Tag Archives: law & literature

Kate Sutherland

Summer Reading: Legal Fiction

TopTenList

I made a rash promise earlier this week during the Dean’s Welcome Webcast to post a top ten list of legal fiction by way of a bit of suggested summer reading. I’m not exactly going to make good on that promise here as I’m highly resistant to the “top ten” part of the proposition. To truly come up with a top ten, I’d have to have an exhaustive knowledge of the field and, while I read a lot, I certainly haven’t read everything. Plenty of worthy books are bound to be left off my list simply because I haven’t yet read them. Further, I’m mindful that this is an inherently subjective exercise. The books I choose to highlight are those that appeal to my particular literary tastes and legal interests, not necessarily the best books by any objective criteria. So consider this list not a top ten, but simply a preliminary reading list of legal fiction that I found entertaining, insightful, or challenging (in the best cases, all three). Here they are, in order of publication, with (I hope) enough detail to pique your interest without giving too much away:

Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens: More than a century and a half after its initial publication, this novel centering on the seemingly interminable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is still distressingly relevant on issues related to legal ethics, legal obfuscation, and justice delayed as justice denied. It also contains some of the most memorable and entertaining lawyer characters in literature including the sinister Mr. Tulkinghorn, the odious Mr. Vholes, and (possibly my favourite) young Mr. Guppy who is utterly enamoured with the language of the law. It’s nearly a thousand pages long, but when I reached the end, I wished there was more of it. (Incidentally, if you like to listen rather than read, there’s a wonderful audio version available narrated by Robert Whitfield.)

The Trial (1925) by Franz Kafka: Kafka stands alongside Shakespeare, Dickens, and Orwell as one of the authors most frequently referenced in legal decisions. And when judges or lawyers refer to proceedings or outcomes as Kafkaesque, they are likely thinking of The Trial, a novel in which the main character, Josef K., finds himself caught up in the nightmare of a trial on charges which are never specified via processes that he doesn’t understand.

Strong Poison (1930) by Dorothy Sayers: This is the installment in Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series in which Harriet Vane, one of my favourite characters in crime fiction, is introduced. Bohemian author Vane is on trial for the murder of her former lover, and Wimsey must solve the mystery of who killed him in order to prove her innocent and save her from the gallows.

Tragedy at Law (1942) by Cyril Hare: Hare wrote a series of mystery novels set in the legal world based on his own experiences as an English barrister and judge. In this one, regarded by many as his best, High Court judge Mr. Justice Barber first receives threatening letters, then is subjected to an attempt on his life while moving from town to town to preside over cases in the southern English circuit. Barrister and amateur detective Francis Pettigrew sets out to discover who wants Barber dead before that person succeeds in the endeavour.

Tales of Manhattan (1967) by Louis Auchincloss: Auchincloss was an extraordinarily prolific writer as well as a practicing lawyer for seven decades, beginning in the 1940s until his death in 2010. In his fiction he depicted the world of New York high society and the Wall Street lawyers and bankers who served its interests. Gore Vidal wrote of him: “Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs.” Tales of Manhattan includes a suite of stories which depicts a fictional New York law firm from multiple perspectives. These stories are very much of their time and place and thereby illuminate a particular historical moment in U.S. society and legal practice. But they also explore, as do many of Auchincloss’s works, tensions between legal ambition and creative aspirations in a way that may resonate for the would-be lawyer-writers among you.

The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie (2005): This book unites Komie’s many law-themed stories that were originally dispersed throughout earlier collections published between 1983 and 1999. Like Auchincloss, Komie is at once an acclaimed fiction writer and a practicing attorney but his territory is Chicago and the legal world that he depicts in these stories is that of the 1970s and 80s. Consequently, the cast of law students, lawyers, and judges that he depicts is much more diverse. Legal practice has changed considerably in the intervening years, but many of the personal and professional conflicts that Komie’s characters face will still seem familiar to today’s lawyers and law students.

