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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New to Me Authors for January to March of 2015

The first quarter of 2015 has gone by swiftly. During the three months I read books by four new fiction authors and two non-fiction authors.

The books and authors of fiction are:

     1.) Last of the Independents by Sam Wiebe;

     2.) Or the Bull Kills You by Jason Webster;

     3.) The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith; and,

     4.) The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man by Peter May.

The non-fiction books and authors are:

     1.) Tough Crimes edited by C.D. Evans and Lorene Shyba; and,

     2.) 41 by George W. Bush.

As I looked at the books I found myself in a quandary. I greatly enjoyed reading all of the books. Thus I am going to indulge myself in a blogger's  prerogative and decline to pick a favourite from either the fiction or non-fiction books.

I recommend all of the above books.

I further recommend readers to go on over to Kerrie Smith's excellent blog, Mysteries in Paradise, where she hosts this meme.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Village of the Ghost Bears by Stan Jones

13. - 810.) Village of the Ghost Bears by Stan Jones – State Trooper Nathan Active has a romantic week planned with the beautiful Grace Palmer. Bush pilot, Cowboy Decker, drops them off at One-Way Lake a short distance inland from the northwest coast of Alaska. It is late fall and they will spend the week while fishing, hunting caribou and berry picking and getting to know each other better.

Grace, still wary of men, is hesitant about a full physical relationship with Active. He is prepared to be patient.

As Active explores the edge of the lake Active is startled to come upon a body in the water. No visual identification is possible as the face has been eaten way by pike in the lake. In a play on the name of the lake they call the dead man “No Way” and send out a signal for Decker to return.

Their camping getaway is abruptly ended when Cowboy returns, not for the body, but to pick up Active and Grace as there has been a major fire in the Rec Centre in Chukchi and 7-8 residents have been killed including the local Police Chief, Jim Silver.

The fire investigator from Anchorage is still sifting through the remains of the Rec Centre when Active gets back to Chukchi. The investigator has not been able to find a clear cause for the deadly fire. He suspects arson but it was an older building.

With the Chief dead the State Troopers take over the overall investigation. All are shaken by the possibility that someone in their small community would commit mass murder.

There is little evidence for the Troopers. The fire was intense. It took place during the night. No one saw anything unusual.

They look for persons with a grudge against any of the deceased. In particular, was someone out to get revenge on Silver. There are certainly grievances but none are so serious as to incite murder.

The frustration of the community with the lack of progress rises daily.

Active loves Grace but she continues to hesitate. She is still scarred from her abusive upbringing and self-destructive years in Anchorage. She resides in her family home as she deals with the memories of her father.

After seeing Grace and Active together, Pauline Generous, the grandmother of his former girlfriend Lucy, with the directness of a senior leaves Active stumbling for words when she asks Active:

            “You gonna make her sad too, like with Lucy?”

Active wants to move ahead within the Troopers and is advised he can expect a transfer to Anchorage. The reaction of his mother, Martha Active Johnson, when he tells her is poignant:

“No, You can’t go …….. You can’t go away again,” she said. “It’s bad when I let them take you when you’re baby, it’s bad when you come visit me when you’re little boy, and ….. no, you can’t go again.”

Grace is not sure whether she wants to go back to Anchorage.

Returning to the investigation, the illegal trade in polar bear gall bladders becomes a factor. (Koreans use the gall bladders in traditional medicine and they are worth thousands of dollars.)

The investigation winds its way through the life of a community straddling traditional Inupiat life on the land and ocean with new residents from distant places and a contemporary lifestyle.

The plot made me realize how close Siberia is to northwest Alaska. They are but 90 km apart at their closest.

Village of the Ghost Bears is another great Alaska story by Jones.  I appreciate an author who can integrate local people and geography and history into the plot. I think it is the best book in the series. Whenever I want to go visit the locale of a book I know I have a good book in my hands.

My sole regret is that the ending had one twist too many. Jones had come up with a credible solution when he added a further twist. As with some Jeffery Deaver books it was unnecessary and reduced the impact of the solution. 

Jones has developed a fine series on the northwest edge of America.
Jones, Stan – (2009) - White Sky, Black Ice; (2010) - Shaman Pass; (2012) - "J" is for Stan Jones; (2013) - Frozen Sun; (2013) - Q & A with Stan Jones on Nathan Active and Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte - Part I and Part II

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Saskatchewan Cases Involving Wrongful Conviction and Jury Nullification

Brian Beresh
In my last post I reviewed Tough Crimes, a collection of true stories from Canadian criminal lawyers about memorable cases in which they had appeared. I personally know two of the lawyers who provided stories.

