Rotenberg’s 2009 debut was Old City Hall which begins with a celebrity radio talk-show host, a Peter Gzowski-like Kevin Brace, confessing to a caller delivering his Globe and Mail that he killed his wife. What appears to be an open-and-shut case is anything but. The suspect writes everything down which makes communication difficult for his lawyer by refusing to speak; yet as the novel unfolds there are solid reasons for his verbal silence. Rotenberg is very good at humanizing individuals who are vilified in the press, conveying that cases are often much more complex than press and television reports. The ending is surprising but plausible given what the investigators uncover about others who were involved with Brace, especially his first wife and their autistic son.
|Toronto's Old City Hall|
The case is set against a vivid portrait of Rotenberg’s multi-cultural Toronto not only the locale close to City Hall such as the old Simpsons store and the Toronto Star newsroom but also the car-clogged “Don Valley parking lot,” the Toronto Islands and the Gryfe's Bagel Bakery in the old Jewish neighborhood where the author grew up. Because some of the characters are dedicated Toronto Maple Leafs fans, Rotenberg amusingly offers the fantasy that the Toronto hockey team wins the Stanley Cup. The city is still basking in the wake of that triumph over a year later in his second novel, The Guilty Plea (2011).
This time around, the murder appears to be another slam-dunk case: the stabbing murder of supermarket mogul, Terrance Wyler, at the hands of his estranged wife Samantha, who shows up at her lawyer’s office clutching a bloody knife. Abusive e-mails, Terrance’s new movie-star girlfriend, and longstanding disapproval from her husband’s close-knit family give Samantha sufficient motives, and if Ted DiPaulo cannot provide her with a vigorous defence, no one can. Again Rotenberg reveals that appearances can be deceptive and, while the police and lawyers sift through the evidence on the streets and in the corridors of justice, the reader is given glimpses of familiar Toronto tableaus: Café Diplomatico on College West, Jet Fuel café in Cabbagetown.
A subplot in Stranglehold skirts semi-close to a roman à clef with some of its characters, including a loud, bulky police chief running for mayor. Hap Charlton made a brief appearance in City Hall as a menacing but cagey presence. In this novel, he is a major character. Charlton’s insistence on coaching a high school rugby team in Scarborough sounds pretty similar to the real life Toronto mayor’s passion for coaching a high school football team in Etobicoke. Charlton’s willingness to answer constituency phone calls and his populist platform that includes a ferocious aversion to graffiti and an emphasis on a strict law and order platform – as long as it does not personally affect him – bears a strong resemblance to Rob Ford. What is most compelling about the novel is how Rotenberg weaves the criminal and political components of the novel together and the ending is a shocker.
Rotenberg might challenge himself more in subsequent novels. Does he always need to have bite-sized chapters? Could one of the persons charged with murder be found guilty? Does he need to emulate Earle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels where the defence lawyer never loses a case? At least no one in a Rotenberg novel has admitted to being the murderer while testifying in court. True, Rotenberg writes highly entertaining, informative novels that capture the texture of Toronto and he has enjoyed immense commercial success, which includes translation into several languages. After the release of Stranglehold, he has, for obvious reasons, been prominently featured in television and press interviews. Yet he could stretch himself and perhaps surprise us the next time around.
|(photo by Keith Penner)|