About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

From Sweetgrass Bridge by Anthony Bidulka

(20. - 1203.) From Sweetgrass Bridge by Anthony Bidulka - Merry Bell is broke and despondent after 6 months as P.I. in Livingsky (Saskatoon), Saskatchewan. Feeling sorry for herself on a late Friday summer afternoon, she is sort of enjoying a bottle of Prosecco and a small charcuterie platter in her office when she gets an email. Trying not to appear too desperate she answers in less than a minute. 

Merry meets the emailer, Ruth-Anne Delorme, Saturday morning. Delorme retains Merry to find the most important person in Saskatchewan, Dustin Thomson, the starting quarterback for the Saskatchewan Roughriders football team. He has been missing for a week. (The fictional and real life Roughriders play in the Canadian Football League.) 

Dustin is indigenous, a member of the Little Turtle Lake First Nation He disappeared the previous weekend. All the emergency services of Livingsky are searching for him.

Dustin is not only a great football player he is a committed member of the Livingsky community spending time at a local youth centre and speaking at Rider events, schools and fundraisers.

Since graduating from high school Thomson has been living with childhood friend, Calvin Wochiewski, who works as the night janitor at a tech company.

Dustin lives well befitting his star status. He has a luxury apartment. He drives a “Cadillac XT5, matte black with custom matte black grill and rims and Roughrider-green running boards”.

Merry starts asking questions. A meeting with teammates and the head coach is friendly enough but unproductive.

Cassie, from the cheer team, is unfriendly but advises Merry that Dustin has gently spurned her advances and has an unknown girlfriend.

Roger Brown, the electrician husband of Brenda (she operates her design business from an office next to Bell, continues to hope Merry will let him assist her as he longs to be a P.I. and gain material for the true crime podcast, Darkside of Livingsky, he hosts as his secret cross-dressing alter ego, Stella. Anthony deftly explains Roger’s journey in life as a cross-dresser. 

I thought of the real life Clara  Ford from Clara At the Door With a Revolver by Carolyn Whitzman. She was a black woman who liked to dress in men’s clothes. She appreciates the status given to her when dressed as a man. In the book she was charged with killing a prominent member of Toronto society in the 1890’s. She was acquitted in a dramatic trial. 

Merry, who had completed her physical transition from man to woman, before moving to Livingsky, has continuing adjustment issues. She experiments with makeup looking for the image she wants to be as a woman. She hesitates about a pool party as she has never tried on a woman’s bathing suit.

Merry visits the JOY youth centre which primarily hosts BIPOC young people. Dustin was a regular volunteer.

“Full” Stella is far more outgoing and brash than Roger. He worries the lines between Stella and Roger are blurring. He loves Brenda. He is happy in their marriage and as a father. 

At the suggestion of Merry, Roger becomes Stella to assist him. He is excited about being Stella in public. What a remarkable duo - a transgender woman and a cross dressing man! I have not read of a comparable sleuthing team in crime fiction.

Merry’s landlord, Gerald, continues to attract and repel her. He calls her Sweet Lips. She wants to be offended but he is charming. Is there a possible romance?

She talks to a Rider. Dylan is a big bald guy with a luxuriant handlebar moustache. (For older Saskatchewan readers think of former Rider centre, Bob Poley.)

Merry, Roger and Brenda have a nice evening at Merry’s home, the Junk House. Intended to be a house warming, it becomes Merry’s 30th birthday party.

In a brilliant scene Merry goes to visit Roger at home and is greeted by Stella. Merry is stunned. It was an amazing scene to imagine.

The twists are excellent as we start to learn of Merry’s life in Livingsky before she left for Vancouver. Merry faces unexpected emotions about her life as a teenage boy.

The resolution stretched my credibility but the complexity of relationships explored was breathtaking. Identities past and present, festering resentments, faces and bodies unrecognized after profound change, hurts given and received, confessions, regrets, the chance for new friendships and hope moved me. All of us are fragile in our own ways. I consider From Sweetgrass Bridge Anthony’s best examination of human vulnerability.

