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, August 31, 2018

Paul Goldstein in Reverse

I like to read series in order. I can learn the primary characters and follow their development professionally and personally. Occasionally I will read a book later in a series. Usually it is because of a reading challenge or because it is involved in an Award where I read the shortlist. Only once have I read a series in reverse order. It is Paul Goldstein’s series of legal mysteries featuring intellectual property lawyer, Michael Seeley. I started reading the series with the third, Havana Requiembecause it won the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and went on to the second, A Patent Lie. My last two posts have formed a review of the first book in the series, Errors and Omissions.

(This post does not include spoilers that disclose the resolution of the three mysteries but it does provide details from all of the books. Someone reading them in order would be best advised not to read the post until they have concluded the series.)

I want to discuss the impact of reading the Michael Seeley series in reverse order.

Few lawyers in real life return to firms they have asked to leave because of their problems. It was with some surprise as I read Havana Requiem to learn that Seeley had come back to the large New York City firm – Boone, Bancroft – that had sent him away for alcohol abuse.

It would have been shocking to learn of his return if I had read Errors and Omissions before Havana Requiem. In the opening of Errors and Omissions Seeley is out of control. He drinks two tumblers of gin before going to court for a settlement conference.

While he does his best to stop drinking for the balance of the book he is not receiving professional assistance and is trying to quit on his own. His efforts are not enough to convince the firm to keep him. How can they trust him not to return to the bottle?

As well Seeley was disillusioned with the stress and financial demands of big firm practice. It was not a surprise in A Patent Lie the he had returned to his roots in Buffalo to be a solo practictioner working on the modest needs of individual clients.

He is drawn back to major litigation in A Patent Lie when he is asked to be lead trial counsel on a huge AIDS patent case in California.

I can understand his old firm’s interest in him after his success in California but many firms would not take the risk of his return. I admire the fictional firm for giving him another chance.

In Havana Requiem Seeley is caught up in a quest to regain the music rights for black Cuban composers lost since Castro took over Cuba in 1957.

While large firms will take on pro bono cases they are not known for idealism. Seeley sees a cause not merely a case.

I would have better understood the depths of his commitment to artists had I started with Errors and Omissions where he was anxious to take a case to trial on the moral rights of artists to control their works after sale. His eagerness to set a precedent prevented him from advising a client to accept a reasonable settlement.

In Errors and Omissions he is willing to turn away from a million dollar fee to help an author of movie screenplays blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950’s.

A Patent Lie involves commercial law. While Seeley remains an idealist the plot does not relate to artists.

Real life lawyers are rarely in physical danger in their work. In the fictional intellectual property worlds created by Goldstein lawyers are at risk in every book.

I did not expect the violence Seeley experienced in in Havana Requiem. I would have been ready had I read the series in order.

In A Patent Lie Seeley is called out to California because the lead plaintiff lawyer in the patent action has died but two weeks before trial. Hit by a train his death has been ruled a suicide. The suspicions of mystery readers are immediately engaged.

In Errors and Omissions Seely has a pair of fights. They go poorly for him. While he is tenacious he is not a fighter. It would have been better for Seeley to have his creator provided him with a black belt in judo if his legal career was going to be so dangerous.

Havana Requiem emphasized the international nature of intellectual property law. The music written by Cuban musicians before the Revolution was being used 50 laters in American ads. The rights of the composers also involved the Cuban government of today.

In AIDS A Patent Lie vaccines have worldwide issues on availability and cost.

Errors and Ommissions set up the international issues of intellectual law expanded upon in the later books. In Errors and Omissions the opening court case was over the moral rights of artists with regard to their works after sale. In searching for precedents Seeley looked at how the issue had been dealt with in Europe.

While an interesting experience I am not planning a repeat of the reverse order reading of a series. In real life court cases I strive to organize the narrative chronologically rather than thematically. It is the way I best follow evidence. Reading the Seeley series in reverse reinforced my preference for reading a series in order. A topic for another day are authors who write a book or books in a series that are set earlier than the current state of the series.
Goldstein, Paul - (2013) - Havana Requiem and Goldstein's reaction on winning the Harper Lee Prize; (2014) - A Patent Lie and Patents and Vaccines and Ethics; (2018) - Errors and Omissions and Review of Errors and Omissions

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Review of Errors and Omissions by Paul Goldstein

Errors and Omissions by Paul Goldstein – Michael Seeley, as outlined in my previous post, is facing the prospect in New York of charges of “moral turpitude” for appearing at a court settlement conference while impaired by alcohol. 

