Interview'Being a criminal lawyer gives me a front row seat'

Canadian lawyer sets high bar with his bestselling, very Jewish crime thrillers

When not captivating judge and jury as a criminal defender, Robert Rotenberg thinks up ways to challenge fictional homicide gumshoe Ari Greene on his home turf in Toronto

  • Robert Rotenberg on King Street East, near his office in downtown Toronto, January 2021. (Robert Sarner)
    Robert Rotenberg on King Street East, near his office in downtown Toronto, January 2021. (Robert Sarner)
  • The George Street Diner in downtown Toronto where a scene takes place in Robert Rotenberg's book, January 2021. (Photo by Robert Rotenberg)
    The George Street Diner in downtown Toronto where a scene takes place in Robert Rotenberg's book, January 2021. (Photo by Robert Rotenberg)
  • Robert Rotenberg in downtown Toronto near his office, January 2021. (Robert Sarner)
    Robert Rotenberg in downtown Toronto near his office, January 2021. (Robert Sarner)
  • Robert Rotenberg at the launch of his first book, 'Old City Hall,' in Toronto, March 2009. (Photo by Ted Feld)
    Robert Rotenberg at the launch of his first book, 'Old City Hall,' in Toronto, March 2009. (Photo by Ted Feld)

TORONTO — For the past 22 years, Canadian criminal defense lawyer and bestselling author Robert Rotenberg has wrestled with homicide detective Ari Greene’s tribulations. As the main protagonist in each of Rotenberg’s six murder mysteries, Greene has loomed large in his creator’s life since he conceived of the master sleuth in 1999 while writing his first crime thriller.

As Rotenberg’s new novel, “Downfall,” arrives in bookstores in North America on February 2, he’s busy defending several clients charged with assault — while simultaneously concocting a new case for Greene to crack in the next book, slated for 2023.

“A good day for me is when in addition to working with my real-life clients, I write and dream up new ways to murder fictional people and have Ari eventually solve the crime,” Rotenberg told The Times of Israel during a recent interview in Toronto. “By now, after so many years of both practicing law and working on my crime novels almost every day, I’m used to this duality. Each feeds the other. The writing energizes me in what I want to do and the law practice gives me endless stories to draw from for my books.”

Inspector Greene, as composed by Rotenberg, is the son of a Holocaust survivor and the only Jewish homicide detective on the Toronto Police Force. In “Downfall,” he’s promoted to head of the homicide squad, and soon after must negotiate surprising twists and turns, hard-boiled characters and harrowing moments endemic to any good whodunit.

When a man and woman are murdered 24 hours apart at a homeless encampment next to an exclusive golf club, the police chief, facing pressure from the mayor, puts Greene on the case. Soon after, fears of a serial killer on the loose intensify when a third homeless person is found murdered near the scene of the two previous slayings.

‘Downfall,’ by Robert Rotenberg. (Courtesy)

Rotenberg weaves a gripping tale of suspense that, true to the murder mystery genre, is replete with false flags. Only in the book’s dramatic denouement do Greene and his deputy solve the case, arresting the unexpected culprit behind the grisly killings.

As with Rotenberg’s previous books, Toronto figures prominently in the new one. On a recent Sunday afternoon, I accompanied him on a downtown walk starting on Jarvis Street to several locations where events unfold in “Downfall,” including a women’s shelter, the George Street Diner and Fahrenheit Coffee. (Full disclosure: Rotenberg is a long-time friend whom this writer once employed at a Paris magazine.)

Location, location, location

Born in Toronto, Rotenberg virtually makes his hometown a full-blown character in his novels. Using both iconic and obscure sites, he captures local color in his narrative, in the individuals he creates, and in the dialogue between them. Some have likened Rotenberg’s treatment of Canada’s largest city to what other successful mystery writers did for their own — such as Ian Rankin with Edinburgh, Scott Turow with Chicago, and Raymond Chandler with Los Angeles.

I think the best mysteries have a great sense of place

“I think the best mysteries have a great sense of place,” says Rotenberg, 67, sitting in his third-floor office in an elegant 115-year-old building downtown where he both practices criminal law and does some of his writing. “Part of their appeal is they are like a travelogue that allows readers to go and experience a city.”

