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, February 29, 2020

A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear

A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear - In my previous post I discussed the drama of Maisie’s life after she left England for India in 1934. It is now 1937 and she is returning home. She leaves her ship in Gibraltar unable to yet face the family and friends who have been anxiously awaiting her. 

Ashore she soon stumbles over the body of Sebastian Babayoff, a Shepardic Jew. The authorities expect it was a robbery gone wrong committed by one  of the many penniless men who have fled the Spanish Civil War. Maisie is unconvinced.

Meeting his surviving sisters she feels duty calling her. As a private investigator and psychologist in London for over a decade she had striven to provide comfort to the victims of murder partly by finding the killer.

She reflects on the lessons of her mentor, Maurice Blanche:

We must spend time with the dead in silence, to try to hear them. Then we ask questions, not to gain an immediate answer but to let them know, even in their netherworld, that we care enough to give voice to our lack of understanding …. There is never just one victim when a body is found - it is never singular. Who are the other victims, and which one has committed the crime of murder.

Investigating will give her life a purpose. Addictions have come upon her as she seeks means to forget her losses. She is smoking and taking morphine. Melancholy remains upon her:

And she had wondered then, what it might mean, to catch death.

Through the investigation she consciously attempts to move forward in life from the deep sadness that has enveloped her.

She goes searching for a large piece of paper to form her case map. She buys coloured pencils to write upon the map.

She has returned to the days when she was a young investigator on her own relying on the skills of investigation she has learned from Blanche.

Using one of her most memorable techniques she mimics the posture and actions of a man watching and following her. By copying him she realizes he is filled with feelings of inadequacy.

She knows she is being watched and expects it is connected to the government and high level connections of the Compton family.

In a clever twist she turns her watcher into an assistant.

It is no surprise that the murder involves the twisted relationships of European nations late in the 1930’s. The opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War are receiving support from nations preparing themselves for the next war. England is still trying to preserve public neutrality. 

Deceit and subterfuge surround Maisie throughout her investigation.

Family and friends in England write asking her to come home so they can care for her. I have to remind myself to let those I care about have the chance to help me in times of challenge. The reluctance to accept caring is pure stubbornness.

There are dangerous places all around us and inside us.
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; (2018) Leaving Everything Most Loved; (2020) - A Dangerous Place - Part I on Maisie's life since the last book

Saturday, February 22, 2020

A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear

A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear - A couple of years ago I finished Leaving Everything Most Loved with Maisie Dobbs headed to India to reflect on her future and whether it would be with James Compton who loves her so deeply. I was hoping she would say “yes” after 6 months, but unsure. I thought often of Maisie who is so real to me. At Christmas I finally bought A Dangerous Place.

In a mere 9 pages of the opening chapter I went through a rush of emotions I have seldom experienced in any series. For those who have not read A Dangerous Place or are earlier in the series it is best not to read further in this post.

In those few pages tumultuous pages I was delighted by Maisie’s one word telegram of “yes”. It was a joy to read of their wedding in England and move to Canada. I was excited Maisie became pregnant. And then I was crushed when James was killed in an airplane accident and Maisie lost the baby. I groaned aloud. 

Maisie lost her first love, Simon, some years after WW I ended from the injuries he suffered in the war. Now her second love is gone. In her grief she returns to India where she felt at peace.

I have not experienced comparable losses. I did think of my paternal grandfather. He lost his first love in northern Norway in the late 19th Century when she broke through ice while skiing to town to sell milk. He married after coming to North America. When my father was 2 he lost my grandmother, Anna Marie, when she and their second child died of complications after the birth of the baby. Grandfather Carl never remarried. I did not know him. I expect the combined losses were too great for him to face another relationship.

