Sunday, June 29, 2014

WGTB Reviews Philip Slayton's Bay Street: A Novel

Having just finished the exams one needs to pass to become a lawyer in Ontario, I recently went looking for legal fiction to relax with and let the summer finally begin. But unlike most times when I'd typically reach for a John Grisham novel, on this occasion I went with the spirit of my jurisdiction and picked up Bay Street: A Novel, the debut fictional work of Canadian lawyer Philip Slayton. I first encountered Slayton’s writing when I reviewed Mighty Judgment, an accessible introduction to Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mighty was an enjoyable read and great primer for anyone looking to start learning about Canadian constitutional law. But novels are very different from non-fiction and picking up Bay Street was also due to a curiosity about whether Slayton could make the transition.

Bay Street: A Novel, Philip Slayton, Oblonsky Editions, 2014, pp. 264, $15.99
Bay Street: A Novel tells the story of Piper Fantouche, the daughter of Latvian-Canadian immigrants who is now a lawyer at the prestigious Bay Street firm Dibbet & Dibbet LLP, a fictionalized member of Canada's leading and most prestigious law firms, all of which are based in and around Bay Street in downtown Toronto. Piper could be any one of those women I see at my regular spin classes: smart, ambitious and beautiful. She works in her firm's corporate group with its sleazeball Managing Partner, Jim Watt, and the story begins with Watt inviting Piper to join him and others to do the legal work for a hostile take-over of Liberty Insurance by one of the firm's largest clients, Canadian Unity Bank. Watt knows Piper is both a capable member of the team, but also has ulterior motives, as is repeatedly shown when he "invites" her out for Martini lunches. Of course, being ambitious and knowing billable hours are what it takes to make partner, Piper joins the team and gets ready to work. Soon afterwards Watt is found dead and Piper's world is thrown into disarray. With this, she engages a prominent criminal defence lawyer she encounters at a law school reunion and two Toronto detectives are called in to investigate the crime -- all while Bay Street catches wind of the merger the whole ordeal threatens not only Canadian Unity Bank but Dibbits as well.      

Admittedly, I'm not a big consumer of legal fiction, and when I am, the diet consists mostly of American author John Grisham. So inevitably as I read Bay Street I compared it to that seasoned master, and because of this, I can say that while Slayton has some work to do, Bay Street is never-the-less a comparable work and a fun and enjoyable novel. Piper is a very likable protagonist and a laudable change from the usual male lead that one would find in Grisham's work. As a future lawyer, I also identified with her and while I'll probably never have to deal with managing partners grabbing my knee, I can never-the-less empathize with the pressures she faces to both perform and advance in a competitive and cut-throat environment. Having been a lawyer on Bay Street for many years, Slayton clearly has the pulse of legal Toronto and taps into this for much of the book. Toronto itself is also a key character in the work, (much like the American south in Grisham’s books) and seeing my city utilized to this end was very enjoyable. Indeed, High Park Gardens, Liberty Village and College Street are all parts of Toronto that were featured and places I frequent quite regularly. That said, if you're from Manitoba or Nova Scotia, or even Scotland or New South Wales, the themes of this story are a common thread of the business and legal world, and the fact that it's Canadian shouldn't stop you from reading it. 

My biggest criticism with the book is that the plot of the villain isn't very good. Now I know "It was him!" twists are very hard to write and even John Grisham novels can be hit and miss in this respect. So I won't harp on this point, except to say that in any future work, Slayton needs to practice this aspect of storytelling and tighten up the points that build to a story's climax. And I sincerely hope he does because the lead up to these moments was very rewarding and he's built quite an interesting world populated by great characters.  

The seat of power of Canada's legal and financial world is Bay Street. Here is the view from outside the Law Society of Upper Canada.
That issue aside, Bay Street: A Novel is an enjoyable, fast-paced and fun summer read and very commendable first novel by Philip Slayton. So if you're looking for an enjoyable yarn these coming months for the cottage, beach or airport, and want something different from the usual American legal fare that one finds in Canadian bookstores or online, then I highly recommend you give Bay Street: A Novel a try. Piper Fantouche is a great character and while the story left with strong hints that there might be another novel about her forthcoming, I hope this is the case because there's a lot more than can be done with her. 4/5 STARS  

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