Here it is, Wednesday, and I am just posting about the weekend. My excuse it that I got into lazy mode on Sunday and haven’t moved on! Sunday was a cold, rainy, grey day. Having had a busy Saturday, I was content to spend Sunday curled up under a blanket on the couch, reading a book. I haven’t read very much all summer, and after a good break I was itching to get back into some winter reading. The book I had on hand was Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg.
Old City Hall, as any Torontonian knows, is the stately Romanesque Revival building that stands just to the east of New City Hall. It was home to Toronto’s city council from 1899 to 1966. Currently the building is leased by the provincial government and is used as a court house for the Ontario Court of Justice. The court serves in part as the setting for Rotenberg’s tale. As a criminal defense lawyer himself, Rotenberg is clearly familiar with proceedings there.
The story begins with Gurdial Singh, a retired engineer who brings purpose to his days by his timely delivery of the Globe and Mail every morning except Sunday. On this particular morning, when he reaches the apartment of celebrity talk-show host Kevin Brace, he finds that something is amiss. Brace isn’t at his usual post, waiting for his paper. When he finally comes to the door, he is bloodied and tells Singh that he has killed his wife. As the police begin their investigation, questions surface about the murder that initially appeared so clearcut. Detective Ari Greene, lawyer-turned-cop Daniel Kennicott, defense lawyer Nancy Parish and a host of other characters are introduced.
The story moves along at a purposeful pace and anyone familiar with the city will enjoy the many references to Toronto venues. However, it is the sympathetic portraits of the supporting cast that really draw the reader in. There’s Ari Greene, buying bagels for his father. Singh comments on the vagaries of the English language. (Why does heat come in waves but cold comes in snaps?) Parish observes that “When you work for yourself, your boss is an asshole.” In fact, the characters may also be the novel’s weakness. They’re all so darn nice. Even the murder itself is genteel, a single stab wound.
Old City Hall received some rave reviews when it was published in 2009. If you check it out at Amazon, readers have left comments like “Fantastic writing!” and “Astonishing first novel”. There were just a couple of less enthusiastic reviews, a “Good, not great…” and a “Curiously Unsatisfying”. I have to agree with the last reviewer. Although I enjoyed the read, I found the ending a bit muddled, with no clear, well-defined wrap-up, as if the author hadn’t quite come to grips with all his loose threads himself. It particularly annoyed me that several of the characters have sudden insights of the “Of course! Why didn’t I see that before?” variety, but as the reader, I had no idea what they were talking about. At nearly 400 pages, the novel also seemed a bit long. It might have benefited by a cut of perhaps 50 pages and a more tidy conclusion. I’ve got real life if I want muddled.
Rosenberg does offer Torontonians a special treat. He has the Leafs, after their 40 year drought, win the Stanley Cup! Now that’s fiction!