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, October 20, 2014

The Red Pole of Macau by Ian Hamilton

38. – 785.) The Red Pole of Macau by Ian Hamilton – Having just resolved an art related case, Ava Lee, Toronto based forensic accountant and debt recovery specialist is looking forward to some quiet time when she gets an urgent call from her half-brother, Michael, in Hong Kong who is deep financial trouble. 

Ava’s father, Marcus, has not settled for one wife. Following a tradition for wealthy Chinese buseinessmen he has openly married a second and a third wife. Each has provided him with children. He meets the financial needs of all of the wives and children. Only in inheritance do the children of the first marriage have an advantage. Most, if not all, the estate will go to them. 

Ava is a child from the second marriage. In earlier books the complex family relationship is discussed but does not really play a role in the series. 

In this book family obligations form the core of the plot. While Ava has no responsibility to her half-brother there is a familial duty to support each other that calls her to assist him. As well she can see severe financial consequences for her father unless she can resolve Michael’s issues.

Michael and his partner, Simon To, have a successful franchising business in China involving noodle shops and 7-11 stores. They are given an opportunity to expand to a new development to be built amidst the burgeoning casinos of Macau.  

Unfortunately, they do not conduct due diligence into the venture and find they have become involved with members of a triad. 

Initially Ava seeks to resolve Michael’s problems on her own. The impossibility of a personal resolution is swiftly made clear and she calls on Uncle who gently but clearly chides her for not seeking his assistance. Ava had thought to avoid further building on the network of favours and personal commitments that revolve around Uncle. It had been presumptious on her part.

Readers had known from other books that Uncle had some connections with a triad. This book sets out his deep participation. We also learn of the pyramid structure of a triad. 

Unlike earlier books the financial issues are relatively simple and do not need the expertise of a forensic accountant. 

The book becomes a rather conventional thriller in the last half of the book. The distinction is that it is a young woman who is the action hero. 

It was intriguing to see how Ava reaches out to former client, May Ling Wong, and the interaction with Michael’s fiancée and Simon’s wife. Chinese women are playing a far greater role in the financial affairs of families than previous generations. 

I enjoyed the book. It is easy to read. The story moves quickly. Ava is a more complicated personality than the average thriller hero. There is a ruthless element to her character. 

I do regret that Ava has moved from a skilled forensic accountant who must occasionally use her martial arts training to a predictable hero using violence to right wrongs. 

I hope the next book returns Ava to using her mental skills but I am not optimistic. I hope she is not becoming the average action figure, albeit with an unusual background and occupation. (Oct. 4/14)
Hamilton, Ian - (2012) - The Water Rat of Wanchai; (2013) - The Disciple of Las Vegas; (2014) - The Wild Beasts of Wuhan;

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Armand Gamache Series after 10 Mysteries (Part II)

In my last post I discussed the setting of the Armand Gamache series in the village of Three Pines and the memorable continuing characters, especially the residents of the village. This post will discuss plots in the series.

In the first four books unusual methods of murder were featured – a killing by bow and arrow, an electrocution at an outdoor curling game, a poisoning made to look like the victim was scared to death and a statute falling on the deceased.

From the first book artist creativity has been a periodic theme. In three of the books the focus has been on painting. It is a reflection of Penny's skill that she can powerfully explore the visual world of painting on the written page. I expect it is the challenge of describing artistic endeavours which are not literary that has meant relatively few mysteries explore the arts in any depth.
Penny delves into the psyches of painters - how and why artists paint - are at the heart of several plots. Penny's concentration on how artists create has made fascinating her exploration of the creative process in the midst of mysteries.
The emotions between creative personalities has produced great tension in several books.

In A Trick of the Light and in The Long Way Home the effects of the success of Clara Morrow as a painter are explored.

The series has not been limited to painters. In A Beautiful Mystery the theme involves choral music, more specifically, monks performing Gregorian chants.
Unlike many authors Penny has created strong books in which she placed some of her mysteries outside Three Pines

Bury Me Dead, my favourite of the series. sees Gamache is in Quebec City, recovering from a dreadful disaster which had devastated his team. Reading about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham at the library of the Literary and History Society of Quebec he becomes involved in a trio of mysteries. They involve a historic mystery concerning the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, a death in the library and the re-investigation of a case just solved at Three Pines.

