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.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

We The North by Doug Smith

(5. - 1077.) We The North by Doug Smith - I enjoy stories. I love sports books when they are filled with stories. Smith is the ideal writer to tell stories of the first 25 years of the Toronto Raptors basketball team. He started writing about the team before they ever played a game. Smith never gets caught up in statistical analysis. He provides personal illustrations of his perspectives on the team history. The book flows easily. 

Smith spoke of the first game being played but days after the referendum in Quebec which by the narrowest of margins, 51%-49%, kept Quebec in Canada. I was in Toronto that week for hearings of the Royal Commission into the Canadian Blood System. I watched the results in a restaurant dreading there would be separation and then relieved when the vote went against leaving Canada.


Later that season I attended a Raptors game at the SkyDome, as it was then known. It was a bizarre experience attending a basketball game in the huge space of a football / baseball stadium. Smith is right in saying basketball is a game meant for more intimate settings though being at the top of a large arena is far from being close to the action. 


I enjoyed the game. What I remember most is the athletic skills of these very tall men. I was used to big men from covering the CFL for almost 20 years at that time but the average football player was 6” shorter than the average NBA player and 12” shorter than the centers. 


Smith writes of the challenges in luring Americans north of the border. A quick way for Americans to irritate Canadians is by being negative about Canada without knowing anything about our country. In early Raptor years it was often hard to get American players to come to Canada. Leaving the comforts of the U.S. they feared going through customs, wondered about how to stay entertained, assumed there would be tax disadvantages, disliked the metric system and complained about the weather. Smith says:


Alot of these guys were just petulant little kids.


Thankfully the negative perceptions have decreased but it continues to amaze Canadians how little most Americans know about Canada.


Fair or not, Smith writes with considerably more enthusiasm about the attitudes of non-American Raptor players, mainly Europeans. He says “the non-North Americans just seemed to be more comical, more conversant, more open to bigger things than their traditionally raised teammates”.


It strikes me that the “superfan” of an American NBA team is unlikely to be a Sikh car dealer. Nav Bhatia is the Raptor “superfan” supporting the team all 25 years. (Drake came much later.) Wearing his turban and waving his towel he spends large sums of his own money to sit courtside and go to away games. I consider it a recognition of Canadian diversity when he was given a championship ring in 2019 “on behalf of the organization”.


The Raptors had more than their share of poor years in the first 15 years of the franchise. Smith acknowledges he “tended to give coaches a break”. Close in age, he had an affinity for the coaches who cycled through Toronto for short terms.


Smith clearly established good relationships with players. After a tweet about depression DeMar Rozan chose to talk to Smith about his mental health struggles with fame and feelings of vulnerability. I have had few close relationships as a reporter because I would only see Roughrider players after home games. I did establish a special relationship with kicker, Dave Ridgway, after talking with him after every home game for 14 years. He would occasionally tell me things in confidence. 


Some sections of the book would have benefited by greater analysis. Smith sets out how Masai Ujiri built the Raptors who won the 2019 NBA Championship. I would have appreciated more on the decisions that built the Championship team. It is clear that the charismatic caring Ujiri is also ruthlessly competitive, willing to make bold decisions that hurt personal relationships.


I could appreciate the joy Smith personally experienced when the Raptors won the NBA in their 23rd season. I had covered the Roughriders for 10 seasons before they made the CFL playoffs. When the 9-9 team of 1989 made its magical run to win the Grey Cup it was an amazing experience for me as well. Being at the game and able to talk to players and coaches when they had won, coincidentally 23 years after the team’s last Grey Cup win, was a perfect night.


My favourite parts of the book were his personal interactions with players, coaches and executives. I would have loved the book to have been only about those connections.


Sunday, February 28, 2021

Norwegian Booktowns

Though it is February 28 winter clings to Saskatchewan. It was -20C this morning in Melfort. The snow still has a cold weather crunch when walking. Most winters Sharon and I would either be away in some warm locale at this time or able to go visit a spa or at least go somewhere in Canada a little warmer. Covid 19 continues to prevent travel. Vaccinations are proceeding but it will still be months before most Canadians are vaccinated. Thus I looked upon the internet for places to dream about visiting.

I came upon a pair of book towns in Norway that look and sound like magical places.


The first is Fjærland by the Sognefjord on the west coast of Norway. It is accessible by ferry from Bergen. There is road access from the interior.