His firm gives him a last chance. Well known for his knowledge of intellectual property rights, he is one of the few lawyers in America that major movie studios rely on to provide letters of opinions to lenders that the legal framework for a movie is in order. 

The firm sends him to Hollywood to provide an opinion letter for United Pictures with regard to the latest movie in their very profitable Spykiller series of films.

What could be a straightforward review and opinion is complicated by the author of the screenplay, Bert Cobb, refusing to sign a transfer of his rights to the studio. The transfer will allow the studio to make the movie.

In decades past studios had gained transfers informally by such means as putting on a check to the screenwriter that if the cheque was cashed the rights were transferred. With Cobb the studio had been unable to find any paper that could be construed a transfer.

The transfer is needed because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision “ruling that to call a freelancer an employee was not enough to make him one”. 

Cobb, well into his senior years, is still working outside Los Angeles as a photographer. Despite modest means he turns down significant offers from the studio.

Studio executives press Seeley to find a way to write the opinion without Cobb’s signature. He refuses. He may be an alcoholic and his personal life a mess but he retains his professional integrity.

Seeley’s exploration into the writing of the original Spykiller movie stretches back 50 years.

Seeley, after meeting Cobb, doubts Cobb wrote the screenplay. He wonders if Cobb is a front. The screenplay was written during the 1950’s when the Hollywood blacklist was preventing many screenwriters from getting contracts. To make a living numerous writers had someone, not even a writer on occasion, be their front and sign that they had written the script instead of the actual writer.

Yet no blacklisted writer has ever claimed he or she wrote the screenplay.

Pressure is building on all involved to reach a resolution. A camera crew is ready to commence filming.

Yet it is not a world of black and white between the studios and the Artists Rights Alliance. Relationships between studio heads and the leadership of the Alliance are as complicated as all Hollywood relationships.

It was fascinating to read about how important a single page document, the transfer of rights, can be within a multi-billion dollar industry.

When negotiations falter violence ensues. I thought the violence unnecessary. Perhaps only lawyers see an abundance of tension in the issues of authorship and blacklisted writers. Much as I love reading about legal conflicts I expect this book would not have been published without some violence.

I admire Goldstein’s ability to make intellectual law gripping mystery fiction. My next post will look at reading the series of Michael Seeley books in reverse order.

(I said in my last post I would discuss what happens to Seeley’s battle with alcohol abuse. On travelling to Los Angeles he stops drinking. While he has yet to truly admit alcohol controls him he is trying to address his alcohol abuse. I know of few people as deep into alcohol as Seeley who were able to stop drinking on their own but I was glad to read of his intention to be sober.)
Goldstein, Paul - (2013) - Havana Requiem and Goldstein's reaction on winning the Harper Lee Prize; (2014) - A Patent Lie and Patents and Vaccines and Ethics; (2018) - Errors and Omissions

Friday, August 24, 2018

Errors and Omissions by Paul Goldstein

Errors and Omissions by Paul Goldstein – I found the opening chapters sad and hard. Reading about a lawyer in trouble is never easy for me. I want the lawyers of fiction to be honourable men and women diligently doing their best for clients. I know the blemished may draw more interest but I find it painful to read of them.

Michael Seeley is an intellectual property lawyer, one of the best in America. His skill with intellectual property cases induced a major New York City law firm to lure him from Buffalo and provide him with a partnership.

Unfortunately, he has burned out under the grind of continuing success. Winning case after case left him in ever greater demand. He has worn out and turned to alcohol. The occasional drink to relax has descended to addiction.

Before going to a case management conference he has a couple of tumblers of gin to ease his massive hangover. I was cringing as he went to court impaired.

Within the conference he is defiant urging his artist client not to accept $50,000 to his sculpture “a dozen or so rusted structural girders exploding through a brick wall in the lobby of a Park Avenue office building” to be painted. Seeley wants to win the case that will give artists moral rights over how their work is treated by purchasers. Principle is wonderful but a settlement was in the best interests, especially financial, of the client.

His impairment is obvious and the judge calls him out and says he will be pursuing a complaint against Seeley for “moral turpitude”.

A frustrated Seeley gets momentary satisfaction from calling the judge “a pompous toad”. The self-indulgent sarcasm will rebound against him.