The series has not been perfect. There have been issues for me in some of the books.
The fifth in the series, The Brutal Telling, was the first to cause me some frustration when Penny created a hermit supposedly unknown to the village but living within a 20 minute walk. While I liked the story the hermit’s supposedly secret existence strained credibility for someone who grew up in a rural area.
In A Beautiful Mystery I was unhappy with, what I perceived as an unfair attitude about the Catholic Church and monastic life. While that is a matter of personal reaction I was dismayed that Penny, for the second time, created a situation of  implausible "invisibility". A secret monastery in Quebec was not credible.

I found the plot line in later books with regard to the conflict between Gamache and Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur distracting from the mysteries.

In particular, in How the Light Gets In, I thought the contest between Gamache and Francoeur detracted from a wonderful mystery involving the death of a quintuplet who was the last of a famous Quebec set of quints.

I thought Penny has made a brilliant decision to have Gamache retire and move to Three Pines with Reine Marie. She has opened up a new set of mystery opportunities. I hope Reine Marie will play a greater role in the series.

Penny has also in The Long Way Home ventured into a non-conventional format with the book about the search for a missing character, Peter Morrow.

The Armand Gamache (I leave out Chief Inspector now that he has retired) mysteries are an excellent series. After 10 books I remain excited to read the next book. I hope to keep returning to Three Pines for years to come.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Armand Gamache Series after 10 Mysteries (Part I)

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny is the 10th book in the Armand Gamache series. It has been one of my favourite mystery series since I read the first book, Still Life, in December of 2005. In this post and my next post I will discuss the series. This post will be about setting and characters. The next post will discuss plots.

I was captured in the first book by the postcard perfect village of Three Pines in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. In Three Pines Penny created a setting for the series that is beautiful and memorable. Any mystery reader who has read the series need only hear the words Three Pines to instantly recall the captivating community.

I like that the houses are individual. There is none of the current Canadian mania for identical houses in identical colours block after block.

Books have been set in the village in every season. Weather affects villages more than cities. In Canada it can mean coping with the weather in winter. Three Pines is inviting all four seasons of the year.

Penny peopled the village with memorable characters. Clara and Peter Morrow are artists with a challenging marriage. Ruth Zardo is an elderly poet who has won a Canadian Governor General’s Award for her poetry (one of the top literary awards in Canada) and has the sharpest tongue in town. Myrna Landers is a large lesbian woman who is a retired psychologist running a used bookstore. Gabri and Olivier are a gay couple who jointly own a bistro and a B & B.

Of the group Clara, who Penny has acknowledged is patterned after the author, has transformed herself from a struggling artist, very much the passive member of a marriage, to an independent woman with world recognition of her talent.

As the series has progressed I look forward to the interaction between the village residents. They are interesting people who occasionally challenge a reader. You wish you could join them at the bistro for a glass of wine and some nuts for snacking sitting before the crackling fireplace.

Armand Gamache is a skilled investigator who has risen to be Chief Inspector of Homicide for the Quebec Surete. While some find him too perfect I have appreciated that he is a thoughtful man who works his way through investigations. Penny has described him as the man she would want to marry saying that, with the amount of time she as an author would spend with her sleuth, that she wanted a man who could be her spouse.

Best of all Gamache has a loving wife, Reine Marie, who has a good job, librarian, and two adult children with whom he has a good relationship. I think it is just as challenging to create a sleuth who has a normal lifestyle as the lonely angst ridden characters favoured in many series.

On his team Jean Guy Beauvoir is his earnest dedicated subordinate. His personal life has not gone well in the early books but he, once again rare in mysteries, finds love later in the series.

For a time Gamache and Beauvoir had a strained relationship over a disastrous incident involving Canadian born terrorists. I did not really understand the estrangement but was glad to see them resolve their issues.

Detective Yvette Nichols was a jarring discordant presence on Gamache’s team. She challenged him and irritated the other detectives. The result was a memorable, if annoying, character.

Gamache and Reine Marie are comfortable with their ages and look forward to their time together after retirement. With the series continuing after they have retired to Three Pines new story opportunities will arise.

I appreciate that the setting is not some generic North American place with equally generic people. Three Pines is clearly set in rural Quebec and I recognize the characters as Canadians.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

39. – 786.) The Long Way Home by Louise Penny – The 10th mystery featuring Armand Gamache took me back to earlier books in the series when I could unreservedly love a new Gamache msytery.

(A warning to readers - a review of this book cannot help but be at least a partial spoiler of the previous book, How the Light Gets In, because of the major events that took place at the end of that book and are reflected in this book.)

Armand and Reine-Marie have both retired. They have moved to Three Pines to live among the friends made during earlier investigations amidst the beauty of the lovely Quebec countryside.