The website www.visitnorway.com describes the town:


The first of Norway's two book towns saw the light

of day in 1995. Mundal, the centre of the small

village Fjærland by the Sognefjord, is home to about

four kilometres of books. Most are second-hand, and

the dozens of outlets are also based on reutilization -

here you'll find books in ferry waiting rooms,

stables, banks, an old post office, and a grocery

shop. The giant Tusund og ei natt is the only shop

built specifically to house books, while the small

outdoor shelf

Sjolvplukk

(pick-your-

own) calls.

itself "the

country's

most honest

bookstore"

and trusts you

to leave a

small amount of money in a box for every book you take.


The website culture trip says the village of Mundal in Fjærland with 280 people has about 150,000 used books for sale.


Prime book season is from May to September. The indoor stores are open in the winter. There are  books for sale online year round.


There is a summer solstice book festival


The second community is Tvedestrand which is southeast of Oslo.



The visitnorway website says:

     If you are travelling through Southern Norway, you
     should definitely stop by Tvedestrand, which calls
     itself "a gold mine for bookworms".

     "The joy of books, in books, and for books. When
     we open them, they open us", Norwegian best-
     selling author Lars Saabye Christensen said in his
     speech at the opening of the book town by the
     Skagerrak strait. And the town offers more than just
     bookshops. Throughout the year you can join a
     variety of events, festivals, and guided tours related
     to books and literature.

And, if that were not enough to entice a reader, the website describes an amazing hotel:


At the end of the day, you can check into Norway's

first book hotel. Bokhotellet Lyngørporten is æø

    idyllically located in Gjeving by the Lyngøfjord.
Suzanne Brøgger describes it like this in her book
Omelette Norvegienne: "We are accommodated at
Bokhotellet, where I live on page 303 with a white-
painted balcony and a view of the archipelago. Why
do people say that Norway is more about nature than
culture?"


I am not sure what is happening at the hotel but it is now called the Hotel Lyngøporten.


Their Facebook page does have several posts about books and authors.


A few years ago Sharon and I were enchanted by Sidney, British Columbia. It is Canada’s only book town. Located on Vancouver Island there were 6 bookstores downtown. I visited every one of them. Links to my posts on Sidney are below this post.


I do not know if I will get back to Norway but should travels allow a return I will make every effort possible to visit the Norwegian book towns.


****

https://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2016/04/sidney-british-columbia-is-canadas.html

https://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2016/04/more-bookshops-in-canadas-booktown.html

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Noble House by James Clavell

(6. - 1078.) Noble House by James Clavell (1980) - At midnight, in the midst of a typhoon, on June 8, 1960 Ian Straun Dunross swears the oath required to become tai-pan (supreme leader) of Straun’s in Hong Kong. He becomes the 11th tai-pan of the trading company known as the Noble House of Asia. Straun’s was founded in 1841 by Dirk “Devil” Straun. As tai-pan Dunross “hath, total, absolute authority”. As demanded by "Devil" Straun he also swears “before God to commit any deed necessary to vanquish, destroy and cast out from Asia the company called Brock and Sons and particularly my enemy, the founder, Tyler Brock, his son, Morgan, their heirs ...” A grand saga has begun.


Three years later Dunross is aggressively pursuing the international expansion of the Noble House. No longer will it be limited to being a Hong Kong trading house. 


American investor, Lincoln (Linc) Bartlett, and the lovely young  K.C. (Casey) Tcholok, a senior executive in his business, fly into Hong Kong for negotiations with Straun’s. Bartlett controls the conglomerate, Par-Con Industries.


Treachery or perhaps more aptly, intrigue, dominates Hong Kong? 


Is Bartlett there to make a deal with Dunross or out to capture Straun’s or snap up one of its competitors?


Is John Chen, the 5th Chen compradore to the tai-pan in the history of Straun’s, ready to  betray Dunross through a secret deal with Barlett?


Where will Dunross find the millions needed to complete the purchase of a pair of huge cargo ships being constructed for Straun’s in Japan?


The stock market’s rising but substantial shares of Straun’s are being purchased by unknown buyers. 


Quillan Gornt of Rothwell-Gornt is an implacable adversary of Straun’s and willing to work with anyone to destroy the Noble House. The animosity stretches back generations.


But first the elite of Hong Kong gather to celebrate the tai-pan’s 20th wedding anniversary. Ian and Penelope met in England where he was a Spitfire pilot.


