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.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Fourth Sacrifice by Peter May

The Fourth Sacrifice by Peter May (2000) - Dr. Margaret Campbell, is upset. It is a few months after she raised the alarm on “super-rice” in The Firemaker. Calamity has been averted but Bejing detective Li Yan has not kept in contact with her. Having become lovers  she is hurt and has decided to return to America.

Li is occupied by an investigation into Bejing’s first serial killer. In four weeks four men have been beheaded. Personally, Li has been ordered not to contact Campbell.

When the 4th victim Yuan Tao turns out to be an American citizen the U.S. embassy asks Campbell to do the autopsy. To the shock of everyone she determines the 4th killing was committed by a different killer. Where the earlier victims were decapitated by a right handed murderer the last was slain by someone who is left handed.

The murder weapon, a bronze sword, is distinctive in that bronze swords have not been used for centuries. Why would a bronze sword or swords be used?

While the murder weapon looks back hundreds of years there are modern political issues. Yuan Tao was born in China and left for America shortly before the Cultural Revolution. Right wing American zealots suspect he was killed for leaving China 30 years earlier and adopting America.

Campbell stays to participate in the investigation.

When Li confirms all 4 victims were schoolmates the question of whether there were 2 killers is fascinating.

The investigation takes Li back to the Cultural Revolution when life in China was turned into chaos and violence with the Red Guards. Yet those events were decades ago.

Why would Yuan Tao, a respected academic in America, give up his position to work in the visa section of the American embassy? What connects him to the schoolmates who stayed in China?

Li carefully examines the threads of evidence. His advances come from reflecting on that evidence.

Margaret considers the evidence in broader terms and has flashes of insight. 

While their emotions for each other remain tangled their personal lives move on separately.

Adding spice to Margaret’s life is Michael Zimmerman, a famous archaeologist, who is in China to film a documentary. He is very interested in Margaret. Her trip to see the terracotta warriors made me want to experience them.

The romantic relationships did become a bit of a soap opera.

There is a powerful examination of the personal implications of China’s One-Child Policy in Li’s immediate family and the desire for a son. I found wrenching, almost incomprehensible as a father and grandfather, what individuals would do to have a son.

The combination of archaeology, life in swiftly changing Bejing, an intriguing quartet of murders and complex personal relationships made The Fourth Sacrifice an excellent book. 
May, Peter - (2003) - Snakehead; (2014) - The Blackhouse; (2014) - The Lewis Man; (2015) - The ChessmenBookmark Inspiration for the Outer Hebrides; (2020) - Firemaker

Thursday, March 26, 2020

He Left Them Laughing When He Said Good-bye by Grant MacEwan

He Left Them Laughing When He Said Good-bye by Grant MacEwan – Patrick “Paddy” Nolan was a colourful Irish lawyer who arrived in Calgary in 1889. He had been classically educated at Dublin University and Trinity College. With a restless spirit he passed up New York City, too lonely a place for a stranger, for Calgary, a roaring town on the prairies.
Nolan quickly became known for his humour, acting talent and courtroom skills. Paddy lived life with gusto. Always ready for a drink of whiskey he was a convivial and large companion weighing about 300 pounds. He had an abundant collection of jokes and stories..
My favourite parts of the book were the courtroom scenes where his wit and fierce determination to win every case made him a formidable opponent.
Often appearing against him was Prime Minister, R.B. Bennett, some decades before he became Prime Minister. Where Bennett would arrive in court loaded with books of learned precedents Paddy would rely on his knowledge of the facts and passion. One memorable day Bennett was, rather officiously, calling out for the boy to get texts for him as he made his argument. When he was done Paddy called on the boy to get him Bennett on Bluff.
(In a reflection of how details of a story vary with the telling the Dictionary of Canadian Biography recounts the anecdote as:
“Boy, give me Phipson on Evidence; Boy, give me Kenny on Crimes.” Nolan broke up the court when he uttered, “Boy, get me Bennett on Bologney.”)
In another case, doubting the alleged victim in a fight suffered an injury that prevented him from lifting his arm above his shoulder Paddy asked him how high he could lift his arm since being injured and groaning the man lifted it to his shoulder. Paddy quickly followed up with how high could he lift it before being hurt and he raised his arm significantly higher to the amusement of all present.
After Nolan had considerable success representing alleged cattle thieves the Stockman’s Association retained him to handle prosecutions. While he was successful Nolan was at heart a defence counsel and gave up his retainer with the Association..
Paddy lived in Calgary as the town became a city at the end of the 19th Century. Then, as now, Calgary was filled with energy. Oil had not yet become dominant. At its heart the city still had a cowboy culture.
In the 21st Century it is hard to think of lawyers in Western Canada renown for wit in court. Occasionally there is a funny story or a well said remark but there are fewer characters in the courts. We are the worse for not having modern Paddy Nolan’s to enliven court proceedings.
In Nolan’s era crowds attended court, interested as much in the performance of the lawyers, as the evidence. As late as the 1970’s when I started practising law a good crowd could be found at courts in rural Saskatchewan to see the show.
Shortly before his unexpected death it was reported that Nolan advised his fellow Knights of Columbus to “seek justice, hurt no living creature needlessly, and plant the seeds of laughter”.
MacEwan quotes a fitting farewell for a man such as Paddy in “I shall not wholly die. What’s best of me shall surely ‘scape the tomb”.
While Nolan was a lively companion to many the Dictionary of Canadian Biography sets out life at home was difficult because of his drinking:
"According to lawyer Ronald Martland, Nolan's son Harry, who was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1956 (he died the next year) 'very seldom spoke of his father' because of the problems he caused his mother, and was determined never to follow in his footsteps. Harry's wife maintained that Paddy kept his wife short of cash and established no relationship with his son, even leaving his schoolboy letters unanswered."

