Pharo and the Crafty Assassin by Steve Skurka


I am regularly inundated with requests for writing, commentary and analysis on a wide variety of topics. This includes national and international politics, history, philosophy, military invasions and the ongoing global pandemic.

Do not mistake yourself. I really like what I do. At the same time, taking little breaks from reality and diving into fantasy helps me maintain my sanity.

For example, I recently read Pharo and the Clever Assassin by Steve Skurka.

A Toronto-based criminal lawyer and CTV legal analyst, he is the author of Tilted: The Trials of Conrad Black (2008) and co-author (with David Tanovich and David Paciocco) of Jury Selection in Criminal Trials: Skills, Science, and the law (1997).

Skurka’s new work is a change of pace: a first foray into the world of mystery and detective fiction. He wrote an intriguing fictional legal thriller intertwined with multiple real people, places, and events.

The book focuses on the assassination of US President William McKinley on September 6, 1901. An anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot him twice in the abdomen inside the Hall of Music at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, NY McKinley survived for eight days but eventually succumbed to gangrene. He is the third president to be assassinated, after Abraham Lincoln (1865) and James Garfield (1881).

Attorney Burford Simmons has been appointed to defend Czolgosz. On the first day of the trial, he is kidnapped under mysterious circumstances. This leads to an investigation to discover his whereabouts by Clarence Darrow (a real-life lawyer who has worked on several high-profile cases, including the Scopes Monkey trial) and Simmons’ wife, novelist Pharo.

A parade of historical figures, including Sir Winston Churchill, US Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and the father of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, make appearances or are briefly mentioned.

There’s a fascinating cast of supporting fictional characters, including Neeru Sharma (the first woman and Native American to join the New York Bar Association) and Det. Eli Jacobs (a French Jew who fled his native country during the Alfred Dreyfus Affair of 1894 to escape anti-Semitism). Even the eminent Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson show up.

Pharo’s character stands out the most in this book. She is a unique blend of innate intelligence and shrewd thinking outside the box. Her journal entries and determination to find her missing husband help steer the story in several directions.

Pharo was apparently inspired by the author’s two daughters. Yet it also contains some subtle touches of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, mixed with the uncanny intelligence and humor of the real Maud West, known as “London’s Lady Detective” in British circles.

Skurka is working on a sequel, Pharo and the Murder at Smoke Lake. If he can craft a similar story of mystery and intrigue, it should be an equally enjoyable read.

I also went through two outstanding books that studied the work of a great draftsman.

Author Michael Tisserand recently recommended two impressive volumes published by Fantagraphics Books on Art Young. He was a talented American political cartoonist in the late 19th century and early 20th century. A nominal Republican at the time of the salad, he gradually transformed into a socialist. (Nobody’s perfect, of course.) His talent and artistic abilities have enabled him to produce hard-hitting social commentary for mainstream publications like The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker and left-leaning publications like The Masses and The Nation.

Glenn Bray and Frank Young’s To Laugh That We May Not Weep: The Life and Times of Art Young (2017) is a superb examination of his life and career. Many cartoons, political and non-political, are reproduced with additional analysis. A few were part of his unpublished private collection.

Young’s anti-capitalist sentiments and his skeptical view of the nature of business and free markets are apparent and sometimes exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that he had a brilliant artistic style and could easily capture the imagination of his audience.

It’s also worth perusing Bray and Steven Heller’s Art Young’s Inferno (2020), a reproduction of Young’s 1934 reimagining of Dante’s classic tale. In his story inspired by the Great Depression, would-be capitalists and their followers were condemned to “Satan’s Den,” or hell. They are mobilizing to overthrow the underworld lord and privatize Hell. In its place, a fiery capitalist atmosphere is established which, according to Young, is even worse than the original.

If you can look past the enormous left-wing political bent, this is a compelling tale from a socialist cartoonist bent on changing the world.

What do I hear in the distance?

Reality is calling me again, it seems. But another trip to fantasy is sure to come.

Michael Taube, a syndicated Troy Media columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds an MA in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics. For interview requests, click here.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are their own and do not inherently or expressly reflect the opinions of our publication.

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