About Me

My photo
Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Mao Case by Qiu Xiaolong

The Mao Case by Qiu Xiaolong – Chief Inspector Chen Cao is having a fairly routine, if somewhat abstract, day at a political studies meeting of the Shanghai Police Bureau’s Party Committee on the topic of building “spiritual civilization” in China. Materialistic socialism has replaced the egalitarian ideals of the Communist revolution. A restaurant has found success calling itself the Mao Restaurant with photos and quotations and dishes asserted to be enjoyed by Mao. 

In the midst of the meeting Chen is startled when he is told his girlfriend, the highly placed and connected Ling, has married. While their relationship had been notably “off –and-on” he has not seen it as over and is “astonished”. 

While brooding over Ling’s marriage he receives a call from Huang Keming in Beijing, the new Minister of Public Security, about a sensitive political investigation. One of Mao’s “dancing” partners was an actress Shang Yunguan, whose career accelerated as a result of that relationship. She committed suicide early in the Cultural Revolution. The government is concerned that Mao provided her with something that could cause problems for the Party were it to become public. Shang’s granddaughter, Jiao, has recent unexplained financial benefits. 

They want  him to resolve the question quietly to avoid Internal Security undertaking “tougher” measures. 

Huang bluntly explains:

“This is an assignment you can’t say no to, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen. Any slander against Mao, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, will affect the legitimacy of our Party. This is a special task and Comrade Zhao recommended you to me.”

Chen is relieved of all other duties.

Jiao spends a significant amount of time at parties hosted by Xie. These parties are unique in that they seek to re-create the atmosphere of Shanghai in the 1930’s prior to the Communist takeover. They are held in Xie’s mansion, a fading but still elegant, private residence.

Chen, aware that there would be major personal consequences if he is unsuccessful, would like to investigate alone but realizes he needs help. Old Hunter, the retired police officer, and other friends and colleagues assist him.

There is a brief contact with Ling leading to Chen’s poignant recollection of a poem:

Sad it’s no longer sad,/ the heart hardened anew,/ not expecting pardon,/ but grateful, and glad / to have been with you,/ the sunlight lost on the garden.

As customary with the series the book takes the reader deep into Chinese history and society with compelling characters. Part of the mid-section of the book was not flowing for me but the conclusion is amazing. With each book I gain some understanding of modern China through a great mystery.

Chief Inspector Chen has become one of my favourite contemporary sleuths.
Xiaolong, Qiu – (2009) - Death of a Red Heroine (Second best of 2009 fiction); (2011) - "X" is for Qui Xiaolong; (2011) - A Case for Two Cities; (2012) - "X" is for Qiu Xiaolong Again; (2012) - A Loyal Character Dancer; (2013) - Red Mandarin Dress and Reflections on red Mandarin dresses; Hardcover or paperback. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sleuth of Baker Street in Mid-Winter of 2015

Sharon and I are in Toronto for a long weekend. When we booked the getaway we thought we might have warmer temperatures in Toronto than Saskatchewan in January. In a weather surprise it is actually a touch warmer in Saskatchewan this weekend. Beyond visiting family one of the reasons to come east was a chance to visit the Sleuth of Baker Street Mystery Bookstore. I always visit my favourite bookstore when I come to Toronto.

Late Thursday afternoon J.D. Singh was working by himself. Most of the time either J.D. or Marian takes care of the store.

The store continues to be full of mysteries and thrillers. Following my pattern in recent visits I restricted myself to purchasing 5 books. It is hard not to walk out with bags of books.

While there are lots of books there are not as many complete series. I was looking for Don’t Cry, Tai Lake which is the 7th in the series by Qiu Xiaolong. Several were on the shelf which is more than most stores but not that volume. J.D. said he would look for a copy for me.

My first choice was Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet which is the second in the series featuring Jim Brodie from San Francisco. I had really enjoyed the first book, Japantown, and am looking forward to Tokyo Kill.

It has been some time since I read the Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville. While I found it harrowing and very violent it was so memorable I have been meaning to get the next in the series, Collusion, for some time and it became my second choice on Thursday.

I took a look around for some Australian crime fiction but J.D. says it remains as difficult as ever for him to get mysteries from Australia.

I had picked up Trinity Six by Charles Cumming for my third book but as I was looking at books highly recommended by J.D. and Marian on a display shelf at the front of the store I saw The Anarchist Detective by Jason Webster. I asked J.D. for a preference between them. He rightly said they are very different books and said he had really enjoyed Webster but thought I should start with the first in the series, Or the Bull Kills You. It became my third choice.

Looking for a Canadian mystery I saw on the same shelf, Last of the Independents by Sam Wiebe which is noted as Vancouver noir and was the winner of the 2012 Unhanged Arthur Ellis Award for best unpublished new crime fiction that year. The Unhanged Award is an effort to promote the publication of worth unpublished Canadian crime fiction.  Last of the Independents was my fourth choice.

I mentioned to J.D. that Anthony Bidulka is very unhappy with the quality of publication of his latest book, The Women of Skawa Island, which is the second in the Adam Saint series. Just over a week ago he cancelled a delayed book launch signing in Saskatoon when he discovered the book had significant printing errors in the published book which had not been present in the copy he had read. J.D. said it was not a shock. He said the publisher of Last of the Independents had gone through more than one printing because of such mistakes. He said he had numerous flawed copies of the book in the back of the store.

My fifth choice was not actually crime fiction. I was taken in by Tough Crimes – True Stories by Top Canadian Criminal Lawyers edited by C.D. Evans and Lorene Shyba. The book contains twenty stories of major Canadian criminal trials by a lawyer who participated in the trial. Two of the stories are by lawyers I know – one is a law school classmate and the other a good colleague in the Saskatchewan bar. Each lawyer talks about one important case in their careers and about how it affected them. I have already dived into the book and the stories are fascinating.

There were several other customers in the store while I was there. I hope the store can stay open for years to come. I have been visiting it for over 20 years.
Sleuth of Baker Street and Update on Sleuth and 2012 Trip to Sleuth and Sleuth of Baker Street in Mid-winter of 2015 in Toronto, Ontario whose website is http://www.sleuthofbakerstreet.ca/

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Hebrides Dark and Light

Hebridean Blackhouse
Authors can provide vividly different views of life in the same setting that are equally convincing. In his Hebridean trilogy, the first two books (The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man) that I have reviewed May sets out a dark and grim life upon the Islands. In her biographical fiction series Lillian Beckwith provides a much lighter portrayal of Hebridean life.

May portrays the Calvinist churches of Lewis as cold cheerless places of worship with the Minister thundering sermons of fire and brimstone upon the parishioners gathered on the pews below the pulpit.

Beckwith attends church at an equally cheerless building but as the “missionary” presiding roars about the devil she sees the congregation intensely amused rather than threatened. All are concentrating on the mints they have brought to suck upon during the service.

They approach Scottish fatalism differently.

For May’s Islanders there is a resigned acceptance of grim fate.

Morag illustrates the cheerful approach of her Islanders when, on advising Beckwith about morning breakfast, she states:

“Half past eight,” Morag agreed; “and if the Lord spares me I’ll have your fire lit by eight then”.

She further explains:

“I’m feelin’ quite well tonight,” replied Morag piously; “but who can tell if the Lord may call any one of us before the morn comes; and if He chooses to call me in the night then I canna’ light your fire in the mornin’, can I?”

May’s Island homes are drafty and uncomfortable unless they have double glazing on windows and doors. For the young Fin the attic room of his aunt’s home that is his bedroom is cold and uninviting.

Hebridean Whitehouse
For Miss Beckwith there is a warm and comfortable bed in her bedroom.

May’s characters have had troubled and bleak lives. Regrets are many as they look back upon their lives.

Beckwith’s Islanders make the best of their lives upon the land. They enjoy life.

Probably the greatest difference is humour.

Laughter is rare in the lives of May’s residents. They are often a stereotype of Scottish dour.

Morag and her neighbours are constantly jibing each other and are a happy people. A funeral procession is marked by Islanders telling stories and jokes.

I appreciate the books were written about 50 years apart but do not see the respective perspectives flowing from the differing time periods. May is just as dark when he looks back 50 – 60 years.

I am sure life is neither as dark as in May’s books nor as light as in Beckwith’s books. I do find it striking how each makes their Hebrides credible.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith

The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith (1959) – After reading two dark contemporary mysteries by Peter May (The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man) set in the Outer Hebrides I thought of re-reading a book from another series set in the Hebrides 50 years earlier in the 1950’s. I expect it has been three decades since I read it the first time. I was charmed all over again.

Lillian Beckwith is the pen name of Lillian Comber who moved from England to the Hebrides for two decades. In a series of 7 books of biographical fiction, The Hills is Lonely being the first, she recounts her experiences with the crofters of Bruach, a fictional Hebridean isle. Her experiences are much lighter than the grim lives of May’s characters. My next post shall highlight the differences.

In The Hills is Lonely the author’s doctor has recommended that she spend time in the country where she could “rest without being too lazy, and laze without being too restive”. With enough income to live a quiet life for a time she places an ad in a periodical seeking offers of a place to stay.

She is enchanted by a letter from the Hebrides:

Dear Madam,
                        Its just now I saw your advert when I got the book for the knitting pattern I wanted from my cousin Catriona. I am sorry I did not write sooner if you are fixed up if you are not in any way fixed up I have a good house stone and tiles and my brother Ruari who will wash down with lime twice every year. Ruari is married and lives just by. She is not damp I live by myself and you could have the room that is not a kitchen and bedroom reasonable. I was in the kitchen of the lairds house till lately when he was changed God rest his soul the poor old gentleman that he was. You would be very welcomed. I have a cow also for milk and eggs and the minister at the manse will be referee if you wish such.

Yours affectionately,
Morag McDugan

PS. She is not thatched.

To a letter asking for more information on “quietness and distance from the sea” Morag provides a reply that inspires the title:

Surely its that quiet here even the sheeps on the hills is lonely and as to the sea its that near I use it myself every day for the refusals.

Who could resist such an invitation?

Miss Beckwith, a schoolteacher and a woman of mature years, is soon on her way north to the Hebrides.

Entranced and appalled, often at the same time, she is soon at home on Morag’s croft.

Miss Peckwitt, as she is dubbed by the Islanders who have the Gaelic, is welcomed despite being English though she finds herself most appreciated for the amusement she provides them as she adapts to their ways.

As an example of island life, paying a condolence visit to a departed neighbour becomes a rollicking night. Miss Peckwitt remains in the kitchen having a cup of tea while Morag goes upstairs to view the body of Ian, taken before his time at 79.

One of Ian’s sisters bemoans they had to settle for the local doctor who could not save Ian from pleurisy. She had wanted the vet who had previously cured their cow of pleurisy. She says:

“I’m tellin’ you that doctor couldna’ cure a corn on your toe without cutting off your foot and if he cut off your foot and buried it, like as not it would grown into a poisonous weed.”

After Morag comes down from the visitation Miss Peckwitt is startled when two local men wrestle the body downstairs to the parlour:

“Lachy, you damn fool! Lower your end a bit; that was his big toe nearly halfway down my throat.”

On their way home, Morag stops to remonstrate with the men digging the grave. Fortified by a bottle of whiskey they are amusing themselves by throwing pebbles at the teeth in a skull they have found while digging.

The next day at the funeral Miss Peckwitt asks Lachy why he did not take his hat off during the outdoor service. He replies:

   “Why now would we do that? Our heads were not hot!”

Persisting she mentions the undertaker took off his hat. In response:

“Aye,” answered another, “trying to shame us folk into followin’ suit so that we’d catch our death of cold and make plenty of work for him I doubt. Ach, but we’re too wise here for that sort of caper.”

And so the adventures continue whether in church or going to the cattle sale or participating in a ceilidh. A neighbour is always ready for a strupach (a cup of tea and a bite to eat).

I defy readers not to chuckle out loud. There is an abundance of humour and good cheer in the lives of the island people.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Death of a Lake by Arthur Upfield

Death of a Lake by Arthur Upfield (1954) – Lake Otway is dying. Three years after it had filled with flood waters a relentless drought is sucking it dry. On the edge of the lake is an out-station for Porchester Station.

Ray Gillen, born in Tasmania, has drifted across the mainland at various jobs and spent some time in the Australian Army serving in Korea. He arrives at the Lake on a motorbike and is immediately hired to work with the stock. One hot November night he goes for a swim and never returns. He is presumed drowned though no body can be found.

Fifteen months later Inspector Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte is assigned to look into the death.

While many a man has drowned while swimming late at night it is a rare man who drowns with £12,000 pounds in his suitcase. Gillen had shared a winning lottery ticket of £25,000. After cashing in his share he had decided to tour Australia.
At the out-station are 7 men (5 white and 2 black) and two women, Mrs. Fowler and Joan, her daughter. Both of the women are very attractive. They are quite willing to accept gifts and attention from the men but wary of commitment.

Bony goes to the out-station in an undercover role as a horse breaker. He will live with the men and work at breaking a small herd of horses.

Bony is sure the 5 white men and 2 white women have knowledge about Gillen. Since his disappearance no money has been reported and no one has left the out-station.

With his usual patience Bony works his way into the community. When he shows he knows his way around the horses his disguise is accepted.

It is scorching hot. Each day the temperature is over 100 F. The lake is disappearing and the strain on the residents of the out-station is rising.

No one is talking but everyone is anxious to search for Gillen’s body when the lake has dried up.

When the water level goes below 2 feet in depth the birds and animals around and on the lake are anxious. They can sense its death.

There are powerful disturbing images in the descriptions of what happens to the rabbits, hundreds of thousands if not millions of them near the lake, and the kangaroos and other animals when their water supply is at an end. Nature is not benign.

Bony discreetly prods those living at the out-station and friction flares.

While Canadians know cold Australians know hot. When the temperature goes about 110F life is unbearable for everyone and the water level drops even faster.

There is an inexorability to the dying of the lake that carries into the mystery. How and why Gillen died will be resolved when the lake is equally dead. It creates a natural tension to the mystery that is striking.

The book is a fine example of Bony’s understanding of human psychology with less bushcraft than most other Bony stories.
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; (2013) - The Bone is Pointed; (2013) - Q & A with Stan Jones on Nathan Active and Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte - Part I and Part II; (2013) - "U" is for Death of a Swagman (1945)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Bookmark Inspiration for the Outer Hebrides

When I bought The Lewis Man at a Chapters store in Calgary I received a book mark. Sometimes bookmarks barely register with me but this bookmark was unique. On one side it had a small map in the upper left hand corner of the Outer Hebrides superimposed on a lovely photo of a house (Johnny’s house) on the edge of the sea with the machair going down to the ocean. On the other side was a larger map with circles marking points on the islands with the following explanation:

Visit the locations in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides that inspired Peter May’s award-winning Lewis Trilogy.

Below the map was noted the website – www.petermaytrail.com. I thought it a simple and brilliant bit of marketing for book and the Hebrides.

Because of the bookmark I was inspired to look up the website. It is sponsored by the Outer Hebrides Tourism Industry Association. It is great to see a series of books is inspiring visits to the Outer Hebrides.

You can make a journey through the islands looking up the actual sites used by May in creating the trilogy. An example is the photo below of the fictional town of Crobost. As explained at the website May used two towns for his town:

As the basis of the story, the villages of Adabroc and Skigersta were amalgamated to form the village "Crobost" in the books. This meant the houses which are strung out along the crest of the hill above the beach at Port of Ness and the little harbour at Skigersta all formed part of the village of Crobost. Crobost was where Fin grew up and near Port of Ness, where the first murder takes place.

On my cover of The Lewis Man is a picture of an old boat. At the top of this post is a photo of the real harbour with some small boats with one showing traces of purple paint:

Skigersta harbour is where Peter May imagined to be "Crobost" harbour….. The harbour is where his father renovated an old boat, painted it purple and called it after his wife, Fin's mother.  Fin remembers his youth as purple. This was following his father's find of a drum of purple paint, whilst beachcombing. The result was that every door, shelf, cupboard, skirting board and his boat were painted purple!

After his parents died Fin grew up with his Aunt. There is a photo below of the house:

This derelict house was the house that Peter May imagined to be Fin's Aunts house. Set overlooking the bay at Skigersta harbour, the window in between the dormers was Fin's room. Fin went to stay with his aunt, as a youngster, following the death of his parents. It was a cold and miserable place, made colder by an aunt who treated him well enough, but never loved him.

I get cold looking at the house which was never a home for Fin.

