In The Spotlight: Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall

>In The Spotlight: Shona MacLean's The Redemption of Alexander SeatonHello, All,

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


Filed under Old City Hall, Robert Rotenberg

24 responses to “In The Spotlight: Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall

  1. I am quite fond of multiple viewpoint stories and there are quite a few around lately. I don’t know much about the Canadian legal system either…

    • Cleo – Multiple viewpoints certainly do give the reader several different perspectives on the same event. And Rotenberg makes it clear whose point of view is being shared at any given point. He also does, I think, a very effective job of sharing about the Canadian legal system without ‘information dump.’

  2. I know so litte about Toronto – and am fascinated by the cultural mix of Canada. Sounds like an interesting book – and you’ve got some very diverse ones coming up!

    • It is a really interesting novel, Marina Sofia. And Rotenberg really does show the richness that is Canada’s cultural ‘mix.’ The plot too is well-constructed (I thought) and engaging, and there really is a strong sense of life in Toronto. As to what’s coming up on this feature? Yes, all sorts of different things in the offing…

  3. Margot: Thanks for a good review. I fear Rotenberg is not destined to get the readership he deserves because the series is set in Toronto. I consider him the equal of John Grisham and Scott Turow. I admit bias as I also practise criminal law in Canada. I consider Old City Hall a book rich in characters and plot. I found the story complex without being too complicated.

    • I think Rotenberg is very talented as well, Bill. And I like the way that, like Grisham and Turow, he writes about the law in an approachable way. Those of us who aren’t lawyers can still easily understand the ‘ins and outs’ of the legal aspects of the story. And you’re right: the plot is complex, but all of the threads of it are pulled together. And the characters are well-defined too, in my opinion.

  4. Always fascinated by other legal systems and procedures Margot – I had no idea idea that in Canada a person could act as both solicitor and barister for instance – thanks again for the eye opener 🙂

    • I’m no expert on Canadian law either, Sergio. This series has a lot to teach about the way Canadian law works, but it doesn’t feel forced. I like that very much about it, actually. 🙂

  5. This sounds great…I like the sound of it being an investigation and trial. I love Toronto which is, I believe, has the most diverse population on the planet. It used to be deadly dull but now is wonderfully full of those things that make a city sing! Thanks Margot!

    • I think you must be right, Jan. Certainly Rotenberg shows what a vibrant, alive city Toronto is. There’s some interesting bits about its past, too, which I enjoyed reading. And I think Rotenberg does an effective job of weaving together the investigation and the preparation for the trial.

  6. Wow. I am going to look for this one. I love Toronto. Margot: can you play my game: questions are on my blog from Charlie Stella. Of course, the men respond and the women don’t. If you are not too busy of course.

    • Toronto is a great city, isn’t it, Patti? And you certainly see it vividly depicted in this story. I’ll check out your blog post and see about that game… *After returning to the Charlie Stella post* I’d be happy to do the questions, Patti! Let me think about my answers a bit and send ’em on to you. Thanks for inviting me.

  7. Col

    Heard of the author, but that’s about it……..undecided, maybe if the TBR contracts drastically!

  8. This sounds like an interesting read Margot, with the different viewpoints and the ambiguity involved. Also, I don’t think I’ve read many books set in Canada either, so it would be interesting from that viewpoint as well.

    • It really is, Rebecca, on all those levels. And what I like about it is that Rotenberg doesn’t lose sight of the main plot point: What really happened to Katherine Thorn and why? The plot threads and viewpoints are, I think, handled well.

  9. Another one that sounds interesting, Margot. I always enjoy a good legal thriller, especially when the law side of it feels authentic. And good to see Gordon Ferris on your list for spotlighting… 🙂

    • Thought you might like that Gordon Ferris, FictionFan :-). And this one really is a solid legal novel, among other things. I’m no attorney, but it certainly felt real to me. I’ve not lived in Toronto, either, but I think it also depicts life there realistically.

  10. I read this book some years ago and absolutely loved it, I thought it was fascinating and very well done, and tremendously affecting. Thanks for spotlighting it, I hope more people will discover this author.

    • Oh, I hope so too, Moira. Rotenberg really is talented, and I think the story is both very well-written and, as you say, affecting. It would be good if Rotenberg got more notice.

  11. I would like to read this author and this book, just need to move some other books off the TBR pile first. I do like reading mysteries set in Canada.

    • Oh, I know all about Mt. TBR, Tracy! I think Rotenberg’s work is an excellent example of fine Canadian mystery writing. If you get the chance to read it, I hope you’ll like it.

  12. Kent Morgan

    I enjoyed this one when it came out and also have read his newer ones. However, any book that has the Toronto Maple Leafs challenging for the Stanley Cup should be in the fantasy section not in crime.

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