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, August 31, 2016

A Slow Start to The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe by Timothy Williams

The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe by Timothy Williams – Occasionally I like to try reading a book no one has recommended and just looked appealing at a bookstore. While in Victoria during our short April trip I stopped at Munro Books, the iconic downtown bookstore, whose owner gave the store to his employees last year. While in the store I went through the crime fiction section and saw a paperback copy of The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe. 

I had not heard of the Anne Marie Laveaud series before seeing the book.

With no recommendation how do you decide whether to buy a book?

As usual I avoided reading the summary on the back as I either find they have too much information or are misleading.

That left the blurbs. I sometimes find the short blurbs useful. Unfortunately, none featured a blogger I would know.

There was a blurb from Mystery Scene on the front cover. On the back were blurbs from BookPage, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and Booklist. None spoke of a book filled with violence. They indicated the book dealt with challenging themes. Publishers Weekly spoke of the “legacies of colonialism …. nuanced racism, and troubled interactions between men and women”.

In the end it was the setting that tipped the balance for purchase. I have read few mysteries set in the Caribbean and none in Guadeloupe. I thought I could learn something of the French island of Guadeloupe by reading the book.

While I have always waited to finish a book to write a review for the blog I am going to break my approach and start my review with this post before I have completed the book.

Up to tonight it had been slow going in the book.

Ms. Leaveaud is a hard working juge d’instruction but I was plodding along with the reading as she plodded along with her investigation.

Initially, she had been called to look into the death of Rodolphe Dugain “better known to most television viewers as Monsieur Environnement”. When police officers arrived at his office to investigate allegations of misappropriation of funds at the Centre Environnement he slipped away and went to the 14th floor and, in an apparent suicide, jumped to his death.

While the official sources are vague Ms. Leaveaud is warned she should not pursue what happened and accept it was suicide.

While unwilling to give up she is assigned to another case that has a higher priority. A young woman, wearing only her bikini bottom, is found dead on a beach. The threat to island tourism has her superiors pushing for a swift resolution.

Ms. Leaveaud is earnest and politically correct.

She works in a challenging atmosphere. According to the book all island men, whether single or married, are obsessed with pursuing every woman they encounter each day.

There is significant casual racism. The lighter the colour of a resident’s skin the better for social climbing on the island.

The opening part of the book provided some glimpses of Guadeloupe but it had not drawn me into life on the island

A 100 pages into the book I was wondering whether to continue to an end that seemed many pages away when I was totally surprised by a plot twist. It jump started my interest in the book and I am reading on.

My next post will advise if the rest of the book proved entertaining.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley – The third Flavia de Luce mystery opens with a flourish. Flavia is having her fortune told by an elderly gypsy woman just outside the local Anglican church, St. Tancred, and resenting the extra shilling demanded for an explanation of the woman the gypsy sees on the mountain. Flavia, the daughter, anxious for any possible word of her late mother, Harriet, wins out over Flavia, the scientific skeptic and pays the shilling. The gypsy explains:

“She is trying to come home,” she said. “This …. woman …. is trying to come home from the cold. She wants you to help her.”

A shocked Flavia leaps to her feet knocking over the table and candle and setting the tent alight.

When the smoke has settled Flavia makes her way inside to see how the aged gypsy, Fenella, is faring and offer an apology. Fenella is exhausted. As usual, the 11 year old Flavia decisively takes action inviting Fenella to stay on a meadow, the Palings, that is a part of the family estate, Buckshaw. Flavia of course accompanies her on the horse drawn wagon to the Palings.

On the way there is a confrontation with Mrs. Bull that Flavia deflects with some clever untruths. Fenella is impressed:

“So,” she said, suddenly animated, as if the encounter with Mrs. Bull had warmed her blood, “you lie like us. You lie like a Gypsy.”

“Is that good?” I asked. “Or bad.”

Her answer was slow in coming.

“It means you will live a long life.”

Flavia, after leaving the weary Gypsy, heads home. Thinking of something to eat, for she has missed lunch, Flavia lets her guard down as she enters the house and is assailed by her sisters, Daffy and Feely, who bundle her downstairs so they can humiliate and interrogate her on a missing brooch.

After a family parley the de Luce family retires for the evening.

