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.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Why Do so Many Canadian Crime Fiction Series have Cross-border settings?

In reading The Storm Murders by John Farrow and Hungry Ghosts by Peggy Blair back to back I was struck that each involved two settings – one in Canada and one outside Canada. The use of cross border locales started me thinking about the number of Canadian mysteries that are set in Canada and another country.

One of my favourite authors is Anthony Bidulka. Both of his series have cross border settings.

In each of the Russell Quant series we see Russell spending time in Saskatchewan and in some other distant, usually exotic, spot somewhere in the world. In the opening book, Amuse Bouche, Russell is off to France to search for a missing fiancée who failed to show up for a gay wedding in Saskatoon. In Tapas on the Ramblas he is gone to the Mediterranean for a cruise. In Sundowner Ubuntu the destination is South Africa.

Anthony’s second series featuring disaster recover agent, Adam Saint, combines Saskatchewan and Ontario with Saint going on missions outside Canada. In the opening book, When the Saints Go Marching In, Saint goes to Russia.

In Silence Invites the Dead by Scott Gregory Miller the book opens in Rwanda during the genocide of the 1990’s and continues in rural Saskatchewan.

A quartet of successful crime fiction series by Canadian authors have adopted the cross border theme for settings.

Ian Hamilton has created a wonderful sleuth in Ava Lee. She is an accountant who is skilled in Chinese martial arts. While based in Canada her work with “Uncle” takes her to Chinese communities around the world. The variation Hamilton has on the cross border theme is that Ava will travel to multiple countries in the same book. In the Disciple of Las Vegas she goes from Toronto to Hong Kong to Manila to Vancouver to Victoria to Las Vegas to London to Toronto. It can be a challenge for a reader to keep up with her journeys.

Howard Shrier’s tough guy sleuth, Jonah Geller, has travelled between Canada and the U.S. in most books of the series. The titles of Buffalo Jump and High Chicago tell you the American cities of each book.

David Rotenberg’s trilogy, The Junction Chronicles, saw synaesthete, Decker Roberts, going back and forth between Toronto and the United States. In The Placebo Effect the action moves between Toronto and Cincinnati.

Former sports reporter, Alison Gordon, created a sleuth, Kate Henry, who is also a sports reporter. Henry is the beat writer for a Toronto newspaper. She covers the Toronto big league baseball team and is constantly traveling between Toronto and America. Henry, in Night Game, spends time in Toronto and then in Florida at spring training.

Returning to the two books that inspired this post The Storm Murders move between Quebec and New Orleans while in Hungry Ghosts it is Cuba and Northern Ontario.

When I was reviewing The Placebo Effect I thought it unusual to involve multiple countries in crime fiction. When I actually looked at my reading I realized there are, as set out in this post, a significant number of Canadian mystery series that have settings in and out of Canada in the same book.

While certainly a minority of Canadian crime fiction series the cross border settings led me to wonder if Canadian authors face “encouragement” from publishers to include other parts of the world as locales for the cases of their Canadian sleuths.

I had recalled Anthony Bidulka remarking it is harder to get published a series set in Saskatchewan. I asked Anthony about the cross-border settings taking place in Canadian crime fiction. Our email exchange will be my next post.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Hungry Ghosts by Peggy Blair

Hungry Ghosts by Peggy Blair – Ghosts of murder victims are appearing to Inspector Ricardo Ramirez in Havana. They never speak but do gesture to him. He has been haunted for some time:

    For years, Ramirez had been shadowed
    by ghosts. His Yoruba slave
    grandmother  had prophesized that
    messengers would come, sent by Elegua, 
    the god of the crossroads. They began to
    appear shortly after Ramirez's
    promotion. 

The title comes through a conversation Ramirez has with Dr. Yeung from China:

     "I am a Taoist, Inspector Ramirez," said Yeung. "We believe
     animals have souls. And we believe there are three kinds of
     ghosts. There are orphan ghosts, who have no children to
     honour them properly. There are the ghosts of those who die
     violently, who sometimes come back for revenge. And then
     there are the hungry ghosts, the ones who can't feed themselves
     enough no matter how hard they try. Most murdered women are
     hungry ghosts.

