William Deverell — Novelist

The official website of William Deverell, Winner of the Dashiell Hammett Award for Literary Excellence in North American Crime Writing

Speak of the Deverell

By Jay Clark

Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time. The right place was Bill Deverell’s law firm and the right time was 1971, the year I began articles under Bill during one of the most exciting eras of the criminal law in Vancouver — when the courtrooms were inhabited by characters so zany they seemed drawn from fiction (and who, conversely, inspired much of Bill’s fiction). I don’t mean just the characters sitting in the dock. I mean the lawyers. And the judges. I call those the Golden Years.

The Advocate Portrait of Deverell

One of those inimitable characters was Bill Deverell himself. As his student and acolyte, I fell under his multi-faceted influence: a journalist, a founder of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, an unelected politician, a hotshot criminal lawyer (he both freed them and put them away), a multi-award-winning novelist, a fire-in-his-belly environmentalist, about the best principal an articling student ever had, and a bust-your-gut funny guy.

Let’s look at those chapters of his life seriatim.

Journalist. Regina-born and the son of an underpaid socialist newspaperman (more on that below), Bill worked his way through law school as a reporter, night edition editor, full-time staffer at the Canadian Press and several dailies, and still had time to be editor of his university student newspaper.

In 1962, he was a year from taking his law degree at the University of Saskatchewan when the Vancouver Sun headhunted him from the flat, dry prairies to cover, inexplicably, the waterfront beat. (His first byline began: “There’s a parking problem in Vancouver’s harbour…”)

In those glory days of the print media, the Sun’s editorial room was a bedlam of shouts and ringing phones and clanging typewriter carriages at deadline, a pressure-cooker atmosphere that I suspect accounts for Bill’s legal arguments being so tightly reasoned, the driving prose in his novels so readable.

His fellow newshounds and columnists are now local legends: Jack Webster, Jack Scott, Barry Mather, Al Fotheringham, Denny Boyd, Simma Holt, cartoonist Len Norris. As I recall from my own term there as a copy runner, the crime reporter would bring a bottle of Scotch to work each day and take the empty home at night.

Bill returned to Saskatoon the next year, winning the McKenzie Prize in Evidence, graduating third in his class, and leading the campus New Democrats to a mock parliamentary victory (and selling his long-time friend and soon-to-be-premier, Roy Romanow, his first NDP membership — on a promise he’d be made his external affairs minister).

Civil Rights Activist. In a piece Bill wrote years ago in this very journal, he tells the story of how his articles began:

“In 1963, I sought refuge from the biting Prairie winters to seek articles on the West Coast, though as a late-arriving stranger to those shores, I got last pick: a struggling suburban practitioner who, on learning I could type, immediately laid off his secretary. As a civil libertarian, I had hoped to earn my spurs in the criminal courts, fighting for grand causes, but during half a year of typing my own letters I managed to squeeze in only one trial: a juvenile court matter involving a stolen Popsicle.” Which he lost, after tying up the court for an entire day on a complex jurisdictional issue.

He switched his articles to Gordon Dowding, the feisty MLA and later House Speaker, who invited him to join the Board of the nascent Civil Liberties Association. For a year he served as its executive director, running an office from his North Vancouver basement suite and fielding calls from the wronged, the oppressed, and the obligatory cranks. He earned a name doing this, and, he ruefully admits, an extensive non-paying clientele.

Politician. Surely the least notable of Bill’s ventures, as he himself admitted in his Author’s Note to his political novel, Snow Job: “At the risk of shaking readers’ confidence in my sanity, let me make confession: I was once an ambitious (though inept) politician. As a young lawyer running for the New Democrats, I’d made two disastrous tries for Parliament and one for the BC legislature, in Vancouver Centre, ultimately proving myself so hapless at hustling votes that I was punished by losing a nomination — by a single vote — for the succeeding election. Without me to drag down the ticket, the NDP went on to win handily and formed a government.”

