Books: Murder and mystery in our city
TOM SANDBORN, SPECIAL TO THE SUN 11.12.2015
Just take a look at the growing array of crime scene investigation shows that seem so omnipresent on TV these days, and the abiding affection so many viewers feel for shows like True Detective and The Sopranos. Call it morbid if you will, but most of us feel a kind of fascination with lethal mayhem, and our paperback purchases and viewing histories reflect that fascination.
Add a healthy dollop of local history and you have Eve Lazarus’ new book, Cold Case Vancouver. The prolific and award-winning local author takes her reader on a guided tour of unsolved and Vancouver-related murder cases in this deftly written new book. It is sure to find an audience among local crime and history buffs.
In Cold Case Vancouver, Lazarus uses old newspaper stories, archive research and interviews with survivors and retired detectives to illuminate some of the 337 unsolved murders the Vancouver Police Department has on its books. Her stories start in the 1940s and cover almost 60 years — the most recent victim died in 2000. In a balancing coda, the author traces one cold case that was successfully resolved and issues a plea for anyone who has information about any of her unsolved cases to contact the RCMP or the Vancouver police. Cold cases, she reminds us, are never closed.
Murder cases remain open, but they represent only a tiny fraction of all reported crime — about 0.1 per cent of all offences reported to police, with 2013 reports showing the lowest Canadian murder rate since 1966.
However rare murder is these days, it remains a devastating blow to surviving family and friends of the victims, and without invoking that annoying and saccharine pop psychology artifact, “closure,” a need to know how the life ended and who was responsible remains strong in those left behind to mourn.
Jenny Conroy, murdered in December of 1944, is the protagonist in the first story Lazarus tells. Conroy, like many of the victims the book remembers, was a female on her own when she was killed. The lethal spectre of sexism haunts this book, and Lazarus is at her best when she places the lost lives in her tales in larger socio-political context. The narrative is relentlessly detailed and particular, and the author does a wonderful job of bringing the victims back to life. At the same time, the larger social forces that pulse through the crimes are taken into account.
Conroy, who had given birth and given her child up for adoption shortly before her murder, was re-victimized by lurid press accounts that focused on her pregnancy and treated her as a fallen woman somehow to blame for her own death.
Family members believed the case was low priority for the police because of Conroy’s past history. Here, as throughout the book, Lazarus manages to insist on the pertinence of the social context without erasing the distinct details of the victim’s life and personality.
Older residents of Vancouver (as well as readers of Timothy Taylor’s luminous and graceful debut 2001 novel Stanley Park, in which a character is obsessed with the puzzling case) will remember the notorious Babes in the Woods story, a still outstanding mystery that first came to light when a parks board employee discovered the skeletons of two small children in the depths of Vancouver’s iconic downtown park in 1953. The children had been battered at some point in the 1940s with a hatchet found with the bodies.
No one knows to this day who they were or who killed them, but that uncertainty has not stemmed any of the speculation that suggests they were killed by their mother — another point at which the background noise of misogyny that echoes beneath the surface of this culture becomes more audible.
More than 20 deaths are recorded in Cold Case Vancouver. They include Danny Brent, a victim in 1954 of the city’s first gangland drug-related assassination; Robert David Hopkins, a closeted gay man whose death may have been an example of homophobic violence; Geraldine Forster, shot down in 1973 with a gun previously stolen from a Mountie’s home; Jimmy and Lily Ming, kidnapped in January of 1985 and found dead along the Squamish Highway seven weeks later; and Nick and Lisa Masee, who disappeared in August of 1994 as their attempt to live a jet-set lifestyle on a modest banker’s income was spiralling out of control.
(Masee, a banker, had moved into the high-adrenalin, rampant ego world inhabited by some of his Vancouver Stock Exchange clients before his disappearance, and the name of many of these high rollers appear in the Masee chapter, evoking memories of gossip columns past for this reviewer.)
Lazarus, who has written well in the past about Vancouver’s seamier back-stories, does it again in Cold Case Vancouver. She delivers all the human interest and detail we want from true crime writing, but manages to avoid the most common lurid temptations in the genre. This book is a quick and entertaining read, but it also conveys a humane and sophisticated understanding of the social forces that lie behind and inform most murders.