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.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson – The find of possibly the world’s largest T-Rex dinosaur near Durant thrusts Sheriff Walt Longmire into a quagmire of jurisdictions. Danny Lone Elk, the owner of the ranch where the fossil is found, has made a deal for $37,000 to sell the fossil to the local High Plains Dinosaur Museum.

A straightforward business transaction suddenly becomes complicated:

You see, the rancher bought that particular land from a white homesteader in 2000 and exercised his right to have it held in trust for twenty-five years by the U.S. Department of the Interior under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which allowed him to not have to pay taxes on it. The problem is that in putting your land in trust, either federal of Cheyenne, limits the options of selling it or anything on it.

Then Danny Lone Elk is found dead floating in a turtle pond on his ranch. On his death the land was to be “signed over to the Cheyenne Conservancy”.

Federal officials, the Cheyenne Tribal Council, representatives of the local museum and the Lone Elk Family are all jousting over the T-Rex now known as Jen in honour of the young archaeologist who discovered her.

While an interesting scientific find the real source of the conflict is that the T-Rex is worth at least $8,000,000.

Walt wants to pursue who will benefit from Lone Elk’s death but how could a killer know if the death would actually be beneficial? There are so many competing interests.

A late addition to the mix is a grass roots campaign to keep the fossil in Wyoming which adopts the slogan “Save Jen”.

Walt is also having visions connected to the Cheyenne:

“I was following someone in this dream, and when I got closer I could see it was a buffalo, but when it turned it changed shape into a man, a man with no eyes, just spaces where you could see the stars shining in the darkness – like his head contained the universe.”

It is Lone Elk who was found with no eyes.

Personally Walt is looking to forward to his daughter, Cady, coming home to Wyoming with his granddaughter, Lola. That visit is shattered by a truly startling violent action. Johnson is willing to let his characters experience tragedy.

For two-thirds of the book I was caught up in a plot that concentrated on careful, even thoughtful, investigation. I thought Johnson had shifted from recent books in the series where violence was the solution.

I was dismayed by the final third, not because of the violence involving Cady’s life, but because the plot descended into a conventional Hollywood type of resolution.

Walt’s physical injuries now exceed the long list that Travis McGee endured in the series by John D. Macdonald.

I was doing alright, despite the violence, when the plot headed into a cave. I have rarely found searches in caves to be credible and the journey underground in Dry Bones was no exception.

Had the plot left Walt uninjured and above ground it would have been a great book. Overall it was a good book which is an improvement on recent books in the series. There is less of Walt being the Lone Ranger.
****
Johnson, Craig – (2007) - The Cold Dish(Best Fiction of 2007); (2008) - Death Without Company; (2008) - Kindness Goes Unpunished (Third Best Fiction of 2008); (2009) - Another Man’s Moccasins; (2011) - The Dark Horse; (2011) - Junkyard Dogs; (2012) - Hell is Empty; (2013) As the Crow Flies; (2013) - Longmire T.V. Series; (2014) - A Serpent's Tooth; (2015) - Radio in Indigenous Mystery Series; (2015) - Any Other Day;  (2015) - Where is the Walt Longmire Series Headed; (2016) - Musings on the 5th Season of Longmire; Hardcover

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Intervening and Not Intervening with Ashley Smith Choking Herself

In my previous post I reviewed More Tough Crimes edited by William Trudell and Lorene Shyba. In this post I look at the essay Breese Davies contributed on her representation of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), “a national organization that works with and for criminalized women and girls,” at the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith. The essay was of particular interest to me as I was defence counsel in a Saskatchewan trial involving Ms. Smith.

Ms. Smith, 19 at the time of her death, died while incarcerated in a Federal prison in Ontario. A deeply troubled young woman she had a practice of tying ligatures around her neck and choking herself. She had tied such ligatures countless times during her time in prison. On the morning of October 19, 2007 she tied yet another ligature around her neck.

Not long before that morning corrections officers were being subject to discipline for “using ‘force’ too frequently in their efforts to save her life” and prison psychologists told officers “that engaging with Ashley would just encourage her to continue to act out”.

Breese sets out the consequences:

Eventually, the corrections officers were ordered not to enter Ashley’s cell as long as she was still breathing, and so on Otober 19, 2007, they didn’t immediately respond when Ashley once again tied a ligature around her neck. Instead, they watched and waited for close to fifteen minutes, listened as her breath became increasingly laboured, finally entering her cell to remove the ligature. Ultimately, they had waited too long. They waited and watched as she took her last breath. And as per Correctional Services of Canada policy, they videotaped it all.