It is still an era in Hong Kong dominated by England. English civil servants are appointed by London to administer the colony while the descendants of the earliest traders such as Dunross dominate business. They expect the Chinese residents of Hong Kong to know their place. At the same time, while maintaining polite facades, the Chinese look down upon the uncivilized foreign devils. 


There are traditional Chinese leaders such as Four Fingers Wu who commands the sea faring Haklo floating villages.


Complex Chinese family networks share information. Claudia Chen, controls Dunross’s schedule and the office staff. Having spent 42 years working at Noble House and having cousins everywhere she has unparalleled intelligence on the colony.


Meanwhile, Casey is frustrated with the chauvinistic Noble House male executives who, despite her status as Treasurer and Executive Vice-President of Par-Con, are reluctant to negotiate a business deal with a woman and resent her.


The personal feuds turn business competition into great drama. The duelling tai-pans personally appear on the floor of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange buying and selling and short selling shares as rumours rocket around about the trading houses and banks. The stock exchange is Hong Kong’s largest casino with huge numbers of the population participating.


And there are the spies of the United States, Communist China, Nationalist China and Great Britain chasing secrets.


The cast is massive with each provided a distinct character.


The multiple overlapping storylines portray a Hong Kong of great energy and opportunity. It is no place for the meek and mild. At the same time fortunes can be lost as swiftly as they are created. Laws are few. The elite favour the atmosphere of the Wild East. Relationships are everything.


After 1,200 pages I was ready for 1,200 more. Clavell was a master storyteller. I have not read many grand historical sagas in recent years. Maybe it is time to return to reading some epic tales.


Thursday, February 18, 2021

Following Indians on Vacation Through Europe

As I was reading Indians on Vacation by Thomas King I was caught at how many of the European destinations to which Mimi and Bird had traveled had also been visited by Sharon and myself.

The focus of the book in Europe is Prague where they are staying in a modest hotel near the Charles Bridge. They walk across the bridge several times. Sharon, Jonathan, Michael and I visited Prague for a day in 1999 with Sharon’s cousins on a German bus tour from the Bavarian Forest. I remember all the statues on the bridge. I am sure we rubbed a couple. I cannot recall having ever been on another bridge with statues.


The Bull Shield’s first stop in following Uncle Leroy’s postcards from a 100 years ago was Paris. Just as their first memory of Paris is the Eiffel Tower so do we remember visiting that iconic world tourist site in 1981.


On another trip they visit Nice and Antibes along the Mediterranean coast. We have not made it to either city but we were at Monaco 20 kilometers away on a couple of cruises. Our highlight was visiting the Castle with several rooms devoted to Princess Grace. We sat one evening on the outdoor terrace of the cruise ship having supper as the sun set and the lights of Monaco came on. I told Sharon we were on the biggest yacht in the harbour.


Bird and Mimi enjoyed going to the village of Oia on the Greek island of Santorini. We visited the lovely town on the cliff on a bus tour. I think we had our photo taken in front of the “little blue domed church” mentioned by King. There are many lovely little family churches scattered around Santorini.


While Bird and Mimi walked down 300 steps to the ocean on Santorini instead of taking a donkey ride we took the more prosaic but definitely more comfortable third option of a cable car.


On the Greek mainland we also spent a short time in Athens. The Acropolis is truly one of the Wonders of the World. While we did not go out to villages such as Kymi and Maletiani where Bird’s grandfather grew up we enjoyed two different drives through the Greek countryside. On one of the tours we had a wonderful visit and meal at a Greek vineyard.


They mentioned the canals of Amsterdam and Venice. Sharon and I have taken a boat tour on Amsterdam’s canals and ridden a gondola in Venice.


In Amsterdam they visit the red light district. Mimi aptly describes the area as a “zoo for men”. We had a walk through the district with the passengers of our tour bus. At the end of the walk we realized two single guys had not completed the walk with us.


They arrive in Venice in winter when the city smells better. Their vaporetto “was hit by a wave from an enormous cruise ship that was lumbering its way out of the lagoon”. I am confident it was not our cruise ship as we were there at the end of October. The city did smell alright in fall.


Where we have not gone is Budapest. The Bull Shield’s are distressed over Syrian refugees crowded around the train station and never get to see the city for a day. Our son Michael told us Budapest was a beautiful city. 


