A Toronto lawyer turned crime writer, Rotenberg won a lot of fans with his first novel, Old City Hall (2009), in which his city and especially the former civic headquarters that is now the nerve centre of Toronto’s criminal justice system were leading characters. Rotenberg’s second effort picks up where he left off—new lawyers take centre stage, to be sure, and there’s a stronger role for plot over atmosphere—but there’s the same appealing lead cop and the same sort of open-and-shut situation that turns out to be anything but.
In Rotenberg’s first novel, it was a matter of a prominent radio host, his girlfriend dead in a bathtub behind him, who opens his door and tells a caller, “I killed her.” In Guilty Plea, the plot kicks off with a rich man stabbed to death on the morning his highly publicized divorce case was to begin; soon after, the victim’s wife shows up at her lawyer’s office with a bloody knife. Once again, naturally, things are not as they seem, and once again nicely etched characters and the multicultural city take centre stage. (And in a realistic manner too, except for Rotenberg’s one fantasy point: in his first novel the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup; in his second, even as a reader half-expects the city to awaken from its collective hallucination, Torontonians are still basking in the wake of that triumph.)
But in the end it’s not the motive and details, nor the loving portrayal of Rotenberg’s hometown, that turns Guilty Plea into a compulsive page-turner, nor even the backstage legal machinations, good as they are: if you ever need to get a key piece of evidence to a Crown prosecutor, without the authorities knowing it came from you, then Rotenberg’s your guide. No, it’s the author’s defence counsel sensibility that powers his novels, his insistence that every story is intensely personal (and almost never completely revealed), the way in which his humanizing of seemingly obvious killers raises doubts in the reader at the same pace as it does for the jury. As one character, clearly speaking for Rotenberg, notes, humans have not two but three sides: “We all have a public life and a private life—and a secret life.”