The out of control alcoholic Seeley reminded me of a pair of real life cases in Western Canada.

A few years ago I was in a courtroom waiting for my case to be called for argument when I watched a lawyer facing a civil contempt charge. He had been caught by a judge during a hearing drinking vodka from his water glass. He was bound to be severely punished by the court. He had breached his responsibilities as an officer of the court.

More recently I read of a Saskatchewan lawyer defending a client in Queen’s Bench of criminal charges. As court began one morning the Crown Prosecutor thought he smelled alcohol on the breath of the defence counsel. When the defence counsel was almost half an hour late returning to court after lunch the prosecutor thought the smell stronger. He spoke to the defence counsel who said he had been drinking late into the previous night and definitely would still have alcohol in his system.

The defence counsel apologized to the court and, while he was sure he had alcohol in his system he was capable of proceeding with the trial. He was tested on an alcohol screening device and his reading was over .08.

With that test and the accused firing the defence counsel a mistrial was ordered and the matter referred to the Law Society. The lawyer voluntarily undertook not to practice law and sought treatment.

After 5 years of sobriety a hearing was conducted in which he pled guilty conduct unbecoming a lawyer. He was given the opportunity to re-apply for re-instatement as an active member of the Law Society on conditions.

The fictional Seeley is headed for comparable dire consequences.

I appreciate Goldstein is using the alcoholic lawyer to demonstrate the risks and consequences of addiction for lawyers. Yet I cannot help but feel bad for Seeley. He is a good lawyer and a decent person who, as is the case with almost every real life lawyer in similar circumstances, has fallen prey to alcohol abuse..

In real life in Saskatchewan Seeley could have picked up the phone and called Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers for help in addressing his problems. It is a confidential program funded by the Law Society but administered independently that is available free of charge for all Saskatchewan lawyers and their families.

Seeley is an all too real fictional lawyer. As I read the book I hope he will deal with his alcohol abuse before he is disbarred. I was drawn to writing this post before finishing the book. Spoiler or not my next post will advise what happens in Seeley’s struggles with alcohol.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney

(27. – 957.) The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney – A serial killer has raped and killed three women during the winter of 1969 in Glasgow. The papers have dubbed him “The Quaker” because he quotes the Bible on sin, especially sinful women.

There is a distinctly uncomfortable opening to the book. The first victim, Jacquilyn Keevins, recounts the events leading up to her murder and how she was attacked and how she hovers about her family, a ghostly presence of which they are unaware.

The murders have taken place amidst the devastation of urban renewal in Glasgow. Streets are lined with condemned buildings, many still containing a few residents determined to stay until the wreckers arrive at their door. A self-inflicted war zone has been created for the Quaker.

The police have a decent description of the Quaker:

…. A well-dressed modern man with his short fair hair and his neat raincoat, his gallantry and his hair trigger temper. Good manners. Nice diction …. Brown chalkstripe suit, regimental tie. Thick watchstrap. Embassy Filter. Overlapping two front teeth. Suede boots.

And still he has eluded the police.

DI Duncan McCormack is assigned from the Flying Squad to the team of officers still pursuing the investigation. They vigorously resent his presence. They rightly believe he has been designated to review their efforts and provide a report that will justify the dismantling of the team and the unofficial end of the investigation. They will be known as failures.

McCormack was born and grew up in the Highlands. His father died young from the corrosive effects of working in the furnace room of an aluminum plant:

You couldn’t see a yard in front of your face, the air soupy with dust and fumes, and a noise like Hades.

McCormack has asthma he controls with a puffer.

He is burdened with personal secrets.

Above all he is a dedicated thoughtful police officer. He does not blunder about using brute force to extract information.

McCormack sees past the anger of the Quaker team. They are saturated with frustration:

Fifteen months of work. A hundred cops in teams of twelve working fourteen hour days. They’d taken 50,000 statements. They’d interviewed 5,000 suspects, visited 700 dentists, 450 hairdressers, 240 tailors. Scores of churches and golf clubs. How many man hours did it come to – a million? Two? How could all these numbers add up to zero?

So many fair haired men have been suspected, informed upon and viewed by the sister of a murder victim who saw the Quaker that cards have been issued by the police to men cleared so they do not continue to be harassed.

While McCormack conducts his review safecracker, Alan Paton, is contacted to come back to Glasgow from London to join a team planning to rob an auction house of jewels. Initially reluctant he decides to participate. The return will be large and the risk is mangeable.