Late into the night, close to morning, Flavia leaves Buckshaw to visit Fenella and finds her badly injured. Realizing her limited Girl Guide first aid is inadequate Flavia pursues help. 

When Fenella is taken away to the hospital Flavia happily realizes there will be another criminal investigation by the esteemed Inspector Hewitt. While he professes to not need her assistance she is undeterred.

Riding her trusty bike, Gladys, Flavia tirelessly rides around the country diligently seeking information.

The book sees the greatest use of Flavia’s chemistry acumen. She is constantly reflecting on the chemical composition of items:

Red blood cells, I remembered from my chemical experiments, were really not much more than a happy soup of water, sodium, potassium, chloride, and phosphorus.

While she would prefer science solve all she learns an obscure, supposedly extinct, religious sect, the Hobblers, may be involved.

Back at Buckshaw, it appears ever more clear that her father is on the verge of losing the ancestral home because of succession duties on Harriet’s estate.

I liked A Red Herring Without Mustard as much as the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and much better than The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag.

Flavia is at the forefront of A Red Herring Without Mustard and has no difficulty carrying the plot.

While a disciplined scientific thinker in the investigation she is also a sad little girl who desperately misses her mother and longs to know more of her.

Almost innately she earns her father’s quiet approval by a “stiff upper lip” approach to life. While Flavia is proud of his admiration it is a way of life that prevents a father from hugging a vulnerable 11 year old daughter.

I look forward to reading the fourth in the series.


Monday, August 22, 2016

A Page in the Sun and Snow Falling on Cedars

Books can reach readers in unique ways. On January 1 of this year Sharon and I met Michael and his girlfriend, Kaja, in Puerto Vallarta. The next day we stopped at a bookstore / café near their hotel downtown. Michael took a look around the store and came out with a somewhat battered copy of Snow Falling on Cedars.

I would not likely have remembered the name of the place but the owners stamped the name on the book – A Page in the Sun.

At their website of A Page in the Sun they describe the bookstore part of the business:

We are Puerto Vallarta's original English bookstore offering all major genres including bestsellers, crime novels, literary classics, pulp fiction, science fiction and everything in between, in paperback and hard cover books.

To go with your book you can have a piece of cake or other delights:

Sample our world famous chocolate lover's chocolate cake, or opt for a Tres Leches (a Mexican classic for those who love sweet dairy, not recommended for the lactose intolerant), luxuriate in the glory of a homemade cheesecake, or dive into an adventurous sweet chili-lime pie. For the more traditional, chow down on a wholesome whole-wheat carrot muffin, a slice of coffee cake or an oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie to savor something that is truly and simply delicious.

I had not thought further of the book until this summer.

On a trip home to Saskatchewan Michael gave me the book to read saying that, while it is not a classic mystery, he thought I would find this book interesting. He knows I prefer a recommendation without an explanation.

Some books languish in my TBR boxes but Michael does not often suggest a book for me and I decided to read the book this summer. It was my best reading decision in months

I finished the book on a perfect summer Saturday afternoon. It was a hot sunny day at 26C. I just sat on our deck drinking a Pepsi and enjoying a snack reading a great book until it was done.

Having completed the book I was curious why Michael had chosen this book. He emailed me:

For some reason the tattered cover caught my eye. After reading the Synopsis and been to the Channel Islands I thought it would be fascinating. I have only finished half (started reading when I was too busy) but I plan on finishing. I thought he did a marvelous job of describing the space the story took Place in. 

I concur with Michael’s assessment and I will be returning the book to him when I see him in a couple of weeks on the Labour Day Weekend.

We shall have to make a return visit to A Page in the Sun to see what more hidden gems are on the shelves.
Guterson, David - (2016) - Snow Falling on Cedars (1995) and Life in Meskanaw and on San Piedro Island and Race and Ethnicity in War

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Race and Ethnicity in War

In Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson race and ethnicity become decisive during World War II.  Japanese and American residents shared the fictional island of San Piedro in Puget Sound before the war. There was occasional conflict and some prejudice but there was more respect. Despite the personal knowledge the white residents had of their Japanese neighbours their relationships changed instantly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The experience of the Japanese islanders of San Piedro shows how fear turned a nation against an ethnic group. They were overtly loyal to America and denounced the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941. Even as they are rounded up and dispatched inland young Japanese men join the American army to fight and die for the United States. Their loyalty and sacrifice did not end the internment.