I read the book with special interest as Anthony made me a character in the book in my real life role as a sports reporter. My next post will discuss my thoughts on appearing in fiction.


 (Most interesting of 2004 – fiction and non-fiction);
 (2005) - Flight of Aquavit (2nd Best fiction in 2005);
 (2005) - Tapas on the Ramblas (2006) - Stain of the
 Berry; (2008) - Sundowner Ubuntu(2009) - Aloha, 
 Candy Hearts; (2010) - Date with a Sheesha(2012) -
 Dos Equis and Q & A and Thoughts on Q &A; (2012)
 or Hardcover

 2.) Adam Saint series - (2013) - When the Saints Go
 Marching  In; (2015) - The Women of Skawa Island

 3.) Merry Bell series - (2023) - Livingsky and Merry

 4.) Standalones - (2017) - Set Free; (2022) - Going to 

Monday, March 25, 2024

Real Life Murder in Esterhazy and Guy Vanderhaeghe's Fictional Account

My previous 2 posts have been a review of August Into Winter by Guy Vanderhaeghe and a discussion on how Vanderhaeghe, Anthony Bidulka and Nelson Brunanski, all of whom grew up in rural Saskatchewan, described life in the countryside of our province in their works of crime fiction.

Vanderhaeghe’s book is set in the late summer and fall of 1939. The murder took place in Connaught which, in location and appearance, appears to be the fictional equivalent of the real life Esterhazy where Vanderhaeghe was raised.

The murder in August Into Winter was inspired by a murder that took place in 1939 in Esterhazy. On October 11, 1939 Ernest Flook, who was 24, killed Constable Norman Gleadow of the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police.

In the book Ernest Sickert, who was 21, kills Constable Alfred Hotchkiss of the RCMP in Connaught.

The rest of this post will outline how Vanderhaeghe used the facts of the real life murder in his book. I warn that there may be more information in this post about August Into Winter than some readers would prefer to know before reading the book. 

According to the Saskatoon Star Phoenix Flook had been arrested on the evening of October 10 with regard to a number of break-ins and thefts in the area and held in jail over night.

Hotchkiss suspected Sickert of committing petty crimes in and around Connaught including thefts, partially eating food in houses and masturbating on the undergarments of two older single women.

The paper states that in the morning:

Flook got the constable to take him to his shack in the village on the pretext of recovering some of the stolen goods.

Hotchkiss, lacking the grounds for an actual warrant, bullies Sickert. As set out in my review: 

He calls the meaty palm of his hand his search warrant saying it is signed by Judge Donotfuckwithme before slapping Ernest.

Hotchkiss coerces Sickert into opening up the shed in the family backyard.

In both real life and fiction the RCMP officer finds stolen goods in a case.

Each officer makes the fatal mistake of turning their backs on the respective Ernest’s.

Flook takes up a hammer and hits Gleadow in the back of the head inflicting a pair of fatal blows. The RCMP records also state Gleadow was shot twice in the chest by a .22 rifle.

Sickert stabs Hotchkiss in the throat and then takes up a hammer and chisel and kills Hotchkiss.

Flook takes the keys to Gleadow’s vehicle and flees north.

Sickert takes his time to pack up and then leaves town in his father’s car.

Each killer takes the officer’s handgun and rifle.

Flook’s sister, seeing her brother depart, finds the injured constable. She “immediately ran to give the alarm”.

In August Into Winter, Corporal James Cooper had been away for the day getting a tooth pulled. Just after Cooper returns to Connaught a fierce storm hits town. Sickert’s mother “walks through sheets of rain” to the office to report the death of Hotchkiss. The storm disables all telephone and telegraph lines. Every road is turned to mud. Cooper “slogged through six miles of gumbo” to reach the farm of Oliver Dill to enlist him and his horses to enable the pursuit of Sickert.

