Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

(In)humane City: Robert Rotenberg's The Guilty Plea

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Robert Rotenberg's The Guilty Plea, on the table at Book City

A police court is a place of tragic gloom, though like the ground where Ophelia was laid to rest, it is sometimes enlivened by the jests of the grave diggers; it is a whirlpool into which offenders against law and order are sucked; a justice shop where men, sinned against and sinning, receive their deserts; a pit of peradventure into which men sometimes slip; a guillotine which falls with shuddering swiftness upon the necks of those who would menace society; a house of tears and sighs and evil temper; a clearing house, where parcels of humanity are valued and classified; and sometimes--not too often--it is a mercy seat. [Harry M. Wodson, 1917. The Whirlpool: Scenes from Toronto Police Court.]

Robert Rotenberg has seen Toronto at its best — and worst. As a magazine publisher (Rotenberg ran T.O.: The Magazine of Toronto for six years) his life was a whirlwind of glitter and gloss. As a criminal lawyer (Rotenberg has practiced with Rotenberg, Shidlowski & Jesin for two decades) he represents clients laid low in the labyrinth of justice. As a novelist (Rotenberg's first published novel, Old City Hall was an international bestseller), Rotenberg brings these disparate parts of the city together. One reviewer gushed that Rotenberg "captures the soul of Toronto."

I spoke with Robert shortly before his new Toronto-set legal thriller, The Guilty Plea, went into wide distribution. The novel is available in stores today (you can read the first chapter online here) and launches on Friday 6 May, when Rotenberg will appear in conversation with Eddie Greenspan at the Toronto Eaton Centre Indigo bookstore.

Place looms large in The Guilty Plea. Inner-suburban Bayview, the McMansions of Woodbridge, the provincial courts at Old City Hall, Parkdale's Gladstone Hotel, Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the Toronto Islands are realized in vivid detail, and Rotenberg offers up the most vivid depiction of the Ontario Food Terminal I've seen in print.

“Drama is local,” he told me; “It’s about place.”

Rotenberg also references real Toronto events and, sometimes, real people. The murder of Alison Parrott floats into the novel like an unquiet ghost, and the Wyler family, a clan of fine food purveyors around whom much of the novel revolves, seems modeled loosely on the domestic struggles of the Pusateri family (Rotenberg insists any such resemblance is coincidental -- a case of art imitating life).

But such tensions -- between art and life, and between the real and imagined city -- are at the heart of Rotenberg's writing. “Toronto’s all about tension and conflict,” he avers.

Two principal tensions in Rotenberg's work revolve around class and culture -- tensions that are arguably definitive of Toronto.

In both Old City Hall and The Guilty Plea, Rotenberg's defendants (and victims) have been prominent, powerful Torontonians – one a well-known broadcaster, the other the scion of a family's corporate empire. But their lives and deaths are presented largely as backdrops to the more vital dramas that develop between the protagonists who take up most of the page count.

Detective Ari Greene, for example, one of Rotenberg's most compelling characters, is the son of Holocaust survivors and, Rotenberg notes, the only Jewish homicide detective on the force. Albert Fernandez, the young prosecutor in Old City Hall, is the son of a Chilean labour activist who deplores his defection to the power elite. In both cases their backgrounds inform their dilemmas -- and decisions -- as the trials wear on.

Even secondary characters, most prominently Gurdial Singh, the precise, dapper man who first discovers the corpse of murdered radio broadcaster Kevin Brace in Old City Hall, and Arceli Ocaya, the Filipina nanny in The Guilty Pleawho cares for the bereaved son of grocery empire scion Terrence Wyler, found stabbed to death on the floor of his gourmet kitchen, have complex lives. Singh, a retired Indian railroad engineer who delivers newspapers to the residents of a downtown condominium, tells a stunned and silent courtroom, "I have killed many people" before describing twelve deaths attributed to his 42 years behind a locomotive engine. Arceli, a woman hoping to bring her family to Canada at some point in the future, fills barrels with food, toys and tools to ship to her estranged husband and children back home in the Philippines.

When we met, Rotenberg called Toronto a “city of survivors,” and described a visit to Scarborough's Provincial Court, where people speaking a dozen different languages were thrown together on both sides of the dock. More than victims, Rotenberg explains, these people are survivors. "The city," he avers -- crowded, chaotic, poorly planned and sometimes violent -- "survives despite itself.”

Click here to win, courtesy of Simon & Schuster Canada, a free copy of Robert Rotenberg's new novel, The Guilty Plea.

[Illustration: The Guilty Plea on the New and Notable table at Book City in the Bloor West Village.]

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page