Alias Grace (1996) by Margaret Atwood: This Giller prize winner is my favourite of Margaret Atwood’s books. It’s a historical novel that is based on a notorious 19th century Canadian case in which a maid was convicted of the brutal murders of her employer and his housekeeper. Atwood’s rendition of the story takes the reader into the mind of the convicted murderer, now serving out a life sentence and claiming to have no memory of the crime. It also explores the question of her innocence or guilt through the eyes of a fictional doctor who is researching her case.

George & Rue (2005) by George Elliot Clarke: This novel is based on the story of two African Canadian brothers who were convicted of and executed for the murder of a taxi driver in the course of a robbery in New Brunswick in 1949. Clarke became intrigued by the story upon learning that he was related to the brothers and set out to imagine, through innovative use of the historical record, what led up to the commission of this crime.

The Round House (2012) by Louise Erdrich: Erdrich’s National Book Award winning novel tells the story of 13-year-old Joe’s quest for justice in the aftermath of an assault on his mother on their Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. The richness of the novel is nicely summed up in its National Book Award citation: “Erdrich has created an intricately layered novel that not only untangles our nation’s history of moral and judicial failure, but also offers a portrait of a community sustained by its traditions, values, faith, and stories.”

NW (2012) by Zadie Smith: In this novel, Smith paints a portrait of contemporary London through the eyes of a group of characters linked by the shared history of growing up in a housing estate in the city’s northwest. One of the key characters is barrister Natalie Blake who confronts sexism and racism in the legal profession, and struggles with the gulf between the world in which she grew up and the one she inhabits now to which law has, in part, provided a conduit. The picture that emerges of London, of the legal profession, and of Natalie is complex and challenging.

I could very easily add twenty more books to this list, but I said ten so I’ll stop there. But I also said preliminary, so I invite you to add your own favourites in the comments below, and also any reflections you may have on the books I’ve highlighted here. I would be very happy to come away with some new titles to add to my summer reading!

Kate Sutherland

IFLS Book Club: Zadie Smith’s N.W.

Kate Sutherland

Women Lawyers in Literature (in anticipation of the 1st meeting of the Law, Feminism, [short] Fiction reading group)

Lists of top or greatest or favourite fictional lawyers seem to appear at regular intervals, for example, the ABA Journal’s 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers Who Are Not Atticus Finch, or the Guardian’s Top 10 Lawyers in Fiction (selected by novelist Simon Lelic). Such lists generally feature few or no women lawyers, and those that make the cut tend to be drawn from films or television programs rather than books. For example, the two women included in the ABA’s list of 25 are Ally McBeal and Patty Hewes (of Damages). Where are the women lawyers of literature?

Certainly in seeking to identify the most noteworthy fictional female lawyers, one has a smaller pool from which to draw. In a 1994 article, “In Portia’s Footsteps: Women Lawyers in Literature,” Marion Dixon concluded that after Portia’s appearance in Shakespeare’s 1598 play Merchant of Venice, “there don’t appear to have been any fictional women lawyers in English literature until the 1980’s.” (And, of course, as Dixon notes, despite her name having become synonymous with women lawyers, Portia wasn’t actually a lawyer.) Surely the occasional one must have found her way into 20th century literature pre-1980, but I confess that no names spring immediately to mind. But as the number of women in the legal profession began to increase, so too did the ranks of fictional female lawyers.

The only two scholarly articles that I’ve found squarely on the topic of the representation of women lawyers in literature (as opposed to on television or in film)—the aforementioned piece by Dixon, and one by Kathryn Lee and Elizabeth Morgan titled “Legal Fictions and the Moral Imagination: Female Fictional Lawyers Encounter Professional Responsibility”—focus on crime fiction. The first examples that occurred to me also come from this genre: Alafair Burke’s series featuring Portland Deputy DA Samantha Kincaid, Linda Fairstein’s series featuring Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor Alexandra Cooper, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s series featuring Reykjavik lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir.

Another of my favourite genres, the short story, has also proved rich territory in this connection. Thus when we decided to make women lawyers the theme of our first Law, Feminism, [short] Fiction discussion, there were many stories from which to choose. Ultimately we settled on three stories by three very different writers that offer a range of representations of women lawyers: “Weight,” by Margaret Atwood; “The Mother,” by Michele Martinez; and, “His Sister,” by Ruthann Robson.

