About Me

My Photo
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.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Cold Mourning by Brenda Chapman

Cold Mourning by Brenda Chapman – It is but a few days before Christmas when Kala Stonechild arrives in Ottawa after a long drive from northwestern Ontario. She has left the North to join the Ottawa City Police. Staff Sergeant Jacques Rouleau is her superior.

Rouleau leads a small group that has been created from Major Crimes with an ill-defined role within the department.

The unit is assigned to investigate the murder of prominent Ottawa businessman, Tom Underwood. He has frozen to death after being drugged and dumped into the trunk of his car. He had come to and attempted to claw his way out of the trunk but succumbed to the cold. It is a vicious form of murder that is all too realistic to Canadians. (Whatever verb of reaction I think of appears a pun. I had thought of the murder sending a “chill” through me or “shivers” up my spine.)

Kala is the first female indigenous sleuth in my reading of Canadian crime fiction. She is a slim, good looking woman. Her difficult past, including foster homes, has left her reserved.

She misses the North:

They were deep in the new subdivision named Chapman Mills on Haileybury Street. The houses were so close together, people had to walk single file to get between them. It was hard to believe anyone liked living in a place where they couldn’t see the stars at night.

Rouleau is divorced and almost a generation older. He is on good terms with his ex-wife. He speaks to Kala about his life:

“I had my chance. If I could pass on any advice, it would not to let the job take over. You can lose too much.” He smiled wryly although his eyes were sad. She found herself liking him at that moment, a wounded man who didn’t wallow in it.

Would that more crime fiction sleuths “didn’t wallow”.

The investigation proceeds through Christmas with the officers being human. They work but not obsessively and do take time off for the holiday.

Underwood appears to have been ready to make some major changes in his life providing a large pool of suspects. Both business associates and family members have motives for murder.

While doing her duty in the murder investigation, Kala has actually come to Ottawa to search for her cousin, Rose, who has disappeared from her life. Kala is anxious to find Rose.

Beyond the murder being quintessentially Canadian the weather plays a constant role. Canadians are always conscious of winter weather. Whether it is the special crunch to the snow of real cold or the extra time needed to get vehicles going and warmed up Chapman seamlessly works weather into the story.

The author also effectively uses Ottawa and area geography. There are many walking trails around the three rivers that flow through the city. Cross country skiing and hiking is a short distance away in Quebec.

It is a solid, not spectacular, police procedural.

I appreciated that Kala and Rouleau neither leap into bed together at the beginning nor the middle nor the end of the book. It was nice to read a book where a woman and a man have a solid professional relationship and can spend time together without sexual involvement. I expect there will be more books in the series. How their relationship progresses will be interesting. Should it become personal it will be more credible for having taken time to develop.

Cold Mourning is one of the five books on the shortlist for the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Mystery Novel in Canada. I am going to work my way through the five books as I did last year. I wanted to complete them before next week’s awards but it will be into June before I am done the shortlist. (May 21/15)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Should We Ask "Why" About Serial Killers?

David Levien, in his book Signature Kill, spends as much time within the twisted mind of the serial killer as he does inside the mind of the sleuth, Frank Behr. Part of the exploration of the killer is “why” he tortured and killed and dismembered and created sculptures of the body parts.

In my last post I quoted the killer’s reaction to seeing crime scene photos of his most recent creation, I cannot call it a work of art:

His works are his prayers, his testament to his own godliness and immortality, and that comes through.

I had kept reading a book which was repelling me with the detailed scenes of violence and torture partly because I wanted to see what “why” Levien could come up with for a serial killer.

After finishing the book I reflected on whether we should ask “why” horrific acts are committed.

I went back to my copy of Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. In the book, which is subtitled The Search for the Origins of His Evil, the author explores the efforts of 20 different biographers of Hitler to explain his murderous behaviour. 

Claude Lanzmann, the maker of the epic film, Shoah, has passionately argued the world must not ask “why”. Rosenbaum quotes Lanzmann:

And if you start to explain and to answer the question of Why you are led, whether you want it or not, to justification. The question as such shows its own obscenity: Why are the Jews being killed. Because there is no answer to the question of “why.” Because, in other words, any answer begins inevitably to legitimize, to make “understandable” that process.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Dr. Louis Micheels, a Holocaust survivor has argued there has to be a “why”:

“….. However, in the civilized world to which so few of us, including Primo Levi, returned, there should be – sa soll ein warum sein. Without an attempt, no matter how difficult and complex, at understanding, that very world, where truth is most important, could be lost again.”    

