About Me

My photo
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, January 31, 2020

Accountability for the Black Watch Disaster of July 25, 1944

In my last post I reviewed David O’Keefe’s fine book, Seven Days in Hell, about Canada’s Black Watch Regiment and their devastating week in July of 1944. The week ended with a suicidal attack by the 1st Battalion in which 296 out of 320 soldiers were killed or wounded or captured. Beyond the commanding General, Guy Simonds, it was hard to find anyone that day who actually thought the attack could succeed. The Black Watch was to proceed up and over a ridge through a wheat field. Circumstances had delayed the launch of the attack by 4 hours to the full light of mid-morning, both the commanding officer and second in command were casualties earlier that morning, the tanks to accompany the battalion were not in place and artillery support was limited. Yet no one was prepared to disobey the order of Simonds to press on and attack. 

On the other side of the battlefield the North Nova Highlanders and the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders did not follow Simonds’s order to undertake an attack “refusing to reinforce obvious failure”. Simonds “sacked the 9th Brigade commander and the battalion COs”. Their refusal did prevent another disaster.

As set out in the previous post, Black Watch pride and sense of duty would not let Major Griffin, in command of the 1st Battalion for but a few hours, refuse the order to attack.

While the commanders of the Canadian Army tried to contain news of the disaster news reports from war correspondents and the hundreds of telegrams flooding Montreal meant the scope of the disaster was soon known.

As common, it was not until after the war ended that accountability was addressed for  what Private Gordy Donald bluntly stated:

“A lot of men got killed over somebody’s stupidity - for not knowing enough to say when. The attack, one, should never have taken place, and when it did, it should have been stopped.”

Simonds took no responsibility. Not realizing Ultra secret information would be declassified he asserted he did not know of German reinforcement of the ridge shortly before the attack. He actually knew well before ordering the attack of the German reinforcement.

He also blamed Major Griffin, who died in the attack and thus could not reply saying the attack “was tactically unsound in its detailed execution”. But there was no “execution” that could have changed the result of the attack. It was a certain disaster. No doubt unintended, Simonds’s use of the word “execution” in the context of the attack was too apt.

O’Keefe concludes his assessment of Simonds as follows:

But what is inexcusable, and can only be interpreted as an egregious act of cowardice and disloyalty to his subordinates, is Simonds’s choice to turn his back on the men who faithfully obeyed his authority and executed his plan as prescribed. Sadly, as he had done in the past with other of his flawed plans and misadventures, he wilfully offered up Griffin and the Black Watch (among others) as the sacrificial lambs for his failure on July 25 to protect his career and reputation.

In 21 Days in Normandy Angelo Caravaggio studied the actions of the Canadian 4th Canadian Armoured Division and its leader, Major General George Kitching, in the battles, Operations Totalize and Tractable, a few weeks later in Normandy. These battles closed the Falaise Gap. The Canadian army has long been criticized for the time it took to complete the closing.  Simonds relieved Kitching of his command at the end of those battles. Caravaggio considered the decision wrong.

He summed up his judgment of Simonds:

Simonds’ ideas resulted in centralized planning, control at the highest level, staff management of the battlefield, reliance on indirect fire support, little consideration of the concept of manouevre, and cautious exploitation. There was little room for flexibility, initiative, originality or the modification of the plan to meet the emerging demands of the battlefield. If the plan failed, the blame was pushed down to the units and commanders involved.

Brian Reid, in No Holding Back a book on Operation Totalize provided his own observation on Simonds and responsibility:

When things went awry, as they invariably do in war, it was always the fault of others for not being able to execute his plan exactly as written. That is not to suggest he was a knave or a fool, far from it.

Simonds commanded 2nd Canadian Corps through the end of war. In Cinderella Army - The Canadians in Northwest Europe 1944 - 1945 Terry Copp writes about the Canadian army after Normandy through to the end of war. In contrast to Caravaggio and O’Keefe he praises Simonds:

Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds can fairly be described as the outstanding corps commander in 21 Army Group. Simonds lacked the human touch that distinguishes great leaders, but no other corps commander displayed such technical competence and flexibility.

