analysis of evidence.

As he patiently determines the facts those involved in Anderson’s disappearance grow more worried that he will fulfill his prideful statement that he has never failed to solve a case.

An interesting aspect of the book for me was the role of rabbits. For the first time in my reading I specifically learned of the problems caused by the exploding rabbit population in rural Australia and how the people coped with them.

At the heart of the book is the interaction between the half caste Bony and the Kalchut. He dresses, talks and lives the life of white Australians though only reluctantly accepted by them. Were he not an obviously gifted investigator he would be marginalized. At the same time he remains attached to his maternal aboriginal origins. He is conflicted about his mixed blood. While proud of his skills from his aboriginal ancestry he sees white society as the modern way.

The title refers to a traditional aboriginal method of punishment. Barely more than witchcraft for most whites “bone pointing” is a terrifying and real to aboriginal Australians. The power of the mind is potent.

The language of the book will make current readers cringe on occasion in how aboriginal people are looked down upon and crudely dealt with by white Australians. I do not see it often in crime fiction but there was a female character just as prejudiced as the men.

It was clear to me as I read the book that Upfield had respect for and appreciation of aboriginal people and culture. Subsequently, in Arthur William Upfield – A Biography by Travis B. Lindsey I read from a letter Upfield wrote to J.K. Ewers at the time he wrote the book in the late 1930’s about his intentions with the book:

I set out to write a readable book having much aboriginal law centred around the ancient boning of a human being. The more anthropologists of repute study the Australian abo. the further they are mystified by the origin of the race, and the more clearly do they come to think that the race was highly developed when the white and yellow races were human gorillas. I know that the general idea of the abos., based on the Bulletin drawings and jokes is that they are half-wits, and here I have tried to make people understand that the reverse is the truth.

As with most books in the Bony series it could not have been set anywhere else but Australia. The plot is so closely tied to the land, the weather, the people and the cultures of the outback.

It is the best book I have read in the series. It is both psychological and physical with a subtle interplay between mind and body. (Jan. 20/13)
My earlier posts on Arthur Upfield and his books are:

Upfield, Arthur - (2011) - Cake in the Hat Box; (2011) - The Widows of Broome (2011) - "U" is for Arthur Upfield; (2011) - The Bushman Who Came Back; (2012) - The Will of the Tribe; (2012) - The Battling Prophet; (2012) - "U" is for Arthur W. Upfield

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Winter Weekend at Minneapolis Mystery Bookstores

Sharon and I were in Minneapolis last weekend for a short getaway from Saskatchewan. While there I went to both of the mystery bookstores in the city – Once Upon a Crime and Uncle Edgar’s. Minneapolis remains the only city I have visited which has a pair of mystery bookstores.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon with a brutally cold wind I started at Once Upon a Crime. Pat Frovarp was at the store.

I looked through the new selections on display at the front of the store. They were tempting but I resisted.

I went alphabetically around the store checking out the thousands of options. I also spent some time in the section with biographies of mystery writers.

I returned to the front and visited with Pat about mysteries. She is so friendly and knowledgeable about books. She relies on her memory and written listings of books published as the inventory is not on computer. She barely needs the written records.

After discussion I decided to purchase a couple of books by Minnesota authors which are set in the American Midwest. Pat was able to speak of them as she had read each book.

The first book, The Taking of Libbie, SD, was by well known author, David Housewright. As I have cousins in South Dakota and have visited the state several times I decided to read my first mystery that is set in the state.

The second book, Alamo North Dakota, is by Phil Rustad. I had not heard of the author. Pat said it is a good story set in the oilfields of her home state, North Dakota. It will also be my first mystery read from that state.

I have been looking at the books of Leighton Gage featuring Brazilian sleuth, Chief Inspector Mario Silva, for years. Preferring to start at the beginning of a series I had not found the first in the series, Blood of the Wicked, in other bookstores. When I found it on Saturday it became the 3rd book I purchased. Once again, Pat had read the book and thought well of it.

I then made the short drive to Uncle Edgar’s. After roaming the aisles and going back and forth on what I wanted to purchase I spoke with Elizabeth, the manager, about books that I have been interested in but had not seen in book stores.

Last year I enjoyed the first book in the Guido Guerrieri series by Gianrico Carofiglio set in Italy. I asked about the second book, A Walk in the Dark, and it was in stock.