Brian Beresh and I graduated from the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan in 1975. After practising in North Battleford for a short while he moved to Edmonton where he is well recognized as one of the best criminal defence lawyers in the West. 

Mark Brayford has spent his legal career in Saskatchewan. He is known as a talented defence counsel. Working out of Saskatoon he is instantly recognizable for his shoulder length hair.

Brian chose a case in which he returned to Saskatchewan in 1999 to defend Larry Fisher in a murder trial for a killing that took place in 1969 in Saskatoon. It is one of Saskatchewan’s most famous cases. Originally David Milgaard was convicted of murdering Gail Miller and spent 22 years in jail before being exonerated and Fisher charged.

While not highlighted in his story Brian and I were in law school during the early 1970’s just after the original Milgaard case had made its way through the judicial system.

I admire Brian for taking on the case. His client was highly unpopular, the finding of a wrongful conviction against Milgaard was known throughout the province and everyone except the original prosecutor and police investigators was convinced Fisher was guilty. Fisher had been convicted of rape before Miller was killed, was residing near where the murder took place and there was DNA evidence connecting him to Miller.

The trial was bizarre in that up to the moment was Milgaard cleared the Crown had been vigorously asserting he was guilty. Now they were claiming with equal vigor that Fisher was the killer. Ordinarily it would have been a strong position for the defence to have put forward a credible alternative killer but Milgaard had been found to have been wrongfully convicted.

Brian did his best to sow some reasonable doubt with regard to potential contamination of the DNA and how reliable Fisher’s former wife could be in her evidence but there was no real chance of acquittal.

At the end of his story he points out a number of unanswered questions that disturbed him. It is clear he still has reasonable doubt about the conviction.

Mark Brayford
Mark also chose a case in which his client was convicted. The murder charge against Robert Latimer is as highly charged case as has taken place in Saskatchewan.

Latimer was charged with murdering his 12 year old daughter, Tracy, who had suffered brain damage at birth and was profoundly disabled. She was in constant agonizing pain which could not be effectively relieved by painkillers. To end her suffering Latimer used carbon monoxide to kill her.

The case, as all hard cases do, provoked anguish - mercy killing to a majority of Canadians but murder to activists for the disabled.

With Latimer having admitted killing his daughter Brayford’s options were limited:

Robert’s only real hope rested on the principle of jury nullification, even though in law Robert’s actions constituted murder, the jury had the right to refuse to convict if they believed it would be unjust to do so.

While jury nullification is an ancient and honoured legal tradition defence counsel in Canada cannot advise juries they can refuse to convict despite the law.

Mark argues eloquently that jury nullification should be made known to juries as one of the bulwarks against tyrannical government.

The greatest public frustration with the decision was that because Latimer was convicted of second degree murder the sentence had to be a minimum of 10 years.

Mark does not discuss how the legal predicament could have been avoided had the Crown exercised discretion by charging Latimer with manslaughter rather than murder. In several comparable Canadian cases manslaughter had been the charge. The key distinction for this type of case is that manslaughter, where no firearm is involved, does not have a minimum sentence.

I thought Latimer should have been charged and convicted of manslaughter and served a few years in prison but not 10 years.

I found it interesting that both Brian and Mark respect the law but question how their clients were found guilty. Both Brian and Mark spent a great amount of time and thought in defending these cases and losing still hurts no matter how difficult the facts and law.
Tough Crimes edited by C.D. Evans and Lorene Shyba

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tough Crimes edited by C.D. Evans and Lorene Shyba

12. - 809.) Tough Crimes edited by C.D. Evans and Lorene Shyba – C.D., who has practised criminal law in Calgary for over 40 years, and Lorene, a writer / editor / researcher, have assembled a collection of “true cases by top Canadian criminal lawyers”. They approached the lawyers requesting they write about a case that was “perplexing or disquieting, had weird or surprising turns, or presented personal and ethical issues”. Each of the stories sets out the personal recollections of a lawyer about a memorable case in which they appeared.  

The book is divided into groups of cases on a theme. The headings are wrongful conviction, homicide, reasonable doubt, collateral damage and community.  

