John MacLachlan Gray is a celebrated playwright who penned the immortal masterpiece Billy 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.
Gray leads us on a rambling but meaningful journey through much of Vancouver …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 refreshment and solace at, while also hoping to get tips from the clientele for his sensationalist stories about the Janet Stewart investigations. In 1924, one could have checked out the resident band featuring legendary pianist Jelly Roll Morton and the larger-than-life singer and dancer Ada “Bricktop” Smith, both who resided at the hotel during their long residence. Live jazz performances continue to offer dynamic and irresistible music.
I strolled through the streets of Chinatown – past pagoda roofs, red and white restaurants and the world’s slimmest building, the Sam Kee building. The office building is a perfect display of the ingenuity of the Chinese business community over the years. Several Chinese characters feature in The White Angel, including some involved in slightly less legal activity, such as opium trafficking.
I also witnessed the police at work investigating a man lying on the pavement with a significant gash on his head. The police officers in the novel who investigate the death of Janet Stewart are certainly less diligent than the officer I saw at work. Given the political dynamics at work, with an election fast approaching, it seems the police have orders to favour the interests of one of the tycoons, who is keen to seize the mayor’s office. He does not wish to have unwanted scrutiny thwart his ambition. Nonetheless, racial tensions quickly bubble to the surface.
The powerful United Council of Scottish Societies demands a full inquiry. A Chinese houseboy who worked alongside the Scottish nanny quickly becomes a murder suspect. The Klu Klux Klan and the Asian Exclusion League, convinced of the dishonesty of a member of what they trumpet to be an “inferior race”, march through the streets and demand immediate action. Provincial politicians cynically propose a Protection of Women and Girls Act, with a racist, anti-Chinese motivation. This happens parallel to the barrage of racist commentary in the “yellow” newspapers of the day, owned by powerful business tycoons.
Gray has drawn significantly on one of Vancouver’s most famous cold cases – the mysterious death of Scottish nanny Janet Smith.Gray leads us on a rambling but meaningful journey through much of Vancouver, stopping dramatically at the courthouse for the inquiries and then the trial of the houseboy, Wong Chi. Chi takes the Fire Oath and then later the Chicken Oath before giving his testimony. We see the veteran defence counsel Harry Stickler at work. Stickler makes full use of an encyclopedic knowledge of procedural rules “delivered in a voice seething with outrage and a sincerity that have exculpated some of the shadiest characters in the province’s history.”
I much appreciated the descriptions of the stately courthouse with its marble steps, a symbol of the British respect for decorum and the rule of law. Gray contrasts this with the bedlam on opening day of the inquiry when a frenzied crowd stampedes up those steps, the “stone lions above them averting their eyes.”
The White Angel stands not only as a beautifully constructed crime novel that affords insights into a fascinating historical case and an entire era, but it is superbly written and features engaging characters. Gray stated in an interview that the novel bears comparison with the Polanski film Chinatown insofar as a crime leads to a deepening mystery that affords the reader a genuine insight into the ways in which society is run, favouring a wealthy and largely unaccountable elite. I would add, though, that this is a very Canadian Chinatown, which does not descend as far into the lower depths as does Polanski’s dark film. The White Angel creates its own magic, lacing humour with sharp commentary. It is one of the best novels I have read in the past year.