In her 1986 appearance at Trinity College in Toronto, P.D. James reasoned that our fascination with detective fiction stems from a longing to “return in spirit to a more ordered society, a more assured morality.” We want our murderers caught and their crimes punished, their motivation explained and the cases closed.
But for James Ellroy, author of such international bestsellers as L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid and The Black Dahlia, real life didn’t work out that way. His mother Jean, a 43-year-old nurse working for an aircraft manufacturer, was murdered in 1958 when James was just 10 years old, her body dumped on a roadway in suburban Los Angeles, her murderer never found.
My Dark Places is Ellroy’s acknowledgment of the past – his tortured adolescence, his struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, and his complex feelings about the mother he had barely know and harshly judged. His journey back began in 1994 with a call from a friend. Frank Girardot was writing an article on five unsolved killings – including Ellroy’s mother’s murder. He would be reading her files and seeing her body exposed in photos from the crime scene. Ellroy couldn’t avoid it any longer.
Six weeks later, he was on a plane to California. With the help of Bill Stoner, a retired Los Angeles County homicide detective, Ellroy sifted through the old police files and newspaper accounts of the case, and then systematically tracked down anyone he could who was even remotely connected with his mother’s murder. While the belated attempts to identify Jean’s killer were unsuccessful, Ellroy was able to finally establish a relationship with his mother, albeit a posthumous one.
Part autobiography, part investigative journalism, My Dark Places is a no-holds-barred and difficult read by a man who, by his own admission, is obsessed with murdered women and a debt to his mother that he can never repay.
Howard Engel, best known for his fictional series featuring private eye Benny Cooperman, also enters the non-fiction market this year with Lord High Executioner, a comprehensive look at the history of execution. Ranging from the gallows at Newgate Prison and mass executions in the Chinese province of Guangdong to New York’s introduction of the electric chair and death by lethal injection in Texas, Engel has written an engaging account of the men – and women – who have “done our dirty work for us” and the methods they used.
According to Engel, there have been as many botched executions as successful ones. Jack Ketch, who appears to have been one of the most inept men ever to wield an axe, was almost lynched by a crowd of onlookers when he had to use his knife to finish off the Duke of Monmouth. Our own Arthur Ellis, once the most feared man in Canada, cut short his career as a hangman when he neglected to take into account the additional weight Tomasino Sarao had gained in prison while awaiting her execution. His calculations were off and Sarao was decapitated as she fell through the trapdoor of the scaffold.
While Engel makes it clear that he did not set out to write a sociological analysis of capital punishment, his strong belief in abolition and the way in which he has presented his material give Lord High Executioner a distinctly Canadian point of view. His frustrations with the inequities in the legal system are particularly evident in his chapters on the United States where “Hispanics and blacks are disproportionately represented in the Death House.” It’s an unsettling conclusion to a witty and well-written book that continues to resonate.
In A Dance With Death, Frank W. Anderson documents the cases of 49 women who were condemned to death in Canada between 1754 and 1954, including the aforementioned Tomasino Sarao.
It’s hard to imagine how friends and neighbours were not aware of what was happening when Minnie McGee sent her children to buy matches and then mixed their phosphorus tips into the children’s porridge, but Anderson presents her case within the context of the times. Life in rural Prince Edward Island was hard. Minnie herself had had 14 children and already buried three from natural causes. She succeeded in killing them all before the community finally believed in her guilt. Pleading insanity, she spent six years in an asylum before receiving an early release to take care of her ailing father – alas, there’s no mention of how long he lived!
By delving into the original trial records and newspaper accounts of the day for his material, Anderson, who has published numerous other books on crime and Canadian history, has produced a vivid portrait of Canadian society.
Women Who Kill by Ann Jones became an international bestseller when it was first published in 1979. While this book, which explores how and why women have killed throughout history, has long been a staple for students majoring in sociology and women’s studies, it covers a lot more ground than its title suggests. Each case, from the famous to the obscure, is explored within the context of the prevailing social and legal attitudes towards women in the United States at that time.
This new edition, which contains previously unpublished material, takes issue with the media and with society’s reaction towards women’s criminality, as well as the impact feminism has had on the public’s perception of justifiable homicide. While it’s not fiction, it does confirm P.D. James’s theory that all detective novels provide us with “one crime for which we need feel no responsibility.”
Twenty years have passed since this article first appeared in The Ottawa Citizen, but its relevance remains.