Rosemary Aubert is an American who has taken up residence in Toronto, that self-identified and humbly self-acknowledged centre (Canadian spelling) of the universe. This book is one of five that cover the whole arc of the career of the archetypically Torontonian Ellis Portal. Aubert has been so successful in capturing the essence of Central Canada in mystery format that she has received an Arthur Ellis Award, the annual accolade from the Crime Writers of Canada.
Her protagonist (certainly not her hero) is Ellis Portal, a hot-shot lawyer who became a judge. While on the bench, he took up drink and drugs, losing self-respect, judgeship, profession and wife on his way to a hard landing as a street person. After hitting bottom, he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps to regain his standing at the bar (so to speak.) As this fifth novel begins, he is being seriously considered for re-appointment as a judge, even as he prepares the defense in an unusually high-profile murder case. Oh, yeah.
As a resident of Western Canada, I find it particularly fascinating to see how Aubert has infused her book with Torontonian spirit. First, her prose has a wonderfully curdled pomposity about it. In the following scene, Lawyer Portal is having lunch with his much younger junior partner:
"Nicky and I, our differences temporarily quelled, sat in the Barristers' Dining Room at Osgood Hall eating a let's be-friends-again lunch. It was Friday, casual day, which meant that the trio playing for the fifty or so gathered attorneys was a jazz group rather than chamber music, the featured dish was sole instead of beef, and that the dress was blazers and slacks instead of suits.
"Nicky took a deep swallow of his Chardonnay before he deigned to speak. `Ellis, you know, I trust, that the Crown's case is flawed.'
"`Flawed?' Nicky was irritating me again, even before desert." [Page 144 of the paperback edition.]
Even before desert! Ah, yes.
Then Aubert cuts deeply to the heart of profound emotions in a way that only be called uniquely Canadian. Here, Portal hears an announcement:
"`There's no easy way to tell you this. I know you're not a man who goes to church often-`
"`I seem to have repented,' I joked, remembering the Red Mass, the christening...
"She didn't smile. `Ellis, those DNA tests for Sal?'
"`The sample from Jeffrey showed my DNA, but not yours.'
"With that absurdly brief sentence, my ex-wife informed me that Jeffrey was not my son." [Page 284.]
Portal, himself, is a memorable piece of characterization. I could not hope to better the description of him offered by Publishers Weekly in their review of the third book in the series : "Bland, whiny and self-absorbed". Absolutely--and how very Canadian. In addition to that, This Portal, this hired gun defense lawyer is passive, unmotivated, often incurious and always browbeaten by his client. There'll by no Clarence Darrow/Perry Mason monkeyshines on this side of the 49th Parallel, thank you very much.
Finally, there is the plot, itself. When the final revelations are made, it turns out that the whole thing was built around the most improbable, self-destructive, hare-brained scheme since ... well, since the decision to invade a certain Middle Eastern country much in the news these days.
Two stars--and the beavers weep.