On what Simonds might have said about his role in the Black Watch debacle General Dwight Eisenhower, who commanded all the Allied forces for Western Europe, wrote a letter as D-Day began on what he would say if the invasion failed:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

That is a leader.

An earlier example involves another famous American general. Ulysses S. Grant in his memoirs after the American Civil War discussing the disastrous attack by Union forces on fortified Confederate positions at Cold Harbor:

"I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made … No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained." 

Both American generals became Presidents.

While Simonds may never have taken responsibility for the fiasco of the Black Watch attack Copp further states:

Simonds also had the good sense to try and turn Montgomery and Crerar away from costly frontal assaults in the Rhineland by proposing an alternative, Operation Wallstreet. On many other occasions Simonds demonstrated a commonsense approach to problems and a genuine concern for preventing the waste of young lives.

It is a cruel irony if it took the sacrifice of the Black Watch for Simonds to avoid “the waste of young lives” in subsequent battles.
O'Keefe, David - (2020) - Seven Days in Hell

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Seven Days in Hell by David O’Keefe

Seven Days in Hell by David O’Keefe - When I saw this book in bookstores before Christmas I hesitated to buy the story of Canada’s Black Watch Regiment in battle in Normandy in July of 1944. I have long been interested in the Canadian Army in France but I knew from other books they had been decimated in that week. I was not sure I wanted to read the details of that deadly week.  And then I was given the book as a Christmas present from my sons. Once I started reading I was caught up in the drama of the Black Watch. O’Keefe is superb at narrative and maintaining the momentum of the book.

I knew little of the Black Watch beyond it being considered an elite regiment until I read O’Keefe’s book. While the regiment had members from across Canada the Black Watch in 1944 was three-quarters composed of young men from Montreal. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds and social classes and were almost all English.

The men took pride in being an elite status. The Black Watch had been the Canadian Army’s most decorated unit in WW I. Their commanders were determined to have them gain the same recognition in WW II.

Sniper and scout Hook Wilkinson described his body as containing Black Watch blood not normal blood.

Arriving in Normandy a month after the invasion they deployed near Caen.

O’Keefe provides detailed descriptions of soldiers settling in and starting to apply their training. Few works of military non-fiction provide the particulars of an operation to clear a village of potential snipers. 

The demoralizing effects of artillery are explained in terrible detail. The exploding ground. The randomness of who would live and die as shells fell upon them. The descriptions show why even well trained soldiers could crack because of artillery bombardments.

I cannot recall a more powerful book on what loss is like on the front lines. O’Keefe’s immense and intensive research allows him to personalize the dead and wounded by naming and describing the lives of so many of them. From the initial artillery shell that killed 3 men through their first battle that chewed up a company through the further battles of that crushing week in July the losses are not numbers but men the reader has come to know.

The week culminated on July 25. 2nd Canadian Army Commander General Guy Simonds under some pressure from British Generals Montgomery and Dempsey planned an attack on the Verrières ridge before which the British and Canadian Armies were stalled.

In the attack, the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch, was ordered to take the village of Fontenay-le-Marmion. In his autocratic manner Simonds prepared an over complicated plan with precise timing.

 As customary in battle there were disruptions and unexpected issues and the Black Watch was hours behind schedule. As they gathered their Colonel was killed and the 2nd in command badly wounded.

The Black Watch attack was now 4 hours late and the tanks to assist them had not arrived. Ordered by Headquarters to press on Major Phil Griffin did not hesitate. The pride and honour of the Regiment dictated they carry out the attack.

Griffin led his 320 men into a field of wheat in an attack that was to go up and over the ridge. It was a suicide mission. German tanks, artillery, mortars and machine fired on them from 3 sides. With great courage they pressed on with a few men getting over the ridge. Not a soldier reached the objective. 