I thought Donald Serrell Thomas had written some brilliant Sherlock Holmes stories in The Execution of Sherlock Holmes. Uncle Edgar’s had several of his books and I bought Sherlock Holmes and the King’s Evil.

While hard to stop at two books I thought of the TBR piles and regretfully purchased no more.

I had hoped to buy some Australian mysteries. Each store had very few and none of the books I wanted. Pat and Elizabeth each told me that it is difficult for them to get Australian mysteries. Elizabeth had heard that Harper is going to start publishing in America some Australian mysteries. She is excited about the prospect of adding mysteries from Australia.

For mystery book lovers no destination is better than Minneapolis. The selections are great and it is wonderful to chat with booksellers who love to talk about crime and have read the books.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reflections on River in a Dry Land by Trevor Herriot

In my first post on River in a Dry Land by Trevor Herriot I discussed the observations, historic information and analysis of the naturalist author, Trevor Herriot. In this post I set out my reservations about the observations of the author in a book I greatly enjoyed.
While appreciating his love of the undeveloped land and the nomadic indigenous peoples who left little imprint on the country I found Herriot had contradictory thoughts on the development of the valley.
He provides moving stories of the generations of his grandfather and mother who settled the valley. He appreciated their efforts to adapt to a harsh climate and establish farms. He has respect for the Scots from which he is descended and the Finns of New Finland across the valley. At the same time he has little regard for the current farmers of the the Qu’Appelle. It is hard to understand the high regard for the the original settlers who were the people to change the land and modern farmers who also change the land.
When people settle in an area the land will be changed. Whether by farm or industry it will be altered. For those who have made their life along the river for the past 150 years their balance with nature is flawed but deserving of value.
Without the changes made by settlers like my grandparents and his grandparents neither I nor Herriot would be in Saskatchewan. If the land had stayed grazing country inhabited by free range buffalo there would be but some thousands rather than hundreds of thousands of people.
Herriot raises legitimate questions about the effects of growing crops in a land with limited rainfall. He considers the problems of organic farming, not just conventional farming, with regard to soil structure, especially nitrogen.
Farming practices have evolved significantly even in my lifetime. For Herriot I cannot see any crop growing system as acceptable.
Livestock, hog and chicken operations have been concentrated in my lifetime. There is less pressure on the pastures of Saskatchewan than when I grew up.
I wonder if he would feel differently if he had actually farmed. By growing up on the farm I helped raise crops. There is a unique feel and pride to participating in the process of seeding through harvest. There is an appreciation for the land by farmers that I did not see in the book.
Herriot speaks positively of the spiritual practices of the Cree before the Europeans came and the harsh policies forbidding traditional practices for over 50 years. Yet there is no discussion of the decisions made by indigenous people to be and stay Christians.
I question his unquestioned admiration of Indian lifestyles. The Indian peoples of Saskatchewan, especially on the prairies, had a diet, before white settlement, that was heavily focused on meat. They had traditional medicines but lacked a health care system. Had the prairies remained grazing lands while health care improved the population of roaming Indian bands would have increased so that they could not have been sustained by the traditional hunting and gathering culture. Either they would have had to use the land in different ways or left this land and added to the people trying to live on other land. It is what has happened to the bands of northern Saskatchewan.
His exploration of the dismal consequences of white treatment of Indian peoples is generally accurate but from my work on Indian Land Claims I do not accept that when the Indian peoples of our province signed their treaties from 1874 to 1876 they expected to be hunters and gatherers for all time. They negotiated the right to continue to hunt and gather on unoccupied Crown land. They knew there was going to be a major adjustment from their traditional lifestyles to a farm based economy. What no one anticipated was that the settlement of Western Canada would take a mere 25 years. The adjustment period was far more compressed than expected.
It is sad to read how the settlement of Saskatchewan did not continue with thriving small towns. In less than 100 years towns appeared, grew and shriveled. I wish they could have stayed. I agree with Herriott that it was a good life. Herriot laments the loss of a simple life on the farm. More could have stayed on the land had they been content to live without power, sewer and water systems, appliances and other modern conveniences. A modern lifestyle costs more than can be provided on the income available from the small farms of my youth. The older lifestyle is the life of many rural Indian families. Yet there is a major human cost when there is little employment in and around the reserves.
There has been a rural depopulation in Saskatchewan. There are far fewer people outside the cities of Saskatchewan. In the area of the farm where I lived there are 3 families where once there were 8 families. It is the story of my life that a vibrant “corner” of families has faded away.
Herriot has a disdain for our present lifestyles. He would have no change in the land but that brought about by natural evolution. We do not live in a world that is static. Change is constant. At its essence people disturb the land. Cities create new environments. I accept the changes since settlement have not always been done well. I do not accept all have been done badly.

