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.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Shopping Perfection

Through several years of reading the Clothes in Books blog of my friend, Moira Redmond, I have become aware of descriptions of clothes in books. Janice MacDonald in her series featuring Miranda “Randy” Craig, a session lecturer in English at universities in Edmonton, is very conscious of what Randy and others are wearing.

Randy, having a modest budget for clothing, admires fine clothing but must normally purchase in moderately priced stores. Most often she is focused on the sales racks.

In MacDonald’s book Hang Down Your Head, published in 2011, one of the major characters, Barbara Finster, owns three high end women’s clothing stores, boutiques seems more appropriate considering the pricing, in Edmonton and Calgary. They are modestly called the Barbara Shoppes.

As set out in my review of the book Barbara and her brother, David, have abundant attitude as they protest a huge bequest from their mother’s estate to the University of Alberta for its Folkways collection.

Insatiably curious Randy easily draws her best friend, Denise into visiting two of the stores to see what Barbara and her Shoppes are all about.

We all have our vulnerabilities. On the drive Randy frets about whether she is dressed to enter a Barbara Shoppe. Denise does little to quell the unease:

Denise raked a clinical eye over my ensemble, which consisted of red jeans, red Birkenstock rubber clogs, and a white and red striped T-shirt …. She nodded, and said that I looked as if I’d been hauled away from my prize-winning perennial garden and had a sort of Katherine Hepburn disregard for fashion.

After Denise’s mixed blessing Randy hesitates to cross the shop threshold. Denise provides tactical advice:

“Ready, Randy? Just remember, these women can smell fear. Just try to look bored and we’ll be just fine.”

As a guy I have few, if any, qualms about whether I am properly dressed for shopping and how I will be perceived in a men’s wear store but I have been married long enough to appreciate those matters are real issues for women.

Once in the store Denise recommends trying on some clothes. They will have some “entertainment shopping”. Randy doubts she is petite enough for the Barbara Shoppe. Denise advises her not to worry for “a place like this has to have sizes for the dowagers who are rich enough to not have to worry about tennis lessons”.

She soon learns another lesson on sizing for the well-to-do woman. Normally she wears a size 12 or 14 but at the Barbara Shoppe she is a size 9.

Denise, at home in any women’s clothing store, tries on an outfit that leaves the sales representative, Pia, purring:

Denise’s suit was wheat coloured, with black and gold piping around the edges of a boxy jacket and the pocket flaps. Black and gold military buttons marched down the front. Pia pulled a black suede headband from behind her back and offered it to Denise. She was right. It was perfect, pulling back Denise’s blond hair and declaring it part of the ensemble.

Pia has a recommendation for Randy:

Pia reappeared at that moment and flourished a sailor top in front of her. It was made of a thick, cream-coloured polished cotton, and navy piping was worked into two lines around the squared-off sailor collar. My mouth must have hung open because Pia beamed with a look of self-congratulation. She had my number good.

(I have done my best to find a suitable image of the fictional middy. The above photo was the best I could see online. I welcome any reader with a better image to send me the link.)

Trying it on Randy dreams:

It was perfect. It hung just to the right length to make my hips seem controllable, and felt like silk against my skin. The long sleeves ended in cuffs that looked tailored, but somehow hid an elastic making them easy to slide into. With my hair drawn back into a braid, I looked like a young Victorian girl ready to recite “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck” for my mother’s tea party, or to be Anne Shirley’s bosom friend, Diana. I loved it. I turned to the door, and opened it. Denise and Pia were standing there, waiting, and both of them clapped spontaneously at the sight of me.

But shopping love must be priced. While reduced from $150 to $93 it remains too expensive for Randy. She leaves the store depressed. I found myself wishing her boyfriend, Steve, had been there. He would never have let her exit the store without the middy.

Denise, following a shopping principle often pressed upon me personally by Sharon, suggests they go to the other Barbara Shoppe in Edmonton to see if the middy is there at a “deeper discount”.

In the second Shoppe despair turns to joy. The middy is there in her size and marked down further because a replacement brass button has rendered it less than perfect – “[T]he rope on the anchor leads off to the left instead of the right, and it’s not top drawer brass” - though no one but an obsessive shopper would discern the flaw. For $49 Randy buys the middy.

Fewer mysteries than I would expect make clothing stores and the experience of women shopping for clothes a part of the plot.The social implications for women of budget versus luxe shopping have a dynamic of tension. Most likely I am reading the wrong mysteries for shopping scenes.