I think more publishers and tourist authorities could gain some visitors with comparable bookmarks and travel trails for books set in other distinct locations.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Where I Stand on Free Speech

Yesterday fellow blogger, Margot Kinberg, at her blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist put up a fine post defending free speech as she made her stand - Je suis Charlie. I stand with her. Since reading Margot’s post I have been reflecting on free speech in Canada and its relationship with religion.
I expect that simple sentence of Je suis Charlie to become the slogan of those in the world who support free speech.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states in Article 2:
      2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
I appreciate that they appear as fundamental freedoms within the same paragraph.
Our courts have said our freedoms are not in a hierarchy but exist together.
While we place free speech among our fundamental freedoms we still have within the Canadian Criminal Code a section on blasphemy:
 (1) Everyone who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
In 1935 the Rev. Victor Rahard, an Anglican priest in Montreal was charged under the section with committing blasphemous libel against the Roman Catholic Catholic church.
Among his statements he said:
The Roman Church is not content with the commandments of God. She wished to have her own commandments for the satisfaction of her ambition and the prosperity of her shop.
First of all it should be observed that these commandments be a false name. It is not the commandments of the church that they should have been called but the commandments of the Roman clergy.
Rahard called Catholic churches dens of commerce.
The trial judge said he must consider whether the words were "calculated and intended to insult the feelings and the deepest religious convictions of the great majority of the persons amongst whom we live". He convicted Rahard.
While no one has gone to trial under the section for 80 years and everyone expects that if a charge was laid that the provisions of the Charter on free speech would provide a defence it remains disconcerting that it is still within our Criminal Code.
In 1980 a charge under the section was laid against the distributor of the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian. The charge was subsequently dropped.
I have decided to write to my Member of Parliament to ask him to lead in seeking repeal of the blasphemous libel section of the Criminal Code.
Bloggers with regard to crime fiction love words. We want the freedom to express our opinions of books and authors. Some of those books are bound to involve religious or irreligious themes. We need to state our right to express our opinions on those topics.
It will not always be easy to support free speech. Not long ago a Saskatchewan Indian chief, David Ahenakew, spoke to a reporter for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix after a speech:
The Jews damn near owned all of Germany prior to the war. That's why Hitler came in. He was going to make damn sure that the Jews didn't take over Germany, or even Europe. That's why he fried six million of those guys, you know. Jews would have owned the goddamned world. And look what they're doing now, they're killing people in Arab countries.
The reporter asked how Ahenakew could justify the Holocaust. The StarPhoenix quoted Ahenakew as replying:
How else do you get rid of a disease like that, that's going to take over, that's going to dominate?
He was charged with hate speech under the Criminal Code. While his remarks were abhorrent and our office was not asked to directly defend him we would have been willing to work on his defence.
I ask each blogger and reader to make their own public stand in support of free speech. We need to do more than be part of a silent majority. Je suis Charlie.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Lewis Man by Peter May

The Lewis Man by Peter May – Until I reached the ending The Lewis Man was a better book than The Blackhouse. As I read the books consecutively it is easiest to follow this review by reading my review of The Blackhouse and then this review.

Set 9 months after The Blackhouse the book has a brilliant premise. A perfectly preserved body of a young man is found in the peat bogs of the Isle of Lewis. Bodies buried in bogs have remained preserved for a couple of thousand years. The autopsy discloses irrefutable evidence this body has been there less than 60 years. On the deceased’s arm is a tattoo of the face of Elvis Presley with Heartbreak Hotel written on the collar. It is equally clear he was brutally murdered on a beach.

In an effort to identify the body the police check the deceased’s DNA against that of islanders tested in The Blackhouse who did not have the government destroy their results. Fin and Marsali are shocked when the results show the victim was related to Marsali’s father, Tormond Macdonald. Family and friends had understood he was an only child and had no living relatives.

Fin has returned to live on Lewis after resigning from the Edinburgh police. He continues to struggle to deal with the death of his son, Robbie, and has no desire to stay a police officer.

Ordinarily Fin and Marsali could have just spoken to Tormond but he has been beset with dementia and has a slender grasp on memory and reality. Marsali’s mother, Mary, has been worn down from caring for Tormond and insists he be taken to a home.

May takes the reader on an amazing and heartbreaking venture into Tormond’s deteriorating mind through the book. He hopes the bad Mary who sent him away will change back to the good Mary who has loved him for almost 50 years. He knows he is not at home but cannot figure out where he has been taken. Initially he thinks it is a hotel.

