Mike MacInnes trained as a lawyer in Canada before deciding to go to work for a publishing company, and to pursue his interest in writing. He currently writes summaries of legal cases by day, and as he explains in this post, the cases often provide inspiration for crime fiction. While an undergraduate at the University of Toronto Mike won an award for creative writing, but his first paid fiction publication, “The Unlocked Car,” appears in our current issue (May/June 2021). —Janet Hutchings
Perhaps my favourite sentence in all of crime reading is “. . . Andrew Boutilier knew Ronnie Boutilier was up to no good when he set off for the Legion carrying an axe.” In twenty words, the reader knows an important incident is about to happen. A dangerous weapon is introduced, one likely to be used for an unwholesome purpose. Hints are dropped from two identical last names, and the connotations drawn from referencing the local Legion could build a scaffolding to streamline and support what’s to come next, or create immediate expectations to be torn down just as easily. We don’t know exactly where we are going yet, but we know it will be exciting, and that we will get there soon.
I use the vague term crime reading deliberately. The above passage is taken from the reasons for judgment of a trial in the Nova Scotia Provincial Court, deciding charges of assault with a weapon and uttering threats. In the course of my job summarizing legal decisions, I’ve had the opportunity to read perhaps 20,000 cases over the course of years, from bankruptcy directions to tax disputes to divorce settlements to personal injury actions. While many (most?) have been run of the mill adjudications of mundane squabbles, others have provided useful insight into worlds I wouldn’t have otherwise had a chance to learn about.
There are many benefits to using legal judgments as a starting point for writing crime and mystery fiction. News reports must be condensed to fit column size, and often the most engaging details, the ones that would breathe life into a fictionalized account, get left out. A full-length book might contain more information than a court case, but one can read dozens of cases in the time it takes to finish the average story. Furthermore, newspapers, TV shows, and podcasts are designed to be seen by as many people as possible. A writer looking for inspiration has to share an item from the media with every other interested individual, while someone searching through legal decisions could be the only person outside of the courtroom ever to see it.
The opportunity for regular readers to get their hands on trial records is also increasing. At one time the reasons the bench delivered could be found only in dusty courthouse basements, with only a select few making their way into the print collections held in law libraries. Today, almost every tribunal, board, or courthouse has a website, searchable by keyword for anything the curious might wish to investigate. I’ve had the advantage of combing through cases for forty hours a week for well over ten years, and can wait for an interesting judgment to just cross my desk. But with the aid of court websites and search engines, anyone with some time to spend can peruse tens of thousands of cases with just a few keystrokes.
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that one of the times I enjoy reading most is when I feel like I’ve learned something interesting that I wasn’t expecting to. Ask a fan of Michael Crichton’s work what they remember the most about Jurassic Park, and the first thing they will say is “Giant dinosaurs! That kill people!” But the second is probably the mostly accurate account of the branch of the mathematical school of chaos theory, which a scientist uses to predict that a park creating dinosaurs might run into unforeseen problems. And in a world where true crime had suddenly gained new popularity, what could be “truer” than the findings of a judge who has just spent days listening to extensive cross-examination of the accused, the police, and the witnesses? This is where legal judgments, based solely on the facts of the case and the arguments of counsel, have fiction beat.
It might seem that criminal cases are the most likely place to look for an interesting legal case that also makes an exciting tale. But conflict is at the heart of every story, and you can’t have any trial without a justiciable conflict between the parties. Parents in family-law proceedings escape with their children to foreign countries or hide income from their spouses to lower support payments. Corporations try to cover up industrial accidents. One of my all-time favourite cases involves the CFO of a gold mine whose company’s shares rose steadily on reports of a huge new gold deposit in Indonesia. Soon it became apparent that the field tests indicating a huge vein of precious metal had been somehow faked. Then, as an internal investigation began, the employee best placed to provide answers died in a suspicious helicopter accident. It’s an 800-page regulatory decision from the Ontario Securities Commission. The morning I wrote this post I learned what taxi drivers consider legitimate business deductions; the day before that a court ripped apart the poor methodology of an oft-cited study about the length of wait times in Canadian hospitals. The week before that I found out how coroners decide whether a dead body may be exhumed. There are details to the official rules for commercial apple harvesting on the East Coast that I hope to someday turn into the basis of a novel.
Judges are professionals, of course, who deal with serious matters. They would be remiss if their writing didn’t convey a certain gravitas. But life mirrors art, and most judges are likely readers themselves. The trappings of fiction will find their way into the writings of the judiciary (Canada’s former Chief Justice, Beverly McLachlin, for instance, published the whodunit Full Disclosure shortly after retiring from the bench). Many writing techniques would be inappropriate in a legal judgment—a red herring would be out of place, a twist ending unheard of. On the whole, the writing style of judges might be thought of as a detached, one-note noir, necessary for reciting the facts of ghastly crimes, to make it clear to the parties and society why a final verdict has been reached. And judges are prone to the same poor impulses as any writer. The overwrought passage here, from a sentencing hearing in Ontario, shows that judges can be no better than some authors at reining in questionable impulses: “The purpose of the party was to celebrate the birthday of Ms. Woldemariam. Rather than the party ending with fire on the birthday cake candles, it ended with the fire coming out of the barrel of a gun.” Taken in all, for the reader or the writer, judgments from trials make for an interesting supplement to the diet of mystery and crime fiction.