Friday, January 18, 2013

River in a Dry Land by Trevor Herriot

4. – 694.) River in a Dry Land by Trevor Herriot – A lyric, poetic journey, of the present and long into the past, along the Qu’Appelle River in southern Saskatchewan by a naturalist who loves the land and the river. Herriot’s origins are in the eastern end of the river in the rambling family home at Tantallon they called the Mansion. It is a beautifully written book filled with vivid imagery. Readers will appreciate the valley through the book even if they never travel to Saskatchewan. It will long stay with me. Still I do have issues with the book and will discuss them in my next post.
It is a river 250 km away from me that I have crossed on every trip I have made for 60 years to southern Saskatchewan but only on reading the book did I realize how little I knew of this river and its people.
Herriot delves deeply into the experiences of the people and the geography of the river and its tributaries.
An example of the depths of his exploration is the name of the river. He begins with the Pauline Johnson poem based on a story she heard from a French priest, Father Hugonard, who lived in the Qu’Appelle Valley. It is a romantic tragedy of an “Indian maid” calling out at death to her lover paddling down the valley:
      “Who calls?” I answered , no reply and long
      I stilled my paddle blade and listened……
      I listened and listend – yes, she spoke my name,
      And then I answered in the quaint French tongue,
     “Qu’Appelle? Qu’Appelle?” No answer, ….
An Indian account has two groups coming from the north and south meeting at the river. Unable to cross they called out to each other shouting news back and forth across the water.
Earlier yet in the middle of the 19th Century he recounts a surveyor being told a lone Indian came down the river and heard “a loud voice calling to him” but received no reply when he called back and he was unable to find tracks of the caller. It became the “Who Calls River”.
Going back further to 1804 the earliest white traveler recorded:
…. the River that Calls, so named by the Natives, who imagine a Spirit is constantly going up and down the River, and its voice they say they often hear, but it resembles the cry of a human being.
Thus the naming story of the river has a complex mix of myth and fact going back over two centuries. For Herriot it is the Calling River.
Upon buying a small parcel of land in the valley Herriot finds his family following a tradition extending back to the beginning of time of naming the features of their territory – Balsam Coulee and Mole Meadow.
He explores the story of a great buffalo rock at the headwaters of the Qu’Appelle River where the geography produced a river that could flow east or west depending on the conditions of the year. A giant rock, deposited by ancient glaciers, it was a prominent spiritual gathering place for the Cree Indians of the plains. Only in a land of great plains would a solitary rock assume such importance.
When a dam was planned for the area in the early 1960’s the rock was to be covered by the flood waters. Herriot examines the fate of the rock. It is a discouraging story.
It was a time that gave little consideration to Indian traditions and a unique feature of our country. Ultimately the rock was destroyed in a misguided attempt to save and reconstruct part of the rock.
The book is at its best describing the land and birds and animals of the Valley and its tributaries. Southern Saskatchewan is often thought of in Canada as a boring landscape as it lacks mountains, forests and ocean. Herriot shows the beauty and majesty of our province.
Still it is unique in Saskatchewan as our only major river valley in southern Saskatchewan. It is a dramatic slash across the plains.
Herriot is a man who happily describes sitting on a small patch of land on the edge of the valley with ants crawling around him and listening to songbirds while observing a red tailed hawk on the wing riding the wind. The book is an antidote for our rushing world of heads bent texting but rarely seeing the sky.
In the best part of the book Herriott goes back to Tantallon to the farm his grandfather homesteaded. He goes to the places in the valley of his family including a visit with his mother to the abandoned yardsite on which she grew up. He describes the swift rise and fall of Tantallon including the story of a utopian commune, Hamona. It is a story I understood well. The history of Tantallon is the same story of growth and decline of my hometown of Meskanaw.
I acknowledge I know less of the valley than I should as a life time resident of Saskatchewan. I can appreciate Herriot’s descriptions as they remind me of how much there was to see and appreciate on the farm on which I grew up. My connection to the land has weakened with living in Melfort but I am glad I had the chance to grow up on a farm. I regret that many urban residents of Saskatchewan have never had the chance to come to know an area of land and its wildlife with the intimacy that comes from living in the country rather than just having holidays away from the city. Herriott has reminded me that this spring when the snow has left the land it is time I took a walk again over the fields of my youth. (Jan. 12/13)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Slip & Fall by Nick Santora

3. – 692.) Slip & Fall by Nick Santora – Robert “Prince” Principe is a Brooklyn “ham-and-egger”. It is a derisive term for a small firm lawyer toiling far from the towers filled by giant legal factories of corporate lawyer. I hate it.
While a top graduate of Columbia Law School life in the law has not been good to Prince. His one man firm barely exists. His dream of representing the legions of working men of Brooklyn in profitable personal injury cases has never materialized. He is barely paying the office rent, is often late in paying his secretary Joey and has missed too many mortgage payments on his house. 
Prince does have a deft, self-deprecating wit: 
There’s a saying – if you have two years to kill and nothing else to do, become a chiropractor. But then again, I guess if you have three years, you could become a lawyer. 
When his lone potentially lucrative slip and fall action is dismissed and his beautiful wife tells him that she is pregnant Prince is overwhelmed by his financial problems. 
Desperate to find a way to make money as a lawyer Prince concocts a scheme and contacts his cousin, Jackie, a foot soldier for Big Louie Turro, the neighbourhood leader in a Mob family. Prince knows the Mob is always eager to find a way to earn dishonest money.
With that conversation Prince slips from being a well respected member of the legal profession and falls to being a shyster. He surrenders the integrity that is at the core of our profession. 
Prince comes up with a simple effective insurance fraud and the Mob swiftly provides a suitable client. He soon finds out that no one works with the Mob. It is the Mob which controls relationships.
Santora provides insights into the negotiations of personal injury litigation. Settlements are based on a give and take in which each lawyer calculates the risk of defeat. Lawyers determine the value of a claim based on the facts and law as they see them. Competing witnesses create the challenge of evaluating which facts are most likely to be found by the trial judge. The final number in a settlement negotiation is the quantification of the risk of losing for the competing parties. 
It is hard for me to like a book about a lawyer who choses dishonesty when he encounters  tough going as an honest lawyer.
While I found the opening a little slow Santora did grab me when he set out Prince’s decision to join the dark side and commit fraud.  
The book rushes forward with an appropriate ending. It has somewhat the feel of a T.V. series which is not surprising as Santora has produced and written shows for The Sopranos and Law & Order 
Slip & Fall is a nice easy read. I am not sure I want to read another Santora book if it is going to feature another lawyer gone bad. While I certainly recognize lawyers can be dishonest I dislike books which portray almost every lawyer as deceitful. To the contrary, almost every lawyer I know is trustworthy. I expect most readers feel uncomfortable when their profession is portrayed negatively. (Jan. 11/13)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Analyzing Grisham's Lawyers

Gene Hackman and Tom Cruise in The Firm
Over the past week I have writing posts related to famed American legal mystery author, John Grisham. I started with a review of The Racketeer and went on to a post listing the different lawyers he has used in his 20 books. Tonight I am conducting some analysis of his lawyers.

I start with the location of Grisham’s lawyers. Six of the books involve lawyers from Mississippi. Three involve Memphis lawyers which, until I looked into Grisham’s life, I did not realize is across the river from Southaven, Mississippi where Grisham practiced law. Another pair are set in Virginia where Grisham has a residence. Three are set in Washington, D.C. which is very close to Virginia. For 14 of his 20 books he has written about lawyers in areas of America he knows well. What is striking is that none of his books are set further west than Texas and there was only one book set there.

The majority of Grisham’s lawyers, 13 out of 20 books, conduct litigation, usually at the trial level. It is little surprise that most of the books feature court cases. What I admire about Grisham is that he has been able to write 7 books that do not focus on the courtroom. Not another writer of legal mysteries has an equal number of non-courtroom books.

Grisham’s lawyers are split between small firms and large firms. A few are not members of firms at all. I counted 9 ½ books featuring small firm lawyers while 5 ½ books involve big firms. The halves relate to The Litigators where the lawyers started out split between big and small though they all ended up in a small firm. What is very clear from the books is that Grisham has little regard for big firms. I am not sure whether that is from his real life background of practicing in small firms or a dislike of big firm law. It does make for better fiction to have the small firm lawyers battling against the odds. It is hard to feel empathy for the big guys.

What I found surprising in my analysis was the distribution of the books between criminal and civil cases. Most mysteries involve criminal cases. Indeed, the genre is commonly identified as crime fiction. Criminal trials tend to be more exciting though there is just as much drama available in civil cases. I believe books about criminal case are definitely easier to write. The issues and evidence in criminal trials is usually significantly less complex than civil trials. It takes more research to write a book based on a civil case. Grisham goes against the trend with 8 of his books involving criminal law and 12 set in civil law. There may be a lesson for writers considering fiction involving lawyers that the most successful writer of legal mysteries has a majority of the books not involving criminal law.

The most striking statistic is that there are only 2 books in which women are the lead characters while a third has a woman and man team. I do not know why there are not more female lawyers in Grisham’s world.

Grisham does not shy away from big issues. In particular, he has written two books, The Chamber and The Confession, that will challenge every reader to think about the death penalty.

Of the characteristics that help make Grisham’s books successful I note that his lawyers are skilful careful planners. It is a true life characteristic of lawyers. Grisham’s lawyers, like other fictional lawyers, are clever, even brilliant at times. Unlike some other fictional lawyers they do not succeed or fail by coincidence or luck or unexpected events. He has strong elements of logic in each of his books. None of his lawyers have incredible lives. They are credible lawyers.

I look forward to reading about many more Grisham lawyers. I expect them to be unique and interesting.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Grisham's Lawyers

I have long believed that a key element in the legal mysteries of John Grisham is his ability to create interesting lawyers. The breadth of the lawyers he has created is striking:

1.) The Racketeer - Malcolm Bannister is a black 43 year old disbarred lawyer from Virginia serving a 10 year sentence for a breach of the RICO statutes;

2.) The Litigators – In David Zinc there is a denizen of a legal factory, this time in Chicago. He escapes the giant firm for a place in the office of street front lawyers, Oscar Finley and Wally Figg, scrambling to make a living who make a bad decision to venture into high stakes mass torts;

3.) The Associate – Kyle McAvoy is a young lawyer employed in one of New York City’s giant legal factories where he grinds away for the partners;

4.) The Confession – Robbie Flak is a flamboyant Texas defence counsel trying to save a young black man from execution;

5.) The Appeal - Wes and Mary Grace Payton are hard working trial lawyers who win a major jury verdict. The losers set out to control the appellate court which will hear the appeal by nominating and supporting a conservative lawyer, Ron Fisk, to win the election, formerly non-partisan, to the appellate court.

6.) The Broker – Joel Backman, a Washington power broker, sent to jail who is unexpectedly pardoned and sent out of the U.S.;

7.) The Last Juror – Lucien Wilbanks and Harry Rex Vonner are rural Mississippi lawyers though the main character is newspaper owner, Willie Traynor;

8.) The King of Torts – Clay Carter is a Washington D.C. legal aid lawyer who stumbles into mass tort litigation;

9.) The SummonsUniversity of Virginia law professor, Ray Atlee, returns home to rural Clanton, Mississippi where he deals with unexpected issues after the sudden death of his father, Judge Reuben V. Atlee;

10.) The Brethern – A trio of former judges, now in a Federal prison, plot scams from prison;

11.) The Testament – Nate O’Riley is a major litigation lawyer and recovering alcoholic searching for the heiress to a vast fortune and defending her father’s will;

12.) The Street Lawyer – Michael Brock is a Washington D.C. anti-trust lawyer in a big firm who joins a legal aid clinic to work for the homeless;

13.) The Partner – Patrick Lanigan is a junior partner in a Biloxi, Mississippi law firm aiding a client to defraud the federal government;

14.) The Runaway Jury - Wendall Rohr is the lawyer for the plaintiff in a major tobacco action in Biloxi, Mississippi while Durwood Cable acts for the defence. Rankin Fitch is the master manipulator and Nicholas Easter leads the runaway jury;

15.) The Rainmaker – Rudy Baylor is a new law school graduate who unexpectedly finds himself practising in Memphis with ambulance chaser, Bruiser Stone, and undertakes a major insurance bad faith case;

16.) The Chamber – Adam Hall is dispatched from a major Chicago law firm to act pro bono to try to save the life of Sam Cayhall. Hall is Cayhall’s grandson;

17.) The Client – Reggie Love is a former alcoholic in her own small practice in Memphis, Tennessee;

18.) The Pelican Brief – Darby Shaw is a Tulane University law student;

19.) The Firm – Mitchell Y. (Mitch) McGeer is a young Harvard law graduate lured to a Memphis law firm specializing in tax law;

20.) A Time to Kill – In the first legal mystery Jake Brigance is a white lawyer in the small town of Clanton in Ford County in Mississippi called to defend a black friend charged with murder.

I have read all 20 over the past 24 years, most before I started this blog. I have enjoyed Grisham's lawyers and will discuss them in my next post.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Racketeer by John Grisham

The Racketeer by John Grisham – Malcolm Bannister is a 43 year old disbarred lawyer serving a 10 year sentence for a breach of the RICO statutes that have been stretched far beyond their original intent to curb organized crime. Bannister has been convicted of money laundering allegedly being part of a conspiracy involving a shifty Washington D.C. developer and lobbyist. I doubt he would ever have been convicted in Canada of any criminal offence.

While Bannister is incarcerated in a “country club” Federal minimum security prison time is passing painfully slowly. Half way through his sentence his wife has divorced him and ended contact with his son. Friends and relatives hardly ever visit him. Only his father, Henry, comes monthly.

Bannister is a rarity among the white collar criminals being a black man.

He dreams of freedom while focusing on getting through another day of the 1,800 days left in his sentence.

Bannister is a bitter man who has lost his livelihood, his family and his future because of overzealous Federal prosecutors.

When Federal Judge, Ray Fawcett, and his much younger secretary are found executed in his very isolated cabin Bannister does not mourn.

The FBI investigation into the judge’s death falters as there is neither forensic evidence nor an identifiable suspect. Bannister sees a lawful escape from prison and a means to economic prosperity in Fawcett’s death.

Rule 35 of the Federal Court Rules allows an inmate’s sentence to be commuted if he provides the information to get an indictment of another person for a major crime.

Bannister entices the FBI to come to his prison with the promise to identify the killer of Judge Fawcett. With the FBI desperate to solve the crime Bannister is soon able to strike a deal for his release from prison and payment of a reward.

Bannister identifies a former inmate, Quinn Rucker, as the killer. When Rucker is indicted Bannister is freed and enters the Federal Witness Protection Program.

At this point the story becomes less predictable and more intricate.

Bannister proves a master schemer. With an abundance of time in prison he has meticulously plotted his strategy. It is brilliant legal work as he manipulates the Federal judicial system.

Unlike Confession it is not one of the Grisham books that will challenge how a reader views an issue. It is a book with an interesting, even sympathetic, lead character going after a system that had made him a criminal when he was only an ordinary lawyer helping a client buy property.

There are issues to be considered but they do not dominate the book. The Federal Justice Department’s abuse of the RICO statute and its crude treatment of prisoners should make readers fear being caught up in a legal system so focused upon conviction and jail.

In real life, while I believe Conrad Black was wrong in his actions in taking non-compete payments while running Hollinger he should not have been prosecuted. It was a potential civil fraud rather than criminal fraud. How the U.S. Federal Government went after him and included in the indictment individuals far on the periphery of the decisions on the payments while never pursuing the high profile Board of Directors who approved the transactions is a real life illustration of the questionable use of Federal Justice Department power and discretion.

There are darker elements to The Racketeer than some Grisham books.

Grisham is just as skilled as Michael Connelly in drawing the reader forward anxious to know what is on the next page. It is not a brilliant book. It is another good read from Grisham with yet another fascinating lawyer. Unlike The Black Box I liked Grisham’s ending. The Racketeer takes readers on a journey of revenge with a very clever lawyer.

I look forward to Grisham’s next foray into legal mysteries. I hope it will feature a lawyer back in the courtroom, preferably in the southern United States.

This is the first post in trio of posts involving John Grisham. My next post will list all the main lawyers he has featured.(Jan. 2/13)