The cases are all from my contemporaries who have practised law during the past 39 years I have been a lawyer. I know almost all of the lawyers by reputation. Two I personally know well. One, Brian Beresh, was a classmate with me at the University of Saskatchewan and another, Mark Brayford, is a colleague in Saskatchewan. My next post will focus on the stories they wrote for the book. 

What makes the collection unique is that readers get a chance to read how lawyers thought and reacted to memorable cases that span our far flung nation. 

Readers accustomed to legal mysteries in which the featured lawyer, whether prosecutor or defender, wins the case will be surprised that several of the cases chosen were cases lost by the lawyer. 

The most notorious case discussed was the Paul Bernardo murder trial. Bernardo and his wife, Karla Homolka, killed a pair of teenage Ontario girls and their sexual assault of Homolka’s sister ended with the sister’s death. Bernardo was also identified as the Scarborough rapist. He had committed a series of rapes in the Toronto suburb before turning to murder with Homolka.  

John Rosen acted for Bernardo with regard to the murder charges. In his opening paragraph he says: 
“….. what makes Bernardo and Homolka so infamous is that, outwardly, they appeared entirely normal. As a young, attractive, seemingly normal, white and upwardly mobile couple, they appeared to represent everything middle class Canadian society strives to be. But when his crimes came to light, to the general public Bernardo became the Devil Incarnate. Does that make me, his trial lawyer, the Devil’s advocate?”

Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo
Rosen is a good story teller. Effective trial lawyers must have that skill. To hold the attention of juries and convince judges you have to tell the story of your client well.

As he took over the defence from Bernardo’s first lawyer Rosen was provided with videotapes that police searches had never found in the Bernardo home. The tapes showed the teenage girls being sexually and physically abused and raped.

Rosen discusses his reaction to the tapes:

In truth though, the images depicted shook me to the core. At one point I needed to stop and excuse myself for a few moments. The images were deeply disturbing and the implications were obvious. How was I going to defend this case in the face of these tapes? What would prevent the jury from coming over the boards at me for having the gall to advance any defence for this accused? Moreover, I am a father myself – what would my own family think of me? How was I going to survive a trial with my health and reputation intact? …… After a moment’s hesitation, I decided to put aside my personal feelings and interests and get on with the job at hand.

Another showed a defence lawyer, John Vertes, working with the Crown prosecutor and the judge to adopt a special approach in the Arctic in the late 1970’s to achieve a just result. His 18 year old Inuit client, Henry Suviserk Innuksuk, was guilty of setting several fires in his small community on the distant northwestern shore of Hudson’s Bay. At the same time Henry was severely mentally challenged. No one thought sending him away to jail would be good for Henry but a punishment was needed.

When Vertes arrived for court there was a special meeting:

Upon arrival, I immediately went to the Hamlet office where I was greeted by a large throng of people including the mayor and the Council members, all of whom were Inuit except for one. Also in attendance were Dr. and Mr. Williamson; Henry’s elderly father, two of his older brothers, as well as many community members. One by one, they spoke to me about Inuit traditional ways and about their concerns for Henry. The mayor said that he and every member of the Hamlet Council would be willing to act as surety and supervise Henry in the community if that would mean Henry’s avoidance of a jail term. They felt sad that they had not paid more attention to Henry in the community, previously knowing his limitations. And now they wanted to take responsibility for his future conduct.

Anyone who thinks lawyers are not affected by their cases will realize after reading this book that lawyers are not unfeeling legal robots.

It is a great book. I freely admit to a large bias. As a part of my practice I have been defending men and women in the criminal courts of Canada throughout my legal career. These stories resonate deeply with me. I can assure readers they are “real”.

I believe the book would be invaluable to any writer of crime fiction intending to write about a Canadian criminal trial. There are 20 powerful cases to inspire plots. There are an equal number of vivid lawyers whose personalities and approaches to criminal law can be drawn upon in creating characters. I would extend the worth of the book to anyone writing about lawyers and criminal cases in any of the countries whose criminal justice is based on the principles of Anglo / American justice.

I think every young Canadian lawyer should read this book and will be encouraging my sons and my articling students to read and reflect on Tough Crimes. You will not think of criminal lawyers in the same way after reading this book.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

How Much is a Baseball Worth?

In Split to Splinters by Max Everhart the investigation is for a missing baseball. Ordinarily a baseball is a generic souvenir. Millions are made every year. There is nothing unique about an individual baseball. You cannot distinguish one ball from another ball. What made the ball in the book special is that it came from the 300th win of Hall of Fame pitcher, Jim Honeycutt.

