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.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Magic of St. Denis and Three Pines

As I read Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker I thought about the Armand Gamache mysteries of Louise Penny set in Three Pines, a village an hour away from Montreal. Bruno’s community of St. Denis is larger, about 3,000 inhabitants, but it is still a town.

Three Pines has a mystique that comes from not being upon the map. St. Denis is known and its business leaders would like it to be better known but its tourist industry is modest.

With each community, whether Bruno in St. Denis or Armand in Three Pines there is a close, even intimate, connection between the residents.

There is a moving description of what the community provided Bruno, who has modest resources, when he bought a run down home in the countryside:

His colleagues at the Mairie had chipped in to buy him a washing machine. Joe, his predecessor as chief of police, brought him a cockreland half a dozen hens. It seemed that every housewife in St. Denis had prepared him jars of homemade pate or preserved vegetables and jas, salamis and rillettes. Not a pig had been killed in St. Denis over the past year without some of it reaching Bruno’s larder. The tennis club brought him crockery. The staff of the medical clinic gave him a mirror for his bedroom and a cupboard with a first-aid kit that could have equipped a small hospital. Fat Jeanne from the market gave him a mixed set of wine and water glasses that she had picked up at the last vide-grenier jumble sale, and the staff at the Bricommarche had donated a set of cooking pots. Michel and others from the public-works depot gave him some old spades and garden tools that they had managed to replace by juggling the following year’s budget. The gendarmes bought him a big radio, and the fire department gave him a shotgun and hunting licence. The children in the tennis and rugby clubs whom he taught to play had put together their centimes and bought him a young apple tree, and everyone who came to his housewarming brought him a bottle of good wine to lay down in the cellar that he and Joe had built under the new wing.

Having retired, though now re-activated, to Three Pines, Armand and his wife, Reine-Marie, host Friday night barbecues with neighbours bringing food.

Other days and nights they enjoy visits in other homes.

In Three Pines the community congregates at the bistro of Olivier and Gabri for good food and drink. In Kingdom of the Blind there is a winter breakfast of “warm blueberry crêpes, sausages, and maple syrup, and a café au lait”.

In St. Denis there are more choices in restaurants Bruno favours Fauquet’s where the usual  morning repast is a modest croissant and coffee. But if it is Saturday morning he will be at the market to savour “a small glass of red wine with the thick hunk of bread stuffed with Stéphane’s rabbit pâté”.

Celebrations are personal. In St. Denis two old members of the Resistance proudly carry flags of remembrance in parades. In Three Pines there is a winter carnival with a snowshoe race around the green.

Sorrow is personally shared. When Hamid al-Bakr the elderly patriarch of the family is murdered Bruno visits his son and grandson to personally rather than professionally extend his sympathy. A stained glass window in the church in Three Pines commemorates the deceased young men of Three Pines who died during World War I.

There is a warmth to each community. From knowing each other, caring about each other and enjoying each other the people of St. Denis and Three Pines are so inviting.

I had a comparable feeling growing up in Meskanaw in rural Saskatchewan. We were close to our neighbours and knew we could count upon each other. There is a bond in the country that cannot be maintained in the large populations of the city. Walker and Penny in their respective series capture that feeling of togetherness. They portray the best of life in the country.

It is not utopia to live in rural communities. Evil comes to the country as well as the city. There are problems between neighbours. Yet country folk have a feeling of community that is absent in the city. I love visiting St. Denis and Three Pines in my mind.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker (2008) - There come moments that make me so glad I read. When I start a book and a sense of wonder comes over me drawing me into the world created by the author. Before the end of the first chapter I wanted to visit Bruno Corrèges and the town of St. Denis in the Dordogne and stay awhile and enjoy the fine food and wine. It is the same feeling I had when I read Still Life the first Armand Gamache mystery by Louise Penny and was introduced to the mythical village of Three Pines. I may write more of the similarities in my next post.

A former army veteran who served in Bosnia Bruno, no one addresses him as Chief, has been the town Chief of Police for 10 years. He enjoys people.

His aversion to computers reflects his method of policing:

They tended to get in the way of the kind of police work he understood,
which was mainly about getting to know people.

When a crime is committed he is likely to know the perpetrator before even starting his investigation.