The author, a prolific chronicler of pioneer Western Canada, actually grew up in Melfort. He was a solid writer content to let characters tell their stories. There are no dramatic embellishments. Unfortunately this book does not really flow. When he wrote the book  MacEwan was 85.

(This review is an update of a review I published almost 10 years ago.)

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Firemaker by Peter May

Firemaker by Peter May (1999) - A nanny speaks to the police of a man ablaze in a Bejing park:

“He was still alive. Reaching out
to me, like he was asking for

Detective Li Yan, on his first day as Deputy Section Chief, investigates the deaths of the fire victim, a drug dealer and an intinerant worker.

Just arrived in Bejing is Dr. Margaret Campbell, a forensic pathologist, from Chicago who is trying to escape from personal tragedy. When authorities discover she is an expert in burn victims she is called upon to conduct the autopsy of the man from the park. She swiftly determines it is murder.

The other deaths were clearly murders. The drug dealer was stabbed while the worker’s neck was manually snapped.

Li and Campbell, strong willed and independent personalities, clash.

Li reflects on American and Chinese criminal investigations:

It was one of the fundamental differences, Li thought, between the American approach and the Chinese approach. The Americans placed more stress on motive, The Chinese, preferred to build the evidence, piece by tiny piece, until the accumulation of it was overwhelmingly conclusive. The “why” was not the key to the answer but the answer itself. Perhaps by working together they could combine the virtures of both systems.

Li embarks on a traditional Chinese criminal investigation with extensive interviews and careful reviews of physical evidence but May adds a discordant scene where the “traditional” American threat of physical violence is used to extort information.

Campbell must adjust to China’s distinctly different approach on rights in a criminal investigation:

“According to Chinese law a defendant has the right to defend himself. But he also has a duty to co-operate with the police and the court in uncovering the truth about his case. You might think that the right to defend himself would lead automatically to a right to silence under interrogation, to protect himself, like Americans take the Fifth. Only he also has a duty - to the state, to society - to answer all questions faithfully and truthfully, even if that incriminates him …. The real problem with China is that while the defendant’s rights are pretty well protected in the constitution, they’re often neglected, or even abused, in practice. But there’s a lot of bright people in this country working hard to change that. And not without success. Things are improving.”

Campbell’s knowledge lets her determine the identity of the burned man. Chao Heng is a retired high level bureaucrat in China’s Department of Agriculture who worked on the genetic modification of rice to create a “super rice” that has dramatically increased Chinese food production.

Li and Campbell continue a prickly professional relationship with Li flip flopping over her participation and Campbell resentfully deciding to leave if she is not wanted.

Personally they gradually grow closer.

While Li would prefer his accustomed traditional approach he is forced to consider “why” with regard to the murders because a Marlboro cigarette end is found at each murder site. There is no obvious connection.

To discover the “why” Li and Campbell combine reflection on the evidence gathered with reviewing the evidence and the crime scenes.

