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Rotenberg's Toronto Thrillers Mix Canadian Courtesy With Murder

From the Toronto Islands, one of many real-life Toronto locales in Robert Rotenberg's legal thrillers, visitors have a clear view of the city's skyline.
Sean Dawsean
via Flickr
From the Toronto Islands, one of many real-life Toronto locales in Robert Rotenberg's legal thrillers, visitors have a clear view of the city's skyline.

Robert Rotenberg has written four legal thrillers set in Toronto, that old industrial city on the shores of Lake Ontario. He's a criminal lawyer — all his books are centered on trials — and he loves his city so much that he makes multicultural Toronto a character in his books. His first release, Old City Hall, is even named after a Toronto landmark: a beautiful stone building that is now used as a courthouse.

Real Courtrooms, Real Courtesy

In that first novel, a trial takes place in Old City Hall's ornate Courtroom 121. "It's a bit of an intimidating room when you're first here as a lawyer, especially as a young lawyer, because it's so big and the judge seems to be so high up," Rotenberg says. "In fact, what I often do is I bring my clients in here on another day to have them look at the space, because sometimes they'll just get overwhelmed by it."

Inside Old City Hall, court clerk Kevin Barnes unlocks the courtroom for Rotenberg. Barnes is a well-known court character, partly because he wears white running sneakers and also because he must memorize everything he says in court. He's severely dyslexic and can barely read — but he did read Rotenberg's first Toronto novel.

"I kept on giving Mr. Rotenberg updates when I read the Old City Hall," Barnes says. "From the time that I picked up the book to the time that I finished it, it took me roughly eight and a half months."

Rotenberg has appeared in Toronto's courts many times, and he takes great pains in his books to portray the relatively calm atmosphere of Canadian courts, where high court lawyers wear robes and tabbed collars and always refer to their opponents as "my friend" or "my learned friend."

"There are no gavels in Canadian courts," Rotenberg explains. "There's a certain decorum that's expected. Lawyers call each other friends — even if they're horribly combative, they still say, 'Well, my friend says, my friend says this.' We bow before we come into court, and we bow when we leave. And I think it's a really good thing, because you're dealing with these horrible things; you're dealing with murders and rapes and real huge human tragedies."

Life Meets Literature

Rotenberg keeps a tiny office at a downtown law firm. He still practices a bit, and the office represents his transition from lawyer to author. "This is kind of my life," he says. "This drawer, these are all my client files, there are all the cases I do — and in this drawer, this is all my writing stuff."

Gryfe's Bagel Bakery is legendary in Toronto, and lines stretch out the door in the morning. The bakery also has a literary claim to fame.
Courtesy of Dennis Marciniak / dennismarciniak.com
Gryfe's Bagel Bakery is legendary in Toronto, and lines stretch out the door in the morning. The bakery also has a literary claim to fame.

Some of Rotenberg's writing ideas are mined from his own life. One of his main characters, homicide detective Ari Greene, has an elderly father who is a Holocaust survivor — like the grandparents of some of Rotenberg's childhood playmates. Rotenberg also sends the detective to Gryfe's Bagel Bakery in the old Jewish neighborhood where the author grew up. It's a real bakery, now run by Moise Gryfe, a son of the family that started the business.

Inside the bakery, Gryfe realizes Rotenberg is the author of Old City Hall. "It talks about my mother in there," he says. Rotenberg tries to launch into a memory, but Gryfe interrupts him: "She used to give half the store away."

Over the years, this neighborhood has changed; it's not what it was when Rotenberg was growing up. "It used to be Jewish and Italian, and now it's Filipino and Orthodox Jews," Gryfe says.

Rotenburg fishes a copy of Old City Hall out of his backpack to show Gryfe, pointing him toward the description of the bakery:

"Gryfe's was a simple storefront, and the lineup of men stretched back on to the corner. Most of them were bent over, tapping at their BlackBerrys, talking to their wives on their cell phones, or reading portions of the sports pages, which blared headlines about the Leafs' victory."

That passage references one bit of ersatz Toronto lore in Old City Hall. The Maple Leafs did not win the Stanley Cup that year — they last won it in 1967.

"I can actually remember the moment I thought of the idea, and I burst out laughing — I was all by myself," Rotenberg says. "And I just thought, you know what, it's my book. You know, they're never gonna win the Stanley Cup in my lifetime, so I at least might as well let them win in my book."

Location, Location, Location

Rotenberg suggests a trip to Ward's Island, where one of his characters lives. It's a beautiful wooded part of the Toronto Islands, about a 20-minute ferry ride into Toronto's Inner Harbour.

"When I think of a character, almost the very first thing I think of, [is] where do they live?" Rotenberg says. "Knowing where they live really tells me a great deal about who they are, and if I don't know where they live I can't write about them."

In the first book, policeman Daniel Kennicott visits prosecutor Jo Summers at her home in the Toronto Islands. To research that scene, Rotenberg walked around the summer cottages on Ward's Island until he found one that fit his plot.

Standing in front of that stranger's cottage — he has no idea who actually lives there — he says, "This is the house that I chose for Jo. I wanted her to live near enough to the ferry so in the climactic scene when Daniel has to run he can hear the horn of the ferry boat and rush out there."

Rotenberg's attention to accuracy is impressive, especially for a book that is, after all, fictional. "Maybe it's the criminal lawyer in me, but it's all details," Rotenberg says. "I actually ran from here to the ferry boat to make sure that the number of minutes I said it took him was the exact same number."

Paring Down The Character List

Rotenberg has assembled an unusually large and almost Dickensian band of lawyers, police and journalists who circulate around the courts. "I don't think it was a conscious decision to have all these characters," he explains. "It's just how it felt to me — that just to tell the story, I just needed all these different points of view."

"People always say, 'Who's the main character?' And although Detective Ari Greene is kind of the central character, he's not really the main character," Rotenberg says. "He's kind of like the moral center and everyone kind of circles around him."

In his fourth book, Rotenberg may be thinning the herd: Without spoiling the story, let's just say that some of those characters are edited out ... permanently. "Well, they are murder mysteries," he says, laughing.

And there are more on the way. Rotenberg has written four novels so far; he says he plans to write 20 legal thrillers set in Toronto, one each year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Wertheimer
As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.