He follows a tradition allowed fewer and fewer police. He uses discretion in enforcing the law. Small transgressions are not always prosecuted. Modern formal systems of alternative measures have had to be created to avoid criminal records for minor breaches of the law. I doubt our enforcement of law has been enhanced by bureaucratizing discretion.

Bruno is content and his community free of major crime until the elderly Hamid al-Bakr, a Harki (an Algerian who fought for France during Algeria’s war of independence) and had a Croix de Guerre on the wall of his modest home is murdered. Upon his chest has been carved a swastika.

A hate crime stirs the attention of politicians in Paris.

Tension within the nation has built as millions of North Africans have emigrated to France. The anti-immigration Front National, once limited to the far right, has been gathering support from a broader cross-section of French society. 

Yet Hamid and his family do not fit the stereotype of idle North Africans practising Islam and raising large families.

Hamid was a soldier of France fighting in Vietnam as well as Algeria. His son is a math teacher. The family is secular.

Mayor Mangin and Bruno are anxious to solve the murder not only to because the killer took one of their community. They fear damage to the reputation of St.Denis and the tourist trade if the murder is widely publicized.

Can it be that there are violent members of the Front National in the commune of St. Denis? None of the residents has displayed the virulence of a true believer in the Front.

It is in Bruno’s character to care. An orphan since he was a young child he cares for all around him. It makes Bruno a better policeman. 

There is sorrow in Bruno’s past. It is hard to have a new relationship when lost love, a decade later, still hurts. Bruno is doing his best to move on.

I have been unhappy with stereotypes of rural people as unsophisticated simple folk. Here there is the stereotype of a magistrate sent from Paris as a member of the urban elite with a superior attitude.

The investigation takes Bruno back into the dark days of the Nazi occupation of World War II. It is uncomfortable for there were collaborators as well as resistants. Can there be events over 60 years earlier that provoke murder?

Bruno, Chief of Police is a brilliant book. It is so convincing in its images of the land and the people of St. Denis. The story flows easily. Bruno is a great character you want to know better. It is one of my favourite books of 2019. I wish I had started the series sooner. (August 20, 2019)

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Mink Eyes by Dan Flanigan

Mink Eyes by Dan Flanigan - In the fall of 1986 Peter O’Keefe, a Vietnam veteran, seeks to avoid a return to the haze of drug addiction with the aid of alcohol, exercise and work. His 10 year old daughter, Kelly visits him on weekends. She loves her Dad and worries about his future. She is beautiful and he worries about her teenage future. He lets work interfere with their slight time together.

He has a private investigation firm. The lovely Sara is efficient in the office and aspiring to be an investigator. The firm is struggling to complete all its contracts. In a situation familiar to me, as a partner in a small law firm, O’Keefe would like to stop taking new cases for awhile but he needs to keep the “pipeline” full to meet the overhead of the firm.

He enjoys the classical, both literature and music.

O’Keefe’s quick temper leads to impulsive decisions.

He is agonizing over whether to enter contracts with major companies to do drug testing. He accepts his business is all about invasion of privacy but is uncomfortable as the testing is “just chemistry versus the workingman’s piss”.

One of his best sources of work is Mike Harrigan, a friend since childhood, a lawyer driving to build a big firm to fill the floor of the skyscraper he has leased and the floor below on which he holds an option.

Harrigan calls him to a meeting at the firm. His elegant office is designed not to impress but to intimidate clients and other lawyers.

I have been in those offices in the big cities of Canada. I never found them intimidating. The more stylish the furnishings, the more impressive the artwork, the longer the conference table the more I thought the setting is but decor. Who sits behind the desk or at the head of the conference table determines if there is intimidation. When the trappings are ostentatious the man or woman behind the desk may be under an illusion that their office projects power. Many of the personal offices of the most powerful lawyers I have met are modest in size, simple in design and cluttered. They know it is their legal skills and presence and reputation that are intimidating. Maybe the office intimidates clients.

O’Keefe is hired to investigate a mink farm that appears to be a Ponzi scheme.

He travels into the country to the farm which has clearly run out of money. Lenny Parker, the huckster businessman who enticed the investors, has disappeared.

His beautiful wife, Tag, is in the process of leaving when O’Keefe arrives at their opulent home.

