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.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Bill's Best of Fiction for 2019

In the final hours of the year and the decade I am posting my Bill’s Best of Fiction list for 2019.  While many lists are compiled from mid to late November I prefer to make my list at the end of December representing my reading for the full year. My next post will have my Bill’s Best of Non-Fiction and Most Interesting.

The year was reading special for me as I completed my quest to read 1,000 books  in 20 years. My final total was 1,030 books read from January 1, 2000 to December 31, 2019.

On to the list for 2019:

1.) The Boat People by Sharon Bala - I loved Bala’s fictional recounting of a refugee ship of Tamils arriving off the coast of Vancouver Island in 2009. The book found favour with the judges of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction winning the 2019 Prize. Bala became the first non-American winner.

In an era in  which popular entertainment, including books, pumps up heroes and demonizes villains Bala wrote a thoughtful challenging story of Mahindan and his son, Sellian, proceeding through the refugee claims process of Canada. Bala treated with respect Mahindan, his lawyer Priya and the adjudicator, Grace.

I was conflicted on the claims. The civil war in Sri Lanka had ended. What was their risk? Who is a genuine refugee? And who should be considered a terrorist can be challenging.

The end of the book did not have a resolution of the refugee claim. On her website Bala said she was leaving that issue up to the readers. I took up the challenge writing the judgment I thought the adjudicator would have written. Bala kindly wrote me she was thrilled with my engagement with her characters.

2.) The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup - I was prompted to read this book by the praise it received in The New York Times. I do not often read books about serial killers. Sveistrup proved a worthy exception. 

Danish detectives investigate a series of murders with few clues. The paucity of clues ultimately is a clue. A deliberate clue was a small figure of a man made from chestnuts. The innocent past-time of Danish children in the fall becomes a sinister maddeningly obscure clue.

Leading the investigation are Mark Hess, a detective sent back to Denmark by Europol, and Naia Thulin, a young homicide detective early awaiting a transfer to cyber-crimes. They are an intriguing clever team who must look back over 30 years to solve the murders.

Sveistrup has been a skilled screenwriter who joins other recent screenwriters of quality crime fiction. Attica Locke, who wrote Bluebird, Bluebird which was my 2018 pick for Best Fiction, was a writer for series in Hollywood. A.J. Devlin, an excellent new Canadian crime fiction author, has a M.F.A. in screenwriting.

3.) The Woman Who Married a Bear (1992) by John Straley - A beautifully written work of fiction that happens to be about crime, The Woman Who Married a Bear, was given to me by a friend, Maureen Long, who is a professor of English in the Yukon. She was right in thinking I would enjoy the book.

I found it a book in which the setting of Alaska was integral to the plot. The ocean, forests and people of Alaska were vivid and important to the story.

Straley was often lyrical in his writing, a quality not often found in crime fiction.

The sleuth, Cecil Younger, is also uncommon in that he writes poetry, including haikus, and reads The New York Times Review of Books.

3.) Blackwater Bluff by S.M. Hurley - I admit a bias with regard to Blackwatr Bluff. It would be hard for me not to like a legal mystery featuring a lawyer resident in rural Canada. It could only have been better if the lawyer resided in Saskatchewan.

S.M. Hurley, the pen name of Ontario lawyer Shelagh Mathers, created a fascinating lawyer in prosecutor, Augusta “Augie” de Graaf. Injured by an angry accused during a trial she looks to solve the murder of her mentor and inspiration in the legal profession.

In a twist on the usual process of a prosecutor relentlessly pursuing a suspect she becomes a quasi-defence counsel challenging the assumptions of guilt held of the leading suspect by the police. She carefully examines the evidence and finds the flaws in the same way defence lawyers examine evidence.

Lastly, I was impressed that Hurley had Augie use her legal training and skills to identify the killer.

A Happy New year to all readers of the blog.

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Billionaire Murders by Kevin Donovan

The Billionaire Murders by Kevin Donovan - Two years ago this month Barry and Honey Sherman were found dead sitting beside their indoor pool with jackets pining their arms and belts tied to the railing behind them. They were billionaires with an estimated net worth of $5 to almost $10 billion.

