Monday, May 30, 2011

(No.154) CI Financial & Sun Life: another point of view

In my most recent column on RickardsRead.com (No. 153 posted May 24,2011) "Sun Life numbers: kumquats & apples", I referred in part to the sale by Sun Life at the end of 2008 of its approximately 1/3 interest in CI Financial. I had offered opinions about what I consider to be -- from a Sun corporate perspective -- both the timeliness of Sun's actions and its previous mishandling of aspects of its relationship with CI Financial vis-a-vis Sun's own Canadian career agency distribution system in Canada.

I received from a successful Sun Life agent who is active in the asset product business, including CI's mutual funds, a thoughtful response to my views. Indeed a number of the points he makes (e.g., sale of life insurance and mutual funds are complementary) are ones with which I agree.

When I was with Sun in an agency-related role I often heard from agents about their support for CI and why. Hence, based on my experience I think this agent's pro-CI Financial views reflect those of many if not a significant majority of the considerable number of Sun career agents who are active in the mutual fund market-place. His is a perspective shaped by a successful agent's experience with Sun, CI Financial and mutual funds. The views I expressed -- and still hold -- are shaped by a focus on Sun Life per se and the health and enhancement of its career agency distribution system.

Because understanding of relevant issues is furthered by a thoughtful exchange of views, followers of RickardsRead.com should have the opportunity to read the Sun Life agent's comments prompted by my views of Sun and CI Financial. Please note that italicized words within square brackets have been added by me for purposes of clarity.

"I always enjoy your columns," he wrote,"and frankly I usually agree with your comments. However, I would like to offer a different perspective on your comments about Sun Life's sale of CI back in 2008 and about the relationship between CI and the advisors of Sun Life. I speak as someone with a very large book of asset business both with CI and with Sun Life ....

"I feel that Sun's sale of CI in 2008, while profitable at the time was and will continue to prove to be very short-sighted. The investment income that SLF [Sun Life Financial]received from its investment over the 6 years they held their shares was massive and growing year over year. Unlike the insurance business which has been stagnant in Canada for decades, Sun was actually participating in a growth industry. It may be true that the [mutual fund] Dealer operation did not generate any income for Sun, however the ownership of the [CI Financial] shares provided a handsome payout year after year.

"As for the distraction of advisors from selling insurance business, I'm not sure the facts would support this. I don't think it is any coincidence that many of the top wealth advisors in the SLF [career agency distribution] channel are also top insurance sales people. It seems axiomatic that those clients that have assets also have a need (and an ability to pay) for larger amounts of permanent [life] insurance. It seems that the two businesses go hand in hand. Sun Life would seem to agree as they have been consistently promoting the "holistic" model to their advisors for almost 5 years now. In fact, it it weren't so why would [SLF CEO] Don Stewart and [Sun Canada president] Kevin Dougherty want to get back into the wealth game by introducing Sun Life Global Investments?

"My feeling (and the feeling of many of my peers) is that Sun Life blew it when they sold [Sun shares in CI] in a panic in the fall of 2008. It was 'sold' to the [Sun Life career agency] sales force as being an 'opportunity' and that the money would be reinvested in the company and/or used for major acquisitions at bargain prices. Well what has happened since?! Nothing. Sun Life, like the most unsophisticated investors, was paralyzed by fear when the markets were at their most perilous and was frozen into inaction.

"Now Sun Life misses the large dividend cheques they were receiving from CI. They miss the 'juice' they were used to sharing as being part of the manufacturing process of mutual funds because that's where the real money is. While it is true that they did not enjoy 100% of the juice, they at least enjoyed 36% of the juice. Part of something is better than all of nothing.

"Today they are investing millions of dollars to create a [mutual fund] company from scratch. They are trying to compete in an industry where scale matters and they have none. Their assets under administration are much smaller than other competitors who are struggling and who either have been or will be bought out. For how long will the board of directors and shareholders wait patiently for Sun Life Global Investments to become profitable in this industry with high barriers to entry?

