Law & Literature.

AuthorNormey, Rob

The White Angel: An excursion from Chinatown to posh Shaughnessy Heights and back

John MacLachlan Gray is a celebrated playwright who penned the immortal masterpiece Bitty Bishop Goes to War. Having not seen any new plays from Gray for many years, I had wondered whatever had become of him. Not to worry. It turns out that in recent years he has reinvented himself as a mystery novelist. His latest work is The White Angel, a novel to be embraced by lovers of both suspense and literary fiction.

In this novel, Gray offers us a panoramic look at Vancouver circa 1924, when the city is at least momentarily distracted from celebrations of the British Empire in favour of the exciting investigation into the hard-to-fathom death of a Scottish nanny. The official investigation concludes that the young woman committed suicide. This narrative unravels quickly though, as the police force proves incapable of backing up its elaborate but rather clumsy theories. Quick to reach the conclusion that murder, not suicide, was the likely cause of death, is our engaging protagonist: the poet turned sensationalist journalist Ed McCurdy. As McCurdy digs deeper, the authorities reluctantly designate the death as a murder.

Gray has drawn significantly on one of Vancouver's most famous cold cases--the mysterious death of Scottish nanny Janet Smith. And during a key moment in the city's evolution. World War I had ended a mere half dozen years earlier, and the British Empire was apparently still very much a united cultural entity.

I was in Vancouver recently and found it interesting to stroll through a number of the districts described in such lively and often humorous prose in the third person narration Gray adopts. My visit led me to appreciate the deep knowledge and appreciation for the city that Gray possesses. McCurdy and his undertaker friend, Howard Sparrow, visit a variety of districts in the early chapters of the novel. Gray's vivid descriptions remind the reader that, while Vancouver's business and political elite would like to attribute the city's growth to its British (read "white only") citizenry, in fact there are many ethnic communities interacting in interesting ways.

I stayed at the historic Patricia Hotel on East Hastings Street on the edge of Chinatown--a street that McCurdy spends considerable time on. The Patricia became a lively entertainment hub in the '20s. It could easily have been one of the sites McCurdy and his friends would have sought...

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