Tormond, as often the case with the elderly suffering dementia, can recall events of the distant past. In Tormond’s mental jouneys to his youth what happened to Tormond and his brother, Peter, is gradually revealed. It is an agonizing story.

While no longer with the police Fin investigates the murder for he knows the police will make Tormond their leading suspect. He cannot believe the gentle giant he knew as a boy would ever have killed anyone.

I had a mental jolt when Fin’s search into Tormond’s background reveals the real Tormond died as a teenager. Who is Tormond?

Tormond can only provide fragmentary and obscure references to his past when speaking aloud.

Fin and Marsali start to deal with their relationship. Fin had broken her heart with callous and selfish actions as a teenager. Fin is contrite while Marsali remains wary.

Fin still resents the austere Scottish church of his youth and in his bitterness over personal losses rejects God. He cannot understand men and women who believe in God and disdains their faith. He is as rigid as those he would condemn within the church.

I felt there was a better balance between darkness and light in this book. Not all is bleak upon the isle.

In Tormond there is a character I will long think of when I see those struggling with dementia in real life.

I appreciated that the key clue to the mystery was unique to the Hebrides.

I would have rated it a great book but for the ending. After a strong uncompromising story May went Hollywood to conclude the book. I wonder if his difficulties in publishing The Blackhouse (he could not find a publisher in England until after it became a success in France) led him to such an end. Whatever the reason it detracted from the story but probably made it easier to sell as a television series.

I am still looking forward to the third book, The Chessmen, being published later this year in Canada and will buy it. I have to find out what happens with Fin and Marsali.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Blackhouse by Peter May

The Blackhouse by Peter May – I finished reading the book this morning and headed to the bookstore to buy the second in the series, The Lewis Man, this afternoon. I have to find out what happened next in the saga of Fionnlagh “Fin” McLeod on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. I have not been as eager to read the second book in a trilogy since I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. 

Despite all the great reviews of The Blackhouse I had hesitated to read the book. I had read Snakehead by May in 2003 and found it an average book. After reading Jose Ignacio Escribano’s very positive review at his fine blog, The Game’s Afoot, I decided I would read the book. When I came across it in the ship's library of Riviera while cruising in September I started reading it. Unable to finish it at that time I bought a copy a few days ago as a Christmas present to myself (please don’t tell my family) and raced through the book amidst the Christmas festivities.

Now it is not a light read for the holiday season. The story of Fin is dark. His life has been beset by tragedy. Many books in which the sleuth’s life is a tale of woe leave me depressed and working to turn the pages but Fin is different. His spirit, battered and bruised by misfortune, often self-induced, perseveres and kept me intrigued.

A police officer in Edinburgh, he returns to Lewis to see if the brutal slaying of Angel Macritchie, found hanging in a boat shed by a pair of teenagers looking for a quiet spot on a Saturday night, is connected to a murder he has investigated in Edinburgh.

Fin knew Angel and his younger brother, Murdo, as the bullies of his youth. Angel, a physically large man, has no defensive wounds. He must have been slain by someone able to get close to him without arousing suspicion.

The investigation takes Fin back to the islanders of his generation who either never left or returned to live on Lewis. Every encounter is taut with recollection. While he has been gone 18 years his memories of life on the isle are vivid.

His first day at school where he was humiliated by only speaking Gaelic was redeemed by Marsaili the pert and pretty little girl (bright blue eyes and ribbons in her pigtailed blonde hair) who tells the teacher she will translate for Fin.

His secure life with loving parents ends suddenly as a young boy when they die in an accident. Fin is stunned:

I spent a lot of time alone in my room, barely aware of the comings and goings downstairs, cars drawing up at the path and then driving off again. I had heard people time and again saying how brave I was, and my aunt telling them how I hadn’t spilled a single tear. But I know now that tears are a kind of acceptance. And I was not ready for that yet.

Their deaths become real when, in a haunting image, he leads the procession of men from the church to the graveyard walking between two lines of women.

Fin realizes life will never be the same when his aunt, the relative who will raise him, tells him after the funeral he will not return home. He will live with her and his bedroom will be a small cold room in the attic.

Fin will struggle with relationships ever after.

On his return to the island, after meeting Artair Macinnes, his best friend as a boy, and Marsaili who have married and their son, Fionnlagh, conflicting emotions surge through Fin.

