Thursday, October 29, 2009

D is for Deverell, William

Since we're all having so much fun with the alphabetical book blogging series started by fellow Anzac and blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise (where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet). I thought I'd add an extra "D" post. As I said earlier in the week, this week is the turn of "D", and my first "D" post was on Kiwi debutant mystery writer Dorothy Fowler.

I thought I'd add another "bonus" post this week about Canadian author William Deverell, who I've mentioned a couple of times already on this blog since I met him in Vancouver last year, enjoyed his book APRIL FOOL, but have found that his books aren't readily available downunder (just like many good Kiwi writers' books aren't readily available in the northern hemisphere).

William Deverell, doyen of Canadian crime writing
Deverell is a living legend in Canadian literature, still putting out great novels that are enjoyed by the masses, while also having a unique, memorable, literary style. Like the very best crime writers, his novels have much more to them than just solving a crime - in some ways they are literary novels that just happen to have plenty of crime in them.

In interviews with Canadian newspapers such as the Vancouver Sun and the Times Colonist, Deverell has admitted that he wanted to write fiction from a young age - but his fears of not meeting his Shakespeare-quoting father's high standards (that any writer should try and produce 'great Canadian literature') meant he instead chose a career in law.

A native of Regina (Saskatchewan province), Deverell worked as a journalist for several years, including in Montreal and as a night editor at the Star Phoenix newspaper while later studying law at the University of Saskatchewan. During his law degree, he took a year off and worked for the Vancouver Sun, falling in love with the West Coast of Canada and its more temperate climate. After finishing his law degree he set up practice in Vancouver in the with some friends.

Deverell began a legal career that would see him appear at more than 1000 criminal trials, often defending the underdog in human rights type cases. From early on, Deverell exhibited a strong social conscience, which later filtered through in many of his novels. As his legal stature grew, he also appeared in larger and larger trials, including as a prosecutor or defense attorney in more than 30 murder cases. He became one of British Columbia's top trial lawyers.

As his 40th birthday approached, Deverell took a year-long sabbatical from his Vancouver law firm, determined to write his first novel. After months of struggle and writers block at his 'summer home' on laidback Pender Island (one of the Gulf Islands ), he opened his mind to the possibility of writing a thriller, rather than aiming for the 'Canadian literary masterpiece' his father so desired, and things began quickly clicking into place.

The result was NEEDLES (published in 1979), which drew heavily on Deverell's experiences as a trial lawyer, including his knowledge of the seedy world of the Canadian drug trade.

In NEEDLES, Lawyer Foster Cobb prosecutes the mysterious Dr. Au, the West Coast's primary drug trafficker. But Cobb - under pressure of a failing practice and a disintegrating marriage - has himself taken up a long-abandoned heroin habit. With a racing plot and dramatic flip-flops, this literary page-turner takes the reader into the seedy underground of crooked cops, drug lords, and a supercharged courtroom scene.

The debut was a big success, winning the $50,000 Seal Prize for Best First Novel in 1979, as well as the Book of the Year Award in 1981. It sold more than 250,000 copies, and was widely critically acclaimed. "Deverell has a narrative style so lean that scenes and characters seem to explode on the page. He makes the evil of his plot breathtaking and his surprises like shattering glass." (Philadelphia Bulletin)

Over the subsequent thirty years Deverell has written many more novels, including HIGH CRIMES, MECCA, THE DANCE OF SHIVA, PLATINUM BLUES, MINDFIELD, KILL ALL THE LAWYERS, STREET LEGAL, TRIAL OF PASSION, SLANDER, THE LAUGHING FALCON, MIND GAMES, APRIL FOOL, KILL ALL THE JUDGES, AND SNOW JOB (the latter is his latest, released just this month). Beyond their fantastic plots and fascinating characters, his novels have also addressed several legal, social, and environmental issues, and they have been nominated for (and won) several prestigious writing awards.

Deverell is also the author of a true crime book, A LIFE ON TRIAL - THE CASE OF ROBERT FRISBEE, based on a notorious murder trial which he defended. The true story of a bizarre murder and the controversial trial that made headlines across Canada; it is the story of Robert Frisbee, who, after a scarred early life, became the secretary and friend of Muriel and Philip Barnett. Then, on board the Royal Viking Star cruise ship, Muriel was murdered - and Robert Frisbee stood accused. With penetrating insight, Deverell probes the mind of the accused and explores the legal system that tried him. The book received praise for coupling the insider's knowledge of the courtroom with superb writing skills.

In 1997 Deverell fully introduced a new hero - an aging lawyer, both bumbling and highly intelligent - to the world of crime/mystery fiction. Arthur Beauchamp had earlier made an appearance in THE DANCE OF SHIVA as a heralded if alcoholic barrister who had to withdraw from an important case. Now the Denny Crane-esque legal legend has retired to the Gulf Islands, recovering from both alcholism and an unfaithful wife, but he is dragged back into the world of courtrooms by his old partners.

