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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

My Choice for Winner of the 2020 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

Each year I read the shortlist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. As usual I have written reviews of each book. I follow personal tradition in this post of determining my winner from the shortlist.

This year’s books were:

1.) The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey;

2.) An Equal Justice by Chad Zunker; and,

3.) The Hallows by Victor Methos.

In considering which book should be the winner I am guided by the primary criteria for determining the winning book. It directs the judges to award the Prize “to a book length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”

Set in 1922 Bombay’s first female lawyer, Perveen Mistry, in The Satapur Moonstone travels to the princely state of Satapur to resolve a dispute over the education of a 10 year old maharaja. His mother wants him to go to boarding school in England while his grandmother wants him tutored in the family palace. Each fiercely believes she knows what is best for the boy.

As in the first book of the series, The Widows of Malabar Hill, Mistry is retained because she can meet personally with women who are in seclusion.

Mistry has a precise logical mind which serves her well as a lawyer. Her analysis of the options for the maharaja’s education and her recommendation are well done.

Along the way Mistry solves the mystery of the deaths of the boy’s father and older brother.

The book “illuminates” a “role of lawyers in society” providing counsel on what is in the best interests of a child. Where family members struggle with objectivity a lawyer can, by weighing the facts and the applicable principles of law, provide an opinion that is focused on the child.

It is hard to see where the story sees a lawyer effecting change. Mistry, as a woman lawyer, shows women are as capable as men in providing legal advice in complex factual situations. She is leading the way for women entering the legal profession. Her life effects change.

In An Equal Justice by Chad Zunker a new graduate of the Stanford Law School, David Adams, joins a powerhouse firm in Austin, Texas where he will be a civil litigator. Determined to never being out-worked he arrives at 5:30 am for his first day of work.

He soon learns the firm is corrupt and involved in wicked actions. Discreetly investigating the death of a colleague he encounters a group of homeless men living in “The Camp” on the outskirts of Austin. Christian men, they neither allow drugs nor alcohol in “The Camp”.

Zunker does solve the murder but no legal skills are involved. He could have been a young executive in a variety of businesses.

Adams does take on the defence of a homeless man charged with murder. In my review I described it as surreal that a new lawyer would take on a murder defence.

Zunker does treat the homeless with respect.

I found it hard to understand why the book was on the shortlist. His role as a lawyer in the book is to represent huge corporations. He purchases some property to provide a place for homeless people but it was not because he was a lawyer and his actions did not involve his legal talents.

In the winning book, The Hallows by Victor Methos, the charismatic Tatum Graham, talented in all the wiles of the big time American defence lawyer abruptly leaves Miami after a client, just acquitted of murder, strangles the sister of the victim in the trial.

He returns to rural Utah where he joins the county sheriff’s office to prosecute the murder of a 17 year old girl. Using his abundant legal skills he shores up a sloppily investigated case.

With the accused’s wealthy father financing the defence, a prominent New York attorney is hired to represent the teen aged accused.

It is an entertaining story on the preparations for trial in a major murder trial.

I recognize that the “role” of lawyers is to represent the State and the defence in criminal charges. Graham is good at both roles. I could not see how he was effecting “change” because he was using his legal talent to seek a conviction.

It bothered me when I read the news release announcing Methos as the winner where one of the judges was quoted:

“.... we watch Tatum Graham come to terms with the profound personal failures associated with his professional successes,” Crank said. “His redemption comes in the form of a dogged pursuit of justice, even though it means waging war on the very people and institutions that created him.

I take exception to “profound personal failures” being related to his criminal defence work and that he achieves “redemption” as a prosecutor. The tactics he used as a defender are continued by Graham as a prosecutor. Indeed, at the end of the book he breaks the law to get the killer. I saw no “war on the very people and institutions that created him”. He became part of the establishment when he became a prosecutor.

There was a personal change in Graham by switching from the defence to prosecution which probably benefited society but I do not see him effecting change in how criminal law is practiced.