For the investigation there are many in the community who have suffered at the hands of Angel but there is no one with an immediate motive.

Angel does have respect for being the cook for 18 years on the annual village expedition to An Segir to kill 2,000 guga birds. They are a local delicacy.

Fin was one of the 12 villagers who went to An Segir when he was a teenager. What happened on An Segir that August fortnight still affects all who went there.

May skilfully uses the weather and geography of Lewis as part of the story. I do not believe you can effectively set a book in any rural setting around the world without including the land.

As with many rural landscapes the Isle of Lewis is equally bleak and beautiful. Coming from a province where it is rarely calm I can appreciate the constant presence of the wind blowing across the island. Rarely does it caress Lewis. Most days it cuts the islanders.

Angel was not a man whose passing Fin mourned but he will find his killer. On the journey he finds depths in the islanders, including Angel, he thought he knew so well in his youth that he had never known.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Bill's Most Interesting of 2014

My last post set out the Best Fiction I read during 2014. Each year I have another category of books read which I call Most Interesting. The books on this list have intrigued me in some way. While they are not the Best they caught and held my attention.

My Most Interesting Reads of 2014 were:

1.) Cool Water by Dianne Warren – I found the book interesting as it is a wonderful work of fiction about rural Saskatchewan where I have lived my life. Few works of fiction are set in rural Saskatchewan.

Its descriptions of weather and geography were accurate and important for they shape the lives of Saskatchewan people more than big city residents.

It held my interest because it is an excellent book. It delved into the lives of farm people and residents of the small town of Juliet. It did not dwell excessively on the negative or positive aspects of their lives.

What made it Most Interesting was that I could see myself and my family and neighbours in the characters created by Warren. I could see the fictional characters as real people.

2.) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – My interest was piqued as the story is focused on a young ballplayer, Henry Skrimshander, from rural South Dakota who gains fame at a small university in Wisconsin.

I love baseball. It is my favourite among the many sports I enjoy and I continue to play the game abit during the summer.

Harbach uses Henry’s ball playing experiences to explore the human psyche. Henry, who has always striven for perfection upon the field, suddenly struggles to make routine throws from shortstop. What happens to the perfectionist who finds he cannot be perfect? Obsession is a never ending theme for literature.There are perils for everyone in thinking while they are doing.

What turned it into a Most Interesting book was the exploration of relationships within the book. Just looking at Henry he has complex interactions with his gay roommate, his catcher and muse, the president of the university and the president’s daughter.

3.) The Devil’s Making by Se├ín Haldane – The 2014 Arthur Ellis Award winner for Best Mystery novel was Most Interesting to me because of the fascinating relations exchanges between cultures at the heart of the story.

Chad Hobbes, a young English barrister, arrives in Victoria, British Columbia in the late 1860’s. He comes from a rigid class structure to a town which has a mixture of traditional English society, American immigrants, newcomers who are already establishing a Canadian identity and West Coast Indians trying to live their traditional lifestyle.

When a white American is slain and the main suspect is an Indian Chief, Hobbes finds himself trying to understand a mix of cultures. In particular, Hobbes and the reader learn how the white and Indian peoples of the time dealt with each other at time of transition for all the peoples on Vancouver Island.

It is sad that the book has gained little recognition within Canada despite its Award.

3.) I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes – I was immediately interested in the book when a retired spy, Pilgrim, who has written a textbook on investigation is called to a murder in New York City where there are almost no clues. Pilgrim suddenly realizes the killer has used the information in his textbook to conceal the identity of the murder victim.

It became more most interesting was that the bad guy, Saracen, that Pilgrim is called upon to hunt down is far more developed than the average thriller evil one. His life and motivations are explored in detail.

It is a sweep along thriller involving a compelling chase. The book reached Most Interesting status as it had flaws that drew me to write a second post about my reservations with the book.

Overall I still highly recommend the book. Unlike The Devil’s Making, it has achieved great commercial success.

It was a good year for interesting books.

There are a lot of good lists from bloggers of best books from 2014 reading that can be further explored on Kerrie’s fine blog, Mysteries in Paradise.

(It is a coincidence or a statistical anomaly that 5 of the 8 books I chose for my Best Fiction and Most Interesting lists were written by authors whose last names started with "H".)