How McIlvanney connects the commercial robbery with the serial killer investigation reflects his skill as a writer.

And then a fourth murder turns all the analysis, too often assumptions, into turmoil. The investigation must begin anew.

McCormack is a sleuth to remember. His tenacity and intelligence ensure a thorough investigation. He has the rare ability to tackle a problem he has failed to solve by reflecting and taking a new approach. Human nature normally leads us to repeatedly tackle a problem in the same way thinking we must have missed an approach to solution in our first or second or continued attempts.

The plot was clever. There was a twist involving the actions of a suspect that was brilliant but to describe would be a huge spoiler.

The Quaker is one of the best works of crime fiction I have read in 2018. I want to read more of McIlvanney. His book, Where the Dead Men Go, was the winner of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel in 2014. I expect The Quaker to be on the shorlist for the 2019 Awards.

(I had not planned to read back to back books by New Zealand writers. I read Marlborough Man knowing I had a specific date on this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour for my review. I recently received a copy of The Quaker from the Canadian publisher, House of Anansi. I appreciate them providing me with the book. It was still on my desk waiting to go on the TBR pile when I finished Marlborough Man so I picked up The Quaker and could not put it down. I found my reading accelerating a pace with McCormack’s investigation.)

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Marlborough Man by Alan Carter

(26. – 956.) Marlborough Man by Alan Carter – Sgt. Nick Chester is a suspicious man. Even though he is living in the quiet countryside of the South Island of New Zealand he is wary of the unexpected and the unexplained.

He has been a recent émigré, more like refugee, from England. A few years ago he had gone undercover in Sunderland to penetrate the gang run by Sammy Pritchard.

His guise was clever, an officer in the Prisons Department, but surprisingly Chester uses his real name. It helps with the infiltration for Pritchard knows of Chester from going to the same school. It also means the gang knows he is married to Vanessa and has a son, Paulie, with Down’s Syndrome.

When the gang goes after them Chester and his family are re-located to New Zealand.

In New Zealand Chester is called out to the murder scene where six year old, Jamie Riley, has been found dead. The location is a local landmark. A thousand pairs of kids shoes have been hung on a fence.

The terse description of death by DC Ford says enough:

‘Neck snapped. But there was other damage too. Somebody has had him for a week now.’

Aiding Chester is a newly graduated officer, Constable Latifa Rapata. She is bright and ironic and capable. Her sharp tongue daily jabs Chester.

Chester is not the only resident of Havelock escaping a past. Australian pedophile, Patrick Smith, has come to the edge of New Zealand after constant harassment in Australia. He is living on an isolated beach only accessible by water.

DI Marianne Keegan, called in from Wellington, is leads the investigation. She is uncomfortable that Chester, a Sergeant, is stationed in Havelock, a town of but 500 people, and that Chester has no history.

Residing in a rural area of limited population means no stranger can stay unnoticed and local “sad bastards” are well known.

I was intrigued that the focus of the plot is divided almost equally between the murder investigation and Chester’s life.

Is Pritchard tracking down Chester and his family so he can wreak vengeance? The never ending tension is cruelly affecting his marriage to Vanessa. The question has to be resolved. His marriage cannot cope with the strain.

Having spent a lifetime representing people facing criminal charges, fractured marriages, broken contracts and all the other conflicts that lead to court I recognize that Chester will no longer turn away from his trouble. I say to many clients that everyone at least once in life must decide if they will stand up and fight for themselves. I will stand with them in court but only they can determine if they are ready to do battle. Chester will no longer run.

The characters are interesting. I cared about them.

Chester is a real man with a darkness to his character. A willingness to let the ends justify the means caught up to him in England. His work ambition has led him into exile far from home. Now he is dedicated to being a good police man. Being a good man is harder.

Chester’s wife, Vanessa, is a complex woman. Frustrated over being forced from England she is striving to re-build her life in this new land. She wants to love Chester however there are “buts”.

Paulie is a rarity in crime fiction. Relatively few mystery authors give their sleuths real families. Fewer yet have a sleuth with a challenged child. Chester and Vanessa love Paulie and think continually of his future needs.

The investigation is a gritty draining process. A book about a child killer hunt has a distressing and cruel theme. While never losing sight of the dreadfulness of the killings Marlborough Man is not a depressing book.

Carter skillfully involves Maori characters, Maori culture and the Maori language into the story.