Of the 320 who advanced into the field 296 were killed, wounded or captured. The next morning 24 shocked survivors gathered. The battle with 94% casualties, is the highest percentage of loss in Canadian history I am aware of in Canadian history.

The impact of the immense loss became so personal with the image of Black Watch padre, Canon Cecil Royle, sitting down at his typewriter to write 300 letters of condolence and packing up the personal belongings of each soldier killed to send to their families:

Vic Foam, the consummate company sergeant major who died leading his company from the front, left his leather wallet, a trusty penknife and his pair of highly polished black oxfords. A stack of letters from home formed part of the collection of Private George Crogie, along with a Waterman pen and pencil and Eveready flashlight - used, no doubt to scrawl letters home after lights out ….. A math textbook and a collection of short stories betrayed John Henry Harper’s desire to better himself, while Private Harry Mahaffy left a set of leather gloves, a toothbrush and his personal identification bracelet (a gift from his family), which matched a personalized cigarette case. 

Accountability for the disaster will be discussed in my next post.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Night Fire by Michael Connelly

The Night Fire by Michael Connelly - Harry Bosch is facing mortality.

He attends yet another funeral of a retired colleague, John Jack Thompson. At the gathering after the service Thompson’s widow gives a murder book to Bosch.

Renee Ballard, continuing to work the late show, returns to the station after being called to the scene of a homeless man who burned to death in his tent after a kerosene heater fell over.

She finds on her desk the file, concerning the killing of John Hilton in 1990 which Bosch had been given. He Bosch has “returned” it to the department in his own way.. Thompson, Bosch’s original partner and mentor, had taken the file in 2000 and kept if for almost 20 years.

Bosch would like to work the case with Ballard though his new knee is giving him grief. He sees the fire in her that has burned in him all his career to solve murders.

If they do not investigate there is no chance anyone will ever seek justice for Hilton. The case challenges Harry’s principle that “everybody counts or nobody counts”. Does a young ex-con drug user and drifting through life count?

Ballard is surprised when she cannot find anything put in the murder book by Thompson. There is no chronology of his actions nor any record of interviews. There is not even a note. He never “pulled the evidence” by examining the evidence box at Property.

When what makes sense does not solve a crime detectives focus investigations on what does not make sense. I have spent a lot of time on files looking for reasons to the apparently inexplicable. I felt the rise in Ballard and Bosch when they realized Thompson took the file so it was not re-investigated.

And then there is a bombshell. Bosch is suffering from leukemia caused by exposure to stolen cesium in a case 12 years earlier. He looks to half-brother, Mickey Haller, to handle his claim against the hospital for lax security on the cesium. In return he analyzes the evidence in a murder case being defended by Haller. A judge has been murdered and a mentally ill man is the defendant.

In a nifty combination of Bosch finding an evidentiary flaw that establishes doubt far stronger than reasonable doubt and Haller’s skillful use of the information in Court Haller wins. Almost as important the prosecutor derisively refers to him as a “courtroom magician”. The context is immaterial. Haller has gained an advertising slogan he can attribute to the Assistant District Attorney.

When the lead detective, convinced he had the murderer and irritated over the dismissal, refuses to look for the real killer of the judge Bosch feels an obligation to solve the case.

Back on the cold case Ballard finds a reason for the lacklustre investigation that is all too credible.

Once she has the reason she starts to unravel what happened in the murder.

And then the reason is turned sideways by a brilliant twist.

Bosch awkwardly tells Maddy of his diagnosis. I had a catch in my throat and had to pause when I was done the page. Any parent who has had to tell a child of a serious problem with the parent’s health will understand the interplay of emotions between Bosch and Maddy.

Bosch and Ballard solve two cases by persistence and following up on information. Brilliant deduction was not needed. Los Angeles detectives did not care enough to solve either case. For those detectives neither victim was worth counting. Be it a drug addicted ex-con or a respected judge a detective who does not live by Bosch’s motto can find a rationalization to justify an uncaring incomplete investigation. 

