Homicidally Ours

[originally published by Books in Canada]

WHEN YOU THINK about it, Canadian writers who specialize in books about true crimes and real criminals, particularly about murderers, have been short-changed. These writers have had to deal with a serious lack in Canada of murderers who kill on a grand scale or in a colourful fashion. By default, they’ve settled for convicted murderers who turn out to be innocent, for murderers who are mini-celebrities or unpleasant eccentric. But measured against the world literature of true crime, the stories of Donald Marshall and David Milgaard don’t cut it, and books about the likes of Helmuth Buxbaum seem comparatively pale. What Canada needs, What Canadian true-crime writers need, is a major monster, a Jack the Ripper of our own, a home-and-native Ted Bundy. Paul Bernardo-Teale may he the murderer to fill the vacuum. He could become the Unspeakable (though not unprintable) fiend who will elevate Canadian true-crime books to international standards. Bernardo-Teale is the man waiting to he tried for the grisly killings of two young women in the Niagara Peninsula and for the Sexual assaults of several dozen women in Scarborough, Ontario. His now estranged wife, Karla Homolka, is already serving two 12-year sentences after her convictions for Manslaughter in the deaths of the Niagara women. There may also lie something fishy in the Sudden death of Homolka’s younger sister, and rumours have circulated of horrific sexual practices that may fit into the case of Bernardo-Teale. All of this, despicable in societal terms, is welcome news in terms of true-crime literature. All of this, if it’s true, if Bernardo-Teale is guilty, is the Stuff of best sellers. And it’s all Canadian.

The possibilities presented by Paul Bernardo-Teale have not been lost on Canada’s true-crime writers, their agents, and publishers. By early 1994, with Bernardo-Teale’s trial still a year or two in the future, writers had closed deals on four different books about the case. The competition among them seemed to be fierce, though the early edge may have gone to two Toronto Sun crime specialists named Scott Burnside and Alan Cairns. For their hook, they’ve cut a certain Van Smirnis into the deal. Who’s Van Smirnis? He was the best man at the wedding of Paul Bernardo-Teale and Karla Homolka, and he’s apparently willing to reveal all.

The stakes are high for these books. On the personal level, the authors may earn large sums in advances, royalties, and secondary rights. On a larger level, it is their books, their revelations ahOL1t Possibly the bloodiest of all Canadian villains, that could give status to Canada’s true-crime writing. Much rides on one or all of these books. Much rides on the case of Paul Bernardo-Teale.

“This,” says the Toronto literary agent Helen Heller, who represents the Burnside-Cairins-Smirnus group and who is herself a Jack the Ripper expert, “is the big one.”

UNLIKE Canadian true-crime writing, Canadian mystery writing has already made its breakthrough. This occurred about a decade ago, when readers and reviewers began to notice that something Surprising had developed among Canada’s mystery writers. The first Surprise was that a small group of writers was producing mysteries of high quality, and the second Surprise was that the small group of good writers was rapidly becoming a crowd. When the Crime Writers of Canada, an organization that grew out of a meeting of a half-dozen writers held on June 2 3, 1982, decided to award an annual prize for the best Canadian mystery, there were a mere five contenders in the first year, 1984; in 1994, 28 mysteries are eligible for the prize. The 1984 winner was The Night the Gods Smiled by Eric Wright. Earlier that year, the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain had given its John Creasey Memorial Award for the year’s best first crime novel to the same Eric Wright for the same hook. Two years later, the choice of the Mystery Writers of America for the best mystery, first or otherwise, of 1986 was another Canadian book, The Suspect, by L. R. Wright (no relation to Eric). Mystery writers in other countries, it seemed, had also taken note that Canadian mystery writers were putting together a branch of the genre that was both entertaining and distinctive.

The “distinctive” part is where Canadian mystery writing gets interesting. What one might label the core list of Canadian mysteries features an array of sleuth figures who, in character and habits — sex lives, attitudes to violence, and other qualities — are irredeemably Canadian. But this needs some qualifying. Several of the best mysteries by Canadian writers haven’t a whisper Of Canadian content. For example, the excellent series by John Lawrence Reynolds of Burlington, Ontario, centres on a hero, Joe McGuire, whose tough and romantic nature would instantly identify him as American even if he wasn’t a homicide detective on the Boston police force. And other Canadian mysteries have central characters whose passports say they’re Canadian but whose personalities Suggest they’d be right at home in a big-city American mystery. The Vancouver police detective Jack Willows, the star of the remarkable series by Lawrence Gough, is one of these, a fellow who seems in constant struggle with cynicism and weltschmerz. But among the sleuth figures from the core group of Canadian mysteries, cynicism is unknown and weltschmerz is verboten.

The characteristic that best defines these sleuths, male or female, police officer or private eye, is sweetness. Howard Engel’s Benny Cooperman famously dines on chopped-egg sandwiches and doesn’t mind seeming mildly kIutzy as, he gropes his way to the solution of a crime. Eric Wrights policeman, Charlie Salter, is as caught LIP in the human comedy of his life as in the case on his desk, a worrier about relations with an artistic younger son, about sex with his wife, about his prostate. These are gentle people, like Alison Gordon’s Kate Henry, the world’s softest touch among newspaper reporters, and L. R. Wright’s forgiving Mountie, Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, another cop who frets. These people would he eaten alive in the mean streets of Los Angeles.
Margaret Cannon has arrived at a term to describe the style of mysteries the Canadian writers have created. She calls it “the soft-boiled school of crime.” Cannon should know a distinct style when she hits on one since, as the Globe and Mail’s reviewer of crime fiction for the past decade, she’s probably read more mysteries of every sort than any other critic. She characterizes the sleuths in these Canadian mysteries as macho, a bit flaky,” and as exemplars of the type she mentions the Usual people, Cooperman, Salter. Then she adds one more to the list, “Jack Batten’s Crang, running around in a little Volkswagen, solving cases almost by accident.”