"Let me help you understand the relationship between CI and 'wealth active' Sun Life advisors:
CI has provided excellent, above average results to our clients;
CI has provided far superior service to advisors and clients, especially when compared to what we were used to from Mutual/Sun;
CI has said "thank you" to us for our business, something that was a foreign concept to us prior to 2002;
CI has treated us with respect and has earned our business, not mandated it.

"The "sweet deal" to which you refer may be so but if it is, it was earned. And Sun Life profited mightily from the relationship.

"I have many friends that work for Sun Life Global Investments and I do not wish them ill. However, I think this venture is ill conceived and I fear for its long term success. I guess only time will tell who is right.

"Thanks for listening and I look forward to more columns."

Finally, as a counterpoint to the foregoing reader response to my "Sun Life numbers" column (No.153), I also received the following email from a Canadian financial journalist about the same column: "Exceptionally astute and clear. Very, very much so."

by Alastair Rickard

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

(No.153) Sun Life numbers: kumquats & apples

I was looking at several Sun Life Financial documents for 2010 the other week and doing some calculations of my own. There were several numbers that were particularly interesting to me, in some instances because they illustrated points I have been making over time about Sun Life's operations in Canada and elsewhere. These points were made while I was working at Sun and more recently in columns posted on RickardsRead.com.

It does not seem adequately appreciated by many among the financial services paparazzi who 'follow' Sun Life for the market and the financial media that Sun enjoys an advantage over its major Canadian-based 'international' rivals (Manulife and Great-West). Sun has a proportionately large, reliable and very profitable Canadian operation as a foundation for its worldwide operations, one on which it can and has relied.

It has been there, to Sun's great financial benefit, while it has pursued with decidedly mixed results its international activity in the U.S. and Asia, the sort of 'exciting and visionary' activity which seems to so impress the usual elements of the media and the market-place. For example: for the 6 years 2005 through 2010 57.3% of Sun's total net income came from its Canadian operation; in 2010 alone this proportion was 52.3%.

I emphasized in Sun Life internal discussion in which I participated as well as in these columns the importance to Sun Life of its Canadian Individual business unit's operation, particularly the career agency system distribution system it acquired when it bought Clarica Life (formerly the Mutual Life of Canada) and the need to invest in it. Sun Life itself beginning in the 1990s had, in its Canadian operation, gradually consigned its own career agency system to extinction -- although admittedly it did not have a top tier career system.

How important is the career distribution system in the current success of Sun's Canadian operation? New individual insurance premium increased 20% to $201 million in 2010; individual insurance and investments (annuities/mutual funds/GICs) accounted for $409 million in common shareholders' net income (up from $224 million in 2009) compared to $419 million from Group Wealth (pensions) and Group Benefits combined.

In selecting numbers to illustrate its operations Sun Life occasionally mixes apples and kumquats. For example: in its annual 'show and tell' it lists its own "employees worldwide" and states that it does not include employees of Birla Sun Life in India (Sun has only a 26% ownership interest) and Sun Life Everbright in China (a 24.9% interest).

Yet in listing its "advisors worldwide" Sun is pleased to show all the agents attributed to Birla Sun Life in India: 153,395 at the end of 2010. A very large number although far less important than it may seem if one is thinking of this huge agency contingent in terms of it being comprised of career agents in the sense of Sun's Canadian career system. It isn't.

I do not doubt that thousands of sales people do indeed flow into Birla every month as surely as thousands flow out. I would be surprised if Birla Sun Life's 4 year agent retention rate is even 1% (if they tracked and reported it on the LIMRA basis; Birla Sun Life is not among the LIMRA member companies in India). By comparison the highly superior 4 year retention rate for Sun's Canadian career system is currently 30% -- roughly twice the usual North American industry average -- and still increasing (the Mutual Life career system hit a high of 40%).

