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, December 31, 2018

Puerto Vallarta in The Eye of the Beholder

The first section of The Eye of the Beholder by Janice MacDonald is set in Puerto Vallarta. Sharon and I have made a couple of trips to the city on winter vacations much like the fictional newlyweds, Randy Craig and Steve Browning. 

I found myself walking in my mind with Randy and Steve down the streets of Puerto Vallarta. MacDonald’s portrayal of the city is precise and accurate in description and in spirit.

Making the story even more realistic, almost non-fiction, she uses the actual names of streets, some businesses and tourist activities.

Sharon and I might have stayed in the same hotel as that chosen by Randy and Steve. It was a nice hotel of a few stories with a comfortable rooftop pool and a few loungers. With my inability to tan we spent little time in the sun by the pool.

I remember well strolling down the Malecon, the strolling boulevard along the ocean, that is at the heart of the city. 

It is a lovely walk. Amid the tourist shops are some interesting stores. Randy and Steve are taken with a store featuring the work of indigenous artists. Steve buys a small parrot. 

Sharon and I enjoyed browsing through comparable shops of handmade jewelry, paintings and sculpture.

Randy and Steve go shopping at “a clothing store near the Church of Our Lady of the Guadalupe, where the prices were fixed and the woman owner no nonsense”. I expect we were in the same shop which was down a few stairs from street level. While Randy bought a black embroidered blouse for herself Sharon bought a pair of dresses (one black and one white) with lovely flowers embroidered upon them.

We also brought back with us some Mexican glassware though our glasses came from a market in the town of Bucerias near Puerto Vallarta.

Randy and Steve receive a recommendation to visit The Cheeky Monkey restaurant at sunset. They enjoy the view while drinking and eating fish tacos. I recall The Cheeky Monkey as advertising it had some of the cheapest beer in Puerto Vallarta.

Randy drops into A Page in the Sun, the combination cafĂ© and bookstore. Sharon, Michael (our son), Kaja (his partner – now wife) and myself stopped for a drink. I browsed through the store.

Randy buys a second hand copy of a Tana French novel and a biography of famed Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, at the shop. A copy of the same biography is found in the handbag of the murdered Kristen Perry on a bit of beach not far from A Page in the Sun.

Michael bought a well used copy Snow Falling on Cedars at the shop and gave it to me to read. I found it absorbing and my posts about the book included the story of its purchase. Here is a link to that post - http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2016/08/a-page-in-sun-and-snow-falling-on-cedars.html.

Most interesting to me was the intersection of my memory of walking the Malecon and MacDonald’s accuracy in depicting Puerto Vallarta and Google maps allowing readers to see exact locations. I was able to determine where the body of Perry was posed on the beach.

Randy describes the scene:

I spied a girl below who had already staked out her sun tanning area right at the end of a spit of sand at the end of the island in the river. She had a woven mat laid out with an orangey red beach towel on top. She herself was in a red bathing suit, with a large white and yellow straw hat covering her face …… I took a photo of her mostly for the odd tableau composition of her and her belongings fanned out around her, with the wide ocean as a backdrop.

Here is a screen shot from Google Maps of the location.

It was interesting, if not a touch eerie, to be able to look at the location of the fictional murder.

MacDonald has clearly enjoyed her trips to Puerto Vallarta and advises readers that she looks forward to more winter sojourns to the city.

(It is a good day to think of a warm place. It is currently -29C in Melfort with a wind chill of -41C.)

MacDonald, Janice - (2015) - Another Margaret and Q & A; (2017) - Hang Down Your Head and Shopping Perfection; (2018) - The Eye of the Beholder

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Eye of the Beholder by Janice MacDonald

(41. – 971.) The Eye of the Beholder by Janice MacDonald – In one of the happiest openings to a work of crime fiction Alberta university lecturer, Miranda “Randy” Craig, marries her long term love Steve Browning. Mature in years, they are united at the Muttary Conservatory amidst lush plants and flowers in a lovely mid-winter Edmonton ceremony. I think genuine events of joy are too rare in mysteries.