As with Canadians across our land I was instantly drawn to the mystery of their deaths. How had they died? Speculation was extreme.

When a Toronto detective said in interview that evening that there were no signs of forced entry and the police “were not currently looking for any suspects” media reports swiftly announced a suspected murder - suicide.

Family and friends were indignant protesting that the Sherman’s were murdered.

Criminal defence lawyer, Brian Greenspan, puts together a team of investigators and scientists to conduct their own investigation. American pathologists comment that there has never been a murder - suicide by hanging.

When I saw The Billionaire Murders at a bookstore I instantly decided to buy it. I was most interested to see if the book confirmed the information I had been told by family friends some months after their deaths. They told me they never believed it was murder - suicide. They said Barry would never have killed Honey and then committed suicide. They went on to say Barry could never have carried her through the house and hoisted Honey’s body up  as he could not raise his arms over his head. 

The only discussion on the book was on the implausibility of the physically unfit Barry dragging Honey through the house to the pool. What was striking was there seems to have been no assessment by the police of the ability of Barry to move his wife, especially in the early stages of the investigation.

The police belief in murder - suicide meant their focus was on seeking confirmation. Their theory was premature. I have seen many times that when police reach a conclusion early in an investigation they cease looking for evidence that might be contradictory. 

The autopsy showed death by strangulation and that their wrists had abrasions consistent with being bound. There was injury to Honey’s face done either just before or just after death. It appeared the belts had been used to strangle each of them.

I asked their friends about security at the house wondering about the police observation of “no forced entry”. They told me the Sherman’s never turned on their security system. The book said the Sherman’s did not believe in security systems and there were neither cameras nor alarms at the house. There was a place for a security camera by the pool but it had never been set up.

The Shermans had no security guards or live-in staff. They had a cleaning lady once a week and someone who would come by to water the plants. Despite their wealth they felt uncomfortable hiring people to help them.

Another prominent Toronto Jewish family have the opposite approach to security. The  Reichmann’s live in homes with abundant security.

When the police finally concluded the Sherman’s were targeted murders speculation turned to who would want to murder them.

Considering the constant business litigation in which Barry engaged would a disgruntled competitor hire a killer? Their friends dismissed the idea. They said in the generic drug business litigation is routine. No one would kill. Their fights were in court.

The book explored some of those court battles. Barry relished court and was a fierce litigant. Over the decades he won and lost cases involving hundreds of millions of dollars. Going to court was just one of the costs of his business.

The suspects with the greatest motivation were the Winter family, cousins of Barry, who had lost a billion dollar lawsuit shortly before the murders. Donovan spoke to the most vocal cousin, Kerry Winter, who openly spoke of his bitterness and denied killing Barry and Honey.

There was tension, even discord, at times between the Sherman parents and their children. There was disappointment in that none of the four children had gone into Apotex.  Jonathon thought his father wasted tens of millions in bad investments. At the same time Jonothon’s business ventures had been modestly successful. Overall the children received millions of dollars and could expect to receive much more.

There were no signs that any of the children were in danger of being disinherited. Though not public the will apparently provided money for Honey during her lifetime and divided the property equally between the four children after she was gone. A major surprise was that Honey did not have a will.

Jonathon wrote to the author, who had written him asking questions which, from the author’s descriptions were straightforward, that “I can only term are his insane accusations that I am implicated in the murder of my parents.”

There were numerous other private lawsuits. It appears almost every builder with whom Barry dealt ended up being sued. My next post will look at some of his court actions. Could some aggrieved litigant have exacted revenge? 

The book reads like each chapter was a serialization in a newspaper or magazine. Information is repeated throughout the book. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Merry Christmas from Kelowna!

Sharon and I are in Kelowna for Christmas. We flew in Friday and had an unexpected greeting party in my neice Helen, her husband Jae-Sock, and their daughters, Annalynn and Annabelle. Also flying in Friday were Jon, Lauren, Hannah and Hazel. After being delayed by a road closure Mike and Kaja arrived Saturday evening.