As they probe they realize powerful forces have acted. I was caught up in the drama of a credible conspiracy. 

Li and Campbell flee. It has been awhile since I read of an excellent escape.

The pace of the plot quickened until I was anxious to turn the page to see the resolution. I was reminded of the great early novels of Robert Ludlum creating believable conspiracies that captured the reader.

Firemaker, is the first in May’s China Thriller series.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Cases in Court by Sir Patrick Hastings (Finished)

Drawing of Sir Patrick by his son-in-law, Nicolas
Clerihew Bentley 
Cases in Court by Sir Patrick Hastings - In my previous post I started a review of Cases in Court. In that post I discussed some of the early cases of Hastings. This post will provide examples from later cases.

He was convinced there was but one key issue in a trial. I agree there are rarely numerous important issues but would say there is often more than a single pivotal issue. The challenge of the litigator is determining that issue or issues. It is hard not to throw out to the court all the potential issues in a case but the best trial lawyers do focus cases.

Hastings gave a striking example when he represented United Diamond Fields of British Guiana in suing the Diamond Syndicate (the diamond monopoly). The Syndicate entered a contract to buy all the Diamond Field diamonds on terms that were effectively set by the Syndicate. Wanting to reduce the flow of diamonds from Guiana to help avoid a global glut Mr. Oppenheimer, for the Syndicate, issued certificates that, as the profit to the syndicate on Guiana was less than 5%, it was justified in reducing the price for the diamonds by 10%. A series of 10% cuts meant bankruptcy.

After United Diamond Fields sued for fraud the Syndicate, using a common tactic of large companies past and present, sought to overwhelm the claimant with paper. Here there were over 4,000 letters among the documents. Now it may be tens of thousands or more emails. 

Hastings rightly considered the jury would get lost. Rather than try to deal with all the details of such a mass of paper Hastings concentrated on a single certificate where the actual profit on sale was not the 5% justifying a price reduction but a profit of 16-17%. Hastinigs said unless the certificate could be properly explained there was fraud.

At trial while the defence asked many questions and filed many documents they eventually had to address the certificate. There was only a contorted explanation which involved Mr. Oppenheimer personally buying the diamonds for a higher price from the buyer who had just purchased them from the Syndicate. Counsel for the Syndicate was forced to acknowledge the certificate was not true. At that moment Mr. Oppenheimer became too unwell to testify and a favourable settlement for Diamond Fields was promptly reached.

In describing a witness whose evidence is imperfect Hastings uses a deft incriminating phrase:

But he was not entirely a satisfactory witness.

While not fond of criminal cases Hastings acted as either Crown prosecutor or defence counsel several times.

On addressing juries he advised:

The days of flatulent oratory are gone. A jury has sworn to do its best to give a truthful verdict, and is entitled to be treated with respect for its intelligence. Unless a case is absolutely hopeless, flights of imagination or poetic emotion are best left to the theatre.

He did follow a practice as defence counsel I have never seen adopted in Canada in my legal lifetime. Concerned about desperate accused coming up with defences that bear no relation to the truth:

It is for that reason that I have always made an inflexible rule never to see an accused person in his prison, lest I should find myself hampered in the conduct of the defence either by something the defendant may have said or by something he may have thought his counsel may have wished that he would say.

Now the accused’s solicitor instructing Hastings would certainly have seen the accused. I would never want to go to trial without a chance to speak to the accused especially as a decision must be made in every criminal trial on whether the accused should go upon the witness stand.

While the stress upon counsel representing accused in death penalty cases has often been discussed it is uncommon to hear of the strain on the prosecutor. For Hastings it was not a matter of feeling driven to achieve a finding of guilt. In the tradition of our best prosecuting principles he was only concerned with presenting the case fully and accurately for the Crown. The decision was for the judge or jury. What Hastings found very hard in prosecuting a specific capital trial was that he conducted an effective cross-examination of the accused that destroyed the man’s credibility and sent him to the gallows.

Possibly Hastings best advice for young lawyers, written in the context of his ideas on cross-examinations, was that he “strongly advise(s) everyone to disregard them, advice from others is useless and often harmful. Each must decide his own method for himself”. I have consistently advised young lawyers in the office to find the courtroom style that suits them. Certainly you need to be confident and knowledgeable but do not adopt a courtroom personality that is not your personality.

