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.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Q & A with Michael Redhill on his Pseudonym Inger Ash Wolfe

Last Friday Canadian author, Michael Redhill, wrote an article for the Globe & Mail newspaper in which he revealed he is the author of the Inger Ash Wolfe mystery series featuring sleuth, Hazel Micallef.

His bio on the University of Toronto website shows he was and is a prolific writer in many genres before and after he started writing mysteries:

Michael Redhill is a poet, playwright and novelist whom has written two novels, a collection of short fiction, three plays, and five collections of poetry. His play, Building Jerusalem (2001) garnered him the Dora Award, the Chalmers Award, and a nomination for the Governor General’s award. His first novel, Martin Sloane (2001), won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and was also nominated for the Giller Prize, the City of Toronto Book Award, and the Trillium Book Award. His most recent novel, Consolation (2006), won the City of Toronto Book Award and was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He has acted as an editorial board member for Coach House Press, and is one of the editors, and former publisher, of Brick Magazine.

After reading the article I sent some questions to Michael to which he promptly replied. This post has my email and his reply. I very much appreciate his quick reply and candid answers.

Dear Bill,

Thanks for your message and your questions. I've visited your site a number of times in the past and read many of your posts with interest. I've answered your questions below as best I can. Please feel free to write back with anything else you might want to know.




I was very interested to read your article in the Globe identifying yourself as Inger Ash Wolfe.

I have been writing a blog Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan for over 1 1/2 years and have written posts about Who is Inger Ash Wolfe?

I also participate in a forum of mystery review bloggers from around the world.

I would like to ask you a few questions. I am putting up a post tomorrow about Inger Ash Wolfe's identity now being public. If you have time to answer the questions by tomorrow I will put your answers in the post. If you are able to answer later I will post them at that time.

My questions are:

1.) When the first book was published you were noted as the potential author. You provided a carefully worded reply that on the advice of a lawyer you were not going to say anything. Why did you not reveal yourself at that time?

I still can't talk about the circumstances around which I had to get legal advice since it concerns a criminal act by a third party. At the time, I was advised to say "no comment" about anything regarding the series for my own safety. However, I would not have "revealed" myself at that time anyway, for that reason or any other, as I intended, at the time, to keep my authorship of the IAW books to myself permanently.

2.) At the same time I was writing about the speculation on who is Inger Ash Wolfe in New Zealand there was a flurry over author, Greg McGee, coming out as the mystery author, Alix Bosco. In my post I described his original reasons for a pseudonym:

"He said that he had used the pseudonym as he was   convinced the book would not get a fair chance to succeed if readers knew the author was a man, especially a man known as a rugby player, whose lead character was a woman. His decision was confirmed by a panel of readers. The two who knew he was a man did not find it credible. The three who did not know had no problems with credibility."

Did you have any comparable concerns? Did you get any responses that suggested it was better for reader credibility to have a female author creating the female sleuth?

None at all. The decision to have a female protagonist was organic to my own writing process and the decision to create Inger as the author happened exactly as described in the Globe essay. I don't know if the process is different for rugby players, but my feeling is that unless you are writing pure autobiography, every character a writer puts on the page is an act of embodiment, whether the character is male, female, old, young, of another race or from another planet. Verisimilitude in writing character comes from the writer's willingness to get close, and his or her ability to see from another's point of view; creating the author for the series followed the same process. I never hesitated in creating a female detective or a female writer, just as I didn't hesitate to write in female first person in Martin Sloane, or create female characters for the stage. I also would never offer my work to a "panel of readers" to help me make creative decisions.

3.) You have prominence as a literary writer. I know your article in the Globe did not attribute any reason for the pseudonym to that background but did your literary background have any influence on going with a pseudonym when you chose to write mysteries?

No. I wanted to experiment with my career, and experiment with my writing process. There was a lot of speculation about this, and no doubt it will continue, but I am not so well known as a literary writer that changing gears would have any effect on me or my readership. Or at least I didn't think so at the time. I guess I'll find out now.

4.) Did your publisher ask that Inger Ash Wolfe not be considered for any literary awards for women? I would request the reasoning whether the answer is yes or no.

I'm not aware that they did or didn't.

5.) Did you enjoy the speculation swirling around the identity of Inger Ash Wolfe?

