Touchstone, 2009, 372 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4165-9285-3
Like many Canadians who don’t live in Toronto, my feelings about the city are a mixture of envy and distrust. Toronto is, in some ways, Canada’s most important city –which is fine: after all, it’s tough to be anything else when about a sixth of the country’s population lives nearby. (What’s less endearing is Toronto’s tendency to assume that anything not within commuting distance of the CN Tower might as well be on another primitive planet. But I digress.) Toronto is an order of magnitude bigger than my Ottawa hometown and I can never completely get used to its scale and density. On the other hand, recent years have taught me that Toronto can be a lot of fun when approached the right way, and that while I could never live there, it’s an awesome place to visit a few times a year.
These considerations aren’t completely foreign to Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, a crime-fiction debut that lavishes attention on its characters –the most important of them being Toronto itself. For everyone who wished the Torontonian equivalent to Robert B. Parker’s Boston or Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, don’t look any further than Old City Hall.
It begins with a celebrity radio host accused of murdering his wife. The evidence against him is overwhelming, not the least being the seemingly-incriminating statement “I killed her”. But don’t jump to early conclusions: Old City Hall soon reveals itself to be an old-fashioned mystery/procedural that describes almost everything about the subsequent trial. Witnesses, policemen, lawyers, and journalists all become involved in trying to discover the truth behind the crime.
The best part of the novel for anyone reasonably familiar with Toronto is the care and detail through which Rotenberg describes his hometown. From the Don Jail to the titular Old City Hall, though details about traffic to the city’s fascination for the hapless Maple Leafs, Toronto comes alive and those who have wandered around its downtown district will be able to picture the backdrop to many of the novel’s sequences.
But even for readers without much knowledge of Toronto, Old City Hall shines for its lavish attention to characterization. Nearly every character of significance is sketched with skill and depth, providing full backgrounds to even the most inconsequential witnesses. I was particularly struck by “Albert Fernandez”, a young Crown attorney who’s insanely ambitious, yet strangely likable and, ultimately, honourable in his own fashion. It helps that Rotenberg writes clearly, with constant narrative momentum and mysteries. Why isn’t the radio host talking? What are the policemen missing? Who’s lying? Will the Leafs win the Stanley Cup?
Unfortunately, the last fifty pages of the book feel like a messy let-down once the various parts of the plot are resolved. Rotenberg’s problem is in attempting to do too much at a time where readers could have been satisfied with far less. Not content with revealing the crucial circumstances of the events, he piles up overly complicated family drama far past the point where readers will care. From a careful and enjoyable procedural crime thriller, Old City Hall becomes a jack-in the-box of unneeded and useless revelations; the novel would have ended on a stronger note without most of them.
But that’s a late and minor sour note to a debut novel that promises much from Rotenberg’s next efforts. The ensemble of characters introduced in Old City Hall seem rich enough to warrant a continuing series, and Toronto can always use one more high-profile crime series. In the meantime, Old City Hall is a joy to read, and it’s a decent paean to Canada’s largest city. Even for those of us who don’t live there, and never intend to.