Wednesday, December 6, 2017

John MacLachlan Gray's novel inspired by dark Shaughnessy history

Image from cbc

The premise of John Gray's mystery novel is a real and unsolved 1924 Shaughnessy murder. While the fictional powers-that-be stonewall the police investigation into the shooting death of a young Scottish nanny, Gray introduces the fictional team who will fight racism and corruption to get to the bottom of the matter.

Hook is an honest policeman, Mildred is an educated British emigre with a job as a telephone operator in the Hotel Vancouver, Sparrow is a one-eyed WWI veteran and hearse driver, and McCurdy is a failed poet turned journalist. Gray's tale takes the reader on a tour of Vancouver as it was a century ago, with city landmarks both unchanged and dramatically altered.

This murder mystery highlights various aspects of the city's seamy social history, a time when the worst fear of the incompetent toadying police chief is "the danger of causing a scandal." As the tale unfolds, we are shown clairvoyant mediums, sasquatches and early brassieres.

We pass through the Hogan's Alley, a black neighbourhood with jazz clubs patronized by wealthy whites, and home to the Pullman Porters Club, and Vie's Fried Chicken. We enter movie theatres where Chinese patrons are seated in a separate section, and glimpse unemployed WWI veterans as they booze it up in shabby establishments like the Lumberman's Club and the Amputees' Club.

The tone of the book is deceptively light and jocular. Meanwhile, we're reminded of real and  uncomfortable history. Following on from the Head Tax era, (starting in 1885), the infamous Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 disallowed all Chinese except a few students and diplomats.

Gray shows readers he's done his research on the city of a century past. In Stanley Park, we see "cedar posts in the shape of what must have been the big house" and "the caved-in remains of tiny shanties whose inhabitants were chased away" when the land became a park. We witness demonstrations by a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, some of whose members don't bother keeping their identity secret.

We glimpse Centre Lawn, part of the mental institution at Essondale. As seen through the eyes of a jaded reporter, this "treatment facility for seriously ill men is not to inflict punishment," implying either that the punishment is accidental, or that punishing sufferers is the expected reaction to mental illness caused by war trauma. The jaded McCurdy's assessment is that the unit is there "to provide storage" and "to amuse the doctors in charge."

We view Chinatown's Shanghai Alley, a haven for illegal gambling as well as a studio space for practitioners of Chinese music and other arts. The novel also portrays how businessmen from Chinatown and Shaughnessy, affiliated with their respective Freemasons' societies, work together to make money from the illegal drug trade.

Other intriguing historical references mention the recent opening of an Egyptian tomb, the special trains that left Vancouver to cross Canada loaded with Chinese silk, the quasi respectable Balmoral Hotel of the time (still standing, no longer respectable). The narrator describes the post-prohibition city as "dependent on speakeasies as ever," and says "the Dry Squad are far more diligent defending government revenues than public morals."

Gray is at pains to tell the reader that the story is entirely made up. Even so, his novel reads like a sort of time capsule. Late in the story, the hearse driver and the journalist engage in a bit of philosophizing as they enjoy a drink together. The conversation reveals that the march of progress that was supposed to follow the war has not materialized. Money still talks and class carries the day. In a misguided sop to unemployed male war vets, intelligent and educated women like Mildred, a veteran of Whitehall communications, are downgraded and thrown out of work.

Veterans like Sparrow reflect back on their experience of war as a gong show. An essential skill was avoiding friendly fire, and as Constable Hook explains, in the army, "deniability" was an accepted part of "the chain of command." When Sparrow speaks of the coming revolution, McCurdy remains cynical, "Maybe it's called a revolution because you end up where you started."

A failed poet, McCurdy also deplores "the journalese he himself writes" as "sentences that fill the spaces between the advertisements the way concrete fills a hole." Another journalist, Shipley, when contacted by a dishonest spirit medium, sees himself as a writer "who doesn't find news; it comes to him." Unfortunately, this gardener must tend to "his expanding acreage of unverifiable sources," and "befriend people he would prefer not to know."

By the end of Gray's story, "A new level of cynicism has cast a pall over the city...the police can no longer be trusted, the press no longer delivers facts, the legal system is biased in favour of power and money, and the governing of the province is nothing but a charade."

Police Chief Quigley, one of the "chaps who are better at keeping their jobs than doing their jobs" reflects on which of his personal ambitions he can achieve, concluding that "Once facts become manufactured products, anything is possible."

Does this ring any bells today? Only the reader can decide.

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