I thought MacDonald beautifully explored the pleasures and frustrations of women shopping for clothes while showing how Randy, a highly educated and confident woman, is beset with insecurities in a Barbara Shoppe. 

I rarely make a specific recommendation but this is a book for you, Moira.
MacDonald, Janice - (2015) - Another Margaret and Q & A; (2017) - Hang Down Your Head

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Hang Down Your Head by Janice MacDonald

(17. – 904.) Hang Down Your Head by Janice MacDonald – Miranda “Randy” Craig, with her Master’s Degree in English has usually been limited to sessional teaching positions in Edmonton. Her life changes when an “enormous” anonymous bequest is made to the University of Alberta designated for its Folkways Collection.

That collection includes the only “fully set of Moses Asch’s legendary recordings”:

One of the great visionaries for the preservation of world music, poetry and soundscapes, Moses Asch had been so impressed with the Edmonton music scene every time he visited that he willed his personal collection to the university.

America’s Smithsonian Institute had been surprised, even chagrined, that it did not have the full Asch collection. A relationship was soon established between the Smithsonian and the U of A.

Dreams of building a fully searchable database of the Asch collection in Edmonton suddenly became feasible with the bequest.

Though not a music scholar folk music is a passion of Randy. She was ready when:

The call went out for people skilled in online writing, with an understanding of university policy and project work and strong communication qualifications. Teaching English, writing magazine articles and monitoring chat rooms had to come in handy somehow, and after a process of three vigorous interviews and the inspired admission that I played the banjo, I was offered the continuity and writing position.

(Were it not for the combination of the position being fictional and that she is already a professor I could see my friend, Margot Kinberg, of the blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, being perfectly qualified for the position.)

Unfortunately, her dream job is threatened by a nasty sibling duo, David and Barbara Finster, who are outraged that their late mother has made such a huge bequest for folk music. It is a puzzle to Randy why they should resent folk music. In a public scene at the Folkways Centre David makes it loudly clear the bequest will be challenged.

David, the owner of a major construction business, and Barbara, with a pair of high end ladies apparel stores, are wealthy and bitter.

Before Randy can even assess the risks presented by the Finster duo David is murdered on the edge of campus. Worse yet:

…. Finster’s body was deliberately staged. He’d been stabbed, strung up from a beam, and a note was hanging from the handle of the knife still sticking it him. It said, HANG DOWN YOUR HEAD.

The inescapable reference to the Tom Dooley folk song focuses police attention on the Folkways Project and Finster.

Randy’s lover, Edmonton Police detective Steve Downing, is a part of the investigation, though not the lead because of Randy. Still it leads to uncomfortable moments in their relationship.

Randy, though well aware of the never ending fierce intra-university battles for project funding, cannot see who at the university would have wanted to kill Finster and implicate the Folkways Project. Or can it be that murder lurks in the hearts of folkies?

In the midst of a mid-summer Edmonton heat wave the investigation is accelerated when there is further violence.

One of the major tasks for Randy is to assist in an ambitious taping project of the folkwaysAlive! stage at the Edmonton Folk Festival.

Handsome and brilliant and charming Dr. Woody Dowling arrives from the Smithsonian to be the institutional link for the festival. Randy loves Steve but finds Woody intriguing.

The story culminates at the massive Folk Festival. MacDonald provides a vivid portrayal of the fun of the Festival. From sitting on tarps on ski runs providing a natural amhiteathre through quality festival food folk there is a wonderful atmoshphere for folk music fans.

I liked the book but the narrative slowed at times. The book is at its best in discussing folk music and artists and the Festival. It is not a strong mystery. You will want to attend the Edmonton Folk Festival after reading Hang Down Your Head.
MacDonald, Janice - (2015) - Another Margaret and Q & A

Monday, April 17, 2017

Five Chiefs by John Paul Stevens

 (16. – 903.) Five Chiefs by John Paul Stevens (2011) – Retired United States Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens, reflects on the USSC by focusing on the men, to date they are all men, who have been Chief Justice of the Court. In his long legal career as clerk, litigator and judge he has personal experience with the last five Chief Justices.

He began his direct contact with the Court in 1948 when he was a clerk for Justice Wiley B. Rutledge.  At that time Fred Vinson was the Chief.

Earl Warren was the next Chief. Stevens appeared before him as a practicing lawyer.