I agree The Hallows deserved to be the winner out of this shortlist but I am hard pressed to see any of the lawyers effecting “change”.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Hallows by Victor Methos

(36. - 1061.) The Hallows by Victor Methos - Tatum Graham has it all. Rich, famous and successful. He dominates the courtrooms of Miami as the defence attorney for the wealthy and infamous. His latest courtroom triumph was getting Marcus Green acquitted of murder. Green liked to tell him his net worth required three commas (over a billion dollars).

Tatum’s motto is:

“I didn’t get into this profession to lose.”

Tatum believed Green was innocent. When, the night of his acquittal, Green strangles the younger sister of the woman who had been the victim in the just completed trial Graham snaps.

He quits his firm. Gives up his house and Ferrari. Gets in his Tesla and heads for his hometown of River Falls, Utah. He has not been there in 19 years. A “bookworm” as a kid he had fled town upon graduation from high school. 

Meeting with his father for the first time since he left town involves a brief exchange of harsh words. 

He connects with former high school classmate, Gates Barnes. They had dated. She is now the county attorney. Gates has just resentment over his abrupt exit from town and absence of contact. Graham says:

“I’m sorry. You just … you want to leave behind your past sometimes so bad you forget that there’s people who can get hurt.”

There are now 6,000 residents of River Falls and 15,000 in Ute County.

Drifting, Tatum is uncertain what he wants to do, After a chance meeting with the father of the victim, Tatum looks at a pending murder case, the only one the county has had in years. Patty Winchester, a 17 year old girl was raped, tortured and murdered, and her body found outside of town. Tatum’s quick analysis of the police investigation discloses multiple flaws. In response Gates says:

“I’m asking for your help. But I understand if you can’t. If you just want to run away.” She rose. “It’s what you do best.”

Guilt can be a powerful motivation and it sends Tatum to get his district attorney badge and take charge of the case. He is as aggressive a prosecutor as he was a defender.

The mistakes in the investigation are promptly addressed. Quality experts are retained. Witnesses are re-interviewed. The body is exhumed for further examination.

For all the flash and swagger of his approach to prosecuting (defending) a case Tatum excels in the detail of evidence. While his planned book The Art of Jury Trial at War is filled with clever remarks such as “No risk, no reward” it is his hard work at preparing the case that is most important.

Tatum has a worthy opponent in defence counsel, Russell Pritcher, from New York City. Tatum almost considers Pritcher his equal.

Pritcher will defend Anderson Ficco, the volatile self-destructive son, of the city’s richest man, Nathan Ficco.

The plot twists and turns as there are revelations about character after character.

Tatum is suspicious when Pritcher demands and gets an early trial date but despite all his experience and wiles he cannot figure out the defence Pritcher has planned.

The pages race by as preparation for the trial accelerates.

The Hallows has an explosive finish that disappointed me as it was a classic thriller ending. It was well done but the resolution had little to do with Tatum’s legal skills. It would have been far better though undoubtedly less dramatic to see Tatum maintain his streak of never having lost a trial by his talent in the courtroom. Scott Turow’s book, The Last Trial, whihc I read earlier this year has a courtroom ending with lots of drama.

I intend to read more of Methos. He is a talented writer and I hope has used the courtroom to resolve a plot.  Congratulations again to Methos for winning the 2020 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction with The Hallows.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Fictional Law Firm Earnings

In An Equal Justice by Chad Zunker, brand new lawyer, David Adams, is hired by the powerhouse Austin law firm of Hunter & Kellerman. His starting salary is in the range of $200,000. He is to bill clients at the rate of $475 per hour. While his rate seems high for a starting lawyer his mentor, Marty Lyons, is billing over $1,000 per hour. How those rates translate into firm revenue and income distribution illustrates why young lawyers in big firms strive to become partners.

An associate in a large American firm can expect a billing target of 2,200 hours a year. If a young lawyer is working 49 weeks of the year the target works out to 45 hours a week. The challenge comes in reaching the target while dealing with the administrative details of practice, firm meetings, continuing professional development hours and other non-billable office time.

