Book review: Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg

Old City Hall
by Robert Rotenberg
John Murray (pb), 2009

This compelling novel starts simply: Mr Singh, delivering the Globe and Mail to apartment 12A of the Market Place Tower in Toronto, finds Kevin Brace waiting at the door instead of sitting at the table having his customary early-morning cup of tea. Brace tells Singh “I killed her”. On entering the apartment, Singh discovers Brace’s wife dead in the bath. He calls the police.

The unfolding tale of the investigation and court case is told from the point of view of several police officers and lawyers. The two main policemen are detective Ari Greene, son of a Holocaust survivor, and officer David Kennicott, an ex-defence lawyer who joined the police force three years ago after the death of his brother. The two men are friends, so continue the investigation in partnership. The two main lawyers are Albert Fernandez for the Crown, keen to prove himself on his first trial case, and Nancy Parish, who is chosen by Brace, a celebrity radio talk-show host, to represent him.

None of these professionals has a complete, or even much of a partial, picture of why and how the death occurred. The case, which at first seems open-and-shut, becomes more and more complicated as more information is uncovered by the investigating policemen and, later, the lawyers. The story is told in great detail against a wonderfully atmospheric depiction of Toronto, gripped by a feverish support of the Maple Leafs hockey team. The suspense is built up gradually: at first the reader is aware of the basic facts of the investigation, such as the discovery of the murder weapon, but soon, as witnesses are interviewed, a more complex and subtle story comes to light. The characterisation of Brace and some of the witnesses and minor characters, particularly Brace’s first wife, is vivid – though the two cops are too similar.

I thoroughly enjoyed Old City Hall, which is a confident, measured, absorbing debut. The book is a great example of the use of detail to create atmosphere and a wonderful sense of place, without feeling as if one is reading a lecture (which is often the case when authors decide to make location a major part of their story). Although most of the book is told from the point of view of the professionals involved in investigating the crime and taking it to trial, the power of the novel is in what it has to say about human emotions, in particular in the light of the grossly cruel actions, based upon conviction without proper knowledge, by authorities in the past – actions whose effects will last for the lifetimes of those concerned.

I bought this book. I thank Bill Selnes for the recommendation. Bill has reviewed the book at his blog, Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan. Bill has written three posts of questions, answers and thoughts about Robert Rotenberg (mostly about his next book, The Guilty Plea). The first of these is here.

Other reviews of Old City Hall: Quill and Quire (Sarah Weinman), Murder by Type and Crime Time (Michael Carson).

Author’s website. The book was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger award in 2009.

10 thoughts on “Book review: Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg

  1. I liked Old City Hall, too, when I read it soon after it came to my city’s library. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, especially after I read Bill Selnes’ review. However, the mammoth TBR list and pile are the elephants in the room — and truthfully, I have books everywhere. So whenever I can get to this legal mystery I will. The compliments for the courtroom scenes just pull me in like a magnet.

  2. Maxine – I’m very glad you liked this one as much as you did. You make a well-taken point about the way that descriptions of a setting can sometimes pull a reader right out of a story if they sound too much like a travelogue. It’s good to hear that you didn’t feel this way about this one. And the mixture of courtroom and personal, human experiences is irresistible. Thanks not only for your top-notch review as ever but also for the reminder that I must read this.

  3. This sounds very good – I may do the unthinkable and go backwards in the series as I’ve read the second one already. I liked Ari Greene and David Kennicott though and this sounds like a very different story.

  4. Maxine: Thanks for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed the book. Rotenberg creates absorbing Canadian legal mysteries. He joins William Deverell as an exceptional writer of legal mysteries in Canada. My son, Michael, pointed out to me that he also captures the ethnic diversity of Toronto in the 21st Century.

  5. Nice review Maxine. Is there much legal/court stuff in there. I don’t like this too much in my books as I end up skipping it. Nice point Bill made about showing diversity in 21st century Toronto.

  6. Thanks for all the comments!
    Sarah: no, not overwhelmingly. The main legal aspects concern both sides’ preparation of the case, though there are some courtroom scenes there is no jury trial, etc.
    Bill: you are welcome and I agree about the ethnic diversity.
    Bernadette: I hadn’t realised these characters recur in The Guilty Plea but I don’t think that this would spoil Old City Hall – though both mens’ personal lives are explored a bit, no one factor such as this dominates this “ensemble” book.
    Margot and Kathy: thanks for your comments and encouragement.

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