We are sharing a house in central Kelowna and have been enjoying our time being hosted by Helen and her family.

The Summerhill Winery is an excellent place for supper and free wine tasting. The Spadefoot Toad Syrah went very well with prime rib and steak. It is one of the most unique wine names we have ever encountered.

A walk from the downtown park by the water led us to Bread & Co. where we enjoyed cheese and broccoli soup with fresh bread.

The winter farmers' market provided the Christmas turkey, Italian sausage, soups, apple juice with market spices, smoked gouda, cards and two bracelets for little girls. Hannah, at 2, found Farmer Bob intimidating rather than entertaining. She is still asking about the Farmer three days later.

The playground in the Mission Creek park provided a morning of running around and swinging for the girls.

I enjoyed a visit to Mosaic Books downtown. It was nice to see a bookstore filled with shoppers. Among its attractions are a section on Canadian fiction and an excellent bargain area where I got the first two books in the Chinese series of Peter May.

I will be going to Indigo after Christmas to use a gift card. I am waiting to see what books I get from Santa.

This afternoon several of us went to Mass at Immaculate Conception.

For Christmas Eve supper we are taking up a Murphy tradition of having Chinese food. We had a good selection from Mekong. They were so busy this evening.

At the top of the post is a photo of me reading Twas the Night Before Christmas to Annalynn, Hannah and Annabelle. Hannah wanted me to read it twice to her.

Merry Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Guardians by John Grisham

The Guardians by John Grisham - It is execution night in Alabama and Cullen Post has come to the prison to be with his client, Duke Russell. Post, an innocence lawyer, specializes in cases of those he believes were wrongfully convicted. They meet in the Death Room next to the Death Chamber. Post is confident his client will not die at midnight.

With the breezy confidence of an experienced litigator Post is right. A stay is issued. Post has saved a life.

He is convinced Mark Carter is the rapist killer of Emily Broone and is confident he has the evidence to prove Russell’s innocent. Getting a stay gains time but can Post convince a court of Russell’s innocence by showing Carter’s guilt.

Russell was convicted by a jury in Verona, Alabama. County prosecutor, Chad Falwright, relied on a pair of expert witnesses.

First, a retired dentist from Wyoming, who makes his career of testifying for the State concluded some “nicks” on Broone’s arms were teeth marks made by Russell.

Second, an “expert” from the state crime lab testified some pubic hairs found on Broone’s body came from Russell.

$3,000 of state money was wasted on Russell’s trial counsel, an alcoholic lawyer soon to be disbarred.

Post derisively calls the state experts as experts only in “junk science”.

Aiding Post and Gourley is Francois “Frankie” Tatum who Post freed from a wrongful murder conviction. 

Post is drawn to a new case. Quincy Miller has spent 22 years in jail convicted of killing a lawyer in Seabrook, Florida. (I always have a bit of a shiver when the victim is a lawyer.)

The evidence is deeply flawed. An eyewitness implausibly states she saw a man like Miller in the vicinity. An embittered wife claims Miller had a shotgun and an incriminating flashlight. An expert for hire with a scarcity of credentials has testified about blood spatter and confidently identified spots on a flashlight as blood based on photos. Lastly a jailhouse snitch asserts a confession.

In this book and The Whistler Grisham portrays northern central Florida as a dark, dangerous and corrupt land with public officials ruling their fiefdoms.

As I read about the evidence I could see the challenge in mounting a successful appeal. Unless at some witnesses recanted their evidence the jury could have accepted even their unlikely statements. The expert can be shredded but there was enough other evidence for conviction. Complicating their efforts, the flashlight went missing before the trial in a fire that destroyed the shed where County evidence was stored. A jailhouse snitch’s reliability is readily challenged but he was never a crucial witness. 

Post and the other Guardians seek out the witnesses of the State to see if they regret the evidence given at trial. They have no coercive powers. They can only hope that decades of guilt over false testimony will induce them to now tell the truth. The power of guilt is amazing.

Unlike some fictional stories of wrongful conviction there are no miraculous discoveries of evidence. There are no Perry Mason moments of public admission of guilt by the real killer. It is hard draining work over years that wins an exoneration.