Armand is gradually unwinding. The tension from being the being the head of the provincial homicide unit is ebbing. The turmoil from the crises he endured and the mistakes he has made is gradually easing.

Physically he has almost fully recovered from the gunshot wound he suffered in How the Light Gets In.

The Gamaches have fitted easily into the life of the village. On Friday nights their neighbours go to the Gamache home bearing food to share at a barbecue.

Most days either a breakfast or a lunch is enjoyed at the bistro of Gabri and Olivier.

Coffee or a drink are savoured without work pressing upon them.

Each summer morning Armand walks up the hill overlooking the village and sits on a bench and reads a few pages of poetry but never beyond a bookmark in his slim volume.

Clara Morrow has taken to joining him on the bench. Her conversation is superficial. Something is causing her great distress. Eventually it spills out.

She had asked her husband, Peter, to leave a year ago and stay away for a year. He was to return after the year and they would decide whether to resume life together. She had a meal ready the night he was to return but Peter did not come and has not been in contact and the uncertainty is more than she can endure. What has happened to Peter? She cannot believe he would ignore his commitment to come back.

Clara wants Armand to help her, not find out for her, what has happened to Peter. In a beautifully written exchange Penny says:

“You like Peter,” she finally said. “But I love him. Laugh if you want but it makes a difference. I’ll be able to find him.”

“If love was compass enough,” said Armand quietly, “there would be no missing children.”

Clara persists. His assistance is welcome but only if he will agree to her being in charge of the search. After a lifetime of being in command Armand hesitates and then agrees.

It is Reine-Marie who is left with a silent ache. She has finally relaxed for Armand is no longer in danger. No more nights wondering if he will come home. The past she had thought behind them returns with a new investigation that has unknown risks.

Armand’s former aide, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, now his son-in-law joins Armand and Clara. Used bookstore owner and psychologist, Myrna Landers, rounds out the seekers.

The search will take them into what is at the core of an artist. Peter is talented but Clara is brilliant. He had technical skill. She had magic. Clara sent him away when she realized he was jealous of her.

It is immediately clear Peter set out on a quest to become an artist not just remain a technician. Following Peter’s path is difficult and takes the investigators and readers on a journey to unexpected and amazing places.

What makes the book special is its exploration of what makes an artist great and the source of inspiration. There is a fascinating examination of an artist’s muse. Poet and resident curmudgeon, Ruth Zardo, explains the genesis of a poem through a quote from Robert Frost:

A poem begins as a lump in the throat. A sense of wrong. A homesickness, a lovesickness.

By the way it is an entertaining mystery. (Oct. 7/14)
Penny, Louise – (2005) - Still Life; (2006) - Dead Cold (Tied for 3rd Best fiction of 2006); (2007) - The Cruelest Month; (2009) - The Murder Stone (Tied for 4th Best fiction of 2009); (2010) - The Brutal Telling; (2011) - Bury Your Dead (Best Fiction of 2011); (2011) - A Trick of the Light; (2012) - The Beautiful Mystery (Part I) and The Beautiful Mystery (Part II); (2013) - "P" is for Louise Penny - Movie Producer and Review of the Movie Still Life; (2013) - How the Light Gets In and Comparing with The Gifted

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why Georges Picquart Fought for Alfred Dreyfus

Georges Picquart
In my last post, a review of An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris, I touched upon the pivotal role of Colonel Georges Picquart in reversing the wrongful conviction of Alfred Dreyfus.

In that review I spoke of Picquart as a genuine man of honour who refused to countenance injustice.

David B. Green reviewed the book in Haaretz. In his review he discusses why Picquart would not give up his quest to clear Dreyfus and provides a quote from an interview with Robert Harris:

Picquart acted out of duty, not out of any special sympathy for Dreyfus. This complexity and ambivalence make him an inherently fascinating character. Harris is convinced that, “overall, what Picquart felt was loyalty to the law, to rationality, and duty, and above all, justice.” In the final analysis, he concludes, “I don’t think he could have lived with himself if he didn’t do something.”

Going back over 100 years, Florence Earle Coates in a poem, Picquart, written in 1902 gave her perspective on his actions:

For love of justice and for love of truth—
Aye, 't was for these, for these he put aside
Place and preferment, fortune and the pride
Of fair renown; the friends he prized, in sooth,
All the rewards of an illustrious youth,
And set his strength against a swollen tide,
And gave his spirit to be crucified—
For love of justice and for love of truth.

Keeper of the abiding scroll of fame,
Lo! we intrust to thee a hero's name!
Life, like a restless river, hurrying by,
Bears us so swiftly on, we may forget
The name to which we owe so deep a debt;
But guard it thou, nor suffer it to die!

An Officer and a Spy further made clear that Picquart valued the security of his nation above the "honour" of the army.

Yet it was his personal sense of integrity that drove him to resist the hierarchy of the army though the personal consequences were extreme. He was wrongfully convicted, dismissed from the Army and ostracized by his former comrades. Fortunately, when Dreyfus was cleared Picquart was also restored. In one of the more startling developments he was actually made Minister of War.

I do not know the source of his integrity. He never wrote a memoir.

Many people profess integrity but fail when tested. Picquart met the challenge. He told the Dreyfus family that they need not thank him as he had obeyed his conscience.

It happens that Picquart died 100 years ago on January 19, 1914. Many at that time thought his memory would be immortal. In Pierre Stutin's review of the book on the affairedreyfus.com he quotes Paul Desachy:

    "When events will have receded into the distant past, when, one
     by one, all the major players will have been laid down in their
     graves, poets and novelists will keep them alive in the memory
     of men. The glory of France will be reflected in these evocations
     of a tragic page. Heroes are revealed by crises of conscience.
     Our generation will have provided a mutitude of them, and, first
     among them, the greatest of them all, because he was a soldier –
     o military servitude ! – Georges Picquart.”

Were it not for An Officer and a Spy few would have remembered, let alone honoured, the 100th anniversary of Picquart's death.

His example should remain an inspiration to never let the "honour" of an institution and its leadership take precedence over truth. There is no honour in protecting and perpetuating a lie.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris – A retelling of the Dreyfus Affair, a huge scandal, which occurred at the end of the 19th Century in France. It was a powerful example, of which many have subsequently occurred, of an unsuccessful coverup being a more important story than the original actions under investigation.

What makes the book new is the story being told through Georges Picquart, a stalwart French officer whose family left Alsace after France lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. In the mid-1990’s he is an ambitious 40 year old major, a career officer, looking to become a general.

While devoted to the army he is not a sycophant. Ordered to observe and report on the Drefyus trial he questions the strength of the case. Special measures are undertaken by the army through provision of a secret dossier to the court martial court to ensure conviction. Picquart delivers the file to the judges. How the frame-up unravels provides the plot.

As the historical story is well known I will not venture into details. What I want to discuss is the conduct of the legal proceedings.

The military of nations around the world have zealously maintained separate judicial systems to try soldiers, sailors and air force personnel charged with offences. As with most organizations they believe they can best understand the evidence and the procedures involved in the cases. Normally military cases are swifter to reach trials than civil proceedings. While militaries are never going to cede jurisdiction for military justice to civil courts the Dreyfus Affair shows the weaknesses when a justice system is not independent.

In France of the late 19th Century courts martial were public events. Having trials open to the public is one of the fundamental guarantees that justice will be done as it is seen to be done.

I appreciate some evidence in proceedings against alleged spies must remain confidential form the public but, if it cannot be tested by review and questioning from counsel for the defence, it is prone to error.

With Dreyfus, the secret file neither Dreyfus nor his lawyer saw at his trial, contained the pivotal evidence. At the same time it proved totally unreliable when eventually it was carefully scrutinized.

Once the army concluded its “honour” would be besmirched if Dreyfus was acquitted all sense of justice was lost. It is hard to admit mistakes. It is worse in affairs of national security to seek a scapegoat.

Had that file been subject to the same rigorous scrutiny that other evidence received it would have been clear that there was a spy in the French army who was not Dreyfus. Even a basic investigation would have revealed it was “Count” (the title is claimed not real) Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy.

Once a wrongful conviction had been obtained the army sought to cover up its misdeeds.

Reviews and re-trials were within the French military systems. The command of the French army committed itself to a lie to try to maintain its “honour” for a wrongful conviction and cover-up. No military judicial system was going to find Dreyfus not guilty.

When the case was first reviewed in civil courts they were caught by the principle that appellate courts must accept findings of facts by lower courts if there is some evidence to support them.

With military judges finding facts against Dreyfus appeals were doomed.

Yet Picquart, who never liked Dreyfus and had little regard for Jews, and other Dreyfusards, most famously Emile Zola, and dedicated lawyers created a record that ultimately freed Dreyfus when set out in French parliamentary proceedings.

Harris casts Picquart in the role of reluctant sleuth who, while in command of the French “Statistical Section” (Secret Service), to his surprise and dismay determines there was a miscarriage of justice. Picquart is a genuine man of honour who is not prepared to acquiesce to injustice. Equally important he places the security of the nation, finding the real spy, above the “honour” of the army.

In an earlier non-fiction book, Selling Hitler, Harris vividly told the story of how fake Hitler diaries were accepted as genuine because Stern magazine and historians wanted them to be real.

In An Officer and a Gentleman he sets out how the French Army and its judicial system accepted forged and other undependable evidence as it wanted Dreyfus, a Jew, to be the spy.

Harris has written an excellent book. He has a talent for turning historic events into good fiction. An Officer and a Spy reminds me of how he created a good book, Enigma, on the British breaking of German codes during WW II.

Based on my previous reading of a non-fiction account of the Dreyfus Affair I believe and appreciate that Harris was factual in his exploration of the events set out in An Officer and a Spy. He accepts the facts are strong enough on their own rather than trying to sensationalize them further in his retelling. An Officer and a Spy is a very good book. (Sept. 30/14)

Friday, October 3, 2014

New to Me Authors for July to September of 2014

While I thought there were not a lot of new authors for me for the third quarter of the year the total of 7 is actually higher than usual. What made the quarter different was the exceptional quality.

My new authors in chronological order are:

1.) Billy Strobe by John Martel;

2.) The Devil’s Making by Seán Haldane;

3.) Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson;

4.) The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout;

5.) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach;

6.) The Collini Case by Ferdinand Von Schirach; and,

7.) Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin.

Of the group there were 3 books featuring lawyers – Billy Strobe, Once We Were Brothers and The Collini Case - mainly because I was reading the shortlist for the 2014 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

The Devil’s Making was the winner of the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Canadian Mystery Novel.

What made the quarter special were the last three books I read. Each was a great book and excellent in a different way which makes my choice for the best of the quarter difficult.

The Art of Fielding explored the human psyche and relationships through the experiences of a young baseball shortstop, Henry Skrimshander, at a small American university in Wisconsin.

The Collini Case dealt with the issues behind a brutal murder in contemporary Germany that took the reader back to WW II and the consequences of the war.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was an evocative look at rural Mississippi. It delved deep into the relationship between police officer, Silas “32” Jones, and garage owner, Larry Ott. It set out how lives can be defined by community assumptions and prejudices.

After reflection I choose The Art of Fielding. I expect I am influenced by my love of the baseball. I do expect the book to be known as a modern baseball classic. It is a powerful, almost mythic, book using baseball to frame the plot.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Myself and Stalin

A couple of days ago Sharon and I were in Sochi, Russia. On our whole cruise I was most interested in going ashore in Sochi as there was a tour that took in Stalin’s summer dacha.

Early last decade I read a biography of Stalin. At that time my personal reviews were much shorter. I wrote:

32. - 122.) Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky – An excellent biography which penetrates the most ruthless man in the history of the world. From his humble origins in Georgia to unquestioned authority as the new “tsar” the book clearly explains his actions and motivations. As he rose he carefully watched the actions of other leaders. “Bit by bit, we learn” was the chilling quote that explained how Stalin developed the principle that any action was permitted as he pursued the “Great Dream” of socialist world domination. No man has brought about the deaths of more people. Compassion was foreign to Stalin. (Oct. 21/02)

He was also a poet and a writer.

The dacha was a vivid historic experience. It is a deep green. The guide said Stalin was worried about it being easily visible from the air and vulnerable to being bombed.

It is set in a lovely location amid the pines above Sochi and looks out over the Black Sea.

Our guide said you could book his bedroom as the dacha is part of a hotel. I am not sure that room is available but I read online that there are 18 rooms you can book to stay in overnight for about $450.00 per night with meals included in the room rate. I think there are too many ghosts haunting the dacha for me to want to stay there.

In the restored or preserved rooms there is fine woodwork. The keyhole to his private chambers is covered on both sides so no one could take a peek.

There is a room with a full size snooker table. Because of his withered left hand a special extra weighted cue was made for Stalin. It was passed around for us to balance with a regular cue. It was much heavier.

There is a small but deep indoor oval pool beside his bedroom.

Most interesting was the area where his desk is located. It is startling to walk into the room and encounter a life size wax statute of him sitting behind the desk. (He was 5' 4".) A slight chill went through me as I contemplated him sitting at this desk at night going through the lists prepared for him and checking off who lived and died.

We were allowed to have a photo taken beside Stalin. Sharon took the above photo of myself and Stalin. I felt very much a part of history.
Others made funny gestures for their photos. Considering who Stalin was and what he did those gestures felt disrespectful to the millions of his victims.