Margaret Atwood is a towering literary figure who needs little introduction. Perhaps worth noting in this context though is the fact that her work has garnered much interest among legal scholars, in particular The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that depicts a Christian fundamentalist society in which reproduction is entirely state-controlled, and Alias Grace, a historical novel based on an 1843 murder case. But our focus next week will be her short story “Weight,” first published in her 1991 collection Wilderness Tips, which has at its centre two women, the narrator and her friend Molly, who attended law school at a time when women students were still an embattled minority, and bonded over shared feminist values and aspirations, but whose career paths and lives have diverged dramatically by the time the story begins.

Michele Martinez, formerly a federal prosecutor, is the author of a series of legal thrillers featuring Manhattan federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas. Vargas is also the protagonist of “The Mother,” a short story published in a 2009 anthology, in which she is forced to rethink an apparent legal victory after being confronted by the mother of a young man whom she is prosecuting for murder.

Ruthann Robson is a professor at CUNY School of Law as well as a fiction writer. She is an extraordinarily prolific writer in both realms, as well as an innovative one whose work might sometimes be characterized as falling somewhere in between the two. Her short stories and novels are peopled by a number of intriguing law student, law professor, and lawyer characters. “His Sister,” from her 2000 collection The Struggle for Happiness, focuses on Jolene Fields, director of the Criminal Defense Resource Center. As a law student, Fields had loved research and hated mooting, and finds herself now “amazed at the privilege of being able to ‘do’ criminal defense work and never walk into a courtroom.” But the story ultimately reveals her rather more complicated relationship to criminal law and with the criminal defense attorneys for whom she does research.

Osgoode folk who would like to join in a discussion of these three stories next week can find details about the meeting time and place on the IFLS blog.

Whether or not you’re able to join the discussion in person, I would be most grateful for any help you can provide in the comments below in my quest to compile a more comprehensive list of women lawyers in literature. In addition to those mentioned above there is Ruth Puttermesser from Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers; Judge Josie Jo Ford from children’s classic The Westing Game; an array of compelling women law students, lawyers, and judges in Lowell B. Komie’s short stories; criminal lawyer Cass Jameson from Carolyn Wheat’s mystery series; the lawyers of all-female firm Rosato & Associates featured in Lisa Scottoline’s series of legal thrillers; and, barristers Selena Jardine and Julia Larwood from Sarah Caudwell’s series of legal whodunnits. Who else?

Kate Sutherland

Take-Homes from the Museum of London’s Dickens Exhibition: An App & a Facsimile Manuscript

I’m immersed in Dickens these days, completing a draft of the chapter devoted to his 1844 copyright case in my book about writers’ lawsuits, and am consequently paying even more attention than I might otherwise have done to news of publications, exhibitions, and events related to the 200th anniversary of his birth.

This week, all the buzz is about Dickens and London, an exhibition opening today at the Museum of London which “recreat[es] the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projections,” thereby taking visitors “on a haunting journey to discover the city that inspired [Dickens’] writings.” On display are “paintings, photographs, costumes, and objects” including rarely seen hand-written manuscripts of Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations. See the Telegraph, the Guardian, and BBC News for tantalizing previews.

But what is the Dickens fan who dwells far outside of London to do, besides book a flight immediately? Happily, there are a few elements of the exhibition that can be enjoyed at home.

First, there is Dickens: Dark London, an app for iPads and iPhones. Described as “an interactive graphic novel” based on Dickens’ late night walks about the city as described in Sketches by Boz, it includes narration by actor Mark Strong, and marvelously atmospheric drawings by illustrator David Foldvari. Also included is an 1860s map of the terrain overlaid with a current one for the viewer to navigate, as well as other interactive features. The first edition focuses on Seven Dials, with more material due to be added in subsequent editions each month through June 2012, echoing the serial publication by which most of Dickens’ work initially appeared. (NYT, Reuters)

Second, a facsimile edition of the original hand-written manuscript of Great Expectations is due to be published this month by Cambridge University Press. Crammed with crossings-out and scribbled-in additions, it enables a glimpse into Dickens’ creative process. See a detailed description and a slide show of some of its pages in the Guardian. For the frisson of seeing Dickens’ words in his own handwriting firsthand, a visit to the exhibition to see the original is still in order. But what luxury to be able to acquire a facsimile of it to study in leisure at home.

