Tag Archives: stories

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

Legal History: Shelley Gavigan Launches Hunger, Horses, and Government Men

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the launch of my colleague Shelley Gavigan‘s new book Hunger, Horses, and Government Men: Criminal Law on the Aboriginal Plains, 1870-1905.

Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s description:

Gavigan uses records of ordinary cases from the lower courts and insights from critical criminology and traditional legal history to interrogate state formation and criminal law in the Saskatchewan region of the North-West Territories between 1870 and 1905. By focusing on Aboriginal people’s participation in the courts rather than on narrow legal categories such as “the state” and “the accused,” Gavigan allows Aboriginal defendants, witnesses, and informants to emerge in vivid detail and tell the story in their own terms. Their experiences — captured in court files, police and penitentiary records, and newspaper accounts — reveal that the criminal law and the Indian Act operated in complex and contradictory ways.

At the launch, Justice James MacPherson introduced the book as one about the prairies, history and law by a woman who loves the prairies, history and law. He pronounced it a beautiful, literary, readable book, and praised Shelley as a master storyteller who had succeeded in bringing the men and women whose stories she’d uncovered in the archives vividly to life. Shelley spoke about connections between the past and the present, highlighting how the people and the issues she had encountered in her legal aid work as young lawyer in Saskatchewan in the 1970s had ultimately led her to this exploration of the relationship between Aboriginal people and criminal law on the Plains a century earlier.

I had the opportunity to hear Shelley speak about her research on a number of occasions during the writing of the book, and I credit her accounts of the pleasures and frustrations of archival research as a good part of the impetus behind the historical turn that my own research has recently taken. So you can imagine the eagerness with which I snapped up a copy of Hunger, Horses, and Government Men last night, and how keen I am to begin to read it.

For more information on the book, click here.

Kate Sutherland

Arresting Images: Mug shots from the OPP Museum

I visited the Helen McClung Gallery at the Ontario Archives this week to see Arresting Images: Mug shots from the OPP Museum. The title is, of course, a clever play on words, but “arresting” is also exactly the right descriptor. These are photographs from which one cannot look away.

The exhibition is comprised of 100 mug shots that span from 1886-1908 from the collection of the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) Museum. The images on display are reproductions so that front (the photographs) and back (hand-written details about the person pictured and the crimes for which they were arrested) can be shown side-by-side. The details are extremely sketchy in some instances and extensive in others, including name, aliases, occupation, charge, age, height, weight, and sometimes even full Bertillon measurements such as the lengths of each ear.

Except in the case of the few that include tell-tale dual images of face-on and profile views (such as that of Lillie Williams above), absent those hand-written details, I couldn’t have guessed the purpose of the photographs without being told. At first glance, many appear to be old family portraits featuring men and women dressed in their Sunday best. Indeed, some of them are just that, photographs that cooperative family members gave to police. Others, though taken at the direction of police officers, were taken by commercial photographers in their studios when the police detachments in question had no photographic equipment of their own. Hence the fancy backdrops, formal poses, and artistic skill that mark them as studio portraits first and mug shots second (the latter sometimes a delayed realization when the viewer belatedly notes that the sitter is handcuffed to the chair in which he poses, as was the case for William Rae, in the image to the left of this paragraph).

But a number of those that were clearly taken by official police photographers are also very compelling portraits that can, in my view, hold their own alongside the work of the best portrait photographers. Their revelatory quality brought to mind the work of some of my favourite portrait photographers, for example, Mike Disfarmer and Richard Avedon.

But of course, these photographs have to be considered in context, not simply evaluated for their artistry, and here an element of discomfort creeps in, at least for this viewer. These were not willing sitters, photographed by consent. They had no choice but to comply, and to thereby have what were doubtless for many of them moments of shame and desperation recorded for posterity. The question of privacy certainly occurred to me as I peered into the window on those moments that the photographs provide. I’m not suggesting any violation of privacy laws. The OPP Museum website indicates that Canadian privacy laws were carefully observed in the compilation of the exhibition—this is why all of the images included are more than 100 years old. Nevertheless, here they are, 100 people, captured for all time at one of their worst moments, forever associated with crimes of which, in some instances, they were only suspected, never even charged, let alone convicted. And here I am, gawking at them.

Yet, as I said above, I couldn’t look away. Each picture hinted at a story and I wanted to know that story. Indeed, particularly where details were sketchy, the fiction writer in me wanted to make a story up, while the legal scholar in me wanted to hasten to the archives to learn more (although I gather that the OPP Museum archivists, who are much better qualified for the task, have already discovered all the information available in connection with each photograph). And beyond the individual human stories, there is much to be learned from this exhibition about the history of photography and of policing. Fascinating all round, and well worth a visit.

Arresting Images is only on display in Toronto until the end of this week. But it’s a travelling exhibition which is due to visit other Ontario cities, including Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, in the new year. For more details, and to see more of the images for yourself, click here. And to buy a copy of the exhibition catalogue, click here.

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

The Stories Behind Great Cases

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of attending a launch for my colleague Allan Hutchinson’s new book, Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How they Shaped the World.

In the book, Hutchinson tells the stories behind, and assesses the legacies of, eight well-known cases from across the common law world. Well-known, that is, to law students, law professors, and lawyers. But the book is intended to have a broader appeal. By setting each case in social and political context, and focusing on character and incident rather than on legal doctrine, Hutchinson seeks to put a human face on law, and to convey the “evanescent, dynamic, messy, productive, tantalizing, and bottom-up” character of the common law.

Having now read a couple of chapters, I have no doubt that the book will be embraced by a non-legal audience. These are great stories, told in a compelling and accessible style. But it’s also illuminating reading for those of us already fully steeped in law, as most of us will have encountered these cases before only in diminished form. Here Hutchinson restores the richness that is routinely stripped away as cases make their way through the courts, and into law reports and casebooks.

Every year I offer my first year torts students a brief introduction to the field of law and literature in a session titled “A Closer Look at the Facts.” We look beyond the facts articulated in a judgment to demonstrate that they’re not simply an objective account of the relevant evidence, but rather a narrative carefully crafted to support a particular legal resolution. Then we broaden our lens still further to discuss the layers of storytelling that precede the courtroom and continue on after the issuing of the judgment.

Hutchinson’s Is Eating People Wrong? promises not just an interesting and entertaining read, but also some excellent new material for that exercise. I skipped straight from the introduction to the chapter on Donoghue v. Stevenson, and I can tell you that I will most definitely be integrating it into my next torts syllabus. Now, on to Roncarelli v. Duplessis and Hadley v. Baxendale