Ah, Winter. How I love your cold, bracing winds and the snow you (hopefully) deposit in substantial amounts during your three-or-so-month reign. You make me feel so invigorated, and you give me a reason to own all those warm sweaters and cool boots. Of course, when you’re still leaving the white stuff around in April--as you occasionally do--my love affair with you becomes somewhat diminished. In the middle of summer, though, with temps hovering in the mid-90s? I love you, Sweet Winter, I truly do.
So, when a book set in Toronto primarily during the winter finally made its way to the top of my TBR pile? It was a happy July day for me, you better believe it. The fact that it’s a legal thriller was just more cause for celebration; it had really been awhile since a good courtroom drama found its way into my eager paws. (The blurbs on the dustjacket--quotes from others authors whom I regularly make it a point to read--didn’t hurt, either.)
Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall begins bright and early one blustery December morning, with an elderly man doing his usual thing, going about his retirement job delivering the daily morning newspaper to downtown Toronto residents. Mr. Singh--who had been an engineer in his native India--enjoys his new, late-life job; getting the news to the customers on his route in a precise and timely manner suits his conscientious and exacting nature perfectly.The real high point of each morning, though, is when he makes his delivery to the resident of 12A Market Place Tower. He and 12A--”Mr. Kevin”--have developed a pleasant little ritual: Kevin Brace meets Mr. Singh at the door for the handoff, after which they enjoy a freshly-peeled orange and a brief friendly chat in the hallway.
As I said, Mr. Singh is nothing if not punctilious, and when, one fateful morning, the door to 12A is ajar--but there is no Mr. Kevin standing in the doorway to greet him, Mr. Singh becomes most agitated. He waits a couple of minutes--not feeling it proper to intrude, but also not able to walk away without making sure his casual-but-pleasant acquaintance is quite well. When Brace finally appears at the door, it’s clear that things are most definitely amiss; he is disheveled, acting strangely... and has blood on his hands and bathrobe. Saying only “I killed her”, Brace lets Mr. Singh into the apartment, where the delivery man soon finds the other man’s wife--naked, in the bathtub, a stab wound in her chest, and unquestionably dead.
It would appear to be the proverbial open-and-shut case... particularly when the investigating police officers find a bloody knife--the murder weapon--in the kitchen, just a few feet away from where Brace and Mr. Singh are sitting, calmly having some tea. But things, of course, are rarely as they would appear at first glance.
As Canada’s #1 early-morning radio talk-show host, Brace is a famous man, which means, naturally, that his case will be huge. Many trial lawyers--on either side--would give their eyeteeth for the opportunity to be part of the proceedings. Nancy Parish is certainly happy enough to take the case when she receives a phone call from police headquarters informing her that Brace has asked her to represent him... by handing one of her business cards to the detective holding him. (Parish and Brace had actually met a few months earlier, when he interviewed her on-air for a piece on the difficulties that come with being a successful working woman, so it isn't completely out-of-the-blue.) Parish is somewhat less than thrilled, though, when she meets with Brace only to find that he is refusing to speak--not just to detectives or in court, mind you, but to her, as well. And his other stipulation? That she can’t tell anyone about this refusal to speak.
On the other side of the case, the downtown office for the Crown is operating off a list; as each new case comes in, the next prosecutor on the list will be assigned, regardless of experience, merit or any sort of preference. So, when the name of up-and-comer Albert Fernandez--who doesn’t follow radio, hockey, or anything else which doesn’t pertain directly to work--comes up (to the consternation of several of his co-workers), it's clear that he will soon be getting an unplanned lesson in Canadian pop-culture.
As for the police side of things, Detective Ari Greene has been investigating homicides for decades, and fully expects there to be considerably more to this one that meets the eye. With that in mind, he handpicks the first responding officer to the scene, Officer Daniel Kennicott, to help him. In his early 30s, Kennicott is a rookie policeman, who gave up practicing the law a couple years ago to join the force. Greene figures the younger man’s legal insights should help make up for any lack of experience.
These main players--plus a feisty-curmudgeon-of-a-judge, a loquacious crime-scene expert, a concierge with secrets to hide, an elderly woman with thighs of steel (from hot yoga, wouldn’t you know), a diner owner-operator in a remote and snow-covered area three hours north of Toronto, a group of codgers (all convicts) who play bridge together in the historic Don Jail (including the silent Brace, who communicates his moves via hand signals), a couple of scheming prosecutors, a sexy Chilean wife, a hockey-playing reporter, and plenty of other interesting characters--proceed to collide and bounce off each other throughout the book, trying to figure things out... or trying to prevent things from coming out, as the case may be. And all of this action plays out against a backdrop of Canada in winter--full of snow, bitter cold, and a whole lot of hockey. (A brief lesson: they don’t call it “ice hockey” up north; to them, it’s just hockey.)
And the case? Well, like I said earlier, it’s hardly the slam-dunk it first looked like. The dead woman--Katherine Torn--was an alcoholic who couldn’t stay on the wagon. She had mysterious assignations with other men. Her parents reacted oddly to news of her death (although that may or may not mean something). The coroner finds peculiar bruising on her skin. Brace had been making substantial monthly withdrawals from his checking account, and--despite earning plenty of money as the morning voice of all Canada--the pair had been living abnormally frugally, pinching pennies and clipping coupons. Yet given all that, there’s still no clear-cut motive--something which juries invariably like to have.
For the prosecution, the best part is Brace’s initial confession, uttered when he let Mr. Singh into his apartment that morning; of course, he hasn’t spoken a word since (not that anyone other than Brace’s lawyer, Parish, knows that part, though). And for the defense? Well, there really isn’t much reason to be positive. A client who won’t explain or defend himself--even to his own lawyer--doesn’t have a lot of hope on his side.
When the trial finally begins in May, the snow is gone and something even more momentous has just happened; the Maple Leafs have done the impossible, winning the championship for the first time in forever. So, Brace goes on trial, with a bit less fanfare than would normally be expected for such a high-profile defendant.
It really isn’t until witnesses are questioned on the stand that key pieces start falling into place for the detectives and the lawyers, and the bigger picture begins to emerge. From that point, it becomes a frenzied battle for Parish, Greene, and Kennicott to ensure that the right person is punished--and that any innocents aren’t made to suffer (more)--as both the defendant and the prosecution team seem intent on skewering Brace, as quickly as possible.
Old City Hall is everything a legal thriller should be; it’s a gripping and exciting tale with plenty of twists and turns--yet none of them come across as red herrings, thrown in solely for the purpose of confusing the reader. Instead, the facts come in random fits and spurts, only making some sense as other evidence gradually comes to light. This is an exercise in painting a picture slowly, just as things play out in real life. Rotenberg has created some memorable characters and given them all histories as well as interesting present-day lives; you can’t read Old City Hall without rooting for some of them. The city of Toronto is almost like another character, too, so pervasive is the feel, smell, look, and general atmosphere of the place. I really enjoyed reading about this city not often featured in books. Finally, the resolution is wholly believable; it isn’t telegraphed from a mile away, not one of those unsatisfying, overly-simplistic, black-and-white endings to a complex story. Instead, the author understands that there are few absolutes in life, and allows questions--and doubts--to remain, even on the very last page.
Although it certainly doesn’t bear any of the hallmarks of a novice, this is, indeed, Rotenberg’s debut novel. So with that in mind, I say, “Good on you, sir... and keep up with this writing thing, eh?”. ;)
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.5 out of 5 catnip mousies