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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

2018 Winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction - Proof

Yesterday the University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal announced that Proof by C.E. Tobisman was the winner of the 2018 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

The other books on the shortlist were Exposed by Lisa Scottoline and Testimony by Scott Turow. I have read both of them and have been planning to read Proof but it had not been easy to find a paper copy of the book in Canada. Ironically, the copy of Proof I ordered from the Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore in Toronto arrived today and I started reading Proof tonight.

Following a personal tradition, upon my completion of Proof I will put up a review of the book and then a post on which book from the shortlist I thought deserved to win the Prize.

This year's winning author, Cindy Tobisman, is a newcomer to legal fiction compared to Scottoline and Turow. 

The ABA Journal article states:

      Tobisman is a partner with Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland 
      in Los Angeles, where she practices appellate law. Under the 
      name C.E. Tobisman, she has published two novels, Doubt and 
     Proof, and a comic book series, Inside the Loop.

The news release of the Award from the University of Alabama sets out Tobisman's reaction:

      "I am honored, humbled, and frankly, totally stunned," 
      Tobisman said. "The spirit of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is the 
      spirit of one person's ability to make the world a little more
      fair. That the selection committee saw that spirit in my book is 
      something that I will treasure forever."

As has been the case in recent years readers of the ABA Journal were invited to help select which book would win by casting their vote at the Journal. The winner of the readers poll was a 5th vote joining the 4 individual judges.

This year the votes were 11.61% for Testimony, 16.42% for Proof and 71.98% for Exposed. I was a little surprised to see such a public landslide for Exposed.

The Prize will be awarded at the Library of Congress duing the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

Congratulations to Cindy and a thank you to the University of Alabama for sending me the news release.

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Book for Maxine in 2018

Margot Kinberg at her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, and I have been thinking about blogging friend, Maxine Clark, now gone 6 years. For the blog, Petrona Remembered, which was created in memory of Maxine I have joined other bloggers each year in recommending books we have read in the previous year that we would have recommended to Maxine were she still alive.

I chose Bluebird, Bluebird this year primarily because of the uniqueness of the sleuth. I think Maxine would have been fascinated and delighted by Darren Matthews, a classic Texas Ranger, who is African American. He confounds many rural white Texans who profoundly respect the Rangers but retain prejudice against black Americans.

I expect she would also have appreciated Attica Locke's skill in weaving current American race relations into the murder investigation.

I invite you to drop over to Margot's blog where she has a fine post on Petrona Remembered.

She will be putting up this post on Petrona Remembered.
(1. – 931.) Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke – After seeing Bluebird, Bluebird on many 2017 lists of best books and enjoying the reading of Black Water Rising I asked Santa for Bluebird, Bluebird and it was under the Christmas tree. I am glad I received the book. It is a wonderful book which has rightly propelled Locke into authorial superstardom.

It is a classic American Western with the lone lawman, Darren Mathews, fighting a powerful criminal gang. Mathews is a big man with a .45 on his hip and a 5 tipped star badge upon his chest riding into Lark, Texas in his Texas sized truck. Among contemporary Western American fictional lawmen I thought of Sheriff Walt Longmire from the series by Craig Johnson.

That the lawman is African American and the gang is the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas brings the old West into the 21st Century. Too often I find mysteries with a police officer acting on their own not credible but Locke has created a believable plot.

Making Mathews a Texas Ranger cements the iconic Western theme.

His family has deep roots in East Texas. They are a part of the black establishment of the region with a family home still at the center of their lives no matter where they work.

Continuing another Western tradition Mathews has a lovely wife back in Houston who, weary of worrying about her husband riding into danger, has demanded he leave the Rangers or she will leave the marriage.

Mathews thinks of resigning from the Rangers and returning to law school.

Yet he cannot resist the lure of solving a double murder in Lark. Michael Wright, a black man with roots in Texas, but now resident in Chicago, is found dead in a bayou outside Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, a country cafe. He has been brutally beaten. Two days Missy Dale, a young white woman, is found dead in the same bayou behind the same cafĂ©.

The story veers from the simple blacks and whites of Western lore into the complexity of racial relationships in the 21st Century of rural Texas.

The black residents know the local white sheriff, in a different American tradition, is looking to arrest one of them for the murder. Little effort will be made to investigate Michael’s death.

