Dilettante's Diary

Aug 3/17

Who Do I Think I Am?
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Here I Am (Novel); The Charming Predator (Memoir); The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Mystery); Night School (Mystery); Rogue Lawyer (Mystery); Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation (Legal); This Is That (Radio)

Here I Am (Novel) Jonathan Safran Foer, 2016

Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece of short fiction, "Maybe It Was the Distance," published in the June 6-13 issue of The New Yorker, struck me as outstanding. (See DD page Aug 21/16). As often with New Yorker fiction, you couldn’t help suspecting that the piece was excerpted from a novel. Here I Am turns out to be the book that the excerpt was taken from. One of the incidental pleasures of reading the novel is that you can study – if you’re into this sort of thing – just how the New Yorker editors, presumably with Mr. Foer’s input, made a coherent work of about twelve pages from bits of narrative that are scattered over more than a hundred pages in the book.

It’s a pleasure to report that the New Yorker selection offered an authentic taste of the genius of the book itself. It’s one of the most stunning examples of literary fiction that I’ve encountered in many years. A reader is inclined to respond the way Virginia Woolf is reported to have done when she first read Marcel Proust. Presumably, she said something like: there’s nothing left for anybody to write about!

What to say about 570 pages of such brilliant writing? How to do it justice in a brief review? It needs a doctoral thesis – several of them. The best we can do here, then, is to highlight some of the book’s merits. By way of an overview, we can say that it’s teeming with the nitty-gritty of life – marriage, families, world events, happiness, sadness, victory and loss. Admittedly, the sorrows and disappointments tend to predominate, but they don’t overwhelm, thanks to the inevitable comedy that life dishes up without anybody’s trying.

Most of the book consists of a few weeks in the life of the Bloch family – Julia and Jacob and their three boys – but there are several flashes into the past and the future. The story is structured around an issue concerning Sam, the oldest son. He has been accused of writing a scurrilous, obscene note; because of that it’s questionable whether the rabbi will allow the boy’s Bar Mitzvah to go forward. Sam is denying the offence and won’t apologize. His parents are divided as to whether they believe him or not. In any case, he’s not all that keen on the proposed Bar Mitzvah..

Among other developments, a couple of Jacob’s cousins from Israel have arrived and that leads to lots of acerbic commentary on the differences between the attitudes of the Israelis and the American Jews. There’s also the question of whether Jacob’s grandfather will be moved from his own residence to a care facility – over his strenuous objections. And, speaking of such matters, the family dog, an affectionate golden retriever named Argus, appears to be on his last legs. Should anybody do anything about that? A major earthquake that hits Israel sends everybody scrambling. And, by the way, it appears that Jacob and Julia’s marriage may be imploding.

Most of this is seen through the eyes of Jacob, the forty-ish dad, who’s a writer for a tv program. He’s at that point where he’s not sure if his life has amounted to anything significant. He’s given to soulful observations about everything going on around him. He’s obviously deeply attached to his wife, in spite of the problems in their relationship, and his love for his sons is palpable.

A sample of Jacob’s thoughts:

It was scary how quickly and completely his past could be rewritten, or overwritten. All those years felt worthwhile while they were happening, but only a few months on the other side of them and they were a gigantic waste of time. Of a life. It was an almost irrepressible urge of his brain to see the worst in that which had failed. To see it as something that had failed, rather than something that had succeeded until the end. Was he protecting himself from the loss by denying anything was lost? Or simply achieving some pathetic emotional nonvictory by not caring?

Jacob is talking on the phone to his youngest son, Benjy, who then asks to speak to his brother, Max. When Max takes the phone, he asks Jacob to give him and his brother some privacy for their phone conversation:

The absurdity of it, the agony and beauty of it, almost brought Jacob to his knees: these two independent consciousnesses, neither of which existed ten and a half years ago, and existed only because of him, could now not only operate free of him (that much he’d known for a long time) but demand freedom.

The following thought isn’t attributed to Jacob specifically but it sounds like him:

Before they had kids, if asked to conjure images of parenthood they would have said things like "Reading in bed," and "Giving a bath," and "Running while holding the seat of a bicycle." Parenthood contains such moments of warmth and intimacy, but isn’t them. It’s cleaning up. The great bulk of family life involves no exchange of love, and no meaning, only fulfillment. Not the fulfillment of feeling fulfilled, but of fulfilling that which falls to you.

One of Jacob’s most salient characteristics – and perhaps a key to Mr. Foer’s take on life – is the constant effort to accept the real, as opposed to the ideal:

We live in the world, Jacob thought. That thought always seemed to insert itself, usually in opposition to the word ideally. Ideally, we would make sandwiches at homeless shelters every weekend, and learn instruments late in life, and stop thinking about the middle of life as late in life, and use some mental resource other than Google, and some physical resource other than Amazon, and permanently retire mac and cheese, and give at least a quarter of the time and attention to aging relatives that they deserve, and never put a child in front of a screen. But we live in the world, and in the world there’s soccer practice, and speech therapy, and grocery shopping, and homework, and keeping the house respectably clean, and money, and moods, and fatigue, and also we’re only human, and humans not only need but deserve things like time with a coffee and the paper, and seeing friends, and taking breathers, so as nice as that idea is, there’s just no way we can make it happen. Ought to, but can’t.

Jacob’s life is also infused with ambiguity and ambivalence. For years, he’d been trying to get the meaning of a certain passage in a song, but then he discovered that it was just mumbo-jumbo. "That was my mistake. I thought it had to mean something." He discovers that "Things can be for the best and the worst at the same time." His feelings about Tamir, his Israeli cousin, are complex:

Jacob didn’t think Tamir was crazy. He thought his need to exhibit and press the case for his happiness was unconvincing and sad. And sympathetic. That’s where the emotional logic broke down. All that should have led Jacob to dislike Tamir brought him closer – not with envy, but love. He loved Tamir’s brazen weakness. He loved his inability – his unwillingness – to hide his ugliness. Such exposure was what Jacob most wanted, and most withheld from himself.

One of most poignant thoughts in the book is apparently one of Jacob’s: "Between any two beings there is a unique, uncrossable distance, an unenterable sanctuary. Sometimes it takes the shape of aloneness. Sometimes it takes the shape of love." So what about Jacob’s relationship with Julia? Mr. Foer offers this dazzling bit of literary creativity when describing a particularly tense time between them: "...they moved through the hours and rooms on their hearts’ tiptoes, with large earphones connected to sensitive metal detectors that could pick up traces of buried feeling – as if at the expense of blocking out the rest of life."

At times, though, it seems that Mr. Foer has made Julia too sharp, too cutting. She’s always carping at Jacob. (Granted, she has her reasons!) At one point, she tells him that, if he’d had an affair, that would at least have proven that he’s human. Jacob: "You don’t believe I’m human?" Julia: "I don’t believe you’re there at all." This woman is so consistently antagonistic to Jacob that you begin to wonder if Mr. Foer is one of those male authors who can’t do real women. But the author gradually allays any such thoughts by showing that Julia has her moments of insight. She thinks about how visitors have required her to be a "buoyant host" and a death in the family has required her "to at least perform love and care, when all she felt was sadness and doubt." She goes on in her thinking: "She was good enough to manage her blossoming resentment, good enough, even to suppress her passive-aggression, but at a certain point, the requirements of being a good person inspire hatred for oneself and others."

When it comes to other women characters, Jacob’s mother, Deborah, flies off the page. Take Jacob’s recollection of her speech at his wedding. After noting jovially that Jacob’s father usually does the talking for them both, she said that, when she told him that she wanted to give the speech at their son’s wedding, he gave her the silent treatment for three weeks. "They were the happiest three weeks of my life." She reflects on the fact that non-Jewish weddings feature the vows "for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health." Her speech goes on (actually she broke down and her husband had to read it) to make one of the most important points of the book: "Jacob and Julia, my son and daughter, there is only ever sickness. Some people go blind, some go deaf. Some people break their backs, some get badly burned....[my ellipsis]...In sickness and in sickness. That is what I wish for you. Don’t seek or expect miracles. There are no miracles. Not anymore. And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other’s pain, and being present for it."

As for other characterizations, I wondered, at times, if the kids were too clever. In one encounter with his dad regarding a computer game, Max, the eleven-year old, is incredibly smart-ass with the quick retorts. (Is it a Jewish thing?) On the whole, though, the kids are delightfully real (not a common occurrence in literature). We hear Sam delivering an imaginary Bar Mitzvah speech with sentences like "I want to thank Cantor Fleischman, for helping transform me, over the past half year, into a Jewish automaton." He thanks grandparents "whose mortal status I am only aware of thanks to the Hanukkah and birthday checks that haven’t been adjusted for cost-of-living increases since my birth." When Sam finds a phone that appears to be meant for private communication between his two parents, his thinking sounds exactly like such a kid’s: "It was hard to understand the need for it, but maybe the lack of need was the point. It was actually kind of sweet. Kind of lame, but kind of romantic, which was kind of gross."

We see the two older brothers in their most realistically boyish mode, when we’re told about their ideas for names for the new brother that was coming:

Max quickly settled on Ed the Hyena, after Scar’s loyal henchman in The Lion King, assuming, presumably, that that’s what his new brother would be: his loyal henchman. Sam wanted the name Foamy, because it was the third word his finger landed on when he was riffling through the dictionary – he’d promised to commit to the first word, whatever it was, but it was extortion, and the second was ambivalent. The problem wasn’t that the brothers disagreed, but that both were such terrific names – Ed the Hyena and Foamy. Great names that any human would be privileged to have and that would all but guarantee a cool life.

Mr. Foer’s writing reminds me of several illustrious authors of the previous generation. John Irving in the sheer narrative verve, in the acrobatic skill of handling several inter-twined stories. John Updike in the melancholy, self-accusing thoughts about marriage. The Jewish exuberance of the writing, especially the ribald aspect, reminds me of Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth. The latter, especially, in two and a half pages about young Sam’s variations on the art of masturbation, ending with this:

Sam never felt comfortable in his body – not in clothing that never fit, not when performing his ridiculous impression of a nonspastic walker – except when masturbating. When masturbating, he both owned and existed in his body. He was effortless, a natural, himself.

Like most good novels today, Here I Am includes some biting social commentary, as in this passage:

Despite checking his own with manic constancy, Jacob hated all phones – found them to be even worse than the brain tumors they gave their users. Why? Because he hated that his was ruining his life? Or because he knew that it wasn’t ruining his life, but gave him the easy and socially acceptable means to ruin it himself? Or because he suspected that other people were getting more, and more interesting, messages? Or maybe he knew all along that his phone would be his undoing – even if he didn’t know how.

Tamir’s phone was singularly annoying. Barak’s, too. They were phone SUVs. Jacob didn’t care how vivid their screens were, or how good the reception, or how easy to link with their other miserable devices. Barak had never even been to America, which, if it wasn’t the greatest country in the history of the world, at the very least had a few things to offer eyes that cared to look up. Maybe they were searching for news, although what kind of news site emits "Boom shakalaka!" every few seconds?

One feature of Mr. Foer’s writing is the tendency to repeat words, twisting them in a way that flirts with oxymoron: 

  •  "The saddest thing about this has been confronting my own lack of sadness."
  • I wanted to know that I knew what I already knew.
  • "You never were my responsibility....And you still are my responsibility."
  • He took no pleasure in the great pleasure he seemed to take in being a smart-ass with her. 
  • Every time one of her children was put under anesthesia, she said goodbye to him as if she were saying goodbye to him.
  • It was amazing how little changed as everything changed.
  • "If you’re not crying, then stop crying."
  • She was going to choose not to have a choice.

I don’t know if there’s a literary term for this device. It appears to be a trademark of Mr. Foer’s. I grant that he makes points by using words in this somewhat paradoxical way; maybe he’s trying to show how inadequate words are to explain some things, or maybe he’s trying to show that words have hidden traps within them, that they’re playing jokes on us if we’re not careful. If so, that’s a notable literary flourish. But Mr. Foer does it so often that it begins to seem like an uncontrollable tick. I wish that an editor had curtailed it. It becomes tiresome in the context of writing that is otherwise flawless.

In terms of plot, there’s one small weakness to the book, in that the members of the family share a concept on which they build their passwords for an electronic device. It’s not hard, then, for various family members to guess how others might adapt versions of this term. This enables a lot of snooping which would otherwise have been difficult for the author to arrange. Since plot is far from being the main point of the book, however, we can readily overlook such a slight implausibility.

Nevertheless, I found some parts of the book somewhat less engaging than others. Several passages deal with Sam’s immersion in a computer program – he doesn’t like to call it a game – which amounts, I gather, to an alternate world. This activity was hard for me to follow but I grant that it’s probably an inescapable aspect of life in many homes today. In the sections about the political fallout from the earthquake in Israel, we sometimes lose our focus on the characters we’ve come to know so well, as Mr. Foer takes the opportunity for some scathing satire. However, that element of the book does give it heft and significance beyond the domestic preoccupations of most of the book. (I’m guessing it also gets Mr. Foer into trouble with some readers who might find his support for Israel less than absolute and unquestioning.)

In the latter portions of the book, Mr. Foer gives us several short passages with headings like "How to Play Silence," "How to Play Raised Voices," "How to Play the Death of Language" and "How to Play No One." Some twenty of these items take up about twenty pages. Each of them, reflecting on some aspect of Jacob’s life, takes the narrative into the future or the past. The tone is a bit more speculative or musing than in other parts of the book. As such, these segments add an attractive variation in tone to the work, but I don’t understand the headings. Sometimes, a passage seems to have nothing to do with the subject mentioned in the heading. Maybe the "How to play..." phrase has something to do with Jacob’s career as a script writer. Maybe he’s implying that all aspects of a person’s life, no matter how intimate, involve a certain amount of acting or posing.

Many other aspects of the book deserve close attention, but let’s finish this review with a short reflection on the book’s tremendously resonant title. On the most obvious level, it's Jacob's blaring answer to Julia's question about whether or not he's actually present. "Yes I am," the title screams, "I'm right here!" But there's more to it. Coming from chapter twenty-two of Genesis, the declaration is Abraham’s response when God called out to him with the intention of putting him to a very difficult test. Clearly, the issue of a father’s responsibility for his son is at stake. But I suspect that Mr. Foer intends us to think of more existential implications. When you say "Here I Am," how can you really claim that you are truly present to anybody? How can your presence represent a promise that you’re ready to do whatever is asked of you? Above all, how can you assert that this "you" who is responding is genuinely you? In other words, how can you know who you really are?

All questions that have been plaguing Jacob -- whether or not he has realized it -- through the whole of Here I Am.


The Charming Predator: The True Story of How I Fell in Love with and Married a Sociopathic Fraud (Memoir) by Lee Mackenzie, 2016

The title of the book pretty well sums it up: a woman marries a man who turns out to be a nightmare. Why would a person read such a book? For the titillation to be expected from a lurid soap opera? Maybe. But it seemed to me that there was something else operating in my approach to the book: How on earth could this happen? How could a person fall into such a trap?

Very easily, it turns out.

In 1979, Lee Mackenzie (then known as Donna) was nearly thirty years old. A Canadian from BC, who was learning to become a journalist, she was backpacking alone through Britain. A bus dropped her at a crossroads in Wales. She chose the road that led into the village of Llandudno. At the tourist information office, she encountered a charming young employee, Kenner Jones, who lent her his gold pen to sign the visitors’ book. They struck up a friendship, meeting for several chats during her stay in Llandudno. When she returned to the village a few weeks later, he persuaded her to stay at his home, where she shared a bedroom with his hospitable mother, Primrose. The friendship between Lee and Kenner flourished on long walks through the area.

Back in Canada some months later, Lee was surprised to receive a letter from Kenner stating that he was in jail. It was all about a misunderstanding over some funds, he said. He’d borrowed some money to help a friend but the friend absconded, leaving Kenner looking guilty in the eyes of the law. An epistolary relationship between Kenner and Lee became deeper and more intense over the months of his incarceration. Her letters urged him not to lose hope or courage; she believed in his goodness and she didn’t want him to lose faith in himself. His letters professed that it was her kindness that was sustaining him.

Although Lee hadn’t been attracted to Kenner physically – he was small and undistinguished in appearance – she found that the intimate communication by letter was making her fall in love with him. After Kenner’s jubilant release from jail, Lee made another trip to Britain, whereupon he proposed to her and she accepted. She made her own dress for their wedding that took place at an Anglican church close to her home near Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. The happy couple returned to Britain to set up house in a picturesque village about an hour’s commute by train to London where he worked, presumably, in some sort of office job. And yet, Lee couldn’t help noticing that he paid keen attention to what she was making as a typist for a temp agency while waiting for a job to come up in journalism.

It was about a year into the marriage, however, before Lee had any hint that there was something seriously wrong. She’d occasionally had fleeting doubts about Kenner. He claimed to have accomplished an awful lot in his past, he talked about an extraordinary number of important friends in high places, but Lee had quickly dismissed any misgivings. She told herself that she didn’t really understand how things went in England. More significantly, as she sees it now, she wanted to believe that their idyll was real. Having been raised in a troubled home, she’d always longed for the kind of all-encompassing love that Kenner seemed to be providing. She wanted to be convinced that they were truly living the life she’d always dreamed of.

That conviction couldn’t stand up when she started receiving troubling inquiries from banks and police. Kenner had been kiting cheques, signed in her name, all over town. He’d drained her bank account. When confronted with these facts, he said it was true that he’d gotten them into some financial difficulty, but he was trying to keep it secret from her; he was an old-fashioned husband, after all, who wanted to protect his precious wife from such disturbing information. On top of it all, he claimed, he was now being blackmailed by a buddy from his jail days who was threatening to reveal Kenner's criminal record to his employer.

Stunned and broken-hearted, Lee fled back to BC in an attempt to sort out her thoughts and feelings. It seemed to her that she still loved Lee, so the minister who’d married them urged her to try to remain true to her vows. That meant giving Kenner another chance. She sponsored his immigration to Canada, and they settled in North Vancouver where she had a job with a television station. Kenner was contrite and repentant; his professions of love for Lee seemed real. He kept acknowledging that he’d done terrible things, that he’d caused her a lot of heartache, that he’d made big mistakes, but her love was the only thing that was making it possible for him to amend his ways and become a better person. These protestations of good will were always served with large dollops of religiosity.

But soon it was all happening again: the bad cheques, the drained bank account, the calls from the authorities. A psychiatrist who assessed Kenner warned Lee that he was a dangerous sociopath, a narcissist and a compulsive liar and that he might eventually try to kill her. The doctor told her to sever all connection with Kenner. She set in motion a process to withdraw her sponsorship of his immigration and she and her mother managed – by means of considerable wiles and scheming – to get him on a plane back to England.

But the connection could not be that easily broken. In England, Kenner moved in with a couple of do-gooder ladies, one of whom fell so completely under his spell that she wrote letters to Lee chastising her for not fully appreciating Kenner’s goodness and his tremendous love for her. Those charitable ladies wisened up when they too discovered that their bank accounts were drained. No problem for Kenner. He soon teamed up with a much older woman who was only too eager to provide the financial proof of her love for him.

The story goes on and on. It seems there is no end to Kenner’s larcenous escapades. (And he could still be at it, as far as anybody knows!) Every short chapter of the book tells of another outrageous boondoggle engineered by him, while Ms Mackenzie was working hard to repay the debts he’d incurred in her name. Both an RCMP investigator and a senior US immigration officer told Lee that Kenner was a superbly skilled con man, one of the best they’d ever seen. The process of having him deported from Canada had eventually revealed that he had a string of nearly 60 charges for fraud and related offences in Britain, several of them dating to years before he’d met Lee. He always claimed the charges were the result of misunderstandings and innocent blunders but he did serve jail time in several instances. He proved to be the model prisoner: re-organizing the library, turning out delicious meals for the inmates during his stints in the kitchen, generously tutoring other prisoners.

Ms. Mackenzie tells all this with the skill and dispatch that you’d expect from a skilled journalist. The book flies along. I read it in two sittings. (I’d be surprised if it hasn’t been optioned for a movie.) In case you might think that a journalist isn’t capable of creative touches, Ms. Mackenzie occasionally tosses in a little gem, such as this note about London’s Waterloo station:

It was cavernous, noisy. Train schedules changed on huge boards hanging in the hall. The letters and numbers were constantly updated by a flutter of rotating cards that sounded like a flock of birds flying by at close range and high speed.

While Ms. Mackenzie’s book may not reach the heights and depths of some of the greatest memoirs – as exemplified by such a work as Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle (reviewed on DD page titled Fall Reading 2014) – it’s compelling reading. I have only a couple of quibbles. Along with lengthy quotes from Kenner’s letters, Ms. Mackenzie provides several excerpts from her letters to him. Given that this was in the days before people communicated by email, you have to wonder if she kept copies of her letters. That would seem odd. So I think she should have explained how she happens still to have them. The other puzzling issue is that Ms. Mackenzie mentions, well into the book, that she had been married for a time before meeting Kenner. That strikes a somewhat discordant note, in that the book presents her as a naive, inexperienced young woman when the bus drops her at that crossroads in Wales. To be fair to us readers, I think she should have given a little more background to her situation when she met Kenner.

Over and above the astonishment that her story provides, one of the most notable effects on this reader may be one that Ms. Mackenzie would not have intended or expected. I found myself feeling a certain amount of sympathy for Kenner. That’s easy for me to say, mind you, in that I’m not one of the people he harmed so grievously. But it doesn’t seem to me that he was an evil person. There are a couple of references to a frightening look on his face – cold, with empty eyes – but I don’t think we can base much on fleeting impressions of someone’s appearance.

Yes, he did do a lot of damage to people, but it seems possible to me that he always wanted to believe that he was the kind, loving family man that he wanted to be. He seems to be one of those compulsive liars who had to keep fabricating stories to make himself seem as important as he thought he needed to appear to be in other people’s eyes. In one scene, he announces with great jubilation a contract – that, no doubt, turned out to be phony – for articles that he’s going to write. Perhaps because of my familiarity with the business of writing articles, that gave me a pang. I could feel the guy’s desperate need to look worthwhile.

Ms. Mackenzie doesn’t attempt to discover what made him the way he was. Understandably, perhaps, the suffering he caused her didn’t enable her to be objective about a dissection of his character. As for a reader’s attempt to solve the enigma, it’s hard to find any explanation unless there’s some hidden or unknown (to me) genetic cause for such aberrant behaviour. His upbringing seems to have been relatively healthy and normal. His father died of tuberculosis when Kenner was just a few months old, but his mother seems to have been the epitome of kindness and love. Being a single mom who earned her living as a nurse, she often had to leave Kenner with his paternal grandmother, a person who seems to have been a bit weird. Could that have contributed to the warping of his character?

For lack of any answer, the book stands, for me, as a stunning testament to the way that some human beings are driven to curry the favour and approval of others at any expense, including the ruin of themselves and other people.


The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 2016

It might seem a back-handed compliment to say that one of the best things about a mystery is that it has an old-fashioned, cozy feel. But that is one of the most enjoyable things about The Wrong Side of Goodbye. It has almost an Agatha-Christie feel to it: a fairly straight-forward mystery to solve, not a lot of high tech. The way Harry Bosch goes about his sleuthing here – rummaging through garbage pails, pushing plants aside to reveal the writing on a wall – brings to mind that vintage expression that describes a detective as a "gumshoe."

Harry’s main quest, in this case, comes at the bidding of a reclusive billionaire who wants to know whether or not he has an heir. He once had an affair with a Mexican girl who got pregnant. When his family forbade his marriage to her, she disappeared and he never heard of her again. Nearing death now, without any known progeny, the old guy wants to put things right if he happens to have any offspring. Harry is commissioned – under strict secrecy – to come up with an answer. Half way into his search, though, the old guy dies suddenly in suspicious circumstances. It’s up to Harry, while still trying to track a descendant, to find out what truly happened to the deceased.

At the same time, Harry’s working for free for the tiny police department of San Fernando. (It’s a way of keeping his cop credentials valid.) In that capacity, he has taken on the case of the "Screen Cutter": a rapist who gains access to women’s homes by cutting through the screens on their windows. Strangely, his attacks seem to indicate precise knowledge of his victim’s menstrual cycles. Sometimes when a detective takes on a second case in a mystery, it feels like filler. Not here, though. Harry’s two cases blend perfectly as a valid slice of his life during a certain period.

For advice on DNA testing, in the search for an heir, Bosch turns to his half brother, the defence lawyer, Mickey Haller, famous as the star of Mr. Connelly’s "Lincoln Lawyer" books (not to mention the movie starring Matthew McConaughey). Haller’s presence in the book, adding a welcome note of cocky irreverence towards matters of legality and justice, spices up proceedings that might have seemed a trifle intense and diligent on Bosch’s part.

Mr. Connelly’s writing serves the purpose well, even if we do encounter a few clichs of the genre. For instance, there’s the hostile supervisor in the cop shop who’s making Bosch’s work more difficult. And that hoary motif crops up wherein the detective is aware that something’s bothering him, some clue that he’s not getting. However, I think we have to grant that a couple of those tropes are permissible, perhaps even necessary by way of reminding us that we’re in the familiar territory of the enjoyable mystery.

But Mr. Connelly serves up one little trick that tends to play against the fictional aspect of the situation. A prosecutor for the San Fernando courts is telling Bosch that, because of the difference between real trials and the tv versions, they’re going to drop some of the charges against one accused: "Every trial you see on the box lasts an hour. Juries on real cases get impatient. So you can’t over-prosecute a case." It’s like a wink and a nod from the author, as if he’s saying: you and I both know that this isn’t any more real than the tv shows, but we can pretend that it is! I don’t know why that works for me, but it does; maybe it’s a case of the author letting us in on his craft, just a little.