Not particularly. It was not a publicity stunt, and although I knew people would try to guess, I'd hoped the interest would die off and Inger would go on just as herself. Perhaps it was a mistake in the first place to admit it was a pseudonym. If I could do it again, I would simply have sent her out into the world without any connection to anything or anyone.

6.) Do you think using a pseudonym is a good idea for a writer in our digital age?

I don't know if I have an opinion. In our digital age, I think writing is even harder (as is publishing) than it's ever been, and any impediment you put between yourself and the reader could be something you spend precious energy fighting against. But if an author finds a reason organic to their writing life to do it, it can be freeing, engaging, and enjoyable.

Thank very much for your interest, Bill. I appreciate it.

Thank you for considering my questions.

I am looking forward to reading the 3rd in the series.

Best wishes.

Bill Selnes

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Before the Poison by Peter Robinson

Before the Poison by Peter Robinson – Chris Lowndes, after 35 years in American, has returns to his Yorkshire roots. His wife, Laura, has suffered a lingering death and his children are grown. He decides to come home.

With lots of money made as the composer of movie scores in Hollywood he purchases a large old home in the countryside, Kilnsgate, near the town of Richmond.

The house has been a rental property for decades and has a substantial amount of furniture from earlier owners, the Fox family. Interested in the background of his home Chris is startled to learn that 57 years ago in 1953 Grace Fox had been hung after being convicted of murdering her husband on New Year’s Eve by poisoning him.

With time on his hands, his only commitment is to write a sonata, Chris pursues his curiosity about what took place in Kilnsgate. He is also diverting his mind from the painful memories of Laura’s illness and death.

At the same time the book contains excerpts from Grace’s trial and later her journal of wartime experiences as a nurse. The wartime entries are striking in their power.

Chris seeks out information on the lives of the Fox family. In particular, he longs to learn more about the beautiful Grace. What could have happened in her life?

In her trial the forensic evidence is actually ambivalent on whether the high level of potassium in the body of Ernest Fox was caused by an injection of potassium or the result of a natural heart attack. There is evidence that his heart was not in good condition.

In real life today I doubt there would have been a trial. There is no conclusive evidence of murder.

Robinson does present a convincing picture of early 1950’s England, with a puritanical streak, that would prosecute a woman considered immoral on weak forensic evidence.

I hearkened back to the poisoning cases I had read about in The Invention of Murder – How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders from the 19th Century where several women were convicted and hung on flimsy evidence of poisoning. 150 years ago experts, actually incompetents, were eager to find evidence of poisoning. Robinson’s book would suggest it was little different 60 years ago.

In his personal life Chris makes a comfortable adjustment back to England. He is attracted to the lovely Heather, his real estate agent.

Rural Yorkshire is a rugged land with unpredictable weather, usually bad, in the fall and winter. For a Canadian the descriptions of snow and cold were alittle overdone. It is definitely cold in the middle of the English winter but it is a long way from the -40 much of Canada endures in mid-winter.

Chris thoughtfully follows the evidence he assembles. It is not an overtly dramatic investigation. He is an average man on a quest. Tension does build as Chris learns information that leads him to question the guilt of Grace.

I thought of it as a graceful book. It is well written with some twists I had not forseen. I read it mainly because it was the 2012 winner of the Arthur Ellis Award as Canada’s top mystery fiction. In a few days I will pass on my thoughts on 3 of the 5 books that were on the shortlist this year.

Before the Poison will be my first read in the 6th Canadian Book Challenge which started at the Book Mine Set blog on July 1. (July 27/12)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Illegal Action by Stella Rimington

3. - 466.) Illegal Action by Stella Rimington – Liz Caryle has been shifted from the drama of counter-terrorism to counter-espionage. With the end of the Cold War there are less spies to be pursued. A regular source and an international meeting and a chance observation lead MI5 to think something is going on with one of the Russian oligarchs, Nikita Brunovsky, residing in London. He is a passionate art collector. Liz is given a crash course in art appreciation and joins his household as a mature student studying Russian art, especially the modernist Pashko. It gradually becomes clear there is an illegal (a secret non-embassy spy) for Russia in England. Liz’s superiors seem more concerned with maintaining good relations with Russia (the Prime Minister is about to visit) than with ferreting out whether there is an illegal and why there would be an illegal in the country. Liz tries to put together threads of information. There is a true thriller ending to the story without a vast pile of corpses. The plot is very credible. As the author was the former director of MI5 I keep wondering how accurately she portrays the secret service. The internal conflicts make a reader wonder how they stem any terrorism or stop any spies. Good but not as good as her previous books. Paperback. (Jan. 10/09)