As the book opens he is dealing with the murder of a clearly well-to-do man, probably a foreigner. No identification had been found.

Before he can investigate he is called to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes where a bomb threat has forced the evacuation of the building. While emptied of people someone has defaced with red paint five portraits from a collection of Italian masterpieces on exhibition.

A short time later the ghost of a young woman appears to Ramirez. A prostitute, she has been manually strangled and then had a stocking tied around her neck. Ramirez is reminded of an earlier murder of a prostitute.

At the same time, mid-winter, in northern Ontario (the real life location is hard to understand) the body of a woman has been found on the Manomin Bay First Nation. A barricade built by the members of the band to protest the re-opening of a mill near the reserve is keeping non-residents, including police, from the reserve.

Charlie Pike of the Ottawa Police is a member of the Manomin Bay band. He is dispatched north to investigate the crime because the protesters will let him through the blockade.

For some time the Highway Strangler Task Force has been identifying connections between murdered women and want to know if this victim fits the profile. The deceased is different from the women listed by the Task Force. They were all indigenous. She is white.

The Canadian section of the mystery draws upon a national search for missing and dead indigenous women. A Royal Commission of Inquiry is about to delve into the issue.

In the autopsy the cause of death is manual strangulation.

In Cuba Ramirez copes with the frustrations of life in a desperately poor country which is regressing as a nation. Shortages abound. Corruption is increasing. The socialist dream is descending into nightmare.

Back in Canada, as he investigates on the reserve, Pike is drawn back to his youth and the brutal residential school he endured.

On his reserve a strong connection remains to Ojibway traditions.
I appreciated how Blair deals with the details of life for Ramirez and Pike outside their police work. I was drawn into their lives.

As I read I wondered how Blair was going to connect murders in big city Havana with murders in rural Canada. It is a challenge to draw to together multiple investigations, there are three in this book, but Blair credibly puts them together.

The book highlights the ongoing consequences across Canada of the damage done to Indians who attended residential schools.

I did find the book preached at times. All of the indigenous Canadians in the book are victims. All of their problems are traced to residential schools and government actions with regard to their lands. I have dealt through my legal career with the issues of indigenous Canadians. Not all of them are victims. For those with problems, the causes are not as simplistic as the book.

While I tired at times on how indigenous lifestyles were portrayed it is a very good book.

Ramirez and Pike are wonderful characters. I am not found of spirits in mysteries but the ghosts about Ramirez do not detract from the investigation and do not solve the mystery. Pike has no ghosts but he has unresolved issues from his youth when he narrowly escaped from a life that had him on a path to prison.

While titled an Inspector Ramirez mystery it is about Ramirez and Pike. I hope they are both in Blair’s next mystery. I would like to spend more time with them.

Hungry Ghosts is one of the five books that formed the shortlist for the 2016 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Crime Novel.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction Shortlist


Last month the American Bar Association Journal and the University of Alabama Law School announced the shortlist for the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

The finalists are: 

1.) Allegiance by Kermit Roosevelt:

2.) Pleasantville by Attica Locke; and,

3.) Tom & Lucky and George & Cokey Flo by C. Joseph Greaves

The revised criteria do not allow repeat winners so John Grisham cannot win a third time and Michael Connelly, Paul Goldstein and Deborah Johnson cannot win a second award.

Of the trio I have read only Kermit Roosevelt. I read In the Shadow of the Law back in 2007 and included my review in a post I did for the letter "K" as part of Crime Fiction Alphabet meme for 2013 hosted by Kerrie Smith at her Mysteries in Paradise blog.

I thought it an excellent book that managed to combine "securitization of assets" and a death penalty case. I am looking forward to Allegiance which I can see by the cover will involve Japanese Americans during World War II.