After grieving for over a year in India Brenda, her father’s second wife, in a beautiful letter to Maisie calls on her to come home:

Maisie, I’m not one for writing long letters, but there are things that need to be said, and if you know this already, then consider it a reminder. Your father and I both understand what you’ve gone through - your dad watched your mother die of that terrible disease, and I lost my first husband and child. Between us women, we all know that the death of a child, even one not born, is a terrible thing to bear - and you were so late on, really. Then on top of seeing your dear James lose his life, well, that’s just beyond imagination. My heart aches for you, Maisie, really it does. But that doesn’t stop me saying what needs to be said now. Your father wouldn’t want me to write this letter, so this is between you and me. Frankie isn’t getting any younger. He’ll be eighty years old next year, and though his only complaint is that limp from the accident a few years ago, time is written across his face, and he misses you. We all miss you.

It’s time to come home, Maisie. I know you must be scared, imagining how difficult it will be seeing the places where you and James courted, and having to face the grief all over again. Not that I think grief is something you put behind you in the snap of a finger. But come home, Maisie. If for nothing else, come for your dad. You’ll be safe at home, dear love - we’re family. We’ll look after each other. I promise you that.

Yours most truly,

As a front line nurse in the Great War, wounded in the same attack as Simon, Maisie had experienced death on a scale that may be rivaled but never exceeded by other wars.

Her best friend, Priscella, lost all her brothers.

I have written of the eloquence and literary skill of the generation that fought in the Great War. A collection of their haunting poetry is in Anthem for Doomed Youth.

I expect Maisie was familiar with Wilfrid Gibson’s poem, Lament,  which is included in that anthology:

We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun or feel the rain,
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly, and spent
Their all for us, loved too the sun and rain? 
A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings –
But we, how shall we turn to little things,
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?

An author has captured the heart and soul of a character when you grieve for their losses.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Big Empty by Stan Jones and Patricia Watts

The Big Empty by Stan Jones and Patricia Watts - Nathan Active, Chief of Public Safety in Chukchi on the northwest coast of Alaska, and Cowboy Decker investigate an airplane crash that killed the pregnant Evie Kavoonah and her fiance, Dr. Todd Brenner. Decker cannot believe the official investigation finding of pilot error because the airplane ran out of gas. He knows the plane was fully fueled. When Active and Decker actually carefully examine the plane, unlike the Federal inspectors, they find balloons filled with water in each wing’s fuel tank. The balloons have meant the gauges show full but the tanks were about one-quarter full.

Decker was to fly the plane which crashed until a late switch with Evie. There is no obvious suspect with a grudge against Decker. Evie and Brad were a popular couple.

Looking out at the runway Active realizes the balloons in the tank could be weather balloons lofted into the sky daily at Chukchi to record the weather.

The investigation concentrates on those who would have access to such balloons and their relationships with the deceased.

At home Active and the beautiful Grace, now his wife, are expecting their first child. Grace, still deeply scarred by the sexual abuse of her youth and her turbulent time in Anchorage as a young adult, has hesitated to get pregnant. She has frequent mood swings as she thinks about the baby. When down she wonders whether to carry the baby through to birth.

Active and Grace have adopted 13 year old Nita. They are adjusting to the challenges of parenting a teenager uncertain of her status in the family as an adopted child. The emotional issues for Grace are extreme. Nita is actually her daughter and Grace’s father is Nita’s father. Active and Grace have never told Nita.

Relationships are at the heart of the book. Hearts have been broken and bitterness abounds.

While Chukchi is “dry” abuse of liquor is all too common with all the inevitable corrosive consequences.

When a suspect dies the investigation grows complicated.

A potential witness abandons work to hunt caribou. While employers grumble it is a tradition for Inupiat to go into the country after caribou when word reaches town they are in the area.

It is a darker mystery than earlier Active books. There is a shortage of the sarcastic / ironic humour of the indigenous people that enlivened previous books. I wish there had been more of the celebrations of Inupiat life featured through the series. It is hard to find a character in The Big Empty who is enjoying life. Even Active and Grace, having made the commitment of marriage, are more unhappy than I expected with their lives. While set in the fall the plot would have been well suited to the 24 hour darkness of Arctic winter nights.

