William Deverell Essay - Critical Essays


Most of William Deverell’s fiction is grounded in fact and contemporary events. For example, Needles begins with a reference to a major report to the government of Canada on the illegal drug trade, published in the early 1970’s. High Crimes (1981) draws on his experience as a defense attorney in a famous drug smuggling case. Trial of Passion is loosely based on a sensational sexual harassment case at a university in British Columbia. Mindfield draws on the United States government’s clandestine experiments with LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in Canada in the 1950’s.

The pervading sense of authenticity and realism conveyed by Deverell’s novels is strengthened by his incorporation of “evidence” into his narratives: excerpts from court testimony, police and private detective reports, psychological assessments, wiretaps, and the like. All of this tends to convey a sense of direct, unfiltered contact with primary material. The reader often seems positioned as a juror, weighing and assessing testimony and evidence throughout the story.

Despite the aura of realism, Deverell is also a compulsively self-reflexive writer, often engaging in subtle and humorous postmodern touches. In Kill All the Lawyers (1994), for example, one of the main characters is writing a crime novel following the instructions in a how-to book entitled The Art of the Whodunit. His “fictional” plot strangely anticipates some important developments in the “real” story. The character also relaxes by discussing classic murder mystery fiction with the local police detective, who solves the mystery of the “real” story by methods gleaned from his reading of such writers as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

Deverell often focuses intensely on the inherent drama of the courtroom duel between the prosecution and the defense. His work is enhanced by and reflects his knowledge of police procedure; forensic science; the interaction of local, provincial, national, and international police forces; and justice as affected by notoriety, power, and money.

Despite the humor and exuberance that mark Deverell’s characters, plot, and dialogue, there is throughout his work a sense of the importance and pervasiveness of legal concepts and structures in people’s lives. As one of his characters says, “The law. The law! I’m trapped in the bloody clutches of the law. Presumption of innocence, reasonable doubt, grand precepts, aren’t they?” Deverell would emphatically say that they are but that they are enacted by flawed and fallible human beings. This volatile mix is what makes his depiction of crime and punishment so readable and relevant.


Set in Vancouver, Needles explores the underworld links between Asian suppliers of heroin and the vast, voracious North American market for their product. Dr. Au, “the Surgeon,” a Chinese national and Canadian land-owning immigrant, is the local Asian syndicate leader charged with responsibility for the Canadian end of the drug trade. The story opens with a shocking scene of vivisection, as Dr. Au slowly and methodically tortures and then kills one of his underlings who has been uncovered as a police informant.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the local authorities have been keeping Dr. Au and his operation under surveillance for some time and eventually arrest him for the murder. A twist in the plot is that the RCMP officer who recruited the murdered informer is also on the payroll of Dr. Au, and he plays both sides of the law. At this point, the story’s protagonist enters—Forster Cobb, a former government prosecutor who is pressured to take the lead in the prosecution of Dr. Au. Cobb is reluctant partly because he has relapsed into drug use because of professional and domestic stress. Eventually he agrees to take the case.

From this point, the novel details the complex preparations by the prosecution and the defense for the trial of Dr. Au, including strategic delays and pretrial motions. Deverell includes the police activity in court and behind the scenes, including wiretaps, the disposition of evidence, and the protection and preparation of witnesses.

All of this is interwoven with the complex personal lives of the major figures, culminating in some surprising and profoundly human revelations about characters on both sides of the law, including the...

(The entire section is 1825 words.)