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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Vladimir Putin in Spy Fiction and Libel (Part I)

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, is an important character in Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews. I was surprised to see the current leader of a country, especially one of the most powerful in the world, featured in a work of fiction. 

In my reading experience if an author wanted to write a book based on prominent living persons and events it would be done as a roman à clef where the identities would at least be disguised, sometimes very faintly. 

I remember reading Primary Colors by Anonymous (later identified as Joe Klein) which was published in 1996 and is the story of a Clinton presidential campaign.

If it was to be a book with a leading character based on a real person it would be done under a different name and at least some personal details different from the actual person.

A leading example in Canadian crime fiction is Gail Bowen’s debut crime mystery, Deadly Appearances, in which former Saskatchewan Premier, Andy Boychuk, is poisoned on the opening page. Boychuk is a barely disguised real life Roy Romanow who was a Saskatchewan Premier.

Virtually every work of fiction opens with a standard disclaimer. A common version is:

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

In both of the above circumstances, the standard fictional disclaimer is a fiction but it is still placed at the start of works of fiction that have "resemblances" that are clearly deliberate rather than coincidental.

Simon & Schuster could not use such a disclaimer with Palace of Treason. Putin is a named character who is the President of Russia in the book. It is the real life Putin who is the character.

The disclaimer to Palace of Treason reads:

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

The second sentence asserts “real people” are “used fictitiously”.

I understand that phrasing when it is used with a character such as Paul De Gaulle in Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. In the book the assassin, known as the Jackal, prepares to assassinate De Gaulle at a public event in Paris. The real life De Gaulle is used as a character but the events involving him are clearly fictional though frighteningly plausible.

Most often authors look to the prominent deceased if they are going to use an actual person in a work of fiction.

Robert Harris has used real life deceased people in his books.

Fatherland, an alternative history mystery, set in 1964 is based on Germany winning WW II. Hitler is coming 75 in the book. He is no longer a dynamic leader.

In An Officer and a Spy Harris writes a fictional account of the Dreyfus Affair with the actual participants under their real names. His hero is the real life Georges Picquart who refused to let the French Army cover up the wrongful conviction of Dreyfus.

Recently the New York Times published a review of Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes in which Hitler becomes a time traveler to contemporary Berlin. The review speaks of the book filled with Hitler jokes. Whether humour about the Führer is a good idea is a question for another post.

As will be discussed in Part II of this post the Vladimir Putin of Palace of Treason is not merely a target as De Gaulle was in Day of the Jackal but is actually one of the villains.
Matthews, Jason - (2013) - Red Sparrow and Recipes and Menus in Spy Thrillers; (2015) - Palace of Treason 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews

15. - 812.) Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews – (DDB) The adventures of Dominka Egorova from Russian intelligence and Nathaniel Nash of the CIA which began in Red Sparrow continue in a book which I enjoyed but generated conflicting emotions in me.

Matthews is brilliant when telling of spy operations. Descriptions of the skills and techniques used to discover and then avoid surveillance on the big city streets of the world are clever and convincing.

Early in the book Dominka is dispatched to Vienna to ensare an Iranian nuclear scientist so Russia can penetrate Iran’s nuclear program. Dominka was trained as a Sparrow (a sexually trained operative) and uses Udranka, a young Serbian woman, to compromise the Iranian. The operation is very effective.

Matthews introduced me to modern spycraft that makes such communications as dead drops primitive and archaic. Spies can now communicate with sophisticated electronic communication that I had never heard of before this book.

Still human contact is valued and clearly necessary. When one of the characters attempts to remain anonymous all the electronics do not succeed in keeping his identity secret.

In the opening sections of the book I felt the descriptions of the good people and the bad people were over-stated to the good and bad.

In particular, Nathaniel and Dominka were cartoon heroic. Later in the book they are shown with flaws. It made them more real as characters.

In Russia Dominka’s superior, Zyunganov, is completely evil. Dominka, a synaesthete, sees nothing but black clouds swirling around his head. He is cruel and sadistic.

As with Red Sparrow in Palace of Treason the good are almost all beautiful or handsome while the bad are physically unattractive - “The poisonous and diminutive  Zyunganov – he was just over five feet tall ….” is later called a dwarf.

The descriptions of the cities – Moscow, Vienna, Washington and Paris – are vivid. A reader can see and feel each city.

I do not want books to gloss over violence but equally do not want too graphic descriptions of violence. Matthews does not spare the reader in Palace of Treason and is not sexist. There are stomach turning descriptions of the torture of men and of women.

I was intrigued by how many people in both Russian and American intelligence had access to highly classified information. If correct, it is frightening the number of bureaucrats who can read communications and assessment and have knowledge of the identities of spies in their own service and moles.

Dominka is a mole within the heart of Russian intelligence. She is at the highest level of risk. There is never a moment in her life without tension.

The resolution of the thriller was compelling. I found myself anxious to read what was going to happen next. At the same time there were gaps in plausibility and it became a classic Hollywood ending. I expect it will be exciting on film and do very well in the current cinema marketplace.

Matthews is half way between a conventional thriller writer and an insightful novelist. I continue to struggle with whether he aspires to be Christopher Reich or John Le Carre. My hope is for the latter but I fear the current marketplace is tilted to the former. I hope there will be some sublties of characterization in the next book and less Hollywood at the end. I do appreciate that sex, spies and violence market well and I expect Palace of Treason to do even better than Red Sparrow.

I did find one character so intriguing that my post will be about that character. Matthew has made Vladimir Putin an important character in Palace of Treason. 

I thank Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy of the book. (The recipes are back in each chapter and very well integrated into the book.)
Matthews, Jason - (2013) - Red Sparrow and Recipes and Menus in Spy Thrillers and Vladimir Putin in Spy Fiction and Libel (Part I and Part II and Part III)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

2015 Arthur Ellis Awards Shortlists

It is the last week of April which means the shortlists for the Arthur Ellis Awards sponsored by the Crime Writers of Canada are being announced. For the third year in a row I have not read any of the books listed in the Best Novel category. I am surprised that Silver Totem of Shame by R.J. Harlick is not on the shortlist for Best Novel. The shortlists are: 
Best Novel
Brenda Chapman, Cold Mourning, Dundurn Press
Barbara Fradkin, None so Blind, Dundurn Press
C.C. Humphreys, Plague, Doubleday Canada
Maureen Jennings, No Known Grave, McClelland & Stewart
Alen Mattich, Killing Pilgrim, House of Anansi

Best First Novel
Janet Brons, A Quiet Kill, Touchwood Editions
Steve Burrows, Siege of Bitterns, Dundurn Press
M.H. Callway, Windigo Fire, Seraphim Editions
Eve McBride, No Worst, There Is None, Dundurn Press
Sam Wiebe, Last of the Independents, Dundurn Press

Best Novella *
Rick Blechta, The Boom Room, Orca Book Publishers
Vicki Delany, Juba Good, Orca Book Publishers
Ian Hamilton, The Dragon Head of Hong Kong, House of Anansi
Jas. R. Petrin, A Knock on the Door, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine

Best Short Story
Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress, McClelland & Stewart
Melodie Campbell, Hook, Line and Sinker, Northword Literary Journal
Peter Clement, Therapy, Belgrave House
Madona Skaff, First Impressions, The Whole She-Bang 2, Sisters in Crime
Kevin P. Thornton, Writers Block, World Enough and Crime, Carrick Publishing

Best Book in French
Hervé Gagnon, Jack: Une enquête de Joseph Laflamme, Expression noir / Groupe librex
Andrée Michaud, Bondrée, Editions Québec Amérique
Maryse Rouy, Meurtre à l’hôtel Despréaux, Édition Druide
Richard Ste Marie, Repentirs, Alire