Monday, July 23, 2012

“J” is for Stan Jones

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at Mysteries in Paradise has almost reached the half-way point of the alphabet. For “J” I am profiling Alaskan author, Stan Jones. He features State Trooper, Nathan Active, in his series.

Stan was born in Anchorage, Alaska and spent a few years in Tennessee with his parents before they returned to Alaska when he was 12.

On his website he has a fine understated paragraph on a pivotal time in his life:

I spent a pleasant but basically aimless life until I moved to the Inupiat Eskimo village Kotzebue in my late twenties.  I found the lovely, barren Arctic landscape absolutely mesmerizing, the extreme climate a joy, and the Native culture fascinating.  I landed Bush planes on the sea ice, drove snowmachines over the tundra, hunted moose and caribou, and once helped paddle a sealskin umiaq in pursuit of a bowhead whale on the Chukchi Sea off Point Hope.

There are more remote places in the United States but not very many.

With 3,201 people it is the largest centre in the Northwest Arctic Borough and no place to get a sun tan. It is reported that there are an average of 5 days a year over 21C.

After departing Kotzebue Jones has worked as a journalist. His investigations include reports on the Exxon Valdez spill and he has co-authored a non-fiction book on the topic, The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster.

Jones speaks of the influence of Kotzebue:

After I left Kotzebue, I found the country, weather and people of Northwest Alaska more interesting than ever, and so started the Nathan Active series.  The fictional village of Chukchi is modeled on Kotzebue in many respects, and some of the characters in the series are loosely crafted around real people I knew.

I have read the first two books in the Nathan Active series – White Sky Black Ice and Shaman Pass. I enjoyed both of them. White Sky Black Ice tied for Third Most Interesting in Bill’s Best of 2009. It was also my entry in "J" in last year's Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme. Shaman Pass tied for Third Best Fiction in Bill’s Best of 2010.

Jones has an ability to create an interesting mystery that is firmly placed in the people and geography of its location.

He also has a keen appreciation of the Inuit people of Northwest Alaska. In my review of Shaman Pass I said:

The importance of humour in indigenous life is constantly present in the book. Jones evokes the playful exchanges between indigenous people – not quite teasing, not really needling, on the edge of sarcastic, occasionally biting, always entertaining.

He evokes precisely the language I am used to when dealing with my Cree Indian clients.

Finally, I enjoyed exchanging emails with him. He promptly replied to each of my contacts.

I look forward to reading more in the series.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson

32. – 664.) Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson – There is really no way to review this book without revealing more of the plot than I would like to in review. I do not consider the following to contain major spoilers. I defy a reader to put the book down once started.

The 7th Walt Longmire book moves from mystery to thriller. It is a heart pounding chase through the Bighorn Mountains. There is no detecting to be done. There are criminals to be caught.

It is early May and Walt is called upon to deliver a trio of murderers to Federal agents on the edge of Absaroka County. Raynaud Shade has said he will take the authorities to the spot where he buried the body of a 7 year old boy he had killed many years ago. The challenge for county, state and federal police agencies is that the boundaries of 3 Wyoming counties and a Federal National Forest intersect in the vicinity of the body’s location. In the end, the alleged burial spot is in Absaroka County.

The trio of prisoners remain constantly shackled, even while eating. Marcel Popp has killed a South Dakota highway patrolman and two Nevada city policemen. Hector Otero murdered a couple of people in Houston. Shade is the most dangerous. Born in the Northwest Territories of Canada to an Indian mother and white father, Shade, after horrific circumstances, ended up adopted by a Crow Indian family in America. His latest murders involved killing people to sell their organs for transplants.

Shade startles Walt by telling him that he hears the voices of Indian departed just like Walt. In an earlier book Walt had heard the sounds of the Old Cheyenne spirits who lurk in the mountains.