THAT’S TRUE. My character, Crang, a Toronto criminal lawyer, drives a Volkswagen, specifically a white Beetle convertible. And ‘in sleuthing out murderers, he tends to blunder from one suspect to another, convinced each time he’s Put together an unassailable case only to be proved wrong, until a single suspect remains, the obviously guilty party at last. Crang is no Sherlock Holmes. Neither is he a Spenser. He’s very Canadian.

He almost wasn’t. For the opening third or more of the first Crang mystery, Crang Plays the Ace, he acted very American. He got into a fist fight. Worse, he won it. He was macho. It was all my fault. I was too much Linder the influence of Robert B. Parker, the Boston creator of the Spenser series of mysteries. Spenser is as macho as they come in the private- eye line. I thought a few Spenser characteristics — a love of fisticuffs, sonic smartass talk — would sit well on my Crang. Instead, they sat uncomfortably.
For the second two-thirds of Crang Plays the Ace and for all of the succeeding books, Crang became a changed sleuth. No more in-your-face confrontations. Maybe a little saucy conversation from time to time, but, in the matter of violence, Crang has turned his back: he’s been hopped over the head from behind, has fled from a man wielding a knife, has fended off another attacker with the lid of a garbage can. Crang once fired a gun, a tiny pistol, in the tight confines of a restaurant. But what really happened, what mini-folly, is best described in the conversation that came later between Crang and his woman friend, Annie B. Cooke.

That was incredible marksmanship,” Annie said. “Shooting blind like that, under the table, and you got the man in the foot.”

“Not so incredible. I was aiming at his knee.”

It isn’t exclusively Crang’s ineptness and his reluctance in the face of violence that make him such a Canadian sleuth. These characteristics help, but more essentially, there’s an innocence about him that, I like to think, has Crang trailing along in the company of Charlie Salter and Benny Cooperman. This quality — something between good manners and an unwillingness to intrude except under the most pressing circumstances — defines the tradition of the Canadian sleuth. The tradition reaches back to Eric Wright and Howard Engel and beyond to the late John Norman Harris, who wrote a 1963 mystery called The Weird World of Wes Beattie. Harris’s central character was a young Toronto lawyer, fairly brainy, witty in an understated way, possessing the manner of a social worker, and nicknamed “Gargoyle” because some people thought he looked like a “figure leering down from a Gothic cathedral.” Such a sleuth could never have been American, nor, barely, English. He could only be Canadian.

CANADIAN true-crime writing, pre-Paul Bernardo-Teale, has its own small tradition. It, too, is recent. This is a tradition of books dealing with Canadian crimes that are serious and well written and display a conscience.

By Persons Unknown is the book that set the pace. Written by George Jonas and Barbara Amiel, published in 1977, it described the murder of a Toronto fashion model named Christine Ferrari and the subsequent trial and conviction of her husband, Peter Demeter, for the killing. The book was strikingly detailed and managed the admirable feat of portraying all the professionals in the case — police detectives, crown attorneys, defence lawyers — with a remarkably evenhanded fairness. Indeed, everyone in By Persons Unknown, including Demeter, got a fair shake.

More true-crime books have followed of a similar standard, similarly balanced and even compassionate in their approach. In Fatal Cruise, William Deverell pulled off an amazing double by portraying with revealing sympathy both an accused murderer and his lawyer. The accused was a gay secretary-butler who was charged with killing his employer by bashing her with a champagne bottle. He was convicted. The lawyer was genuinely saddened. And the reader came away from this accomplished book with an understanding of the plight of both men. It helped that the lawyer was Deverell himself. June Callwood created the same understanding for an accused murderer in her book, The Sleepwalker. It told the bizarre story of a man who stabbed his mother-in-law to death. His defence was that he had no memory of the act, that he was sleepwalking at the time. The defence succeeded. And the achievement of Callwood’s book was to make the verdict seem entirely just and fair.

This kind of thing seems consistent in the best Canadian true-crime books. Take Maggie Siggins’s A Canadian Tragedy. The problem that Siggins faced lay in her material; the murderer, Colin Thatcher, was a thug and a bully, the circumstances leading to the murder involved a Squalid Custody fight and the murder itself seemed an ugly, puny affair. Siggins beat all of this, partly by performing a massive job of research, partly by placing the terrible events in a context that invited pity and concern for all.

If Siggins could do that with the case of Colin Thatcher, what might she manage with the Paul Bernardo-Teale case?

ANNA PORTER, head of Key Porter Books and a publisher of long experience and success, invited me to lunch. She has a regular noon table against the wall in the dining room of the Victoria Hotel on lower Yonge Street in Toronto. She offered two pieces of advice.

“When you’re negotiating a book contract,” she said, “think Hungarian.”

Right, I said to myself, be cagey, plead poverty, get a large advance. I negotiated a book contract with Anna. I kept the Hungarian strategy in the front of my mind. But, wait a minute, I thought, Anna Porter is a real Hungarian. The strategy collapsed.
What was Anna’s second piece of advice?

“There’s a key to getting your mystery books into a wider market,” she told me. “A way of getting them into the United States and Europe, getting them everywhere. You should write a true-crime book. True crime sells in every country. It doesn’t matter where the crime took place, Canada, anywhere, just as long as it’s a little bit bloody. Readers love true crime, and once you’ve got a success, it’ll sell Your name. It’ll Sell your mystery novels.”

So, these days, Fin on the search for a Canadian Murderer. Not Paul Bernardo-Teale though, even if he may be the monster of all Canadian murderers. Bernardo-Teale seems to be spoken for.