If an associate such as Adams meets the target (close to a euphemism for requirement) he will have billed $1,045,000. It is an impressive sum for a new lawyer.

With a salary of $200,000 it potentially means the firm has available for expenses related to Adams and distribution to other partners the sum of $845,000.

What few works of fiction delve into is the collection of billings. Small firms to big firms can have problems collecting all fees billed. Firms evaluate how much is received versus how much is billed. From a business perspective the target should be based on collectible hours. Few firms want to disclose the extent of their challenges in collecting accounts.

For a young lawyer under the direction of partners the issue of collectibles is more a question for more senior lawyers at the firm.

For discussion let us say $145,000 is non-collectible leaving $700,000. If the expenses related to Adams total approximately $200,000 there is about $500,000 available for distribution. 

For the senior partner, Lyons, he is likely to bill the same number of hours and bring in substantially more money. If he bills $1,000 per hour for 2,200 hours he bills $2,200,000 for the firm. Considering his status and his focus on paying clients let’s estimate the firm receives $1,900,000 from his billing. We need to subtract expenses related to him which will be a little higher than Adams. I shall say $250,000 bringing his personal net collectibles to $1,650,000.

In the book he is paid by the firm $3,500,000. Since he brings in $1,650,000 there need to be about 3.5 associates to make up the $1,8500,000 he has not brought into the firm.

The post over-simplifies associates as senior associates are far more valuable than neophyte lawyers. The older associates will bill closer to the totals of partners as they strive to achieve partnership status.

For this post we will omit a discussion on big firms discounting rates for important clients so their billings are less than what you would expect from their published rates.

Big law is very demanding in hours and very lucrative.


Zunker, Chad - (2020) - An Equal Justice

Thursday, September 17, 2020

An Equal Justice by Chad Zunker

(35. - 1060.) An Equal Justice by Chad Zunker - David Adams grew up poor in Wink, Texas. With determination, a quick mind and the ability to get by on 4 hours of sleep per night he graduated in the top 10 of his Stanford Law class. On a fine fall Saturday evening he arrives in Austin where he is a new associate in the “palatial law offices” of Hunter & Kellerman (H & K). Adams is ready and eager to make good use of his $3,000 Italian made office chair. No one will ever out-work him.

Frank Hodges has just flown into Austin the same evening. Pushed into retirement after 40 years in the CIA and bored by fishing he opened a specialized private security business - “Special ops for the private sector” - in which he handles troubling matters for the wealthy. His new clients are being blackmailed and want him to find six men who served together in the American Navy in the 1970’s.

Adams is at the office at 5:30 Monday morning after his weekend arrival already assigned a summary judgment application. He starts billing in “six-minute increments” at $475 per hour.

He is shocked to learn the drunk associate, Nick Carlson, he took home on Saturday night after a lavish welcome party killed himself that night. He wonders how the deceased, barely able to walk to his door had typed out a suicide note. All he can think about are Carlson’s comments about the firm:

You should leave. Now. Before it’s too late for you, too.

I instantly thought of John Grisham’s book, The Firm, and wondered who would portray Adams in the movie of An Equal Justice. Even with all the skills of Hollywood, Tom Cruise, at 58 is too old to play another new lawyer in his mid 20’s in a dark big law firm though I expect he would consider himself suitable.

By chance Adams meets Benny (Benjamin Dugan), a homeless man who saves him from a knife wielding mugger in a downtown alley. Benny, a senior citizen who is a Navy veteran, is an elder in the Camp, a utopian utilitarian outdoor camp of homeless men, who live on the fringe of Austin. No drugs or alcohol are allowed. Devoutly Christian they have an outdoor chapel, “four long wooden benches had been placed that all faced a hand-built five-foot wooden cross”, where they worship 3 times a week.

