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, November 11, 2018

"Why" in Scrublands

As I read Scrublands by Chris Hammer I thought about why I was so caught up in the plot. I realized it was because the plot is focused on a favourite theme of mine in crime fiction. Scrublands is about “why”.

As set out in the opening to my review of the book in my last post Martin, who has come to Riversend to write a year after follow up on the murders by the local priest Byron Swift, finds himself in the midst of a different story. Mandalay (Mandy) Blonde cannot understand why Swift killed five men outside his church Sunday morning.

There is no “who” or “how” to be determined in Scrublands. Those questions at the heart of many mysteries are resolved before the end of the second page. But there is not a bit of “why” to the murders for even for those who lived in Riversend.

A year later Mandy is still haunted by “why”. She is not alone in being troubled by the lack of “why”. It is as an irresistible question for me as it is for Martin.

Through my life “why” has fascinated me. I expect I plagued my parents as a boy with constant questions of “why”.

I know that as a sports columnist it is my favourite question. Why was a certain play called? Why did a play succeed or fail? Why was a player in or out of the lineup?

As a lawyer when a client, whether facing a criminal charge or a civil suit, comes to the office I want to know the “why” of the facts told to me.

Thus in reading crime fiction I am invariably intrigued when “why” is at the heart of a novel.

When I spoke at the book launch of Volume 3 of A Literary History of Saskatchewan about my essay on crime fiction I told the gathering that one of the reasons I love crime fiction is because so many fine works in the genre delve into the “why” of the murder.

There is good reason, in fiction and in real life, to doubt someone has commited murder without a reason to kill.

Even as Martin learns more and more facts about Swift and the residents of Riversend the “why” of the killings is frustratingly elusive.

You would think it should be obvious. Police, except for the local officer, were content with the explanation that Swift killed for a reason related to his alleged molestation of children. Yet “why” would he kill to protect himself from wrathful parents or outraged community members when he could simply have left town,

Were it one or two killed the “why” may have related to unknown personal conflicts but there were five.

Potentially more promising was Swift’s mysterious past but “why” would problems in his life before Riversend, whatever they might be, have caused him to kill five local men.

I appreciate not everyone wants to know “why”. I have seen readers and bloggers express disinterest, even disdain, for the “why” of a murderer, especially a serial killer.

Some years ago I read an absorbing book, Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. In that book he explored 20 people who had sought to explain the “why” of Hitler’s decisions. Some explored “why” the innocent baby Hitler, as shown on the cover photo of the book in this post, had grown up to be one of history’s worst mass murderers.

Among the those covered in the book were two who took starkly different positions on “why”.

Claude Lanzmann, the creator of the acclaimed documentary Shoah, fiercely asserted there should no attempt to explain Hitler. He dogmatically states it is obscenity to try to understand:

“…. Why are the Jews being killed? Because there is no answer to the question of why.” Because, in other words, any answer begins inevitably to legitimize, to make “understandable” that process.

Lanzmann refers often to a remark by an Auschwitz guard – “Here there is no why”. He objects to even discussing “why”.

Auschwitz survivor Dr. Louis Micheels, the subject of a thinly veiled attack by Lanzmann, simply and eloquently argues in favour of “why”:

He explains the remark was accurate in Auschwitz, a world so “different and so foreign …. another planet, light-years away. It was inhabited by creatures that had little if anything in common with what we consider human beings …”

Micheels continues:

“However, in the civilized world to which so few of us, including Primo Levi, returned, there should be – da soll ein warum sein. Without an attempt, no matter how difficult and complex, at understanding, that very world, where truth is most important, could be lost again.”

“Da soll ein warum sein”: There must be a why.

On “why” with regard to murders, whether singular or serial or mass, I will always wants to know “why”.

I was glad there was a “why” in Scrublands. As to the “why” revealed I was satisfied.
Hammer, Chris - (2018) - Scrublands


  1. What an interesting post, Bill. And I know just what you mean about the appeal of books where we may know the 'who' and the 'what,' but the 'why' is revealed as the story goes on. Even for those who write whodunits, or other sorts of crime fiction, the 'why' matters. It gives a story credibility. If you can't explain why your character is doing something, then it's worth thinking of whether that character should do that thing.

    1. Margot: Thanks for the comment. I think "why" is not asked enough in crime fiction and the real world. Too often simplistic explanations are accepted without examination of the reasoning.

  2. I am with you, Bill, I always want to know why. And I'm glad to have even more expectation of great things from Scrublands.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. I am always puzzled when I meet people who are uninterested in why.

  3. I want to read Scrublands, just have to get a copy of it here.

    I always want to know why not only in fictional murders, but in real-life. When I see a horrific murder on TV news, I want to know who and why. Just saw one of a family on the news by a brother of the husband. First I wanted to know who did it, then immediately why.

    I always ask that question when watching brutality on the news. And it's true in crime fiction, although sometimes sheer brutality and sadism is the why of a psychopath and sociopath. Often not more is said.

    In Michael Connelly's latest adventure with Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch, a horrific cold murder case is solved. The perpetrator is caught. But the motive beyond pathology isn't given. Maybe it isn't often known in these cases in life.

    On the question of Hitler, I find it so disturbing that I often don't want to know why, just that it must be explained how evil the Nazis were and how their actions can never be repeated.

    Then I see the rise of far-right parties in Europe where migrants were attacked, even killed. And hatred and bigotry is the motive.
    Same is true here with the emergency of the so-called "alt" right.

    On to more legal mysteries.

  4. Kathy D.: Thanks for the comment. To me asking why means people are thinking not merely accepting statements. I wish I felt more people would ask "why" in the future.

  5. Asking "Why" is important. But does it stop the violence and bigotry going on now in Eastern Europe? And the far-right here, emboldened by the guy in the White House?
    Thankfully, the guy who killed 32-year-old, Heather Heyer, in Charlottesville, Va., and badly injured many other people, some who can't work, was just sentenced to life in prison and 419 more years.
    Do I want to know why this guy had so much hatred and minimized these human lives? Probably not. Just how this can be prevented in the future.
    Prison punishes, but it doesn't prevent these types of assaults.