I have appreciated the time spent out of Chukchi during the series. I find the trips and experiences in the bush more interesting than time spent in town. With money scarce town life is grim for most residents. I hope the next book is lighter. Whether there will be another is left uncertain by the ending.
Jones, Stan – (2009) - White Sky, Black Ice; (2010) - Shaman Pass; (2012) - "J" is for Stan Jones; (2013) - Frozen Sun; (2013) - Q & A with Stan Jones on Nathan Active and Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte - Part I and Part II; (2015) - Village of the Ghost Bears; (2015) - Radio in Indigenous Mystery Series; (2016) - Tundra Kill and An Exchange with Stan Jones on Sarah Palin and Helen Mercer and Governor Sarah Palin and Red Parkas;

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

(6. – 1031.) The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison - 

Mormon bishop’s wife isn’t an official calling. “Bishop’s wife” isn’t a position listed on ward documents; there’s no ceremonial laying-on of hands or pronounced blessings from on high. But if the bishop is the father of the ward, the bishop’s wife is the mother, and that meant five hundred people who were under my care ….. I was  used to being looked past, because I was never the person they were there to see.

In Draper, Utah Linda is the wife of Bishop Kurt Wallheim. They have 5 sons.

At 6:30 in the morning a distraught Jared Helm arrives at their home with his 5 year old daughter, Kelly. He is a rigid righteous man. He advises his wife, Carrie, has left him. Linda is grateful her husband told him “he wasn’t to blame for what happened, and that God still had good things for his future” rather than demand that they reconcile.

The Wallheim’s are part of a devout Mormon community where public and private life focuses around their faith. She is Sister Wallheim using compassion and applying logic to the concerns of the women of the ward. She reassures a mother worried that her daughter’s marriage in the church rather than being sealed in the Temple will both affect the daughter’s reputation and eternal salvation. Linda points out the sealing can take  place in a year or even after death if her daughter should be tragically gone.

I know little of Mormon faith and practice. I learned a lot in this book in the same way I learned about Judaism in the Rabbi Small series by Harry Kemelman.

The responsibilities of the Bishop and his wife are unending. The Bishop carries out these duties while working full time for the position is unpaid. Kurt is an accountant. His anticipated term of bishop is 5 years.

Linda is a woman of deep faith. She believes in God despite having doubts. She has reflected and prayed and remained a believer and a committed Mormon. She does chafe over aspects of Mormon doctrine such as “the power and authority from God that was bestowed on men of the right age and worthiness”.

There are deep personal connections within the ward. They care and help each other. For some people I expect it would be smothering. The connections reminded me of growing up on the farm where there were close bonds with neighbours.

Linda is a touch restless. With only one son left at home she finds herself bored. Reading crime fiction is not enough to fill her time.

She is shaken when Carrie’s parents come to the house and advise Jared was abusive and controlling and threatened to kill her if she tried to leave him. Jared has “strange ideas” such as believing he “could make a list of women who would be his in the afterlife”.

The plea of Carrie’s mother that Linda find her missing daughter stabs Linda’s heart. Linda continues to grieve the loss of her stillborn daughter two decades ago.

Jared’s father, Alex, is as righteous as his son and certain Jared has been wronged. He is unrestrained in his condemnation of those who know and then reject the “full truth of the gospel”. They are “sons and daughters of perdition”. He states 5 year old Kelly must be “taught her place now” for he “won’t be the grandfather to a little whore”. Linda slaps his face.

At the same time another ward member, Tobias Torstensen is dying. With mysteries surrounding the death of his first wife and unexplained items, such as an old pink dress tinged with what appears to be blood, Linda cannot help but wonder if there was a violent end to that relationship.

