Clouds, Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images; Gastown, Vancouver, Photo: artran /Getty Images; Denial, Beverley McLauchlin
Beverley McLachlin's second legal thriller, starring indefatigable defence lawyer Jilly Truitt, hinges on a moral conundrum ripped from the pages of the retired Supreme Court judge's personal and professional life / BY Kim Honey / September 17th, 2021
Ask Beverley McLachlin how many judgments she’s written for the Supreme Court of Canada, and you can hear the shrug in her voice.
“There is a statistic on that,” the retired legal eagle says in a phone interview from her home in Vancouver. “People keep citing it to me and I never remember.”
That number, according to her mentor bio on the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation website, is 442 opinions, although she participated in more than 2,000 decisions.
No doubt she has gone through a forest of legal pads in 28 years on the bench – the last 17 as the country’s first female Chief Justice – but the judge, who retired in 2017, has not put down her quill and capped her inkpot. Note that “prolific” is one word often used to describe her career.
At 78, McLachlin has just published Denial, her second legal thriller about heroine Jilly Truitt, the indefatigable criminal defence lawyer introduced in 2018’s Full Disclosure. In between the two novels, McLachlan published her 2019 memoir, Truth Be Told, which won the $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for political writing.
In the first pages of Denial, Truitt is asked by a pillar of the Vancouver legal community to represent his wife, Vera Quentin, who is accused of murdering her cancer-stricken mother in a mercy killing. Vera suffered from post-partum depression in the past and is now taking medication for anxiety, “marinating in my customized pharmaceutical brine,” she tells Truitt. “Pills and pills and pills. Happy pills, relax pills.”
That, plus the fact that Vera has already fired two lawyers because they advised her to take a plea bargain and she would rather go to jail than admit one iota of guilt, makes the case “an absolute loser,” Truitt’s law partner says.
When Truitt interviews Vera, who was in the house the night her mother died from a lethal injection of morphine, something is off. But this perfect wife, with her velvety voice, silky hair and pale complexion, captivates the defence lawyer, who starts to believe Vera would never give in to her mother’s request to help end her life. Then again, Vera’s denial could be rooted in self-delusion, or, as McLachlin writes, “the brain playing tricks.” Much to her partner’s disgust, Truitt takes the case.
Denial is a phenomenon McLachlin witnessed in court as a lawyer and a judge. “People often come into a lawyer – not infrequently, shall I say – and they say, ‘this is my story, and I’m totally innocent. I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m the victim of something.’ And then as you get deeper into the case, you realize there are these layers and that, in order to live with themselves, perhaps subconsciously, they’ve erased certain aspects of the story.”
That’s what makes a criminal case a natural fit for a thriller. The defence lawyer is part investigator, because they have to find a way to plant a seed of reasonable doubt in the minds of a jury or a judge. If you believe the client is not guilty, you have to figure out who else could have done it. Also, “that’s what makes it fun,” McLachlin adds.
As Truitt says in the novel: “No matter how open and shut the case seems: no one saw Vera Quentin put the needle in her mother’s arm.”
In Denial, McLachlin raises moral issues drawn from her personal and professional life: the grey areas in Medical Assistance in Dying; at what point mental illness becomes a defence; how powerless women are painted as unstable when they assert independence from controlling men; and there’s even a subplot about sex work and the trafficking of young girls.
McLachlin writes from the heart in a scene where Vera tells Truitt her mother’s bladder cancer was “the slow suffering kind,” and asked for a lethal dose of morphine. Vera says, “I couldn’t. Even in that, I failed her.”
The same scenario played out at McLachlin’s home in 1988, when her husband of 20 years, Rory McLachlin, was dying of cancer. In Truth Be Told, McLachlin says he was in great physical and psychological pain, and asked her to help him die with a morphine overdose.
“But this, in my heart, I knew I could not do,” she writes. “Because it was against the law. Because I could not physically bring myself to do it.” Just four years later, McLachlin was on the Supreme Court of Canada when Vancouver Island resident Sue Rodriguez, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease, appealed a decision denying her assisted suicide. Rodriguez lost the case, but McLachlin was one of the dissenting voices, arguing that the assisted-suicide ban violated Rodriguez’s guarantee of liberty under section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2015, McLachlin presided over a similar case, Carter v Canada, when, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court struck down the criminalization of assisted suicide.
Although Denial wades into more murky territory, such as advance requests for assisted suicide from people who have been diagnosed with dementia, for example, she doesn’t prescribe a solution. She only raises the questions.
“In a novel, you’re not didactic. You’re not saying this is the way it should be,” McLachlin says. “But you’re trying to present different perspectives and different people and explore the moral conundrum.”
In this book, some characters are up to some old tricks. Truitt’s former mentor, Crown prosecutor Cy Kenge, is still trying to double-cross her. Her deadbeat father Vincent Trussardi, whom she defended in Full Disclosure after he was accused of murdering his wife, is MIA, again. And she still has feelings for her ex, who is dating someone else. Of course there is a murder, and of course someone is out to get Truitt.
Writing legal thrillers is a challenge because McLachlin has to keep the plot moving, and that means condensing legal procedures that often take weeks or months in real life – and, she concedes, can bore the pants off a layperson – into pithy passages.
She doesn’t work from an outline, but starts with “ a problem or conundrum” and lets the plot unspool from there.
“I have a general idea of how it might end, because I think you need to know or you wouldn’t put in all the work to get there. But then it always surprises me and something different happens,” she says, adding, “that’s one of the real pleasures of writing fiction.”
McLachlin mentions she’s working on another book, but she’s as tight-lipped as a judge facing a media scrum. When asked what’s next, she says she’s playing with a couple of ideas. So she’s thinking about it? “I’m thinking about it,” she allows. “At this point in my life every day is a gift. I’m 78 years old. I’d love to do [another book], because it’s a lot of fun and I definitely will move on.”
Next parry: Will it be another Jilly Truitt book?
So she is hedging her bets? “I have to hedge that, because I just don’t know how this idea I have will be best expressed. It’s a very preliminary stage here, but I’d love to work with Jilly again.”
At the pace McLachlin writes, fans shouldn’t have to wait too long to find out if Jilly Truitt takes on another seemingly unwinnable case.