Writers of crime thrillers have long found big cities ideal settings for their plots, given readers’ visceral association of urban life with danger, violence, injustice and inequality.

The George Street Diner in downtown Toronto where a scene takes place in Robert Rotenberg’s book, January 2021. (Photo by Robert Rotenberg)

With a journalistic vigilance over detail and accuracy, Rotenberg presents a realistic depiction of Toronto, warts and all. Little surprise he knows it well given he’s spent most of his life there, including driving a taxi and editing a local magazine earlier in his career.

He clearly enjoys describing the city’s multicultural neighborhoods and locales, populating his books with residents of diverse ethnic and national backgrounds. In the process, his portrayal of Toronto has helped put it on the international map of crime fiction.

“Setting my books in Toronto has been a mixed blessing,” says Rotenberg, whose thrillers have been translated into nine languages. “It’s definitely helped me in Canada where my books have sold very well. But I would’ve done better internationally if I had set my books in New York or Chicago or Venice. Toronto doesn’t have the exotic intrigue of certain cities.”

Robert Rotenberg as a volunteer on Kibbutz Hatzerim in the summer of 1976, where he spent two months picking oranges and working in a drip irrigation factory. (Courtesy)

Rotenberg, who’s had one of his books translated into Hebrew by an Israeli publisher, has visited Israel twice. The first time, he volunteered on a kibbutz in the southern Negev Desert for two months in 1976, and the last trip was in 1980.

Making his books richer, he often makes topical issues part of the story. In “Stray Bullets,” his third novel, published in 2012, he focused on Toronto’s growing gun violence. Five years later, in “Heart of the City,” Toronto’s condo building craze was central to the storyline, while in “Downfall” he explores the growing disparity between the rich and poor and the homelessness crisis bedeviling the city.

“Touching on current issues gives another dimension to my books so they’re not just a bunch of people being killed and murders being solved,” says Rotenberg, a father of three. “Without wanting to sound pretentious, I try to tell the story of the city and capture what it’s like at a certain point in time.”

He insists journalists or urbanologists aren’t the only ones who can present an accurate picture of the city’s reality.

“There’s a great line I once heard which is, ‘the good thing about fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, is that with fiction you can tell the truth,’” says Rotenberg. “The cliché is if you want to know about England and the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, you read [Charles] Dickens. If you want to know about California during the Dust Bowl, you read [John] Steinbeck. So I try to write about what’s happening in Toronto.”

Robert Rotenberg on King Street East, near his office in downtown Toronto, January 2021. (Robert Sarner)

A yiddishe laugh

For all the seriousness in his writing, he sees his understated but well-honed sense of humor as a key component in his story-telling.

“Humor is actually one of the more Jewish elements in my books,” Rotenberg says. “I’ve always thought Jews have this wonderful sense of humor which is one of the things I love most about being Jewish. I consider it essential to drama and storytelling, although it’s challenging to write something that makes people laugh.”

Humor is actually one of the more Jewish elements in my books

In his books, Rotenberg’s humor is wry and observational, as reflected in how he depicts Greene’s widowed father dating a wide spectrum of Jewish women.

Of all the regular characters, Greene generates the most reactions from readers, contributing to the series’s popularity and critical acclaim. Most of the books have made the bestseller list in Canada.

Robert Rotenberg poses for a photo in his home on the occasion of his bar mitzvah, April 1966. (Courtesy)

When readers first meet Greene in Rotenberg’s debut novel, “Old City Hall,” he’s driving to the Toronto home of his father, who decades earlier escaped from the Nazi death camp Treblinka only to be captured close to the war’s end two years later and sent to Auschwitz. Greene is bringing his father bagels from the venerable (and real-life) Gryfe’s Bagel Bakery, located not far from where Rotenberg grew up.