He served as an associate Justice of the Court when Warren Burger, Bill Rehnquist and John Roberts were Chief Justice.

It is remarkable that he has personal knowledge of almost one-third of the Chief Justices. There have been 17 during the history of the Court.

Stevens is a forthright scholar and writer. He has the knack of distilling complex legal arguments to their essence, often in a few sentences. It is a skill that I wish the current American and Canadian Justices of our respective Supreme Courts would use more often in writing judgments. So many judgments go on at great length seeking to explain, justify and inform on broader legal principles rather than limiting their judgments to the direct legal issues of the appeal.

I was struck by Stevens description of the collegiality of the Court. After reading The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong I was left with the impression there was a lack of collegiality at the Court.

Stevens provides a powerful anecdote on how the Justices interacted. He stated that in over 30 years of conferences (meetings to discuss and vote upon cases) no Justice had ever raised their voice. He sets out in the book there were strong differences between the Justices in their legal philosophies, as reflected in their judgments, but there was always respect.

The American Supreme Court and, I expect the Canadian Supreme Court, are models for politicians on how major public issues can be considered and vigorously debated without descending to personal invective and disrespect for those with whom you disagree on issues.

Stevens speaks of a tradition that reinforces their personal respect and friendship for each other. Before entering the courtroom to hear oral arguments the Justices all shake hands.

On the judicial philosophy spectrum Stevens and the late Antonin Scalia were often far apart. Personally, Stevens speaks of his good friend Nino.

Politicians and media – left and right – often speak of the judicial future of the Supreme Court in apocalyptic terms. You would think the end of the nation is upon America because of the composition of the Court.

Certainly, the Court has a major role in the United States but perhaps it is Stevens’ perspective of the Court as a 200 plus year old institution that he avoids such rhetorical excess.

He sets out his opinions on decisions he considers rightly and wrongly decided but usually does not venture into a discussion on their implications for the nation.

His examination of historic decisions demonstrates rarely are judgments on issues fixed for all time.

Where the Court upheld segregation late in the 19th Century just over 50 years later the Court unanimously moved America down the road to integration with Brown v. The Board of EducationHe goes on to show how America would have been better served had the Court simply directed trial judges to implement their decision. A subsequent Supreme Court decision directing integration to occur with "all deliberate speed" effectively set up an approach to resisting integration.

In his consideration of the role of the Chief Justice he shows how the Chief Justice is a first among equals. His vote on an appeal carries no greater weight than the other eight Justices. There is some deference in the process of decision making as he is the designated leader of the Court but not when the moment comes to vote on the disposition of an appeal.

I think the most significant roles in decision making by the Chief Justice involve his management of the conferences and his responsibility, when he is in the majority, to assign to a Justice the writing of a judgment.

Stevens explains that the tradition of identifying Courts by the name of the Chief Justice is often misleading. More apt would be to look to the Justices whose votes are the swing votes on closely divided issues. Their votes actually control the judicial direction of the Court. Were such an approach in place the current Court would be called the Kennedy rather than the Roberts Court.

As this review indicates I found more interesting Stevens’ thoughts on major decisions and the actual functioning of the Court than I did in his analysis of the five chiefs and the earlier 12 Chiefs. Those analyses, especially of the first 12, were but moderately interesting for me. For a reader without a background in the history of the Court his examinations of the Chiefs would be a good primer. I do wonder whether Stevens’ generous nature and clear love of the Court may have limited his observations and opinions. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Chamblin Bookmine Bookstore

 My posting has been infrequent this month as Sharon and I have been in Florida for almost two weeks. We spent a few days in Orlando and then a short visit to Daytona Beach and were in Jacksonville last weekend. While traveling I like to visit bookstores and found an amazing store in Jacksonville. The Chamblin Bookmine is tucked next to a freeway (thank goodness for GPS).

Entering the store I was directed to the right for mysteries. I thought the store was large but had no comprehension of its actual size until I started down the hall. The photo to the right below shows the hand lettered signs for each row of books.

Mysteries were on rows 52 and 53. It was not until I looked down aisle 53 that it became clear there were thousands of books in each row. The photo below shows the shelves extending long into the distance. I estimate that each aisle contained the number of books in a modest bookstore. Thus, the equivalent of 55 bookstores in one building.

Every bookstore has to decide where to place authors. For the Chamblin Bookmine most writers of legal mysteries, but not all, are located in general fiction.