Returning to Canada I have even been to Guelph where the fictional Bull Shield’s and the real life Thomas King and his partner reside. It was 1971 and I went to visit the University of Guelph to see the Apiary Department. While I did not see myself as an apiarist like my Dad it was interesting to learn about the only university in Canada with a Department offering classes on bees and beekeeping. (The university now has the Honey Bee Research Centre and the Beekeeping Lab.)


We did not follow the Bull Shield’s in seeking out examples of European fascination with North American Indians. Michael, who lived in Germany and studied German at university, has told me about German Apache Western movies where the Indians won.

****

King, Thomas - (2019) - DreadfulWater and The Humour of Thomas King; (2021) - Indians on Vacation


Sunday, February 14, 2021

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King

(5. - 1077.) Indians on Vacation by Thomas King - Blackbird Mavrias and Mimi Bull Shield have a marriage in which Bird spends a lot of time listening to Mimi. Her opinions are endless. Bird has accepted it is easier to follow Mimi. 

Mimi, having decided they need to go on vacation so Bird can take his mind off his medical issues, has them in Prague on a quest. While the story of their vacation unfolds it is accompanied by the story of their personal lives. 


They live in Guelph. Mimi is from Standoff on the Blackfoot Reserve in southern Alberta. Her mother, Bernie Bull Shield, is “well supplied with strong opinions”. When they visit the Reserve Bird gets to listen to the views of mother and daughter on many subjects.


The morning after arriving in Prague Mimi is interested in the major tourist attractions such as the castle, the Charles bridge and the zoo. After reflection she decides upon the bridge. When Bird mentions they walked it the previous night Mimi says “Everything looks different in the light”. Upon the bridge of 30 statutes Bird knows some are more popular with spots “rubbed golden”. He concludes:


Evidently, one of the tourist activities in Prague is

statute rubbing.


They take photos of each other doing some rubbing. Mimi advises Bird he has rubbed the wrong spot on one statue. As they wander Prague they see more statues being rubbed.


Getting lost on their way to the Kafka Museum seems appropriate.


In Mimi’s search for experiences they eat at a North American Indian themed pizza place. In their travels they have visited several places and events in Europe showing the European fascination with North American Indians. They choose the Black Bear pizza over the Geronimo pizza.


Mimi lives life by the motto “you’re only old if you want to be old”. Bird is adept at negative thoughts.


In Canada she gave Bird the choice of therapy or a dog. When he chooses a dog they visit a shelter. They leave without a dog finding themselves unready to take an aging dog. Mimi buys Bird a small stuffed dog at a thrift store. She calls the dog Muffy:


“And when we travel,” says Mimi, “if the two of you become inseparable, we can throw her in a suitcase and take her with us.”


Bird would love to live on the west coast of Vancouver Island where it is never too hot nor too cold and “where the dominant colour is grey”. Mimi craves sunshine.


Their search in Prague involves Mimi’s long deceased Uncle Leroy Bull Shield. A traveling man in the early 1900’s Leroy disregards the pass system of the time. (For decades before 1950 Indians could not leave reserves in Canada without a pass from the Indian agent. South Africa adapted the system for apartheid. The pass system is but one of the forms of discrimination against Indians in Canadian history.) 


With Leroy’s attitude to the reserve Indian agent and his tendency to make ill-advised decisions when drunk trouble was inevitable. The conflict involved the creative use of cow poop. Leroy’s story is funny, satiric, sad and a very clever form of resistance.


Chased from the reserve he joins a traveling Wild West Show and goes to Europe never to return to the prairies. He takes with him the family bundle called the Crow bundle. A hundred years later Mimi and Bird search for the bundle on vacations.


As their time passes in Prague Bird and Mimi find the time in a foreign land prompts assessment of their lives and relationship. They are both senior citizens. They have not saved the world. They have learned a variety of life lessons. They are still together. They are people I wish I could meet whether on vacation or in Guelph.


There is the sly teasing humour throughout the book that I have experienced in talking with many of my Canadian Indian clients. There is an edge but rarely sarcasm. The humour nicks rather slicing deep into the psyche. My mother might have termed it saucy. King is the rare talent who can put to paper Indian irony. 


The story flows easily with the pages passing by. King is an excellent storyteller. Few books can keep me smiling while reflecting on cultures, historical injustices, personal demons, randomness on vacation and spousal relationships. It is a great book with the potential to be read long into the future. I enjoyed every page.