“Da soll ein warum sein”: There must be a why.

In Signature Kill the killer has been brutally treated as a youth. It is common to look to a killer’s cruel upbringing in explaining “why”. Yet only the tiniest fraction of abused youth become serial killers.

In Explaining Hitler, Rosenbaum takes that approach back to its most extreme in the attempted analysis of a baby photo of Hitler:

We could, considering what we know of what became of him, “backshadow” (the useful term coined by the scholar Michael Andre Bernstein to characterize this dubious but hard-to-resist habit of thought) into his dark, questioning eyes, into those lips pursed into what looks like a pout or a frown, a premonitory, melancholy, even a haunted and hurt expression. We could project upon that impressionable baby face the stirrings of some deep emotional disturbance in embryo. But we could just as easily see there not incipient demonism but a kind of gentleness and sensitivity. We could just as easily predict this child would turn out to be Albert Schweitzer.

The photo is at the top of this post.

In my work as a lawyer I spend a lot of time asking people “why”. Often their explanations do not make sense to me. I came to realize many years ago that when we ask “why” we are looking for a logical answer. Too often the answer is illogical. It makes sense to the person involved but is not logical. I have come to sum up that experience by telling clients “I cannot explain what does not make sense”. I say it every week at the office. I have learned to accept people commit illogical actions.

I will continue to ask “why” in real life and to look for explanations of “why” in crime fiction as I have an inherent desire to know “why” whether logical or illogical.
****
Levien, David - (2015) - Signature Kill and Reaction, Not Review, to Signature Kill

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Reaction, Not Review, to Signature Kill by David Levien


When I review a book for the blog I try to think through what I liked and disliked about the book. I analyze the book. My last post was such a review of Signature Kill by David Levien. This post is my reaction to the book.

I almost did not finish Signature Kill. The graphic violence quotient far exceeded my tolerance level. For potential readers of the book the balance of this post is bound to contain spoilers.

What stopped me in the midst of reading one page was the description by the killer, when a boy, of dousing a robin chick with lighter fluid and setting the bird alight and watching the bird’s body break down into “a loose gelatinous ball”.

Later the killer, having dismembered a woman he killed, assembles a macabre tableau of body parts:

Her head was pointed in the opposite direction it was meant to. Facing away from him, it sat on top of the pile. The base of her skull, covered by lank blonde hair with dark ginger streaks, rested directly on the shoulders of the torso, while the neck was missing altogether. Then after another instant, Behr located it, a cylinder, removed from its points of attachment, the severed spinal column a white ring centered by pink marrow, ….

I will end the quote there. When I reached that point in the passage I thought about skipping the reading of the rest of the description of the scene. I decided I either keep reading the book in whole or stop altogether. I went ahead and the description continued in graphic detail.

Because Levien is a good writer the violent images are vivid and overwhelming.

While sickened by the passages of torture and killing I still kept reading Signature Kill.

Having started a book I feel a general obligation to finish reading the book, especially when, as here the publisher has given me a copy.

Another part of me was curious to see how Levien sought to have the killer explain his actions.

The killer, on viewing photos of the above creation:

His works are his prayers, his testament to his own godliness and immortality, and that comes through.

The explanation left me reflecting on “why” which I will pursue in my next post.

My visceral reaction to the book was one of pain. The violent scenes overpowered the story.

I do not read crime fiction to be left sickened by the reading experience. I have enough reading at the office of the cruelties men and women inflict upon each other.

At the big thrill blog Levien discusses writing the book:

“When I was in the thick of it, researching and writing for many hours a day, the work became a very dark place. I felt a deep sense of disquiet. I wouldn’t say I had nightmares, but my dreams became infected by graphic imagery and a sense of heavy foreboding. I stayed in there for a long time, and when the book was finally written, it was a relief to no longer have an excavation of the mind of a depraved killer on my to-do list.”

I agree the book “became a very dark place”.

I appear to be in a minority with regard to the graphic content. At Goodreads I looked at several reviews and but a few mentioned the extreme violence and none were put off by the descriptions. I do not need detailed frequent depictions of torture and violence, whether to men or to women, to grasp a serial killer is monstrous.