So, if a trip to London is not currently in the cards, a trip to the app store and/or the bookstore may provide some consolation.

Kate Sutherland

New on my Bookshelf: Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

I’m a big fan of Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant comics, and am most pleased to have acquired a copy of her new book, published this Fall by Drawn & Quarterly.

It was Beaton’s comics poking fun at exalted literary figures such as the Brontë sisters that first caught my eye:

And I was further drawn in when I found that Beaton also appears to share my preoccupation with crime fiction classics such as Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes. See, for example, a few samples from a series that she did riffing on the covers of Nancy Drew novels:

And this one, in which she has a bit of fun with TV/movie portrayals of Holmes sidekick Watson:

If that’s not enough to pique the interest of legal readers, you’ll also find in Beaton’s oeuvre a plethora of comics devoted to history, some with a legal dimension (see this deft summation of the genesis of Oscar Wilde’s legal troubles), and many with a Canadian focus (for example, here on Confederation). Indeed, my colleague Sonia Lawrence tells me that she has contemplated using Beaton’s comics in her constitutional law class.

For more information about Kate Beaton and her book, you can find recent interviews on CBC and in the Paris Review, and enthusiastic reviews in the National Post and Quill & Quire.

Kate Sutherland

New on my Bookshelf: The Ecstasy of Influence: nonfictions, etc. by Jonathan Lethem

The Ecstasy of Influence is a voluminous collection of Jonathan Lethem’s nonfiction, much of it previously published in scattered locations, some of it new. He covers a diverse range of subjects–a quick scan of the table of contents indicates that he touches on comics, postmodernism, used bookshops, Philip K. Dick, The Godfather, Bob Dylan, book tours, Shirley Jackson, Brooklyn, and more. There’s plenty here to interest fans of Lethem’s fiction, and bookish types generally.

But perhaps most likely to capture the attention of those of us interested in law and the arts is the section headed “Plagiarisms” that includes the title piece, an essay about plagiarism in which nearly every sentence is lifted from another writer (originally published in Harper’s Magazine in 2007); a follow-up piece reflecting on the stir that essay created; and other broad mediations on influence, appropriation, originality, and creativity.

For a bit of a preview of Lethem’s views on these and other literary matters, click here to read a recent interview with him conducted by Laura Miller for Salon. And I’m assuming that if you’re sufficiently interested in my bookshelves to read this post, you’ll also enjoy a peek at Lethem’s library. For that, click here to see fabulous photos of writers’ personal libraries, including Lethem’s, from Leah Price’s Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, excerpted today in The New Yorker.

Of course, now I feel compelled to order Price’s book as well…

Kate Sutherland

New on my Bookshelf: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

I confess that there are a number of classics in the law and literature canon that I’ve not yet read, and I’ve resolved to fill in some of those gaps, beginning with Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. The number of law journal articles that reference the story, and the frequency with which it turns up on the syllabi of law and literature courses would be reason enough to begin there. But I have a more specific interest as well. I’ve been plotting an article about Louis Auchincloss’s short stories, many of which are set in Wall Street law firms, and, given that Melville’s Bartleby is subtitled “A Story of Wall Street,” it seems an antecedent that I ought to explore.

But even if I hadn’t already resolved to read Bartleby, a couple of recent mentions highlighting the continuing relevance of this mid-nineteenth century work would doubtless have piqued my interest. The first is in a thought-provoking essay by Hannah Gersen at The Millions in which she links Bartleby’s “peculiar form of rebellion” to the Occupy Wall Street protests, ultimately concluding: “If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has—to unsettle.” The second is a reference in a Forbes column by Victoria Pynchon in which she parallels Bartleby’s situation with the contemporary plight of legal secretaries. (Thanks to Sonia Lawrence who led me to the latter with an @OsgoodeIFLS tweet.)

