Robert Rotenberg knows stories, real or imagined, take funny turns and surprising twists. If he didn’t know it from his work as a defence counsel, there’s always his own life. Ten days after he was called to the bar as a lawyer in Toronto three decades ago, Rotenberg took a job as managing editor at a magazine in Paris. Back home two years later, he began publishing and editing his own magazine, T.O. Even after opening a criminal law firm 18 years ago, Rotenberg’s fictional writing (a screenplay and a classic, going-nowhere “novel in a drawer”) ignored his trade. “I was going to be an English professor, then a historian,” he says in his office. “In fact, I spent most of my life first trying to avoid becoming a lawyer and then trying to avoid writing about lawyers.”
And to what avail? Now 55, a prominent criminal lawyer and the first-time author of a legal thriller, Rotenberg seems to exhibit the peace of a man finally convicted and jailed after a long, weary pursuit. His Old City Hall (Simon & Schuster) concerns a radio personality accused of murdering his younger wife, an apparently open-and-shut matter, given that the broadcaster happened to say to a credible witness, “I killed her,” before clamming up and refusing to utter another word to anyone, including his lawyer. Of course, things aren’t really that simple.
The book has wowed pretty much everyone who’s read it. Eddie Greenspan, probably the most famous criminal lawyer in Canada, praises how Rotenberg gets the law and its many servants right; bestselling mystery writer Kathy Reichs likes the way he has the thriller part down. And all because, Rotenberg says with a laugh, he succumbed to his destiny and “put a corpse in chapter one.” Not quite. What critics have liked best about Old City Hall is the way Toronto itself becomes a character, in the manner of Boston in Robert Parker’s Spenser series. A finely paced, intricately written plot is matched by a kaleidoscope of the multicultural city’s locales and characters. The title itself sets that tone, having nothing much to do with the plot and everything to do with Rotenberg’s palpable affection for Toronto’s former city hall—the nerve centre of its court system—and its inhabitants. Nor did the local colour dampen enthusiasm at his American publishers. “New York didn’t question the title, they wanted more Toronto feel, more Toronto smell.”
Stitching it all together and raising Old City Hall above most genre writing is Rotenberg’s peculiarly defence-counsel way of viewing not only the justice system but the world at large. There are nuggets of practical lawyerly wisdom: how a solid witness can fatally lose credibility in a jury’s eyes merely by a moment of uncertainty about where to put his coat; how criminal lawyers, who have to fight for “every ounce of co-operation” from the Crown on a shoplifting charge, like murder cases, where “at least you were treated with respect.” More important, though, is the part played in the novel by Rotenberg’s angry dismissal of zero-tolerance policies, now standard in domestic abuse cases.
“Zero tolerance means there’s no narrative to the story, no individual context,” he says. “When you surrender the justice system to social groups, no matter how worthy their goals, you lose sight of the people involved, and you lose justice.” What’s always made criminal law so fascinating for him, Rotenberg continues, is that “everyone who gets caught up in it has their own story, their own individual agenda. The one thing you can’t ask about someone is ‘Why didn’t he/she act like I would have?’ ”
That’s because everybody lies, although mostly by omission, because everybody has something or someone to protect, he says, and at first they think they can. “When people come to my office, they’re in shock, and I don’t let them talk about their case at all, which drives them crazy because that’s all they want to talk about. But I don’t want them to commit to their stories. It takes a while before they learn that in the criminal justice system you can’t have any secrets.”
But even when the secrets are laid open, and everyone’s private life exposed, it doesn’t always follow that the truth will come out, not in life and certainly not in Old City Hall. Rotenberg’s novel ends in a way that manages to be both satisfying and remarkably uncertain for the genre. Defence lawyers everywhere will probably applaud. “I have convicted clients whose guilt I don’t really know to this day,” the author says. “It’s an ambiguous world and I think I earned that ending.”