The newlyweds join masses of Western Canadians in flying south to enjoy a warm weather respite from the rigours of our harsh winters.

Their destination is Puerto Vallarta, a lovely city for a winter vacation. My next post will compare some of my experiences in the city with those of the fictional Randy.

Randy and Steve have a wonderful relaxing honeymoon until ....

As they near the end of their week in Mexico Steve is called to the police station. A University of Alberta student, Kristen Perry has been murdered and her body left posed, on a bit of beach area in downtown Puerto Vallarta. She was on the same flight as Randy and Steve.

Randy realizes that she had taken a photo of Kristen, her head under a hat, lying on a beach towel. Though her motive in taking the photo was innocent she feels insensitive, even intrusive, in photographing the deceased Kristen.

Mexican authorities are anxious to establish the murder was not connected to Mexico. Interviews do not suggest a Mexican suspect. The strongest reason for an Alberta killer is Kristen had been in Mexico but a few days. I was glad no one was suggesting it was some random act of violence. Whether real life or fiction it is an implausible scenario.

With a touch of reluctance and a mutual commitment to return again Randy and Steve fly home.

Because Kristen was an art student and Randy has connections with the Art faculty members at the University of Alberta Steve requests some help from Randy in exploring Perry’s life as a student. Life is as complicated in personal relationships on campus as off the university.

What makes the book most intriguing is the posed tableau of the murder scene. The initial reaction is the pose deflected attention delaying an immediate investigation. Observers, as with Randy, thought she was sun tanning.

On her return to Edmonton Randy reflects that the scene could actually be a morbid work of art. Is the posed Perry actually a symbolic creation? Thoughts turn to the Dan Brown books featuring symbologist, Robert Langdon. How significant is the biography of Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, that was in Perry’s beach bag? The positioning of the body reminds Randy of Kahlo’s paintings. Is there a fiendishly clever murderer showing off?

MacDonald is clever in creating a murder acene with symbols, clues, that are obscure but not too obscure for an intelligent sleuth using her skills to unravel them. I thought it brilliant how MacDonald uses Randy’s talents as an academic researcher in literature to study and research and reflect in the investigation.

Randy, as an informal academic expert to the police, has a plausible role in the investigation.

MacDonald further weaves visual art into the book with Randy and Steve searching for artworks to decorate Steve’s, now their condo. Her parents provided a wonderful wedding present of $2,000 to be used for the purchase of art for their home. They explore galleries and a street art festival for works by Edmonton and area artists. The search gives them a chance to undertake an exploration, even adventure, together as newlyweds. While they have been a couple for years they are cherishing the intimacy of the commitment of marriage and sharing a home.

As they look for original art Randy reflects on the inconsistency with which viewers consider art:

“I wonder why it is I never mind seeing a new production of a Shakespeare play or an opera, and yet I whine about Hollywood remaking European movies or even redoing movies they’ve already done. There’s something about the movies that seems set in stone, I guess.”
“You can extrapolate to the visual arts, too. We get Van Gogh painting several versions of his Sunflowers, and instead of the art world saying, ‘well, here’s the best one,’ or even, well, that’s just him churning out a still life to make some grocery money,’ we look for distinctions between the one in the Netherlands and the one in the National Gallery, even turning that into an art experience. And of course, what about Monet and his endless water lilies?”

There is clearly a message in how Kristen was posed and the items around her and in her bag but what is the message and for whom was the message intended?

I thought the plot was the strongest of the three books in the series I have read. I was not excited about Randy making a foray into danger at the end but the conclusion fit very well with the theme of the book.

The writing has a lyrical quality reflecting Randy’s status as a happy, even contented, woman appreciating a successful beginning to marriage and a good future ahead. The words from the “Apache” (not actually from that indigenous culture) blessing that now there will be no more loneliness captures her mood.