Beyond his book referencing men continually, it was a time of few women barristers, Cases in Court is still relevant and well written. Lawyers and non-lawyers will enjoy the stories. 
Hastings, Patrick - (2020) - Cases in Court (Begun)

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Cases in Court by Sir Patrick Hastings (Begun)

Cases in Court by Sir Patrick Hastings - When I was a young lawyer over 40 years ago I read this wonderful book about memorable cases of the famed British barrister. While he had written the book in 1948 there remains a freshness to his recounting of trials. I subsequently learned that he loved the theatre and was also a playwright. Now that I am an old lawyer I found the book, written just after his retirement at an age comparable to myself, even more vivid.

Hastings opens with his early experiences as a lawyer. In the over 100 years since he was admitted to the English bar little has changed for a young barrister, now usually called a litigator in North America. It is not easy to find clients willing to entrust their cases to the inexperienced. Learning the craft of being a trial lawyer takes time in court.

Many of his early cases involved representing insurers against bogus claims. One group of claimants were “old” women “falling” off omnibuses. They would be diagnosed by select doctors as suffering from “traumatic neurasthenia”, a vague malady, for which expensive and extensive treatment was required. 

A variation from the “falling” cases involved a claimant supposedly injured by a falling crate of oranges. An insurer decided to take a stand and went to trial on the egregious claim. Through careful preparation the defence arranged for a series of clerks to visit the select doctor to establish that his fees and medicine for a patient who was not “injured” in an accident were a fraction of the costs for an “injured” patient. Further detective work set out the claimant’s family had 13 successful fire claims for houses they purchased and repaired. The houses all caught fire within days of completion of the repairs.

I enjoyed the excerpts of his cross-examinations. Where counsel is confident of establishing fraud Hastings recommends coming hard at the plaintiff from the first question for:

If the witness is dishonest, a violent blow at the outset will very often knock him completely off his carefully prepared pedestal of integrity.

Hastings demonstrated this approach with his opening question in the above falling crate of oranges case:

I am going to suggest to you that this case is a deliberate fraud, and that for years past you and your family have lived by making fraudulent claims against insurance companies.

A lawyer takes a major risk by alleging fraud. If the assertion cannot be proven major damages and costs will be awarded against his/her client for failing to prove dishonesty.

Overall on cross-examination Hastings disliked prepared crosses as a counsel for “[I]f you can’t remember the details of your own case without notes, you must have a very bad memory”. He recommended counsel, during direct examination, focus on the witness to assess their “personality and mentality” and not spend the time writing notes of their evidence for counsel is “wasting the golden opportunity of studying the witness himself”. He has no patience for interruptions from juniors or solicitors suggesting questions. He said he once knocked one interrupter on the head with a book of case reports to get him to stop.

In another action a skilful mail fraud unraveled in the “case of the illuminating dot”. A pair of initials were on an incriminating document. Handwriting analysis was inconclusive until a detective compared the initials on a police statement and found the writer put a single dot in a distinctive location - halfway up the letters - and the case was solved.

Hastings provides still relevant examples of how to conduct trials as will be set out in my next post.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

