After 30-plus years as a lawyer —acting as a criminal defence lawyer, a Crown prosecutor and serving on the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal — Peggy Blair spins her flair for cross-examination into writing a crime novel. The Beggar’s Opera.
The first of the Inspector Ramirez series, finds the detective with only 72 hours to secure a conviction against a Canadian policeman he believes has killed a young boy – all while struggling with a dementia that makes him see the ghosts of his unsolved murders.
Athena McKenzie: Is it true a chance encounter with Ian Rankin helped you get published?
Peggy Blair: I don’t think I would have been published at all if it hadn’t been for Ian. There was a bit of interest in the book once it was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger [a contest for unpublished mysteries] but when I got to the awards night [in England], everybody said if you don’t win, forget it. So, I was just getting ready to head back to Ottawa and was feeling pretty dejected about the whole thing and that’s when Ian Rankin walked into this deserted bar. I’d had a glass of wine and normally I’d not have opened my mouth, but there he was. He’d just been in Ottawa the week before with his son for Bluesfest and that gave us something to talk about. He was kind enough at the end of it to say, “Contact my people and by all means use my name.”
AM: Why did you set the story in Cuba?
PB: I was in Cuba with my daughters at Christmas. It had struck me looking around – the poverty and the third world conditions and primarily seeing all these police all over the place – that it must be really difficult to be a cop in a place where you don’t have any supplies. I remember thinking to myself, how would you investigate a crime in a place where you don’t always have gas or paper. There were people begging us on the streets for pencils.
AM: There is a blurring between the good and the bad guys. Was that intentional?
PB: Very much so. I wanted to have a lead protagonist who you weren’t sure about, who was right on that knife-edge of corruption. I also wanted to have, for lack of a better word, a villain, who you could empathize with. As a criminal lawyer, the one thing that I had always done when I was defending someone was to try and find out why they had done what they had done. And to try and give the court and the victims an understanding of why of this thing happened. Because if you don’t do that, it’s just people doing awful things. Everyone has a story.
AM: How much how of your legal background made into the novel?
PB: A fair amount — the interrogation scenes: I was a criminal defense lawyer for a number of years and a prosecutor, so I had lots of experience in cross-examination in particular as a trial lawyer. In many ways interrogation involves cross-examination. Certainly, when the lawyer Celia Jones goes to Havana and starts interviewing her client and playing the legal system. All that came from my background. I don’t think I could have written the book without the experience I have in law and human rights.
AM: Will this be a series?
The second book, The King’s Indian, is with the commissioning editor at Penguin now. It picks up time wise right at the end of the first book. It does involve pretty much all the same people and there is a new character introduced. And the first draft of the third book is on its way to being done. The three books are as far as I thought.
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