MacDonald, Janice - (2015) - Another Margaret and Q & A; (2017) - Hang Down Your Head and Shopping Perfection

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear

(40. – 970.) Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear – Maisie Dobbs is restless. While a modest woman she knows she has a  accomplished a great deal in her 33 years. She is no longer pre-occupied by the traumas of WW I. Maisie feels her life has been confined and limited. Her experience of the world has been England and the time she spent in France during the war. She dreams of traveling the world, especially India where her mentor Maurice Blanche had journeyed.

As she contemplates a trip that will really be a quest to gain wisdom from residents of distant lands she also considers her relationship with James Crompton. He wants to marry her and go to Canada. She is unsure about both marriage and Canada. She is uncertain their love is enough to sustain marriage.

As she contemplates her options Maisie has a pair of investigations.

Her primary investigation is to aid Scotland Yard in solving the murder of Usha Pramal, an Indian woman, who was shot between the eyes. As a beautiful woman dressing in brilliantly hued saris Usha draws constant attention. Her personality is outgoing and she goes through life with a smile upon her face.

At the same time businessman, Jesmond Martin, has retained her to find his son, Robert, who, at 14, has run away from school and not been in touch with his family. Thinking it would give him confidence she assigned the investigation to her assistant, Billy Beale. Instead, it proved too much for him and his health has regressed.

Usha has a unique gift in that the touch of her hands can draw pain out of a suffering woman. Her presence and soothing touch reminded me Maisie has an enduring skill. Maisie has learned from copying the posture and movements of people what they are feeling.

Maisie believes the effect of Usha’s touch was enhanced by her willingness to touch those suffering. Maisie recalls the plaintive comments of a wounded veteran that no one wants to touch the disfigured and the maimed.

In addition to her touch Usha had knowledge of Indian spices and herbs used to help alleviate pain.

There is no obvious motive or suspect. Scotland Yard conducted but a perfunctory investigation forcing Maisie, months later, to start the investigation anew.

Maisie reflects on pain and prejudice:

       “… I believe there is some pain, something untoward in certain
       people – certain communities  even – perhaps it’s anger, a 
       sense of dispossession or disenfranchisement, and they have to
       destroy that which brings joy, and love.”

Jealousy is among the most insidious of the human vices. Were it not for all the real life examples – present and past - I would doubt the power of jealousy.

Visible expressions of vicious prejudice towards the outsider provide obvious suspects. Where the prejudice is concealed only a probing and perceptive investigator can detect or deduce such bitterness.

Maisie finds no one in Usha’s life with clear anger towards her or Indian people.

Aiding Maisie is her assistant, Sandra, who is displaying ever more confidence through working with Maisie and studying at university at night.

Considering the subject matter I was not expecting a continuation of the series tradition of the plot being connected to WW I. Winspear does come up with a sad and credible link to the war.

While reading Leaving Everything Most Loved I was reminded of the Joanne Kilbourn series by Gail Bowen. I am as caught up in the continuing personal stories of Maisie and the other continuing characters as the mystery being unfolded.

Who could not long for James and Maisie to marry? They respect as well as love each other. Yet Maisie remains hesitant. I am anxious to find out whether she can resolve her restlessness. I will be sad if they do not marry.

Winspear does not emphasize the racist attitudes of many English citizens. She does make clear that they considered themselves superior to the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.

Maisie continues to develop as a character. It is a superb series.

Winspear, Jacqueline – (2008) - Maisie Dobbs(Best fiction of 2008) (2008) - Birds of a Feather; (2009) - Pardonable Lies; (2011) - Messenger of Truth; (2012) - An Incomplete Revenge; (2012) - Among the Mad; (2013) - The Mapping of Love and Death; (2016) - A Lesson in Secrets; (2016) - Elegy for Eddie; Hardcover or paperback by choice 

Friday, December 14, 2018

21 Days in Normandy by Angelo Caravaggio Conclusions

Major General George Kitching

21 Days in Normandy by Angelo Caravaggio - In my previous post I started a review of 21 Days in Normandy which examines the 4th Canadian Armoured Division's battles to close the Falaise Gap in the summer of 1944 and the conduct of the battles by their General, George Kitching.

Operation Totalize, the attack intended to close the gap, was their first major battle. The innovative night attack produced a breakthrough.

In the morning the Canadians paused. Those at the point of the attack wanted to press on but their commanders refused citing concerns over a planned bombing that could have endangered them and the need for supporting forces to catch up. There were massive logistical issues as they were operating on a narrow front creating a major bottleneck. It is Caravaggio’s opinion that the narrow front was a key impediment to break out.

Caravaggio further believes the tanks wanting to advance would have been stopped by German anti-tank defences but they never tried. The commanders below Kitching did not know what to do with unexpected success. There can be little doubt that aggressive German or American leaders would have attacked. There is no evidence that Kitching was even consulted by subordinate officers on the decision to stop the advance.

The Canadian Army, despite a year of fighting in Italy in WW II before the invasion of Normandy, was not yet ready to exploit success. The direction of Simonds that there be no holding back in Operation Totalize was not the Canadian army way at that time.

Within the Canadian army the 4th Division was even less ready.

The officers commanded by Kitching in the 4 Armd had varied backgrounds and experience. One officer, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Booth, was to become infamous in Normandy. At least one fellow officer considered him a poor brigadier before the Normandy campaign. During the battle Kitching found him asleep and drunk in his tank. Kitching verbally lashed him but left him in command. Kitching should never have excused such dereliction of duty and his decision reflects on his ability to make hard decisions in combat.

During this battle Kitching was not close enough to the front at the point of breakthrough and later was too close to the front when he was needed at Division HQ.

In Tractable, the second battle for the Gap, Kitching was hampered by confusing and shifting and inappropriate orders from Simonds. It appeared to me Simonds had lost confidence in Kitching by Simonds’ attempted micro management of the battle.

Considering the problems with his orders I believe Kitching effectively commanded his division in Tractable.

In both battles subordinates let Kitching down. At pivotal moments they were slow to get underway. At the same time Kitching did not find ways to drive them. He was a good man but not the man to lead and exploit a break out.

I did appreciate better that sending an armoured division into its first battle was bound to have challenges and the division not to be as effective as a more experienced division.

Of all the Canadian generals at that time I think only Bert Hoffmeister had the combination of drive and iniative and sense of battle to have closed the Gap on time. Hoffmeister was still in Italy.

Caravaggio clearly admires Kitching and thinks he got a raw deal in Normandy. He finds it hard to offer than the odd minor criticism of Kitching. The book is an interesting perspective on the battle, especially with regard to Simonds, but did not convince me Kitching performed well in the battles to close the Gap. It is difficult for a biographer to be objective, even more challenging when the writer likes his subject.

I do agree Kitching was made a scapegoat for the failure to close the gap as expected. He did not lose the battles. Kitching’s failing was that he did not win them as fast as commanders above him planned.

The book makes clear that the other generals in Totalize and Tractable from Simonds through the generals commanding other divsions such as the Polish Armoured Division had their own problems and contributed to the perceived lack of success but they were not replaced. It was easiest to sacrifice Kitching.
21 Days in Normandy by Angelo Caravaggio

Thursday, December 13, 2018

21 Days in Normandy by Angelo Caravaggio

(24. – 954.) 21 Days in Normandy by Angelo Caravaggio – Over the past 15 years I have been reading about the Canadian army in Normandy. In particular, I have read several accounts about the Canadian Army’s efforts to close the Falaise Gap in August of 1944. It was the moment during the war when the Canadian army had the opportunity to change the war. Closing the gap quickly would have meant the capture and destruction of the German army in Normandy. It was rare that the Canadian army had a chance to play such a significant role.

Canada did close the gap but it took longer than most historians felt needed which allowed tens of thousands of German soldiers to escape.

In the battles to close the gap the tip of the Canadian army was the 4th Canadian Armoured Division (4 Cdn Arm Div). Their leader, Major General George Kitching, was relieved of his command as the battle ended. Caravaggio argues he should not have been removed.