A footnote about agent retention rates for those both in and out of the industry (i.e., in fact nearly all in my experience) who do not really understand what those retention rates actually represent. The only reliable industry source is an annual study by LIMRA, the Life Insurance Marketing & Research Association. Its annual numbers based on member company reporting to LIMRA track the rate of agents still with the same company 4 years after joining, not agents still in the business with other companies or as brokers/'independents'/salaried agents et al after 4 years. These 1-4 year agent retention rates are not, as some industry critics have long misunderstood them, a measurement of people who enter and then leave the business of selling life insurance -- although many will have.

At the end of 2008 (Dec.12) Sun Life sold its interest in the mutual fund outfit CI Financial to the Bank of Nova Scotia. It was a timely and a very smart move by Sun for a number of reasons, not least because of the kind of problems Scotiabank is now having with CI. Sun Life had acquired its substantial interest in CI (approx. 1/3) not long after its takeover of Clarica Life. To buy it Sun traded its own mutual fund operation plus the larger one it had acquired with Mutual/Clarica for its CI interest. Sun had a pre-tax gain of $992 million on the sale of its CI shares and $805 million net of taxes.

CI Financial, as I have pointed out previously on RickardsRead.com, had (and still has) a sweet and too cheap ride with Sun in terms of enjoying preferred access to the Sun career agency sales force. Although a life insurance sales force in terms of its core products the Sun career system proceeded to place a great deal of mutual fund business with CI, at one point accounting for 2/3 or so of CI's annual net sales.

The strong push by CI for mutual fund sales from Sun agents embraced among other things an ongoing major promotional effort conducted by CI with Sun agents, often in Sun's agency branch offices (a presence and activity which Sun's agency managers were not allowed by Sun to limit or effectively manage in the interests of higher life insurance sales). All this CI activity and its increase in mutual fund sales by Sun agents came at a price to Sun which its senior non- agency executives either never seemed able to understand or chose to ignore.

Part of that price was a lower level of individual life insurance sales than would otherwise have come to Sun. For many career agents, especially established agents under the Mutual/Clarica/Sun lifetime level commission system, it was more attractive to focus on the sale of CI's mutual funds -- worthwhile activity for clients to be sure -- than on making life sales. It was, therefore, no mystery that the effect created by CI's promotional, incentive and compensation approach with Sun agents had a distracting and negative effect on the sale of Sun's own individual life insurance products from which Sun, as the manufacturer and distributor, derives all the benefit.

And what did Sun get by way of non-dividend annual returns from CI Financial in exchange for access to a large, national and proprietary sales force that CI on its best day could otherwise never dreamed of having? Far too little for far too long.

In terms of distribution fees, for example: $144 million in 2007 and $129 million in 2008, too little of which actually trickled down annually through the Sun corporate financial sieve to support (much less enhance) the Sun career agency distribution system. Those fees, had they been twice as large, would still have been a bargain for CI since its mutual fund success is, like so many most others in that business, fundamentally rooted in successful distribution of its product in a competitive market.

But instead of forcing CI Financial to make an appropriate financial contribution to the enhancement of the career agency distribution system on which it depended for so much of its quality mutual fund business, sales success which had the effect of handicapping sales of Sun's own life and asset products, Sun 's senior management chose not to use its very considerable leverage to force the issue with CI.

After sale of its CI Financial ownership interest Sun finally got around to providing its Canadian agents with a Sun-owned alternative mutual fund portfolio. It has been greeted, on the whole, with something much less than enthusiasm by most of its agents active in mutual fund sales. CI is holding on to its share of new mutual fund business sold by Sun Life agents. No surprise there after years of Sun's career agents' mutual fund playing field being tilted so markedly in favour of the (still) dominant CI Financial as mutual fund supplier.

The signs for 2011 sales by Sun Life's Canadian agents are positive. Their record sales in 2010 evince a positive momentum too long absent because, in part, of declining sales force morale and trust. Another indication came at the recent annual convention for Sun career agents in Hawaii, the sales qualification for attendance being based on 2010 activity. It saw almost a doubling over 2009 of agent convention qualifiers -- approx. 950 compared to 500.

