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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.

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


  1. What an interesting discussion, Bill. Thanks to both of you for sharing those insights. And I find it fascinating to look at the novel from an attorney's point of view. And I know all about having to fit a book into a genre category. I appreciate both of your insights.

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I enjoy when a blogger reviewing or writing about a book draws upon their personal and professional backgrounds.

  3. That was very interesting! You must have felt vindicated in your thoughts...

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. Maybe lawyers do think alike.