Connelly’s story telling brilliance is back in The Night Fire. There is even a hint of recognition by Bosch that he compromised his principles in the last book, Dark Sacred Night, by vigilante actions though not enough to stop him from further shady tactics. An unresolved ending, used earlier in the series, would have been better for this book but best sellers need clean conclusions.
Connelly, Michael – (2000) - Void Moon; (2001) - A Darkness More than Night; (2001) - The Concrete Blonde (Third best fiction of 2001); (2002) - Blood Work (The Best);  (2002) - City of Bones; (2003) - Lost Light; (2004) - The Narrows; (2005) - The Closers (Tied for 3rd best fiction of 2005); (2005) - The Lincoln Lawyer; (2007) - Echo Park; (2007) - The Overlook; (2008) - The Brass Verdict; (2009) – The Scarecrow; (2009) – Nine Dragons; (2011) - The Reversal; (2011) - The Fifth Witness; (2012) - The Drop; (2012) - Black Echo; (2012) - Harry Bosch: The First 20 Years; (2012) - The Black Box; (2014) - The Gods of Guilt; (2014) - The Bloody Flag Move is Sleazy and Unethical; (2015) - The Burning Room; (2015) - Everybody Counts or Nobody Counts; (2016) - The Crossing; (2016) - Lawyers and Police Shifting Sides; (2017) - The Wrong Side of Goodbye and A Famous Holograph Will; (2017) - Bosch - T.V. - Season One and Titus Welliver as Harry Bosch; (2018) - Two Kinds of Truth; (2019) - Dark Sacred Night and A Protest on Connelly's Use of Vigilante Justice; Hardcover

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Princeling of Nanjing by Ian Hamilton

The Princeling of Nanjing by Ian Hamilton - Ava Lee is deeply occupied with the opportunities and dangers of Chinese business. Her business venture into high end clothing with May Ling and Amanda Lee has a very successful fashion show. They are poised to enter into markets in and out of China. However, Xu who is the chairman of the triads, has experienced complications in his personal business.

Xu seeks Ava’s business and accounting experience to deal with the Tsai family who count among its members the Governor and the Communist Party Secretary for the province of Jiangsu. They have leveraged their control of the provincial government into lucrative contracts. As common with the avaricious they want more and are pushing, even threatening, Xu to enter into the manufacture of synthetic drugs. For a man wanting to minimize his triad business and to avoid conflict within the triads it is a difficult situation.

Ava returns to her roots as a forensic accountant. Discreetly but extensively using contacts within China, Hong Kong and her home of Toronto she assembles a picture of a business empire assembled by the Tsais. Their corruption is breathtaking in its scale.

The Tsais, especially the Tasi men, are also clever and intuitive. They swiftly discern Ava’s interest which they rightly assume was on behalf of Xu and react negatively.

Ava, upset with herself for underestimating the Tsais, reverts to her basic approach to aggression. She takes the initiative, moving swifter than her opposition, to counter-attack and force the Tsai family on the defensive.

One of her strategies is logical. The other is implausible. Only in fiction do people give up information so quickly under some pressure.

Unlike several recent books in the series there is no violent resolution. Ava skillfully orchestrates an exploration of the Tsai family finances. 

While I weary of books with almost endless twists the tension of the investigation was modest. The results were foreordained.

The sums involved in the books of the series have increased exponentially from the earliest books. Ava is now a member of the super-rich though her personal expenditures are little changed. She is on her way to being a business titan.

The story moves swiftly. While I appreciate Ava using her accounting skills more than her martial arts some more drama was needed. 

Ava’s personal relationships are barely touched upon in the book.

The Princeling of Nanjing is not a strong addition to the series.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Dressing to Impress in There's a Murder Afoot

Clothes have been featured in all the Gemma Doyle mysteries by Vicki Delany.

A few years ago, after reading By Book or By Crook by Vicki, writing under the name of Eva Gates in her Lighthouse Library series, I wrote a post about the vivid descriptions of women’s clothes and the minimal detail concerning male apparel.

