Needles, by William Deverell

Seven stars

William Deverell has a knack for dazzling fans with his unique writing style, tackling the Canadian legal system as only he appears able to do. Drawing on decades of experience, Deverell’s fiction has a great flavour of truth that cannot be discounted by the attentive reader. Here is his debut novel, which first appeared in 1979 and won some significant awards. Drug addicts in Vancouver have long been trying to find the ‘next new hit’ to awaken them to the glories of that lasting high. When a cartel based in Hong Kong sends a senior member to Canada’s West Coast, they hope to open a shipping line to bring White Lady heroin to the streets and find a large and hungry clientele. Leading the cartel’s Canadian network is one Au P’eng Wei, nicknamed ‘Dr. Au’, who brings a ruthless nature to the drug trade as he seeks to make copious amounts of money. Those who cross Dr. Au are sure the face the consequences of his medical training, as one Jim Fat learned the hard way. When Fat’s body is discovered, Au is fingered as the likely suspect, though it is hard to get anyone to speak out against him. Scrambling to prosecute, Vancouver’s senior Crown attorney turns to Foster Cobb, whose legal abilities seem somewhat questionable. Cobb is not only an attorney whose shingle is rusting, but he has a heroin addiction all his own, chasing it down dark hallways just to stay level. As Cobb begins to cobble together a prosecution, he discovers that Dr. Au is not one who will be easily convicted. With a wife who has all but checked out of the marriage and a second-chair who wants into his legal briefs—we’re not talking about arguments to the judge, here—Cobb must risk it all to find justice while trying to slay his own closet full of dragons as well. Deverell delivers a powerful story embedded in his complex writing style. Those who are fans of the author will likely find something worthwhile here, though I caution the reader new to Deverell’s work to begin with something a bit more grounded before making a decision.

Many will know that I discovered William Deverell when binge reading his Canadian legal series last spring/summer, where I was able to meet the sensational Arthur Beauchamp. From there, I agreed to branch out and see just how great Deverell could be with his one-off novels. Some I found to be well grounded in legal arguments and societal norms of the day, while others appeared to miss their mark. This novel finds itself somewhere in the middle, as I could see a great deal of legal potential, though some of the periphery writing was not as crisp as I would have liked. I attribute at least some of this to Deverell’s early writing, which I have come to discover is a lot harder to digest with ease (though it all seems to have won many literary awards). Foster Cobb proves to be an interesting character, much like the early Beauchamp, who struggles with addiction and a marriage that is hanging by a thread. However, Cobb seems quite lacklustre in his legal workings and therefore his character does not compensate for the addiction that looms over him. I had hoped for a sensational courtroom display—a la Arthur Beauchamp—to balance the novel out, but it failed to materialize and the story dragged for me. While I love a good courtroom drama, Deverell served up something more tepid. Surely I am biased from all my reading of his past work, so I suppose I must take that into account. The other characters proved less than persuasive for me as well, offering up placeholders for the narrative in a legal thriller that lacked the thrill. Crooked cops, scared cartel members, a wife who is unplugged and close to useless… all names that crossed the page and proved to be stumbling blocks as I sought to finish the read in a timely manner. The story could have been sensational, though it lacked many of the elements that I hoped to find. This was Deverell’s debut novel and, admittedly, penned before many of the books to which I am comparing this work. I have seen Deverell hone his skills and so I will give this one its due and not harp on it any longer.

Kudos, Mr. Deverell, for another interesting piece. It is sometimes hard for a reader to go back and not judge more recent (read: refined) works against it. The premise was there and yet the delivery needed something else.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: