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, February 28, 2017

The Idea of Canada – Letters to a Nation by David Johnston

The Idea of Canada – Letters to a Nation by David Johnston - I recently read The Idea of Canada – Letters to a Nation. The book is composed of letters written by our current Governor General, David Johnston. I decided to write my review in the form of a letter to him that kept getting longer as I thought about the ideas in his letters. I mailed my letter to him a few weeks ago. I will be posting the letter over my next three posts

Governor General
Rideau Hall
1 Sussex Drive
Ottawa Ontario K1A 0A1

Dear David,

I received your book, The Idea of Canada – Letters to a Nation, as a Christmas present from my articling student.

I started reading it on the morning of December 27 and was immediately captivated by your letters to Canadians living and deceased.

I write many letters. All but a small fraction of them are written as a lawyer. Personal written communications (“letters” no longer seems apt) with my sons have come to be electronic (emails, texts and Facebook messages). I have a blog, Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, in which I sometimes write to authors. In my emails to authors I have evolved from asking questions to making observations on their book and including a few questions. I continue that approach with this letter.

I am always interested in the writing process. Usually I write letters in either my work office or home office. From the book I know you write letters most often in the morning. As someone who struggles with morning my personal writing is normally done in the evening. Sometimes there is music around me. More often it is quiet. Do you require quiet around you to write or are you like my sons who concentrate better with noise, preferably music, about them?

Some of your letters have a length and complexity which suggests to me they were planned and researched. How often are your letters spontaneous and how often structured? How do you choose between the impromptu and the planned letter?

Your opening letter to the young Inuit boy who asked “who are you, anyway?” left me thinking about who I have become during my 64 years. I find it straightforward to narrate the facts of my life but much harder to say who I am. I will be reflecting on who I am through this winter.

That you are known by your grandchildren as Grampa Book is a wonderfully evocative phrase of who you are. They will have special memories of you through their lives.

While reading the letter to your Grade 10 English teacher, Ms. Wilkinson, who introduced you “to the power of words” I thought of Marion Sherman, a dietician and city councilor and television broadcaster, who worked hard to create the Wapiti Regional Library which has provided libraries in cities, towns and hamlets in my area of rural Saskatchewan. Regional library systems now cover the whole province. I can still remember going from Galabank, a one room country school, in the winter of 1960 when I was in Grade 2 to Ethelton and entering the basement of the school where the new regional library had opened. I had never seen a room full of books until that moment. On Marion’s retirement I wrote to her thanking her for introducing me to the wide world of reading.

You have a talent for words. I have spent my life, professionally and personally, devoted to words. In the word images you create and the discussion of ideas I was reminded me of the writing of Bart Giametti, another university President who left academe for a different position – Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Would you have known him and did his style of writing influence you?

I was struck by your statement to the question of what makes an effective leader:

I tell these people, as I’m telling you now, the one fundamental element of my leadership equation is a simple one: the best leaders build on the positive and manage the negative.    

Your use of letters to encourage and other means of communication to criticize or correct reminded me of another prolific letter writer, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. He personally typed on his own typewriter thousands of letters containing positive messages.

In your letter saluting John McCrae, the Canadian military physician, who wrote In Flanders Fields during World War I you believed his motivation to write poetry during war included “the desire to create something of lasting value when all about him was being ripped apart”. I thought of Anthem for a Doomed Youth, a book of poems by soldier poets, including McCrae, from the Great War. I know educational opportunities were more limited early in the 20th Century. At the same time those young soldiers were examples of a generation that valued literate imagination. I have not read comparable poems from the soldiers of the 21st Century. Contemporary society will value poetry in the lyrics of music but I fear current Western culture has separated the poet from the soldier.

On your letter to members of the Canadian Armed Forces you recalled speaking at the Vimy Ridge monument in 2012 on the 95th anniversary of that World War I victory for the Canadian Army. My wife, younger son Michael and I were at the site a year earlier.

I found it a profound and powerful experience. The soaring monument, the sweeping walk up the ridge and the current serenity of the site provide a perfect setting of remembrance.

I was too young, when I was growing up, to appreciate that there were men from Meskanaw, my small home community, who had fought in that battle.

Michael had come to understand the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers when he was an exchange student in Germany in 2004 after high school. With a friend he made a day trip from Dusseldorf to see the museum in Arnhem about the failed attempt of British paratroopers to capture the city’s bridge over the Rhine. Before returning they visited an Allied cemetery and came to realize most of the soldiers were their ages of 18 and 19. He had not realized armies are filled with young men.
I wish every Canadian would go to Vimy. My visit made me proud to be a Canadian. As 2017 marks the 100th anniversary there is a special opportunity for Canadians to go to Vimy.

(The second part of my letter will be posted in a couple of days.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cotton by Paul J. Heard

Cotton by Paul J. Heard – Melanie Wilkerson, one of the law clerks in Courting Death, returns 25 years later in Cotton as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. She has recently returned to Georgia after accepting a position in Atlanta. 

The thirst for investigation that led her to investigate the death of a law clerk in Courting Death is undiminished. She is intrigued when contacted by James Murphy, a journalist in Clarkeston, who has found online a photo of the beautiful Diana Cavendish who disappeared 5 years earlier at the same time as Jacob Granville. 

The conservative mores of Clarkeston are evident when Murphy feels compelled to confess to an associate Baptist minister at his local church that he has been looking online at bikini clad women when he found the photo of Cavendish. Even more striking he choses to resign as a deacon of the First Baptist Church of Clarkeston. 

Murphy has never felt comfortable with the original investigation. He was convinced the local establishment, including the police, did not believe Granville would have killed her. He has believed Granville disappeared after killing Cavendish. 

Does the photo mean Cavendish is still alive? It is impossible to know from the website whether the photo was taken before or after she went missing. 

When Wilkerson looks into FBI files on the alleged abduction she sees a direction to anyone with questions about Granville to call a number in Little Rock, Arkansas. When she makes the call she is abruptly dismissed and that phone disconnected. 

Determined to look further she contacts Professor Stanley Hopkins in Los Angeles. The sociologist has been studying the porn industry for several years. While not a tech wizard he starts probing into the murky world of online soft porn. Owners of  such websites prefer to be concealed from the public. 

Back in Clarkeston looks into the prominent defence of Granville at the time of the disappearance by the Episcopal pastor, Ernest Rogers. With Rogers deceased Murphy approaches the new pastor, Thorsten “Thor” V. Carter, who turns out to be interested in his predecessor’s actions. 

It is a difficult investigation that eventually reaches to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland. I wondered how Heald would credibly tie an investigation in Georgia with the WTO in Europe. It turns out to be a very direct connection. The clue is in the title. I acknowledge it took a long time for me to see the connection. 

Cotton is a good solid book. 

Yet I wish Wilkerson had been more a lawyer and less an investigator.  The plot sees her avoiding the use of her position as a U.S. Assistant Attorney. She keeps it a secret from her superiors. I understand the need for secrecy. It would be implausible for her to be able to involve the other characters in an investigation if it was being conducted by the Department of Justice. At the same time I think plots with lawyers works better, as John Grisham does brilliantly, if the lawyers conduct their investigations as lawyers rather than private investigators. 

A minor irritation is that everyone is either handsome or beautiful depending on their gender. While I acknowledged a bias in my review of Courting Death with regard to beauty pageant winners as lawyers I can assure readers most lawyers are neither conspicuously handsome nor strikingly beautiful. 

The conclusion teased me. I was ready to be impressed by an ending that did not have the perfect resolution where there is justice for all. It is rare in the real world and rarer in crime fiction. Cotton proved to have a conventional finish. 

I think Heald is developing as an author. Cotton not Courting Death was actually the second book published in his Clarkeston Chronicles series. I liked Courting Death better because it was more of a legal mystery. I hope Heald can proceed with future mysteries that focus on the law. I consider his writing about lawyers and legal issues to be his strength. (Feb. 25/17)

Friday, February 24, 2017

Capturing the Kommandant of Auschwitz

Hanns and Rudolf
In my last post I started a review of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding by discussing the lives of Hanns Alexander and Rudolf Hoess through WW II. 

As the was drew to an end it was remarkable the lack of foresight by both the Allied and Germans with regard to what would happen to those Germans who had administered or worked at the concentration camps.

Hoess appeared to believe until into 1945 that somehow Germany would win the war. Only in late April of that year did Hoess and some senior SS concentration camp administrators leave the Berlin area. In a hastily arranged convoy they moved northwest to Denmark.

Contrary to my expectations there were no careful plans and money for escape from Germany. A week before the war ended Himmler said it was every man for himself. Now there were "ratlines" going north and south for Nazis escaping Germany but they appeared limited.

Beyond being given a false identity Hoess had little assistance. He found work on a farm near the Danish border. Eventually he hoped to go to Sweden and then South America on the northern “ratline”.

On the Allied side the British had less than 40 men assigned to investigate and hunt war criminals. Harding points in contrast to the major effort made by the Allies to find German scientists and take them West. The minimal effort at finding any but the most notorious war criminals was comparable to the limited effort dealing with the looted art works of Europe outlined in The Monuments Men.

Thus it was that Alexander, who was not trained as an investigator, was assigned as a translator to the war crimes investigation unit. Once a member of that team and exposed to the horrors of the Belsen concentration camp going after war criminals became a personal vendetta. Alexander's intensity and success was recognized. He was authorized to pursue Hoss.

As with most investigations he was successful because of his diligence at following up leads and being undeterred by dead ends. It was not brilliant deduction but attention to detail and determination.

In the end he extracted from Hedweg, the wife of Hoess, through a threat to deport their oldest son to Siberia, the location of Hoess.

I was struck by how each man, neither holding high position in the military nor involved in politics, had such an impact on the war and the prosecution of war crimes. Both were very resolute and well organized.

Hoss used his skills to become a mass murderer. The Final Solution would have proceeded without him but Hoess worked hard to make the process efficient. He was even called back to Auschwitz in 1944 to ensure the killing of 400,000 Hungarian Jews went smoothly.

Alexander, by capturing Hoess, provided the witness at the Nuremberg trials who personally confirmed the mass murder of Jews in concentration camps by the Nazis. It is clear that if he had not pursued Hoss there was no other active search and Hoess would probably have left Germany during 1946.

Both men received little public recognition for their work. Neither sought attention. Hoess was promoted to Major but there were no awards for being an effective concentration camp commandant. Alexander received no honours for capturing Hoess.

It was not until the author, a grand-nephew of Alexander, was at Alexander’s funeral over 50 years after the war that he learned of Alexander hunting down Hoess. Inspired to learn more he researched the lives of both men and how they intersected in 1946.

Each man was an example of the power of one in our world.

Hanns and Rudolf is not a great book but it is a good book. The hunt for Hoess was not a cliffhanger story. Harding does not over emphasize the irony of the capture of the Kommandant of Auschwitz by a German Jewish refugee. There was a compelling conclusion. Harding accompanied one of Hoess's grandsons and the young man's mother to Auschwitz.

I cannot say I enjoyed the book about the Holocaust but I am glad I read Hanns and Rudolf.
 Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding

Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding – I hesitated to purchase this real life hunt taking place just after WW II. My uncertainty came from the certain knowledge that I would read again graphic details of the implementation of the Holocaust at its most famous concentration camp. Each time I read about the Holocaust a mixture of anger, sadness and frustration leave me depressed. I decided to read the book as I find individual life stories help me to understand larger issues and events.

My review in this post and my next post contains spoilers. While I respect the author I do not care there are spoilers.

Lieutenant Hanns Alexander is a German Jew who had fled Nazi Germany before WW II and is a member of the British Army. He is after Rudolph Hoess who was the Commandant of Auschwitz.

Fair or not the focus of the book was bound to be Hoess. There would be little interest in the hunt for a mid-level SS officer if he had not commanded a concentration camp.

Born in 1901 Hoess joined the German Army at 14 in WW I and served in the cavalry stationed in the Middle East. His small unit never surrendered but led by Hoess rode and fought its way back to Germany.

He served in the right wing Freikorps after the war. While not overtly political he was impressed by Hitler and joined the party in 1922. He met and liked Heinrich Himmler. They bonded over a joint love of farming.

Hoess found employment on a farm estate in northern Germany and did well as he was good at management and organization.

In the early 1930’s he made a pair of fateful decisions. He joined the SS so he could manage a horse stable for the SS. Once he was a member of the SS Himmler asked him to work in concentration camp administration. Hoss agreed mainly because he thought promotions and increased income would let him buy a farm.

He carried out orders including summarily executing a fellow officer who let a Jew escape. Hoess explained his attitude about working in concentration camps after that execution :

I did adjust to all those aspects of concentration camp life that could not be changed, but my feelings were never dulled to human wretchedness. I always saw and felt it. However, I had to get over that if I was not to appear soft. I wanted to be thought a hard man in order to avoid being considered weak.

Harding says:

Rudolf had demonstrated to his superiors that he was capable of implementing their harshest orders. He as a most trustworthy officer of the SS. He had become a hardened instrument of blind loyalty.

Hoess was chosen to build and run Auschwitz. Determined to do his best he built and managed the camp with efficiency. Hoess was challenged by how to kill huge numbers of prisoners. When he helped devise the method of killing hundreds at a time in gas chambers, the means by which mass murder could be done, he wrote:

          Now my mind was at ease.

He accepted, even believed, the Nazi doctrine that all Jews must be exterminated. He was not remote from the killing. He regularly witnessed the selection of Jews for gas chamber and their execution and the disposal of their bodies.

When his day’s work was done he would spend time with his wife, Hedweg, and their children in their comfortable home on the edge of the camp.

His conversion from simple farmer to mass murderer was voluntary. I find his story deeply disturbing.

Alexander, born in 1917, grew up in a prosperous Berlin family. His father, a doctor, owned a very successful medical clinic. They lived in a spacious apartment with 22 rooms. They were assimilated calling themselves “3 days a year Jews” for the number of times annually they went to a synagogue. Life was good for the Alexander family.

When the Nazis took over Alexander’s mother, Henny, more realistic than her husband, Albert, wanted to leave Germany. Albert, a decorated WW I veteran, thought life could be endured under the Nazis. By 1936 he understood life would only get worse and the family managed to get to Britain. The Alexander family were among 70,000 Jews from Nazi controlled countries who managed to get into England between 1933 and 1939.

Alexander was a low level banker in London when the war started. Together with his twin brother, Paul, he enlisted immediately. The British military, wary of even German Jews who had fled Germany, placed them in the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. After three years they were trained as officers and joined the British Army in France in the summer of 1944.

Late in the war the British formed three small investigative teams to conduct war crimes investigation. There is no specific explanation for Alexander being chosen for one of the teams.

His relatively casual and carefree attitude changed when he arrived at the Belsen concentration camp and helped carry hundreds of bodies of prisoners to mass graves. He now hated the Nazis and became determined to hunt down Nazis involved with the concentration camps.

Rudolph Hoess who ran the camp that killed over a million Jews became his focus but not an obsession.

(My next post finishes my review of Hanns and Rudolf.)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Exchanging Emails on the Plot of Courting Death

Earlier this week I put up a pair of posts on Courting Death  by Paul J. Heald. After reading the book I wrote the author an email abou the plot. Paul kindly and candidly replied. Our exchange is below.

Thank you for sending me copies of Courting Death and Cotton. I followed your recommendation of starting with Courting Death because it is the first in time though the second to be published. I will start reading Cotton after finishing this letter.

I have posted my first post on Courting Death. My next post will be about your trio of clerks in the book.

In this letter I raise some thoughts about plot lines and pose a couple of questions. I am planning to make this letter a third post in a few days. If you are able to respond and are willing I would include your reply in that third post. 

I thought the best plot line of Courting Death involved the challenges of the clerks  dealing with varied legal issues, especially the habeas cases from prisoners facing execution.  

I found the interplay of factual, legal and emotional issues fascinating. You took the reader into the courthouse library where clerks wrestle with these cases. 

As set out in my review post I enjoyed the portrayal of the personal lives of the clerks. 

What I did not find worked well was the plot line involving the investigation by the clerk, Melanie Wilkerson, into the death of a former clerk in the courthouse. 

I would be interested in knowing why you put what I would consider a regular murder case into a book focused on the lives of clerks in a Court of Appeal. While Melanie’s investigation was well told I found that plot line somewhat distracting. 

I thought of The Chamber by John Grisham as I read Courting Death. I felt The Chamber was made more powerful by concentrating on the efforts of the young lawyer, Adam Hall, to save the condemned Sam Cayhall. It was vivid and personal with Cayhall being the grandfather of Hall.  

As Grisham did in The Chamber you brought out in Courting Death moral and emotional issues for lawyers participating in these intense cases. 

I would have preferred to have Melanie's murder investigation be a book of its own and Courting Death staying with the appellate cases worked on by the clerks. 

More specifically, in place of Melanie's murder case, I thought you could have added more death cases to those raised in the book or introduced one or two death cases to be dealt with by Melanie. Her drive to investigate could have been effectively used in exploring the facts of a death case. 

While I doubt the issue would be noticed by non-lawyers reading the book there were no appellate hearings where lawyers presented oral arguments. The absence of hearings left the impression that appellate cases are solely decided from court records and legal research. 

Having argued appeals for several decades I wished you would have had some hearings in the book where oral arguments were presented to the Judge or a panel on which the judge was sitting to hear appeals. It may be hubris but I have always felt that oral advocacy is important in the appellate process. 

I would have been interested in the thoughts of the clerks as they listened to oral arguments and whether they were swayed by the oral advocacy of appellate litigators in how they saw the evidence and the law.

A little online research showed you were a clerk for Justice Frank M. Johnston Jr. of the Eleventh Circuit of the Federal Court of Appeal for the same year, 1988 - 1989, the clerks were working for the Judge in Courting Death. I expect you heard many oral arguments during that year. I have wondered if not including oral arguments in Courting Death reflected their effectiveness in your clerk experience.

Beyond the reaction of the clerks I would have been even more intrigued in how the Judge would have interacted with the lawyers arguing appeals and what impact oral arguments had upon him.

In The Vicar of Christ by Walter Murphy there is a section of the book where a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, the patrician Walker Bradley III, discusses the life and legacy of Declan Walsh as the Chief Justice. He discusses, sometimes with notable asperity, the oral arguments to the Court.

Did you consider having appeal hearings with oral arguments as part of the book?

It is a rare for me to raise plotting with an author but Courting Death has had me thinking more than most mystery fiction. I am not seeking to be provocative with this letter and look forward to your thoughts.


Bill Selnes
Hi Bill, what great questions!  First, let me say that your impression of the murder sub-plot is very perceptive.  Although most readers really like Melanie's investigation, it was, in fact, grafted on to an earlier version of the book that contained no such diversion (and contained extra death cases, as you suggest). The problem was that I could not find a publisher for a book that wasn't genre driven.  So, I added the plot and suddenly publishers knew where the book would go on the shelves of Barnes and Nobles and the rest is history.  Sigh.  One redeeming benefit of the plot was the excuse to feature Melanie as an attorney/sleuth in future books, like Cotton, and the upcoming Raggedyland.
As far as oral arguments go, the death cases that I worked on never went to oral argument.  The track was so fast once the death warrant was signed, everything was done on a paper record.  The Gottlieb case is a close tracking of my working on Ted Bundy's final appeal.  Some first-round habeas cases did go oral argument, e.g. the case Phil gets at the end of the book, and maybe I should have let him (and the reader) have that experience.  Yeah . . . good idea, Bill!  And thank you for the very kind and thought read and review.  I hope you find time for Cotton.  It's rather different in tone . . . Cheers, Paul
Heald,, Paul J. - (2017) - Courting Death and Pageant Girls are Law Students

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Bill and The Vinyl Cafe

A great storyteller, Stuart McLean, died today. For over 20 years I loved listening to his stories on The Vinyl Café, his show on CBC radio. After learning he was suspending the show in December I decided to write a letter of appreciation. As I wrote the letter it turned into a story in Stuart's style of storytelling. I mailed it to him a few weeks ago. The story, meant to be read aloud, is:


It was a cold December morning in Melfort. The kind of day you know it’s cold by the crunch of the snow under your feet. Having lived in Saskatchewan all his life Bill knew it was at least -25, maybe even -30, but probably not more. The chill on his face wasn’t that cruel -40 cold demanding he cover up with a scarf. It was an average winter day.

Bill started walking down the street to his office. It’s a nice walk. The street is lined with elms. In the summer they form a green arch. Now the branches are bare and spare and etched against the sky.

In winter it’s a walk made for thinking. During summer all the shades of green and birds and activity keep him busy just watching what’s around. In winter there are no distractions. He might meet someone walking their dog but it does not happen often. Bill enjoys the chance to think.

And what Bill was thinking about was the Vinyl Café and Stuart McLean. His older son, Jonathan, had just told him that Stuart had announced the Vinyl Café was no longer going to be on the radio. That Stuart was not writing new Dave and Morley stories. That the show was ending and Bill was sad.

He knew Stuart had suspended his Christmas tour a year ago because of a diagnosis of cancer. He had hoped that Stuart’s treatment would be successful and there would be new shows from towns and cities across Canada. Now it seemed worse. Jonathan said Stuart was undergoing further treatment and was optimistic but he was canceling the show and writing about letting other creative people have the chance to fill the time on CBC occupied by the Vinyl Café.

Bill was sad because he did not want the Vinyl Café to end. It had been part of his life for years, even decades. What would Sunday at noon after church and brunch be like without the Vinyl Café?

We all have our rituals. Stuart talked of rituals in his stories. The show had its own rituals. Now Bill realized the Vinyl Café was one of his rituals. It had become woven into his life.

The Vinyl Café was not a huge deal for Bill. If he missed a Sunday episode he did not fret. Bill knew he could hear it another day or on a podcast. Still it was very much a part of his life.

And then Bill arrived at his office. Walking a few blocks does not take long when you are thinking.

It was time for Bill to focus on legal matters and the issues of his clients. There was no time to think of Stuart and the Vinyl Café for the rest of the morning.

It was a Tuesday and Bill did not go home for lunch on Tuesdays. He went to Rotary at the Salvation Army building. Both Bill and his wife, Sharon, are Rotarians and most of the weekly meetings are at the back of the Salvation Army Church. Tables are set up. Janet cooks them a good meal in the adjoining kitchen and serves it through the large cutout in the wall.

Bill thought about how Dave in Stuart’s stories often goes for lunch at Wong’s Scottish Meat Pies where his friend, Kenny Wong, provides him with good meals.

Dave loves Kenny’s rice pudding. Bill loves Janet’s lasagna, especially on a cold winter day. It is hearty and rich and thick. Some Caesar salad and warm bread sticks and what could be better.

At lunch Bill sees Gail Marie, Brian and Dale from the Museum. He knows they love the Vinyl Café. They even listen to the show while they are working at the Museum. A year ago at the annual Museum Christmas Supper they had another Museum guy, Gary, read the story of “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.

They are sad too. The Vinyl Café has become a part of life at the Museum. Just like there is a gap in Bill’s life there is now a gap at the Museum. They hope Stuart will get well and maybe the Vinyl Café can come back. Yet Bill and those from the Museum know that is unlikely. Who stops a show if it is coming back?

Bill returns to work feeling the same emotions as those from the Museum. It is a busy afternoon with call after call and documents and letters demanding his attention. It is not until he is walking home that Bill has time to think about the Vinyl Café again.

Bill cannot recall how many times he has listened to “Dave Cooks the Turkey”. It does not matter. He has enjoyed it every time. Dave’s self-inflicted struggles with the family Christmas turkey bring a smile to his face as he walks down the street.

His thoughts of that story turn to Stuart’s recounting of protests the show received that somehow the story was making light of animal mistreatment. There had been anguish in Stuart’s voice as he talked about analyzing the story. As he listened Bill thought the protests were overblown and misguided. He was glad when Stuart decided not to change the story. He did think Stuart was being overly analytical but Bill, on further thought, realized that such extended reflection is Stuart and that Stuart had to make a careful and thoughtful decision about an issue raised by his listeners.

And then Bill arrived at home for supper. That evening it was curling and Bill joined fellow Rotarians Mike and Wayne and Don at the rink. His thoughts were concentrated on out turns and in turns and missed turns and sometimes even a great shot. The Rotarian curlers want to win but they could not tell you how many games they have won and lost this winter or any other winter they have curled together.

The next morning was even colder and Bill bundled up in his heavy winter parka and his padded red Russian cap and his Hudson Bay scarf and headed for the office.

This morning was one of those perfectly still winter mornings when every sound is magnified in the cold.

Crunching along Bill reflected that he had thought about going to one of the live shows when the Vinyl Café was in Saskatchewan but had never made it. For several years it always seemed there was another event that had a greater priority.
More recently Bill had wondered if going to a live show would affect how he liked the shows on the radio.

Bill had come to have his own images of Stuart telling his stories. The Vinyl Café was part of his imagination. He had barely even seen a photo of Stuart at a show. Would his pleasure have been diminished if he actually saw Stuart? Was it best to have his memories of the Vinyl Café just from the radio? Was part of the magic in just listening?

Listening to Stuart was a quiet pleasure. Bill and Sharon would often just sit and listen to the show on Sunday.

His thoughts drift back to summer when he would take his IPhone with him outside as he does yard work and listen to the show on podcasts. Working outside on a warm day he found the Vinyl Café a good summer companion.

By now Bill is at the office and it is time to unbundle and deal with office matters.

At noon Bill walks home for lunch. One of the reasons he appreciates Melfort is being so close to work.

As Bill walked he thought about how the Vinyl Café has accompanied him while driving in the family van. For the past 25 years Bill has been driving a van; almost the same amount of time the Vinyl Café has been on CBC radio. It feels right to him to listen to the Vinyl Café in a van.

Every summer and fall Bill and Sharon drive to Regina for Roughrider games. When it is a Sunday afternoon game listening to an episode of the Vinyl Café makes one of the three hours to Regina quickly roll by.

Other Sundays in years past Sharon and Bill would have been driving one or both of their sons to baseball or for snowboarding or some other activity and everyone would listen to the show. The Vinyl Café was a family pleasure as well as a personal joy.

Most recently Bill and Sharon have been listening to podcasts on the van’s media system. It took Bill awhile to figure out how to download the podcasts onto his IPhone and the right buttons to push to get to Auxiliary on the media screen of the van and how to use the Bluetooth settings of phone and media system but he succeeded. Now they sometimes listen to a couple of shows at a time and if they are on the long eight hour drive to Calgary to see their sons they may listen to three shows.

After lunch Bill puts his IPhone in his pocket and a head set over his big red cap stretching the headset to its maximum width to get it on. As he walks back to the office, he listens to a podcast of the story of Dave desperately convincing a store in Cape Breton to open on Boxing Day as he is flying off to meet Morley and needs a Christmas present. Dave buys a pair of suede gloves for Morley for his first Christmas present to her. Years later, Sam is 12, Dave and Sam are outside that store and Dave tells Sam the story. Without telling his Dad Sam takes a photo of Dave from the back looking into that store window. That Christmas Sam gives a copy of the photo to his mother. After receiving the photo Morley goes upstairs and returns with gloves. They are worn and torn but still full of love.

At the end of the afternoon with the sun setting behind him Bill walks home thinking about why he likes Stuart McLean and the Vinyl Cafe.

Bill does not like the stories because they are life changing. He realizes what he likes best is that they are stories about people like him. He can see Dave and Morley living down his street.

The stories about Dave and Morley have made him laugh and made him cry, sometimes in the same story. Their lives are not perfect. In particular, Dave is continually bound for the disasters that come from good intentions. Yet he does his best. He cares about people. He loves Morley.
Dave and Morley’s children, Stephanie and Sam, are good kids. They work and play and study and once in awhile they engage in mischief. Bill laughed out loud when he listened to the story where Sam and his friend Murphy built a water slide from the second story of their house and their 90 year old neighbor, Eugene, in his speedos and googles, after carefully removing and handing his false teeth to four year old Fatima, goes careening down the slide and into the fence.

Bill could never see the stories of The Vinyl Cafe being made into television episodes. They lack sex and violence. They are not filled with action. They are not edgy. They are neither stories of the famous nor tales of the marginalized. There is no profound angst over the state of the world.

Not every story Bill enjoys and listens to has to be about people like him. He thinks back to another CBC radio show about a Café. He enjoyed the stories of Indian people in the Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour with Thomas King, Jasper Friendly Bear and Gracie Heavy Hand. The Dead Dog Café stories were like the Vinyl Café stories in that they had the feel of real life experiences. The Dead Dog Café stories captured the teasing, sometimes sarcastic, often pointed humour of indigenous Canadians. The show’s sign-off has stayed with Bill:

 “Stay calm! Be Brave! Wait for the signs!”

Turning his mind back to the Vinyl Café Bill thinks it was nice to listen to stories about people he can identify with who are dealing with life. Stories about people he can care about and root for. Stories about Canadians in the city and Canadians in the country.

Bill still hopes the Vinyl Café is not gone but just on a hiatus. If he is wrong he is glad to have had the chance to listen to the Vinyl Café. He knows the shows already broadcast will continue to be heard on podcasts and be read in books. More important to Bill The Vinyl Café will live on in his memory. Stuart and Dave and Morley will always be part of his life.

Bill reaches home, opens the back door and calls to Sharon “what are we doing for supper?”

Monday, February 13, 2017

Pageant Girls are Law Students

Siera Bearchell
In my previous post, a review of Courting Death by Paul J. Heald, I had some discussions about the three law clerks at the heart of the book. I think the greatest strength of the book was the trio of law clerks – Arthur Hughes, Phil Jenkins and Melanie Wilkerson.