The edition of Bartleby the Scrivener that I bought, pictured above, is an instalment in Melville House Publishing’s marvellous Art of the Novella series. They’re lovely small books that feel good in the hand, and the selection of titles is broad enough to appeal to any discerning reader. I note as well that there are others besides Bartleby that are likely be of interest to those who like a bit of law with their literature, including, for example: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Ian Dreiblatt), The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain, and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I already boast a few Melville House novellas in my collection, and I covet many more!

I will report here in due course on how I fare with Bartleby, and on if and how it connects with my Auchincloss reading.

Kate Sutherland

New on my Bookshelf: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

My latest acquisition is a book that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for some time: Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. Why such excitement over a new biography of a figure as well known and much written about as Charles Dickens? I concede that I’m not expecting any grand new revelations on the eve of the 200th anniversary of his birth. But I’m something of a connoisseur of literary biography, and despite having delved into a number in my recent research on Dickens (you may recall that he’s the subject of a chapter in my book-in-progress on writers’ lawsuits), I haven’t yet found one that strikes quite the right balance for me. I’m hopeful that Tomalin’s new book will prove to be just what I seek.

What is it that I look for in literary biography? There are those who contend that writers’ work is all that matters, that their life stories are irrelevant, indeed, that knowledge of their lives may well impede rather than enhance appreciation of their work. I have some sympathy for that view. Certainly I would always put the work first. But, both as a writer and a reader, I’m deeply interested in process, in how the work that we value so highly was created. What were the material conditions within which the work was produced? How did the subjects develop as writers? Which authors and what books did they read along the way? Did they have collaborators, supporters, detractors, helping or hindering their work? If they drew on their lives in their work, how did they transform their experiences into literature? (On that last point, I hasten to add that I have little patience for simplistic quests to identify which real person a fictional character was based on, and so on. I believe that most writers find fodder for writing in their lives, but that good fiction is seldom a direct representation of experience but rather a transformation of it into something else, independent of its origins.) Thus whether or not learning about writers’ lives enhances my appreciation of their work very much depends on where biographers’ emphases lie in their explorations of those lives.

Based on Claire Tomalin‘s track record, I have high hopes that her biography of Dickens is just the sort that I would like to read. (Of her many highly-lauded biographies, her most recent, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, was a particular favourite of mine.) Certainly the reviews in the UK, where the Dickens biography has been out for a few weeks now, are promising. In the Telegraph, Judith Flanders writes that “Tomalin’s psychological analysis is acute, isolating that elusive something that made Dickens great […] and when it comes to analysing the novels, she is magisterial.” In the Guardian, William Boyd concurs and elaborates: “The work remains and endures – and Tomalin analyses the novels with great acuity – but what is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges.” In the Independent, Boyd Tonkin opines: “Even dedicated Dickensians will know, and understand, much more about the novelist after reading Tomalin’s close-packed but free-flowing narrative,” then concludes: “For the moment, she has captured Dickens, in sun and shadow, with all the full-hearted exuberance, generosity and keen wit that he merits.”

I’ll share my own views here once I’ve read it. In the meantime, if you fancy learning more about the book, click here to read an excerpt, and here to watch an interview with Tomalin about it. And below, you can find Penguin’s video introduction to the book in which Tomalin provides her own answer to the question of why another biography of Dickens seemed worth doing:

Kate Sutherland

Roundup of News & Reviews, June 1-12, 2011

Below are links to some of the news stories and book reviews related to law and the arts that have caught my attention so far this month.

A group of origami artists is suing Sarah Morris claiming that her series of paintings based on origami crease patterns constitute copyright infringement. The suit was launched in U.S. federal court in April, but it received fresh attention this week with an article in the Guardian and posts on a number of IP and art law blogs (The 1709 Blog, Art and Artifice). The Guardian reports that the plaintiffs allege “Morris copied their origami crease patterns, changed the colour scheme and then sold and exhibited the works without obtaining permission and crediting them,” and that she has thereby “‘created confusion’ over the authorship of their designs and damaged their professional reputations.” Morris is expected to base her defense on fair use. Her lawyer is reported to have told the Art Newspaper: “It’s hard to imagine a clearer use of transformative fair use.” Click here to see excerpts from the complaint including several exhibits that set the plaintiffs’ crease patterns alongside Morris’s paintings (as in the illustration above).

Two years ago, the unveiling of a previously unknown collection of paintings, drawings, letters, and ephemera purported to be the work of Frida Kahlo was met with charges that “all of the documents and works in [the collection] are fakes.” Now, the L.A. Times reports that in a decision rendered last year but only reported last week, “a Mexican court has ruled that opponents have failed to prove their claim that the collection is bogus.” This ruling does not establish the authenticity of the collection, but it paved the way for its owners to “[file] ownership papers or the material […] with Mexico’s Public Registry of Copyrights” and to begin to “[consider] exhibition options.”

A California federal judge has decided in favour of photographer Glen E. Friedman in his copyright suit against Thierry Guetta (“Mr. Brainwash”). Guetta argued that his work based on Friedman’s iconic photo of rap group Run DMC did not constitute infringement because Friedman’s photograph was not sufficiently original to merit copyright protection or, alternatively, that he had altered it sufficiently for his work to be considered fair use. The judge rejected both arguments and granted Friedman’s motion for summary judgment. Some commentators have expressed concern that, hot on the heels of the Richard Prince decision, this outcome is a further blow to appropriation art. (Hollywood Reporter, Media Bistro, LA Weekly)

The New York Times reports that last week a U.S. federal appeals court denied the claim of an innocent buyer of a stolen Pissarro print that she ought not to have to forfeit the work. She purchased it twenty-five years ago from a San Antonio art gallery and did not learn until she tried to sell it through Sotheby’s in 2003 that it had been reported stolen thirty years previously from a museum in Aix-les-Bains, France. The U.S. government promptly “seized the print as contraband.” In the wake of the court’s upholding of that action paired with its determination that the buyer could not recover her legal fees, she ruefully observes that her “$100,000 asset [has] turned into a $100,000 liability.”

In the Observer, Rory Mulholland notes the proliferation of protest art on the walls of the rebel-held cities of Libya. He finds the multitude of caricatures of Muammar Gaddafi, “whose many eccentricities make him a perfect target for satire,” to be “the most striking manifestation of the new-found freedom of expression” in those regions. Click here to see a slide show of some of the images that Mulholland captured on film.

Joan Jett and Cherie Currie have filed suit in a New York court in an attempt to stop the release of a tribute album featuring contemporary cover versions of the songs of their 1970s band The Runaways. In the Hollywood Reporter, Eriq Gardner sums up the basis for the suit as follows: “Typically, when cover songs are recorded, mechanical license royalty rates apply. No permission is required. However, in this unusual situation, Jett and Currie are claiming that the project is a violation of their likenesses, and that the record label is using their famous names to market the album.”

Christophe Maillet, owner of a Doors-themed Paris Bar called The Lezard King, has received a letter from the band’s lawyer threatening legal action if he doesn’t change the name of the bar and remove all images of the band from the premises within the next three months. The letter warns: “”The Doors do not want to be seen as having approved of your establishment and also the consumption of alcohol.” Maillet, a life-long Doors fan who personally collected the memorabilia over the past twenty-five years that constitutes the bar’s decor, “doesn’t know what could happen if the legal action goes ahead” but fears that the “worst-case scenario is that they could close the bar.” (Associated Press)

The family of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda maintains that he died of cancer in 1973 at the age of 69. But following allegations that he was, in fact, poisoned at the behest of General Pinochet, a Chilean judge has ordered an investigation into his death. (BBC, NPR)

As part of its coverage of the Hay festival, the Telegraph has published a wonderful series of articles in which writers pay tribute to their “heroes of free speech.” Click on the following writers’ names to learn about theirs: Javier Cercas, Kishwar Desai, Héctor Abad Faciolince, Helena Kennedy, Youssef Rakha, and Elif Shafak.