In the book the value of valuable baseballs is discussed:

In 2006 Barry Bonds hit his 715th home run, breaking Hank Aaron’s record, and that ball sold for $220,000. And Bonds was nowhere near as popular and well-loved as Jim Honeycutt.

Lest readers think the value of what collectors have paid for baseballs is exaggerated the highest prices paid for baseball memorabilia are far higher.

The contract which sent Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1920 was sold at auction in 2005 for $996,000. The contract is famous because it dealt the best player in baseball history to New York and marked the beginning of decades of futility in Boston known as the Bambino’s Curse (Ruth was known as the Bambino).

Baseball cards have long been collected by North American boys. Usually they came in packages of bubble gum. Most have little value and were simply traded between young collectors. An exception is the Honus Wagner card. Only 57 exist. The rarity occurred because Wagner, an opponent of smoking, asked the card to be withdrawn from the cigarette packs in which the cards were placed. The last Wagner card sold went for $2,800,000.

The most valuable bat was used by Babe Ruth to hit his first home run at Yankee Stadium in New York. It fetched almost $1,300,000 at auction.

The highest price paid for an item of baseball memorabilia was for Ruth’s 1920 game jersey. It sold for $4,400,000 at auction.

With regard to baseballs the most valuable baseballs have been from famous home runs.

The highest amount paid for a baseball was $3,000,000 by Todd McFarlane, the creator of the Spawn comic book. He paid the huge sum for the record breaking 70th home run hit by Mark McGwire in 1998.

The highest amount paid for a non-game used signed baseball was $196,100 for a ball autographed jointly by Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio who were briefly married in the 1950’s.

What is striking is that none of the 10 most valuable baseballs involved balls commemorating a pitcher’s accomplishment.

I expect it relates to baseballs being valuable for being the historical artifact to mark a baseball moment. Home runs are remembered for the ball flying over the fence. A baseball to mark a pitcher’s significant win may be the last baseball used in the game but they do not have the same historic connection to a moment in baseball history.

The missing baseball in Split to Splinters, while from a major baseball event, does not have the caché of a major home run ball. An online opinion of the value for an autographed baseball from the 300th win of another Hall of Famer, Warren Spahn, puts the value at $350. I do not know if the opinion is valid but it is ironic if accurate. The ball in Split to Splinters is valued at over $100,000 in the book to give reason for the investigation but it might actually have been worth but a few hundred dollars.
Everhart, Max - (2014) - Go Go Gato; (2015) - Split to Splinters

Monday, March 16, 2015

Split to Splinters by Max Everhart

11. - 808.) Split to Splinters by Max Everhart – All private investigator Eli Sharpe has to do to be hired is get a hit off 58 year old Jim Honeycutt pitching to him. It should be easy. Eli is in his mid-30's, in good shape and briefly played in the major leagues. However, the pitcher is a Hall of Famer, nicknamed the “Texas Terror”, who can still bring the heat with his fastball edging 90 mph. Eli cracks a hit up the middle and is hired.

Honeycutt, a very successful real estate developer, in Asheville, North Carolina retains Eli to recover the baseball Honeycutt had retained and autographed from his 300th major league win. The ball had been stolen from Honeycutt’s desk in his home office.

Beyond its personal significance to Honeycutt the ball is worth at least $100,000 to collectors of baseball memorabilia. My next post will discuss the extraordinary values of North American sports souvenirs.

Clearly the leading suspects are members of Honeycutt’s family and Earl Boykins, an aging alcoholic sportswriter, who is living in the basement while assisting Honeycutt in writing an autobiography.

Honeycutt’s wife, Tess, and his daughters (Maggie, April, Robin and Heather) and Boykins all could have stolen the ball. As well, Tess’s friend, Linda Rogers, could have taken the ball.

Left behind is an enigmatic note:


All the women, including teenage Heather, are attractive. Several are gorgeous. Having had 5 fiancees, though never married, Eli appreciates their beauty.

Tess and the daughters all have reason to resent Honeycutt. He is overbearing and while he has spoiled them by freely indulging them he has never given them authority or financial freedom. Most recently, upset with assorted family members, he has revised his will. Each of the women has reason to be concerned about their future if Honeycutt should die.

Eli has little sympathy with the pampered quintet. His drug abusing and thieving parents had dragged him around America as a child dropping him off at a series of public libraries while they went about their criminal ventures:

He didn’t attend school for the first thirteen years of his life, so Eli taught himself to read and loved sitting Indian-style in the fiction stacks with his best friends – Ryamond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Ross MacDonald and Elmore Leonard.