As he builds his relationship with the homeless community I appreciated that Zunker saw them as positive people. Too often they are shown as barely one dimensional. At the same time it felt overdone. There was little depiction of the multiple problems faced by the homeless, especially mental illness.

Adams investigation is logical but the book slipped into the surreal for me when Adams, but six weeks into his legal career as a corporate civil litigator takes on the defence of one of his homeless friends, Larue, who is  charged with murder. The decision certainly is dramatic.

The ending was suitably thriller though there was little legal thinking involved.

It is not a subtle book. In Marty Lyons, the powerful evil leader of the firm, Zunker created a man so prone to excess especially with alcohol as to create doubt how he could be a great litigator and manipulative villain. Grisham took a more convincing approach with Avery Tolar in The Firm. Tolar was a coldly calculating man. He had to be surreptitiously drugged to gain access to his papers.

Adams’ profession of lawyer has little role. He could have been a young executive in many types of business. The pages do fly by and it is the first thriller I have read in a long time that was completed in 209 pages. The comparatively brief book does limit character and plot development for a conspiracy. In building the conspiracy or at least a coverup I would have preferred more about the villains and their plans.

The Author’s Note at the ending on the inspiration for the book was fascinating. I am not sure I will read the next in the series. I would have to be convinced it was actually about lawyers and the practice of law. (Sept. 14/20)

Sunday, September 13, 2020

In Matto’s Realm by Friedrich Glauser

(34. - 1059.) In Matto’s Realm by Friedrich Glauser (1936) - Some time ago Kat Hall, the blogger  Mrs. Peabody, had an online contest. I was one of the winners and received this book from her. It has been sitting on my desk patiently waiting to be read. In Calgary for a few days with our sons and their families seemed a good time to go back to Switzerland of the 1930’s.

Sergeant Stuber of the Bern police is awoken by a 5:00 am call from the chief of police. A patient at a mental asylum, Pierre Pieterlen, and the director of the institution, Dr. Ulrich “Ueli” Borstli, are missing.

No team is dispatched. Stuber will handle the investigation alone. Most surprisingly he moves into a room at the living quarters of the assistant director, Dr. and Mrs. Ernst Laduner, at the institution. The staff have rooms or apartments within the institution. Stuber will reside at the asylum until the investigation is complete. It is a great way to be immersed in a case.. Living there gives him the chance to assess staff and patients on and off duty. There is no real need for formal interviews. He can discuss with them what they know day or night.

The institution is organized into wards:

“O is the Observation Ward. That’s where the
new patients go, though we leave some for
years. It all depends. P is the ward for placid
patients. T is the Treatment Ward for those
suffering from physical illness. Then there are
the two wards for disturbed patients, D1 and D2,
D1 contains the isolation units….”

As he enters the asylum Dr. Laduner says:

But there’s one thing I will tell you before we
pass through this door. You’re paying a visit to
the subconscious, to the naked subconscious,
or, as my friend Schul puts it in his rather more
poetic manner: you are being taken to the dark
realm where Matto rules. Matto! That’s the
name Schul has given to the spirit of madness.

Amidst the mentally disturbed an evil spirit feels all too real to the Sergeant.

Stuber soon learns there are some signs of violence at the Director’s office including a broken window and blood on the floor.

The previous night the asylum held its annual harvest festival for patients and staff. During the evening the Director and a young nurse, Irma Wasem, left together for a walk. The Director is noted for his fondness of young women.

He had loudly argued with staff that day.

Mrs. Laduner is irritated that the Director received credit for improvements and modernization of the facility that were initiated and carried out by her husband.

A male nurse, many of the nurses are men, already in desperate financial circumstances was on the verge of being fired by the Director.

Dr. Laduner had assessed Pieterlen as a young man when he was charged with murdering his child. Did he have the requisite mental capacity to understand his criminal actions? He was found to have enough capacity to be convicted. After 3 years of imprisonment he ended up in the asylum.

Studer venturing forth into the asylum at night sent a shiver through me as he went past doors behind which there was total silence or loud snores or “words spoken in a dream”. 