The candidate who won that nomination, Gary Lauk, went on to be Attorney-General, an office that Bill would assuredly have snagged were it not for one missing X. But the consolation prize for a wannabe novelist was this: “In sublime irony, that one-vote loss freed me to pursue a different dream, long held. Had I achieved office, I might never have written anything more entertaining than a sitting member’s cynical memoir of frustration, compromise, and lost ideals.”

Trial lawyer. Desolated by the failure of his political ambitions, Bill plunged ever more single-mindedly into his practice: mostly criminal and civil rights, but with a fair dollop of tort actions and labour law.

Was there ever a more rousing time to practise criminal law than the 1960s and ’70s? I doubt it. Sex, drugs, and rock-’n’-roll, yes, but it was also the era of great civil liberties breakthroughs, gender equality, racial equality, marches, demonstrations, confrontations with those who controlled the levers of the law and weren’t afraid to abuse their power.

You couldn’t pick up a paper without reading about the legal exploits of Bill Deverell. (Mind you, he knew all the reporters, and they all knew him.) But he got the headline cases, and his years of volunteer service for the BCCLA had made him a magnet for civil liberties issues.

Back in his early years, Legal Aid was paying $35 a head for defences of the indigent, and Bill would stockpile as many as he could, sometimes ten a day: pot possessors, arrest resisters, disturbance causers, Vag A’s, Vag B’s, Vag C’s. (In the bad old days, one could be convicted for being found in a public place while unable to give a good account of oneself, for begging, or being a common prostitute: Vagrancy A, B, and C respectively.)

Deverell, Harrop, Wood, and Powell was definitely the go-to law firm when I graduated from UBC: three barristers plus a solicitor to tidy up their messy accounts. The late, great Dave Gibbons also enjoyed a spell with the firm, as did Madam Justice Nancy Morrison. Judge Josiah Wood, who has served three levels of BC’s judiciary (in no particular order) was Bill’s first articling student.

With a desperate craving to secure articles where the action was, I mailed my c.v. to the firm. A callback asked if I would meet the partners at 10:30 Saturday morning to find them all looking somewhat hungover. (So much so that they couldn’t find the energy to read that c.v.)

Here, slightly fictionalized in Bill’s comic masterpiece, Kill All the Lawyers — all names are changed, including mine — is how Bill recalls it:

Wentworth had been near the top of his graduating class and was entertained by scouts from several large firms. But he was idealistic and wanted to fight for people’s rights. For law graduates set upon this course, there was only one firm in Vancouver, that holy shrine of the underdog, the office of Pomeroy, Macarthur, Brovak and Sage.

So Wentworth Chance applied for articles — as did thirty-seven other classmates — and ultimately found himself in the library-boardroom looking upon his gods. They seemed out of sorts, as if hung over, especially John Brovak.

The interview went something like this:

Brovak: “How many more eager beavers are out there?”

Sage: “I counted five anyway.”

Brovak: “Aw, God help me. I need to go home and conk off.”

Macarthur: “Yeah, I have brain-fade. Let’s just take this guy and get it over with.”

Brovak: “You got a car?”

Chance: “I can’t afford a car.”

Macarthur: “Well, you better buy a bicycle because you’re going to be pedalling a lot of paper around.”

Native rights counsel Louise Mandell, also Bill’s student, tells an equally entertaining (non-fictional) story of how Bill hired her. It was his disconcerting custom to ask interviewees to list any faults they might have. Without hesitation, she replied: “I’m short, Jewish, and a woman.” Bill burst out laughing and said: “You’re hired.”

Among the firm’s few corporate clients was a purveyor of adult literature and marital aids who came by to seek an opinion as to whether he risked arrest by selling his latest prototype: a dildo sheathed in a flesh-coloured plastic phallus. When he flicked the switch on the vibrator’s tail, it jumped out of his hand and whirled around on the floor, causing an eyebrow-raised secretary to react wryly: “This is better than playing spin the bottle.”