Bodies start dropping as a pair of thugs with an unknown agenda arrive upon the scene. Tag flees leaving O’Keefe in despair. He retreats to the city.

He slips into self-pitying drunkenness. Getting drunk while Kelly is with him is embarrassing. 

O’Keefe could be a 21st Century Travis McGee but his mood swings are too intense. It was jarring how O’Keefe oscillates between being an excellent investigator and competent businessman to being an uncaring drunk. 

His investigation becomes a quest. A “lone knight errant” on a mission. Few quests in medieval days or current times end well.

Flanigan is gifted with language. His images are vivid and the dialogue lively.

At the same time it grated upon me the simplistic portrayals of the rural residents. They are stereotypes. The Sheriff is a “demented yokel”. The city people are multidimensional and the country people are one dimensional.

Mink Eyes is a good book. It had the potential to be an excellent book. Decreased dysfunction.  Less brooding. A greater presence for Kelly. (She may be the most interesting character.) Some depth to minor characters. Fewer people defined by their appearance. 

I hope Flanigan, a fellow lawyer, writes another novel. I think he could craft a compelling legal mystery with Harrigan as lead character assisted by a capable O’Keefe. (August 14, 2019)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Fourth Courier by Timothy J. Smith

The Fourth Courier by Timothy J. Smith - Poland in 1992 is an unsettled country as it adjusts to the collapse of the Communist government.

FBI agent, Jay Porter, is sent to assist Polish police in investigating the deaths of three men. Traces of radiation have been found on their hands. It is thought they were couriers but what was the radioactive material they transported. It is likely they came from Russia.

Director Basia Husarska is in charge of the investigation. Detective Leszek Kulski is the lead police officer.

All the bodies are found along the Vistula River. Their killer has wanted them found. There is a distinctive slash on the cheek of each victim.

There is little evidence. No one saw the murders. The victims carry no identification. Despite circulating photos around Poland no one has identified them.

Serbian General Dravko Mladic has a dream. With civil wars breaking out in the former Yugoslavia he wants to restore Serbia to its historic borders and be the man to lead the nation.

Russian nuclear physicist, Sergej Ustinov, has access to bomb grade uranium, the knowledge to build an atomic bomb and an intense desire to leave the confines of Russia for the freedom of the Western World.

Life in post-Communist Eastern Europe is dreary and chaotic as nations adjust to new politics and a new economy. Money is scarce and the future is filled with uncertainty. Adapting to freedom is difficult.

Mladic is a dangerous zealot ready to use one or more atomic bombs to achieve his dream of a resurgent Serbia led by himself. At the same time he has a conflicted sexuality and enjoys torture.

The home lives of the major characters except Kulski are in turmoil. I wish a few of them could have had average families.

What Smith handles best in the book is treachery. I expected devious characters but was surprised by who was untrustworthy. 

Porter is a clever man who learned some Polish before leaving America and works to add to his knowledge of the language in Poland. He is principled. Personally he left behind a messy marital breakup.

Can Kuksi and Porter find the bomb before it leaves Poland? 

With no one to be trusted and the authorities closing in, the villains are in their own race against discovery.

Tension builds but does not crest. I never felt the danger needed for a thriller. A blurb suggested The Fourth Courier was a book for Alan Furst fans. There was a comparative atmospheric feel of a Furst book but Furst wisely does not write about potential cataclysmic consequences.

The plot was unpredictable. The personal interactions of the characters were predictable.

Several of the interactions and conversations involving members of the American embassy  felt implausible.

The Fourth Courier is a pretty good book.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Our 40th Anniversary!

Sharon and I celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary tomorrow. We were married in Humboldt at St. Augustine's with 3 priests (Father Maurice, Father Florian and Father Lawrence) from St. Peter's monastery con-celebrating our wedding Mass. It was a lovely summer day.

To celebrate tonight we went to Nipawin for supper at the Mabel Hill Farm Kitchen and Marketplace. We had a wonderful meal. Our server, Skylar, took the above photo of us.

Mabel Hill is just east of Nipawin. The restaurant is bright and airy. Outside our window there was
outdoor seating on the deck. Had it not been raining it would have been great to have eaten there.

Beyond the deck is a grouping of chairs around a fire pit.

Past the pit is a field of fresh vegetables.

In addition to supplying the restaurant there are pickled vegetables for sale.