Always on his mind is Dr. Laduner’s remark:

Contact with people who were mentally ill was
contagious …..

Studer is a shrewd man who has mastered the difficult skill of listening. He lets people talk to him. It is less dramatic than badgering a witness but very effective. Contrary to public opinion lawyers are often as glad as the best police officers in letting a witness talk on in answering a question. A rambling witness is prone to saying more than the witness intended.

Another aspect of staying at the institution during the investigation is that Studer can build relationships with staff. He inspires trust. Witnesses will open up more and tell more to an investigator they trust.

At the same time Studer is in the foreign land of the subconscious, Matto’s realm, at an institution where damaged minds are all around and a policeman’s logic can mislead him.

There is a sad and moving ending that surprised me.
It takes great skill to write a psychological mystery set in a psychological institution. Matto’s realm is real within the book.

In Matto’s Realm is a complex tale which reads very well 84 years after it was published. It is no surprise the Glauser Prize is awarded for prominent German crime fiction.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

2020 Harper Lee Prize Winner - The Hallows

I am late with this post. The 2020 winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction is Victor Methos for his book, The Hallows. He was announced the winner in a press release by the University of Alabama on July 14, 2020. Congratulations Victor.

Unfortunately, the press release appears to have gotten little attention. It is not easy to even find on the net. I only discovered it a couple of days ago. I believe there were a couple of factors. 

First, the ABA Journal did not feature the shortlist and conduct a contest among its readership to help vote for the winner. In fact I cannot find online a single article in the Journal about the 2020 Prize.

Second, the prize was given most years to the winner at the Library of Congress during the National Book Festival in August. This year’s Festival is later this month online in September. Being in the fall instead of the summer and online decreases the attention for the Award. There will be an online presentation to Methos during the Festival.

I find it sad the Award is getting limited attention. I am sure it is also difficult for other book awards to gain recognition in the year of Covid 19.

The news release said Methos “is thrilled to win the award”.

He said:

“It is such a privilege to receive this award,” Methods said. “Every criminal lawyer will tell you the same thing: Atticus Fincsh was our earliest inspiration. I first read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ when I was 13, and to this day when the injustices of our legal system discourage me, it is that book I turn to for inspiritment. To think the committee saw something of it in my one work humbesl me, and I will always be grateful.”

The release states:

The committee praised “The Hallows” for being a taut legal thriller with entertaining courtroom scenes. The book tells the story of Tatum Graham, a Miami defense attorney who re-examines his life after a guilty client walks free. Graham moves back home for a simpler life, but he soon joins the county attorney’s office as a prosecutor, where he redeems himself for past wrongs.

“In this tightly focused and masterful thriller, we watch Tatum Graham come to terms with the profound personal failures associated with his professional successes,” Crank said. “His redemption comes in the form of a dogged pursuit of justice, even though it means waging war on the very people and institutions that created him. In “The Hallows”, Victor Methos channels the very best of Harper Lee’s prose.”

I have not read The Hallows but recently obtained a copy and will be reading it shortly. I am hoping that the book does not trash defence counsel for representing the guilty. Every accused person is entitled to a defence. We appear to be becoming a society that only values the defence of the innocent. As Methos, in his non-writing life, has been both a prosecutor and a defence lawyer I hope I am wrong and that “the profound personal failures” are not merely being a successful defence lawyer.

The other books on this year’s shortlist were:

1.) The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey; and,
2.) An Equal Justice by Chad Zunker.

I have already read The Satapur Moonstone and thought it an excellent book. It must have been disappointing for Massey not to win the Prize. For 2019 and 2020 she had a book on the shortlist but was not the winner.

I will also be reading An Equal Justice.

I will be providing reviews on each book on the shortlist and my opinion on which book deserved to be the winning book.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Involuntary Sterilization in Denmark and Canada

In The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen explores the horrors of involuntary sterilization in Denmark. The main female character, Nete Hermansen, and another character, Rita, are sterilized in the mid-1950’s while being confined on the tiny island of Sprogo as moral degenerates. 