The ABA Journal provided the following information on the selection committee:

     The panelists who will vote to select a winner from the group of
     finalists this year are Philip Beidler, author and professor at the
     University of Alabama; Helen Ellis, author of American
     Housewife; Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys; Rheta
     Grimsley Johnson, author, journalist and syndicated columnist;
     and Angela Johnson, author of Wind Flyers and Heaven.
 
Information about the finalists can be found on the ABA Journal website at http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/2016_harper_lee_prize_finalists

Once again readers of the Journal can help pick the winner by voting online at the Journal. The public, through the book attracting the most votes, effectively becomes a 6th voter whose vote is recognized as an equal vote to each of the selection committee members.

I am getting ready to read the books on the shortlist so I can post reviews and my selection for the Prize prior to the Award being presented in September.

The Prize will be presented on September 22 in Washington as a part of the Library of Congress National Book Festival.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Storm Murders by John Farrow

(24. – 866.) The Storm Murders by John Farrow (psudeonym of Trevor Ferguson) – Two members of the Surete du Quebec are called to a farm house near Montreal just after a fierce snowstorm. As they enter the house they can see from the undisturbed drifts no one has entered or left the house that day.

Inside the house they find the husband dead downstairs. Searching upstairs they find the wife badly wounded. When no gun is near her they know it was no murder / suicide and realize no one has left the house but there is no one else in any of the rooms. They call for assistance.

As one officer looks out of the bedroom door he is shot and when his partner reflexively looks out he is shot.

When backup arrives they find four bodies and no sign of any footprints leading away.

What has happened to the killer?

FBI special agent, Rand Dreher, calls upon retired Sergeant-Detective, Emile Cinq-Mars, who is living near the murder scene. He wants Cinq-Mars to serve as a consultant to the FBI. The murders in Canada follow a pattern of some American killings.

Dreher hopes Cinq-Mars, a legend in Quebec, can help with the investigation.

Cinq-Mars accompanies a former colleague, Sergeant-Detective Bill Mathers, and Dreher to the crime scene. Through his powers of observation, unlike the usually forensic dependent current detective, he works out what has happened in the farm house. It is simple but clever.

As common for me in crime fiction I had not figured out how the murders were committed though I had full access to all the information needed.

Cinq-Mars hesitates to do more. His much younger wife, Sandra, is unhappy and their marriage is in trouble. He decides on a unique form of marital therapy. He will share with her everything he learns in the investigation. He is no longer a police officer. He has no oath of secrecy.

Sandra’s participation added intrigue to the book. She does not become an investigator. She does think about the evidence and adds her suggestions. What happens to Sandra provides a vivid illustration of the risks of murder investigations by spouses.

The investigation takes them to New Orleans where they meet a large flamboyant New Orleans detective, Marcus Dupree.

A dark tale gradually unfolds.

While I wish I were a better armchair deducer there was an important issue with regard to the murdered couples in Quebec and New Orleans that was immediately obvious to me but not to the investigators. It was recognized far later than plausible.

It is inevitable that a book featuring a brilliant middle aged Quebec detective will invite comparisons with Armand Gamache of the mysteries written by Louise Penny. Cinq-Mars and Gamache are certainly not identical but they could have been cousins. I appreciate older sleuths whose analytical skills are more important than their physical prowess.

Aspects of the Hollywood style conclusion challenged credibility but I thought it a very good book. The inventiveness of the murders drew me into the book. Most modern murders lack believable ingenuity.

The Storm Murders is the 3rd book I have read from the shortlist for the 2016 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Fiction Novel.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Comparing 1222 and The Lion's Mouth

It has been awhile since I have reacted so differently to a pair of books in a mystery series. I thought 1222 was a good book but The Lion’s Mouth a great book.

If I had not been provided a copy of The Lion’s Mouth by the publisher I doubt I would have purchased another Anne Holt mystery.
 
I had plodded through 1222 wondering all the way why the book had gained such praise and an Edgar Award nomination.

I loved The Lion’s Mouth and could barely wait to see how the story unfolded.

Because of the quirks in the publication of translated books The Lion’s Mouth was written before 1222 but is only now appearing in English in North America.

The Lion’s Mouth should have been the strong contender for book awards. I did not check the date before starting to read the book and was wondering for a time why there was a book set before Hanne was shot that was written after she was shot and then I realized it was another translation out of order. I do not think I will ever get used to books in a series being translated in some apparently random sequence.
 
I liked Hanne better in The Lion’s Mouth. Her sour disposition in 1222 overshadowed her deducting talents. In The Lion’s Mouth she is an outgoing vital woman enjoying life. I can understand the change in her personality because of the shooting that has left her crippled. However, she is a dispiriting character in 1222.

Hanne has a better supporting character in The Lion’s Mouth in BillyT. The huge Oslo detective is emotionally candid and a powerful character. In 1222 she is aided by Geir Rugholmen. While a good man he does not fill out the pages like Billy T.

I found the victim in The Lion’s Mouth made for a more compelling story. It is hard to come up with a victim who commands your attention more than the Prime Minister.

Each involves questions of who could have committed murder in a closed setting. The resort hotel of 1222 and the Prime Minister's office of The Lion's Mouth.
 
What is unusual is that in each book Hanne is not really acting as a police officer. In 1222 she attempts to shun the investigation preferring to sit in her wheelchair waiting for the storm to end. She grudgingly helps in the investigation. In The Lion's Mouth she is not on duty having gone for an extended leave to California. She returns to Norway to help Billy T. but has a significantly secondary role.

They had profoundly different endings.

Hanne in 1222 , intentionally or not gives a strong Nero Wolfe impression, having the suspects assembled for her and then revealing the killer.  The impression is heightened as Wolfe always conducts those meetings seated behind his massive desk.

In The Lion's Mouth the ending unfolds in a series of climaxes as investigators put together what happened. It is far more emotional and realistic.

I remain unsure if I want to read more of the "new" Hanne when I liked the "old" Hanne better.

 

 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Lion’s Mouth by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen translated by Anne Bruce

(22. – 864.) The Lion’s Mouth by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen translated by Anne Bruce (1997) – It is a quiet Friday evening in Oslo in early April of 1997. Wenche Andersen has strict instructions not to interrupt Birgitte Volter, the Prime Minister of Norway. Unable to leave before the Prime Minister she frets for over an hour after Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Grinde has left the Prime Minister’s office. More anxious to start her weekend than fearful of Prime Ministerial wrath she enters the office and finds the Prime Minister dead from a gunshot to the head.

The loud, profane, huge Billy T. of the Oslo Police is the lead investigator. He is not a patient man yet his reaction to being with the murder victim is striking:

As always when he found himself in close proximity to a corpse, it struck Billy T. that nothing was as naked as death. Seeing this woman who had ruled the country until three hours ago, this woman whom he had never seen in the flesh but had encountered every single day on TV, in the newspapers, and on the radio; seeing Birgitte Volter, the human being behind the public persona, lying dead on her own desk, this was worse, more embarrassing, and made him feel more self-conscious than seeing her without any clothes. Billy T. turned away and walked down the stairs.

The police face challenge after challenge in their investigation.

How did the killer gain access when Andersen and security guards say no one entered the office after Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Grinde?

In addition to being a judge Grinde is also the chair of a committee investigating the disproportionate number of sudden deaths of Norwegian babies in 1965.

In a somewhat surreal scene the police arrest Grinde as he is about to make liver pate in his home. After a quick conversation the police realize they have no evidence beyond Grinde being the last person to see Volter alive and he is swiftly released.

Who would want to kill the Prime Minister? As they start their investigation the police do not know whether she was killed for a political reason or because of a personal vendetta.

There are so many potential killers to be investigated. As well as Grinde they must look at her family, her friends, her staff, those working in her office building, her political colleagues and extremist right wing opponents of her Labor Party.

Classic Norwegian reserve hampers the police. No one is forthcoming about anything. Relationships have to be pried out.

As the investigation proceeds the secrets of Volter’s life are gradually revealed.

