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.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sharing Grief in Small Town Canada

Author Donna Morrissey
Reading in The Fortunate Brother about the profound grief of the fictional Now family of outport Newfoundland over the death of their 23 year old son, Chris, in an oil field in distant Alberta  has made me reflect on grieving in small town Canada. I doubt it is different in the other small towns of the world.

In small town Canada no one grieves alone. Whether wanted or not grief is a communal event. The descriptions of community grief in The Fortunate Brother felt real to me. The outport village of Hampden on the coast of Newfoundland reminded me of the real life farming hamlet of Meskanaw in Saskatchewan where I grew up.

Support in times of trouble is not limited to death. In The Fortunate Brother, Addie Now, mother to Kyle, Chris and Sylvie and wife of Sylvanus, is diagnosed with breast cancer and faces a double mastectomy to be followed by radiation and chemotherapy.

Within the family Kyle runs into the night upon hearing the news. He can neither comfort nor be comforted. Knowing his mother needs him he returns to offer support. It is Kyle that Addie chooses to take her to the hospital rather than Sylvanus.

Addie, having seen Sylvanus retreat into drunkenness over the death of Chris, will no longer abide Sylvanus and Kyle escaping from reality. She sobers them both by insisting they stop drinking or she will refuse the long and difficult and uncertain treatment. She will live for them if they will live for her.

Within a day, the whole community knows of Addie’s cancer. You would expect close family and friends to express their support. Certainly, the women she knows would be with her yet support is not limited to her peers in a small town.

Young men, in their awkward crude speech, sympathize with Kyle about his mother. They care about her. All share his sorrow for it is also their sorrow. Each young man knows Addie well and hurts for her.

Kyle resents the lack of privacy that comes with such community involvement in lives. He wants the anonymity of a big city.

Kyle may turn away from that community support but I valued and appreciated how Meskanaw supported families.

In Cool Water, author Dianne Warren set out in a wonderful work of fiction the strong connections between farm families in rural Saskatchewan. In my review, a letter to the young man who gave me the book, I wrote about those relationships:

The book depicted the loneliness of living on a farm with the nearest neighbour a half mile or more away. At the same time Cool Water set out how close you become to neighbours when they are few in number. The bonds with my farm neighbours when I was growing up were stronger than I have experienced living in town.

In reading about the reaction to Addie’s diagnosis I thought back to my life on the farm. My mother was a nurse who preferred working nights. Forty years ago she was retired when the young daughter of one of our farm neighbours was diagnosed with cancer. Treatment was unsuccessful and Debbie’s condition became terminal.

Debbie was in the large university hospital almost 160 km from Meskanaw. Debbie’s mother was with her in Saskatoon. Her Dad was back and forth for he had to keep the farm going and take care of their two other daughters.

As the end neared my Mom went to the city and stayed with Debbie during the nights. She wanted Debbie’s parents not to get exhausted and she wanted Debbie not to be alone should she awake in the night. 

Over the years I have spoken at funerals about those bonds between neighbours at Meskanaw. I always knew I could count on my neighbours.

Friday, May 26, 2017

2017 Winners of the Arthur Ellis Awards for Canadian Crime Fiction

Congratulations to the winners of the 2016 Arthur Ellis Award winners. They were announced at the annual banquet of the Crime Writers of Canada in Toronto last night.

Best Novel

Donna Morrissey, The Fortunate Brother, Viking Canada

Best First Novel sponsored by Kobo

Elle Wild, Strange Things Done, Dundurn Press

Best Novella: The Lou Allin Memorial Award

Rick Blechta, Rundown, Orca Book Publishers

Best Short Story

Susan Daly, A Death at the Parsonage, The Whole She-Bang 3, Toronto Sisters in Crime

Best Book in French

Marie-Eve Bourassa, Red Light: Adieu, Mignonne, Groupe Ville-Marie Littérature, vlb éditions Chrystine Brouillet, Vrai ou faux, Éditions Druide

Best Juvenile/YA Book

Gordon Korman, Masterminds: Criminal Destiny, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.

Best Nonfiction Book

Jeremy Grimaldi, A Daughter's Deadly Deception: The Jennifer Pan Story, Dundurn Press

Unhanged Arthur for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel sponsored by Dundurn Press

S.J. Jennings, The Golkonda Project

Continuing my personal tradition I am reading and reviewing the shortlist for Best Novel. By coincidence, I read The Fortunate Brother first and my review was my last post.

It is a bit of a surprise that Morrissey was the winner as The Fortunate Brother is her first mystery novel. It was an excellent book and I am looking forward to reading the other four books on the shortlist.

An unusual aspect to The Fortunate Brother is that it is the third book in a trilogy involving the Now family. It reads well as a stand-alone. I did not realize it was part of a trilogy until I was doing some research on the author after I finished reading the book.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey

(20. – 907.) The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey – Death in the oilfields of Alberta has reached out to crush the Now family, more than half a continent away, on the coast of Newfoundland. Lured by high paying work in the oilpatch young Chris Now left his outport community of Hampten. Six weeks later he was dead in an accident at an oil rig. The Now family is three years into a grief that has not eased. Father, Sylvanus, drunk every day refuses to even mention Chris’s name. Sister, Sylvie, is in Africa trying to safari away from her sorrow. Brother, Kyle, constantly chews his fingers. Mother, Addie, amidst her own sadness strives to instill hope but the Now’s remain a family lost in pain.

Hard times have been a constant in outport life as the cod fishery came to an end and the residents of smaller outport communities forced to move to larger towns. Sylvanus, before grief overwhelmed him, had an uncommon spirit:

The story was still told how Sylvanus thumbed his nose at the relocation money and stayed till the last fish was caught, stayed till they nearly starved, and then determined not to lose his house, took out his chain saw and cut the house in half. He then floated both halves up the bay and landed them atop this wharf and declared to his astonished Addie – This is as far as she goes. By Christ if I can’t work the sea, I’ll sleep on it. No gawd-damned mortal telling me where I sleeps.

And still the house sits upon that wharf.

Among their neighbours are Clar and Bonnie Gillard. Clar, battered as a boy, has become a battering man and Bonnie the brunt of his abuse. Kyle cannot understand why she continues to return to him assault after assault. As she does for many Addie provides comfort to Bonnie accepting her choices.

Nearby is Kate, a middle-aged woman, who lives a simple life in a small home. Kate moved in a few years ago. Quiet about her past she has a fire going most evenings outside her home. People come and go, usually bringing a six pack of beer, while Kate plays her guitar and works on the songs she is writing of her life.

There is a confrontation between Sylvanus and Clar over Clar’s provocative disruption at the cemetery where Chris is buried.

Kyle’s quick tongue lashes Clar over his loutish behavior.

Sylvanus and Kyle, so caught up in their grief over Chris, are stunned when Addie tells them she has breast cancer and will need immediate surgery. My next post will discuss illness and death in a small Canadian community.

After getting the news Kyle runs off and gets drunk. Leaving the bar he is sucker punched by Clar. Later he passes out on the wharf outside the house.

During the night Clar is killed. He has been stabbed with a knife and his body dumped into the ocean. His dog, a Labrador, has dragged the dead master ashore.

Suspicion alights upon the members of the Now family. Kyle fears his mother or father may have killed Clar in self-defence or while protecting Bonnie. Friends rally with stories to protect Kyle.

The RCMP find talkative but not informative witnesses.

It is a rare book that manages to have a credible mystery combined with high family dramas. Morrissey meets the challenge. If anything, I found myself more interested in the Now family than the murder investigation.

Morrissey in description and dialogue brings modern outport Newfoundland to life.

The sea and rocky land make for a striking landscape. The fog is an evening companion.

Morrissey has a keen ear for the language and rhythms of the islanders. I found myself sitting among the characters listening to their conversations.

The Now men find they cannot keep hiding from their grief. Addie’s cancer and Clar’s murder force them to face their sorrow.

Kyle is told:

Well, I’m grieving a son. Weigh that in your heart when you’re judging mine. I’m all he’s got. He’s lost his sense of reality. That makes him the living dead and he’s only got me to fight for him. And he don’t know that because he’s angry with me. Real angry, and he won’t let me help.

The book is so well written it flows both gracefully and powerfully. It is an excellent contender on this year’s shortlist for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Crime Fiction Novel.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr

(Not my cover but could not find an
image of the Award Books cover)
The Three Coffins (better known outside the United States as The Hollow Man) by John Dickson Carr (1935) - Dr. Charles Vernet Grimaud is found mortally wounded inside his locked second floor study. Witnesses attest to a large man wearing a mask entering the room but Grimaud is found alone. There is no sign of escape and newly fallen snow on the roof and ground show no footprints.

On a nearby street three witnesses hear a gunshot and turn to see another man mortally wounded in the midst of the street. From the residue on his clothes he has been shot with the revolver either in contact with him or mere inches away. Yet there is no one else in the street.

Analysis determines the same gun fired the shots that killed each man.

At his death Professor Grimaud was a gentleman scholar living in London whose academic interests were focused on the black arts:

Low magic was the hobby of which he had made capital: any form of picturesque supernatural deviltry from vampirism to the Black Mass, over which he nodded and chuckled with childlike amusement – and got a bullet through the lung for his pains.

The other man, Pierre Fley, was a master illusionist performing his feats of magic in a London theatre.

Through skilful questioning and careful analysis of the study Dr. Gideon Fell is able to determine that Grimaud and Fley are brothers from Transylvania in East Central Europe.

They are actually the Horvath brothers. With a third brother, Henri, they had been imprisoned before 1900. Carr sent a chill up my spine with his description of the three brothers being buried alive during a plague epidemic.

Earlier in the book there had been an earnest discussion on the vampire legends of central Europe interrupted by a spectral figure who speaks of men able to leave their coffins. He had identified himself as Pierre Fley.

The mention of the supernatural played with this reader’s mind while I tried to decipher the clues.

Having a pair of connected impossible murders is a spectacular writing challenge and Carr flawlessly sets up the murders and resolves them with a flourish.

I have never figured out a locked room mystery before the author revealed the solution and The Three Coffins was no different.

The diagram of the upper floor of Grimaud’s house helped me visualize the scene but proved of no assistance in my attempts to solve Grimaud’s murder.

In this mystery it was the double connected murders that left my analysis floundering.

How could the same gun have been used in both killings when it is clear no one left the house. A witness could have been lying but there were multiple credible witnesses everyone remained in the house after the shot was fired in the study.

Motive is a challenge. Who would have wanted both brothers dead? The investigators speculate it was the third brother until a cable from Bucharest confirms Henri has been dead for 30 years.

Yet how could a killer of both men neither be seen nor leave any sign of his / her presence at the respective murder scenes?

I could have spent many nights pondering the evidence and never been close to the solution. It was most fairly done by Carr and I appreciate his talent with the locked room. I did no better when I read The Judas Window.

After reading The Three Coffins I can understand why classic mystery aficionados consider it one of the best locked room mysteries. My good friend Margot Kinberg from the superb blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, specifically recommended the book to me.

I expect I will never figure out a locked room mystery. Give me a complex murky legal mystery any day. Sigh. 
Carr, John Dickson - (2011) - Death Turns the Tables
Carr, John Dickson writing as Carter Dickson - (2011) - The Judas Window

Saturday, May 13, 2017

2017 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction Shortlist

The shortlist for the 2017 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction was announced by the ABA Law Journal and University of Alabama Law School earlier today.

On the shortlist are:

1.) Gone Again by James Grippando;
2.) Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult; and,
3.) The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore.

As with most literary awards I have not read any of the books.

Certainly Grippando, Picoult and Moore are all well known authors.

In 2011 I loved Moore’s book, The Sherlockian. There were past and present mysteries involving Holmes. In my review I said:

Both White and Doyle work to solve their mysteries by Holmesian methods. We have a devout Sherlockian and the author of Holmes trying to be Holmes. The book is a triumph of logic. It is a rare mystery so devoted to logical reasoning. There are no leaps of intuition and but rare coincidences or fortunate circumstances.

It tied for third on Bill’s Best of Fiction in 2011.

I exchanged emails with Moore on the question of whether a person can cause their own death by strangulation by tying and tightening a ligature around their neck. I referred to a criminal trial which involved a young woman who tied many ligatures around in neck. Here is a link to that post - http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.ca/2011/03/email-exchange-with-graham-moore-author.html

With regard to this year’s award there were 25 books submitted. A few years ago, after John Grisham won for the second time, the criteria were tweaked to provide previous winners could not win again.

This year’s panel of judges are:

Deborah Johnson, winner of the 2015 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and 
author of The Secret of Magic; Cassandra King, author of The Same Sweet Girls 
Guide to Life; Don Noble, host of Alabama Public Radio’s book review series as 
well as host of “Bookmark,” which airs on Alabama Public Television and Han 
Nolan, author of Dancing on the Edge.

They are described as a panel of writers.

For unexplained reasons the Award will be handed out at the University of Alabama this year rather than at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

I am planning to read and review the shortlist and post my thoughts on whether I agree on the best book.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Weave a Murderous Web by Anne Rothman-Hicks and Ken Hicks

Weave a Murderous Web by Anne Rothman-Hicks and Ken Hicks – Jane Larson is a skilled and aggressive litigator in New York City. Forsaking her mother Martha’s lifelong support for the poor and the weak Jane is in a law firm devoted to the needs of corporate America.

Jane has prospered in the lucrative world of commercial litigation:

Modesty does not forbid me from saying I tore the place up and made Ridge look very good. It’s not that I am a genius. Rather, many lawyers at big firms are scared to death to take cases into a courtroom for a trial and I was not. I pushed my matters to conclusion like a muleskinner with a whip and, as a result, the firm’s clients were very happy.

Jane is lured by a legal assistant, Francine, into representing Francine’s friend, Gail Hollings, caught up in a family law dispute with her ex-Larry over his claims he cannot afford child support. Gail asserts he has abundant money from selling drugs.

Gail successfully draws media attention to her cause by wearing outside and even inside the courtroom:

…. dressed, if you could call it that, in the kind of barrel contraption drawn in cartoons to represent those who have lost all they own in the stock market. Like those cartoons, beneath that barrel she appeared to be little except a flesh-colored spandex leotard that might keep her out of jail, I supposed, but left no part of her well-constructed body to the imagination.

Gail’s young daughter, Courtney, is also in a barrel.

Though the judge is mightily unimpressed a hearing is scheduled. Media coverage generates a call to Jane with a tip on where to find at least a fair amount of Larry’s hidden money.

I appreciated Jane’s use of her legal skills to exploit the information and get the court order needed to open up a safety deposit box containing thousands of dollars. Little to follow involves legal talent.

Shortly thereafter, Jane and a handsome young lawyer, Bryan, are in a street confrontation with Larry in which she is almost shot. While at the hospital after the incident Jane learns Larry has been murdered.

The rest of the book sees Jane working to solve who, out of multiple candidates, killed Larry.

Jane reminded me of the wise cracking heroines of the 1940’s who are tough and quick with a quip. At one point I wondered if the story actually was set 70 years ago as there is reference to a typewriter and ribbon in Larry’s office. But such modern technology as cell phones convinced me the story was in the present.

I wanted Jane to be a great character. I liked her a lot but her breezy approach to life does not work well for me in the 21st Century.

I found myself wishing that the story was not about Jane dealing with some ordinary mystery over the lost money of a ne’er do well, now I am drifting back in time. I would have preferred to see Jane applying her wit and wisdom on some major commercial malfeasance.

I regret to say I found the reading a chore and the book took far longer to read than it should have for me. I expect readers who want a lighter mystery with a nifty heroine would enjoy Jane. Unfortunately, Weave a Murderous Web was not for me.

With most of the characters handsome or beautiful I think the book would have worked better as a television show.

The back blurb says the authors “have been married for a little over forty years and have produced about twenty books and exactly three children so far. At press-time, they still love their children more”. I wish them well but will not be reading another book by Ms. and Mr. Hicks.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Dramatic Spring for Saskatchewan Libraries

It has been an unexpectedly dramatic season for the Public Libraries of Saskatchewan. In the provincial budget in March the government unexpectedly announced that $4.8 million in library funded was being cut from funding.

The government said they were eliminating all provincial funding, $1.3 million, for the public libraries in the major centres of Saskatoon and Regina.

The balance of $3.5 million was being cut from the regional library system. It meant the regional libraries were to receive 58% less money.

Funding for northern libraries was not directly affected.

The Saskatchewan Party, the governing party, is facing a $1 billion plus deficit and was looking to a combination of spending cuts and tax increases to address the deficit.

I have been a member of the Melfort Public Library for almost 40 years. It was a shock to hear the government was planning such devastating cuts to the funding of provincial libraries. There had been no consultations with library boards and library staffs.

Going into the budget announcement everyone in the province knew there would be cuts in government spending but I could not believe libraries were targeted with such extreme cuts.

Saskatchewan has a wonderful integrated library system where any library card holder can access books and material from any library in the province. There is a daily flow of library items around the province.

Starting in our part of the province in 1950 regional libraries were developed that now cover the whole province. Each regional library has a central headquarters which organizes materials and provides much of the library administration for the region.

Most recently a provincial library card system was established that allows a card holder to walk into any public library in the province and borrow from that library.

The proposed cuts would have effectively ended the provincial library system. It would have been impossible to carry on the provincial wide system. We would have returned to a fragmented system of individual community libraries.

The primary government rationale was that the number of items checked out of libraries had declined by 1.7 million items in the last 10 years and that there were 175,000 fewer library card holders.

Both justifications were flawed. Checking out books has declined but usage of electronic services, such as e-books, has increased dramatically. On card holders the decrease took place during the conversion to the one card system. Before the new system many Saskatchewan citizens, including myself had at least 2 library cards. I had cards for both Melfort and Saskatoon. After the change everyone has only one card.

I could not believe that the Party I supported would propose a fundamental re-structuring of a pivotal information service for the province even without consulting the public and libraries. I was dismayed when our local MLA, Kevin Phillips, raised the question of whether libraries were a core service. It appeared to me that the government no longer valued libraries.

Negative reaction was swift and widespread across the province. Defenders of public libraries appeared in every community.

Well known mystery author, Gail Bowen, was among the most public protesters.

While I was in Florida read-in protests were held in 70 communities including Melfort. In our city of 6,000 over 200 people came for a read-in outside Kevin’s office. I would have been there had I been in Melfort.

With protests continuing and the proposed library cuts eroding support the Government abruptly announced at the end of April that all the library funding cuts were reversed. Education Minister, Don Morgan, said the government was not afraid to admit it made a mistake. 

There will now be a consultation process on the future for libraries in Saskatchewan. It remains a puzzle to me why the government ever embarked on the budget cuts for libraries. There was no movement in Saskatchewan that funding for libraries should be slashed. I do wonder what will be next for our libraries. I will be doing my best to convince the government they are at the core of learning and information in Saskatchewan.