Reading about Shade sent a little shiver up my back. The one eyed killer exudes menace.

I know of no way to set up the book beyond to say that there is an escape and Walt goes after them. I will provide no details of the escape.

While it is early May the weather is cruel and a powerful spring storm assaults the Bighorn Mountains. The chase is epic. I was reminded of Joe Pickett in Savage Run on another great Wyoming mountain chase. Walt faces far greater challenges than Pickett.

Vicious weather and the mountain terrain are vital elements of the story. I have felt the overwhelming cold Walt must deal with in the mountains. It is as far from the urban car chase as it is possible.

Amidst the pursuit excerpts from Dante’s Inferno are quoted. It takes no skill to see Walt is in a living hell.

To me the chase became a quest as Walt battled the weather, the country and the killers in the pursuit. He provided a compelling reason for continuing the quest rather than waiting for backup. He asked himself if he were in the group being pursued would he want an officer to wait for backup forces or press on alone.

There are mystical aspects to the case which are not my favourite part of mysteries. Johnson handles the area well and, in the end, they did not detract the book for me. Who among us has not had the lines between reality and dream blur a bit to a lot at times of great stress? The spirit world is especially alive for indigenous peoples in North America.

The quest would not work well as the basis for a series but it is a fresh and striking departure from the other Walt Longmire mysteries. Johnson is not following a formula. Hell is no longer empty by the end of the book. (June 18/12)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

“I” is for Greg Iles

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at her blog, Mysteries in Paradise, reaches “I” this week. I have chosen to profile American author, Greg Iles.

He was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1960. His father was in charge of the U.S. Embassy Medical Clinic. The family returned to the United States and he grew up in Natchez, Mississippi.

He graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1983 with a degree in English. Iles and John Grisham were both at Ole Miss at the same time. Grisham graduated in law in 1981.

He was a musician before he was a writer. After getting married (his wife is a dentist) he decided to turn to writing. It was a year where he spent 50 of 52 weeks on the road. On his website he discusses the start of his writing career:

When the band finally imploded, I was in Mobile Alabama at on New Year’s Eve, standing at a phone booth in 28-degree weather. I was 30 years old, my wife was in school, and I had $9,000 to my name. I drove home to New Orleans, shut myself in our apartment, surrounded myself with library books and started working 18 hours a day. Literally. I gave myself one year to write and sell a novel…… I used my best buddy and fellow thriller fan as a sounding board …… When I was finished, I had a manuscript 241,000 words long, almost three times the length of an average thriller today. I was consciously trying to write a bestseller at the time, using as my models Jack Higgins, Fredrick Forsyth, and Hans Hellmut Kirst. I owe a great deal to the agent who agreed to represent me then, Natasha Kern, of Portland, Oregon. Natasha organized an auction, and after a couple of nail-biting months, I had a 2-book deal with Dutton books worth $125,000— five times my annual income at the time.

His first book featured the Nazi, Rudolph Hess, in Spandau Phoenix. I believe I read the book but it is too long ago to remember details.

Since that time he has steadily turned out books. He has 13 books and is working on a Penn Cage book due for publication this year.

He was in a bad car accident in 2011 and lost part of his right leg. He has recovered and is back writing.

Iles is in a literary band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, with Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Stephen King, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Roy Blount Jr., Matt Groening and James McBride.

I have read several of his books but not yet posted any reviews. Of writers I have read in the last 15 years I am probably most ambivalent about Iles.

I liked The Quiet Game with Penn Cage in Natchez.

I found Mortal Fear with a serial killer stalking victims over the internet an interesting thesis but not his best book.

Blood Memory was alright but my reading was affected because I do not believe in the reliability of recovered memories from personal experiences in court cases.

Turning Angel with Penn Cage I thought was skilfully done but the body count was high for me.

Third Degree was a thriller that had me race through the final 150 pages.

Out of the 5 books – 2 I liked a lot, 2 I would not recommend and 1 was alright. I think I would have to find favourable reviews I consider reliable before I would return to Iles.