I do not expect I will force myself to continue to read a comparable book in the future.
****
Levien, David - (2015) - Signature Kill

Friday, May 15, 2015

Signature Kill by David Levien

17. - 814.) Signature Kill by David Levien – Frank Behr, former Indianapolis police officer and now a private detective, has no pending cases. He is depressed. He has a 6 month old son, Trevor, from a relationship with Susan that continues fitfully but not with them residing together. He has not yet completed recovery from a badly damaged clavicle caused by a shotgun blast.

Driving through the city he sees a billboard for a missing young woman, Kendra Gibbons. Her family is offering a reward of $100,000. With no other work Behr visits her mother and decides to pursue the case. She gives him abit of information but it looks to be a quixotic quest. There are no real leads.

He has little money but decides to proceed even though he must finance the investigation on his own.

At the same time an unnamed man is stalking a young woman he calls Cinnamon because of her hair. Levien opens his description of the man with:

     It's happening again ....

     The words come from a place deep within hi. He feels
     that stuff down there, bubbling and stirring, as the thing
     inside him that is other looks to push up and outward. He 
     has to take it for a ride.

     It's happening again and before long the red curtain will
     come down once more .... Soon.
 
As Gibbons was working as a prostitute Behr looks for some co-workers. At one of the interviews he is challenged by a pimp. Behr, a powerful man at 6’6” and 240 pounds, wins the fight and establishes his presence.

While he is looking at slender leads Cinnamon is kidnapped. The unnamed man is a serial killer with an obsession for blonde women.

Through the book Levien moves back and forth between Behr and the serial killer.  He delves into the minds of both men.

Behr is a relentless investigator.

The killer is evil, clever and vicious.

It is not a book for readers put off by gory descriptions of torture and death. All are credible given the mind of the killer. They are among the most graphic I have ever read.

Behr is not a desperately dysfunctional sleuth. He relates well to his son and does spend time taking care of him. Behr and Susan have a good relationship though somewhat apart.

The killer has as twisted a mind as any character I have read. He is in the midst of a long term marriage and has a good job. At the same time his mind is preoccupied with capturing, killing and dismembering blonde women.

Through solid work Behr comes to realize there is a serial killer in Indianapolis.

With the aid of an expert, Lisa Mistretta, he comes to see the killer as a signature killer. I had not seen that phrase before this work. Behr defines a signature killer:

     "Yeah. Well, a signature killer, more accurately, engaged
     in serial predation. A serial killer is two or more, by any
     means. But we use the term 'signature' because even
     though the MO can change from crime to crime, due to
     the specific and random circumstances of each act, the
     key element of the crime that gives the killer the
     satisfaction is the same even when the little details
     present slightly differently. There can also be an
     evolution with these guys - a slowly changing style. But
     that signature element stays the same. That's what you
     intuited in these cases."
 
Behr is obsessive in his own way. He is utterly consumed by the search. In a frightening passage he leaves his son alone in his car to pursue a lead. It is an irresponsible, even dangerous act, that is convincing given Behr's nature.

I will not forget the killer. He is a monster. His actions and mind are believable. He functions all too well in the world. No one suspects he is a killer.

Levien has written well about a serial killer and the investigator hunting him. Readers who like to read about serial killers will find it a strong book. While this post is my analysis of the book my next post will be my reaction to the book.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

TheatreFest 2015 in Melfort

Three weeks ago Sharon and I spent a lovely week watching live theatre in Melfort. It was TheatreFest 2015 for Saskatchewan. TheatreFest is one of two provincial festivals for live theatre.

With the broad spaces and sparse population of Saskatchewan there is little professional theatre outside the major cities of Regina and Saskatoon.

For residents who love live theatre in rural Saskatchewan the void is filled by amateur community theatre. In Melfort the local group is called MAD (Melfort Amateur Dramatics) on Main (they have a home in a building they own on Main Street). MAD celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. While Sharon and I find our lives too busy at this time to be a part of MAD we enjoy attending their productions. They put on 3-4 shows a year. Their website is http://melfortamateurdramatics.weebly.com/.

Theatre Saskatchewan holds a pair of annual competitions that draw community theatre groups to a specific community. Melfort hosted the full length play festival this year. There were 7 plays on 7 consecutive nights. Six different theatre groups participated.