We started with an appetizer of a zucchini blossom stuffed with ricotta and crab and lightly deep fried.

It was beautiful and delicious.

The last time we had a stuffed zucchini blossom was on a cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean on the island of Rhodes. We walked ashore for a tour that involved cooking at a fish restaurant. Stuffed zucchini blossoms were one of the dishes we prepared.

Tonight's appetizer brought back some nice memories.

We went on to have crab dip for second appetizer. Accompanying the dip was a small salad which included fennel, apple and celery. It was
delicious. We asked for extra crostini.

During the meal we chatted with Mieka, the General Manager. I said the restaurant had the feel of a European country restaurant. At the same time it has the freshness of a new building and the space of Western Canada around the restaurant.

We said we hoped they would consider a tasting menu. Mieka said they have done it on one occasion and may do it again.

For the main course we had a ribeye steak for two that had been dry aged for 38 days. We appreciated that it was pre-sliced.

There was a black garlic aoli sauce for dipping the steak. It was a great match.

To the side of the steak were "maple balsamic dressed greens with soy nuts".

In the bowl were truffle fries. Sharon loved them.

For dessert we had deconstructed
Black Forest cake. The presentation was striking. I thought the cherries were the best.

As we were eating I thought of another rural Saskatchewan restaurant, Rawhide's which is down in Stenen. Both are located in the country. Each features fine food expanding the choices for dining outside Saskatchewan's major cities.

Sharon and I had previously enjoyed a meal Chef Michael Brownlee had prepared at Creekside Orchard in Melfort. He told the diners of his dreams for what has become Mabel Hill. He has succeeded brilliantly.

Sharon and I had a special evening.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Fresh Evidence in Fiction and Real Life

Sophie Weber, in Beyond All Reasonable Doubt by Malin Persson Giolito, undertakes the difficult task of winning a criminal appeal in the Swedish court system. 

The challenge is compounded by the lack of legal error in the conduct of the trial.

She is left with establishing the evidence securing the conviction was unreliable. In her thorough review of the file she finds important evidence not presented at trial and evidence that forensic testimony was unreliable. Presenting evidence and attacking an expert are both very difficult on appeal.

As I do not know Swedish criminal law I shall discuss the case in the book using the process that would apply in Canada. I have personal experience in this area from a civil case. The law is essentially the same in criminal law.

To bring evidence to the Court of Appeal not given at trial is to apply to introduce fresh evidence. Such applications are rarely granted.

They are considered on what is often called the Palmer test. In a case involving Walmart the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal set out the four factors from the test that must be met to admit fresh evidence:

“The evidence will not be admitted, if by due diligence it could have been used at trial;
“The evidence must be relevant in the sense that it bears upon a decisive or potentially decisive issue in the action;
“The evidence must be credible in the sense that it is reasonably capable of belief; and,
“ It must be such that if believed could reasonably, when taken with the other evidence adduced at trial, be expected to have affected the result.”

The fresh evidence in the Swedish case was available though buried in the extensive disclosure provided by the prosecution.

In my case involving a question of arson in a claim for insurance coverage the original lawyer for my clients, though he knew samples had been taken from the house, did not check for the results. Had he obtained the results he would have learned there was no evidence of accelerants. My clients had lost the trial with him as their lawyer.

Weber could argue as we did that the trial lawyer did not do his job properly. While appellate courts do not want to be plagued with cases on the competency of trial lawyers there is a sub-factor that in criminal cases the element of “due diligence” is not applied as strictly.

In the Swedish case and my case the second factor was clearly met for the fresh evidence dealt with the decisive issue. In the criminal case it challenged the forensic base for tying the accused to the murder. In my case it challenged the report of an expert who had said the fire was deliberately set though that expert had not considered the negative test results for accelerants in his report.

With regard to the third factor the evidence was in Sweden, as in my case, physical evidence that was reliable.

The fourth factor is met in the Swedish case for, when the fresh evidence is accepted, there is no evidence to tie the accused to the murder. In my case the test results  of the crime laboratory could, in the words of the factor, “reasonably, when taken with the other evidence adduced at trial, be expected to have affected the result” on the cause of the fire.