Best Juvenile/YA Book
Michael Betcherman, Face-Off, Penguin Canada
Sigmund Brouwer, Dead Man's Switch, Harvest House
S.J. Laidlaw, The Voice Inside My Head, Tundra Books
Norah McClintock, About That Night, Orca Book Publishers
Jeyn Roberts, The Bodies We Wear, Knopf Books for Young Readers
Best Nonfiction Book
Bob Deasy (with Mark Ebner), Being Uncle Charlie, Penguin Random House
Charlotte Gray, The Massey Murder, HarperCollins
Joan McEwen, Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry, Heritage House
Bill Reynolds, Life Real Loud: John Lefebvre, Neteller and the Revolution in Online Gambling, ECW Press
Paula Todd, Extreme Mean, McClelland & Stewart

Unhanged Arthur for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel
Rum Luck by Ryan Aldred
Full Curl by Dave Butler
Crisis Point by Dwayne Clayden
Afghan Redemption by Bill Prentice
Strange Things Done by Elle Wild

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Radio in Indigenous Mystery Series

On Friday Margot Kinberg at her terrific blog, Mysteries of a Mystery Novelist, put up a post about radio in crime fiction. I thought of how radio involving indigenous peoples in North America has been featured in mysteries. I left a comment and have decided to expand that comment into this post.

The Walt Longmire series by Craig Johnson has significant Cheyenne Indian characters. While Henry Standing Bear is the most important other members of the tribe play roles in the different books.

The tribe has a reservation radio station with Herbert His Good Horse their leading radio personality. He has become famous in the books for his trademark phrase:

“Stay calm, have courage and wait for the signs.”

In Canada, several years before Johnson wrote his books, there was a wickedly clever satirical radio show, the Dead Dog Cafe, written and starring American - Canadian indigenous writer Tom King. I loved the show which punctured stereotypes. Each show signed off with:

"Stay calm! Be brave! Wait for the signs!"

I have often wondered if Johnson had been inspired by the Dead Dog Cafe.

Walt visits the station during As the Crow Flies which is set on the Cheyenne reservation. In the book Walt awkwardly handles negotiations with the Chief’s sister, Arbutis, to allow his daughter, Cady, to have her wedding ceremony on the reservation.

Another series with a local indigenous radio station is the Nathan Active series by Stan Jones set on the northwest coast of Alaska.

Kay-Chuck is required listening for the Inuit living in Chukchi and the villages scattered along the forbidding coast.

In Village of the Ghost Bears most of the residents hear about a body being found at One-Way Lake through Kay-Chuck.

Margot further noted in a reply to my comment of another indigenous mystery series that includes radio:

And now I’m thinking of the important part community radio plays in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels as well. It’s woven into several stories.

In my real life Saskatchewan youth during the 1960’s CKBI, the radio station in Prince Albert, had a daily show called Northern News. While there were stories about the North much of the show involved messages being sent north by indigenous people down in Prince Albert or further south.

It was a full generation before cell phones and there was no way to communicate individual messages to the small remote indigenous communities and trappers in the vast forests of northern Saskatchewan.

Poignantly many of the messages were about how medical treatment had gone for a family member.

Others advised when someone would be arriving home and needed to be met at the plane. There were no all weather roads (there were and are some winter roads) and the only transportation was by plane, often a float plane.

I often thought of a trapper coming to his cabin after a long day on the trapline and listening to his radio to see if there were messages for himself or people he knew back home.

Subsequently, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians produced a program called Moccasin Telegraph which expanded upon Northern News.

As the communications industry became more diversified the MBC (Missinippi Broadcasting Corporation) was founded in the 1980’s. It has carried on with broadcasting throughout northern Saskatchewan with 70 low wattage FM stations carrying its signal.

Programs for the APTN (the Aboriginal People’s Television Network) have been created and filmed in Saskatchewan.

There continues a strong connection between the indigenous people of Saskatchewan and radio. Just as the fictional Inuit look to Kay-Chuck for the news the Inuit and Indians of northern Saskatchewan rely on the MBC.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Canadian Print Book Sales

BookNet Canada provides an annual report about print books in Canada. The organization describes itself on its website:

BookNet Canada is a non-profit organization that develops technology, standards, and education to serve the Canadian book industry. Founded in 2002 to address systemic challenges in the industry, BookNet Canada supports publishing companies, booksellers, wholesalers, distributors, sales agents, and libraries across the country.

BookNet says it tracks 85% of the print books sold in Canada.

The 2014 report set out there were 52 million units sold during 2014. The value for the units sold was $934,000,000.

The top fiction sellers were:

            1.) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn; and,
            2.) The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion.

Categories of market share included:

            1.) Juvenile Fiction – 31%
            2.) Romance – 7%      
            3.) Suspense and Thrillers – 5%
            4.) Biographies and Autobiographies – 4%
            5.) Cooking – 3%
            6.) Mystery and Detective – 3%
            7.) Self-help – 2%

The BookNet blog summarized sales:

Unit sales across the total adult trade print market in 2014 were down by 3.5% compared to 2013, whereas the juvenile trade print market was up 4.1%. Despite the slight decline in the adult trade market, some categories were stronger in 2014 than the previous year, including Historical Fiction (42.6% increase in unit sales), Science (30.2% increase), Mystery & Detective (11.1% increase), and Comics & Graphic Novels (7.7% increase). In addition, sales figures in The Canadian Book Market do not include ebook sales, so the overall book market may be healthier than reflected

I am glad to see mystery and detective sales up significantly.

In an example of how raw statistics can be misleading they asked Canadians if they had read a book written by a Canadian author in the last year.


The initial bars are discouraging:

       Those who responded that they had read a Canadian book
       have decreased from 41% in 2002 to 24% in 2012

However, the third bar shows the number of people unsure if they read a Canadian book went up from just under 20% to just over 40%. 

The author of the report said:

The majority of these participants expressed being somewhat interested in Canadian content. So what seems to be missing isn’t an interest or a desire to consume Canadian literature, it’s knowledge and awareness of who our homegrown talent are and where to find them.

BookNet is encouraging publishers to put a Canadian identifier in the ONIX fields.
How careful we must be in assessing statistics.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Wild Thing by Mike Harrison

31. – 441.) Wild Thing by Mike Harrison – Calgary detective, Eddie Dancer, is called to England to work for author/doctor, Peter Maurice, who is being charged as the serial murderer of several women. The method is unique and gruesome. Their skulls are being crushed by a homemade contraption. Eddie, cocky and witty, finds Dr. and Mrs. Maurice besieged by the very aggressive British paparazzi. Occasionally using them and losing them Eddie must deal continually with the paparazzi 24/7 pursuit of stories and photos. At the heart of the investigation are a set of notes from the famous Dr. Messmer in old Italian. Eddie seeks out a translation and is startled by what has been set down. The investigation is well done. I found myself wishing I had started with an earlier book in the series located in Alberta. While Eddie travels well I have a hunch the stories are better at home. Paperback. (Aug. 1/08)
I am rather slowly working my way through a book so will put up a review I wrote for myself a few years ago. There are three books in the series.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Double Digit Body Counts

(This post, because of the discussion on body counts will inevitably provide more information than some readers want about books or contain spoilers.)

Stuart Neville has filled the fictional cemeteries of Northern Ireland with bodies in his books – The Ghosts of Belfast and Collusion.

In The Ghosts of Belfast Gerry Fegan, overwhelmed by the voices in his head of a dozen people he has murdered during “The Troubles” is convinced that he will have no peace until he has killed the men who ordered or took part in the killings with him. Fegan embarks on a vigilante mission that has his ghosts disappearing one by one as he avenges their deaths. At the end of the book there is a bloody conclusion that leaves another pile of bodies.

In Collusion it is not Fegan dealing death across the northern counties it is a hired killer, The Traveler, who is eliminating “loose ends” with regard to the trail of bodies Fegan left in his wake in The Ghosts of Belfast. Once again there is a vicious confrontation at the end of the book that adds more bodies.

High body counts are not my favourite books. I especially dislike crime fiction that essentially sees the killer identified by being the last body alive.

Margot Kinberg, in a recent post at her fine blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, discussed the oft stated premise in crime fiction that it is easier to kill again having killed once.

In a comment I disagreed with the principle for killers who are neither serial killers nor professional killers. Average people driven to kill are rarely a danger to anyone beyond the person they have killed.

Professional killers often, but not always, get enured to causing death. I read a biography of Australian WW I sniper, Billy Sing, who was credited with killing 150 opposing soldiers, mainly Turks. His struggles with life after the war reflect a man whose mind had damaged by all the killing during the war.

Neville, in Fegan and The Traveler, has created two very different minds of a killer. While Fegan gradually comes to regret his killings The Traveler has no remorse.

Fegan retains a degree of empathy. The Traveler will kill anyone for the right price. Human life has no value to him.

In both books, most explicitly in the title of Collusion, is using the stories to illustrate how many involved in the killings of The Troubles have retained or gained leadership positions in Northern Ireland, Ireland and Great Britain.

I appreciate drama was created through the killings of a dozen in The Ghosts of Belfast who deserved to die for their actions in The Troubles. Yet I regret that the norm for a modern thriller has become a double digit body count.

It is even more glaring in the movies. It is easy to find online sources for the body counts in the James Bond movies. They set out that James Bond has killed an average of 16 people per movie. Another 43 people die in each movie putting the overall total at 59 killed per movie!

I think it is time for book bloggers to lead the way in identifying high body counts for readers by inserting an acronym at the start of each thriller review. We could put in bold, DDB for Double Digit Bodies, to alert readers there will be 10 or more bodies in the book.

While Neville has the ability to make a DDB plot work I am reflecting on whether I want to read his next books. How many people should be killed in fictional Northern Ireland?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Collusion by Stuart Neville

14. - 811.) Collusion by Stuart Neville – After the rampage of Gerry Fegan in Ghosts of Belfast executing former associates from “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland there are many powerful forces who want the loose ends to go away permanently.

For Bull O’Kane vengeance is both personal and professional. Permanently damaged and forced to a wheelchair he wants Fagan dead. O’Kane, beyond being crippled by Fegan, cannot stand that Fegan is the only man he fears in the world.

O’Kane reaches out to an independent assassin, The Traveler, a fierce killer of gypsy background. He hires The Traveler to dispose of the loose ends and draw out Fegan who has disappeared. The Traveler is indifferent to his motivations.

In Belfast Detective Inspector Jack Lennon, a Catholic, is living with his own demons. He has been estranged from his family for 15 years for having joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He is under constant suspicion within the police for having lived with Marie McKenna and fathered a daughter. McKenna is the daughter and niece of powerful Republicans. The constant tension is wearing upon him.

When Lennon, on surveillance, prevents a Loyalist gangster from killing another Loyalist thug in an internal dispute over turf and criminal ventures he gains increased responsibilities within the police services.

In New York City Fegan is trying to work quietly but his sleep is still haunted. While the ghosts from Belfast have faded he is plagued by visions of fire and smoke and a screaming child.

At the same time Lennon, who had abandoned McKenna and his daughter Ellen, desperately wants to re-establish contact. They have equally gone away and he cannot penetrate Special Branch.

As The Traveler carries out his contract and the bodies begin to mount Lennon does not accept there are no connections. His superiors are content with convenient solutions.

The depths of the scheming are made clear to Lennon:

“Everybody knows it all, but no one says anything. Look, collusion worked all ways, all directions. Between the Brits and the Loyalists, between the Irish government and the Republicans, between the Republicans and the Brits, between the Loyalists and the Republicans …… All ways, all directions. We’ll never know how far it went.”

A degree of paranoia can be healthy in Northern Ireland as there may be a vast conspiracy around you.
As with the Ghosts of Belfast the pages are littered with the dead.

It is a tribute to Neville’s skill that he can create a thriller filled with hard men and hard women. Ordinary thrillers require a hero. Neville does not need a hero to carry his plot. His story drives forward into a contemporary heart of darkness. (Apr. 4/15)
Neville, Stuart - (2011) - The Ghosts of Belfast; (2012) - "N" is for Stuart Neville