The commitment of the theatre companies to performing is reflected in the distances they traveled to reach Melfort. The closest drove 100 km. Three came from small cities about 300 km away from Melfort and the furthest had a 400 km trip. All the distances are one way.

Sharon and I were able to attend 6 of the 7 plays:

1.) Hat Tricks by MAD;

2.) Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve adapted by David Birney by the Crocus 80 Theatre of Weyburn;

3.) Drinking Alone by the Battlefords Community Players;

4.) The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery by the Paper Bag Players of Yorkton;

5.) The Mighty Carlins by Smoke Screen Productions of Prince Albert; and,

6.) Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (adapted by Jennifer Lyn Squires) by the Regina Little Theatre

One group had to drop out so MAD had a second production, Men Fake Foreplay. Sharon and I had already seen it so we took one night off from the theatre. (It is a fascinating one man play that explores contemporary mores concerning male and female relationships.)

None of the plays was a drama. Each had a major comedic component. The Farndale play was a farce set in England.

There is a professional adjudicator at each TheatreFest who provides a brief critique after each show and then a 2 hour session the following morning to which everyone was welcome. We were able to go to one of the morning adjudications and it was fascinating to see the adjudicator make comments and offer suggestions to improve the show. Two or three scenes would be specifically worked upon to see how they could have been performed differently.

The CJVR Performing Arts Theatre in our local community centre, the Kerry Vickar Centre, was a perfect venue. It was just the right size for the crowds and the plays.

Sharon and I invited the adjudicator, Ian Nelson, on the Tuesday to come with us for a Rotary luncheon. Ian has a huge resume. He had a career as a university librarian. He has acted in over 100 productions and directed over 100 plays and shows. He is a playwright and in demand as an adjudicator. As if the above was not enough he does it all in English and French.

While each group was striving to be the best there was a wonderful camaraderie and support of the other theatre companies present.

I am proud to say the adjudicator picked the same play for the best of TheatreFest as I had chosen. It was the The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery. No marque was ever going to hold that title.

The play saw the local women’s Guild putting on a murder mystery and everything going wrong. It was so much fun to watch the antics.

Saskatchewan prides itself on being an egalitarian society where entertainment must often be locally created rather than professionally supplied. TheatreFest was a great example. The week reminded me how much joy we can make for ourselves. 

By the end of the week Sharon and I were worn right out. I could say it was because of working each day and going to the theatre each night. However, honesty compels me to acknowledge it was going to six after parties and drinking and eating well into the night. I do not regret a minute of sleep lost from time spent at TheatreFest.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

12 Rose Street by Gail Bowen

16. - 813.) 12 Rose Street by Gail Bowen – Joanne Kilbourn returns to her political roots in the 15th book of the series. Her husband, Zack Shreeve, is running for mayor of Regina and is in an uphill battle against the incumbent mayor, Scott Ridgeway, a favourite of the developers and business community.
 
In the first book of the series Joanne had been at a summer political rally for Andy Boychuk, a former Premier of Saskatchewan, when he is poisoned. Her deceased husband had been a cabinet minister. While the provincial party is never exactly stated Joanne is well left of centre in her politics. She had been an eager and active participant in provincial politics including elections. 

Now Zack has chosen her to be his campaign manager and she is savouring the chance to challenge the conservative establishment a generation after Boychuk’s death. 

In an effort to build momentum a slate of “progressive” candidates for City Council has been assembled. Leading this group is Brock Poitras, the aboriginal gay former Saskatchewan Roughrider player (Canadian football), who has been working with Zack on community development. 

Joanne draws in her old political mentor and ex-Premier, Howard Dowhanuik. Long retired and living a quiet life Howard is energized by being involved again in an election. 

The campaign is fiercely contested. It turns nasty as the book opens with a threat of child abduction at a social event for Zack’s campaign. The information comes from an unlikely source. Cronus, a former criminal client of Zack, is a slumlord operating by the principle of “maximum income, minimum maintenance”. He is also fond of rough sex with consensual partners. 

Joanne pleads with Cronus to do anything he can to prevent an abduction. He sends a text message to an unknown recipient from his phone. It is composed of a few numbers and an attached photo of himself standing between Zack and Brock. No child is taken. 

A couple of days later Cronus is brutally murdered. In her usual quiet way Joanne tries to figure out what happened. 