“Fresh” is a vivid word to use in describing evidence sought to be admitted on appeal that was not part of the trial. I cannot recall any crime fiction featuring a “fresh” evidence application.
Giolito, Malin Persson - (2019) - Beyond All Reasonable Doubt

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Beyond All Reasonable Doubt by Malin Persson Giolito

Beyond All Reasonable Doubt by Malin Persson Giolito (Translated by Rachel Wilson Broyles) - Teenage Katrin Bjork, her parents away, invites her boyfriend for supper. He arrives interested only in sex. The 15 year old Katrin thinks sex followed by the meal. And then he turns brutal and she is dead.

Over a decade later Sophie Weber’s former law professor, Hans Segerstad, pushes her to take up the appeal of Stig Ahlin who was convicted of killing Katrin. He believes Ahlin is innocent. She is reluctant. It is not the crime. She has dealt with vicious crimes. Her claim she is not ready to take on another pro bono case is insincere. Her real hesitation is that she does not want to lose and such appeals absorb great amounts of time and are rarely successful. Yet the appeal will draw the same intense attention as the trial. Few defence counsel can resist the lure of a big case. When she agrees to look at the file she has actually, though not consciously, made the decision to represent Professor Death.

The story shifts back and forth between the original investigation by Bertil Lundberg and Weber working on the appeal.

The initial investigation struggled to find a suspect. There was no one in Katrin’s life who appeared to be a killer. And then, in the nursing home where Katrin worked part-time, an elderly woman with a wandering memory tells investigators that her son was kissing Katrin. It is a slender clue but it leads the police to look at Ahlin.

He is a very successful 35 year old doctor. At the same time he is arrogant and demanding and expectant that his wishes, demands, will be satisfied. 

Women seek him out sexually. He is not surprised when Katrin wants him. Age is of no concern. He uses her for his own satisfaction.

The investigation examines his personal life and concerns over his relationship with his four year old daughter, Ida. Divorced from her mother he has never been much of a father.

Ahlin maintains he only had a sexual relationship with Katrin and that he never killed her. He protests he never did anything improper with his daughter. Weber is intrigued by the prospect Ahlin is innocent. In an unusual act of legal self-justification she says she will represent him as long as she does not find evidence that he is guilty. She knows it is contrary to legal ethics to so restrict her representation but that is her condition. Her requirement places an unnecessary pressure upon her. It is difficult to know if someone is innocent. Wrongful conviction does not mean innocence. 

Weber commences her review of the case. While the circumstantial evidence should not have been enough to convict Ahlin merely pointing out weaknesses in the evidence will never win an appeal. If not Ahlin than who killed Katrin?

Weber focuses on the teeth marks on Katrin’s body. Forensic analysis identifies them as having been made by Ahlin. Can that analysis be challenged? I wondered at the reliability of an analysis of teeth marks. What analysis had police, prosecutors and experts done of the teeth marks?

She engages in the tedious but crucial process of wading through the mass of documents which are ill organized. Average lawyers skim files for the obviously important documents. It is easy to miss a crucial document in a cursory review.

Weber finds a document that gives her the means to challenge the pivotal evidence. In my next post I will discuss the difficulty of using evidence discovered by the defence after trial.

While the evidence she finds and the new analysis done is strong I thought she still needed a viable potential alternative killer.

It means exploring Katrin’s life. The image at trial was of a wonderful 15 year old. Weber rightly questions the one dimensional view. At that time no one wanted to re-victimize the victim. Laudable in principle avoiding a careful examination of the life of the victim can produce a wrongful conviction as prosecutors and police tunnel in on the accused they believe committed the crime.

Weber’s detailed, sometimes plodding, review of the details provides a startling simple explanation I had not seen, though all the information needed was provided the reader.

It was interesting to read how a Swedish murder appeal is handled. Since the author was a practising lawyer in Sweden I expect she got the procedure correct. Unlike Canada and the U.S. there was no oral argument. It was a paper appeal.

Beyond All Reasonable Doubt is well written and well translated. Giolito captures the grind of reviewing what seem like endless pages of trial evidence and exhibits for an appeal argument. 

Readers seeking a resolution beyond all reasonable doubt will be disappointed. Readers who appreciate complex characters and that ambiguity exists in crime will relish preparing the appeal with Sophie Weber. The ending will leave you in a thoughtful mood. I want to read more by Ms. Giolito.