Katherine A. Power has high praise for Mary Doria Russell’s historical western, Doc: “This extraordinary novel, whose central figure is John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday, is both a work of reclamation of the man from his legend as a coldblooded killer and an inspired evocation of a mythic quintessence.” (Salon)

In the Daily Beast, David Goodwillie interviews police detective Edward Conlon about his novel Red on Red. Given Conlon’s line of work and the critical acclaim of his memoir, Blue Blood, it is perhaps unsurprising that his novel is garnering praise for its authentic portrayal of detective work and of police partnerships. “Conlon’s colorful world exists under a gray and pressing sky of authenticity that not even the most research-addicted crime novelists could recreate,” Goodwillie writes. He continues: “At the same time, Red on Red offers Conlon his first opportunity to move past the factual restrictions of non-fiction, and he doesn’t disappoint.” It sounds like it’s well worth a look.

“Where better to set a noir police procedural than in streets awash in uncollected trash, against a backdrop of smoke rising from Vesuvius?” asks Hallie Ephron. She concludes that with These Dark Things, the first installment in a series featuring Captain Natalia Monte of the Naples Carabinieri, Jan Meret Weiss lays claim to that city as decisively as Donna Leon has to Venice. I’ve just finished reading These Dark Things myself and can attest that Natalia Monte is a most intriguing character and that Naples is very vividly evoked⎯a promising start to a new series. (Boston Globe)

Kate Sutherland

International Crime Fiction: Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Series

“International crime fiction” can be an unhelpful label, given how often people use it simply to denote the crime fiction of any country other than their own, so as to indicate border crossing by readers rather than sleuths. But it is an apt one for Shamini Flint’s series featuring Inspector Singh whose investigations cut a wide swath across Southeast Asia. Inspector Singh is a detective in the Singapore police force, but it seems that his superiors are keen to take advantage of any opportunity to send him on distant, unpalatable assignments. In the first installment of the series, he is sent to Kuala Lumpur to ensure that a Singaporean woman accused of murder is fairly treated by the Malaysian police. In the second, he finds himself on secondment in Bali to assist with anti-terrorism efforts in the wake of a bomb exploding, and in the fourth he is sent to Cambodia as an observer to the international war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh. (In the third, he stays home in Singapore, but even there it seems that there’s an international dimension given that the murder at the centre of the plot occurs at an international law firm.)

The first book in the series, Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, amply illustrates the richness that such cross-cultural and individually diverse settings can afford. In it, the shared colonial histories of Singapore and Malaysia are highlighted, and current tensions between the countries⎯political, cultural, and religious⎯are mirrored in the interaction between the Singaporean Sikh Inspector Singh, and his Malaysian Moslem counterpart Inspector Mohammad, and also in the details of the case that they must cooperate to solve: the murder of a wealthy Malaysian businessman of which his estranged Singaporean wife, a former model who grew up in poverty, stands accused.

The author of the series, Shamini Flint, is a former lawyer who practiced for ten years with an international firm in Singapore and Malaysia before opting to write full time, and she makes excellent use of her legal knowledge in this book. The inner workings of the Malaysian criminal justice system are explored, as are Malaysia’s plural legal regimes, the latter providing a crucial plot point when the murdered man suddenly converted to Islam in order to have a bitter custody battle transferred to Syariah court in the hope of thwarting his wife’s seemingly imminent victory in the secular courts.

These facets effectively combine to evoke the strong sense of place that distinguishes much of the best crime fiction, and make for extremely interesting reading. The most appealing feature of the book, though, is Inspector Singh himself. One of the back cover blurbs draws a parallel between him and Precious Ramotswe of Alexander McCall Smith’s Ladies Detective Agency series. I can see why the publishers would stress such a comparison given the enormous popularity of that series. But the comparison is all wrong. Inspector Singh has much more in common with his police procedural brethren such as Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander (methodical, glum, portly and wheezing, at odds with his wife), John Rebus (at odds with his superiors), or even, if we can step into the realm of television for a moment, Lieutenant Columbo (rumpled and underestimated). In her characterization of Inspector Singh, Flint strikes the perfect balance: sufficient familiarity to meet genre expectations, and sufficient novelty to make it feel altogether fresh.

I have only read the first book so far and I recommend it enthusiastically. I fully expect that, on further investigation (ha ha), Inspector Singh will join my pantheon of favourite fictional sleuths. It appears that, as yet, the first is the only one in the series that has been published in Canada, but I liked it so well that I’ve already ordered the UK editions of the rest, and I eagerly anticipate their arrival.