On this rather dreary morning, after wild rains yesterday afternoon, I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai tea and a lemon-cranberry scone from the market as I think about my book club meeting yesterday morning, and anticipate a day when I am stuck inside, which is a good day for reading. I’ve also got a few of the first Ontario strawberries in my bowl beside my scone… mmm!!!
My volunteer book group met yesterday to discuss Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg. The novel opens with 74-year old Gurdial Singh, former chief engineer of the India Railway, the largest transportation company in the world, delivering the last of his newspapers to Mr Kevin at suite 12A at Market Place Tower. Their usual morning ritual, at 6:30am, with Mr Kevin offering a slice of orange to Singh and making small-talk before returning to his suite, is disrupted when, to Singh’s astonishment, Mr Kevin appears at the door with blood on his hands. He leans closer to Singh and whispers, “I killed her, Mr Singh...I killed her”. When the police arrive a few minutes later, they find Kevin and Singh sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea, while Kevin’s second wife, Katherine Torn, lay in the bathtub, dead from a single stab wound. Did Kevin Brace, famous talk-show host and the “voice of Canada”, murder his wife? What follows are chapters from the perspectives of different characters who are involved in the investigation and court proceedings surrounding the case. Ari Greene is an overworked detective who is always trying to make up for the losses his father suffered in WWII, when he lost the members of his first family, but who still finds time to enjoy a clandestine relationship with one of the Crown prosecutors. Daniel Kennicott is a former lawyer who, after his brother Michael was killed four years ago, joined the police force. He is a good policeman with a burden of guilt on his shoulders, one who also carries a torch for a woman who was a fellow law student back in his school days. Albert Fernandez is an up-and-coming defense attorney who is self-conscious of his use of language and is constantly correcting his wife’s poor English. He strives to improve himself in an effort to impress those he works with: he arrives early at work to both impress and to take advantage of the early-bird parking rate. He reads books about how to survive the first years of marriage, as well as books that offer fashion advice (I didn’t know that the best hole for a man to use on a belt is the third one). Nancy Parish, defense attorney, is frustrated with life and just wants a break. But she must play the game and try to win this case, her first homicide. The rules of this game include travelling to the Don jail on a regular basis in an effort to communicate with the defendant, Kevin Brace, who will not speak to her, communicating only by writing cryptic notes to her. Awotwe Amankwah is a reporter who dreams of being a foreign correspondent, but is stuck doing the nightshift for the overtime pay which is the only way he can make enough money to pay the alimony he owes each month, the only way he will be allowed to keep his limited visitation rights with his children. He needs a break, and this case could just be it. These and many other characters feature prominently in this novel by Toronto lawyer and author Rotenberg. Along the way, we learn about the origin of the English language, the characteristics of Anglo words as contrasted with Saxon words. We learn the best way to make tea (don’t let the water boil too much, warm the pot first, and don’t pour the water directly onto the teabag - let the bag come to the water). We learn the best way to treat leather winter boots, and the most effective way to get rid of those salt stains (yet another use for vinegar!). We are treated to the diverse population of a vibrant city, and learn about other cultures and the difficulties in adjusting to life in a busy Canadian city. This novel is impossible to slot into one particular fiction genre. It is a murder mystery, a police procedural, and a legal thriller. It is also an ode to Toronto, and a character study of that city and the people who live and work there. None of my group had read this book before, and they all loved it. Actually, one member came out for the meeting even though she had been unable to get a copy of the book, but by the end of the meeting, she couldn’t wait to read it! Here are some of the things we discussed or commented on: This book read like a movie, particularly the scene near the end when Daniel is racing for the ferry to cross over from the island and get to court on time. One member said it was so real that she felt she was racing along with him. This member grew up in Toronto, so she could picture most of the locations he talks about in the book. We all agreed that the intentional diversity of the characters did not seem staged or overused, but rather that it realistically represented the heterogeneous makeup of Toronto’s population. One person summed it up perfectly - she said, “I learned about alot of things I would have never have thought to ask about, but information I’m glad I now have”. One member said that it was a great mystery because she suspected everyone, while another member said it was great because she didn't suspect anyone. None of us were disappointed that the ending was left vague, that we didn’t really know what happened or who did it. I often feel that this kind of vague ending is a bit of a cop-out for an author, that he or she couldn’t decide how to end the book so just left the ending hanging, but with this book, it really worked. We learned alot about the various strategies police and lawyers use when interviewing witnesses or presenting a case in court, strategies intended to produce certain results. We talked about Bruno Bettelheim, who is only mentioned briefly near the end of the book, but whose works influence the story significantly. Bettelheim was a once-renowned figure in the field of child psychology, a man whose theories and work with children with autism have now been largely discredited. Rotenberg has written three other books featuring the same characters, and so I asked the question, “If there is no one main character, is it still a series?” I used as examples Henning Mankell’s “Kurt Wallander” series, Peter Robinson’s “DCI Banks” series, and Reginald Hill’s “Dalziel and Pascoe” series. We thought about this for a moment, then someone suggested that Toronto was the main character, which I thought was brilliant. This could be Rotenberg’s “Toronto” series. It was a huge success, and I’m sure the book club members are planning to read the other three books in this series, The Guilty Plea, Stray Bullets, and Stranglehold (my personal favourite). If you have not read any of these books but are interested in checking them out, I would strongly recommend reading Old City Hall first, as it sets the stage for all the others and introduces the reader to many of the characters.
OK, enough about Old City Hall… time to go and read something else!
Bye for now…Julie