****

King, Thomas - (2019) - DreadfulWater and The Humour of Thomas King


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Deep State by Chris Hauty

(4. - 1076.) Deep State by Chris Hauty - Hayley Chill, 5’ 8” and 125 pounds, is fighting Marcela Rivas, 6’1” and 145 pounds. Chill is a good boxer. Rivas is a great boxer. Chill is from ARSOUTH while Rivas is from 1st Armored Division to the north. Chill is proud to represent the U.S. Army Southern Command and intends more than a “valiant stand” against Rivas. She is a cunning battler who fights to win. Battered, with a broken nose, she baits Rivas into an attack and delivers a powerful counter punch that knocks out Rivas.

Leaving the army she moves to Washington, D.C. to intern at the office of Peter Hall, the White House chief of staff. 


Hall had been chosen by President Richard Monroe, a populist war hero, elected the previous year. Elected to bring change Monroe will rely on Hall’s long experience in Congress to “effect his controversial agenda”.


The pretty Chill, as a young woman with a West Virginia accent who had served in the military, is regularly underestimated. The former combat engineer, who came through a challenging upbringing ignores the condescension. She downplays her photographic memory.


Hauty has an unusual approach in discussing, after their introduction into the book, the future of characters long after the period covered by the book. It is intriguing while somewhat distracting.


President Monroe has bold initiatives. He considers NATO a “relic” and would like an “alternative, eastern Europe alliance reflective of the new world order”. Monroe is convinced that China is the greatest danger in the world. Alliances are needed to counter growing Chinese power. I was impressed that major geo-political issues are inserted into a conspiracy thriller.


Monroe’s confrontational style produced strong reactions. He has been reversing progressive programs and initiatives since being elected.


Hall tells her powerful forces want him and the President dead:


“The people who actually control this town, the shadow government. Of ‘deep state’. Call it what you will, they are a hybrid association of elements of government joined with parts of top-level finance and industry that effectively govern the United States, and without consent of the electorate …”


Chill finds Hall dead of an apparent heart attack yet there is  a recent footprint on the walkway outside his house. She must decide if his cause of death was natural or “the handiwork of a deep state conspiracy”.


Chill faces the challenge of everyone who has identified a conspiracy but not the conspirators. Who can she trust? 


Can the President really be at risk of assassination by the Deep State?


Chill decides to trust Asher Danes, a gay staffer at the White House. While clever and witty Asher has neither a military background nor martial fighting skills nor a steady mind when facing trouble. It is gender role reversal for a thriller. It will be up to Chill to handle the fighting.


Chill starts to unravel the conspiracy by being observant and thoughtful rather than violent and reckless.


The conspirators are credible. They ask the question of what to do with a radical President whose decisions are affecting the stability of the world. Is the President of the U.S. putting at risk the peace in Europe that has endured for 75 years? 


On the matter of one man’s power, Mikael Gorbachev effectively brought about the destruction of the U.S.S.R.. by his decisions in the late 1980’s.


It is clear Hauty was inspired by the Deep State rhetoric of devout Donald Trump supporters. They were convinced there was a Deep State conspiracy intent on thwarting and threatening their hero.


The best conspiracist fiction writers create conspiracies with an essence of credibility. Hauty, in the tradition of Robert Ludlum, has invented a conspiracy more than believable enough to sustain the story. Beyond the action there are real issues on the future of the world. Every American President, while wrestling with all the loud voices of 21st Century America, must consider how best to protect the nation against foreign threats. In a polarized society dissenting views may be violently expressed.


There was a startling twist I had not anticipated at all. While the twist was clever its unfolding somewhat diminished the ending.


Deep State is an impressive debut. I have the next in the series, Savage Road, and will be reading it promptly.


Friday, February 5, 2021

Visiting the New York City Public Library

In my last post I reviewed The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davies. I bought the book as Marian at the Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore in Toronto had recommended it on the store newsletter, Merchant of Menace. As well, I was drawn to a book featuring the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.

In June of 2004 our family was in New York City. Our younger son, Michael, was a member of a Chamber Choir at the University of Calgary. They had been invited to join other choirs in New York City to perform with the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. They were singing the North American debut of a Mass titled The Armed Man which had been dedicated to the victims of the war in Kosovo. It was an amazing experience to see Michael singing at Carnegie Hall.