Mathews, a man of stubborn integrity, will not abide an investigation looking only for a black killer as resolution.

With the authority given him by his status as a Ranger he probes more deeply into the lives of white folk and black folk. What does not fit evil Southern tradition of exacting vengeance on black men when a white woman is attacked is that the black man was killed before the white woman.

Locke shows the discomfort the white residents have with a black Ranger but equally the respect they have for his badge. The world of race relations is being turned upside down.

I have not even discussed the remarkable characters who fill the book. Just one will suffice to illustrate the superb characterization.

Geneva, almost 70 years old, grieves her husband Joe, murdered 6 years ago. The book opens with her visiting his grave:

Geneva Sweet ran an orange extension cord past Mayva Greenwood, Beloved Wife and Mother, May She Rest with Her Heavenly Father. Late morning sunlight pinpricked through the trees, dotting a constellation of lights on the blanket of pine needles as Geneva’s feet as she snaked the cord between Mayva’s sister and her husband, Leland, Father and Brother in Christ. She gave the cord a good tug, making her way up the modest hill, careful not to step on the graves themselves, only the well-worn grooves between the headstones, which were spaced at haphazard and odd angles, like the teeth of a pauper.

Locke has created a Western lawman for this century in Mathews. I hope Bluebird, Bluebird is the first in a series. I want to read more of his adventures.

Friday, July 20, 2018

The B-Team by Melodie Campbell

(22. – 952.) The B-Team by Melodie Campbell – While in Toronto during the winter I picked up this novella at the Sleuth of Baker Street Store where there was an author event that included Ms. Campbell. I wish I had read the book sooner. It is an entertaining fun read.

It is a long time since I read a novella. Decades ago I often read the novellas or extended short stories featuring Nero Wolfe. It was nice to read again a book in less than an evening. I have come to think of current crime fiction as short fiction if a book is less than 300 pages.

Kitty, the white haired elder and retired burglar from a Hamilton based Italian family whose primary business is crime, puts together the B-Team. Inspired by the A-Team television series of the 1960’s Kitty announces her concept to her puzzled niece, Del:

“Nope. Vigilante group. I talked to your mom. We need one, with all the senior scams these days.” She leaned back in the chair and looked off into the distance with a spooky smile. “I’m thinking of calling it …. The B-Team. And Del, we want you to run it.”

Mom, Stella, is no suburban soccer mommy:

Stella Scarlottis was born on a cold day in January 1952. The men in the family said that ice had formed in her heart the say she was born. I knew different.

It wasn’t ice. It was steel. This is an industrial city, after all. And so, from the very beginning, Stellas has taken no crap. Not from anyone.

Strong women dominate the B-Team. The only male involved is Del’s brother, Dino.

A few months into the venture Del discusses the team:

Our mission is to help the underdog. That is, people who have been on the losing side of a bad deal and will likely suffer greatly because of it. Our most recent cases involved restoring someone’s good name, and preventing a blackmailer from preying on the helpless. Both noble endeavors.

The B-Team will be good vigilantes. In the tradition of Travis McGee they will be the last resort for the defrauded who have no means of legal recovery.

In the spirit of an earlier generation they will commit capers.

The subtitle explains their current caper and recalls an earlier era of subtitles:

            The case of the Angry First Wife.

Kitty calls the team together to recover a diamond necklace. A wealthy man has taken a second trophy wife. The first wife was unable in the divorce to obtain a beautiful necklace she had inherited from her grandmother. The B-Team is dispatched to recover the necklace.

In the tradition of Canadian crime fiction complications ensue but not a trail of bodies.

The strength of the book is in the characters. The members of the B-Team are engaging and memorable. I think they could form an estimable team for a new T.V. series. As I read the book I saw Kitty as a Betty White character.

I hope there will be further books featuring the B-Team. I would like to read more of their capers.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Lawyers and Opportunities in International Criminal Courts

Opportunities and what to do with them come for lawyers in different ways in fiction and real life.

Bill ten Boom in Scott Turow’s book, Testimony, is entering a new stage of life at 54. He has left a sterile marriage and resigned his partnership in a large American law firm. Yet he is not ready to sit on the beach or play endless rounds of golf.

With experience as an American prosecutor and extensive defence practice he has a strong background to become a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands.

Though he does not have experience in international criminal law he accepts the invitation to go to Europe to join the Court. It would have been easier to have stayed in America. Had he wanted to continue working as a lawyer there would have been law firms, including his old firm, or businesses or organizations ready to use his skills.

I found it very credible that Boom would venture into war crimes prosecution in his 50’s as I have a law school classmate who, after decades as a prosecutor in Canada, went to Kosovo to prosecute war crimes after the conflict involving Kosovo Albanians and Serbians.

By chance I was able to meet him on his return from Kosovo. He spoke of prosecuting war crimes. As with Boom he was attempting to gain a measure of justice for victims of war crimes.

We are accustomed in Western Canada as lawyers in criminal cases to think there is no physical danger from prosecuting or defending cases. My friend explained it was far different in Kosovo. Each morning before he would start his vehicle he would check to make sure no bomb had been attached to it during the night. In entering compounds guards would use mirrors to check under vehicles for bombs. I admired him but do not believe I could have done his work.

As I read Testimony I thought about Boom as a lawyer. He is an interesting lawyer. He thinks precisely. He is eloquent. He frames questions carefully. He is good at detecting and exposing what a witness does not want to say while being questioned. He is confident in his abilities as a lawyer.  

What is different at the ICC is his freedom in asking questions. When representing clients questions are asked by lawyers with the goal of advancing a client's position. Careers are built on being able to ask the right questions.

In Testimony Boom is able to ask questions as he considers appropriate for he has no further career aspirations in or out of government. 

As indicated above lawyers are normally constrained in questioning as they fear answers adverse to the interests of their clients. You had best have a good idea of the answer to a question before it is asked. To have the freedom to ask questions without worrying about the answers is a freedom seldom afforded lawyers. It would have been a liberating experience for Boom.

I had such an experience when I represented hemophiliacs and blood transfused infected with AIDS at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Canadian Blood System during the mid-1990’s. The instructions of my clients were to ask the questions needed to answer why they were infected. They did not care who made the decisions that resulted in their infections. They simply wanted me to pursue the truth.

I appreciated the opportunity to represent the infected. At the same time it was difficult representing people infected with AIDS when there was no treatment. Client after client died during the Inquiry.

For the fictional Boom and for my friend and myself the chance to pursue justice on a grand scale rather than the individual cases of our regular legal lives was a special opportunity that each of us appreciated.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Testimony by Scott Turow

(21. – 951.) Testimony by Scott Turow - I have been thinking about Testimony since it was published last year. I even gave a copy to my son, Michael, for Christmas. I was finally prompted to read the book when it was chosen for the 2018 shortlist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. I wish I had read the book sooner.

Any book featuring a 54 year old trial lawyer as the prime character is bound to appeal to me.

At 50 Bill ten Boom, known as Boom, started walking away from his wife and his partnership in a large mid-American law firm. His departure was eased by the millions he made as a partner and the millions he inherited from his parents.

After a 4 year transition he is ready to try retirement but he is recruited by Roger Clewey, an old college friend who is almost certainly a member of an American intelligence agency by the vagueness of his government position, to become a prosecutor at the International Crimes Court in the Hague, Netherlands.

More specifically he will be tasked with the investigation of an alleged mass killing of 400 Roma in Bosnia in 2004 approximately 10 years after the civil war there had concluded. It is alleged as no bodies have been found. No one, beyond Roma advocacy groups, has investigated the disappearance of the 400 Roma. If there was mass murder and the perpetrators can be identified Boom will lead the prosecution at the trial.

Complicating the process is the unwillingness of America, which fears being drawn into international criminal courts, to aid in the investigation. Indeed, there is The Hague Invasion Act which includes a provision prohibiting any level of American government or government agency from providing information to the Court. The American military clearly has relevant information as the killings took place within a few miles of a major American army base.

Complicating Boom’s work is the lovely and dramatic Esma. An English lawyer she is a staunch advocate for the Roma people. Withdrawing from representing a Roma witness allows her to fulfill her physical desire for Boom. Her passion is reciprocated by the generally reserved Boom.

Within the investigation are layers of intrigue with regard to the reliability of forensic evidence. Turow writes so well about scientific evidence. He makes interesting such subjects as the study of the minerals absorbed by buried bones being compared to the minerals in soil specimens from where the bones were buried.

The Roma have been victims for hundreds of years. They are consistently reviled throughout Europe. The prejudice against them is intense enough to make credible that there are multiple groups who might have committed mass murder. Boom is repeatedly told the Roma are liars and thieves. It is clear their only loyalty is to the Roma community.

Could it be that 40 years after the My Lai massacre by American forces in Vietnam that a contemporary American unit could have killed the Roma? I admit I wanted the American soldiers to be innocent.

The leading suspects are followers of the former Bosnian Serb leader, Laza Kajevic. The charismatic Kajevic was clearly inspired by the real life Radovan Karadzic down to the silver streak in his elaborate hair.

Boom’s investigation is thorough. At the same time surprises await at each step.

The Balkans have been complicated for a long time. There are fierce rivalries that have endured for centuries. Boom is an honourable man in a land of treachery and deceit.

He believes in an international criminal court bringing to justice those who have committed crimes against humanity. When a colleague skeptically questions convictions deterring any future international mass murderers he states: 

      "How's this, Goos? I know this much: Justice is good. I accept 
      the value of testimony, of letting victims be heard. But 
      consequences are essential. People can't believe in civilization
      without being certain that a society will organize itself to do 
      what it can to make wrongs right. Allowing the slaughter of
      four hundred innocents to go unpunished demeans the lives 
      each of us leads. It's that simple."

The challenge in Testimony is proof. Testimony in court can be compelling but is the evidence of a massacre true?

Turow has written among the rarest of thrillers. There are complex facts. The body count is low. Challenging legal and societal issues are addressed. The characters, including Boom are multi-dimensional. Personal lives are messy. Best of all I never had to consciously suspend disbelief to enjoy the story. The twists and turns are fully credible. Testimony is one of Turow’s best books.

Turow, Scott – (2000) - Personal Injuries (Third best fiction of 2000); (2003) - Reversible Errors (Tied for the best fiction in 2003); (2007) - Ordinary Heroes; (2011) - Innocent; (2012) - One L (Michael Selnes review); (2012) - Thoughts on Reviews of One L by Myself and Michael; (2014) - Identical; Hardcover 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Exposed by Lisa Scottoline

(20. – 950.) Exposed by Lisa Scottoline – Philadelphia lawyer, Mary DiNunzio, has spent her life within the loving confines of the close-knit Italian community in South Philadelphia. Family extends out to include neighbourhood friends.

Mary’s father, Tony, arrives at her office for a consultation. With him are his best friends – The Three Tonies:

Her father had grown up with The Tonys; Tony “From-Down-The-Block” Lomonaco, “Pigeon” Tony Lucia, and Tony “Two Feet” Pensiera, which got shortened to “Feet,” so even his nickname had a nickname. It went without saying that name traditions in South Phlly were sui generis which was Latin for completely insane. The Tonys went everywhere with her father and sometimes helped her on her cases, which was liking having a secret weapon or a traveling nightmare.

They have come to ask her to help Feet’s son, her unofficial cousin Simon, who has been dismissed by his employer, OpenSpace, an office cubicle manufacturing company.

Simon is already in the midst of a personal crisis. His wife has died and his young daughter, Rachel, is in need of a bone marrow transplant.

When Mary hears he was fired because his employer was concerned about the costs of the costs to the company health insurance because of Rachel’s medical condition Mary sees an excellent case for wrongful dismissal.

In her enthusiasm and desire to support her family and community Mary makes a fundamental mistake for any lawyer in a private law firm larger than one. Without doing a conflict review within the firm she commits to representing him.

When she advises her partner, Bennie Rosato, of the new case she learns to her dismay that Bennie is the long time lawyer for Dumbarton Industries, the parent company to Simon’s employer.

A huge ethical issue must be addressed. One lawyer cannot represent a client in a lawsuit against another client of the firm. There is a conflict of interest between the respective clients. Firms of every size require conflicts checks before taking on new cases.

Leaving aside the plausibility of Mary taking on a case without determining if there was a conflict I was surprised to learn the issue is not as clear cut as I expected where one of the clients is the parent company to the company being sued as is the case in Mary’s action.

What Mary’s action inevitably provokes is the question whether Mary and Bennie can remain partners. Mary has acted precipitously, if not recklessly, and while there may be legal authority for being able to sue Open Spaces even though Bennie represents the parent company there are serious issues for the partnership. Law partners must trust each other and cannot be worried a partner will take up a case that may casuse a conflict with other clients of the firm. Taking the case against a client is further bound to have an adverse effect upon the firm’s relationship with the existing client.
In Exposed the owner of Dumbarton is Nate Lence, who Bennie has known since law school. He is incensed that Bennie will not forthwith prohibit Mary from taking the case. Bennie explains to her lover, Declan, Lence’s reaction:

            …. “He wouldn’t normally, but this time, he’s taking it 

            “Because you’re involved. Hell hath no fury like a lawyer
To Scottoline’s credit Mary and Bennie remain respectful of each other as they determine whether there is a way for their partnership to survive. Both accept the other is honourable and not out to hurt the other partner.

As they wrestle with the question of conflict of interest the sales manager of Open Space is killed and Simon is the leading suspect.

I was startled by the murder. I had been caught up in the story of the civil action for wrongful dismissal, the transplant drama of Rachel and the conflict of interest issue. I had no need of a murder to keep me engrossed. If anything, I found the murder a distraction.

Scottoline’s resolution of the murder is cleverly done. Mary and Bennie use their legal skills to determine the real killer.

The conclusion was more Hollywood than I prefer in a book but the thriller conclusion was again well done by Scottoline.

You cannot describe Exposed as a light read with the serious legal issues addressed in the plot and a murder being solved. At the same time it was easy reading.

There are precious few works of legal fiction that emphasize positive family relationships. Mary’s family, official and unofficial, are warm emotional people. Most lawyers I know have such families. I wish more of them were created in legal fiction.

Exposed is the second book from the 2018 shortlist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction I have read. I enjoyed the book.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

11th Canadian Book Challenge Roundup (Part II)

In my last post I listed the books I had read for the 11th Canadian Book Challenge.

The 8 works of fiction this year were set in a variety of locations. Two took place in Ontario, two in British Columbia, one in Saskatchewan, one in Quebec, one in Nova Scotia and one outside Canada in Massachusetts.

Of the 5 non-fiction books there were four set in Western Canada and one that was set across Canada. More Tough Crimes had cases set in a variety of provinces.

In my mid-year review my favourite fiction at that time was The Winners' Circle. It remains my favourite fiction of the Challenge. The book moves into another generation of the Kilbourn family. Joanne's adopted daughter, Taylor, and two teenage girls who are daughters of Zack's partners have key roles in the book. The Winners' Circle contains a massive surprise in the plot.

Of the remaining books I thought Cut You Down by Sam Wiebe marked the maturing of Sam as a writer.

Full Disclosure by Beverley McLachlin was the most interesting because McLachlin, a first time fiction author, is the just retired Chief Justice of Canada. While new authors hunger for recognition her authorial debut gained vast attention because of her position.  Full Disclosure is a fine first novel and I expect it will get Awards attention in the coming year. While reading McLachlin's book I thought about P.D. James who turned to writing crime fiction after retiring from the British Home Office. James wrote wonderfully plotted books with fascinating characters drawing on her experiences with the British legal system.. Few authors match James and McLachlin is not there but I do hope she goes on to write more legal fiction.

From the non-fiction The Work of Justice is my favourite. The book tells the story of Robert Raymond Cook, the last person to be executed in Alberta. He was convicted of murdering his father, stepmother and five half-siblings.  He went to the gallows stating he was innocent.

Of the remaining books I was not surprised to find Gail Bowen wrote a great how-to book in Sleuth - Gail Bowen on Writing Mysteries. Gail's long career as an academic, she is a retired English professor, is reflected in her advice to aspiring crime fiction writers. You do not need to be worried about her professorial background. The book is not dense academic prose covered with footnotes. It is very readable.

The Mighty Hughes was unique in that I knew the subject of the biography, Ted Hughes. He was a judge in Saskatchewan when I was a young lawyer. It was humbling to read of his commitment to justice in Canada. Many lawyers are advocates for causes. None beyond Hughes have served the ideals of justice as a lawyer, judge, provincial Department of Justice civil servant, Commissioner of multiple public inquiries and the lead adjudicator on resolving thousands of claims for compensation with regard to Indian Residential Schools.

I have no plan for the 12th Canadian Book Challenge beyond trying to read more Canadian crime fiction than I did for the 11th Challenge and getting read the full shortlist for Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Fiction Novel.