While searching in the general fiction G’s I found a new writer to me of legal fiction and I picked up a copy of The Color of Law by Mark Gimenez.

The staggering number of books were overwhelming at the start and it took some time to sort out the organization of the shelves. While shelved alphabetically there are so many books they cannot be precisely logged. There are so many books that in the mystery part of the store a section will be noted as “Bo” and so on.

Just above eye level (mine at least) there were hardcovers for that part of the alphabet.

Below and above would be miscellaneous books for that area.

From the middle of the shelves down will be groups of books for individual authors. They will be marked by their own hand written tag. The photo to the righ shows examples with a tag for Georges Simeon and on the shelf below a tag for Maj Sjowahl.

It seems like almost every mystery author with a major series will get their own
section. I was pleasantly surprised in northern Florida to see a section of the books of Saskatchewan author, Gail Bowen.

Far down the aisle was a section of the books of another Canadian author, L.R. Wright, who has been deceased for 16 years.

Having tired of looking at the miscellaneous books I looked for books by a couple of authors I have not read in some time.

Claire Matturo has written a series of books featuring lawyer, Lily Belle Rose Cleary. Clever and witty I enjoyed the first three books in the series but had not found the fourth, Sweetheart Deal, until Saturday. As well I was glad to get a Florida mystery while in Florida. Ms. Cleary resides in Sarasota.

Moving over an aisle I found a group of 20 or so John Dickenson Carr paperbacks and a pair of old hard cover books.

Wanting recommendations I turned to Google on my I-phone. I looked at the Top Ten Carr books as compiled through a survey by Sergio at the Tipping My Fedora blog. I also found a list by Steve of the In Search of a Classic Mystery blog of his Top 5 Carr - Fell series of books.

As Three Coffins (American title), better known as The Hollow Man was on both lists it became my first pick.

No. 1 on Sergio’s survey list was He Who Whispers so I added that book. It was No. 3 on Steve's Fell list.

I unsuccessfully looked for the first book of legal fiction written by Paul Goldstein, Stanford law professor and a winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction for Havana Requiem. While the staff could not find a copy they said that within a day or two they could check their warehouses. Unfortunately, we were not staying long enough in Jacksonville.

Before leaving I asked the clerk assisting me how many books were at the store. She told me that between that store and their smaller store, Chamblin Uptown, and four warehouses they had about 4 million books!

We are now in St. Augustine at a lovely Bed and Breakfast, the Cedar House Inn. After a fine breakfast (highlighted by a cold peach soup containing fresh strawberries and blackberries) I am on the front porch in a comfortable rocking chair listening to the fountain and watching life flow by and several books at hand. The sun is shining and it is 23C. Sharon is in her own rocking chair listening to The Whisperer by John Grisham. I am not sure we will get to any sightseeing today.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst – In Cristan Ferrar, Furst has created another fascinating character operating in the shadows of pre-World War II. Ferrar’s family left Spain in 1909 during a period of political upheaval. They moved to France where Ferrar grew up and became a lawyer. Fluent in several languages he joined Coudet Freres, an international law firm with offices in New York and Paris. The firm has a varied clientele representing individuals and corporations.

Based in Paris Ferrar has risen to partnership status and a comfortable financial situation.

While he may go to court his gifts as a lawyer are as a counselor. His polished manner and, clear concern for their needs, find favour with the firm’s elite clientele.

While adept at dealing with multi-country issues and disputes he is not political and has not been involved in the Spanish Civil War.

Life changes when he is invited to become the Spanish Republic’s arms buyer. Astounded, as he has no experience in the world of arms sales, he learns the Republic is desperate for intelligent men to take jobs normally performed by professionals. The previous buyer was the former curator of an art museum.

Ferrar, the only support for his family, declines the invitation but agrees to help Max de Lyon, a Slavic Jew, with a cloudy past that has provided him with abundant connections across Europe.

Ferrar is as suave personally as he is professionally. He loves woman but relationships always falter. He is now in his mid-40’s and content with liaisons. In New York he has a passionate, though infrequent, ongoing affair with Eileen Moore, a librarian.

Once engaged in the arms business the dichotomy in his life is swiftly demonstrated.

As a lawyer he is engaged in a dispute involving a bank owned by a Hungarian family. The feuding family members are stalemating executive decisions. In an effort to gain leverage a brother will not agree that his sister can have the family dogs beloved by her.

At the same time the Republic is desperate for anti-tank guns to counter the tanks supplied Franco by Germany. De Lyon and Ferrar work on a convoluted purchase of Czech made guns.