The career agents' embrace of the new Sun participating whole life policies (too long absent from their product portfolio in the post-demutualization period when only the maximizing of value to shareholders seemed to count) did not really even begin to contribute to Sun's record individual sales for 2010 until the autumn. In 2011 the par policies are already a major sales factor: in the first quarter this year sales of individual life and health insurance increased by 21% over Q1 2010.

In contrast to this positive product development Sun's Canadian brokerage distribution of individual life insurance is still selling too much of what it has for too long depended to compete for so-called broker business: the old and under-priced Sun universal life product on which it had relied to compete for sales in the brokerage market before it acquired the Mutual/Clarica career agency system. In 2011 I suspect that Sun brokerage might account for 20% of new individual insurance sales although not that high a share of true profit resulting from new individual policy sales.

Finally, a reminder to all those in (and interested in) the Canadian life insurance business: at the end of the day success is at root about "selling stuff". On that basis alone 2011 seems likely to be a very good year for Sun Life sales in Canada.

by Alastair Rickard

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

Monday, May 16, 2011

(No.152) The Merry Wives of Windsor

I remember my parents talking about their attendance at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario during its early days (starting in 1953) when, before the Festival Theatre opened in 1957, the productions were staged in a large circus-like tent. The setting was less than ideal and hearing the dialogue spoken in the tent was a problem when it rained during a performance. I think it was in their reminiscences of this period that I first heard a reference to Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Merry Wives is once again being presented this season in Stratford as part of the Festival's extensive program, having been performed six times in the Festival's almost six decades as a premier world venue for Shakespeare. Merry Wives is the only Shakespearean comedy actually set in England and it has a plot sufficiently convoluted that unless one is familiar with the play the reading of a plot summary in advance of attending will enhance one's enjoyment of the play.

The larger than life central character is Sir John Falstaff, a character from Shakespeare's earlier 2 part play Henry IV. A tradition developed, for which no documentation exists, that Queen Elizabeth I ordered Shakespeare to write another play featuring the Falstaff character. 'Sequels' did not begin in Hollywood.

The Merry Wives production this season, for which Sun Life Financial is the sponsor, is not just good; Pat and I agree it is almost superb. It is well mounted on the Festival Theatre's thrust stage and Frank Galati's direction features fine pacing, smooth scene transitions, several superior performances and an overall direction that facilitates the comedy's laugh lines.

Some directors of Shakespeare plays seek to be 'different', to shine the light on themselves by the use, for example, of anachronism: Roman senators dressed up like English teddy boys of the 1950s or Tudors and Plantagenets stamping about in SS uniforms and similar stage crap (not craft). I think particularly of some Shakespearean productions in the UK that were risible in this respect. This sort of 'creativity' with the Bard's plays in recent decades has not helped the appeal of Shakespeare with wider audiences; it is just confusing and distracting and actually serves as a subtraction from enjoyment.

Stratford's Merry Wives production this season costumes its actors not in Elizabethan costume but in dress that, while 1800s fashion, seems appropriate to the play and its characters. It works as does the production as a whole.

The large Merry Wives company of actors is strong and performs with the skill one expects of a Stratford Festival cast. Geraint Wyn Davies' Falstaff is a treat to watch, a classic take on this drunken, debt ridden schemer. Davies brings laughs just with his waddling strut.

Tom McCamus is as smooth as glass as Master George Page. It is a part that does not begin to showcase his considerable talent which was so wonderfully on view last season as le Vicomte Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons [see the review "Dangerous Liaisons" on www.RickardsRead.com, column no. 106 posted Aug.6,2010].

It is a treat to watch James Blendick, in his 28th season at Stratford, play Master Robert Shallow. His every move and expression is clearly that of a true professional of long experience.