Who will gain politically from her death is not clear. The new leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister is not an enthusiastic successor.

When the gun turns out to be an antique Russian revolver there are yet more complications.

In their investigation the police are extremely conscious of the bungled Olof Palme murder investigation by the Swedish police 11 years earlier. There has never been a conclusive resolution of that murder. As discussed in a post after my review of Killing Pilgrim there have been a series of theories on who killed Palme. I continue to think that it was Christer Pettersson, who was charged by the police and convicted before being freed on a successful appeal of his conviction.

Because of the potential extremist threat the Norwegian Security Services are involved. Billy T. expects they will be parsimonious with information they collect during their investigation.

One of the Security Services staff has a T-shirt with a perfect statement for describing an intelligence agent:

      Bold black letters across the entire front of the gray T-
      shirt declared “I’ve got your file.”

The Norwegian media have a significant role in the story. Little Letvik is a skilled and unscrupulous investigative reporter.

While described as a Hanne Wilhelmsen mystery it is really Billy T.’s book. Hanne does not make an appearance until almost 100 pages are gone. She is on leave in California with her partner, Cecilie. Hanne returns to Norway to aid Billy T. but stays in the background because she is not on duty.

A good book later became great when I was blind sided by a credible development concerning the gun.
 
The ending was as powerful and convincing a conclusion as I have read in a long time. For those who cannot forgive the past is never gone. I was left sad but very glad I had read the book.
****
 1222

Friday, June 3, 2016

1222 by Anne Holt

1222 by Anne Holt – Deep within my TBR boxes was 1222. I was inspired to read the book when Scribner provided me with a copy of The Lion’s Mouth, the newest book in the series. I decided to read the two books featuring Hanne Wilhelmsen back to back.

In 1222, written in 2011, Hanne is on a train heading to the west coast of Norway for a medical appointment in Bergen when the train derails at the tunnel on the edge of the mountain town of Finse.

Tossed about in the wreck the wheelchair bound Hanne ends up with a baby on her lap and a ski pole stuck through her thigh. With no feeling below her waist Hanne was unaware of the injury.

Rescuers work efficiently to transport the guests to an almost empty resort hotel as a fierce winter storm, we would call it a blizzard in Saskatchewan, envelops the town.

With heavy snow and strong wind forecast for several days the travelers will be forced to sit out the storm at the hotel.

It is the first time I have read a form of country home mystery caused by a blizzard. It is a setting I can clearly identify with after 63 Saskatchewan winters. Holt writes with the conviction and experience of a person who has experienced a ferocious storm that makes even venturing outside dangerous.

Everyone who has grown up or lived in Saskatchewan can appreciate the fury of a blizzard. I have experienced days when you could barely see buildings across the road and, when it was dark, could see nothing.

Survival is dependent on shelter. You cannot stay alive in the open during a blizzard. The cruel wind will work its way through any clothing and any exposed flesh will start freezing in minutes.

Buildings are rarely threatened by blizzards. As long as you are inside with heat and electricity a blizzard can be an adventure.

For the train passengers the excitement of surviving the wreck and being storm stayed swiftly abates.

When Church minister, Cato Hammer, tries to encourage the passengers to be thankful he is basically shouted down.

Hanne is unpleasant. She refuses a room insisting she stay in her chair. She is abrupt with those wanting to talk to her. She is rude to anyone wanting to help her. Her prickly personality soon leaves her alone in the busy hotel.

Dr. Marcus Streng, who has treated her injury and confidently stated she will recover, ignores her barbs and visits with her. Since he is a dwarf Hanne can hardly think he is condescending towards her because of her disability.

When Cato is found murdered Hanne, a homicide officer in the Oslo police until she suffered the spinal injury that left her a paraplegic, hotel and local leaders look to her. She is uninterested in an investigation but cannot escape the compulsion of a lifetime to carefully observe those around her.

She is aided by Geir Rugholmen, a lawyer from Bergen who has come to his apartment to work on his kitchen for a week and aided in the rescue. He is clearly a good man but I did not find he caught my attention.