While delving into the first wife’s death is interesting what is compelling are Linda’s deep and emotional talks with Anna, the second wife, over relationships before and after Tobias dies. They are intense vivid discussions in which Linda, for the first time outside her family, shares her sorrow over the loss of her daughter.

There are wonderful scenes where Linda talks with her sons about their lives and their faith. I can think of few series beyond Gail Bowen’s books featuring Joanne Kilbourn Shreeve that have these very real discussions, especially concerning faith, between family members as a part of the mystery.

I was struck by the number of women who live out their faith in the book. I believe too few mysteries explore the lives of women who believe in God. They have problems but are neither flashy nor dysfunctional. Harrison shows how their lives are fulfilling in an age where they get little recognition.

And then everything about Carrie and the past of Tobias is turned upside down.

The issue of domestic violence is often complex. Harrison’s continual examination of relationships challenges a reader’s assumptions.

I was disappointed that she put herself in danger. At the same time it allowed a powerful conversation with the killer. I cannot recall another work of crime fiction in which the sleuth discusses eternity with a killer.

Linda is a woman with whom it is easy to share as she listens and she cares. While her deepest conversations are with other women she is open to the confidences of men. I wish I could talk to her.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke - Texas Ranger, Darren Mathews, is working on relationships. He has returned to working in the Houston office which pleases his wife. He is helping his mother which pleases her and keeps her from revealing what Mathews’ knew about a handgun used to kill a white supremacist. He is also deeply bored and increasingly anxious. Mathews is one of the few black Rangers.

His Mama, Cassie Bell, makes clear she is protecting her dear son as long as he keeps providing financial assistance. The maternal uncertainty is draining.

In the first book of the series, Bluebird, Bluebird, Mathews faced the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. In a stunning twist he is now asked to investigate a missing 9 year old boy, Levi King.  Levi’s “father Bill ‘Big Kill’ King - is an ABT captain doing a twenty-year bid at the Telford Unit up near Texarkana on a slew of drug-related charges. Sales, production, armed robbery, the works.” Levi is well under way to a racist adulthood.

With Big Kill locked away for decades Mom, Marnie, has taken up with a low level loser, Gil Thomason. Big Kill does not want his son near Thomason.

Having grown up in a household of romantic turmoil Mathews can appreciate Levi’s struggles with  tangled parental problems.

The Rangers and the FBI have been building a major case against the Brotherhood and want to get the evidence needed to indict before President Trump is inaugurated. They are uneasy the federal government will not be pursuing violent white supremacists.

At the same time federal law enforcement would be content, even glad, to see a black man convicted of killing a white child to show the new administration they are race neutral.

Sending a black man to lead the investigation of the missing child of the Brotherhood sounds like a bad, even crazy idea even if there are some black people who need to be interviewed. 

Big Marnie and Levi live deep in the woods at Hopetown, a community not on the map, on the edge of the massive Caddo Lake. They are proud public racists subleasing land owned by blacks. Hopetown is a fading community founded by free blacks after the Civil War. 

Bill Kill’s mother, Rosemary King, lives in splendour in the largest house in Jefferson and owns the Cardinal Hotel, the pre-eminent hotel in Eastern Texas for over 100 years. She has never had a black guest in her home until Mathews visits with the local Sheriff.

As with Geneva Sweet in Bluebird, Bluebird Locke has created another matriarch who fills pages with her presence. Unfortunately, Rosemary’s role in the book is mainly in the shadows.

Mathews marriage to Lisa remains fragile. When he needs to talk about his feelings he reaches out to Randie Winston, the widow of a victim in Bluebird, Bluebird. He wants his marriage to succeed but does he want it enough? 

His drinking is barely under control.

The relationships between white and black and Indian (there are also Caddo Indians resident at Hopetown) Texans intersect historically and currently. Resentments and racism are a constant presence. Relationships confound. And then financial issues intercede. Mathews is having doubts about following the rule of law in contemporary America. Maybe personally administered justice is better. 