I was glad, whether because of  a conscious change by the author or the simply plot requiring more description of what the men were wearing there are more particulars of men in clothes in There’s a Murder Afoot.

During her investigation Gemma advises her friend, Grant, to dress “rich” to impress at an art gallery for the rich, not the super-rich. They sell paintings “in the style of the old masters”.  He does his best:

…. and today he looked the part of a well-off art collector in a brown sheepskin bomber jacket with checked white-and-brown scarf over a good gray woolen sweater and dark jeans rolled up at the cuffs. Sturdy brown leather boots were on his feet.

As his “meek little wife” Gemma decides upon: 

…. slumming it in jeans and a navy-blue blazer. I’d need some high-end accessories though, if I wanted to look the part.

While Grant thinks she looks fine Gemma thinks “What do men know?”. On clothing women feel free to be sexist. A quick stop at Harrod’s completes her ensemble:

I had a new pair of leather gloves (one hundred quid) on my hands, high-heeled leather ankle boots (five hundred quid) on my feet, and a Burberry bag (seven hundred quid) over my shoulder ….. Pippa and her office would be getting the bill.

There are consequences to fashion statements:

I couldn’t have been walking in my new boots more than ten minutes, and my feet were screaming in pain. I don’t normally wear such high heels, and I was worried I’d topple over.

The owner of Gallery Lambert does dress rich:

Mr. Julian Lambert was a short, slightly built man in an Armani suit, gold cufflinks, and Italian loafers. His hair was expertly cut, his hands manicured, and he smelled of cologne. His accent was English and middle-class.

Believing Mr. Lambert has access to illicit paintings, even forgeries, Gemma wants him to think of Grant as a collector not averse to paintings not for public sale. Their pretences are convincing and Julian is willing to see what might be available in the dimmer corners of the art world.

I hope more authors will choose to dress their male characters with style.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

There’s a Murder Afoot by Vicki Delany

There’s a Murder Afoot by Vicki Delany - Gemma Doyle of the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium in West London, Massachusetts has returned home to London, England for a Sherlock Holmes convention. When fictional sleuths travel it can be a challenge for series as continuing characters will be absent. Delany solves that problem by having most of her cast going with Gemma to the convention.

Gemma is in fine form early in the book showing off her observational and analytical skills. She has gained a modest grasp of discretion. She less casually revals to the less brilliant their limitations.

Through Gemma going home we meet Gemma’s parents, Henry (retired police officer) and Anne (active barrister), and her older sister Pippa (mysteriously important government official). Pippa is suitably imperious and brilliant and connected. She is a fine modern day Mycroft. Unlike Mycroft she has an interest in having personal connections, relationships are infrequent and romance is rare.

At the convention Gemma is startled to meet Uncle Randolph “Randy” Denhaugh, the black sheep brother of her mother’s family. Reviled for his past behaviour and cast out by the family Randolph has great charm and significant artistic talent. 

At the convention the devout roam among the vendors of Sherlockian merchandise. There is an inexhaustible selection.

Gemma draws a standing room crowd for an address on her American store which is focused on the Great Detective. The listeners murmur approval when she tells of her efforts to provide Americans with a proper cup of tea.

Uncle Randy draws attention for the number of people with whom he has confrontations during the convention. One contretemps is with Henry. When Uncle Randy is slain at the convention banquet suspicion falls upon Henry. DI Sam Morrison is a master of police tunnel vision. The sisters are disdainful of his investigatory abilities.

Gemma and Pippa instantly, but only temporarily blunt the police focus on father and commence their own investigation.

Gemma is aided by the lovely Jayne Wilson with whom she shares ownership of the Mrs. Hudson Tea Room which is attached to the bookstore. Jayne’s innocent features mask a clever woman.

There is no need for forced entry to snoop. Pippa’s authority is such that doors simply open. Pippa has such presence she could sustain another series.

For Gemma’s boyfriend, Ryan (police officer at home), it is a frustrating time. He is accustomed to leading investigations. As a visitor to a foreign land he cannot unsuccessfully tell Gemma to butt out of his investigations as he does back in Massachusetts and he can hardly complain about her helping her father.