All the characteristic virtues of Mr. Connelly’s writing are on full display here. In one scene – the takedown of a suspect outside a house in the dark – Mr. Connelly shows that he’s capable of conveying livewire action, meanwhile building tremendous suspense. In an entirely different vein, he has provided a prologue and an epilogue, both of which are poignant, adding considerable significance to the story. At times, Mr. Connelly even offers some thoughtful reflection on current issues, as in these remarks about a rape victim who had been reluctant to report the crime because she was an illegal immigrant:

Without even knowing the details of how she had gotten to this country, Bosch knew her path here had not been easy and her desire to stay no matter what the consequences – even to be silent about a rape – was what touched him. Politicians could talk about building walls and changing laws to keep people out, but in the end they were just symbols. Neither would stop the tide any more than the rock jetties at the mouth of the port did. Nothing could stop the tide of hope and desire.

One minor complaint, though. In a spell of reminiscence, Bosch is thinking about a shipboard concert during the Vietnam War, when Connie Stevens "sang a capella, breaking hearts with a slow rendition of the Judy Collins hit ‘Both Sides Now.’" This is not exactly a factual error. It was Judy Collins who first recorded the song and her recording became a big hit. But it would have been more accurate to say that Ms. Stevens broke hearts with "a slow rendition of ‘Both Sides Now,’ the Joni Mitchell hit recorded by Judy Collins." That wording would have been more gratifying to a Canadian reader.


Night School (Mystery) by Lee Child, 2016

This is one of the Jack Reacher novels in which the author takes us back to our hero’s days in the Military Police. It’s 1996, and Reacher has just received a medal for taking out a couple of bad guys in Bosnia. Now he’s being sent to a secret location, to team up with two guys from the FBI and the CIA (neither of whom he’s met before) to undertake a top-secret mission under the direct supervision of the White House. Before long, we – and Reacher – learn what’s afoot: an AWOL soldier in Germany is offering, through a Saudi courrier, to sell something to terrorists in the Middle East. Given that the soldier has set the price at a hundred million dollars, that "something" must be pretty crucial. So it’s up to Reacher and his cohorts to find out what it is and to stop the sale.

Generally, I prefer the Reacher books that describe his life after the military. He’s at his best, I think, when he’s the lone wolf who needs to put an end to some chicanery that he's stumbled on in some remote location. Which is not to say that the story in this book isn’t good. It’s far-reaching, complicated and suspenseful. (It feels a lot like the outline for a movie.) But I don’t find that we get to savour much of Reacher’s character. For one thing, there are few of the trademark wisecracks on offer. It’s almost as if his character isn’t fully formed yet in the mind of the author. That’s impossible, of course, because several books with the full-blown Reacher in all his glory have preceded this one. But perhaps Mr. Child wants to show us that it took some time for Reacher himself to realize the full extent of his persona; maybe that couldn’t happen until he got free of the military.

We do, however, get some of the familiar Reacher traits. He’s laconic, down-to-earth and skeptical, as in this observation about a bartender in a joint where Reacher’s trying to pick up some inside information:

"Life wasn’t like the television shows. Bartenders never spilled the beans. Why would they: Who came first, the sixty people they had to live with every night of their lives, or the lone guy they had never seen before?

We also learn what appears to be the origin of his statement in a later book that "the best fights are the fights you don’t have." A brawl that lasts three or four pages, shows us Reacher’s genius for lightning-quick calculation of matters like velocity, weight, force and so on. Similar thinking in another passage, although it’s not attributed to Reacher, shows extremely careful analysis of a situation involving a fingerprint. I can’t recall ever reading such a detailed explanation of the art.

Some nice touches help us to throw our minds back to the 1990s. Somebody comments that, already, three percent of Germans and more than fifteen percent of Americans use the Internet: "And we’re sure it will grow." For lack of cell phones – that ubiquitous device essential to all mysteries, crime stories and cop shows now – we actually see people using phone booths.

One admirable aspect of this book – one that I don’t remember from other Reachers – is that, in several passages, we’re following in the footsteps of the villain, i.e. the AWOL soldier, as he goes about his business. The author tells us everything on the guy’s mind, his plans for the future and such, except what exactly he’s selling for the mega bucks. That isn’t revealed until about two-thirds of the way into the book. I don’t know exactly what this literary device is called. Maybe it’s something like close, but not complete, third person narration. Whatever the label, it’s very effective.

In terms of plot, the only possible flaw noticeable to me – who, frankly, sometimes had trouble following all the details – is that, at the end of the book, a dying man gives a long, wordy explanation that ties up all the loose ends. Such an oration seems a somewhat implausible feat for a guy who’s lying on the floor, bleeding out from a lethal attack. And, as in any Lee Child book, there’s at least one passage that’s almost too horrible to read: some ghastly violence, for instance, that went down in Bosnia. But Mr. Child, hard-boiled though his attitude is, occasionally tosses us a bit of evocative writing. Here, he’s summing up the aftermath of a huge explosion: "...and then nothing but sirens, the scream of cop cars, the yelp of ambulances, the deafening bass bark of fire trucks, all blending in a howl that sounded more like sorrow than help."

As is nearly always the case in a Reacher book, we get some torrid sex. Far be it for us to get any idea that Reacher ever had any inclination towards celibacy. In this case, we’re reminded repeatedly that the potential sex partner dresses elegantly in black, with pearls. This is supposed to have a mesmerizing effect on Reacher. Most of all, it’s the woman’s perfume that gets to him. Really? Oh well, maybe that’s the way it went back in 1996.


Rogue Lawyer (Mystery) by John Grisham, 2015

In my sometimes frustrating search for good mysteries, the name of John Grisham came up recently. It struck me as odd that I’d never tried anything by one of the most prolific authors of our time. (A library search on his name turns up over 300 hits.) This book, however, happened to be the only one on the shelves in my local library.

Being new to Mr. Grisham’s work, I don’t know how Rogue Lawyer fits into his oeuvre. Is it a one-shot thing or part of a series? The reason that the question looms is that the book looks a lot like a steal from Michael Connelly’s "Lincoln Lawyer" series. If Mr. Grisham and Mr. Connelly had established these two characters at more or less the same time – and presumably independently – then, there’s no question of one writer cribbing the idea of the other. Or is this simply a case of one author paying a sort of cavalier, brash compliment to the other? Department of: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? Maybe these hugely successful authors feel free to do that sort of thing. Kind of like a pat on the back. In fact, there’s even a line in Rogue Lawyer where the titular character mentions that one of his ways of relaxing is to read the latest Michael Connelly.

Both Mr. Grisham’s and Mr. Connelly’s lawyer characters work out of their vehicles as their offices and they tend to pick up difficult, somewhat distasteful cases. Mr. Connelly’s character, Mickey Haller, seems to be not exactly a charlatan, but something of an opportunist, someone who’s not afraid to cut corners. Not the most noble specimen of the profession, let’s say. But he looks like a prince, compared to Sebastian Rudd, Mr. Grisham’s "Rogue Lawyer." Rudd openly admits – to us readers, at any rate – that he’s willing to bend the rules – or openly flout them – to get what he sees as the right result. He says he’ll play fair if the prosecution does, but he’ll cheat if he sees that the prosecution is crooked. When it comes to getting the right judge for a particular case, Rudd has no qualms about bribing the court clerk who supervises the assigning of cases to judges – a process that’s supposedly randomized by computer but can be manipulated by a well-motivated functionary.

It surprised me to find that the case that opens the book – the trial of a mentally disadvantaged young man accused of raping and killing two little kids – wraps up within about 65 pages. Did this mean that each chapter was going to deal with a different case? I prefer a book that’s a continuous account of one case, or a couple of over-lapping ones. Gives you more to mull over in the times when you can’t get back to the book. However, it turned out that the subsequent chapters of Rogue Lawyer dealt with several cases, all of which overlapped a bit. After all, we’re dealing with a period in Rudd’s life and these are all cases on his mind at that time. In that sense, the book can be seen as a novel covering a few months in the life of a lawyer.

All of the cases are interesting. One involves the imprisoned boss of a crime syndicate. Another client is an elderly man who’s accused of shooting a cop who was invading his home in the middle of the night on a mistaken search for drug dealers. And then there’s the young cage fighter, a kid in whom Rudd has invested some money but who finds himself in serious trouble. The writing is sharp and clear, concise and hard-hitting. (You can kinda tell Mr. Grisham isn’t a beginner.)

Rudd, although not perhaps the most likeable hero in detective fiction, does have self-knowledge and candour that help to make him tolerable. He readily admits to his flaws. When called into his son’s school on the occasion of the boy’s being involved in a schoolyard fight, Rudd offers a remarkably sensible and level-headed take on those kinds of disruptions. I also like the way he can see into some typical behaviours: the way, for instance, that a young offender will pick up attitude from his jail cohorts. As in the case of Michael Connelly’s "Lincoln Lawyer," Rudd is at his brilliant best in the courtroom. Note this remark to the jury in the case of Doug Renfro, the man accused of shooting the cop: "Why doesn’t someone simply read the statute and tell Mr. Renfro to go to prison for the next forty years? Well, because there is no such thing as automatic guilt. That’s why we have juries, and your job will be to decide if Doug Renfro knew what he was doing."

Another good thing about the book is that it ends on a realistic note, not with a clang of unmitigated triumph. At times, though, I wondered if the writing is a bit too slick. It somewhat lacks the warmth and grit of ordinary life. You never know, for instance, where all of this is taking place. Rudd mentions "the city" and, at one point, we’re told that California is two thousand miles away, but the lack of any specific locale tends to make it feel that the book is not quite rooted in the real world. And it bothered me that Mr. Grisham paints some characters in such extremely sharp profile. Rudd’s ex-wife, for instance, is so vicious and antagonistic towards him that she barely seems like a real person. In the same vein, we’re often told that Rudd and his opponents in the courtroom "hate" and "detest" each other. He even says that lawyers’ resentments often lead to fist fights.

That expression of hostility touches on the thing that bothers me most about the book. Rudd has, with a few exceptions, utter contempt for the authorities, for prosecutors, politicians, lawmakers and cops. In his view, these representatives of the establishment are all irredeemably corrupt and depraved – not to mention stupid and benighted. Hence, his willingness to fight them with whatever wiles he can summon, legal or not.

This attitude on the part of the book’s hero seriously challenges my concept of what we expect from a work of fiction. No matter how much bad stuff goes down in any particular novel, play or film, don’t we expect the work, ultimately, to somehow uphold the belief that we have viable systems in place for the administration of justice, for the working of society to the best ends possible? Admittedly, we do see Rudd fighting for the right cause; you could say he’s on the side of the angels. But what can we make of a book that clearly shows that this lone individual is up against a system that is fundamentally flawed, a society that is unjust? Maybe we could stomach that in a novel about someone’s battle against an oppressive regime in some other corner of the world. It’s quite a different matter to have the hero of a mystery telling us that the structures we rely on aren’t worth our belief in them.


Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation (Legal) by Kevin Donovan, 2016

This is one of those books that poses some questions when you’re trying to decide whether or not to read it.

  • Is the author merely hoping to cash in on a sleazy tale?
  • Is the publisher expecting to profit from recycling a notorious scandal?
  • Is the prospective reader hoping to get a buzz from salacious detail?
  • Is the prospective reader anticipating a rush of righteous vengeance towards a celeb who’s had a mighty fall – i.e. a little bit of good old schadenfreude?

Whether or not there may be affirmative answers to any of these questions in this case, it turns out that there are better reasons for reading the book. My own hope was that it would help to explain the character of Jian Ghomeshi, the illustrious radio host who was fired in 2014 by the CBC when it was discovered that he participated in rough sex that inflicted physical harm on women. I can’t think of any instance in recent decades when a public figure has had such a precipitous fall from the heights of popularity to the depths of disgrace. In my listening years, CBC Radio never had such a glittering star. As a host, Mr. Ghomeshi was a virtuoso performer, radiating warmth, intelligence and charm. Not only did that win him a huge following of loyal listeners; his sexy image catapulted him to the status of one of Canada’s most charismatic public figures. Then came those revelations about his sex life. Suddenly he was a pariah.

How could a man’s inner life lead to such self-destruction? Unfortunately, this book can’t shed much light on the psyche of the man. I suppose that’s something that no one but himself and people close to him could do. They, not surprisingly, aren’t talking. The book, then, is forced to rehash much of the well publicized material with regard to the cases of sexual abuse that were brought against Mr. Ghomeshi. It’s not pleasant to read about what happened between him and the women who made charges against him, but those facts are essential to an understanding of the story, in so far as that’s possible.

Kevin Donovan, the Toronto Star reporter who was one of the first media representatives on the story, has a competent grasp of all the facts. One of the most striking scenes in the book takes place at a gala dinner where Mr. Ghomeshi and Mr. Donovan are seated – inadvertently, one assumes – beside each other. As Mr. Ghomeshi knew that Mr. Donovan was working on the story about him, the rapport between them was not exactly chummy. But Mr. Ghomeshi was cordial, if skittish.

What the book offers beyond the information conveyed in the media so far is some fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into the goings-on at the Star and the CBC. We sit in on the agonizing meetings of the Star staff as they try to decide how much to publish and when. We see the newspaper’s legal counsel standing over the writers’ shoulders, watching closely to make sure that ethical and legal boundaries are not crossed. We learn that Mr. Donovan had a difficult relationship with Jesse Brown, a freelance journalist who wrote a blog about the media and who was the first reporter to whom one of Mr. Ghomeshi’s sex partners revealed his abusive treatment. Although Mr. Donovan and Mr. Brown were paired as a team for much of the Star’s coverage of the story, there was, to hear Mr. Donovan tell it, considerable tension between his own meticulous approach to the story and Mr. Brown’s urge to go public with it in a less cautious way.

And then there was the consternation at the CBC as the story gained momentum. Who had known what, and when did they know it? And was it going to be possible to keep it under wraps? In what might seem like a tragic irony – at least, from Mr. Ghomeshi’s point of view – the photos that convinced the CBC brass that they could no longer stand behind Mr. Ghomeshi were photos that he had presented in the expectation that they would exonerate him, presumably because they showed that the woman involved was willing. When the CBC staffers saw her injuries, however, they apparently quailed at the thought that the man who could do such a thing would continue to be a stellar representative of the corporation.

As most of us know, the court cases against Mr. Ghomeshi foundered on the fact that emails revealed at the trial showed that the women continued their amorous contact with him after the incidents that prompted their complaints. The collapse of the case against him left many people – not just the women who made the charges – feeling that justice had not been served. If the law, however, was not able to redress whatever harm may have been done to the women in their contact with Mr. Ghomeshi, and if it may seem that he escaped unscathed from his unsavoury escapades, one could hardly claim that his life has not suffered a major downturn. Maybe that’s justice enough.


This Is That (CBC Radio) by Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring

I’ve mentioned this humour show previously on Dilettante’s Diary, but I think we should continue to praise the CBC for things that it does so well, given that it often seems to be under siege these days. This Is That is one of the funniest and deliciously satirical shows that has come along in ages. I happened to catch the tail end of a recent episode: a documentary about Lloydminster, the Canadian town that happens to straddle the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The point of the item was that there’s a deep-seated enmity between the townsfolk on one side of the border and those on the other. If you’re a resident of one side and you want to make a trip to the other side to buy something, you have to wear a disguise and travel in a vehicle with changed licence plates so that your origins won’t be apparent. When interviewed about the reasons for this hostility, all people can say is things like "I dunno....It’s always been this way...It’s just that they’re not the way we are!" [not an exact quote] As always with this program, one of the beauties of the piece was that the "interviewees" sounded so exactly like ordinary, person-in-the-street Canadians. (Great work by the actors!) The item ended with words from a woman who had decided to try to make peace between the warring factions. She set up a choir for kids from both sides of the border. She had a kid from Alberta stand and look at a kid from Saskatchewan and – Guess what!! – they found that they looked like each other.

If this isn’t an example of making brilliant points by means of a silly premise, I don’t know what is!

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com