The question of whether a devout racist can change is a challenge for Mathews.

Heaven, My Home draws readers into the racial complexities of rural East Texas. Finding what happened to Levi will answer many questions but no authorities other than Mathews are truly searching.

A great series is under way with Daren Mathews. The land, history and people of East Texas seep into every page.
Locke, Attica - (2016) - Pleasantville; (2017) - Black Water Rising and Wishing I had Read the Books in Order; (2018) - Bluebird, Bluebird and The First Black Texas Ranger in Real Life and Fiction

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré

Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré - Nat, christened Anatoly, is a 47 year old recruiter and runner of spies that British Intelligence no longer needs in the turbulent capitals of Eastern Europe during the third decade of the 21st Century. With Russian / Scottish heritage he has spent his career in and around Russia. I feel old when I realize Nat spent his entire career engaged in espionage with post-Soviet Russia.

His innate charm and skill at badminton (inherited from his father) are appreciated in the Office but not enough to keep him an active spy runner abroad.

A new member of his athletic club, the gawky and earnest Ed, challenges Nat, the club champion, and they start a series of badminton games. Ed is fiercely anti-Trump, despises Brexit and sees the British Establishment as hopelessly corrupt.

Nat’s former superior in Budapest, Dominic “Dom” Trench, now head of London Central, offers Nat the position of head of substation Haven. A successful stint and both of them may be bound for the coveted Russia department.

Nat’s wife, Prue, a human rights lawyer has spent most of his career in England with their daughter, Steff. She would prefer he depart the Office but is resigned to Nat being unready to leave the world of espionage. 

In a fascinating exchange on the ski slopes of Switzerland Nat explains to Steff he is a spy. Steff, with all the self-righteousness of a zealous university undergrad, questions why he spies for a nation about which he acknowledges “serious reservations” concerning the government. Later Steff is furious with her mother for not telling her of Dad’s occupation.

By contrast, his second at the Haven is Florence, a second-year probationer needing seasoning. In accent and manners she is clearly a member of the upper classes. Determined to succeed as a spy she has already recruited the mistress of a Ukrainian oligarch with close connections to Moscow. She proposes a surreptitious entry to his lavish residence.

The remaining staff are either like Nat, at the end of their careers, or Florence, newcomers to the service. Nat and Florence are unlike their colleagues in still having ambitions to move ahead in the Office. 

The plot swiftly shifts its focus when administrative decisions do not approve the operation.

When a young Russian sleeper agent, who had defected on his arrival, is activated by Moscow Nat, using all his skills, sees a great opportunity for an intelligence coup. Adept at navigating bureaucracy he places himself at the centre of the operation.

I was startled when British intelligence tasks 100 men and women to an operation to covertly observe an anticipated meeting with a prominent English mole.

Nat’s world comes crashing down when the meeting takes place. It was a brilliant twist I had not seen coming in the plot. And then there was an even more brilliant twist. I was reeling about what would come next in the book.

Agent Running in the Field has so many layers. There are connections between agents, formal and informal, from the intelligence agencies of friends and foes. There are fierce inter-office rivalries. There are complex relationships between the British Establishment and British intelligence. There are friendships, as much business as personal. There are families wrestling with how spy and non-spy family members deal with spying being a family business. There are subtle and direct examinations of the current moralities of England’s democracy and Russia’s dictatorship. There are unexpected personal relationships with startling consequences. And there was not a conventional Le Carré ending. I was glad I was given the book as a Christmas present.
Le Carré, John – (2000) - Single & Single; (2001) - The Constant Gardner (Second best fiction of 2001); (2005) - Absolute Friends (Best fiction in 2005); (2008) - Mission Song; (2009) – A Most Wanted Man; (2016) - A Quartet of John Le Carré; (2016) - The Night Manager and The Writing of and Reaction to The Night Manager and The New Night Manager T.V. Series