In his eulogy for his mother Eli said:

“Lynette Sharp, or Moonbeam when she was traveling, was a bad mom, but a good thief, and despite her catalogue of faults, I loved her.”

Eli's investigation takes him into the private lives of the Honeycutts, Boykins and Rogers. Each has major personal issues. All but Rogers have clear grudges against Honeycutt. The case is difficult as all have opportunity and motive.

The personal lives of the Honeycutt clan are troubled but not sordid. Eli can understand their personal emotional challenges and appreciate why they are not in counseling. He explains why he stopped seeing a counselor:

Besides, you only talk about yourself in therapy, and he didn’t want to know himself any better than he already did.

Split to Splinters is not a great mystery but Eli is a great character and Everhart has filled the book with interesting people. I like spending time with Eli. I was glad his personal issues played a lesser role in this book. It helps that baseball is a game I love and each mystery has a baseball theme.

The first book of the series Go Go Gato explored the troubled life of a young Cuban defector signed to his first professional contract. Split to Splinters is about one of the game’s greatest players who has been retired for over a decade. I wonder if the third will be about active professional ballplayers in the prime of their careers.

You need not know baseball to enjoy the book but there are nuances for those who know the game. A good series is underway. (Mar. 15/15)
Everhart, Max - (2014) - Go Go Gato

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Unhanged Arthur - Last of the Independents

Sam Wiebe in the Vancouver Sun
In my last post I reviewed an impressive debut mystery, Last of the Independents by Sam Wiebe. In 2012 it was the winner of a unique Canadian Award, the Unhanged Arthur.

The Unhanged Arthur is a part of the annual Arthur Ellis Awards presented by the Crime Writers of Canada.

The Unhanged Arthur has been awarded for almost 10 years:

The first Unhanged Arthur was awarded by the Crime Writers of Canada in 2007 as part of the CWC mandate to recognize and promote the careers of promising new crime writers.

Eligible for the Unhanged Arthur are:

The competition is open to (1) Canadian citizens, no matter where they are living, and to writers, regardless of nationality, who have Permanent Resident status in Canada, and (2) who have never had a novel of any kind published commercially.

Contestants need a completed manuscript of 50,000 to 110,000 words.

I have not personally tried to define crime fiction. The Unhanged Arthur uses the following:

“Crime novel” includes capers, detective, espionage, mystery, police procedural, suspense, thrillers and other crime-related sub-genres, and can be set in any time period.

The prize is significant:

The winner will receive the Unhanged Arthur statue along with a cash prize from Dundurn. In addition, the winner's completed manuscript will be read and critiqued by a Dundurn editor, who will have the right of first refusal to publish the novel. The winner is required to allow Dundurn three (3) months to make an offer if they so choose, before the winning manuscript may be submitted elsewhere

The above quotes are drawn from the CWC website on particulars of the Award.

The winners of the Award have been:

2007 - Phyllis Smallman, Margarita Nights 

2008 - D.J. McIntosh, The Witch of Babylon

2009 - Douglas A. Moles, Louder 

2010 - Gloria Ferris, The Corpse Flower 

2011 - John Jeneroux, Better Off Dead 

2012 - Sam Wiebe, Last of the Independents

2013 – Coleen Steele, Sins Revisited

2014 – Rachel Greenaway, Cold Girl

With regard to Last of the Independents the Awards Committee stated:

A thoroughly satisfying read. An opening that grabs you, fast-moving and at times very funny with snappy dialogue, nice writing and intriguing plot. Very professional, and almost ready for publication. Last of the Independents was our unanimous choice as winner of the Unhanged Arthur Award

Dundurn took up their right to make an offer and are the publishers of Last of the Independents.

I think the Unhanged Arthur is a great award and look forward to seeing who wins in 2015. The shortlists for this year’s Arthur Ellis Awards will be announced in late April.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Last of the Independents by Sam Wiebe

10. - 807.) Last of the Independents by Sam Wiebe –

“The younger Thomas Kroon leaned forward on the clients’ bench and said, ‘There’s no real polite way to say this, Mr. Drayton. Someone’s fucking our corpses and we’d like it to stop.’ “

Who wouldn’t and what reader could resist being grabbed by those opening lines. Michael Drayton accepts the assignment from the Kroons to determine who has been violating bodies at their funeral home.

