Author Catherine McKenzie (left) at a recent Montreal book launch for her new suspense novel I’ll Never Tell. (Photo: Owen Egan)


A lawyer with a knack for suspense

Catherine McKenzie, BA’95, BCL/LLB’99, leads a busy life. As a lawyer, she is challenging the Quebec government’s controversial new secularism law, while I’ll Never Tell, her new suspense novel, is a Canadian best-seller. 

Story by Brenda Branswell

July 2019

Catherine McKenzie’s new novel, I’ll Never Tell, hit bookshelves earlier this month, when she had just sold her next book in Canada and the U.S.

Her prolific output is impressive on its own, but more so when you consider that it’s just one of the things she does.

McKenzie, BA’95, BCL/LLB’99, is a partner at Montreal law firm IMK and works full-time as a lawyer.

She has been attracting media attention recently for both her writing (I’ll Never Tell is a best-seller in Canada and was one of Bloomberg’s picks for the best books of beach season) and for her legal work.

In mid-June, she filed a legal challenge to Quebec’s newly adopted Bill 21, a controversial secularism law that bans some public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work such as judges and schoolteachers.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time now, so I’ve generally figured out a way to do it,” McKenzie, says of juggling her legal career with writing.

Her practice and clients come first, she says, and it’s difficult to make “perfect plans” for when she’ll be able to write.

“When I first started, I used to write a lot at night. I was a lot younger, I had more energy,” laughs McKenzie, who now mostly writes on weekends and during “bigger bursts” on vacation.

She had already written four-and-a-half books before she landed a book deal with HarperCollins Canada for Spin. (Three of the other books also made it into print.)

McKenzie, who describes her work as “commercial fiction,” initially didn’t think there would be much of a market for her work in Canada. “For a long time, the Canadian literary landscape was kind of what it was when we were growing up – Margaret Atwood, and Margaret Laurence and CanLit,” she says.

She got an agent in 2007, and in 2009 gave herself an end-of-year deadline: if she didn’t have a book deal she would stop writing novels. “Two weeks after I made that decision, I got the deal.”

That period coincided with Canadian arms of U.S. publishing houses starting programs to publish Canadian commercial fiction, McKenzie says.

I’ll Never Tell, her 10th novel, revolves around an intriguing premise. Five siblings reunite at the summer camp their parents ran, for the reading of their father’s will. It plunges them into a dark chapter from the past – an unsolved tragedy that occurred at the camp during their youth.

McKenzie envisioned the book as an Agatha Christie murder mystery meets family saga.

“I also like the idea that every person in this would hold a piece of the puzzle and if they could just sit down and get past their dysfunction and speak to one another, they could have solved this in about five seconds. But they can’t because of it.”

McKenzie studied history and politics for her undergraduate degree at McGill, then earned her law degree. “I was in David Lametti’s first class,” McKenzie says of the McGill professor who became the federal minister of justice in January.

While she didn’t set out to be a writer, McKenzie mentions how a few story ideas stuck with her.

“When I was at law school I had this idea for a book about four law students who plan a perfect murder. And I was not writing novels at the time. I don’t even know why that popped into my head. But it was an idea that stayed with me,” McKenzie says.

That premise later became The Murder Game, which she published as Julie Apple (who is also the main character in her novel Fractured). The Murder Game begins years later, when one of the four former McGill classmates is charged with committing an actual murder.

“It’s nice to be able to use different parts of my brain,” McKenzie says of her two occupational roles.

“I’ve always been a creative person. And I think for the first five or six years of my practice I didn’t have a creative outlet because law just sort of consumed everything… A lot of women leave the profession, in particular, and I think, oddly, probably one of the reasons I’m still practising law is that I do have this other outlet,” McKenzie says.

“And it’s a way for me to leave the pressure and the stress that can come with being in litigation, which is really about other people’s problems… It’s a way of doing something that’s intellectual, but in a completely different way, and also creative.”

In her day job, McKenzie challenged Bill 62, the religious neutrality law introduced by the previous Liberal government in Quebec. Now, she’s taking on the Coalition Avenir Québec government’s Bill 21, once again on behalf of the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. (An education student who wears a hijab is among the plaintiffs.)

McKenzie knows of people graduating from law school and teacher’s college “who are not going to be able to get jobs in Quebec. Their whole life is being derailed just because of their personal characteristics. And I find that really sad and upsetting.

“This is about people’s fundamental ability to participate in society,” she says. “It’s not just, ‘Oh well, go get a job doing something else’. What is the message that you’re sending to people who wear religious symbols? You’re saying you don’t belong in a large swath of society. You cannot participate in it. And this is 2019… If this law said women can’t be in positions of authority, I don’t think anybody would be like, oh yeah, no problem.”

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