Monday, July 16, 2012

6th Canadian Book Challenge and the Best of the 5th Challenge

The 5th Canadian Book Challenge ended on June 30, 2012 and the 6th Challenge began on Canada Day, July 1, 2012. As with each year’s challenge participants are to read 13 Canadian books over the course of the year. The number of 13 comes from our 10 provinces and 3 territories. John Mutford at his excellent blog, The Book MineSet, will again host the Challenge. Next to this paragraph is the logo for this coming year. You cannot get more Canadian iconic than a Mountie in red serge.

In the 5th Challenge I read 15 Canadian books. The total was more than I had read in some years of Canadian books. For the coming year I will set a goal of reading 16 Canadian books.

John provided some stats on the 5th Challenge:

Let's see what the stats say:
- We've read and reviewed a total of 1030 books! That is way up from the previous year, but still not a record (that was set back in the 2nd edition at 1137). The grand total for all 5 years combined is 4134.
- Of the people 58 who participated, 32 finished (reached 13 or more books). Again, not a record in terms of numbers but the 55% success rate is.
- Shonna broke a record by reading and reviewing an even 100. Impressive!

I have been considering the 15 books last year and chosen 3 of them as my top books. It was difficult as I found all of the books I read for the challenge above average.

The books read were:

1.) An Ordinary Decent Criminal by Michael Van Rooy;

2.) Deadly Appearances by Gail Bowen;

3.) A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny;

4.) The Mystery of the Moonlight Murder by Roderick Benns;

5.) Snow Job by William Deverell;

6.) Burnt Out by Nelson Brunanski;

7.) The Placebo Effect by David Rotenberg;

8.) The Lies have It by Jill Edmondson; and,

9.) I’ll See You in My Dreams by William Deverell.

10.) Bush Dweller (Essays in Memory of Father James Gray O.S.B. edited by Don Ward)

11.) The Suspect by L.R. Wright

12.) Stray Bullets by Robert Rotenberg

13.) Dos Equis by Anthony Bidulka

14.) Kaleidoscope by Gail Bowen

15.) The Taken by Inger Ash Wolfe

My top 3 and the reasons are:

1.) Kaleidoscope – The 13th Joanne Kilbourn book was an intriguing contemporary mystery delving into real life issues in Regina. Better yet it saw Joanne retiring as a university professor and starting the adjustment to life as a retired person. I further acknowledge I am biased because her husband, Zack, is a 50 plus Saskatchewan litigation lawyer;

2.) Bush Dweller – Not many books profoundly move me. Bush Dweller had that effect. The impact a solitary Benedictine monk, Father James, at St. Peter’s Abbey had on so many people across a broad spectrum was amazing. I wish I had taken the time to know him better when he was alive. The book has led me to reflect on my life. When I sit on my deck this summer and listen to the birds I think of Father James; and,

3.) The Suspect – I had not read any books of L.R. Wright until The Suspect. I doubt I would have read her this year if not for the Challenge. It has been my loss that I had not sought her out in years past. Wright wrote one of the most penetrating examinations of the psyche of a murderer that I have read. I was driven during the reading of the book to question whether I wanted George Wilcox proven to be the killer.

Kerrie Smith from Mysteries in Paradise completed the Challenge as well as numerous other challenges. She is a great reader.

Please take a virtual trip to Canada and the many excellent mystery choices available from Canadian authors.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Being Affected by a Male Author Creating a Female Sleuth

Greg McGee
Last year I wrote about mystery authors Alix Bosco, from New Zealand, and Inger Ash Wolfe, from Canada, being pseudonyms. Bosco’s creator, Greg McGee, revealed himself. While I keep searching I have been unable to find conclusive proof on Wolfe’s real identity.

In the past month I have read Slaughter Falls by Bosco (McGee) and The Taken by Wolfe. While reading them I thought about the gender of the authors.

In my previous post I explained McGee’s primary reason for a pseudonym that was vaguely female, certainly ambiguous on the author’s gender:

He said that he had used the pseudonym as he was convinced the book would not get a fair chance to succeed if readers knew the author was a man, especially a man known as a rugby player, whose lead character was a woman. His decision was confirmed by a panel of readers. The two who knew he was a man did not find it credible. The three who did not know had no problems with credibility.

On identifying himself as the author I said:

McGee said he went public with his real identity because he heard it been a letdown when Bosco won the Ngaio Marsh crime writing award and there was no one to accept the award.

Even with the third in the Wolfe series being published this summer the author has chosen not be revealed.

When I read Slaughter Falls I found myself too focused on whether the sleuth, Anna Markunas, was a convincing woman character. I do not think about Agatha Christie being a woman when I read Hercule Poirot mysteries. I am equally unconcerned when I read one of my favourite Canadian series in which Louise Penny’s sleuth is Armand Gamache.

Yet I kept thinking about Anna’s creator being a man. It seems I had questions about a man creating a female sleuth. There is no good reason for doubts. Each gender must be able to develop good characters of the other gender.

Margot Kinberg at her wonderful blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, had a test in a post that showed me I had little ability to distinguish male writers from female writers in anonymous short passages from their books.

When I read The Taken I was not as distracted. While the evidence would suggest Wolfe is a male author the identity is publicly anonymous. Not knowing the author’s gender made a difference in reading the book. I was more focused on the plot and was not trying to determine if Hazel sounded like a woman.

I was not reading Slaughter Falls rationally. When I read Thomas Perry’s series featuring Jane Whitfield I have not thought about the gender of the author.

I believe I influenced myself by reading about McGee’s concern in getting fair reads if it was known he was a man. I would have thought his fears were unfounded until my personal reaction while reading Slaughter Falls.

Without doing an analysis I believe I might also have been affected because I can think of far more women writing books with male sleuths than men creating female sleuths.

Going forward I am going to do my best to just concentrate on the book. As blogger, Maxine Clarke, from the excellent Petrona blog said in a comment on my review of Slaughter Falls:

To me, the gender of the author is irrelevant. I have a review going up tomorrow of Mildred Pierce by James M Cain, which is such an accurate, and wonderful, portrait of a woman on all kind of levels. Amazing that it was written by a man? No. Just someone with talent.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Flower Net by Lisa See

4. - 467.) Flower Net by Lisa See – The body of the son of the American ambassador to China is found in the ice in Bejng. The body of the son of a wealthy Chinese businessman is found in a tank of a ship filled with illegal immigrants off the coast of California. Both have died horrible deaths from poison. In China Inspector, Liu Hulan, is stopped from a full investigation. In California Assistant U.S. Attorney, David Stark, determines the death was actually back in China. He has been diligently pursuing investigations against the Rising Phoenix triad. He is convinced they are involved. The governments decide to jointly seek a determination of the deaths of members of the elite. Liu was a Red Guard and then educated in the U.S. Stark met her at university. Liu and Stark investigate on both sides of the Pacific. The action is fast furious around them as they pursue the causes of death. The vivid portrayal of life in China in the late 1990’s is striking. A communist society is in great flux as it deals with an economic turn to a communist form of free enterprise. I had not heard of Red princes and princesses before reading. The story is very well told. I am surprised I had not come any in the series during the past decade. The paperback cover is misleading with a sailing junk before a city scene. Excellent. Hardcover or paperback. (Jan. 17/09)

Monday, July 9, 2012

“H” is for Robert Harris

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at her blog, Mysteries in Paradise, moves relentlessly through the alphabet. For the letter “H” I have chosen to profile author, Robert Harris.

Out of my personal “H” choices I settled on Harris as he is one of the few authors I have read both for non-fiction and fiction.

He was born in Nottingham, England and grew up there. He attended Cambridge University.

Following university he worked for the CBC and, at 30, moved to the newspaper world where he worked for The Observer, The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph.

He started writing non-fiction books in 1982 and fiction in 1992.

Of the Harris books I have read I enjoyed best his non-fiction work, Selling Hitler, about the fake Hitler diaries for which Stern paid about $4,000,000 over a generation ago. The book is really a non-fiction mystery. A plane carrying Hitler’s private papers disappears at the end of WW II. Decades later a reporter is given access to the diaries and Stern eagerly buys them. Harris unveils the forgery and the identity of the forger.

A profile at The Guardian states:

In the early Nineties, Harris resigned from The Observer and announced he was going to write a novel, based around the notion that Hitler and the Nazis had won the Second World War. 'It was an idea he had talked about when we were all at Cambridge,' says Mitchell. By then, Harris had already published three well-regarded works of non-fiction - an account of the fake Hitler diaries scandal at the Sunday Times, Gotcha!, about the press and the Falklands, and a biography of Bernard Ingham - but this was a very different venture. Howard admits he thought the novel a silly idea. Paxman, though, was convinced it would work. 'He's just an extremely clever, talented and funny man. I never had any doubt it would be a success.'

I remember reading Fatherland though it was before I started writing reviews. I read it swiftly drawn by a narrative of a Nazi run Europe that seemed all too plausible. The mystery part of the book was alright but the Europe created by Harris after a Nazi victory was brilliant.

Of his subsequent works of fiction I read Archangel which appeared to draw on Selling Hitler in that the plot involved a search for Stalin’s journal. The plot got somewhat bizarre to me as it reached a conclusion.

Of his Roman novels I have read Pompeii and Imperium. I liked them both but thought Pompeii was a better book. There are not many thrillers that feature a water engineer, Attilius. In the book he sets out to repair the great Aqua Augustus aqueduct which has failed in the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius.

In a subsequent Guardian article he provided advice on writing including:

To these three dictums, Polonius-like, I can add a few more. Don't try to write too much in a single session. One thousand words a day is quite enough. Stop after about four or five hours. Remember that most writing is done in the subconscious ("the boys in the basement," as Stephen King calls his unseen helpers) and that inspiration is only a posh word for ideas. Pace yourself, get some recreation, avoid tiring yourself out. Cut your manuscript ruthlessly but never throw anything away: it's amazing how often a discarded scene or description, which wouldn't fit in one place, will work perfectly later. Resist the temptation to show off your research (one of Tom Stoppard's maxims is, Just because it's true doesn't mean it's interesting). Be economical: Noel Coward's definition of good writing was the art of conveying something in as few words as possible

I have not read his most recent books, The Ghost and The Fear Index, which have generated significant controversy.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Slaughter Falls by Alix Bosco

Slaughter Falls by Alix Bosco – Anna Markunas is living a life in New Zealand teetering on the edge of chaos. She has recovered sufficiently from depression to work part-time at Peaches Restaurant but must avoid stress. Her lover, Rory, is enduring the collapse of his firm because of the fraudulent actions of his former partner. Her son, Jamie, is a recovering drug addict now working as a chef at the same restaurant where she is employed. It is hard to say whether mother or son is the most fragile emotionally. Only her daughter, about to give birth to her first child, seems relatively stable.

During a long weekend sojourn to Brisbane to watch rugby Anna’s emotional state is further challenged.

First, there is a horrific episode involving a drunken New Zealand fan and a canal and bull sharks. The water holds many dangers.

Second, a dignified senior citizern, Manu Williams, from their group crashes to his death in a fall from the balcony of his hotel room.

During the visit Rory is offered the chance to come to Brisbane to replace Guy Baxter who is taking a year sabbatical from his law practice. Rory is tempted by the prospect of getting away from the firm disaster in New Zealand and starting afresh. Anna wonders if there is a place for her in Rory’s professional life, she is a skilled paralegal, and more important in is personal life if he moves to Australia.

Wanting to see Manu properly taken care of in death Anna looks for his relatives. None can be found. It is soon apparent that Manu was not the Maori man she thought him. Even determining his real identity becomes so complex that Anna is deeply suspicious of his past.

Within her own family the baby born to Anna’s daughter leads, for specific reasons, Jamie to explore an old family photo. The result of the search is astonishing.

Ultimately blocked in her quest for Manu’s actual name Anna calls upon the forensic accountant, Lyall, who is probing the finances of Rory’s firm. Following the money she asks him to delve into the source of the substantial funds of Manu.

Anna, in her prickly personality and use of financial information, reminds me of V.I. Warshawski and, to a lesser degree, Kinsey Milhone.

Despite rising turmoil as she probes Anna cannot give up finding out about Manu.

The mystery moves back and forth between Australia and New Zealand. The differences between the climates are heavily accentuated. New Zealand is a wet, cold, often dreary green land. Northern Australia is a brown arid land baking in the overwhelming heat. I had not heard of blue sky blues until I read the book.

Slaughter Falls was the first mystery I have read with the dual setting of Australia and New Zealand. It works well in this plot. The story effectively uses the people geography, culture and history of each land to tell the story.

I found myself dividing the mystery into four sections. The setting up of the characters and mystery was interesting. The second part dragged for me as the mystery plot line almost disappeared amidst the family stories. The third part was a gripping build up of tension. The fourth part, the conclusion, was abit Hollywood for me though convincingly told.

Anna is a strong character. At 43 she has been battered by life but she manages her woes. She is neither super woman nor a crumbled wreck. I want to read more of Anna. I hope the controversy over her author being revealed as a man after this book was published does not end the series. I was surprised at the impact upon me of knowing the book was written by a man. I will explore that issue in a coming post.

It is not easy finding New Zealand mysteries in Western Canada. I will keep looking for them. (June 5/12)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

“G” is for John Grisham (Part Two)

On Monday I put up a short profile of John Grisham’s legal career. Tonight I am looking into his legal mysteries. In these books I can see several views Grisham holds on the practice of law and a few thoughts of my own.

In his books you can see his dislike, even disdain, for the legal factory approach to the practice of law of many huge firms. In The Associate (Kyle McAvoy grinding away in New York City) and The Litigators (David Zinc toiling in Chicago) he vividly portrays the all consuming billing expectations of the big firm.
At the same time he has little regard for the mass tort plaintiff lawyers of America. To Grisham they appear to be the equivalent of the traditional big firm in their devotion to money and using, sometimes abusing, the law in a rush to generate huge earnings for the lawyers. In The King of Torts he portrays a young lawyer, Clay Carter, caught up in the maelstrom of mass torts.

Having participated in some national class actions in Canada I find Grisham over-states matters with regard to mass torts. Major class actions have gained awards for people who could never have afforded individual lawsuits. There are few individual lawyers able to pursue a single case against a major company without fees as Grisham does in The Rainmaker. I hope Grisham find a worthy class action in a future book.

Grisham appears to have his highest regard for the lawyers of small firms pursuing justice for their individual clients. The Litigators is probably the best example. He is not blind to their faults. Oscar Finley and Wally Figg are shown as just as grasping for money as big firm and mass tort lawyers but Zinc, after leaving the big firm, is a young lawyer doing the best he can for people in trouble in the small firm.

In my review of The King of Torts I said:

Grisham follows his formula that a lawyer's greed will not ultimately profit from shifty or unfair practice.

Grisham dislikes lawyers who use their position as lawyers to exploit law rather practice law. One of my least favourite of his books, The Broker, best illustrates this opinion as former power broker and lawyer, Joel Backman, is unexpectedly pardoned but then pursued by many powerful interests.

I have often thought his best books were those which returned to lawyers in small firms in his personal heartland of the southern U.S.

A Time to Kill is an exceptional story of the collision of justice and prejudice in Mississippi. From struggling to sell the initial 5,000 copies Grisham says it has gone to sell 16,000,000 copies.

I thought The Summons and The Appeal effectively evoked the South as well.

Next to A Time to Kill I think The Last Juror is his best southern legal mystery. Among the issues covered are new relations between black and white Americans a generation after A Time to Kill.

I regret that the lawyers opposing his protagonists are rarely shown with virtues. The negative approach, most evident in The Confession, makes for a sharper divide but I prefer Robert Rotenberg’s approach of respect for lawyers on both sides of the courtroom.

He does use his books to express personal legal views. His opinion on the death penalty has evolved. From the Guardian article referred to in my last post:

Even as a criminal defence lawyer, who had handled murder cases although not capital cases, he says he didn't really think about the issue until researching The Chamber on a Mississippi death row. "I was talking to the chaplain in the holding room, a tiny cell where the inmate has his last 30 minutes of life before they walk him next door. It is a very cramped, dark and surreal space. The chaplain said to me: 'John, you are a Christian?' I said yes. And he then said: 'Do you really think that Jesus would condone what we do here?' I said 'No, he would not'. The chaplain nodded, and in that moment I did a 180 on the death penalty. It was a remarkable feeling."

The Confession was a searing indictment of a rush to judgment and injustice in a death penalty case.

Continuing from the Guardian article:

But if I can take the wrongful execution of a man in Texas to make people stop and think about this rush to execute people that we have in this country, I will. If I have access to a soapbox, then the least I can do is occasionally use it."

I have always found Grisham a credible writer of trials with a remarkable ability to create interesting lawyers.