Tom Rooney's Master Francis Ford is a far more challenging role than McCamus' Master Page. His performance seems somewhat uneven but his is a difficult part embracing the husband worried that he is being cuckolded by Falstaff and, in disguise, Master Brook professing to Falstaff a passion for Mistress Ford.

Pat and I each began attending Stratford's productions of Shakespeare plays, as have so many other fortunate students, when we were in secondary school. In subsequent years together we enjoyed such Stratford productions as Alan Bates as Richard III and Christopher Plummer in Antony and Cleopatra. In recent years I have found myself (although Pat has not) enjoying Shakespeare less.

I was therefore delighted to have enjoyed The Merry Wives of Windsor more than any Shakespeare play I have attended in some years -- in Stratford, Ontario or elesewhere. Pat and I both recommend it.

The Merry Wives of Windsor runs through Oct. 14, 2011.
Information on tickets etc at www. stratfordshakespearefestival.com

Stratford Ontario is the home, thanks to the Festival, to a wealth of fine places to dine, from pubs such as Bentley's to the preciously upscale like Rundles and The Church Restaurant. I prefer the former; Pat does not.

When in Stratford to attend Merry Wives we enjoyed our meal at Down The Street, in business since 1993 it is a restaurant on the main drag in Stratford (30 Ontario Street). It specializes in organic and locally produced food. Information at: www.downthestreet.ca

by Alastair Rickard

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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

Saturday, May 7, 2011

(No.151) Canada's electoral failure

The May 2 federal election has produced as much over-heated commentary on its results as it did inaccurate predictions before it took place. A largely ignored result has been the election's illustration of yet another failure of the Canadian electoral system to reflect the preferences of the majority of voters.

The Globe and Mail of Toronto, Canada's self-styled national newspaper, noted in its May 3 coverage of the election results that Prime Minister Harper's Conservatives now have "a secure majority". Indeed they do: 167 seats, 12 more than the 155 needed for a majority in the House of Commons.

Editorially the Globe referred to Harper's "truly national mandate". Hardly that except in the narrowest sense: the election gave the Conservatives a majority of MPs in the House which, while drawn from most of the provinces, was the product of Canada's unreformed 'first past the post' electoral system.

There is nothing that can convincingly be claimed to be "a truly national mandate" for Conservatives when more than 60% of voters chose other political parties. Nor in a system that hopes to maintain voter respect and gain increased participation should 39.6% of votes be able to provide a party with 54.2% of the MPs in the House of Commons.

The reality is that the splitting of votes in various constituencies between the Liberals and the New Democrats allowed the Tories to add enough seats to their 2008 total of 143 to gain a majority in the House.

What about the great ballyhooing of an electoral upswing in voter interest and turnout endlessly foretold by the talking heads in their media commentary? It jumped 'all the way up' to 61.4% of the eligible total from what it had been in 2008, an all time low of 58.8% [2006 - 64.7%]. Not all that much improvement.

For many years I was opposed to amending Canadian democracy to introduce proportional representation in order to give real meaning to the votes of all Canadians who chose to participate in the electoral process regardless of the political party for which they voted. I was concerned by the possibility of PR introducing to the Canadian system political instability of the Italian sort ( 61 governments since 1945) or the spawning of various small special interest parties which could end up exercising an unhealthy and disproportionate leverage on government ( e.g., the religious parties in Israel).

In arguing my view I chose for a time to ignore or downplay certain realities such as the fact that more than two political parties electing MPs in a 'first past the post' system too often serves to defeat the voter preference of the majority. I remained unconvinced, for example, by such evidence as the record of the Progressive Conservative Party in Ontario. It built an uninterrupted political dynasty from 1943 to 1985 without winning a majority of the total vote in any provincial election.

I did pause to take special note when the NDP formed a majority government in Ontario in 1990 having received only 37% of the vote but I was still loyal (sort of) to our unreformed Westminster parliamentary model. However, when the Quebec government was formed by the Parti Quebecois after the 1998 provincial election my doubts finally took full flight. The PQ won 76 seats in the Quebec Assembly having received 42.87% of the vote while the Liberals gained only 48 seats on the basis of having received more votes (43.55%).