With the investigation almost a non-investigation and the sleuth an uninterested investigator the plot was slow moving until the last 100 pages.

There were few characters I really liked in the book. It was actually a long way into the book before I started to like Hanne. She had been so determined to be aloof. Gradually Holt won me over as Hanne slowly involves herself in the investigation. It should not matter that Hanne was not really likeable but her attitude affected me.

I was pleasantly surprised there was a conference at the end of the book of the type Nero Wolfe specialized in to uncover the murderer. Hanne is a worthy successor to Wolfe in publicly analyzing the evidence and identifying the killer.

Were The Lion’s Mouth not on the table beside me I am not sure if I would read another in the series. 1222 was an alright book but no more for me.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Choices of Pope Pius XII

Last week I put up a post on the choices of people in Germany and Western Europe during World War II. My post did not discuss the choices of Pope Pius XII.

During the war he chose not to issue public protests about Nazi actions against Europe’s Jews. Author Mark Riebling stated in the summer of 1942 the pope had written an article:

The pages contained the Vatican’s strongest protest yet against the persecution of Jewry. The pope planned to publish it in L’Osservatore that very evening. But Leiber urged His Holiness to remember the Dutch bishops’ pastoral letter. If it had cost the lives of 40,000 Jews, an even stronger protest, from even more prominent lips, could cost the lives of many times more. The pope would do better to keep a public silence and do whatever he could in secret. Pius handed the pages to Leiber, who thre them into the kitchen fireplace and watched them burn.
   
With that decision the pope became one of the millions of Europeans who chose to be silent about the Holocaust.

Among those who remained quiet with him were the leaders of the International Red Cross. Determined to maintain neutrality during the war they were silent on the Holocaust.

Red Cross visits to concentration camps were carefully managed by the Nazis and those conducting the examinations did not stray from the Nazi arrangements. They published reports of sanitized camps.

The Pope joined thousands across Europe who sought to protect and save Jews in private. Riebling states:

Over the same period (German occupation of Rome), 477 Jews had hidden in  Vatican City, and 4,238 received sanctuary in Roman monasteries and convents.

We look with admiration on the brave Berliners who kept 2,000 Jews known as “U-boats” alive through the war in the Nazi capital.

The pope did choose to become a part of the underground Resistance to the Nazis by working with the German military Resistance plotting against Hitler.

It remains striking to me that the Pope participated in conspiracies to kill Hitler. Should the leader of the Catholic Church be a part of the assassination of a Head of Government?

It means the Church is taking an active violent role in world politics.

Could Pope Pius XII have saved more Jewish lives had he publicly protested the genocidal actions of the Nazis towards the Jews of Europe?

I have come to doubt such actions would have had an impact. It was an ideological decision to embark on the Holocaust. The traditional methods of Anti-Semites in marginalizing Jewish people and seeking to exile them were inadequate for the Nazis. They were determined to render Europe Jew free.

They did not care if their persecution and execution of Jews damaged Germany’s economy and scientific research.

While eliminating Jews was the highest priority of the Nazis there was a public protest that saved Jewish lives. In 1942 the non-Jewish wives of Jewish men about to be deported to the camps in the East took to the streets of Berlin. The Nazis backed down and did not deport the husbands.

I believe it would have been different had the pope protested. The Nazis wanted to eradicate the Christian faith, especially the Catholic Church. I think public protests from Pius would have accelerated their efforts to destroy the Church.

While Nazis were reluctant to conduct reprisals against German women I do not think they would have hesitated with regard to the Church.

Most important the Pope had been unable to influence the Nazis in their actions in Poland against the Church. Three thousand Polish clergy and three million Christian Poles were killed.  When his efforts on behalf of Catholics were ignored I cannot see the Nazis reacting more positively to protests by him with regard to the Jews.

Popes, including Pius XII, had publicly protested against the persecutions conducted by Communist Russia to no avail.

Did the pope have a moral obligation to protest even if his words were futile is a different question? I am sure he thought about the choices he made every day for the rest of his life.