“In a way, it’s not surprising I made one of my main characters the son of a Holocaust survivor,” says Rotenberg. “It’s not so much you decide in advance; the character just seems to appear to you one day. Where I went to school, a lot of my friends and people I knew had parents who were Holocaust survivors. What I’ve always found fascinating about Holocaust survivors’ kids is they grow up with an extra burden that I didn’t have. They have a toughness to them and a strong sense of responsibility, which are at the core of Ari’s character.”

Rotenberg also sees Greene in a rabbinical light.

In subtle but important ways, Ari is like a rabbi

“In subtle but important ways, Ari is like a rabbi,” he says. “A homicide detective has to deal with people handling loss. The way Ari listens to people, the way he’s quiet and never talks about himself and especially the way he treats people with respect, is like a rabbi.”

If Rotenberg published his first book at a relatively late age, it wasn’t for a lack of interest in writing when he was younger. While in high school, he submitted a short story to The New Yorker for publication. The rejection letter he later received didn’t diminish his literary aspirations. He studied English literature, history and political science at the University of Toronto (UofT), then took a year off to work at odd jobs before completing a law degree at UofT and a masters in international law at the London School of Economics.

Author Robert Rotenberg speaks at the launch of his fifth book, ‘Heart of the City,’ in Toronto, August 2017. (Photo by Ted Feld)

After graduating, he moved to France in 1982 and worked for a year as the managing editor at Paris Passion, an English-language city magazine. Returning to Canada, he and a friend launched a Toronto magazine that lasted for four years. He then worked briefly in film production and radio. In 1990, after having long resisted it, he began his legal practice at age 37 and took up writing crime fiction on the side, hoping to become a published author.

Today, Rotenberg works in a small law firm with three other lawyers. With extensive courtroom experience before judge and jury, they represent clients facing every type of criminal charge, from simple theft to murder. For his part, Rotenberg has defended numerous accused murderers in his career, including several high profile cases.

A big part of criminal law involves storytelling

Practicing law informs his novels, providing fodder for his imagination, just like it’s done for many other lawyers turned suspense writers such as John Grisham, Scott Turow and Meg Gardiner.

“Being a criminal lawyer gives me a front row seat to not only the law and policing, but to core human emotions,” says Rotenberg, who’s also written two episodes for Canadian TV series “Murdoch Mysteries.”

Robert Rotenberg, left, with an actor on the set of ‘Murdoch Mysteries,’ a television series for which he wrote two episodes, Hamilton, Ontario, November 2017. (Courtesy)

“I like to say that being a lawyer makes me a better writer and that being a writer makes me a better lawyer, especially writing persuasive briefs for crown attorneys, prosecutors and judges. If you think about it, a big part of criminal law involves storytelling, and writing books has made me a better storyteller,” he says.

In 2009, his first book was published a decade after he began writing it. To that end, he took two writing courses at Toronto’s Humber College and drew inspiration from his older brother, David, who had already published several crime novels by then. He also met accomplished US murder mystery author Doug Preston, who became his friend and mentor.

Like other fiction writers, Rotenberg often fields questions about whether the main characters in his books are modeled after real people in his life — and whether Greene is his alter-ego.

“A writer once said every character you create is your alter ego,” says Rotenberg. “Some people who know me who’ve read my books have told me they think Ari is my alter-ego. There are elements of me in him but also in other characters. Ari’s a quiet, almost shy character and although I might seem quite extroverted, I’m also extremely introverted. As an editor once said to me, ‘Of course, you’re an introvert. Otherwise, you couldn’t spend all that time alone writing a book.’”

Rotenberg, who sometimes becomes emotional when speaking about characters in his series and admits to deriving vicarious pleasure from their actions, strongly identifies with Greene.

“One of Ari’s best qualities is that he’s utterly non-judgmental of people,” says Rotenberg. “That’s one of the things you learn as a lawyer. Clients come into your office for the first time and no matter what they look like or what their background is, if you have any preconceived conception of them, you’ve going to be wrong and you’re going to do a terrible job for them.

“Ari treats everybody the same, whether it’s Dent, the homeless guy who’s his buddy, or his boss, the police chief. But I think most of all he has this sense of responsibility and maybe that’s his most Jewish characteristic. He’s a responsible person but he’s not perfect,” says Rotenberg.

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