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Old City Hall

For years, Robert Rotenberg has been one of Canada’s foremost criminal defence lawyers. Now, taking a page from his older brother David (author of the Zhong Fong mystery novels and the historical epic Shanghai), he applies his courtroom knowledge to a clever debut that modifies the legal thriller template into a larger study of the vagaries of human behaviour.

When Gurdial Singh arrives at radio host Kevin Brace’s house to deliver the morning newspaper, he finds the man in hysterics, covered in blood and shouting that he has killed his wife in the bathtub. What appears at first to be an open-and-shut case proves far more complex, however.

Rotenberg’s writing style is understated and fluid, enhanced but not overwhelmed by his insider knowledge of Toronto’s criminal courts and the streets surrounding “the Hall.” He also takes care to show off the city’s charms and frustrations, whether describing Front Street’s “comfortable, almost European feel” or the traffic-clogged “Don Valley Parking Lot.”

What is most evident in Old City Hall is the breathing room Rotenberg gives his story. The twists and turns unfold briskly, but the author allows sufficient time to develop his cast of characters in three dimensions, rather than simply giving them a series of quirks. The generosity also augers well for future novels – with the burden of proof solely on Rotenberg to turn his initial promise into a lasting second career as a crime writer.

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