In 21 Days in Normandy there is a detailed exploration of the structure and makeup of the Canadian army. That section is slow going and could have been significantly reduced with much of the information consigned to footnotes or appendices for those readers wanting such detail. (There were already detailed and extensive footnotes and appendices.)

It was useful to have background information especially about the woeful state of the Canadian army in 1939. Canada was ill-prepared for armoured warfare. When WW II commenced Canada had a mere “sixteen outdated British Light Mk VI tanks and twelve Carden-Lloyd carriers”.

Unlike most books on battles there is extensive discussion on how army bureaucracy can help or hinder the troops fighting the battles.

The Canadian army of WW II had an enormous number of reports and orders flowing up and down from division HQ. With regard to the functioning of the division in Normandy:

Breakdowns in situational awareness, common intent and battle procedure would plague the 4 CDN Armd Div in its first major battle.

Kitching trained and served in the British Army before coming to Canada in 1938. He joined the Canadian Army in 1939 as a 2nd lieutenant. By February of 1944 he was a Major General in commanding the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. It was a series of promotions not uncommon in the rapidly expanding Canadian army of WW II. It was not considered necessary that the commander of an armoured division have experience in an armoured division. Kitching was an infantry officer.

Simonds worked well with Kitching in Sicily and Italy and wanted Kitchings to be with him in northern Europe. Each highly respected the other.

It was a surprise that the division had no actual division scale exercises prior to being deployed to France.

They arrived in France well after the invasion on June 6.

They prepared for battle and moved into position in early August to lead the attack to close the gap.

(My next post will contain the rest of my review.)

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Discussing "why" with Chris Hammer

With the aid of Abigail Novak from Simon & Schuster I sent  a message to Chris Hammer about his book Scrublands. He was able to reply. Our exchange is below. I appreciate the thoughtful response of Chris. I hope he writes more books with "why" at the heart of the book.
To: Chris Hammer

I am requesting your publisher forward this note to you. I have written a pair of posts about Scrublands. Here is a link to the first post – http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2018/11/scrublands-by-chris-hammer.html

The second post, which will be put up in a couple of days, is below this message.

Living in rural Saskatchewan, another vast thinly populated land, your depiction of life in the small community of Riversend felt right to me but it was not the country setting that I wanted to ask you about with regard to Scrublands.

I would be very interested in knowing “why” you put “why” as the quest in Scrublands.

As set out in my second post “why” is a question of never ending interest to me.

I thought the book brilliantly written and was very glad I received the opportunity from your publisher to read the book.

Thank you for considering my question. If you are able to reply and willing to let me publish your response in my blog I would post this letter and your answer.


Bill Selnes 

One reason I like reading crime books - and writing them, as it turns out - is they can encompass so much more than just a plot.

Don't get me wrong; the plot is essential. It's hard to imagine a successful crime book without a good plot. But there is room for so much more. And in particular for nuanced, complex characters, including characters that change over the course of a book.

I hope that is the case with my protagonist, Martin Scarsden. He's a different man at the end of Scrublands than he was at the beginning.

So why 'why'? Most contemporary crime books involve murder, often committed by regular members of the community (as opposed to mafia hitmen etc.). So it's not enough to simply reveal who did it; to make it credible and satisfying read, you need to at least suggest why they did it. Was it greed, jealousy, hatred? Or was the motivation more complex?

For me, the questions of 'why' can be more intriguing for the reader than 'who' and 'how'. Because at the end of any crime book, the reader should know for certain who the killer was and how they committed the crime, but the question of 'why' can be more subtle, even ambiguous. More can be left tot he reader's imagination. They can ponder whether the murder was in any way justified and wonder if there were any alternatives if events had played out slightly differently.

So for me the 'why' is always more important, not just to explain the actions of the killer, but to explain the actions and interactions of the other characters as well.

Chris Hammer
Hammer, Chris - (2018) - Scrublands and "Why" in Scrublands