The paper states an Esterhazy garageman who had serviced Gleadow’s police car aids the searching RCMP officers who find “the car in a pasture, hidden in a clump of bush” 20 miles north of town.

The search for Sickert is far more difficult. I think describing it would provide too much detail from the book.

The RCMP “surrounded the bluff, and called to Flook who stood by the car, to come out with his hands up. Flook told the police to come and get him, and as they started towards him, they heard a shot”. Flook has shot himself in the head with a .22 rifle. He dies shortly after.

Sickert is ultimately trapped in a cave in a bluff and surrenders. You will need to read the book to learn what happens to him.

Gleadow’s dog was with him when he went to the Flook residence and in the car when Flook took the police car but a “little while later, the animal returned to the side of his dying master”.

Hotchkiss has no dog.

The Star Phoenix reported:

Flook is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Flook, of Esterhazy, where Mr. Flook is postmaster. The Flook family is among Esterhazy’s oldtime residents.

Benedict and Grace Sickert had come to Connaught in 1903 from England to “put the Altantic between them and parental criticism” of their marriage. They built a “fine large house, three storeys of honey-coloured brick”. A substantial inheritance, “chronic inertia” and a “supposedly dodgy ticker” kept Benedict from working. He devoted his time to studying foreign affairs and writing long letters to the Winnipeg Free Press.

Esterhazy was officially founded in 1905 and Connaught must have had its beginnings about the same time.

In the newspaper reports I read there is no explanation why Flook decided to kill Gleadow.

A great deal of August Into Winter is about Sickert’s mind. Vanderhaeghe penetrated deeply into Sickert’s psyche.

In a CBC interview Vanderhaeghe said when he was 10 years old in 1960 his mother took him to the RCMP Museum in Regina where she pointed out an exhibit:

It was an RCMP Stetson hat with a big dent in it. The officer who had been under the hat had been murdered in my hometown by a young man who belonged to one of the more prominent families in town.

He said members of his family knew the widow of the slain officer and the murderer.

Vanderhaeghe further said about the similarities between the real life and fictional murders:

One of the things that does match is that my father told me that there was only one RCMP officer in town. When he was murdered, a posse of First World War veterans went after this young man who, when cornered, committed suicide. So that was the initial momentum to the narrative.

I find it interesting that neither the newspaper reports nor the RCMP report set out that it was the posse of veterans who actually pursued Flook. In the Star Phoenix it is “a posse of Royal Canadian Mounted Police”.

Vanderhaeghe skillfully used the facts of the Flook case to help him write a great book. I highly recommend it.


Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Rural Life in Saskatchewan Through Crime Fiction

Guy Vanderhaeghe
Since reading August Into Winter I have been thinking
about crime fiction set in rural Saskatchewan that explores life on the prairie in the midst of the mystery. I thought of the perspectives of three authors, Nelson Brunanski, Anthony Bidulka and Guy Vanderhaeghe. 

Each of the authors was born and grew up in a small town. Brunanski was  born in 1950 and raised in Wakaw, about 85 km from where I live, where his family had the local newspaper. Anthony Bidulka was born in 1962, about 150 km from me, and grew up on the family farm near Prudhomme. Guy Vanderhaege was born in 1951 in Esterhazy which is about 350 km southeast of my home in Melfort.

Nelson’s three small town Saskatchwan mysteries are set in Crooked Lake, which is clearly inspired by Wakaw. They take  place between 2000 and 2010. His sleuth, following a Ukrainian naming tradition, is Bart Bartkowski.

Bart lives in Crooked Lake which has a population of about 1,000 people. Bart and his wife, Rosie, have a good marriage with two children. They own a fly-in fishing camp in northern Saskatchewan. Bart spends most of the summer at the camp.