An Exchange with Stan Jones on The Big Empty

After reading The Big Empty by Stan Jones and Patricia Watts I wrote to Stan. My email and his reply follow. I appreciate Stan's interesting candid comments.
Hey, Bill--
 Sorry to be so laggardly in responding. Meant to do it earlier, but things just kept coming up & I got distracted.
 Anyway, see below ...
To: Stan Jones
I found it more noir.
You're right, The Big Empty was a bit more noirish. Some have always considered the series noirish, apparently, but I've always just let the stories take me where they will, and this one ended up going in a noirish direction.
 I was struck by the use of balloons in the plane’s fuel tanks creating the fatal crash. Your book was not the first I have read which used that means of murder. In A Plane Death by Saskatchewan author Anne Dooley beach balls in the plane fuel tanks equally created the illusion of full tanks.
I wasn't aware the balloon idea, or something similar, had been used before. As to where it came from, I started with the idea of sabotaging a Bush plane and asked a couple of mechanic friends how to do it. One came up with the idea of motorcycle inner tubes and a modified that to weather ballons as being more feasible.
 I was caught off guard when I read that Patricia was your co-author. I am equally interested in how she came to join you in the writing of the book and how you wrote as co-writers.
I asked Patricia to join me because she's a faster writer, and because of the fact that women buy most books, or so I'm told. So I figured a woman co-writer would make sense.
Patricia did most of the first draft, then I revoiced it to make it sound more like me, and we bounced it back and forth till we completed the revision process.
Part of the reason for letting Patricia do the first draft was that I was also working on a screenplay, "2221B," in which the world learns that the legendary Sherlock Holmes was a woman in disguise all along, a startlingly beautiful woman who lives with her lover, John Watson, under constant threat of exposure, pregnancy, and sodomy charges as she busts a pedophile ring that operates a boy brothel in Victorian London. Their client is the actress Irene Adler, who eventually joins them to form a polyamorous threesome. Lucky Watson, am I right?
Last year I read and enjoyed the first book in the Cecil Younger series by John Straley. I recall in a past email email exchange that you described Alaska as a 650,000 square mile village. Would you and John know each other?
I don't know John, though of I course I know of his work. 
I do hope there will be more Nathan Active books. As mentioned in my review I was left uncertain after reading The Big Empty.
Yep, there's another one, done and in the publication pipeline. "Ghost Light" by name, and starting when a demented old Inupiat lady starts bringing back body parts from her nightly rambles around Chukchi and vicinity. Nathan as to figure out where she's getting the remains, whose they are, and how the person died. It was murder of course, and therein lies the tale!
Thanks as always for your interest in Nathan and his doings. I'll let you know when "Ghost Light" comes out, unless you've already signed up for that on my website.
 In closing, I should let you know that I'm in Palm Springs for this month, working on the first installment of a new series set in this area. It features an older female private sleuth and is very noirish. I have two co-writers for this project and we are five chapters in. The title is "Slab City" because part of the story takes place in that legendary squatter camp in the California desert.
Best regards,
Stan Jones

Thursday, March 5, 2020

A Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear

A Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear - After heartbreaking loss Maisie Dobbs has returned to England. Family and friends share her grief. She is unsure what she will do with her life when the Secret Service reaches out to her to perform “an important task” for England that needs a woman. She answers the call of her country.

Leon Donat, a British industrialist and inventor, has been imprisoned in Dachau after providing an investment to a young man who ran afoul of Nazi authorities. After laborious negotiations he is to be released to a family member. 

The only living family member is his daughter, in hospital, in England with consumption. Few know of her illness and fewer know of her appearance. The Secret Service wants Maisie to impersonate Edwina Donat and bring her father home. 

I was hooked. Maisie shifts from private investigator / psychologist to secret agent. It is a brilliant shift in her life.

When the Otterburns learn of her mission they prevail upon her to seek their daughter, Elaine, who has abandoned her marriage and baby for parties in Munich. Angry at the Otterburns,  she would prefer to have nothing to do with them, she accepts their plea for the sake of the child. Elaine, pampered and indulged all her life, has never demonstrated a sense of responsibility.

In her flirtations with Nazi Germany I thought of the Mitford sisters but Elaine’s connections proved far different than the real life sisters.

The Otterburns believe Elaine will listen to Maisie as she craves Maisie’s forgiveness for the death of James in an airplane crash on a day Elaine was to fly the plane.

Maisie is pulled into a tangle of emotions. So many have been affected by the loss of James. Their respective griefs remain strong.

Though not a religious person Maisie has learned that providing forgiveness “is setting me free”. While nothing is harder than forgiving it is liberating when done.

In another surprise the peaceful Maisie is trained to kill, if necessary, to complete her assignment.

In Munich the Nazi complete command of Germany is displayed in ways large and small. Can Maisie gird herself to say “Heil Hitler” and make the Nazi salute constantly demaned? Dread is constant.

Will the Nazis actually release Donat or have they been playing the English to demonstrate their unconcern with conventional diplomacy and agreements?

Maisie finds her quest a frustrating circular process. And then she remembers something her mentor, Maurice Blanche, had said, so long ago. “Never fear going in circles, Maisie. The next time around, you’ll see something yourself. And when you have knowledge, you have wisdom. If your mind is open, and your heart is willing.

I was disappointed by Maisie’s actions near the end of the book when she made a decision that took her into gratuitous danger for purely personal reasons. It also felt contrived and never fitted with the plot.

The conclusion, with Maisie back in England, felt right. 

I hope Maisie will venture into espionage again. She proved an able and clever agent.

The brilliant premise of Maisie as a secret agent was carried out well but the book did not sparkle. It is but not one of the stronger books in the series. After consecutive books set outside England it is time for Maisie to stay in England.