At the same time Drayton agrees to search for Django James Szabo, 12 years old, who has been missing for several months, after the car of his father, Cliff, was stolen with Django inside. Cliff makes a modest living purchasing, fixing and re-selling discarded or used appliances, electronics and furnishings.

Drayton, 29 years old and living with his grandmother and his dog, operates Hastings Street Investigations out of an office in the roughest section of downtown Vancouver. On his cards he has proudly inscribed:

            “Last of the Independents”

The phrase aptly describes Drayton’s business and personality.

A big strong man and former Vancouver City Police officer, Drayton reminds me of Travis McGee. He has the same physical presence and innate stubbornness against accepting advice or following rules.

His investigative approach comes from his police officer grandfather:

“When you’ve only got a hammer you treat every problem as a nail.” Sometimes your options aren’t limited by your tools so much as by the mindset you bring to them. But that doesn’t mean that mindset is necessarily wrong. Sometimes the problem really does call for a big fucking hammer blow.

Unlike many private investigators whose income is vague Drayton is very conscious of his finances. He is barely solvent. His finances are stretched by his willingness to pursue cases for little to no compensation from clients with meagre resources that he considers righteous.

While Drayton is proudly independent Katherine Hough, a student, works part-time for him.

In a nifty play on the Baker Street Irregulars Drayton is aided by the Hastings Street Irregulars. Ben Loeb is the creator/writer of successful video games and brother of another missing teenager for whom Drayton is searching.Amelia Yates-Yeats (she lets people use both spellings), a beautiful producer of music recordings.

The book is not about the rich and famous. Most characters have the struggles of ordinary people. Some exist on the wrong side of the law.

Cliff is different from the average desperate parent seeking their child. He is prickly and abrasive. He is as abrupt confrontational with those seeking to help him as he is with those he considers obstructive.

While Drayton would never acknowledge it, he is an idealist. He is determined to achieve justice in his cases. In a world of grays he lives a black and white existence. It is a lonely quest.

The funeral home investigation was unusual. I can confidently state I have never read a mystery involving either a crime in a funeral home nor the crime committed there in this book. Some experiences are best not repeated.

The book is well set in Vancouver. It describes life in a part of the city far different from the affluent environs described in Silver Totem of Shame by R.J. Harlick that I read late last year.

Last of the Indpendents is a gritty story. The cover accurately describes the book as Vancouver noir. In my next post I will discuss a unique award for the book.

Drayton is a worthy addition to the ranks of the world’s hard boiled detectives. I look forward to his next adventure.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Alison Gordon has Died

Alison Gordon in 2001 from the Toronto Star
It is with sadness that I pass on that Alison Gordon, pioneering woman sports journalist and mystery writer has died. She died in Toronto last month at the age of 72.

Writing was in the family genes. Her grandfather, Ralph Connor (pen name for Rev. Dr. Charles William Gordon), was a famous Canadian writer selling millions of books. Her father, J. King Gordon, was an editor and a journalist among other occupations. Her brother, Charles, was a journalist at The Ottawa Citizen.

Alison’s obituaries concentrated on her sports writing career. In 1979 she became the first woman beat writer for a major league baseball team when the Toronto Star assigned her to cover the Toronto Blue Jays.

As the first female member of the Baseball Writers of America her initial membership card read “Mr. Alison Gordon” as they had no cards with any female form of address.

As with most gender pioneers, she experienced prejudice and crude comments as she began her sports writing career. I expect her verbal dexterity let her hold her own in the locker rooms of the American League.

In the Globe & Mail obituary it said:

“When The Star decided to put Alison on the beat in ’79, it was a very hot topic,” said Howard Starkman, former Jays director of public relations. “Everywhere she went, she became a bit of the story, but she was emotionally tough. Her saving graces were that she could definitely write and had good knowledge of baseball.”

I can recall as a young male sports reporter the intimidating feel of walking into a professional sports team dressing room. Athletic egos are not modest and it is a closed world. I admire her dedication to being a sports reporter. After 5 successful years she moved on.

Alison did not get the credit she deserved in those obituaries for her writing career. She created an engaging sleuth in Kate Henry, a female Toronto sportswriter, who mainly solved murders around a fictional Toronto baseball team.

The exception in setting for the series was Prairie Hardball in which Kate returned to her roots in Saskatchewan to attend the induction banquet at the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame where her mother, Helen Henry, was joining over 20 other Saskatchewan women who played in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League during the 1940’s and 1950’s.