Bart is an optimist. He looks forward to the future. He enjoys his work. The camp is a successful business. He appreciates his family. His daughter marries in Frost Bite. He laments that her wedding supper will not have the traditional trio of Ukrainian wedding suppers (sausage, perogies and cabbage rolls). Rosie and Bart participate in community activities. Rosie put together a float for the parade commemorating the 100th anniversary of the town. He supports and enjoys the local golf course. 

Not all is sunshine in Bart’s life. He is diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the third book, Burnt Out, his fly-in fishing camp is burned and they have no insurance as he thought the premiums were too high.

He is an average guy with a strong curiosity leading him

Nelson Brunanskito investigate murders. 

Bart, Rosie, their children and friends are the people I know well around me. They work hard. They share joys and sorrows.

Anthony has written about Saskatchewan in his first series, the Russell Quant books. Over 8 books set in Saskatoon and other parts of the world Russell, a gay man and private detective, solves mysteries. Occasionally he makes a brief trip to the farm where he was raised.

I continue to consider his book, Going to Beautiful, to be his masterpiece and it vividly evokes life in rural Saskatchewan. After opening in Toronto the story moves to Beautiful, Saskatchewan which I envisage, like Prudhomme, to have less than 200 people. It takes place about 2020.

Toronto chef, Jake Hardy, goes to Beautiful in the middle of our harsh winters to learn of the background of his husband, Eddie Kravets, who has died from a fall. 

In Beautiful we meet characters who are the current people of the Saskatchewan countryside. Many of them are seniors reflecting our demographics.

The Chinese cafe remains a staple of Saskatchewan life with local coffee groups gathering daily. The bountiful Ukrainian supper is whipped up and presided over by a local matriarch. The grocery store has an ailing 92 year old owner. The convent has a solitary nun.

Life is not perfect in Beautiful. Finding out Eddie’s background and relationship with his family shook Jake to his core.

Anthony Bidulka
At the same time life is good in Beautiful.People enjoy typical activities such as a snowmobile poker rally. It is a confusing event for the visitors from the big city.

Guy’s book was inspired by a real life murder in his hometown of Esterhazy. The book opens in August of 1939 with World War II looming.

Connaught is a small town. Esterhazy currently has about 2,400 people. I expect it was smaller in the late 1930’s. They are located in the same area of Saskatchewan.

Where the books of Nelson and Anthony have more light than dark, Guy has written a literary work of crime noir. I was saddened by the bleakness. 

The Depression years were before my time but I know from all the people I grew up with at Meskanaw that there was joy in the 1930’s. Unlike August Into Winter there were good marriages and happy families. Community events such as sports and dances were enjoyed. Life was challenging but most people had good years especially by 1939. Anthony Bidulka’s book, Going to Beautiful, set two generations later portrays the joys as well as the sorrows of rural Saskatchewan. Vanderhaeghe, as with myself and Anthony, grew up in the country. He understands life in the country. 

His characters are vivid and convincing. They felt real to Saskatchewan.

I was discouraged that Vidalia, an intelligent independent woman from Winnipeg, cannot see a meaningful life in rural Saskatchewan.

Oliver and Jack Dill are still deeply scarred by their experiences on the front lines of World War I over twenty years earlier. I knew men in my youth of the 1950’s and 1960’s who were still suffering from their service in World War II.

The town lawyer and Justice of the Peace, Weller, is about 80 and a cynic. I have not reached his almost 60 years at the bar but do my best not to be cynical.

Vanderhaeghe penetrates deeply into the psyches of his characters.

I appreciated, you cannot say liked, his portrayal of the twisted killer, Ernie Sickert. Guy’s descriptions of the distorted reality and rationalizations of Ernie were chilling.

None of the main characters are enjoying life at Connaught. Despair is a constant refrain. I found myself wishing there was more light to go with the dark. There was a bit of brightness in the book but not in Saskatchewan.

August Into Winter is a powerful story by a master storyteller who has won three Governor General of Canada Awards for fiction. 

