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.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Legitimate Business by Michael Niemann

(35. – 922.) Legitimate Business by Michael Niemann – An opening to remember:

There is no rush hour in a refugee camp. No jobs to get to, no appointments to keep. Just waiting. Waiting to go home. The Zam Zam camp for internally displaced persons, some ten miles south of El Fasher in Darfur, Sudan, was no different. The closest Zam Zam got to a rush hour was when the food aid arrived.

Then a sniper, Garreth Campbell, shoots an elder, a female police woman from Bangladesh and a young woman. He calmly drives away.

At the same time, the spring of 2010, in Dusseldorf Valentin Vermeulen, an investigator for the OIOS (United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services) is completing a short vacation. He checks for fraud in U.N. operations around the world. Having stirred up the bureaucracy in New York by reporing on possible fraud by the son of the Secretary General he has been designated to travel to the distant missions of the U.N. as far from New York as possible. While exiled he remains stubbornly resolute in pursuing fraud.

Before leaving Dusseldorf he has a difficult conversation with his daughter, Gaby. He has not seen her in 8 years and is attempting a reconciliation. His marriage had broken down and Gaby did not handle it well. She ended up using heroin, and he, after tracking her down, forced Gaby into rehab. He eventually left Belgium for the U.N.

Back in South Sudan, Priya Choudhury is intent on investigating the murder of her friend Ritu Roy. They were members of a 140 woman detachment of Bangladeshi policewomen sent to Zam Zam.

Shortly after the killings Vermeulen arrives in Darfur to conduct an audit of the United Nations/African Union Mission (UNAMID).

His aide, Winston Wambai, is a member of the Kenyan military peacekeeprs.

Legitmate Business has such a promising start. There are challenging issues with regard to refugees and war in the region. Niemann starts exploring the frustrations of the U.N. personnel in a war zone where they are barely tolerated. Yet he does not make the conflict as simple as Arabs v. Africans.

Unfortunately the plot then starts descending into an average thriller with a trip to a camp of one of the warring factions. Vermeulen and Choudhury want to interview Amina, a young girl who saw the shooter. Unwanted and univited at the camp the journey stretches credibility as they demand of the commander that they be able to talk to her.

Later there are a series of hair breadth escapes that are the staple of modern thrillers.

Legitmate Business is a competent thriller I lament that it could have been much more. A book in the mode of John Le Carre was within Niemann’s grasp. I thought of The Night Manager where a principled young man takes on an international arms dealer. There is also shifty arms dealing in Legitimate Business.

Unlike The Night Manager the bad guys are purely evil in Legitimate Business.

Niemann has the knowledge and imagination to have avoided thriller violence to solve the mystery. Instead, he chose the approach of Indiana Jones. Vermeulen is an intelligent hero who was limited to being an action hero.

What did surprise me was an ending that was a return to real world reality. The beginning and the end showed what Niemann is capable of writing. 

If you love the current Hollywood approach to thrillers you will enjoy Legitimate Business. I hope Niemann’s next book pursues issues through the book as well as thrills.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Getting the Law Wrong in Glass Houses

I enjoy reading about fictional court cases, criminal or civil, and was intrigued when Louise Penny in Glass Houses wove into the plot a trial of the murderer with Armand Gamache as the prime witness. It took considerable cleverness to conceal the identity of the accused and the murder victim while recounting testimony at the trial.

Penny’s trial also has a hidden agenda that is fascinating, even brilliant.

Unfortunately Penny’s description of the trial could not have taken place in Canadian criminal courts. I acknowledge every writer can adjust real life norms to fit their fiction but it grates on me when trials are described that do not follow real life procedures and rules of evidence. If such “details” are of little interest to you read this post no further. If you have expectations of crime fiction featuring trials to be “real” you will find this post of interest.

I acknowledge it is hard to portray a trial if you have not been a trial lawyer. The actual rules of conduct and evidence are complex. I found it difficult to know whether Penny knew the rules but chose to disregard them.

Feelings are not evidence. Evidence of feelings will rarely be allowed as the feelings of a witness are not facts but the opinions of the witness.

In one exchange:

“How did it strike you,” the Crown asked, “when you saw Lea Roux come to the defense of the cobrador?”

“I would’ve been surprised to see anyone standing between a man swinging a fireplace poker and his target.”

A judge would not want Gamache’s opinion on the actions of Ms. Roux. The judge would want the narrative of what happened.

At another point the prosecutor asks:

          “What tips someone over into murder?”

The question allows Gamache to give a lecture on his theory of murder:

“What makes someone kill isn’t opportunity, it’s emotion,” Gamache spoke quietly, softly even. As though confiding in a good friend. “One human kills another. Sometimes it’s a flash of uncontrollable anger,. Sometimes it’s cold. Planned. Meticulous. But what they have in common is an emotion out of control. Often something that has been pent up. Buried. Clawed away at the person.”

When the prosecutor objects that Gamache’s statement is irrelevant the judge denies the objection as Gamache is the Crown’s witness and the prosecutor had asked the question.

As I read the passage I was saying no in my mind. Even without objection from the defence no judge would have allowed the question let alone the answer. Once again it is not evidence but opinion.

The prosecutor could in his address to jury set out an argument on how the evidence supports a theory of murder but no witness would be allowed such a speech.

Later the prosecutor invites Gamache to speculate on knowledge there was murder:

“When you arrived at the restaurant, Chief Superintendent, did you get the impression the people already knew?”

It is not for Gamache to provide his opinion on what they “already knew”. If the prosecutor wants to “know” what they “knew” he needs to call the people at the restaurant as witnesses.

Procedurally the trial judge would never invite the prosecutor and witness, Gamache, into her Chambers without including defence counsel and the accused.

Only in the most exceptional circumstances will the accused not be present when a trial matter is being discussed. Not long ago in Saskatchewan a new trial was ordered when the accused was not included in a conference involving judge and legal counsel.

As a final example no author should ever have a Canadian judge wielding a gavel. There are no gavels in Canadian courts.
Penny, Louise – (2005) - Still Life; (2006) - Dead Cold (Tied for 3rd Best fiction of 2006); (2007) - The Cruelest Month; (2009) - The Murder Stone (Tied for 4th Best fiction of 2009); (2010) - The Brutal Telling; (2011) - Bury Your Dead (Best Fiction of 2011); (2011) - A Trick of the Light; (2012) - The Beautiful Mystery (Part I) and The Beautiful Mystery (Part II); (2013) - "P" is for Louise Penny - Movie Producer and Review of the Movie of Still Life; (2013) - How the Light Gets In; (2014) - The Long Way Home; (2014) - The Armand Gamache Series after 10 Mysteries - Part I and Part II; (2015) - The Nature of the Beast (Part I) and The Nature of the Beast (Part II); (2016) - A Great Reckoning The Academy and Comparisons and The Map; (2017) - Glass Houses - Happiness and Unhappiness

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Unhappiness with Glass Houses by Louise Penny

In my previous post I set out what I liked about Glass Houses, this year’s addition to the Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny. I enjoyed the book, especially the presence of the cobrador as a conscience. At the same time I was unhappy with other aspects of the book. To discuss those qualms will mean at least significant disclosure and possibly spoilers in this post.

Louise returns to a theme she has explored in earlier books. Through several books there was an ongoing secondary plot involving vast corruption within the top ranks of the Surete that Gamache was personally battling. I did not find that conspiracy convincing and thought it a distraction. I was glad when it ended in How the Light Gets In.

The plot line in Glass Houses of a great strike against drug traffickers secretly prepared and led by Gamache featuring grand deceptions inside the Surete defied credibility. Unfortunately, we all know there is no single police operation that can devastate drug traffickers. The war on drugs of the U.S. and Mexico in which most of the leaders of Mexico’s cartels have killed or captured has not dramatically decreased the flow of illicit drugs.

I thought Penny’s efforts to graft a thriller plot line on to the murder mystery worked no better here than the apocalyptic plot involving a secret gun in The Nature of the Beast.

While Penny has reduced Gamache’s role from saving the world to saving Quebec I have been distressed in both books as Gamache was never a character to rescue the world or Quebec from doom.

In the secondary plot of Glass Houses she places Gamache in the even more implausible role of an action hero. There is a Hollywood movie scene starring Gamache in a violent confrontation.

Gamache as a man of action is credible to me but not participating in a bloody fire fight.

Gamache, as a middle aged man, is ill cast in the role of action hero. His advancing years make such actions implausible. It is the problem faced by aging James Bond’s through the 007 movies.

His personality, rather reserved even formal, was carefully developed through the series. While it is interesting to see characters change Gamache is not an action hero.

It further defied belief that Gamache as Chief Superintendent of the Surete would be personally involved. I have feel writers putting the leaders of police forces into Hollywood action scenes are succumbing to the lure of body counts. As much drama could have been created by having him dispatch the officers and await their hopeful return.

The secretive criminal mastermind faced by Gamache was not believable in his public face through the book. It would have been much better to have created an evil genius who operates his empire with a coterie of notable hench men and women.

The Gamache series is better when it tackles individual cases and human emotions rather than extravagant thriller concepts, especially those venturing into the realm of the super hero.

There remains an area that troubled my reading and it is the trial portrayed in the book. My concerns will be explored in my third post on Glass Houses.
(Three Pines - Fictional Location) Penny, Louise – (2005) - Still Life; (2006) - Dead Cold (Tied for 3rd Best fiction of 2006); (2007) - The Cruelest Month; (2009) - The Murder Stone (Tied for 4th Best fiction of 2009); (2010) - The Brutal Telling; (2011) - Bury Your Dead (Best Fiction of 2011)(2011) - A Trick of the Light; (2012) - The Beautiful Mystery (Part I) and The Beautiful Mystery (Part II); (2013) - "P" is for Louise Penny - Movie Producer and Review of the Movie Still Life; (2013) - How the Light Gets In and Comparing with The Gifted; (2014) - The Long Way Home; (2014) - The Armand Gamache Series after 10 Mysteries - Part I and Part II; (2015) - The Nature of the Beast (Part I) and The Nature of the Beast (Part II); (2016) - A Great Reckoning - The Academy and Comparisons and The Map

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Back from Cruising

Hannah Rae Selnes
Just over a month ago Sharon and I set off for Barcelona and back-to-back cruises on the Marina around the Mediterranean. I had plans for considerable reading and the occasional post about the books I would be reading but – sigh – technology faltered and I became distracted.

Marina is a beautiful ship with the Oceania Cruise Line. It has a capacity of 1,250 passengers and approximately 750 crew. Sharon and I enjoy our time aboard.

The technological flaw for blogging is the satellite based internet. It is far slower than the current average Wi-Fi on land. It does not reach even “moderate” high speed. Occasionally, especially when in port you can access the net fairly well though live video is almost impossible.

Most days, as with these cruises, the ship is in port during the day. Sharon and I, like our fellow passengers, like go ashore for formal and casual excursions. Thus we are not on the ship during the best “ship” time for the internet.

Where real problems arise is when the ship leaves port. While the internet system can usually handle modest wind it is inconsistent when the wind rises. To put up posts becomes difficult. Adding photos is time consuming and at times, impossible.

The ship’s internet person estimated there about 500 passengers trying to be on the net when we are at sea.

Having gone cruising with the goal of not being frustrated it became easier not to try posting.

At the same time I freely acknowledge I am easily distracted on the ship.

Team trivia twice a day occupies Sharon and myself. There will be up to 8 members on a team and we had a wonderful group on the first cruise. We were called the Vagabonds Plus. We had such a good time together Sharon and I invited the group to our cabin for champagne, cheese and fruit to celebrate. On the night before that cruise ended we organized a formal dinner together.

We also did well in winning Big O points which can be redeemed for ship merchandise. We left the ship with two sweatshirts, a ball cap and a tee shirt.

When not at trivia we were also deciding each late afternoon and evening whether to attend high tea or spend some time on deck or listen to the pre-dinner dance band or eat dinner or watch the nightly show in the theatre lounge or attend the post-show music at another lounge.

I faithfully carried my current book around the ship but reading suffered. Blogging felt too much like work.

There were a lot of fellow passengers with books. I found it notable that e-readers are not dominant. Over the past few years of cruising there are a significant number of e-readers on each cruise but they have not been increasing in number and, I would say there are more readers of paper books.

As the second cruise was concluding I was planning to get back to blogging promptly on our return to Canada. It did not happen for a good reason.

Sharon and I flew from Rome to Frankfurt to Calgary where we immediately went to the home of our son, Jonathan, and daughter-in-law, Lauren, to meet our first grandchild, Hannah Rae, who had been born while we were on the cruises.

We spent as much time as we could over the next 5 days with Hannah, Lauren and Jonathan. Sharon and I love holding the baby. After having sons Sharon was excited to have a girl in the family.

Then I ended up with a cold and, on our 7 hour drive home from Alberta, we underestimated the weather and drove through a winter storm. My associate, Brandi, and I had a stressful drive.

Last night Sharon and I were at the Melfort Public Library team trivia contest. After 10 rounds with 150 points at stake we were tied with the local Museum team at 122. I knew the answer to the tie breaker question and our team, the Vagabonds, were the winners!

Now I return to blogging. I admire those bloggers who can post, without fail, their way through the distractions of life. I am not one of them.