It struck me how many books, including several in the Harry Bosch series, were the police review cold cases to find a killer and how few books there about dedicated defenders delving deep to prove wrongful conviction. I expect part of the reason is that real life police departments have budgets to close cold cases. No public money is available to re-examine cases where someone is long convicted. Only the fortunate few convicted are able to find a lawyer with the time, commitment and personal resources to fund such a quest get a chance at freedom.

Post outlines his unique circumstances to an FBI agent:

“We’re in the same business, sort of. You solve crimes to lock people up. I solbe crimes to get people out.”

Grisham’s story involves one of the most challenging plots. As Post digs into the trial a conspiracy is exposed. Appropriately shadowy and maelovent …...

Representatives of the bad guys slip into sight in a clever courtroom scene. And the conspiracy gradually becomes clear. Unlike many a crime fiction conspiracy it is an all too credible scheme. As the unraveling of the conspiracy picks up I raced through the last third of the book.

After reading Grisham books in which lawyers were unable to save clients from execution I was glad to read a Grisham book where there was exoneration.
My previous post was about Cullen Post - http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2019/12/cullen-post-in-guardians.html

Monday, December 16, 2019

Cullen Post in The Guardians

Cullen Post is a crusader. Righteous in his pursuit of innocence. Yet again John Grisham has created a memorable lawyer. He dominates The Guardians.

Post is not the swashbuckling Sebastian Rudd of Rogue Lawyer charging into conflicts ready, even eager, to push the boundaries of ethical behaviour in pursuing justice for his clients. Instead, Post is a boldly cautions lawyer. He is fearless in advocacy but not eager for publicity. At the same time he occasionally acts unethically justifying his actions on the same basis as Rudd. I cannot support either lawyer breaking the rules. Resorting to unethical actions because police and prosecutors engage in comparable behavior erodes the Rule of Law so painfully built over centuries.

I admire Post’s meticulous approach. With other Guardians he reviews all of the evidence. They talk to everyone. They retain credible experts. They conduct multiple interviews with the convicted.

Post works for Guardian Ministries. Its founder, Vicki Gourley, “a devout Christian who considers her work to be derived straight from the Gospels. Jesus said to remember the prisoners. She doesn’t spend much time hanging around jails but she works fifteen hours a day trying to free the innocent”.

He is a monk in a suit. He has taken a vow of poverty by choosing to work for a non-profit devoted to freely the wrongly convicted. 

His clients are limited to those who are innocent of the murder for which they were convicted.

I know of no real life secular saints with law degrees. Post is fascinating for he is an ordained Episcopalian minister as well as a lawyer. He is a man who combines religious conviction with a zealous dedication to proving innocence. And he must prove innocence. When dealing with the cases of those convicted and whose appeals have been lost it is not enough to prove the case was weak. Those issues have been rejected. To show wrongful conviction he must effectively prove his clients could not have committed the crime or find the real killer.

Post makes me feel uncomfortable. He is a purist in rejecting representation of the guilty. It makes legal life easier to refuse to represent the justly damned. While representing all accused as a young lawyer Post had a nervous breakdown. He could no longer stand representing the guilty. He could not fight trials seeking acquittals for those who were guilty of crimes. He left the profession for several years and became a minister.

Post’s choice of a career fighting for the wrongfully convicted means  a simple life with neither spouse nor family and sparse friends. He has willingly surrendered material comforts to seek the holy grail of justice.

While I admire his purity of intent I reject any effort to canonize him.

For those of us who represent all those charged with criminal offences we recognize many clients are justly charged. We accept the responsibility of representing everyone.

Criminal lawyers spend a significant majority of their time dealing with sentences as most clients plead guilty to some or even all of the charge facing them.

I believe sentencing guidelines should have a sufficient range to reflect the distinctions in the nature of crimes committed and the circumstances of those convicted.

In Canada the courts, when sentencing indigenous clients, can be requested to consider the Gladue factors.

S. 718 of the Criminal Code provides:

(e) all available sanctions, other than imprisonment, that are reasonable in the circumstances and consistent with the harm done to victims or to the community should be considered for all offenders, with particular attention to the circumstances of Aborignial offenders.

An article from the Native Women’s Association sets out what needs to be considered in a Galdue report:

These reports contain recommendations to the court about what an appropriate sentence might be, and include information about the Aboriginal persons’ background such as: history regarding residential schools, child welfare removal, physical or sexual abuse, underlying developmentatl or health issues, such as FASD, anxiety, or substance abuse.

Achieving a just sentence is as meaningful as a dramatic acquittal but I doubt there will ever be legal fiction where the theme is sentencing. There is tension in sentencing. I once represented a teenager whose driving misconduct caused the death of a passenger who was a friend. What should be his punishment was a difficult question that affected many lives.

While less dramatic as a character I wish Post combined representation of the wrongfully convicted with representation of the rightfully convicted.
Grisham, John – (2000) - The Brethren; (2001) - A Painted House; (2002) - The Summons; (2003) - The King of Torts; (2004) - The Last Juror; (2005) - The Runaway Jury; (2005) - The Broker; (2008) - The Appeal; (2009) - The Associate; (2011) - The Confession; (2011) - The Litigators; (2012) - "G" is for John Grisham - Part I and Part II; (2013) - The Racketeer; (2013) - Grisham's Lawyers; (2013) - Analyzing Grisham's Lawyers; (2013) - Sycamore Row; (2014) - Gray Mountain and Gray Mountain and Real Life Legal Aid; (2015) - Rogue Lawyer and Sebastian Rudd; (2016) - The Whistler; (2017) - Camino Island; (2017) - The Rooster Bar and Law Students and Integrity; (2019) - The Reckoning

Friday, December 13, 2019

Sitting in the Dock

As set out in my previous post, in the opening scene of Blackwater Bluff Augie de Graaf is skewering the mother of Darryl Birch on her alibi testimony when he pushes aside his lawyer and comes to the Crown table where he attacks her severely injuring her ankle.

Having practised criminal defence in Canada for over 40 years I could see the setting and imagine the chaos. What surprised me was that he was sitting at the defence table for a jury trial in superior court.

In Saskatchewan he would have been in the dock. It is one of the loneliest places in the world. An accused sits there during Queen’s Bench trials the focus of everyone in the courtroom.

Many English movies show accused coming from below up into the dock at the Old Bailey. There is a staircase going down from the dock to the holding cells a level below the courtroom. A photo of the Old Bailey courtroom is above.

In rural Saskatchewan courthouses the dock is located in the middle of the courtroom just inside the bar that divides the public from the front of the courtroom. It has a side entrance. During trials a police officer will sit next to that entrance.

For criminal trials in Provincial Court the accused will normally sit in the public seating behind defence counsel though on occasion will be allowed to sit at the defence table.

From watching American court on T.V. I see there is no dock and the accused sits beside his counsel at a table. I am sure most readers of this blog are old enough to visualize O.J. Simpson sitting with his dream team.

In Michael Connelly’s book Gods of Guilt Mickey Haller’s client is about to be convicted when he suddenly attacks Mickey gaining a mistrial. It was not spontaneous. Haller calls it the “bloody flag move” and defends the strategy as part of a vigorous defence. I call it sleazy and unethical.

Most days in Provincial Court in Melfort security is the RCMP court officer. I have never seen and do not expect to ever see an accused confront anyone in a courtroom.

I did miss the day in Melfort Provinicial Court when an accused leapt over a divider and escaped from the courtroom. His actions brought about some design changes.

The only time I have seen a lawyer injured in a court was in a jury trial when Crown Counsel, rushing to shut down a video link, tripped over a cable and hurt her leg. While she, as with most people, said she was alight I helped persuade her to go to the hospital. It turned out she had a broken leg. She was a determined woman returning to the trial that afternoon wearing a walking cast.

One of the quirks of the English language is the multiple meanings of words. Where dock for lawyers is the place in which an accused sits during trials dock is a pier for sailors. I do think it would be difficult to write a hit song featuring someone sitting in the dock waiting for judgment as opposed to “sittin’ on the dock of the bay watchin’ the tide, roll away”.

