By Robert Rotenberg, Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, N.Y. 2009, $26.
We have a worthy new addition to the list of important writers of compelling legal mysteries and thought provoking insights into the world of courtroom drama. His name is Robert Rotenberg. Mr. Rotenberg, a denizen of Toronto, Canada, is amongst the most respected members of the Toronto criminal defense bar. He is also a most gifted writer of contemporary fiction who offers a complex plot, compelling characters, a fast-paced read, an interesting city, and an insider’s knowledge of how the criminal justice system really works.
The book is “Old City Hall” and it is Mr. Rotenberg’s maiden voyage into the well populated circle of legal mysteries. What is clear from the very beginning of this riveting novel is that Mr. Rotenberg has already separated himself from the pack and should be considered amongst the best of this genre. His novel places him in the class of Scott Turow, Richard North Patterson and Nelson DeMille, writers with profound insight into the real world of criminal justice who also spin fascinating tales of human foibles and strengths and who never lose sight of an individual’s need for a moral compass.
The story begins simply enough—a leading studio talk show host in Toronto, Kevin Brace, awaits the arrival of his morning newspaper delivery person outside the door of his penthouse apartment. Usually the two gentlemen share an orange slice and a bit of conversation about the weather, cooking or current events. This day, however, is quite different. It begins with a short whispered sentence delivered by the renowned radio personality to his Indian delivery man: “I killed her, Mr. Singh. I killed her.”
The novel then explores the significance of this statement. Have we heard a confession of the murder of his common-law wife? Or have we heard the exclamation of guilt ridden existential angst by an individual who believes he has set in motion a chain of events that, regrettably, has led to the death of his loved one?
The story, with its unanswered questions and subtle ambiguities, emerges in a way that engages and challenges the reader. Why, for example, does the usually loquacious radio host Mr. Brace refuse to physically talk to his own personally selected defense counsel, but merely relies on hand-written notes to communicate with her? Why does he refuse to be released on bail during the legal proceedings? Why does he refuse to assist in his own defense? And why is he so willing to take a guilty plea to the murder charge?
The novel is replete with interesting characters and institutions and the story is told through the perspective of the main characters. The principals all have interesting back stories, and the novel explores the interplay between the characters’ personal and professional lives.
The police officers who investigate what might appear to be, at first glance, an open and shut case, are portrayed not merely as functionaries carrying out an assignment but as flesh and blood human beings. Members of the prosecutor’s office are drawn as multi-dimensional characters juggling professional responsibilities with internal office politics. In the courtroom is a shrewd and experienced judge presiding over the pretrial wrangling and courtroom drama. And Brace’s defense attorney is shown to be a woman of sizeable ambitions and substantial insecurities.
The author also deftly explores Brace’s relationship with an ex-wife with whom he is still in contact and who remains very much in love with Brace, as well as Brace’s subtly complex relationship with his common law wife. And, at the center of all this is Kevin Brace himself, a complicated and fascinating character who seems to accept his personal and professional fall from fame, wealth and a highly privileged life with a stoic equanimity which seemingly defies all notions of logic and self-interest.
As the story unfolds, individuals’ secrets are revealed, characters’ private lives exposed, their personal histories explored. Yet, with all the legal wrangling, strategic moves and counter-moves, insights into characters’ ambitions, vanities, self-deceptions and personal and professional rivalries, we are left with a tantalizing question—have we really learned the whole truth about what happened that fateful morning?
Mr. Rotenberg himself has stated “We live in a world where everyone wants answers for everything. And we want the justice system to provide all the answers. But the reality is, we live in an ambiguous world.”
In “Old City Hall” we have entered that world, viewing the story through the eyes of its lead characters and are intellectually intrigued by it. This is a novel of the first rank and should be enjoyed by all who have the pleasure of reading it.
Richard M. Weinberg is an acting Justice of the Supreme Court and presiding judge of the Midtown Community Court.