I look forward to reading more crime fiction set in rural Saskatchewan. I admit hoping the rural life of future authors will have as much joy as sorrow.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

August Into Winter by Guy Vanderhaeghe

(17. - 1200.) August Into Winter by Guy Vanderhaeghe - Connaught, Saskatchewan, is a peaceful small town near the Qu’Appelle Valley. The late summer heat of August of 1939 is heavy upon the town. Ernie Sickert is a 21 year old communi
ty eccentric. Usually wearing a bowtie, he runs everywhere and is famed for being the talented saxophonist for the Rhythm Alligators dance band. Few know that he is vindictive and has tortured family pets.

RCMP Constable Alfred Hotchkiss is frustrated by a series of minor break-ins and thefts over the summer. Ernie is his only suspect. He decides to interrogate Ernie and examine the shed in the backyard of the Sickert home. Hotchkiss prides himself on his aggressive policing techniques. He calls the meaty palm of his hand his search warrant saying it is signed by Judge Donotfuckwithme before slapping Ernest.

Locking the shed to give privacy for his search and questioning proves fatal for Hotchkiss. Ernie attacks and kills Hotchkiss, splitting his skull with a hammer and chisel. 

Ernie leaves town that afternoon in his father’s 1929 Oldsmobile Landau with his young girlfriend, Loretta, who is to be presented as his sister until they can procure some fake ID. The 12 year old Loretta is his soulmate. He proposes to her, promising to marry her when she turns 14. 

They set out to explore the world starting with Winnipeg or Minneapolis.

Oliver “Jumper” Dill had a hard war. In the 1920’s he prospered on the farm with Judy. She softened him. The Depression and drought and Judy’s slow death sent him spiralling down.

His older brother Jack has always been a bit different. He is a fervent Anglican. Having denounced WW I, he abruptly joins the Army to help end the war. He is a demon on night raids. After the war he lives in a room at the Connaught hotel where he studies and reflects on Christianity and works upon an opus setting out his vision of the Celestial City.

Vidalia Taggart, a 32 year old teacher, banished from the Winnipeg public school system for her affair with a married man, Dov Schechter, has come to the one room country school, Clay Top, near Connaught. She is desperate for a job and the school trustees are desperate for a teacher.

After bitter quarrels, Dov had left Canada in 1937 to join the Mackenzie-Papineau brigade to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. 

He died and Vidalia has received the accounting ledger in which he journaled his experiences in Spain. In its opening he is overjoyed with his welcome in Spain after trekking over the Pyrenees.

Ernie’s relentless running had been part of his commando training regime so he could be ready for the coming war.

His getaway is foiled by a huge thunderstorm. They slide off the road descending into the Qu’Appelle Valley.

During the pursuit of Ernie and Loretta, Jack and Oliver return to their WW I experiences as front line soldiers. With officer Cooper they send a barrage of “plunging fire”, co-ordinated shots designed to arc into the area Ernie is shooting from at them about 1,400 yards away. They miss.

Oliver, after the RCMP spends days floundering around searching for Ernie, leads them to Ernie’s hideout, a tornado shelter. Through plain language and credible threats Oliver captures Ernie.

In the meantime, after Loretta burns down the schoolhouse and teacherage, Miss Vidalia moves into Oliver’s farm home. She hates being beholden to him. Wrestling with tortured emotions from the War and Judy’s death Oliver finds himself glad to have a woman in his house.

Vidalia reads Dov’s journal in small chunks for when she is done she will have nothing further from him.

The relationship between Miss Vidalia and Oliver is compelling. Two lonely people whose lives have been hard. Each is a good person. Each has suffered great loss. Each is seeking the meaning of life. Miss Vidalia is a fierce humanist. Dill does his best to be a realist. Each struggles to make friends. Love is even more difficult.

