Fertig’s new poems

“Poet, publisher and long-time supporter of the writing community, Salt Spring Island-based Mona Fertig (left) has released her first collection of poems in 14 years.” FULL STORY

 

Flapper follies & murder in Vancouver

It's the 1920s, radio is the latest media technology, racist Anglo elites rule, a flapper is accused of stabbing her boss with a high-heeled shoe and the Klu Klux Klan is here.

June 25th, 2024

Writer-composer-performer for stage, film, television, radio and print, John MacLachlan Gray lives in Vancouver. Photo by Beverlee Gray.

John MacLachlan Gray’s murder mystery blends historical and fictional characters, exploring themes of corruption, racism and societal change, with lively roaring twenties dialogue and a compelling narrative.


By Caroline Woodward

Here is a rich brew of a novel set in late 1920’s Vancouver, mere months before the October 1929 Wall Street Crash which reverberated around the globe. The third in his celebrated Raincoast Noir trilogy of historical mysteries beginning with The White Angel (D&M, 2017) and Vile Spirits (D&M, 2021), this one is also fine as a standalone read. John MacLachlan Gray spices this novel with nuggets of sage wisdom from Al Capone and lurid newspaper headlines following the case of The Fatal Flapper. As we’d expect from the playwright and musical composer best known for Billy Bishop Goes to War (Talon, 1982), his tour de force collaboration with actor Eric Peterson, this work is peppered with dialogue true to the Roaring Twenties era. Yet strangely, this book feels contemporary at times.

1920s Vancouver looking North on Granville from Nelson. Photo by Frank Leonard | Vancouver Public Library VPL 4323.

The Vancouver Stock Exchange is portrayed as a steaming heap of money-laundering corruption, the Vancouver City police force has good cops like Calvin Hook, cursed with a toothache in this book, and bad cops, some of whom float to the upper echelons of management and with whom Hook has to play his cards carefully. The craftiness of claiming credit for successful outcomes one had little to do with and blaming botch ups on those lower echelon stalwarts who actually do the legwork is deftly portrayed.

Women are judged by the clothing (and shoes) they wear. Happily for readers and most helpfully for Detective Hook, the stylish eavesdropping telegraph operator Mildred Wickstram is back, this time as the landlady of a boarding house for professional women like Dora Decker, a receptionist from Rosthern, Saskatchewan. Both women are in big trouble, to put it mildly but I will not spoil the whys and wherefores by spelling out their dire straits. This being a time of overt racism, people of colour, Asian and Black in particular, are often viewed as “useful functionaries” in the work force. A few are admired as musicians, especially those in the popular blues clubs of Hogan’s Alley. But mostly they are feared as untrustworthy aliens by the ruling Anglo elite network. There are exceptions, and allies form bonds across class, colour and gender lines. A particularly well-depicted friendship in MacLachlan Gray’s story is portrayed between journalist Ed McCurdy and George Paris, a black waiter in the exclusive Quadra Club, who is an off-hours musician and former boxer.

1929 – Society girls in Vancouver. Archives item# CVA 99-2408. Photo by Stuart Thomson.

As in the two previous novels in this trilogy, the Ku Klux Klan has oozed over the border and is a malignant influence in conservative politics. Then as now, criminal gangs fight over territory to profit from the distribution of drugs while a particularly heinous hitman lurches down the streets of the city. There were, and still are, brothels of some form aplenty (massage parlours in the 1920s versus the internet escort services of today) and city councils don’t know whether to attempt to ban them, or just their customers, or to license them and tax them as independent business operators.

The role of newspaper reporters, like the recurring character Ed McCurdy, and the risks they take to find, and verify, credible information from underworld informants is as relevant now as ever. As with the impact of talking movies and telegraph lines, the rise of radio technology with the listening Canadian public by the late 1920’s is explored, from the writing of non-sequitur evening dispatches to the reading of them over the airwaves into over 50,000 Canadian living rooms. Just as Lorne Greene was heard as the Voice of Doom in World War II, our unlikely nearly-blind journalist protagonist, McCurdy, possesses a resonant baritone and his alter-ego becomes loved or loathed by the nickname, Mr. Good-Evening.

The Kanadian Knights of Ku Klux Klan hold a meeting in Vancouver on Oct. 30, 1925. Photo by Frank Leonard | Vancouver Public Library.

Oh, and this is BC so there’s a cult, to which the author acknowledges the research and writing by BC author John Oliphant of Brother XII: The Strange Odyssey of a 20th Century Prophet and His Quest for a New World (Twelfth House Press, 2006). This particular cult on DeCourcey Island near Nanaimo is led by a charismatic little man supported by a ferociously devoted alpha female with a whip who is obedient but not inclined to actually beat the acolytes. These two prey on gullible, well-heeled people, mostly from America, who have survived the Great War, fled the first and the second round of the Spanish Flu and are waiting for their in-house messiah to lead the way. Former lawyers and business magnates get busy digging gardens and building rustic shelters in the rainforest. A former accountant from Los Angeles is trusted to keep the books, which led me to recall what eventually caused the downfall of Al Capone as I raced through the pages of this grimly hilarious account.

There’s big money, corruption, cops, robbers, hit men, flappers with four-inch heels, charlatans, shrewd observations from trusted sources and, oh yes, Winston Churchill, who plays a pitch-perfect cameo role (Churchill did actually come to the West Coast in 1929 on a reading tour). With its mix of fictional characters and real-life historical figures, this murder mystery is a great read, highly recommended!

9781771623957

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Retired Lighthouse Keeper, Caroline Woodward now reads and writes from New Denver, BC. Her latest title Have You Ever Heard a Whale Exhale? (Pownal Street Press $24.95) is for kids of all ages.

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