Literary Nonfiction. WHO KILLED JANET SMITH? examines one of the most infamous and still unsolved murder cases in Canadian history: the 1924 murder of twenty-two-year-old Scottish nursemaid Janet Smith. Originally published in 1984, and out of print for over a decade, this tale of intrigue, racism, privilege, and corruption in high places is a true-crime recreation that reads like a complex thriller. Anvil Press is pleased to be reissuing this title as part of the City of Vancouver’s Legacy Book Project. This new edition features a Foreword by historian Daniel Francis.
Let me preface this mini review by saying that I read a lot of nonfiction. Some of my favourite authors are narrative nonfiction specialists, and as a former history student I am fascinated by the past. Imagine my disappointment, then, when this novel turned out to be a bit of a snoozefest, and a confusing one at that.
The story is indeed intriguing – a Scottish nursemaid is shockingly murdered, and doubt is cast upon some of Vancouver high society’s most influential and powerful figures. At the same time, the appalling institutionalized racism of the era comes into play, as a Chinese servant is dragged ruthlessly into the investigation. Corruption, privilege, cover-ups, kidnappings, wild parties and illicit affairs – this true story has the makings of a exciting period drama. In fact, when I initially read the book’s blurb, I was reminded of American novels such as “In the heat of the night” or “To kill a mockingbird”, where race and justice collide.
Unfortunately, as is all to often the case with nonfiction writing, “Who killed Janet Smith” reads more like a textbook than a novel. This is perfectly acceptable if you’re a student, but less enjoyable if you’re trying to get through the book in time for your next book club meeting. Dry, dry, far too long, and dry…..There is also an incredible array of characters, many of whom are referred to by different names and titles over the course of the book (full names, Christian names, initials, titles…) making for a very confusingly dry reading experience.
It’s always been a bit of a pet peeve with me, as a history fanatic, when people complain about how boring and pointless they found their history lessons in school. History isn’t boring! Uninspired teachers and dry textbooks may be boring, but history is anything but, and in the right hands, it can be as thrilling and engaging as any work of fiction.
For anyone interested in some thrilling narrative true-crime nonfiction, I would recommend the peerless Erik Larson.
“Erik Larson–author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS–intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World’s Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.”
“Tells the interwoven stories of two men–Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication–whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. Set in Edwardian London, an era of séances, science, and fog, and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.”
Next month we’re tackling Scandinavian fiction, which is a genre I know little about, so my hopes are set fairly high!