Ultimately, Bill told me to get rid of the thing, declaring: “We’re running a reputable firm.” I dropped it in my briefcase, and forgot about it until later that night when we got cornered in a restaurant during the infamous Gastown riot. As Maple Tree Square exploded in a pandemonium of fleeing stoned protestors and baton-wielding mounted policemen in riot gear, I remembered the dildo and pulled it out of my bag.

“Bill, what if the cops find this?”

“Then I suspect you’ll get charged with carrying a very offensive weapon.”

Freedom of expression cases had become an office specialty, and few lawyers have done more to blunt the obscenity laws than Bill, with landmark rulings at trial and appeals that frequently took him to Ottawa. In one key appeal, convictions against the cast of a play, The Beard, were erased. He regularly defended The Georgia Straight as well as a plethora of book and magazine sellers in what he fondly remembers as the Dirty Assize. That involved thirty-odd Mom and Pop stores accused of selling hundreds of plastic-wrapped books of dubious literary merit: Hump Happy and such. The Crown made the error of proceeding by indictment; then, faced with the prospect of the courts being clogged by three dozen trials of more than a month each, caved.

But the case Bill most enjoys recounting was the defence of a Fourth Avenue head shop for selling a Kama Sutra calendar — it depicted stick figures copulating, and as Bill tells it, the magistrate convicted January through March, acquitted the remaining spring and summer months, and fined November and December a hundred dollars each.

I could write an entire book on Bill’s murder cases — but he’s doing a pretty good job of it himself: many have provided grist for his novels. Including the one I’m about to recount, a prosecution he did on retainer to the Attorney-General. Bill tells me it’s the inspiration for his work-in-progress:

John Wurtz and Daniel Eyre were driving west from Toronto to check out Vancouver while sharing a novel titled The First Deadly Sin, and speculating about whether the murder of a stranger might, as in the novel, produce an erotic thrill. Wurtz took the fantasy seriously, and in Vancouver picked up a loner and stabbed him to death (57 times with a pair of scissors) in his basement suite.

Wurtz underwent a lacerating cross-examination, became tied up in his lies, and after conviction, while being led off to serve a life sentence, he passed by counsel table and whispered to Bill: “One day, I’m going to get you.” A few years later, the police warned Bill that Wurtz had escaped from Kingston Pen. He hasn’t surfaced since, though his parents subsequently received by mail a mysterious urn with ashes from an unknown source. Bill, whose writing studio is a cabin in the woods, says he will often jump on hearing the sound of a twig breaking or the wind whistling through the cedars.

It seems ironic that the only murder case Bill ever lost is the subject of his one non-fiction book: A Life on Trial, an amazing fact situation involving a gay man named Frisbee, the employee (butler, secretary, chauffeur, hairdesser, cook, and dancing companion) of a wealthy widow alleged to have been beaten to death with a booze bottle in a luxury suite of an Alaska cruise ship. The motive: a prospective change in her will that would disinherit him from her millions. (He’d also had an affair with her late husband, a wills and estates lawyer. Frisbee’s partner was a self-professed psychic and a minister with a mail-ordered degree.) Enough said. A Life on Trial is also chock-full of anecdotes about Bill’s court career.

Novelist. In 1977, Bill took a year-long sabbatical from his practice, hoping to find his literary muse on the ten bucolic acres of farm and woodland on Pender Island that he shares with his wife Tekla. He immediately went into an acute state of writer’s block, an affliction prompted by his literary father’s scorn of so-called popular fiction.

He describes his dad thus in a newly published collection of Margaret Laurence Lectures titled A Writer’s Life: “A journalist, a voracious reader of classics who quoted Shakespeare on occasions appropriate or not, recited Keats and Shelley when in his cups — which regrettably was not an uncommon condition — and regularly insisted I would be better off reading Moby Dick than the Lone Ranger. Secretly, he wrote — stories that he mailed off to the New Yorker but that never saw the light of print. He showed me such a piece once, and with all the cool superiority of the teenage snob I was, I praised it insufficiently, and I don’t think he wrote after that, and I have ever since carried the burden of my impertinence.”

Bob Deverell died of cancer while Bill was on that sabbatical.

“As of that time, I was still suffering under the grinding weight of my writer’s block, despite several blind forays into a self-conscious Can-Lit style that I assumed was demanded by the industry. But suddenly I underwent a catharsis. It was this: I had been afraid to write because of my father, afraid to follow in the footsteps of his failures, but also cowed by something larger, the sense that I would disappoint him if I did not follow the true and noble path—produce a work that would attract that adjective he most admired: ‘literary.’

“Despite my sadness at his death, now I was unchained, I was free to junk earlier efforts. I had been a criminal lawyer, I had defended the innocent and the guilty and prosecuted the vilest murderers. I knew something of the underbelly of my city, Vancouver, I knew something of the pompous theatre of the courtroom. I was nearing forty, I was determined to break into print with both guns blazing. I would write a thriller.”

He added: “I found inspiration from Hilaire Beloc:”

When I am dead, I hope it may be said:

His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.

Suddenly it was as if a dam had been breached, and Bill found himself muttering to his typewriter, “My God, Remington, I think I can write.”

And what he began writing was a novel about a prosecutor who secretly chips heroin and runs afoul of a vengeful importer of heroin with a penchant for inflicting tortures with acupuncture needles.

Needles came out to wide acclaim in 1979. It won both a $50,000 prize and a Book of the Year award.

Not everyone got it. Larry Still, court reporter for the Sun, began his review by quoting the obscenity definition from the Code (“sex, horror, cruelty, and violence”), and announced that none of the characters had any redeeming features except the judge: the lawyer-author had cautiously avoided sticking it to the judiciary. (He may have taken affront because Bill’s publisher, as a publicity gimmick, had mailed hypodermic syringes to all the book editors. Bill was quoted in the Sun as explaining it was just hype.)

Needles’s dedication reads: “To the memory of my father, who died recently. He was a good journalist, and he despised pretension.” Could it be that sometimes blessings come in heartbreaking disguise?

Bill’s second thriller, High Crimes, sprang directly from one of his cases, an entrapment setup in which the RCMP and DEA supplied unwary Newfie smugglers with the ship, captain, crew, and the dope (seventeen tons of low-grade pot). A Sat-Track device hidden aboard stalked them to an inlet north of Tofino, where contact was lost in dense fog during the transfer to a pair of fishing vessels — despite the presence of a hundred officers on the surrounding hills and in boats.

Legend is the Newfies got away with enough tonnage to pay Bill’s fees. While researching the novel, ten years later, in Colombia, he stopped off in Costa Rica, fell in love with that beguiling little democracy, and soon afterwards purchased four acres in the once sleepy village of Manuel Antonio, now a chic tourist destination. (And that’s where he is, as I write this.)

Others of his cases, clients, and his courtroom friends and foes, continued to fuel the muse. In The Dance of Shiva, a civil rights lawyer falls under the hypnotic sway of a guru charged with a mass killing. Bill had acted for a guru with apparent hypnotic powers and, allegedly, a bent for fraud.

Trial of Passion, which won the Dashiell Hammett Award for literary excellence in crime writing in North America, was kindled by an infamous case in upscale Shaughnessy involving booze, bondage, and allegations of rape.

Though typecast by his publisher, his reviewers, and bookstores, real and online, as a writer of “murder mysteries,” he has become reluctant to shed blood (unlike the author of this piece). Indeed, in several of his recent novels he hasn’t been able to produce a body. Genre-wise, is it fair to say Bill’s noir has turned to cozy?

In Slander, a young Seattle civil rights attorney gets sued for outing a powerful judge as a serial rapist. (It was Bill’s first venture in creating a woman protagonist, and he elicited comments on the manuscript from feminist friends. Margaret Atwood reassured him: “Well, you haven’t stuck a tampon in anyone’s ear.”)

His novels have not all been courtroom dramas. The Laughing Falcon, set in Costa Rica, is a double sendup of the thriller and the romance genre. Mind Games creates a neurotic forensic shrink who is pathologically absent-minded, and phobic about heights, enclosed spaces, and pretty well everything else. Nor has Bill stuck to print. He created Street Legal for the CBC.

