ANY WRITER who's ever worked the cop shop or court beats knows what a wealth of fabulous material lies buried, like precious ore, in the stratified landfill site of true-crime occurrences. Some of the more sensational cases have been turned into books and movies by astute reporters, while other cases, just as intriguing, aren't spectacular enough to merit that kind of treatment.
Tales of the latter sort have been captured in a pair of recent collections of crime stories from two provinces that share little, it seems, except a similar rogues' gallery of miscreants and villains.
Dean Jobb's Bluenose Justice lives up (or down) to its lurid subtitle, True Tales of Mischief, Mayhem and Murder. Nova Scotia has a long, colourful history and Jobb, a Halifax reporter, has a keen sense of storytelling, combined with the kind of research skills required to dig out these gems of wrongdoing.
Carefully crafted, they range from tales of opinionated, eccentric judges who would not last an hour in today's politically correct justice System to accounts Of Murder most foul. One of the most fascinating is a drama-of-manners surrounding the murder of a Sydney man who refused to marry the young maiden he had allegedly "dishonoured." The affair is complicated by social mores and the fact that the judge in the mid- 1800s case was also the father of the murder victim, and no lawyer in the area wanted to touch the case.
Other stories come out of Nova Scotia's rich seafaring lore. "Randell's Last Stand," for instance, is the kind of privateer tale that puts the old pirate movies to shame. It also shows the kind of banal legal niceties the seafaring adventurers faced after their exploits.
Barbara Smith's collection of Alberta crime stories, Deadly Encounters, proves that human nature is the same, whether on the high seas or the high plains.
Some of Smith's stories are frustratingly incomplete, still unsolved after decades of investigations and speculation. But that is also part of what raises them above the too-pat, Hollywoodized crime fiction to which we've become accustomed in our TV shows, movies, and popular books. These stories follow no cliched formulae, and refuse to be neatly wrapped up. The Still unsolved murder of MaryAnn Plett, for instance, is a poignant, detailed account of a crime and its tragic effects on those left behind to Mourn and to wonder.
Plett was a Young Edmonton realtor who disappeared one day in 1971 while on her way to show a rural property to a client. After seven months of anguish for Plett's family and friends, her body was found. The Client, an elusive "Mr. Cooper," was never found, despite an intensive police investigation. A frightening footnote to the story adds that another female realtor in the area received a call from a "Mr. Cooper." But she never met him, and he left no other traces.
Smith relates the torture endured by Plett's husband, Jake, following the disappearance. False leads, crank phone calls, and the demands of his children severely tested his strong Christian beliefs. Like the other stories in this book, this report takes us behind the headlines and shows us the real people involved in the tragedies that crop up in our daily news. All the stories are well documented and told in a straightforward, accessible style, without sensationalism (in contrast with the title and the lurid cover).
These two collections not only make for fascinating reading on their own, they also serve to flesh out and personalize the history of this country. If nothing else, they show that, sadly, this country's history is just as "exciting" as any other country's when it comes to colourful characters and crimes.