Gemma’s investigation leads to Uncle Randy’s participation in the murky art underworld. His skills as a painter have not been used on original creations.

I did find it hard to believe Henry could be the prime suspect. Even to the close minded Morrison the evidence of Henry’s guilt was slight.

There’s a Murder Afoot is a good book. Gemma is a gifted practitioner of Sherlockian investigations. She demonstrates that the 19th Century investigatory talents of Holmes are as useful in the 21st Century.

Gemma is also a wonderfully likeable character. She has an independent spirit but is not a reckless investigator. I expect many more of her adventures will be published.
Delany, Vicki -

     1.) Const. Molly Smith - (2013) - A Cold White Sun

     2.) Fiona MacGillivray - (2014) - Gold Web

     3.) Writing as Eva Gates the Lighthouse Library Series 
     with Lucy Richardson - (2014) -  By Book or by
     Crook and Bodie Island Lighthouse; (2015) - Women v. Men in
     Clothing Descriptions

     4.) The Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mysteries with Gemma
     Doyle - (2017) - Elementary, She Read and Fictional and Real
     Life Bookshops and Sherlock and Where is "Gemma" From?
     (2018) - Body on Baker Street and The Inspiration for Body on  
     Baker Street

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris - A book, because I knew nothing about it beyond it was written by Harris and was doing well, that surprised, even startled me.

I thought, for a few dozen pages, that the book, set in “the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468”, was taking place in 1468 A.D. To my surprise it was set after the Apocalypse. It is set 800 years later than 1468 A.D.. Scientism has been rejected and archeological research rendered criminal by the Church for “[T]he path to Hell begins with too much seeking into the past”.

Father Christopher Fairfax ventures into rural England to Addicott to conduct the funeral of a priest, Father Lacy, The priest has died from a fall, an “evil chance”. 

Wonder on whether his death was by chance besets Fairfax when he finds that Father Lacy’s library includes the prohibited volumes of The Proceedings and Papers of the Society of Antiquaries.

He is shaken to read in a volume a report on possible scenarios that could result in the Apocalypse. Church teaching had been for centuries after the Fall that “God had punished the ancients for their elevation of science above all by bringing down upon the Earth the four terrible riders of the Apocalypse - Pestilence, War, Famine and Death - as foretold in the Book of Revelation; and that thanks to a revival of the True Faith, they were blessed to be living in the time of the Risen Christ, when order had been restored to the world.”

Finding records extending back centuries before the Fall he is drawn to stay in Addicott.

The book is interesting as a form of archeological mystery in which the current investigators seek to determine what befell a far more advanced technological civilization. The Church’s explanation is God’s wrath. The fragments of history suggest a catastrophic breakdown of society in 2022 A.D.

Our current world is dependent on complex interconnected systems. Few of us sustain ourselves from the food we produce. Our huge cities require massive amounts of food to be transported to them daily. Could our society collapse? It is hard to know how close we came in the financial meltdown of 2008. Money and its movement and faith in currency was at grave risk just 12 years ago.

While interesting I was not caught up in the story. The plot plodded for almost 200 pages with hints and minor exposures of the past. Finally, a small band form to dig for the truth of the Apocalypse and the science by which people could fly and communicate by devices bearing the symbol of a “bitten apple” (interpreted to mean a bite of the forbidden fruit in Genesis). Interpreting a fictional distant past more advanced in technology is little easier than the efforts of contemporary real life archeologists deciphering the artifacts and writings of long ago civilizations.

Harris is often great, sometimes nearly great, occasionally far from great. My judgment of The Second Sleep is far from great. The premise is fascinating but not the plot.
Harris, Robert - (2002) - Archangel; (2004) – Pompeii; (2008) - Imperium; (2012) - "H" is for Robert Harris; (2014) - An Officer and a Spy; (2016) - Conclave and The Conclaves of Malachi Martin, Walter Murphy and Robert Harris;