The internment of the Japanese because of fear not fact cannot help but resonate in our world today when it is Muslims who are feared because of the war against the terrorism of ISIS and Al Qaeda. In the rhetoric of Donald Trump it is easy to see the echoes of the hysteria that swept North America in 1942.

A few weeks ago Khizr and Ghazala Khan stood before America to honour their son, Humayun, and rebuke Trump for his lack of respect for the American Constitution. The defining moment of the American presidential campaign has been Khizr’s declaration that Trump “had sacrificed nothing and no one”.

Will it be different for the Muslims of America and Canada from what the Japanese experienced during World War II? I would not be surprised if there is a tweet tomorrow or next week of Trump speaking in favour of internment for Muslims.

In Canada there is no campaign to isolate Canadian Muslims. Our federal election last year, while fiercely partisan, never approached the verbal excesses of America’s current election.

In Snow Falling on Cedars the reader sees the Japanese as persons not abstract beings. The boys form the majority of players on the high school baseball team. The teenage Hatsue dresses in “pleated skirt, argyle sweater, white bobby socks folded down crisply above the polished onyx buckles of her shoes”. Their parents work long hours to establish farms and businesses. They are living out the American dream.

The fears of the Japanese never attach to any actions of sabotage or espionage. Japanese farmers are arrested because they have dynamite for tree stumps and “clearing the land”. There is no problem for white farmers to have dynamite.

There were island residents in Snow Falling on Cedars who saw the Japanese of the island as loyal. There were more islanders who, even though there was no evidence that their neighbours were a danger, distrusted them and were glad to see them interned.

Khizr and Ghazala provided a human face for the loyal Muslims of the United States.

I am sure there are dangerous Muslims in North America. In 2015 and 2016 there have been individual acts of terror or radicalization of small groups in Canada and the United States but there is no evidence of large conspiracies among Canadian and American Muslims.

My personal experience with the consequences of fear came from representing hemophiliacs with AIDS in the early 1990’s. It was a time of widespread fear of AIDS. Most of my clients concealed they were infected. They feared they would be ostracized. When our office launched a court action for 11 of them we obtained a court order that the plaintiffs be described by non-identifying initials. It was the first time in Saskatchewan a civil action had proceeded with the identities of the plaintiffs concealed.

Even in death some of my clients kept secret they had died from one of the complications of AIDS. I became uncomfortable at one funeral that I would cause a family distress if mourners realized the only reason I would be there was because the deceased was a client with AIDS.

Even though it had been known since the mid-1980’s that AIDS was not transmitted by mere association with the infected and that contact such as a hug was not dangerous it took until well into the 1990’s for the fear of the infected to decline.

In the summer of 2016 I see growing fear of Muslims in North America comparable to what happened to the Japanese during World War II. Will fear destroy rationality again? Is the example of the Khan family as patriotic Americans enough to challenge that fear?
Guterson, David - (2016) - Snow Falling on Cedars (1995) and Life in Meskanaw and on San Piedro Island

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Life in Meskanaw and on San Piedro Island

I grew up and still reside in rural Saskatchewan. I have lived my life amidst vast grain fields as far from the ocean as it is possible to live in Canada. While Snow Falling on Cedars is set on the fictional San Piedro Island (based on Bainbridge Island where the author, David Guterson resides) off the coast of Washington and takes place over 60 years ago I felt a close connection to the people and setting of Snow Falling on Cedars.

The weather dominates island life as it does prairie living. On San Piedro rain and wind and fog are a daily issue, especially for the fishermen, for all the fishers are men. Is it safe to venture out? Is it safe to stay fishing when dense fog arrives?

When I grew up on the farm I looked to the West out my bedroom window every morning for an indication of the day. At breakfast my Dad would tell me what he had heard on the radio would be the day’s forecast. Through the summer the question was whether it would rain or would the sun and wind shrivel the grain. At the same time too much rain would reduce the honey crop.

As I read of the gill netters of San Piedro leaving harbour each evening to fish through the long dark hours of night I thought of getting up on the farm and spending long hours during the day riding a tractor up and down a field.

The fishermen have hours to think as they wait to see if they catch fish. I had the same hours on a tractor. There were no distractions. Unlike today there were neither radios nor phones nor computers on the tractor. Fisherman or farmer there was nothing to do but look at the sky and think on life.

While Carl Jr. and Kabuo are fishermen the issue between them is land. The island is as perfectly suited to growing strawberries as Saskatchewan is for raising wheat. Both men want to move from the sea to farming. The white and Japanese farmers who reside on San Piedro are deeply attached to their land. It is a relationship I experienced growing up on our family farm. I believe it starts with the hard work needed to grow crops. It continues with the tension of the weather. It ends each year with satisfaction in a good harvest or disappointment over a failed crop.

Katsue describes her love of the land:

And she knew that Kabuo wanted what she wanted, a San Piedro strawberry farm. That was all, there was nothing more than that, they wanted their farm and the closeness at hand of the people they loved and the scent of strawberries outside their window ….. She understood the happiness of a place where the work was clear and there were fields she could enter into with a man she loved purposefully.

By the time I was an adult I knew every foot of our 160 acres. I had ridden over and walked on all the land. In the strawberry fields of San Piedro that knowledge of the land is even more intimate. Much of the farm work was done by hand.

When Etta Heine, a bitter widow, sells her family’s land, including the 7 acres her husband had agreed to sell to the Miyamoto family and almost been paid in full before the Japanese internment, it is far more than a breach of a commercial transaction. The Miyamoto family has been betrayed. Nine years after WW II ended the resentment endures.

In Snow Falling on Cedars the major male characters – Kabuo, Carl Jr. and Ishmael, the local newspaper editor – all saw combat as members of the American military. Each was left scarred and somewhat distant. The wives of Kabuo and Carl Jr. vainly try to break through the aloofness of their husbands to release them from the pain of their memories.

My father did not serve in World War II but many men and several women from Meskanaw were in the armed forces. Some had a reserve on their return that never faded in the decades after the war. One, in the language of my youth, suffered from “nerves” for the rest of his life over what he had endured.

Both San Piedro and Meskanaw, where I grew up, were self-contained communities. The sea isolates San Piedro. For Meskanaw there were no highways in my youth and significant distance, for those days, to larger centres. The residents of each community know the families of their neighbours for generations.

What happens to those relationships in time of war on San Piedro Island is addressed in my next post.
Guterson, David - (2016) - Snow Falling on Cedars (1995)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (1995) – In the mid-1950’s a murder trial is underway on San Piedro Island in Puget Sound and snow is falling steadily on the cedar trees that define the hills of the island. Japanese fisher, Kabuo Miyamoto, is charged with murdering another fisher, Carl Heine Jr.

Having never read any books about the Japanese internment in World War II in America I have read two books within a month where the consequences of the internment are at the heart of each book.

Where Allegiance focused on the constitutional questions of internment and the physical camps used for the internment Snow Falling on Cedars concentrates on the personal consequences.
Zenhichi Miyamoto made a deal to purchase 7 acres of strawberry land from Carl Heine Sr. in 1934. The transaction is made at a time when Japanese immigrants cannot become American citizens and cannot buy land as they are aliens. Their children, born in America, at 20 become American citizens and can buy land. Zenhichi and Carl, over the objections of his Carl’s wife Etta, agree that Zenhichi will make a down payment and then semi-annual payments for 8 years on a lease which is really a disguised agreement for sale. At the end of the payments Kabuo will be 20 and the land will be transferred to him. Because of the internment the last payment is missed in 1942 though Zenhichi has agreed Carl can take all the strawberries grown.
While Carl is a fair man Etta is a bigot. With the Miyamoto’s still interned in 1944 she sells the land after Carl dies, giving a modest amount to the Miyamoto family. Her actions leave a permanent resentment in the Miyamoto family.

We do not often think about the frustrations of those have suffered injustice. How the pain burns within them.

The prosecutor Alvin Hooks has a studied folksy style. At the same time he regularly breaches the laws of evidence with his leading and oft irrelevant, though prejudicial, questioning.

Defence counsel, Nels Gudmundsson, is 79 and physically worn down but his mind is keen. He is adept at bringing out the weaknesses within the State’s case against Kabuo.

Guterson creates an instant rapport between lawyer and client. In his cell Kabuo thinks about their first meeting:

He liked this man, Nels Gudmundsson. He had begun to like him on the September afternoon when he first appeared at his cell door carrying a folded chessboard beneath his arm and a Havana cigar box full of chess pieces. He’d offered Kabuo a cigar from his shirt pocket, lit his own, then brought two candy bars out of the box and dropped them on the bunk beside Kabuo without acknowledging that he had done so. It was his way of being charitable.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a book whose writing calls a reader to savour rather than rush through the pages.

Guterson needs but a few sentences to move a reader:

Kabuo was in jail on the morning their son began to walk, but in the afternoon she (Hatsue) brought the boy and he took four steps while his father watched from behind the visiting room windowpane. Afterward she’d held him up to the glass and Kabuo spoke to him through the microphone. “You can go further than me!” he’d said. “You take some steps for me, okay?”

Later Kabuo thinks about the death penalty if he is convicted and being a soldier:

The fear of death grew in him. He thought of Hatsue and of his children, and it seemed to him he must be exiled from them – because he felt for them so much love – in order to pay his debts to dead he had left on the ground in Italy.

What makes the book differs from most legal mysteries is that it is a plot that has a trial as part of the story. The emphasis is not on the lawyers. All the main characters are given important roles in the plot. It is the best description of a trial I have read in over a year. The witnesses are real people. The evidence is credible.

Tension builds through the book. As the trial proceeds the story flashes back to the lives of the characters in the years before the trials.

As the trial climaxes the story achieves a remarkable tension. It is not a Hollywood thrill and body a page but a tension of the mind that left me anxious to read the next page.

Even before reading the note on the author I could tell Guterson had lived on an island in Puget Sound. There is a telling detail in writing about a place you have lived.

Lyrical and compelling, Snow Falling on Cedars is a great book, the best I have read in 2016. Tonight's review is the first of a series of posts related to the book.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Real Pleasantville

Attica Locke
The Pleasantville in Pleasantdale by Attica Locke is an actual community within Houston, Texas. In the book Pleasantville becomes an important part of the story.
The residents of Pleasantville are a political force because of the high voter turnout. In city and state elections candidates make it a point to visit the “Mighty 259” (the precinct number for Pleasantville). Voting as a block they could be the swing vote in a close election.
In the opening Locke quotes James Campbell from the Houston Chronicle:
          Any politician worth his salt knows the road to elected office 
          passes through Pleasantville.
What makes Pleasantville unique is that it was the first planned development for the Negro (in the language of the era) middle class expanding swiftly after World War II. Locke describes Pleasantville’s origins in an interview with NPR:
"Pleasantville was the invention of two Jewish developers in 1949," she says. "They came up with this idea that they were going to create one of the first of its kind in the nation — 'a planned community for Negro families of means and class.' ... You're talking about black families that couldn't buy anywhere else because of segregation. So it was this really special place where doctors, lawyers, educators, engineers were all congregated together in this really vibrant cultural center."
The first house built was purchased by Judson Wilbur Robinson Sr. who was the effective leader of Pleasantdale. A note in Texas State Historical Association website outlines his business and community involvement outside of government:
He established his real estate business, Judson W. Robinson & Sons Real Estate and Mortgage Company in 1962. This was the first African-American mortgage company in the state that was approved by the Federal Housing Administration. He also established the National Real Estate Association, a mostly black organization, in 1950. In his community of Pleasantville, which is one of Houston’s oldest black subdivisions, he served as chairman of Precinct 259 and boosted voter participation to the largest turnout within the city. He was a member of the board of directors of Riverside General Hospital, formerly known as the Houston’s Negro Hospital, from 1965 to 1975. He was also a director of Trinity East United Methodist Church. Robinson was a founding member of the Houston Area Urban League, a nonprofit agency which is affiliated with the United Way and the National Urban League that opened in 1968.
His son Judson Wilbur Robinson Jr. became President of the company upon his father’s retirement. In politics he became Houston’s first African American city councillor and won 5 re-elections serving until his death.
The Robinsons certainly look to be the inspiration for the Hathorne family of Pleasantville. In the book Sam “Sunny” Hathorne is a banker who has been the acknowledged Pleasantville leader for decades.
His son Axel is running to be the first African American mayor of Houston.
In writing the book Locke drew upon her own family as well. In 2009 she returned to Houston where her father was running for mayor. An interview with her in The Telegraph includes the following:
Many of the equally slippery characters are based on people Locke met during her father’s campaign, which sounds like an extraordinarily ugly affair. Gene Locke, a civil rights activist turned lawyer, stood against Annise Parker (the inspiration for the book’s Machiavellian Reese Parker). Both were Democrats: the predominantly white, conservative electorate had a choice between a black man and a gay white woman. “So all of the anti-gay bigots went to my dad and all the racists went to Annise,” sighs Locke. “She took money from racists. My dad had money given to him by anti-gay people. I was disgusted with Annise and disappointed by my father.”
While inspired by real life Locke does make changes. Axel is a former Houston Police Chief not a realtor. She has Axel and his opponent, Sandy Walcott, as two law and order candidates. Her real life father and his opponent, Annise Parker, are a pair of minority candidates.
Locke says Pleasantville has faded over the past 57 years. In the book she spoke of middle class African Americans choosing other suburbs as Houston de-segregated.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Pleasantville by Attica Locke

Pleasantville by Attica Locke – It has been some time since I read a work of legal fiction that comes as recommended, even hyped, as Pleasantville. Winner of the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Fiction it has drawn great praise. I try not to read the opinions of a book before I read so I am not affected in reaching my own conclusion but it was impossible not to know Pleasantville is highly regarded. I will not require readers to wait until the end of my review. I consider Pleasantville an excellent book deserving of its recognition.

Jay Porter has been suing the massive corporations of Texas and the southern United States for over 20 years. As the book opens in 1996 he is barely practising law. Since his wife, Bernie, died from a lingering illness a year earlier he has lost the drive that made him a very successful lawyer. He has spent a lot of time since her death brooding about the time he spent away from home trying cases.

Jay, his teenage daughter Ellie, and pre-teen son Ben are trying hard to adjust to life without Bernie. I had a catch in my throat as they dealt with a tree for Christmas.

He has gradually reduced his caseload to a single class action against a giant chemical company. Two explosions at the ProFerma plant caused massive destruction in Pleasantville. While a huge action Jay is going through the motions. The case is barely moving.

Beyond the court action the major news in Pleasantville is the pending election for Houston mayor. Alex Hathorne, son of Pleasantville patriarch Sam “Sunny” Hathorne, is in a run-off  as he seeks to become the first black mayor of Houston.

It is a fiercely contested election with District Attorney, Sandy Wolcott, challenging Hathorne. She is aided by political operative, Reese Parker, who is pioneering the aggressive tactics that put George W. Bush in the White House four years later.
Amidst growing community discontent over the pace of the class action and the election dramas a teenage girl, Alicia Nowell, goes missing in Pleasantville. She is the third teenager to be abducted in a couple of years. The previous two girls have been found murdered.

The investigation into the murder is proceeding slowly when Axel’s campaign chair, his nephew Neal Hathorne, is summoned for questioning. Unwilling to explain where he was when Nowell was taken Neal is charged with murder.

Is the prosecution politically motivated? Is Houston’s elite ready for a black man to lead the city?

A reluctant Jay takes on Neal’s defence. He has not handled criminal law since early in his legal career. He opens the proceeding with a clever application that puts the prosecution on the defensive.

Locke creates an interesting trial but it is not a strong case against Neal. To me, as a lawyer, I was surprised Neal was prosecuted on the evidence described in the book. It is a dilemma facing all writers who write about a trial. Overwhelming evidence and there is no credible defence. Too weak and the result is inevitable. I doubt many readers will notice the strength of the State’s case in Pleasantville except where the issue is noted in the book.

With relatively weak evidence Locke has the case take an unusual, even bizarre twist that was the weakest point of the book. Locke, a television producer and writer including the series Empire, appears to have felt the need to add a jolt of drama that was unneeded. It was the only moment in the book when I felt I was reading a scene from an American television show. Overall, I was impressed with Locke’s skill in writing a legal mystery when she is not a lawyer.

I focused on Jay. The 46 year old is dealing with a profound personal loss while raising two children and maintaining his law practice. I can relate to his situation. It is hard to meet the demands of being a lawyer when your mind is not on your files.

What made the book special was Pleasantville. It is far from the ghetto. I cannot recall reading another book about a prosperous black (the book uses black rather than African American) community. My next post will discuss Pleasantville. The setting is crucial to the plot.

Locke drew me into life in Pleasantville and the lives of its residents.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

George Morton Levy Lawyer

In 1914 George Morton Levy was 26 and recently admitted to the New York bar when Florence Carman insisted that he represent her on her second trial for the alleged murder of Louise “Lulu” Bailey who was killed in an after hours office attendance on Mrs. Carman’s husband, Dr. Edwin Carman. A single shot from a revolver fired through the office window had slain Lulu.
An interesting trial became a sensation when it was learned that a dictograph purchased by Mrs. Carman for her husband and deliberately left on by her was transmitting what was being said in the examining rooms to her bedroom.
A maid, Celia Coleman, claimed Mrs. Carman had run through the house, adjacent to the examining rooms, with a revolver exclaiming she had shot him.
Many thought the bullet was intended for the Doctor.
At trial George attacked the maid’s credibility and gave a stirring summation:
“Gentlemen of the jury,” he said, “let me share with you my greatest fear. You may feel that you cannot decide between myself and my worthy opponent, the district attorney, and so might find that there has not been a major guilt, but only a minor one. Well, let me disabuse you of that notion. Mrs. Bailey has been murdered. Either Mrs. Carman killed her, or she did not. There can be no compromise on that point. You must either free Mrs. Carman,” he said, his voice
Florence Carman
rising as his finger swung to his client, “or you must send her to the electric chair!”
Mrs. Carman was found not guilty and George was on his way to a successful career.
A pictorial portrayal of the trial can be found at:
George had an unusual path to the law in that he had been playing semi-pro football and baseball after high school. He attended New York University Law School at night.
George enjoyed Cuban cigars and poker. In the1920’s he was involved in poker games where as much as $2,000 to $3,000 would be involved.
George gained respect as a man of his word. Owning some land for development he made a verbal deal in 1929 with William Fox, the movie mogul, and two others to work on the development. In New York state a verbal deal is not binding in a land transaction. Before he signed an agreement George had an offer from Edward West Browning to buy the land for a sum that would have made George a $1,000,000 profit. George, honouring the agreement with Fox and the other investors, put the deal to them and, when they voted against it, accepted the decision. When the Great Depression hit the next year the whole development collapsed and George instead of a $250,000 to $1,000,000 profit ended up owing $100,000. He said he was content because he had honoured his word.
In the spring of 1936 George received a call from Moses Polakoff, a lawyer for Lucky Luciano, asking George to lead the defence team in the trial Luciano was facing of a criminal conspiracy to monopolize prostitution in New York City. What made the Thursday evening call dramatic was that the trial was to begin the next Monday. Despite the absurdly short time frame before the trial George accepted the case lured by the opportunity to be a part of one of the most famous cases of the 1930’s.
George provided a solid defence. In one crucial area Luciano rejected his advice. Readers will need to read Tom & Lucky and George and Cokey Flo to find out about Luciano’s choice. After reading the book I doubt Luciano could have been found not guilty had he followed George’s recommendation but it was certainly the wrong decision to reject George's opinion.
In an interesting note the author, Chuck Greaves, explained how he been able in 2004 to obtain access to 15 file cabinets of case files of George including the Luciano file. He used that information in writing the book and has provided on his website (http://chuckgreaves.com/levy-files) copies of several documents related to the defence. They vividly add to the story of the Luciano trial.
To history George is barely known for his skill in the courtroom. He is far better known for his participation in harness racing which he entered in 1939. He was a developer of Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island and the George Morton Levy Memorial Pacing Series is still taking place.
I wish I could have known George. He was an excellent trial lawyer who prepared well and clearly impressed juries with his integrity through how he conducted himself in the courtroom.
 Greaves. C. Joseph - (2016) - Tom and Lucky and George and Cokey Flo