Friday, December 6, 2013

Ripped From the Headlines: The Crime Novels of Robert Rotenberg

When I taught Canadian criminal law several years ago to secondary school students, they frequently made references to American law which they had derived from American films and television shows. There were Canadian television shows that portrayed with general accuracy Canadian law – Street Legal in the 1980s and more recently Wonderland on the CBC and The Associates on CTV – but none of them carried much cache for my students. And I could not recall a Canadian legal novel that would have gripped their imagination. But four novels in the last five years by a former magazine editor and a Toronto practicing lawyer for over twenty years, Robert Rotenberg, might have done the trick. Simply put, his police investigations/courtroom novels, that may remind some readers of the structure of the Law and Order series and the courtroom dramas of John Grisham, are a romp: fast-paced and highly entertaining, beginning with a murder, with several police officers and lawyers reappearing throughout. Perhaps the most important character is Toronto itself and its denizens: at one point in Stray Bullets, a character mentions that one of the largest firms in the country is Miller Ford.

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
After the murder is reported, the investigation is undertaken by two dedicated and highly competent police officers: detective Ari Greene, son of a Holocaust survivor, and officer, David Kennicott, an ex-defence lawyer who joined the police force three years ago after the murder of his brother, an unsolved case, and the apparent random car accident of his parents. (I suspect that what happened to Kennicott’s family will be a line of inquiry in a future book.) Both police officers are adept at picking up on subtle cues, for example, people using rhetorical questions during interrogations. The court proceedings are pursued by defence lawyer, Nancy Parrish who is chosen by Brace to represent him. Her crackerjack partner, Ted DiPaulo, who once worked for the Crown, is a pivotal figure in two of the later novels. Several lawyers represent the Crown, the most important being Jennifer Raglan, a married mother of three and the on and off secret lover of Greene. Minor characters that reappear are the court reporters for the four Toronto newspapers and Rotenberg injects a note of humour by slightly altering their real names.

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).

The premise here is similar to that of the first book: someone has been found murdered, and the various characters work together to push the case through the city’s legal system – the cops gather evidence and the lawyers pore over said evidence to bolster their arguments in the courtroom. More than perhaps any of the other novels, The Guilty Plea is superb at taking the reader through the legal process – the bail hearing, the preliminary hearing and the trial itself starting with the jury selection – while pointing out the differences with the American system. Just a few examples: Canadian High Court lawyers wear robes and tabbed collars and always refer to their opponents as My Friend or My Learned Friend, they are not allowed to approach the judge to raise a legal issue and Canadian judges do not have a gavel.

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.

Stray Bullets (2012) could have been ripped from the headlines à la Eaton Centre, June 2012, except the book was already in the bookstores when those shootings occurred. Rotenberg did, however, admit in an interview that the shooting in Toronto of Jane Creba on Boxing Day in 2005 was the inspiration for the novel. Larkin St. Clair and his buddy Dewey Booth stake out a downtown Tim Horton’s doughnut shop where the latter ex-girlfriend works. Dewey has just been released from jail, and he’s angry because Suzie’s found a new boyfriend. Soon the boyfriend arrives, shots are fired, and a child is struck down by a stray bullet. The crime is soon screaming from the front page of every newspaper in town. A crucial eyewitness, an illegal alien, vanishes into the night. The veteran homicide detective, Ari Greene, the chief investigating officer, is under pressure to arrest someone for a crime, even if it’s not the right person. His efforts to undertake a careful, diligent investigation to find the perpetrator are hampered by his tussles with Ralph Armitage, an opportunistic Crown Attorney, who is anxious to exploit the case to further his own career. Larkin is arrested for committing the crime and Nancy Parish, Larkin's long-time lawyer who is arguably the heroine of this novel, endures considerable vitriol from friends and her own mother who think she is some kind of monster for defending a “child killer” ignoring the word “alleged.” Her willingness to put her life on hold to defend a not very likeable young man so moves her client that for the first time he is willing to write down the truth of what happened. Rotenberg again uses his intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system to propel the novel forward to its sad but riveting conclusion,

Stranglehold (Simon &Schuster, 2013) is the latest and for me the most gripping and disturbing of the four. Greene’s affair with head Crown attorney Jennifer Raglan, who plans to leave her husband for good, has tragic consequences. During those six weeks, Greene and Raglan have met up every Monday morning at different cheap motels along Toronto’s Kingston Rd. strip. Raglan has made all the arrangements, paying cash and appearing in red-wig-and-sunglasses disguise. But this time when Greene shows up for their tryst, he finds Raglan in the motel room strangled. Distraught and confused, he goes chasing after someone he believes he’s heard just outside the door. Failing to find whoever that might have been, he then makes a poor decision by failing to report the murder to his police colleagues. The homicide cop he’s been mentoring, Daniel Kennicott, is assigned to the investigation and that leads to the arrest of Greene for first degree murder. Unlike the first three novels, the reader is pretty certain that Greene is not the murderer but then who is he or she? Fortunately, Greene engages the brilliant defence lawyer, Ted DiPaulo, to defend him.

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)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011), titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden, is available now. For more information, please

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