Meeting a contact in Berlin in 1938 on the prospective arms purchase provides Ferrar with a vivid illustration of the unlimited authority of the Gestapo and SS in Nazi Germany. Their ruthless and corrupt actions confirm to Ferrar that a new war is near.

For some reason I had not thought about how arms purchases would have been increasingly difficult from 1937 through 1939 as nations all around Europe sought and bought arms in preparation for the coming war.

Once again Furst takes the reader into murky quasi-spying operations. The arms world is at its most profitable moment in Europe. There is no longer a Depression for arms manufacturers and dealers.

Ferrar is in Furst’s line of quiet heroes. They are men willing to risk their lives to aid those confronting the Fascist menace. The books have left me wondering how many real life men and women undertook such actions before 1939.

Furst is a master at creating tales in the shadows of pre-war Europe that feature men of integrity. No generation has too many such men and women.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Shanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong

Shanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong – (As this review immediately follows my review of Enigma of China the previous book in the series there is information that would be spoilers for Enigma of China.)

At the end of Enigma of China Chief Inspector Chen was in trouble. His determination to solve high profile crimes had “ruffled high feathers”. As Shanghai Redemption opens high ranking authorities in Shanghai have reached out to Beijing. Chen is removed from the police bureau and promoted upwards in prestige / downwards in authority. His new position is the prestigious post of Director Legal Reform. In Communist China “legal reform” is a legal fiction.

Yet Chen has taken no recent actions that would threaten a higher ranking official and his current caseload is routine. The carcasses of pigs floating down the river into Shanghai is embarrassing but tainted pork is a modest issue. A fast rising businessman, Liang, embroiled in a corruption case concerning the contracts for the furnishings of high speed trains has disappeared.

While contemplating his new Directorship Chen is invited to a book signing at the fabulously expensive Heavenly World night club. A billionaire businessman and lover of poetry has purchased 500 copies of a collection of translated poems of T.S. Elliot. Chen had contributed many of the translations. After the event Chen is lured into a private room by a pair of lovely young women - one of them scantily clad in a cat costume – intent on meeting his every desire. He is relieved to get a call from his mother that allows him to step outside the room. After leaving the club he sees members of the police morality squad entering the club. As the club ownership is well connected against such searches Chen realize that there has been a secret raid seeking to entrap him in a compromising situation.

Even more confused on why such extreme efforts are being made to target him Chen leaves for Suzhou where his father is buried. With no urgency to taking up his new position Chen, a “filial son”, decides to spend a week overseeing renovations to his father’s grave.

In a rather bizarre development a well off young woman, Qiang, having watched him in the office sees him standing in the rain and offers him a ride. During their conversation he portrays himself as a private investigator and she tentatively engages him to spy on her unfaithful boyfriend. It is one of the few scenes in the series that was not credible. Had they met and talked more plausibly her involvement would have been more believable.

Back in Shanghai a crane accident at a construction site has exposed the body of Liang and the missing person case is now a murder investigation.

Chen is drawn into Suzhou opera. The poetic traditional opera is out of favour. The leisurely paced stories which parallel North American daytime television soap operas are not appealing to fast paced modern Chinese life.

Chen can see a net closing in on him and reaches out to friends and colleagues. His connections are extensive from his years as a Chief Inspector. Many, out of respect not fear or gain, are willing to help him.

Old Hunter, the retired police officer, spends hours listening to the café gossip of kept women (ernai).

His loyal former subordinate, Yu, and his wife, Peiqin, provide assistance. In particular, Peiqin, an avid internet searcher moves swiftly to find intriguing stories before they are taken down by the Party.

Somehow the mysterious death of an American businessman in Shanghai seems related to Chen’s troubles.

It is a formidable challenge for a writer to build a believable conspiracy. They tend to spin into the incredible with shadowy figures. It is easier to create conspiracies in China where there is constant conflict among factions vying for power. With alliances shifting Chen is left scrambling to decipher clues. Even when he gets glimmers of those orchestrating the attacks upon him the why eludes Chen until the end.

While glad I read the book immediately after Enigma of China to see what happened to Chen I was a little dissatisfied at the end of Shanghai Redemption because the conclusion does not really end the story. I had not realized it was the second in what appears to be a trilogy.

I do admire Xiaolong’s continuing ability to weave politics, poetry and mystery together in his plots. It is a unique combination.