They want Arthur to take charge of the defense trial of Jonathan O'Donnell, the acting dean of a law school. O'Donnell has been accused of rape by one of the students, Kimberley Martin, a smart but arrogant woman who is engaged to a rich businessman. After much pleading, Beauchamp agrees to handle the case. He is drawn into complex legal situations dealing with gender and sex, while his personal life takes a provocative turn as well. A courtroom drama ensues, with unpredictable twists and bizarre events.

The book won the 1997 Arthur Ellis Award for best Canadian crime novel, and the highly-prized Dashiell Hammett award for literary excellence in crime writing (sometimes called the "Oscar" of crime writing). As an aside, Deverell's books have been consistently shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Awards since their inception in the mid 1980s.

Four books and eight years later, Beauchamp returned in APRIL FOOL, which again showed Deverell's great mix of interesting plot, stylish writing, rich characters, quirky humour, and underlying social and environmental issues.

Beauchamp’s quiet life is upturned when his environmental activist wife (newer wife) decides to protest logging by living in a tree, at the same time as a roguish ex-client is accused of a heinous rape and murder. The heroically fallible Beauchamp is forced onto an entertaining rollercoaster combining courtroom thriller with mystery whodunit.

This was the first book of Deverell's I read (it definitely won't be the last), getting my hands on a copy in a nice little independent bookstore while exploring Vancouver Island in May last year, after earlier meeting and speaking to Deverell at a Canadian Crime Writers Event (the announcement of the 2008 Arthur Ellis Award finalists).

In person Deverell was very much as I've later read him described. He seems much younger than his 70-ish years, full of knowledge, opinions, passion, and life. He's a witty, charming, down-to-earth and intelligent. Just an absolute pleasure to meet and talk to.

I was fortunate enough to also chat to him for several minutes afterwards, where we talked about how crime writing can in some cases be as good or better (in terms of language usage, and beautiful writing) as literary fiction, but it is under-rated or overlooked by so many of the 'literatti'. I'd asked him about the importance of language and quality writing in crime/thriller writing, and his eyes lit up (I guess my question was a little different to all the standard 'where do you get your ideas', 'how do you break through' ones from many in the audience) and we were away racing, even continuing to chat as we shared a walk through the Vancouver streets (me heading to the bus stop, him to his nearby hotel) afterwards.

I got quite a chuckle when he expressed some of the same sentiments in a recent article, which you can read about HERE.

Fortunately when I got my hands on one of his books a couple of weeks later, I really enjoyed it (I was a bit nervous whether I would, given that I was quite fond of him as a person). He has quite a different style, and it was a departure from the type of crime writing I usually read - it demands a little more from the reader - but once I got into the flow, it was a great read.

Beauchamp has starred in the two Deverell novels since APRIL FOOL (which also won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel) - KILL ALL THE JUDGES and his latest, SNOW JOB.

In SNOW JOB (released on October 6 2009), the Denny Crane-esque semi-retired legal legend finds himself leaving the peace and nature of his Vancouver Gulf Islands home for the bustling lights of Canada's capital, Ottawa.

The publisher's blurb states: "Arthur Beauchamp has followed his wife, the leader and first elected member of the Green Party, to Ottawa. But he hates it there: the cold, the politics, and his place in his wife’s shadow. So when a delegation of government officials from Bhashyistan is blown sky high on Bronson Avenue and the shares of a Calgary-based oil company promptly drop like a stone, Arthur is only too happy to jump to the defence of the missing suspected assassin."

You can read an extract of the latest Deverell novel HERE. It's not readily available here in NZ, but I'll be aiming to get my hands on a copy via Amazon or similar.

Other than book writing, Deverell has also written the screenplay Shellgame for CBC-TV drama, which served as the pilot for CBC's long-running series Street Legal, and he is the creator of that series, which has run internationally in more than 80 countries. He also authored several one-hour radio plays performed by the CBC in the Scales of Justice series and numerous film or TV scripts.

He is a founder and now honourary director of the B. C. Civil Liberties Association. In 1991-92, he served as Visiting Professor in the Creative Writing Department, University of Victoria. In 1994 he served as Chair of the Writers' Union of Canada, and again in 1999, and he is a member of the Canadian Writers Guild, PEN International, Canadian Mystery Writers.

He now lives on Pender Island, British Columbia, and in Costa Rica (during the Canadian winter) - both locations have featured in his books (well, a fictional version of a Gulf Island in the Beauchamp books).

Have any of you read William Deverell? What do you think of his writing? Do you enjoy his mix of crime, literary flourishes, quirky characters, and unique humour? Does that sound like a good recipe, if you haven't read him? Thoughts and comments welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Not an author I have come across yet Craig. Thanks for the "article" and double contributions are very welcome.