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The Case Against Owen Williams

by Allan Donaldson

War veteran John Maclean, the hapless title character of Allan Donaldson’s first novel, Maclean (nominated for the 2005 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize), makes a brief appearance in his latest. Maclean’s inclusion in the novel, a literary mystery concerning the rape and murder of a small-town New Brunswick teenager in 1944, is a clever device: not only does it establish a sense of continuity between the novels, set a year apart in the fictional community of Wakefield, but it also affords Maclean the opportunity to redeem himself as a key figure in the trial of the unjustly convicted Owen Williams.

Sarah Coile, 16 and pregnant, is killed one summer night after attending a dance at the Silver Dollar, a rundown dance hall, where she encounters the shy and unassuming Williams. One of the town’s despised troop of Zombies – conscripted soldiers unwilling to be sent to war in Europe – Williams is accused of Sarah’s murder. The evidence against him is circumstantial and flawed, and lawyer Lieutenant Bernard Dorkin is determined to disprove it, despite being confronted by a town full of people waiting to see Williams hanged for his alleged crime, and a military eager to dissociate itself from the actions of one shameful and expendable soldier. Dorkin, however, has another reason to defend Williams: the son of a humble Jewish tailor, he takes on the controversial case not only because he genuinely believes in Williams’ innocence, but also because of a more personal desire to challenge the elitist posturing of the famous prosecutor H.P. Whidden.

The story is unquestionably entertaining, despite its formulaic arc – a violent death followed by a prolonged investigation complete with shady townspeople, abrasive cops, red herrings, and a myriad of dead ends, through the courtroom drama and sentencing, and ending with an anticipated (though improbable) twist. Donaldson’s use of dialogue is exemplary, and some of the most compelling moments in the book occur during Williams’ trial. The tenuous position of the wrongly convicted is well depicted in this novel, a fine follow-up to Donaldson’s debut.