I have found the appeal of John Grisham’s books to be rooted in the fascinating lawyers he creates book after book. To have an effective legal mystery you need interesting lawyers. Heald succeeded with his clerks.

Having Arthur and Phil, at their first meeting, relate their personal backgrounds to each other in 15 words or less was clever:

Arthur – “Iowa farm, boring corn, ecology degree, Chicago law, environmental division of the Justice Department.”

Phil – “San Fran suburbs, single mom, divinity school, Stanford law, ACLU Cal office”.

Melanie is concisely introduced in the book through a description by the Judge‘s secretary, Ms. Stillwater: 

“This is Melanie Wilkerson,” the proud secretary announced, “the only runner-up Miss Georgia to finish in the top ten percent of her law school class at Harvard.”

I found their diverse backgrounds plausible. In 45 years of experience with law school and the legal profession there is no standard route to becoming a lawyer. We come from all sorts of places and academic backgrounds. It really does not matter what you took in university before law school.

At the same time we all have prejudices. A month ago I would have thought that Melanie’s background as a beauty pageant contestant implausible for a law student. Watching Reese Witherspon, a pre-law fashion merchandising major, in the movie, Legally Blonde, where she is a successful law student at Harvard had not changed my mind.

What made me recognize my prejudice was learning from my articling student that a third year law student at the University of Saskatchewan, Siera Bearchell, had, as Miss Canada, just finished 9th in this year's Miss Universe Pageant.

On the Miss Universe Canada website she spoke about the stigma of being in pageants:

I will briefly touch on pageants in general and the stigma often attached to pageant girls. I often attribute much of what I have accomplished to my experience in pageantry. Pageants give young women a platform to stand upon to speak on issues important to them and to make a difference in themselves and in their community. Pageants allow young women to gain speaking, communication and networking skills. Participating in a pageant is not just about winning a sash and title. The people we meet, the connections we gain and the experiences we are able to be a part of can be truly life changing.

Criticized for gaining weight after being chosen Ms. Canada she has eloquently spoken out against body shaming.

In the book Melanie shows how the commitment, determination and discipline required in pageants serves her well as a law clerk.

I will never think again a “pageant girl” is unlikely in any occupation.

Having two sons who are young lawyers and a series of articling student I found Heald was convincing in his presentation of the clerks. Arthur, Phil and Melanie have the earnestness of young lawyers striving for perfection in their work. Each works hard.

Heald showed how young lawyers find it interesting to apply their legal training to real life cases. How they are now helping to provide the answers to legal issues that will guide lawyers and judges in the future.

The law is no longer abstract when you deal with people’s problems. In death cases at the Court of Appeal it is with the most fundamental of questions – life or death for the appellant.

Heald vividly sets out the tension when a law clerk reviews a file and researches the law and then makes a recommendation to the Judge on a life and death decision.

To become clerks, no matter their opinion on the death penalty, they effectively had to state in their interviews for the position that if their conclusion, after reviewing the facts and law, was that there was no legal basis to stay execution they would recommend in their memo of the case that there not be a stay of execution.

When Heald was a clerk he worked on death cases. In my next post he touches on his involvement in the case of one of America’s most famous serial killers and how his experience was used in Courting Death.

I doubt I could have been a law clerk in America because I do not believe in the death penalty. I have always been grateful as a lawyer that Canada has not had the death penalty for over 50 years.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Courting Death by Paul J. Heald

Courting Death by Paul J. Heald – An intriguing work of legal fiction set during 1988 - 1989 in the small college town of Clarkeston, Georgia.  

Arthur Hughes comes from the American Midwest to clerk for a year with the most famous Federal Court of Appeal Judge in America. Joining him for the year as clerks are Phil Jenkins and Melanie Wilkerson. I consider the three young lawyers the greatest strength of the book and will discuss them in another post.

Heald does well in portraying the busy life of young lawyers as clerks. They deal with a variety of cases. There are business, tax, environmental, civil rights and criminal cases. Each clerk is constantly reviewing pending cases and researching the law so they can prepare bench memos for their Judge on how he should vote to decide the cases.

It is an austere intellectual work life. They spend their days and some evenings reading and thinking and writing. At the appellate level there are no trials. There are hearings with oral arguments by lawyers. Most of the time the clerks are dealing with trial transcripts and other written records from lower courts. 

The greatest tension and public attention involves the habeas applications of death row inmates seeking stays of execution. By the time the applications reach the Federal appellate level execution dates are often but days ahead. 

With the Eleventh Circuit encompassing Georgia, Alabama and Florida there is a steady flow of habeas cases. 

Arthur is assigned the habeas case of a notorious serial killer, Karl Gottlieb, who had won a previous application that his trial was flawed because there should have been a psychiatric examination of the “disturbed” Gottlieb. Rather than hold a new trial the state of Georgia had a psychologist review the trial transcripts. The psychologist never actually interviewed Gottlieb. It was no surprise the psychologist found Gottlieb competent to stand trial. Arthur must evaluate whether that post-trial examination and report satisfied the previous order of the Court.

Arthur works his way through the legal issues but has a harder time with the emotional issues of working on a death case. Everyone in the judicial system has a level of responsibility in whether the applicant lives or dies. As with Gottlieb almost all of the cases involve applicants who have clearly committed murder.

While Arthur delves into the Gottlieb case Melanie becomes obsessed with the mysterious death of a female law clerk, Carolyn Bastaigne, five years earlier. Bastaigne had fallen down a flight of marble stairs. Melanie proves to be a tenacious investigator. 

While the clerks work I appreciated that Heald gave them genuine personal lives outside the courthouse. 

Arriving without having arranged a residence Arthur receives a recommendation from the Judge’s secretary, Ms. Stillwater, to see Suzanne, a young widow in need of a boarder in her large southern home. Arthur is attracted by the home, the lovely Suzanne and her captivating 4 year old daughter, Maria. He takes a room and is soon involved in relationships with Suzanne and Maria. 

It is no surprise that romance blooms between the handsome young lawyer and the slightly older beautiful Suzanne. What was striking is that Arthur and Maria, from their first meeting, are friends. Too few mysteries involve families. Arthur and Maria play together, talk and enjoy each other’s company.  

As a clerk’s position is for but a year there looms over the relationships what will happen with Arthur when the year is done. Job opportunities in Washington, D.C. beckon. 

Arthur joins the local college choir. I was reminded of my younger son, Michael, who enjoyed being in the University of Calgary choir both as an undergrad and as a law student. I realized why Heald wrote so well of choirs when I read that he is a singer and his wife is a choir director. 

While I did have a few issues with Courting Death and they will be raised in yet a third post on the book I enjoyed the book. I hope it was submitted for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. It is a worthy contender. Heald's skill in explaining legal issues reminds of a Harper Lee Prize winner, Paul Goldstein, who is also a professor of law.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Chaos by Patricia Cornwell

Chaos by Patricia Cornwell – I have not read a Kay Scarpetta mystery since 2004. An offer from the publisher of a review copy of Chaos, the 24th book in the series, brought me back to reading about Dr. Scarpetta.

On an unseasonably hot and steamy September Boston evening Scarpetta slowly makes her way to the Harvard Faculty Club.

Along the way investigator Pete Marino abruptly stops her. He relates an unusual 911 call which alleges Scarpetta has harassed Bryce, her Chief of Staff at the Cambridge Forensic Lab.

Eventually Scarpetta and husband, Benton Wesley, meet and settle in for supper at the Club. She needs some relaxation as her sister, Dorothy, is flying in from Miami that evening and every visit is fraught with drama. Before they even get a chance to enjoy some wine each gets a phone call. They hustle to separate quiet spots in the Club.

Scarpetta is advised a woman’s body has been found a short distance from the club:

The woman’s body is on the fitness path along the river. Some of her clothing has been ripped off, her helmet more than twenty feet away, and there’s visible blood.

Clearly dead but a short time Scarpetta is skeptical of the information from the responding investigator that the body was stiff. It is too soon for rigor mortis.

On their way to the crime scene Marino tells her about a bizarre call he received from Interpol about a “developing situation in the park” just before being called by the investigator about the dead body.

The plot proceeds at a measured pace. After they arrive at the park a hundred pages go by before Scarpetta commences her examination of the body and forensic review of the death site. During those pages a few are spent on a walk around the body but most are back story.

She is delayed in examining the body because of the time taken to erect a 40’ x 30’ tent like structure to conceal the site from intrusive eyes and avoid contamination. The former reason appears to have little to do with science and actually prevents an immediate examination.

The book comes alive for me just over 200 pages in as Scarpetta enters a strange crime scene. The reason for death appears to be electrocution but the cause is elusive.

As she ends her careful and precise examination Wesley advises her that her mentor, Dr. Briggs, has died in mysterious circumstances in the perpetual pool at his home.

When I read early books in the series I was continually intrigued and surprised by Cornwell’s ability to come up with crimes requiring the latest in forensic scientific advances for detection and solution.

I was astonished in Chaos by a new method of murder involving electricity. I had not an inkling of how the murder was committed.  Much as I would like to discuss the murder to say more would spoil a brilliantly conceived method of murder.

If only the plot was not so burdened with all the personal stories that Cornwell is carrying forward from book to book.

I enjoy mysteries that delve into characters and like series that develop their lives. At the same time I appreciate authors who balance the personal lives and the mystery. I found Chaos heavy on the minutiae of the lives of the primary characters.

The ongoing battle with villain, Carrie Grethen, provides Scarpetta with a worthy adversary but the almost omnipotent evil stretches my credibility.

I accept that Scarpetta is heavily focused on herself. The whole series has reflected her self-absorption. I still find her interesting but the past has become cumbersome in Chaos. A good book could have been a great book with about a hundred pages of editing of the personal life plot lines.

I would be interested in reading the next in the series in the expectation there will be an interesting forensic investigation. Cornwell is exceptional in writing about science and murder. Hopefully an editor can help limit the personal plot lines.