It remains my favourite Saskatchewan mystery. I am biased as freely confessed in my review. I am 1st Vice President of the Hall and attended the real life banquet Alison wrote about in the book.

Alison wrote beautifully about that night and captured the spirit of those Saskatchewan women of summer 50 years after their professional sports careers ended.

She did not write another book in the series after Prairie Hardball was published in the mid-1990’s. In a comment Alison posted on Sarah Weinman’s blog in 2004 she explained why the series ended:

The series was curtailed because I felt I had gone as far as I could go with Kate, not because of lack of interest by my publisher. (On the contrary, as a matter of fact.)

She had multiple other interests. From the Globe & Mail:

She became very active in fighting for free expression with PEN Canada. It was under her stewardship as vice-president in 1992 that PEN hosted Salman Rushdie, a few years removed from the controversy surrounding his book The Satanic Verses. She had a strong network of close writer friends – including Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood.

Ms. Gordon was no longer writing books in recent years, but was doing some speech writing for friends in politics. She had become an avid bird watcher …….

The Toronto Star obit said:

She remained an ardent baseball fan until her death, but Gordon’s interests were wide-ranging. Twelve years ago she and 10 friends started a rollicking cover band called 3 Chord Johnny that would play classic R&B and rock ’n’ roll songs from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Gordon, who played tambourine, hosted the band’s weekly rehearsals, which were always more about the wine and “Alison’s brilliant guacamole,” said fellow member David Macfarlane

I have a personal regret about Alison’s death. I had intended to interview her by phone about Kate Henry but never got around to arranging the call. Her passing is another reminder not to wait for another day to call someone. Tomorrow may be too late. Alison was a fine writer. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Bullfighting Experience in Or the Bull Kills You

The title of Jason Webster’s book, Or the Bull Kills You, tells the reader that the book will involve bullfighting. It is from the traditional saying - either you kill the bull, or the bull kills you.  As I have spent time in Spain nor studied Spanish culture this post is drawn from what Or the Bull Kills You says about bullfighting.

Bullfighting is not a comfortable topic for Canadians. We have no public fights involving animals. Rodeos feature cowboys riding bulls for a few seconds or dropping off horses to grab steers and turn them on their backs. No lawful sport involves the killing of animals.

For those who challenge bullfighting aficionados ask in reply if they are vegetarians and, if not, do they object to how the cattle they eat live and are then killed in slaughterhouses.

The heading to each chapter has a quote about bullfighting.

Some are provocative as in Chapter Two:

            I believe that bullfighting is the most civilized fiesta in the
           world. – Frederico Garcia Lorca

A few are earthy such as Chapter Sixteen:

            He’s got more balls than a blind bullfighter.

Some are more philosophical:

            The only important muscle in bullfighting is the heart
            Augustin de Foxa

Chief Inspector, Max Cámara, who dislikes bullfighting, is forced to examine his thoughts on bullfighting during the investigation through discussions with bullfighters, bullfighting journalists and breeders of bulls for bullfighting. 

He unexpectedly finds himself moved by the combination of drama, ritual, artistry and danger in bullfights. Max states:

And as he watched, for a second, for a moment that was lost almost as soon as it came, something extraordinary happened. It was if the division between Cano and the bull had disappeared, as though for a fleeting instant they had become one single being out there on the sand, unified by their fight and struggle: one entity separated not by their mutual wish to kill each other but almost as if by a kind of tenderness, a passion. It was if, for a brief period of time, matador and bull were brought together and joined through something that felt almost like love. But it was not any kind of love Cámara had ever sensed or been aware of before, nothing he had ever known. And yet it was there, binding them and making them one.

The primary victim Jorge Blanco may have been inspired by a real life matador as set out in an article at the Spain nowandthen website:
    The latest star is José Tomás who returned to the ring in June of
     2007 after an absence of 5 years.  The effect was electrifying as
     half empty arenas were filled and newspapers devoted entire
     pages to his exploits (even El País, Spain's left leaning and
     perhaps most prestigious newspaper, which had virtually
     eliminated bullfighting from its pages). His return started in
     Barcelona and was attended by aficionados and celebrities from
     all over Spain. Inside the plaza there was a capacity 19,000
     crowd, outside about 5,000 protesters.  