The 'first past the post' system of determining how many seats a political party is to have in the Canadian House of Commons when the House is home to MPs of 5 political parties (as it will be in the next parliament) makes a farce out of claims that the elected majority government reflects the voting intentions of the public.

Meanwhile, to those Canadians who worried about what legislative and policy changes a Harper government would undertake if it won a majority on May 2: buckle up and watch the Tories enact what they could not pass through the House or would not even bother to introduce in the previous minority parliaments. The Conservative Party government will be unimpeded by the fact that 6 of 10 voters opposed them.

Those who decided to vote for the social democratic option and are elated with the NDP's meteoric ascent from 37 seats to 102 (based on 30.6% of the total vote on May 2) to become the official opposition will doubtless have been buoyed by leader Jack Layton's election night declaration of all the wonderful things the NDP will accomplish. In fact it will not be long after the next speech from the throne before it will be seen that the NDP will exercise less political leverage in the House during the next 4 years of Conservative majority rule than it did when it sat across from the Conservatives as the 4th largest party in the House -- but one facing a minority government.

The British held a referendum this week on the introduction of an "alternative voting" system for the Westminster parliament. The proposal was a version of the preferential ballot system and it failed miserably with 68% voting against it. Might this U.K. initiative stimulate some serious discussion in Canada about electoral reform? One can hope but don't hold your breath.

Is it likely that the Canadian electoral system will be revised by any federal majority government to include proportional representation? About as likely as Her Majesty The Queen appointing me the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Afterword

I wrote the following letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail on this same subject. It was published in the Globe on May 5 and appears below.

Margaret Wente (Here's Why Stephen harper Really Won -- May 5) declares the May 2 election to have been "a great day for Canada" and claims to understand why Stephen Harper won a "whopping" victory. I don't think she does.

Ignore the post-election analysis from the experts whose predictions were so far off. Mr. Harper's majority was the result of an unreformed electoral system that delivered 54.2% of the seats in the House of Commons to a party supported by 39.6% of the vote.

Alastair Rickard
Elmira, Ontario

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by Alastair Rickard

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com



Tuesday, May 3, 2011

(No.150) Novels: a refuge from the miseries of life

Somerset Maugham thought that to acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.

I don't know that I would go all the way along with Maugham's metaphor but I certainly have made it a lifelong habit to immerse myself in books, fiction and non-fiction, that I enjoy. One test of a good novel is, for me, dreading to begin the last chapter because I have enjoyed it so much.

This is by way of being a preface to what I have done previously in columns on RickardsRead.com: share brief reviews of novels I have enjoyed recently. All are in print and almost all are available in softcover editions. While I do not suggest that all are equal in content or in their writers' skills, I list them because they are all worth reading -- and are pleasurable reading to varying degrees. For me such a recommendation does not require a belief that they are great or even moderately good literature. I tend to agree with G.K. Chesterton who thought that while literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity.

The English novelist Barbara Nadel created a modern Turkish detective, Inspector Cetin Ikmen of the Istanbul police. He is of Albanian heritage on his mother's side and usually seems depressed and smokes heavily. He becomes involved with a complex range of cases in the city and beyond. In the dozen or so novels in the series thus far readers learn about Istanbul, Turkey and Turkish culture. The characters, the settings and even some of the plots are very different from the usual run of mystery/crime novels set in any of the countries in today's Europe. Try River of the Dead (2009).

Alex Gray, a novelist born and educated in Glasgow Scotland, has created a Glaswegian Detective Chief Inspector named William Lorimer. He is inevitably compared to Ian Rankin's justly famous Edinburgh depressive, misfit and sometime drunk D.I. John Rebus, one of the very best lead characters in this entire genre. I have long regarded Rankin's Rebus novels as ne plus ultra in the detective genre. However Gray's half dozen novels with Lorimer as the central character have gotten steadily better. Try Glasgow Kiss (2009).

Roberta Rich is a former Vancouver lawyer. Her first novel is The Midwife of Venice (2011). Set in 16th century Venice the focus is on a Jewish mid-wife reluctantly involved with (for her in the Jewish ghetto) a legally prohibited activity: assisting with gentile births. The plot revolves around her involvement, and its implications for her husband held for ransom in Malta, with an aristocratic Venetian family some of whose members are bad news indeed. Not exactly a crime novel but an excellent first novel.

The fifth in the series of English crime novels featuring Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler is The Shadows in the Street (2010). It exhibits once again the considerable talent of Susan Hill, a novelist who came late to writing books in the crime/mystery genre. She is the author of, among other works, the famous The Woman in Black, a play that has been running for years in London. Her novels in this Serrailler series involve the detective's family members and their relationships not just with him but with others, sometimes others also involved in crime. Hill's writing is a pleasure to read.

Beryl Bainbridge, who died last year, is an acclaimed English novelist with multiple nominations for the Booker Prize. Recently the organizers of the Booker recognized Bainbridge for her 5 nominations for their prize (but no wins) with a posthumous "best of" award. As the best of her 5 Booker nominated books, an online poll picked Master Georgie (1998). This novel begins in Victorian England and ends in the Russian Crimea of the 1850s during the Crimean War with England and France. Bainbridge's novel is a curious confection linking an English surgeon and amateur photographer, George Hardy, to a rather curious cast of mid-Victorian characters. It is not a crime novel per se although death looms large in the story. It is a very different sort of read but, as the Booker online poll suggested, one enjoyed by a great many people.

An historical crime/detective novel set in St.Petersburg in Dec. 1866, little more than a decade after the conclusion of the the Crimean War, features a Russian detective, Porfiry Petrovich, an investigating magistrate operating within the recently inaugurated legal regime in Czarist Russia. The English writer R.N.Morris created this chain smoking Russian and The Gentle Axe (2007) is well researched with an interesting and complicated plot set against the background of the reformed Russian regime and its implications for the police and for the investigation of crimes.

The penultimate novel in this column's book list is also set in Russia in the years both before the 1917 Communist Revolution as well as in the Soviet Union of the late 1930s. The central character is Inspector Pekkala, an investigator who was personally appointed by the last Czar to be his own detective and who would report to him directly. He was famous, almost mythical in Czarist Russia, and having survived a period of post-revolution exile to Siberia later came to take on a similar direct role for the dictator Joseph Stalin. The novel goes back and forth between these two time periods and regimes. While The Red Coffin (2011), the second novel in this series by Sam Eastland, is a more conventionally plotted detective thriller than most of the novels in this list, the settings and historical background provide it with a more exotic tone than might otherwise be the case.

Finally, the last book in this list is the latest in the series by the American Michael Connelly featuring Mickey Haller of The Lincoln Lawyer (the title of the first in this series and recently a movie). Connelly previously created Harry Bosch, the LA detective who was the central character in a long running series of crime novels and who, it was revealed in a recent novel, is Haller's half-brother, a fact neither of them knew but when they knew did not bring them -- a cop and a defence attorney with a mutual antipathy -- closer together.

The Fifth Witness (2011) sees Haller surviving the U.S. recession by doing volume legal work (still out of the trunk of his Lincoln -- hence his nickname) fighting home foreclosures by banks. This activity leads him to this novel's centrepiece: his defence of a foreclosure client charged with murdering an executive of the firm foreclosing on her home. Most of the novel is taken up with the preparation for and content of the trial and the behind the scenes activity. It is the sort of plot at which Connelly excels.

So entertaining is this novel that it is an example of that to which I alluded at the beginning of this column: arriving at its last chapter brings on regret for having reached nearly the end of the book.

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by: Alastair Rickard

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca