In his debut novel, Degrees of Guilt, author Jim Bennett takes readers on a roller-coaster of emotions, twists and turns, and unexpected outcomes.
In the prologue, Bennett dangles the hook by introducing us to “Uncle Billy”, who seems to be deep in the throes of PTSD. Billy shoots down a helicopter buzzing a sealing boat and in the process kills everyone aboard the chopper.
As the novel opens, we meet a shady character named Glenn Holmes who, after being expelled from the USA for drug dealing, simply relocates his criminal enterprises to the University of Toronto. Holmes is a busy dealer and loan shark, and ends up with dismal marks which will mean no college will admit him unless he does something about it.
His answer is to switch his transcripts with that of an A-level student and soon finds himself at a prestigious Halifax institution, after which he manages to ingratiate himself with the Green Earth Society. He sells them on the idea of a documentary about the seal hunt and then he sells the idea to journalists and a fading porn star, collecting huge fees from them to join in the endeavour.
Only once these chess pieces are in place do we meet the protagonist Billy Wheeler, who is the fourth boy of a fishing family from the North coast of Newfoundland. Wheeler soon realizes that there is not much future for him with the dying fishery, so he enrolls in the Canadian Armed forces.
Since Canada is not at war he doesn’t expect to see combat. However, his unit is soon deployed to a peace keeping mission in the Balkans where he is witness to untold horrors. While he is away on deployment, his wife has a miscarriage. After the horror of the Balkans, Wheeler is re-deployed to the Middle East where more combat offers more trauma and creates a lasting, indelible effect in his mind.
Upon his return home, Wheeler’s skill with a rifle is put to use by his own family and he begins shooting seals. Finally all of the story lines converge. Billy, aboard the fishing boat where he’s hunting seals, shoots down the helicopter with Glenn aboard and the former soldier is eventually charged with murder.
The court scenes that follow are detailed and follow the Canadian legal code, much the way that John Grisham so brilliantly crafts American court scenes. The prosecutor and the defense attorney are quite interesting in their own right as they parry and thrust with Wheeler’s life and justice for the victims hanging in the balance. This setting is further compounded when the defense attorney falls for Billy, a development that threatens to derail her strategy.
The outcome is as unexpected as it is satisfying.
Whether one is a proponent or an opponent of the seal hunt, this is a must read. It also serves as a very realistic glimpse into life in the numerous outports of Newfoundland.
Without hesitation, I give it 5 stars!