The geography of the setting on the north edge of the South Island is important to the plot.

There are more bodies falling than I thought needed for the telling of the story. There was already abundant drama from the investigation in to the child killings and Chester's life. 

Carter has the knack of the best crime fiction writers in drawing readers deeply into the story. I consider Marlborough Man a strong candidate for winning the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Fiction.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Mike and Kaja's Wedding

Sharon and I have just returned from Calgary. We attended the wedding of our son, Michael, and his fiancée, Kaja. They were married on a hot sunny summer morning at her parents acreage. It was wonderful. We are proud to have another daughter-in-law. They sent us the two photos below. I thought they looked great and wanted to share them on the blog. I am happy they agreed.

For Moira and other interested readers a bit of information on Kaja's belt and Michael's shoes.

Kaja's belt was taken from the hem of a sari. Kaja lived in India for a period of time

Mike's shoes are red and black Magnanni Vada Brogued Whole Cut Shoes as best seen on the photo below.

Friday, August 10, 2018

My Choice for Winner of the 2018 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

Following a personal tradition I have read the shortlist for the 2018 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction and posted reviews of the individual book and will now put forward my choice for winner.

The shortlist was composed of:

1.) Proof by C.E. Tobisman;
2.) Testimony by Scott Turow; and,
3.) Exposed by Lisa Scottoline.

The actual winner was Proof by C.E. Tobisman.

I completed reading the books on the shortlist earlier this week. All were good books.

It does seem that the “thrillerization” of American crime fiction now includes legal mysteries. All three books had distinct elements of the thriller in their plots. At times each of the lawyers was far from the courtroom in their actions.

In considering which book I thought should have won the Award I look at the key Award criterion which sets out the Award is to go “to a book length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”.

Proof is the story of Caroline Auden, a solo practitioner in Los Angeles who engages in a quest to prove a huge charitable organization, Oasis, is engaged in systemic elder abuse.

The press release announcing the winner said with regard to Proof:

‘The Selection Committee praised the novel for advancing Lee’s legacy and her charge to award legal fiction that shows how lawyers can change society.

“‘Proof’ best captures the spirit of iconic characters, role of the legal profession in addressing social issues, and the concluding legal monologue of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and ‘Go Set A Watchman,’ ” Green said. “Caroline Auden is the perfect cross between lawyer Atticus Finch and the grown up Scout.”

It was very interesting to read of Auden’s computer skills in doing research for evidence and how she lived on the streets of Los Angeles with her Uncle Hitch when a killer was searching for her.

With regard to law Auden’s cause in challenging elder abuse is righteous but I struggle with her “role” as she engages in computer hacking in her good cause. I accept lawyers breaking the law can create dramatic legal fiction but I do not think such conduct “best illuminates the role of lawyers in society”.

Further if the power of lawyers “to effect change” comes from breaking the law we are on our way to ending “The Rule of Law” so painfully constructed over the last 800 years.

And what is the purpose of the oaths for lawyers being admitted to practice law in which they swear to uphold the law if they gain praise and reward for breaking the law?

Testimony by Scott Turow featured a middle aged mid-American male lawyer, Bill ten Boom, who joins the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He has been chosen to investigate the alleged mass murder of 400 Roma in Bosnia long after the end of the cruel war that divided that nation.

In his position he illustrates the role of lawyers in seeking to impose justice through an international court which will try those who have committed crimes against humanity.

Can lawyers and judges deter the next megalomaniac dictator from committing mass murder? I liked Boom’s reply to that question:

"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."

If we are to strive for a world that has accountability for state mass murder we need such lawyers and judges.

In Exposed by Lisa Scottoline her counsel, Mary DeNunzio, commences a lawsuit against a company which has fired an employee with a desperately ill daughter. The company is seeking to contain its health insurance costs by ridding itself of an employee whose child is bound to bring about increased expense.

Through the court action DeNunzio is attempting to bring change in health coverage for workers by challenging corporations denying health benefits due employees and their families.

Of all the books she is the lawyer most directly attempting to “effect change” for her court action seeks to use a federal statute on disabilities to prevent an employer from firing an employee over health insurance costs.

Of the books I thought Testimony best met the criterion of the “role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”. I would have chosen it for the Award. Proof and Exposed had lawyers, like myself, representing individuals taking on corporations trying to take advantage of people. Testimony had a bigger cause in working to change the world.