At the inquest:

CAEFS was determined to show the order to ‘not enter Ashley’s cell until she stopped breathing’ as the real cause of her death.

Other parties at the inquest were seeking a conclusion that she was suicidal or that her death was a tragic accident.

Ms. Davies recognized the difficulty for corrections officers in dealing with Ms. Smith:

I recognize that it was incredibly challenging for correctional staff to work with Ashley, particularly toward the end of her life. She was determined and ingenious, and would use anything she could get her hands on to make a ligature to tie around her neck. She would also cover the surveillance camera in her cell to frustrate staff efforts to monitor her. This resulted in the staff sitting outside her cell for hours on end, watching her through the meal slot in her cell door. It was a mind-numbing task, punctuated by moments of acute danger. Ashley’s self-harming and aggressive behaviour pushed many correctional staff to their breaking point. She confounded the system because of her unpredictability, her ingenuity and her apparent compulsion to harm herself.

What Ms. Davies did not specifically discuss was the physical challenge posed by Ms. Smith who was 5’7” and about 240 pounds. She was strong and quick and volatile. Her size and strength meant she was bigger and stronger than most female corrections officers.

While female corrections officers were expected to deal with her in physical situations it was a continuing problem especially during her stay at the Regional Psychiatric Centre (RPC) in Saskatoon some months before her death.

While I was not a part of the inquest into her death I am very familiar with the challenges faced by correctional officers dealing with Ashley when she had tied ligatures around her neck.

I represented a correctional supervisor, John Tarala, who was charged with assaulting Ms. Smith while she was an inmate at the RPC.

RPC was and is an unusual institution in that it is both a prison and a health treatment facility.

In the case I handled Mr. Tarala and a newly qualified female corrections officer and a nurse were outside Ms. Smith’s cell because she had tied a ligature around her neck and was under a blanket. As with the guards in Ontario on that October morning when Ms. Smith died they had to decide whether to enter the cell.

Mr. Tarla and the guard entered Ms. Smith’s cell and there was a physical confrontation. Mr. Tarala was charged with assault and a trial was held in Saskatoon. The trial did not involve Ms. Smith testifying as she had already died.

Judge Singer, the trial judge, said the following about the allegation of Mr. Tarala striking Ms. Smith in his judgment:

I am left with the conclusion that she [the guard] did not see Mr. Tarala hit Ashley Smith, as described by the nurse, not because she was looking the whole time in the opposite direction, but because it did not happen.

Mr. Tarala testified at trial he did not hit Ms. Smith. For this post I will not explore the details of the evidence. At the end of the trial Judge Singer found Mr. Tarala not guilty.

Mr. Tarala explained at trial that he decided they should enter the cell and, rather than wait for a backup officer, he made the decision to enter the cell immediately. He said he did not know if Ms. Smith was choking and how long it takes for a person to choke to death.

In one of the most powerful and emotional moments of my life in court Mr. Tarala more specifically stated why he entered that cell. He said he had cut down 12 inmates (11 dead and 1 with brain damage) hanging in their cells during his time in corrections. He was not going to let this young woman die by choking herself. 

It has always been striking to me how much trouble he faced when he intervened to be ensure Ms. Smith stayed alive and how much trouble the guards in Ontario faced when they did not intervene.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

More Tough Crimes edited by William Trudell and Lorene Shyba

(28. – 915.) More Tough Crimes edited by William Trudell and Lorene Shyba – A couple of years ago Tough Crimes was my favourite work of non-fiction of the year. I was drawn to a book containing a series of essays by Canadian criminal lawyers and judges, each writing about a case in which they had participated that was of personal significance to them. I knew two of the lawyers. The sequel More Tough Crimes provides another series of essays on Canadian criminal cases covering a wide variety of criminal cases.

Brian Greenspan, in The Eagle has Landed, deals with an increasing challenge for lawyers especially in North America. Alan Eagleson gained fame as hockey czar in Canada from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. He was the Executive Director of the National Hockey League’s Player Association, a promoter of hockey tournaments, a board member of Hockey Canada, a player agent, a lawyer and businessman. His myriad interests inevitably brought him into major conflicts of interest for which he faced parallel criminal investigations in the U.S. and Canada in the early 1990’s. He was indicted in the U.S. in 1994 and Canada in 1996.