As with every current major professional sport there are issues over cheating in the bullfighting business. I do not know why I was surprised but bullfighting’s foundation is honour. When honour is compromised a sport’s integrity is threatened.

Or the Bull Kills You left me far more reflective about bullfighting than I had been before reading the book.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Or the Bull Kills You by Jason Webster

(8. - 806.) Or the Bull Kills You by Jason Webster – I am writing this review sitting at the Chirinquito restaurant in the Grand Mayan Resort beside the pool and looking out at the Pacific. The Resort is in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico. Sharon and I have just finished a lovely lunch of Spanish tapas and a jug of sangria. It is slow going on the review but I am fully enjoying the distractions and have just ordered some more sangria. 

It is somewhat fitting to be sitting in a Spanish restaurant to review a book set in Valencia, Spain. Max Cámara is a 42 year old Chief Inspector, single and feeling his age. Max and his girlfriend, Almudena, have been unsuccessfully trying to have a child. 

While many families would be proud to have a Chief Inspector in Homicide as a member of the family Max’s grandfather, Hilario (his only living direct family), can barely accept his grandson is a member of the police. Hilario, 82 years young, is a lifelong anarchist trade unionist who views the police as repressors. Max’s great-grandfather was also an anarchist who was killed during the Spanish Civil War. Only because Max defies the law by regularly smoking marijuana does Hilario grudgingly accept Max as a police officer. 

Max is ill-fitted to police bureaucracy. He is independent in thought and action with rough edges. He is under investigation because a suspect, later convicted, suffered a broken jaw while being questioned by Max. 

When Commissioner Pardo asks Max to replace him as the afternoon’s president of the corrida (bull fights) Max is in no position to refuse though he dislikes bullfighting. Max performs his duties awarding four ears, probably excessively generous, to Jorge Blanco from the two bulls Blanco fought and killed that afternoon.

Max consents to hand out an award to Blanco after the corrida for a local bullfighting appreciation society. While he is waiting at the Bar Los Toros a group of anti-taurinos loudly enter the bar protesting the continuation of bullfighting. Max convinces them to leave.

Shortly after a municipal policeman bursts in advising Blanco has been murdered. His body has been found in the chapel at the bullring.

Blanco has been strangled and then mutilated. Webster sets out that

“….. a pair of bright yellow and red Banderilla darts hung from the centre of his back, their sharp fish-hook points ripping at his flesh as they flopped to the ground, Higher up, towards his shoulders, a red-handled matador’s sword had been thrust into his ribcage – still swaying as the upper half of the blade caught glimmers of the street lights outside.”

There is a deep cut in his genital area.

The case is an immediate media sensation The 34 year old Blanco had been credited with reviving bullfighting in Spain. Considered the top toreador of his generation, maybe even the best ever, Blanco fought in the traditional style with great grace and passion.

Adding to the intrigue are questions about Blanco’s sexual orientation. That his girlfriend, Carmen Luna, a national celebrity most famous for being famous, while still beautiful, is over 50 does little to quell the rumours.

Carmen does give a brilliant retort to Max’s pro forma statement that he is sorry for her loss:

If there were no murders, Chief Inspector, you’d be out of a job. So unless you’re looking to be unemployed, I fail to understand how you can be sorry for what has happened. This is, after all, what you do.

Max is left speechless.

Complicating the investigation is the annual spring fiesta of Valencia, Fallas. For five days there are fireworks constantly exploding, temporary statutes being created and celebration all day and all night. A bit of a curmudgeon, Max also dislikes Fallas.

Municipal politicians press for resolution of the murder and his superiors equally demand an arrest.

The investigation takes Max deep into the world of bullfighting, an area of Spanish life of which he has little knowledge. It is a topic about which I learned a great deal from reading the book. My next post will focus on how the book deals with bullfighting.

Or the Bull Kills You is an interesting exploration of Max’s character and life in contemporary Valencia. It is not a skilled police procedural. There are some clumsy elements to the plot and the manner of solving the crimes was not convincing. At the same time I really enjoyed the book. Max is a very interesting character and the crime is firmly set in Spain. I look forward to reading the second in the series. I expect the plotting will be better with the next book.

Well, two hours have gone by as this review has meandered along. The sangria is gone and while a third order is tempting I think it is time for a walk on the beach. It is 30C above (when I left Saskatchewan a week ago the wind chill took the temperature below -30C), the sun is shining and a sea breeze is whisking across the laptop’s screen. I will work on my mistakes tonight. There are more than usual to correct.