This is 72-year-old William Deverell’s fourth Arthur Ramsgate Beauchamp Q.C., Brian Pomeroy legal mystery. Beauchamp, the aged criminal defence war horse of the British Columbia bar and civil libertarian, has gone green and inhabits the Gulf Islands, like the narrator-writer, when he isn’t slouching in Costa Rica.
Beauchamp is 20 years’ dry and in AA. His legal buddy Pomeroy’s alcoholism, philandering, and cocaine addiction finally caught up to him, requiring a lonely sojourn in the sub-Arctic. Odds are the next novel is set in Yellowknife and Copenhagen, with a re-energized Pomeroy, and concerns global warming, drugs, Russia, and the U.S. military.
Deverell is quite good at what he does. These are humorous — more slapstick than nuanced — formulaic who-done-its. They rely on farce, lampoon, exaggeration, acidic wit, occasional charm, cheekiness, hard-boiled skepticism and, not the least, brutal cynicism. There’s even an excellent sardonic aphorism thrown in, courtesy of Talleyrand. Most amusing, to me, are Deverell’s character sketches, drawing comparisons to Stephen Leacock and Elmore Leonard.
Deverell supports marijuana use, a theme constant throughout the book, and the series. Neither the Canadian Bar Association nor the Federation of Law Societies has surveyed drug and alcohol use within law schools and the profession. My legal assistance counsellor states that marijuana use is quite high amongst boomer lawyers. Even with 60 per cent of law school classes now female, depression and alcohol abuse are said to significantly exceed adult population rates, perhaps 200 to 400-per-cent higher in the case of depression.
Alas, the CBA has never advocated for lawful marihuana use nor against alcohol use. And Bill C-15, even slightly watered down by the Senate, represents reactionary impulse, by the Liberals and Tories, now killed by prorogation. Law schools do not administer physical and mental health tests, nor provide instruction on these important issues.
What do Deverell’s novels tell us about lawyering or the cultural role of the Canadian lawyer? The answer to this question makes reading his novels stimulating beyond their entertainment value. His web site heralds him as the leading Canadian skewer of “the foibles of lawyer and judges.” He’s done this through 16 novels over 30 years, since his initial award winning Needles in 1979.
Deverell was a full-time Vancouver criminal defence lawyer from 1964 to 1986, was born in Regina, is married to a female psychologist and was a newspaper journalist before lawyering. Journalism and law often overlap, in careers and in practice.
Earlier titles of note are Kill All the Lawyers (1994), April Fool (2005), and Kill All the Judges (2008).
The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Cannon, the longtime foremost Canadian crime novel critic, calls it his best novel and lists it in her top of 2009. Her focus is assuredly not his legalism, for want of a better word. And she does not explain why she thinks it is his best.
Literati call Deverell’s novels pot boilers. And crime novels continue to be a genre looked at askance by the literary elite, the mass popularity of John Grisham proving their point. But whereas Grisham is deadly earnest, Deverell is lively irreverence. Only Grisham, alas, makes the Globe’s best seller list. At London Drugs, the book section is full of paperback Grisham, Kathy Reichs, Phillip Margolins, and James Patterson — all American crime writers — but nary a Canadian book, except for Don Cherry.
In this outing, there’s a B.C. provincial court judge dismissed as “another guardian of the dying order.” Of course, we think, aren’t judges supposed to be guardians of some order or another? The law is full of “odious practices.” Well, so are the bathroom, the garage, the barn, the abattoir, and the woodshed. The courtroom takes “a cruel toll,” Beauchamp muses. What about the great recession, the Winter Olympics, and the HST? Beauchamp escaped criminal barrister’s work for freedom – getting away from “the artifice, the duplicity, the games . . . the bloodletting, the acrimony”. Just another NHL or AHL game, one might counter.
There’s a Liberal Party bagman — like Margaret Trudeau’s father, Jimmy Sinclair — whose law firm loses tens of millions in Liberal party patronage fees when the rightest Blue Tories take power, in our wonky electoral system, where 64 per cent of the 60 per cent who voted, vote centre-left.
Pandering, however, is a serious literary offence, no matter what the genre. Pandering means indulging a weakness or encouraging coarse desires: playing to the crudest, basest level. And Deverell can be rightly accused of pandering to base anti-lawyerism, perhaps a prominent version of populist anti-intellectualism. Did he really need to include that tired lawyer joke about the rooster who clucks defiantly upon rising? There’s always room for savaging the law and lawyers, but this form of approach wears thin — after 16 novels — and fails to plumb the depths.
Deverell’s no class warrior, but he is clearly antagonistic to corporate excess, both those visited on the natural planet and on the human psyche. But then again, who would say otherwise?
In this tale, Beauchamp’s wife is a Green MP, the only one in Ottawa. On cue, Elizabeth May (almost unheard of now) provides a back cover encomium. And this novel is dedicated to Jim Fulton, the former NDP MP and active environmentalist who was ravaged by cancer, and died in 2008. Fulton’s last work was with the Suzuki Foundation. He’d been a parole officer on Haida Gwaii, now the official name of the former Queen Charlotte Islands. Deverell’s novels are typically dedicated to the natural environment, his increasing focus.
Beauchamp admits to a tolerance for anarchists but his civil liberalism (Deverell is long associated with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association) stops with acts of violence, although he seems to be nonchalant about at least some forms of property damage, like scattering log booms.
In his semi-retired state, Beauchamp stays legally connected through a law firm at floors 40 to 43 in a downtown Vancouver high-rise. The three name partners are Caucasian males, the oldest 91, still in harness. Beauchamp thinks they should read poetry (a recurring theme in the series). I notice he does not refer to poetry writing. Deverell himself has never published a book of poetry. Few readers and no money in it. Poetry also does not lend itself to TV and film scripts, like Street Legal, the eight-year CBC TV series he developed.
The plot here involves eco-terrorism, Calgary-based oil and gas interests in central Asia, the House of Commons, the federal Tory cabinet, only slightly fictitious Garibaldi Island, Saskatchewan, Albania, Macedonia, CSIS, and Parkinson’s disease. There’s an uproarious scene in the Château Laurier, alone worth the book.
Deverell obviously yearns for intellectual or literacy respectability — a common enough desire — through sprinklings of Latin and French, and the likes of Shakespeare, Cicero, and Seneca.
Literature requires a voice, metaphor, flow, theme, and musicality. This is more journalistic assemblage, meant to be lightly entertaining, and this one, as good as it is, is about 50 pages too long.
Craig Paterson entered law school in September 1967. His reviews will be appearing every second month on canadianlawyermag.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.