Nete had had a pair of teenage pregnancies which were aborted and no education when she was sent to Sprogo. The sterilization was devastating. She tried to move forward but the sterilization ultimately led to the destructive end of her marriage. 

There is a tendency to think of Nazi Germany when reflecting on involuntary sterilization. Certainly the numbers are staggering with approximately 400,000 sterilizations by the Nazis.

Yet Nazi Germany was far from the only country to have involuntary sterilizations. Between 1929 and 1967 Denmark sterilized 11,000 citizens. Denmark was not alone in northern Europe in having forced sterilization. Norway, Sweden and Finland also had involuntary sterilization.

In the 21st Century it is hard to imagine the use of involuntary sterilization. In the 20th Century the practice was a part of the eugenics movement.

In Oxford Languages eugenics is defined as:

The study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable. Developed largely by Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, it fell into disfavor only after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis.

My only disagreement with the definition is that forced sterilizations carried on long after the end of Nazi Germany in 1945.

Canada has its own dark history with compulsory sterilization led by the province of Alberta. Under The Sexual Sterilization Act, in force from 1928 - 1972, there were 2,800 involuntary sterilizations in Alberta.

British Columbia had similar, though more restrictive legislation from 1933 - 1973 under which several hundred people were sterilized.

In my province of Saskatchewan there was no legislation but approximately 60 indigenous women have claimed in a lawsuit that they were coerced into sterilization after giving birth to children. I have not heard of a resolution of the case.

In The Purity of Vengeance there is a history of right wing extremists leading the eugenics movement and forced sterilizations. Eugenics may have been led by the right in northern Europe but it was a philosophy also espoused by many progressives in Canada.

“The Famous Five” were a group of Alberta women who, in 1927, filed a court action seeking a declaration that women were “persons” who could be appointed to the Senate of Canada. At issue was whether under The British North America Act, which created Canada, women were not “persons”. To my everlasting dismay the Supreme Court of Canada found women were not “persons”. It took the English Privy Council in a decision by Justice Sankey to declare women were “persons”:

[The] exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours […] their Lordships do not think it right to apply rigidly to Canada of to-day the decisions and the reasonings therefor which commended themselves […] to those who had to apply the law in different circumstances, in different centuries, to countries in different stages of development.

While “The Famous Five” are justly recognized for their court action several of them actively supported and campaigned for the adoption of eugenics.

In 2004 our public broadcaster, the CBC, broadcast a television series to determine “The Greatest Canadian”. Tommy Douglas was the winner. He was Saskatchewan’s Premier from 1944 - 1961 leading the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) and then was leader of the federal NDP (New Democratic Party) from 1961-1971. The primary reason for his choice as “The Greatest Canadian” was that he established universal government medicare in Saskatchewan. Medicare was soon adopted in the rest of Canada. Douglas was a progressive man well to the left of the centre.

Yet his Master’s Thesis in 1933 was titled The Problems of the Subnormal Family and advocated the adoption of eugenics. The Wikipedia entry on Douglas drawing on a well known biography of Douglas I read years ago states:

The thesis proposed a system that would have required couples seeking to marry to be certified as mentally and morally fit. Those deemed to be "subnormal", because of low intelligence, moral laxity, or venereal disease would be sent to state farms or camps; while those judged to be mentally defective or incurably diseased would be sterilized.

To his credit in 1944 when two reviews on Saskatchewan’s mental health legislation recommended adoption of sterilization he refused to pass such legislation.

Adler-Olsen vividly set out the cruel consequences of involuntary sterilization. The widespread adoption of the principles of eugenics by the left and the right reminds me that respect for human rights should be the concern of all of us of every political persuasion.
Adler-Olsen, Jussi - (2011) - The Keeper of Lost Causes(2012) - The Absent One; (2020) - A Conspiracy of Faith; (2020) The Purity of Vengeance