Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There is plenty of possibility in a legal novel for all sorts of conflict and suspense. Perhaps that’s why legal mysteries have so much appeal. Legal mysteries can also offer an interesting ‘inside look’ at the profession itself. To show you what I mean, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall.
Early one December morning, Gurdial Singh is on his morning rounds delivering the Globe and Mail to his Toronto customers in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. One of his ‘regulars’ is famous radio host Kevin Brace. When he gets to Brace’s door though, Singh can tell that things are not the same as usual. This morning, the door to Brace’s condominium is half-open. Singh knocks on the door and when Brace gets there, he says only one thing:
‘I killed her, Mr. Singh…I killed her.’
After that, Brace says nothing else.
The police, in the form of Officer Daniel Kennicott and his boss, Detective Ari Greene, take over. When they interview Singh, he says that after Brace’s statement, he discovered the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the condominium’s bathtubs. The victim had been stabbed.
Kennicott arrests Brace for murder. At that, Brace indicates that he wants barrister and solicitor Nancy Parish to represent him. Acting for the Crown in this matter will be Albert Fernandez, an up-and-coming attorney who’s doing everything he can to make his name as a prosecutor. Both attorneys quickly learn that they will appear before Judge Jonathan Summers,
‘…the most difficult judge in the Hall.’
Summers is tough on both sides of the cases he hears, so neither Fernandez nor Parish expects any advantage. Still, it seems that the Crown has a strong case against Brace. There’s his admission to Singh, and there’s the fact that the murder weapon was found in his kitchen. Fernandez wants this win badly, as it will make his name among Crown prosecutors.
Parish, though, is no slouch as a lawyer; and she is determined to defend her client as best she can. She is hampered by the fact that Brace has said nothing to her since his arrest. In fact, he insists on communicating only by written notes. What’s even more worrying is the fact that he makes no attempt to defend himself. In fact, at no time does he try to deny that he is guilty.
Fernandez’ bosses insist that he take the case to trial, although he has enough evidence to get a good plea deal. Parish, of course, doesn’t want to cut a deal if she can avoid it. So even though Summers puts pressure on both sides to avoid a trial, the case moves forward.
One of the important elements in this novel is the look it gives readers at the work involved (for both sides) in preparing a case for trial. There are statements to get, papers to file, and dozens of meetings, both formal and informal. To give a sense of the amount of work and time involved in a murder case, the novel begins in mid-December and ends in May. This isn’t a television courtroom drama where everything is wrapped up and settled in an hour; rather, it’s an authentic preparation for a murder trial.
Because this is a novel about a legal matter, we also see a bit of the manoeuvering and politics that take place outside of the courtroom. There’s tension between Crown attorneys and defence attorneys. There’s also a ‘pecking order’ among Crown attorneys and politicking as they jockey for prestige. There are other aspects too of what it’s like to be a lawyer.
That said though, this isn’t purely a legal story. Greene and Kennicott are the investigating team, and their work proves central to the story. They gather evidence, get information from witnesses, interact with the attorneys and appear at pre-trial hearings.
The setting and context for this novel is uniquely Canadian. In the legal issues, the physical setting and the culture and lifestyle, Rotenberg places the reader unmistakeably in Canada. What’s more, there’s a clear picture of modern Toronto. It’s a cosmopolitan and very diverse city, and that’s evident in the novel. Just to give a few examples: Singh is originally from India; Greene’s father is a Holocaust survivor; and Fernandez’ family is Cuban. There’s also the Toronto Star’s only Black reporter Awotwe Amankwah, among others.
Woven throughout the novel is the Canadian tradition of hockey. The Maple Leafs are struggling as the novel begins, but their season improves dramatically as the story goes on, and one of the sub-plots is the likelihood of their winning the Stanley Cup.
The story is told from several points of view including Fernandez’, Parish’s, Greene’s Kennicott’s and Amankwah’s. Readers who prefer one point of view will notice this. Because we get a variety of viewpoints, we also get to know several of the characters in more depth than is possible when the author provides only one perspective.
It’s also worth noting that the two attorneys most directly involved, Parish and Fernandez, are both hard-working lawyers who want to do the very best job they can. Yes, they want to win. But this isn’t a case of ‘fearless fighter up against evil, sleazy attorney.’ Each does some things right; each makes some mistakes.
The mystery itself – the truth about Katherine Torn’s death – is more complicated than it seems on the surface. As more information comes to light, and more facts are discovered, we see that not everything is as it seems. I can also say without spoiling the story that this isn’t a novel in which the guilty party admits it and is swiftly imprisoned. Readers who like ambiguity in their novels will be pleased that this one isn’t as clear-cut as it appears.
Old City Hall is the anatomy of a murder trial, from the time of the crime to the beginning of trial itself. It features both a legal and a law enforcement perspective on the events, and takes place in a distinctively Canadian environment. But what’s your view? Have you read Old City Hall? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 13 April/Tuesday 14 April – The Corpse With the Silver Tongue – Cathy Ace
Monday 20 April/Tuesday 21 April – The Hanging Shed – Gordon Ferris
Monday 17 April/Tuesday 28 April – Black Water Rising – Attica Locke