We stayed in a hotel near Herald Square which meant we were but a few blocks from the Main Branch. (It also meant we were close to the brownstone of Nero Wolfe.) As someone who routinely visits libraries while on vacation the Library was high on my list of places to visit in Manhattan.


As we walked up to the Museum the Lions, Patience and Fortitude, at the main entrance were as memorable symbols of a library as any I have experienced.


The grandeur of the building was inspiring.


We made a tour of the library enjoying the experience.


What drew me the most was the huge Rose Main Reading Room. The photo to the right illustrates the room but cannot convey the majesty of the room.

The long tables with reading lamps were so inviting.


Later in the week I needed to do some work so, while the others went to see  The Producers on Broadway, I went to the library and settled in at the main reading room. I enjoyed the chance to spend a few hours in a great reading room.


I have not been able to visit again. We have not been back in New York for more than a day since that trip. Should we get back to New York for another visit I will be returning to the library. Every book lover should visit the library. It is almost a pilgrimage for those who worship books.


Sadly it is currently closed because of Covid 19. Hopefully it will soon be open for readers.


I would be interested in readers of the blog who have been to the library providing a comment on their experience with the library.

****

Davies, Fiona - (2021) - The Lions of Fifth Avenue

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davies

(2. - 1074.) The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davies - The proud marble lions of the New York Public Library have welcomed the world since the Library was built in 1911. In 1913 they were called Leo Astor and Leo Lennox after the founders of the library. In 1993 they are Patience and Fortitude having been re-named by Mayor La Guardia in the 1930’s.

I was intrigued that in 1913 the Superintendent of the Library and his family lived inside the library. Laura and Jack Lyons with their young children Pearl and Harry have a 7 room apartment. It is an amazing concept to think of living amidst 1,000,000 books in the heart of New York City.


Laura has been accepted to the new Journalism School at Columbia University but the $85 tuition and $20 for books are beyond the means of the family. She is bitterly disappointed.


In 1993 Sadie Donovan has disdain for the hordes of tourists who come to the Library daily. She wished it was less architecturally impressive. For Sadie, libraries are for serious readers not the gawking masses:


Sadie had always preferred books to people.


She had enjoyed being on the reference desk in the Catalog Room looking up answers to questions such as “how much horse manure was dumped on the streets in 1880”. She loves her promotion to assistant curator of the Berg Collection where she deals with the requests of “scholars and researchers”.


Back in 1913 Laura gets an unexpected scholarship and becomes a member of the Class of 1913 at Columbia. She is frustrated with assignments for women that involve home and fashion while the men get to write about the major political and social issues of the day. The demands upon all the students by the professors are unreasonable.


There is a crisis as books, starting with a first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, go missing.


Then in 1993 the last volume of Virginia Wolfe’s diary goes missing from a bookcase which is inside a locked cage.


A chill descends upon the families of both eras. Suspicion, as it must, falls upon the librarians of past and present for they are among the few with unlimited access to the rare books.


To my surprise Sadie is Pearl’s daughter. Born in l906 Pearl is still alive. Frail but alert Pearl is living with Sadie’s brother and wife and daughter - Lonnie, LuAnn and Valentina.


I wished the story from 1993 had not revealed important bits of the 1913 story before they were reached in the 1913 narrative. I love discovering in books what is happening as the characters learn of events. Knowing what is to come dissipates rather than enhances tension for me.


While Laura, having attended university and about to have a career, has opportunities available to few women of her era she is not a modern woman tucked into the past century. She interacts with the feminists and professional women of her pre-WW I era. As the plot progresses she is drawn into the issues of women in her time.


Laura and Sadie each feel compelled to solve the mystery of the stolen books. The books are works of art, symbols of the days when they were published. The literary heritage of the world is diminished by their absence.


It is impossible for the missing books to have been lost or misfiled. To discover who has taken them they must address how they were stolen from secure locations. Thus the library itself becomes a character as each sleuth studies the details of the magnificent building.


The lives and relationships of Laura and Sadie are well explored. They are complex women who love the written word and books. While the marble lions outside the library are male lions it would have been fitting had they been female lions. Patience and Fortitude are apt descriptions of Laura and Sadie.


Friday, January 29, 2021

Writing a Credible Trial

Writers of legal mysteries featuring trials, especially if the defence is to win, always face the challenge of credible evidence. The evidence must be strong enough to threaten conviction but not so overwhelming as to make a defence unbelievable. At the same time there cannot be too much evidence favouring the defence for the Crown (Canada) or the State (United States) would not proceed with weak charges. In Canada prosecutors should only proceed to trial if there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction.

The challenge was taken up by two masters of legal mysteries - John Grisham and Michael Connelly - in the last two books I have read. In this post I will look at the approaches taken by them in A Time for Mercy and The Law of Innocence respectively. There will be spoilers in the post but not of the endings of the books.

Grisham starts A Time for Mercy by eliminating the most basic defence. Drew Gamble shoots Stewart Kofer in the head while he was passed out drunk. Eliminating any chance for the defence to argue Drew did not kille Kofer puts the defence at a major disadvantage.


By contrast Mickey Haller, in The Law of Innocence, from the opening pages vehemently denies he has killed Sam Scales, who has spent his adult life running charitable scams, and then driven around Los Angeles with Scales in the trunk of his Lincoln Town car.


Grisham swiftly starts building a defence by establishing that Drew was justly terrified that Kofer, who has chronically abused Drew, his sister and his mother, is about to kill him and his sister. He wrongly believes his unconscious mother, beaten by Kofer, is already dead.


For Connelly there is the challenge of giving Haller a realistic motive  for murder. It was the major weakness in the plot. Haller had given up defending Scales, weary of defending a man who preyed on human vulnerability in times of disaster. Facing a situation with which I am well familiar Haller sues Scales for unpaid legal fees. He gains judgment but it is uncollectable from the slippery con man. It is barely credible that Haller would kill Scales because of an unpaid bill. There may be lawyers in private practice who have no unpaid accounts but I know none. Getting stiffed is frustrating but no more than an irritation. 


Connelly’s motive became far fetched when a letter from Haller to Scales threatening action if the account was not paid was used to justify a claim of special circumstances that would send Haller to jail for the rest of his life if convicted. The letter was slender evidence for lawyers routinely and constantly use the word “action” as a contraction for “court action”.


It appeared the State, realizing there was no personal animus from Haller against Scales, decided to argue there was a financial advantage to Haller killing Scales. If Scales were dead Haller could pursue his estate for the unpaid fees. The fundamental flaw is that there was no prospect of collection from the estate of Scales. The elusive Scales had a long history of aliases and fake identities. It was impossible to know how many false names were unknown. It would not be worth trying to track down any money hidden by the scammer. Even if some money was found the claims of the many victims of Scales’ scams would far exceed Haller’s judgment for legal fees.


The plot would have been more credible on motive if Haller had engaged in major arguments with Scales. The State could argue the hot headed Haller might have acted impulsively and violently if he had encountered Scales and been blown off by Scales about the money owed to Haller.


Another option would have Scales complaining to the Bar Association about Haller. All sorts of anger would erupt in Haller over an unjustified or false accusation that could threaten his licence to practise law.


Each author picked a very difficult defence.


Jake Brigance, defending Drew, argued the killing was justified. It is not actually a legal defence to argue Kofer was a man who deserved killing. To his credit Grisham does not make the defence easier by having Drew’s sister tell him that she was sexually abused by Kofer. The justification is based on the extensive and escalating physical and emotional abuse by Kofer. The disgusting details are such that a jury might refuse to convict.


As outlined in my review of the book Connelly chose the most difficult of defences - finding the actual killer to establish Haller was not guilty. It means conducting the investigation the police failed to do after the murder. 


The strength of the plot is in that investigation handled by Haller’s veteran personal investigator, Cisco, and Haller’s half-brother, the legendary Harry Bosch. They go after the unexplored threads left by the police.


Both authors have a surprise development at trial. The unexpected in each case involves the question of disclosure of the case. Where California requires extensive disclosure Mississippi prefers a minimalist approach. The defence is at a continual disadvantage in Mississippi.


Grisham credibly turns the lack of disclosure requirement into bringing forward a witness whose physical condition is as important as the evidence. The condition is not revealed until the witness appears to give evidence.


Clever as always, Connelly describes these trial ambushes as October Surprises. While the State brings forward a damaging surprise Haller has a better surprise with a document not disclosed until cross-examination. He is unconcerned that the prosecutor is furious and the judge angry.


Grisham and Connelly create compelling trials. Grisham’s trial is better as Drew has the more believable reason to kill.