Bill’s hugely popular Arthur Beauchamp series (Trial of Passion plus his last four) sets his self-doubting, curmudgeonly protagonist – recovered alcoholic, recovered cuckold, organic farmer, courtroom dazzler – like a pigeon among the playful cats of not-so-fictional Garibaldi Island, whose wily rogues constantly outwit the eminent barrister. Kill All the Judges and Snow Job were both finalists for the Stephen Leacock Prize for Humour.

Twice he has won the Ellis prize for best Canadian crime novel. Last May, the Crime Writers of Canada bestowed upon him a Lifetime Achievement Award, adding to his prior international credits.

Last October, Simon Fraser University “hooded” Bill as a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa. He was lauded for defending “the ideals and individuals animating this messy beast we call a free society.” Both as first-class counsel and as a writer “of the highest calibre,” Dr. Deverell “laboured tirelessly to protect freedom of expression.”

Environmentalist. In life and in fiction, Bill, who calls himself an eco-neurotic, has become Green with a capital G. He has dedicated novels (twice) to EcoJustice Canada, and to the defenders of the Clayoquot, and has given time and his name to West Coast Environmental Law causes. Almost all his later novels bear sub-plots replete with eco-issues and campaigns. In Kill All the Judges, Beauchamp’s wife, Margaret Blake, wins election to Parliament as Canada’s first Green MP.

Indeed, fellow lawyer Elizabeth May credits him (with her tongue only slightly in her cheek) with getting her elected. She wrote:

“There has never been a truer case of life following art, as me becoming the first Green MP. Not only did Bill make it happen in fiction, he played a key role in making it happen in fact. He urged me to run in Saanich Gulf Islands, and he and Tekla offered constant support…What Bill doesn’t know is that I have organized my Parliament Hill office on the mental image he painted (in Snow Job) of Margaret Blake’s office of busy staffers and pell-mell activity. I have only one favour to ask of my friend/mentor/magician. Can you please hurry along with the Arthur Beauchamp sequel in which he and Margaret set up organic farming at 24 Sussex Drive?”

In conclusion: Bill has an aura about him. He inspires confidence. Not only did he make a lawyer out of me, but he generously gave me the motivation and encouragement to try writing, too. Plus – unbeknown to Bill - the inspiration. How shall I put it? Who could have guessed the literary value of that “offensive weapon” discarded from Bill’s office in 1971? Plot-wise, it launched a career that has kept me writing thrillers for thirty years.

I sometimes wonder if Bill feels like Victor Frankenstein, on confronting his Monster?

If you’re old enough to have walked the halls of our lost Old Bailey (which the penny-pinchers should damn well return to us for criminal trials), or young enough to wish to time-travel back to our profession’s Golden Age, sit back with Bill’s latest: I’ll See You in My Dreams, a then-and-now saga populated with real-life titans from the 1960s: Angelo Branca, Hugh McGivern, Harry Rankin, Larry Hill, and Bert Oliver, while reveling in the antics of Bill’s Merry Pranksters.

Jay Clarke writes as Michael Slade. His law practice was centred on hookers of all genders, and madmen. In his doctorial address, Deverell called Slade “Canada’s answer to Stephen King, in extremis.”


Contact information:

website: www.deverell.com

email: william.deverell@gmail.com

film agent: Linda Saint The Saint Agency 18 Gloucester Lane, #200 Toronto, ON Canada, M4Y 1L5 linda@thesaintagency.com

ECW Publicist Jenna Illies ECW Press 2120 Queen Street East, Suite 200 Toronto, ON M4E 1E2 t: 416.694.3348, ext. 154 f: 416.698.3348

McClelland & Stewart publicist: Josh Glover Publicity Manager Penguin Random House Canada 320 Front Street West, Suite 1400 Toronto, ON. M5V 3B6 P 647-788-3970 F 416-598-7764