August Into Winter is rich in characters, language, emotions and setting. Vanderhaeghe has been a gifted writer for decades. I wish I had read him sooner. We were at the University of Saskatchewan at the same time in the 1970’s but I never met him. The book, with unflinching clarity, outlines the challenges of life in rural Saskatchewan as the Depression winds down and WW II is about to erupt. Vanderhaeghe drew me deeply into life at Connaught. August Into Winter is a great book.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

The Watchmaker’s Hand by Jeffery Deaver

(16. - 1199.) The Watchmaker’s Hand by Jeffery Deaver - The opening crackles. A tower crane operator perched  218 feet in the air is confronted with the front jib tilting forward. Unable to correct the tilt he shifts from electronics to manual controls but cannot stabilize the load of flanges. Desperately trying to move the load to fall in an open space he stays in the cab. The tilt is too much and the crane breaks apart.

Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs are investigating  a theft from the NYC Department of Structures and Engineering - “a trove of infrastructure documents, blueprints, engineering diagrams, underground maps, plats, permit requests”.

Medical advancements and new technologies have allowed Rhyme “had restored most movement to his right arm”.

News arrives of the crane collapse and demands made to the city with the threat “if they don’t get what they want, they’re going to do it again in twenty-four hours”.

The Kommunalka demand the City of New York convert various city owned properties to public housing or have a “disaster” every day.

Charles Vespasian Hale, the Watchmaker, has come to New York to kill his nemesis - Rhyme. Loving the precision of clocks, especially watches, he is a dangerous adversary. He has created the Kommunalka.

I do not see many modern works of crime fiction with a brilliant villain challenging the brilliant sleuth. The modern day Moriarity is a worthy opponent for the Holmes of today. There will be no luck only skill involved.

Hale uses a powerful chemical, hydrofluoric acid, with which I am unfamiliar in my decades of crime fiction reading. It can kill with astonishing quickness.

Hale and Rhyme appreciate the elegance of watches and the “complications” (“any function of a watch or clock other than telling the time” including “dials indicating the phases of the moon, tides, seasons”) with which they are adorned. A watch with many features were called “ ‘grande complications’ “. 

Deaver drives the suspense. Hale stalks a couple who have seen too much and sets up a device to kill them in their home. On T.V. we know they would be rescued. With Deaver the tension is real for, in earlier books in the series, victims have been killed not saved.

The skill and dedication of young criminalist, Ron Pulaski, has achieved Rhyme’s admiration to the point that he Pulaski is listed as Rhyme’s successor.

A weakness of Hale is that he loves elegant complex killing schemes - plots that have grande complications. Not for Hale to simply shoot, knife or strangle. He wants people to admire his plans, appreciate his intelligence and be dismayed by his wicked plans.

Most important Hale’s killing modus is to have death caused throught a remote to programmed means of killing so that he is not in the vicinity of the murder. His approach has the weakness of a million books, movies and T.V. shows. The killer does not actually see whether the intended victim is dead.

The book hurtles forward. Most, not all, of Hale’s schemes are detected and thwarted. Can Rhyme and his team stop Hale’s ultimate plan and prevent him from escaping again?

The tension is so high and the reading compelling that clues were overlooked by me. Deaver drives the reader to read in haste to find out what happens upon the next page. Rhyme never seems rushed as he contemplates a villain’s plans.

A clock is constantly ticking down to disaster when the Watchmaker comes to town. Deaver’s plots are grande complications.

Deaver, Jeffery – (2000) - The Empty Chair; (2002) - The Stone Monkey; (2002) - Mistress of Justice; (2003) - The Vanished Man; (2005) - Garden of Beasts; (2005) - The Twelfth Card; (2006) - Cold Moon(Tied for 3rd Best fiction of 2006); (2008) - The Broken Window; (2010) - The Burning Wire; (2013) - The Kill Room; (2014) - The Skin Collector; (2017) - The Steel Kiss; (2019) - The Burial Hour; (2021) - The Never Game and Handwritten Notes Are the Best; (2023) - The Midnight Lock