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‘After all these years on the bench, I’ve come to think we all have three lives. Our public life, our private life and our secret life. We all have secrets. But when a crime like this happens all bets are off.’
Set in Toronto and focusing on the Canadian justice system, Rotenberg’s second novel The Guilty Plea explores just that: the set of lives we all experience that will always be, to some degree, dictated to by the secret life. It opens with the discovery of a body in circumstances that add up too easily in some ways to make a solid ‘case’, but with odd filaments at the frayed edges that leave questions to be asked and matters to be resolved.Wealthy Terrance Wyler, of the Wyler Foods grocery store chain, has been found dead on the eve of his divorce case coming to court. It’s a high profile case as Wyler’s girlfriend is a Hollywood actress. But it’s also an everyday-to-the-core case because the future life of a four year old child, Simon, is at stake; a life now suddenly shadowed by the brutal murder of his father. Simon was blissfully asleep and unaware when his father was killed. In the morning, his only memory from the night before is that of his mother walking into his room and telling him that she may be away for some time. All evidence leads to the soon to be ex-wife Samantha, and a guilty plea is expected. It’s delivered. And then, unexpectedly for all: retracted. Was Samantha’s plea truth or not? And if not, who did kill Terrance?
This is a legal thriller of great pace and tension. Rotenberg knows how to bring a cast of characters to life. Toronto too, is one of these characters. Rotenberg pumps his story with the day to day living of each character and tours the terrain of Toronto and its eateries as we read. No one is so minor as to not have a backstory to bring them to life. Sometimes, however, the exposition of this slows the pace, and in a clunky fashion. Thankfully this is rare.
But here, we have Toronto, as seen through the eyes of its inhabitants, as it really is: the values and struggles of the immigrant population; the segregation of the wealthy, mainly Caucasian and embedded with old money in the bank; the city’s obsession with its murder statistics; the ongoing conflict of being North American just like the US, but balancing inurement in that alongside allegiance to a Commonwealth Crown; the never being far away from a victim of the Holocaust, or a descendant of a victim. Where Toronto may be a place of strong values and culture, it carries the quirk of still trying to find itself and that is fully and diplomatically portrayed in Rotenberg’s city and the fictional characters he creates in The Guilty Plea.
Rotenberg’s first novel, Old City Hall, was shortlisted for the CWA’s John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in 2009. The Guilty Plea is published in the UK by John Murray on 9 August. Find out more about the author here.