Facing major criminal proceedings in two countries Greenspan advised the costs of defence would be approximately $4 million. He said Eagleson and his wife said they did not have the time and money to fight the charges and instructed Greenspan to seek a settlement.

Now with complex charges alleging fraud there is often opportunity to reach an agreement to plead guilty to some of the charges. Greenspan skillfully negotiated a plea bargain in which there were guilty pleas on each side of the border but no jail time in America. It would be a rare lawyer that would have his client serve time in an American prison over a Canadian prison.

I have never met Eagleson but I did see him in court in the 1990’s when he was in a civil trial over his representation of a hockey player. He showed an irresistible commitment to being the center of attention. During the proceedings the trial judge made an amusing remark. The lawyers chuckled. Eagleson drew attention to himself by laughing aloud such that you thought he must have considered it the funniest thing he had ever heard.

Brock Martland discussed bizarre events in one of Canada’s most prominent criminal trials of the past decade. In 2007 four members of a criminal gang and two individuals at the wrong place at the wrong time were murdered in a Surrey, British Columbia apartment.

Martland states:

The Surrey Six trial was a wild ride. The only certainty was uncertainty. The Crown cut a sweetheart deal with a gang leader, only to have his evidence firmly rejected by the trial judge. The Crown and police, likewise, made a deal with a trigger-man, Person X, but never got the benefit of his evidence. His evidence was excluded for reasons that remain a great mystery to the accused men, who are now serving life sentences, and to the public.

I find it very hard to accept secret rulings in criminal proceedings in Canada. For good reason criminal trials are to be open to the public. Justice in secret is justice denied. I can only hope the appeal process will bring out the issues of privilege that prevented a killer from testifying at the trial.

Martland goes on to raise an important question of public policy:

One remarkable feature of the case was the willingness on the part of the Crown and police to make a deal with a murderer. In British Columbia, historically, the Crown has made deals with accomplices and conspirators but not with the actual killers. There has been, in recent years, a significant shift.

I agree with Martland’s reservations about the shift to making deals with actual killers. As he points out in this case “ ‘deals with the devils’ did not help the prosecution’s case.”

My former law school classmate, Brian Beresh, explores a historic murder trial from 1934 in which Dina Dranchuk was convicted of murder at a trial in which the “prosecution’s case was completed in under three-and-a-half hours”, the “defence case was completed in nineteen minutes which included an opening address and the evidence of a medical expert”, defence counsel took five minutes to address the jury and the “jury deliberated for under forty-three minutes.” Though sentenced to hang her sentence was commuted.

Brian’s review sets out there were profound mental health issues with regard to the accused that could only have been touched upon in a trial of such brevity.

It is inconceivable to me that a defence counsel would spend but nineteen minutes in defence of his client.

Brian believes this case is another example of “unequal treatment of women in the criminal justice system”. He states at the end of his essay:

One is left with the conclusion that this was another appalling chapter in Canadian criminal justice where the accused’s gender did not aid, but rather hindered the quest for justice.

While not involved in any of the cases in More Tough Crimes I was counsel in a different case involving Ashley Smith. The inquest into her death forms one of the essays. My next post will discuss that inquest and my case.

Overall I found the essays in More Tough Crimes interesting but not as compelling as the essays of Tough Crimes. This collection was more a recounting of cases with fewer examples of lawyers explaining how they were affected by the cases. As with its predecessor More Tough Crimes would be a valuable resource for any crime fiction writer wanting inspiration and/or knowledge of the Canadian criminal justice system.
****
Evans, C.D. – (2015) - Tough Crimes edited with Lorene Shyba

Monday, August 7, 2017

Wishful Seeing by Janet Kellough

Wishful Seeing by Janet Kellough – The mystery features an interesting sleuth, 59 year old Thaddeus Lewis, a minister for the Methodist Episcopal Church. He has accepted an assignment to the town of Cobourg and surrounding area. (Being set in 1853 the plot takes place before Canada was a nation. Now the province of Ontario the area was then known as Upper Canada.) He will ride a circuit conducting services in the small communities near Cobourg. To aid him is a young minister, James Small, nearing completion of his studies.

Needing a housekeeper Lewis invites his 15 year old niece, Martha Renwell, to join him in Cobourg. Glad to get away from the chores and drudgery of her family hotel Renwell becomes her grandfather’s housekeeper. She is a bright and spirited young woman starting to find her way in the world.

The plot differs from most mysteries I have read, whether set in the present of the past, in that there are descriptions of religious services led by Lewis. In particular, having been challenged by an itinerant Baptist preacher, Lewis meets his challenger to debate the issue of whether the Bible requires full immersion for baptism.

So many people gather for the debate that the meeting is moved outside the hall where the meeting had been scheduled. There is a spirited discussion whether the King James version of the Bible is an accurate translation from the original Biblical texts. They go on to argue scripture on what the Bible ordains with regard to baptism.

Not long after the Great Baptism Debate a man, Paul Sherman, is found murdered on an island in Rice Lake.

Suspicion falls on George Howell and his wife, Ellen. Witnesses have seen a man and a woman, dressed in a distinctive blue dress, rowing from the island. When the investigating officer goes to the Howell farm he finds Ellen washing such a blue dress with a significant stain that he believes to be a bloodstain.

While she is arrested and held in jail pending the trial her husband has disappeared. Known as the “Major” he has acquired a reputation for dealing in land needed for the Cobourg to Peterborough Railway under construction. Disputed titles were a staple of the Courts of that era.

Mrs. Howell lacks funds for a lawyer. Lewis, wanting her to have good representation and attracted to the lady, arranges for a young Toronto barrister, Townsend “Towns” Ashby, to take up the defence.

The book shifts to a legal mystery with Ashby as the plot proceeds through the Grand Jury hearing and later the trial for murder.

Ashby, while lacking experience, works hard to prepare for a trial bound to gain significant publicity.

It was intriguing to read how a trial was conducted 150 years ago. 

Wishful Seeing is a good book. The characters and plot are interesting. I would read another in the series. It was the 3rd book from the shortlist for the 2017 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel. I am finding the shortlist slower going this year.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Amelia Island is Camino Island

The Book Loft
The island in Camino Island by John Grisham is patterned after Amelia Island and its town of Fernandina Beach just north of Jacksonville, Florida.

The Fernandina Observer has an interesting review of the book as it relates to Amelia Island. They were unable to get a direct answer from the publisher on why Grisham used a fake name rather than using the real name of the island.

Janet Maslin in her profile of Grisham in the New York Times provided an explanation of the origins of the book and the title:

Grisham and his wife, Renee, dreamed up the idea for “Camino Island on a drive from their home outside Charlottesville, Va., to their beach house in Florida. Its working title was the name of the place where they have a vacation home, but he eventually changed it for reasons of privacy. Its cover still looks like the view from Grisham’s boardwalk to the beach.

That house is on the real life Amelia Island.

The focus of the story is Bay Books, a charming and very successful bookstore, owned by a charming and handsome rogue, Bruce Cable, who is nattily attired in seersucker suits and bowties.

The Observer’s review notes that:

Like the Book Loft at 214 Center Street, Cable’s Bay Books features comfortable chairs, cozy nooks, and author signings, but there are very real differences, according to Book Loft owner Sue Nelson. First of all, there’s no basement – where the fictional owner stores rare books and manuscripts.

“I’d have to dig one,” said Ms. Nelson. “Nobody has a basement in Florida.”

The column notes the similarity between Cable’s fictional home in Camino Island and the real life Fairbanks House. It appears the actual house, in the Italianate style lacks the tower bedroom where Cable takes visiting female authors.
Fairbanks House

Late in the book there is reference to the Surf restaurant, “a popular outdoor bar and grill”. The columns states the real life Surf’s Marketing and Events Manager was not aware of whether Grisham had visited the restaurant.

With regard to first editions Grisham said in an interview with NPR:

Well, my publisher Doubleday sends me the first book off the press. Or at least they claim it’s the first book off the press. I have no way of knowing. But it comes with a very nice note from my publisher. And we take that book at a little ceremony and we go to a certain place, a certain bookshelf in the library and add it to the collection. So we have a row of – two rows, now – of all of our first ones off the press. And that’s where I keep my first editions.

Later in the interview he advises he has been collecting “modern first editions” for 25 years and has “a nice little collection”. He says those first editions have been “very good investments”.

On Grisham’s website is a podcast of him on book tour at Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was his first book tour in 25 years.

An early supporter of his books was Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi and that store was part of the tour. Grisham demonstrates his connection with Square Books by signing 2,000 copies of each of his books for the store.


I regret that I was not looking at books to be published during my Florida trip in April for I was in Jacksonville and could have made a trip to Amelia Island. “Sigh”.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Camino Island by John Grisham

(26. – 913.) Camino Island by John Grisham – A gang of sophisticated thieves, think Ocean’s Eleven, break into the vaults in the basement of the Princeton University library and steal the five manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels owned by the University. There is careful planning, perfectly timed diversions and almost perfect execution of the crime.

A drop of blood left behind by one of the thieves is swiftly analyzed by the FBI and the hunt is on. Grisham sets out how difficult it is for modern thieves to effectively “case out the joint” without detection. Surveillance cameras monitor most public buildings. Facial recognition software can penetrate disguises.

While priceless to the university the manuscripts are insured for a total of $25,000,000. Facing a huge payout the insurer mounts an extensive private investigation into the theft.

Suspicion falls upon Bruce Cable, a bookstore owner, living and working on Camino Island just north of Jacksonville, Florida. He is the dream of independent booksellers. He has built a successful store featuring 100 author events a year with a dependable clientele of readers and local authors who will reliably attend the events. For even the obscure and unknown writer he can muster 40-50 people.

Cable is further known as a trader of first editions. He has built a huge collection of first editions from the modestly valued to a copy of Catcher in the Rye worth at least $80,000.

Cable is charming and handsome and eager to please. In a loving open marriage Cable is known for the seduction of female authors who have come to events at the store. His wife has been known to entertain male authors. I am sure it is far fetched that book touring female or male authors would surrender themselves to bookstore owners. I thought of him as a modern Cary Grant, without socks, from To Catch a Thief.

I am not sure why the movie allusions are coming to me but expect it relates to my feeling that Camino Island is well written for the type of entertaining caper movie preferred by Hollywood when the plot is to feature a clever theft.

The role of Cable could have been written for George Clooney.

In an effort to penetrate Cable’s life the insurer recruits Mercer Mann, a modestly accomplished author of 31 who has had a modestly successful first novel and then a less successful collection of short stories and is three years overdue in finishing her current novel. Short term university teaching positions have sustained her but she is now unemployed and crushed by student debt.

Going back to To Catch a Thief I thought of Grace Kelly when I see Mercer in my mind.

Her arrival on Camino Beach, where her late grandmother Tess had resided, allows Grisham to explore the apparently bitchy world of authors. Their comments about each other are far different from the remarks I read by authors on authors in book blogs. While the remarks of Camino Island authors are entertaining I hope the blogger comments are more indicative of relations between authors.

I thought Camino Island was a nice easy read. I was reminded of the breezy easily read mysteries featuring Archie McNally a generation ago. While I cannot remember the individual plots accomplished mystery author, Lawrence Sanders, created a very likeable sleuth in McNally. Easy going and witty Archie solved mysteries down the Florida coast from Jacksonville at West Palm Beach. (His parents were wealthy.)

Were it one of Grisham’s legal mysteries I would have been disappointed by Camino Island. I would have expected more from characters and plot. His legal mysteries explore contemporary legal issues. Camino Island does not strain itself with “issues”. It focuses on the theft and the pursuit of the purloined manuscripts.

I think Camino Island, set on an island with a wonderful beach, is perfect for a real life beach. It is likely to captivate you but will not tax a reader’s mind.

I did look at the front of my copy of the book. It is a first edition. I shall not hold my breath concerning the likelihood of it becoming a valuable first edition.

I hope the next Grisham book returns to lawyers.
****
Grisham, John – (2000) - The Brethren; (2001) - A Painted House; (2002) - The Summons; (2003) - The King of Torts; (2004) - The Last Juror; (2005) - The Runaway Jury; (2005) - The Broker; (2008) - The Appeal; (2009) - The Associate; (2011) - The Confession; (2011) - The Litigators; (2012) - "G" is for John Grisham - Part I and Part II; (2013) - The Racketeer; (2013) - Grisham's Lawyers; (2013) - Analyzing Grisham's Lawyers; (2013) - Sycamore Row; (2014) - Gray Mountain and Gray Mountain and Real Life Legal Aid; (2015) - Rogue Lawyer and Sebastian Rudd; (2016) - The Whistler