Blackwater Bluff by S.M. Hurley

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Blackwater Bluff by S.M. Hurley

Blackwater Bluff by S.M. Hurley - Crown prosecutor, Augusta “Augie” de Graaf, has Nancy Birch, the mother of accused Darryl Birch, floundering over when Nancy watched a newscast. Nancy is giving evidence in support of an alibi defence by her son. Darryl explodes, thrusting his counsel aside, and attacks Augie. Police and court security descend on Darryl. Leading the police is Detective Geoff Cunningham. That is a scene I can visualize in every detail. (My next post will be about the location of the accused in trials.)

While in hospital because of a badly injured ankle her prim and precise supervisor, David Collins, comes to her to personally deliver the news that her mentor and inspiration in the legal profession, Ruth Neill, has been found dead. Neill was discovered in her car in the deep waters below Blackwater Bluff in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Augie wants to lead the Crown brief but Collins puts her on leave and calls in an outside Crown, Theo Besonday, to handle the case and her other pending cases.

Over the objections of her orthopedic surgeon Augie has her leg put in a cast and she leaves hospital.

Defence counsel, Caleb “Remy” Remington, has picked up a new client, 19 year old Benjamin Miner, who has been overcharged by a zealous police officer for taking a 15 year old girl, Emily Johnson, unwillingly out to Blackwater Bluffs. When he appeared disorientated after being in the bush she drove them back to town. Remy skillfully presents arguments for Miner’s release on bail.

In a deftly written paragraph the Justice hearing the bail application gives his decision:

“The Crown’s position continues to be that the only appropriate decision is that Mr. Miner be detained in custody.

“Then I’m going to make an inappropriate decision, Ms. Paddon, and I want some input from you as to conditions.”

Meanwhile, the unhappy patient, Augie, is stuck at the family dairy farm. She will not stay there resting.

She is convinced Ruth was murdered and ensure the murderer is caught.

She shares sorrow with Ruth’s partner, Joe O’Rorke. Augie and Joe are close enough to wait until words are right:

Joseph sat beside her again, and they were quiet, sipping, looking
 out over the lawn between the house and the river. A pileated woodpecker swooped to a nearby oak leaning over the water. The tree was too healthy to offer the big bird a meal of carpenter ants, and after a few exploratory digs it moved on.

I was reminded of the descriptive skills of Louise Penny in the Armand Gamache series.

Joe is an expert in lichens. Joe and Ruth had been about to go on their annual two week trip involving lichen research when she was murdered.

A widow for several years Augie has a 9 year old son, Marc, who brightens her life. He is despondent when Augie says she cannot take him for cottage week and overjoyed when she suggests he spend the week at the cottage with Granpy (his paternal grandfather).

There are complications with Ruth’s office when her will discloses a holograph (handwritten) codicil changing the executor responsible for her law office files from the senior partner to Augie. That change set me reflecting on holograph changes to wills and succession plans for the unexpected deaths of practising lawyers.

Augie has the obsession for details of an experienced trial lawyer. Cases can unravel because of unconsidered details. I continually tell clients to let me decide what is important, just tell me what happened.

Both police and Augie struggle to find evidence on why Ruth was killed.

Augie’s stress level is further elevated by Collins using the attack in court and her injury to justify suspension over his frustration from her lengthy history of  insubordination through ignoring his directives.

Augie, as evidence points toward Joe, is “defence counsel” skeptic of that evidence. While she attempts to be “Crown Counsel” rigorous she is more the defence counsel. It is ironic and subtle in the telling.

And then another person is charged with the murder. Augie is no more comfortable with this alleged killer.

Hurley precisely lays out the exact advice I have given accused about to be questioned. Say nothing. It is standard advice too often ignored by clients. Many do not know that police can ask questions in Canada after an accused has consulted a lawyer. It is up to the accused to assert their right to silence.

I loved that the solution involved legal skills and a legal motive. A lawyer as sleuth should solve the crime with legal talent.

I have discovered Canada’s next writer of quality legal mystery fiction.