As the bitter campaign continues attack ads are run on T.V. against Zack. They feature Zack and former criminal clients who were acquitted at trial and then committed further crimes. (For American readers think of Michael Dukakis and Willie Horton.)  

Joanne knows Zack cannot maintain a lofty indifference to the attacks. With the aid of a skilled hired political operative she counter-attacks. Joanne has an aggressive aspect to her personality seldom seen in the series. She is fierce in defending Zack and embraces going on the offensive. 

As a part of the campaign battles Joanne and her family face a stunning revelation that left me shocked for a moment. It is credible and leaves them reeling. How Joanne copes shows the depths of her character. Few authors can bring forward a compelling personal story 15 books into the series that deeply affects each of the major characters and how they view their lives over the past 25 years. 

While Joanne is deeply involved in the election there is time in the story, as in real life, for personal life. One of her best friends is coping with the death of a daughter at 38 from pancreatic cancer. 

I always admire how Gail works into every book a development in the lives of Joanne’s family that shows how children and grandchildren are maturing in their lives. In 12 Rose Street it is Joanne’s step-daughterTaylor, approaching 16, who has begun a dating relationship with 18 year old Declan. Gail delicately handles the emotions of first love. 

12 Rose Street does focus on Joanne. The previous book, The Gifted, concentrated on the artistically gifted Taylor. This book is about Joanne with Zack having a major role. 

Adding to the story are social issues. Few mysteries address the dynamics of the interactions between the well intentioned well-to-do (Joanne and Zack) and the desperately poor and struggling residents of a rough neighbourhood. 

12 Rose Street is a good mystery with a striking personal revelation and a challenging look at important social issues. Last, but not least the election has set up further story lines for future books. Joanne Kilbourn is never going to spend her retirement sitting at home in her rocking chair. The series remains strong. (Apr. 30/15)
****
Bowen, Gail – 2011 Questions and Answers with Gail; 2011 Suggestions for Gail on losing court cases; The author's website is http://www.gailbowen.com/ - (2011) Deadly Appearances; (2013) Murder at the Mendel; The Wandering Soul Murders (Not reviewed); A Colder Kind of Death (Not reviewed); A Killing Spring (Not reviewed); Verdict in Blood (Not reviewed); (2000) - Burying Ariel (Second best fiction of 2000); (2002) - The Glass Coffin; (2004) - The Last Good Day; (2007) – The Endless Knot (Second Best Fiction of 2007); (2008) - The Brutal Heart; (2010) - The Nesting Dolls; (2012) - "B" is for Gail Bowen; (2012) - Kaleidoscope and Q & A on Kaleidoscope; (2013) - The Gifted and Q & A and Comparing with How the Light Gets In; Hardcover
  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Vladimir Putin in Spy Fiction and Libel (Part III)

Over the past week I have reviewed Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews and put up a pair of posts about Vladimir Putin as he appears as a named character in the book. In this post I will discuss legal issues. If an author is inspired by a real life person, especially a living person, they will normally disguise the character created by the inspiration so that it is credible to claim they have created a fictional character. Writers considering the use of living real life people as characters should reflect carefully on the potential consequences.

The primary legal concern for an author is to avoid a claim of defamation. Libel is the written form of defamation. I will use the Wikipedia definition:

Under common law to constitute defamation, a claim must generally be false and have been made to someone other than the person defamed.

On proving libel in America Wikipedia continues:

There are several ways a person must go about proving that libel has taken place. For example, in the United States, the person must prove that the statement was false, caused harm, and was made without adequate research into the truthfulness of the statement. These steps are for an ordinary citizen. For a celebrity or a public official, the person must prove the first three steps and that the statement was made with the intent to do harm or with reckless disregard for the truth, which is usually specifically referred to as "proving malice".

At the blog, Rights of Writers, an American lawyer, Mark Fowler, provides tips to writers on avoiding defamation:

2.  If you model a negatively portrayed character after a real person, change as many identifying details as you reasonably can:  name, place of residence, age, physical description, personal background, occupation, relationships with other characters -- even the character's sex or ethnicity.

3.  Don't use a name for your villain that echoes or conjures up the name of a real person on whom the character is based, e.g., Donald Knight should not be renamed Ronald Day in your novel.

An article in The Telegraph sets out the perils in England of using a real life name:

Much the same thing happened to DJ Taylor when he published his second novel, Real Life, in 1991. For reasons Taylor is still at a loss to explain, he used the name of someone he’d met fleetingly five years earlier for one of his main characters – a man who happened to be a Soho porn baron, a former associate of the Kray Twins and the maker of films such as Nazi Death Camp and Spank Academy.

   Taylor had inadvertently given his character the same number of
   children as the real Mr X, and had him living in the same area of
   London. Nor did it help that he’d misspelled the man’s name –
   this was taken by his lawyers to be a ham-fisted attempt to cover
   his tracks. In the end Taylor and his publishers settled out of
   court for a sum “in the lower end of five figures”. Contractually
   bound to indemnify his publishers, Taylor ended up paying half
   of it himself.

   “The whole thing was incredibly traumatic,” he says now. “I
   realised just how serious it was when I got a call from my
   solicitor advising me to put any property I had into my wife’s
   name. What made it worse was that it was plainly an innocent
   mistake. But looking back, I think I was an idiot and deserved
   everything I got. At the same time it’s unquestionably true that
   the libel laws are stacked against the writer.”

I certainly appreciate libel laws are different between America and England. At the same time I expect Palace of Treason will be published in both nations.

Applying the above information to the Putin of Palace of Treason Matthews cannot argue the character is not patterned after the real life man. There was not the slightest attempt to disguise the character.  The Putin of the book is the President of Russia and his personal history and appearance are exactly the real life Putin.

Using Putin was not accidental or incidental. He is a significant character.

In the book he is portrayed as a murderous venal man. If the statements are not true how could they not be defamatory? What research and proof Matthews would have of the characterization would certainly be interesting.

Considering the nature of the portrayal of Putin as a villain I see harm caused the President.

In America the issue of malice would probably focus on whether there was a reckless disregard of the truth.

Matthews has totally ignored Fowler’s tips to writers.

For Matthews to rely on the disclaimer in the book that “any references” to “real people” are “used fictitiously” to defend his depiction is a perilous defence. The book makes Putin as “real” as possible.

Now would the President of Russia travel forth to sue in England or the United States and subject himself to the scrutiny of courts is a different question.

Some years ago in America there was an example of a public figure whose real name was used in a work of fiction and did not take action against the author.  Details are set out in an article, The Ethics of Fiction Writing by Ron Hansen, published by Santa Clara University:

Consider The Public Burning, Robert Coover’s imaginative retelling of the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg following their federal conviction for supplying the Soviet Union with nuclear secrets. E. L. Doctorow had handled the Rosenberg material in his 1971 novel The Book of Daniel, but names were changed and Doctorow’s focus was on the fictionalized life consequences for the children of executed spies in the Cold War period. Whereas in Coover’s 1977 satire, the facts were often authentic, Time magazine and other news sources were quoted extensively in a sarcastic way, and a still-living historical eminence, the Watergate-stained ex-President Richard M. Nixon, was mocked by a fictional romance with Ethel Rosenberg and by a finale in which Nixon submits to anal sex with Uncle Sam. Calculating that the novel would collect significant review attention, the publisher of The Public Burning initially printed a stunning number of copies so books would be available even if there was a legal threat that halted print runs. But there was, in fact, no litigation. Coover’s portrayal of the ex-president, the Rosenbergs, and America in the fifties was manic and even cruel, but in the case of Richard Nixon the fictional narrative was so outrageous that no one could have believed the scenes authentic, and were a formal complaint actually made it would only have called more attention to a novel that Nixon and his friends wanted Americans to forget as quickly as they forget the tabloid headlines about aliens or Nostradamus at the supermarket checkout line.

This post is long enough already that I will not delve into the further potential legal issue of the appropriation of name and likeness because Matthews is using Putin’s name without consent to gain commercial benefit. Simon & Schuster on its website is already promoting Putin as a character.

Authors looking to capitalize on a living real life person as a character face the further risk of invasion of privacy.

I expect the lawyers for Simon & Schuster carefully considered the risks of publishing a book with the President of Russia as a villain. I will be watching in June when the book is published in North America to see whether there is any reaction from the Kremlin.  When the movie, The Interview, which mocked North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, was about to be released there was loud complaining from that nation and threats against America but no lawsuit against the makers of the movie and the studio.

Those lawyers are braver souls than the English lawyers who advised Cambridge University Press on a non-fiction book involving Putin by Karen Dawisha that was not published by Cambridge University Press. An article in The Economist publishes a letter from the Press to the author explaining its decision. The following excerpt provides some of their reasoning: 

   We have no reason to doubt the veracity of what you say, but we
   believe the risk is high that those implicated in the premise of the
   book—that Putin has a close circle of criminal oligarchs at his
   disposal and has spent his career cultivating this circle—would be
   motivated to sue and could afford to do so.  Even if the Press was
   ultimately successful in defending such a lawsuit, the disruption
   and expense would be more than we could afford, given our
   charitable and academic mission.

   President Putin has never been convicted for the crimes or
   activities which are outlined in the book, and we cannot be sure
   that any of the other named individuals or organisations have
   either.  That the allegations may have been published elsewhere
   is no defence; re-publication of a libellous statement is still libel
   if it cannot be proven to be true.

I expect a dignified silence or lofty disdain from Putin.
****
Matthews, Jason - (2013) - Red Sparrow and Recipes and Menus in Spy Thrillers; (2015) - Palace of Treason and Vladimir Putin in Spy Fiction - Part I and Part II
 
 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Vladimir Putin in Spy Fiction and Libel (Part II)

Vladimir Putin is a character in Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews. He does not make a cameo appearance. He is a named and important character. Putin is not the first Russian leader to be named in spy and criminal fiction I have read in recent years. As I read fiction written in the West the Russian leaders are negatively portrayed.

In the early 1950’s of the Stalinist Soviet Union, Leo Demidov, in  The Holy Thief by William Ryan, is an MGB (secret police) officer. The plot is about his search for a serial killer in a regime which denies such a killer can exist in socialist society. Demidov narrowly escapes execution. Secretly denounced he refuses to denounce his beautiful wife. They only escape being killed because of Stalin’s unexpected death in 1953.

I set out the opening to Red Square by Edward Topol and Fridrikh Neznansky in my review as follows:

Leonid Brezhnev’s brother-in-law, Semyon Tvisgun, has been found dead in an apartment with a bullet through his head. Brezhnev summons Special Investigator, Igor Shamrayev, to investigate the official verdict of suicide.

Published in 1982 the year of Brezhnev’s death the book clearly states that the Tvisgun and Brezhnev families profited from corruption in the U.S.S.R.

A generation later after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Arkady Renko, the Russian investigator created by Martin Cruz Smith, in Stalin’s Ghost is called upon to investigate reported sightings of Stalin’s ghost in the subways of Moscow. An extreme nationalist party, the Russian Patriots, seeks to exploit the vision of the former dictator.

Palace of Treason is set another decade later in the new Russia of Putin.

There is not the slightest effort at disguise with regard to Putin. Matthews has chosen to make the real life President of Russia part of his book.

There is mention of his devotion and skill at judo. I have watched some video of Putin doing judo. He is a skilled judo player.

In the book Putin is deeply interested in intelligence affairs, which is not surprising considering he spent time in the KGB before the expiration of the U.S.S.R. His interest in intelligence extends to individual operations and operatives. He has Dominika report directly to him.

When there is a lucrative business deal inspired by Dominka Putin makes sure that one of his close associates handles the transaction. Dominika shares in the financial rewards.

When the Russians learn that the French are conducting industrial espionage in Russia Putin calls upon the vicious Zyuganov:

…. Putin told him he wanted the matter handled in a specific manner, to send a message to the French that Russia was not stupid, that with a swipe of a paw the bear could shatter their operation and, particularly, that the long-honored convention between spy services of not using violence against one another’s officers did not apply. Putin directed Zyuganov to create shock and fear and to break the French of their garlicy arrogance so they would come to the table to sell ships on Russia’s terms, which really meant Putin’s terms, which really meant a closing commission deposited in a sheltered account.

Later in the book Dominika joins Putin and cronies at a palace on the Baltic coastline near St. Petersburg where the business of Russia is conducted amidst splendour and luxury.

Thus Putin is portrayed in Palace of Treason as a violent, corrupt leader with a lavish personal lifestyle. It is not the type of description I would expect of any living person in a book whether fiction or non-fiction.

My next post will discuss some of the legal issues associated with making a living real life person such as Putin a character in fiction.

****
Matthews, Jason - (2013) - Red Sparrow and Recipes and Menus in Spy Thrillers; (2015) - Palace of Treason and Vladimir Putin in Spy Fiction - Part I