Ever since I first moved overseas not a year has gone by that, on Christmas or my birthday, my parents do not send me some token of home by way of a gift. Sometimes these gifts are of a purely Canadian flavor, like maple syrup cookies or Tim Horton’s products, but far more often they’re connected to my home province of Nova Scotia, and the Maritime Provinces (or “the Maritimes”, as we call it) in general: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. These have included local products, clothing, and perhaps most timelessly, books. I think the books are their way of helping me keep connected to my roots, and they very much do.
The longer you spend away from the place you were raised in, the more of the world you see and the different ways of living you grow accustomed to, the better you come to understand the nature of where you’re from, to recognize your own culture and what helped make you the way you are, in the way that the proverbial goldfish will better know the shape of its own home once it looks upon the bowl from the outside. I’d say that most people in this situation inevitably come to appreciate things about their homeland in a new way, to see the good they didn’t notice before and forget about much of the negative. This has happened to me over my years as an expat, and at the same time I’ve come more to relish stories borne of my corner of Canada—those little tales that have enmeshed in their thousands over 200+ years to form our folklore, small-town histories and local culture—and so I was tickled pink to open a parcel and discover Steve Vernon’s Maritime Murder awaiting me.
I grew up in what I would call a peaceful small town. I can’t recall any instance of seriously worrying about being mugged or otherwise attacked there, nor expected anyone else to be. Then one night a man wearing a Halloween mask walked into our only 24-hour convenience store, across the street from the exhibition grounds where hockey games and the annual fall fair are held, stabbed the teenage clerk three times in an attempted robbery and left him to die, which he did shortly after. They tracked the murderer down a little while after the police discovered the mask discarded in a nearby ditch.
I was in high school at the time of the killing. The town was rocked, disgusted and outraged. A murder like that can shake a community to its core. That kind of thing just didn’t happen there, or at least we’d had enough years without such an incident to be lulled into thinking so. There’s a bitter truth we all must live with, though: as long as there are people, there will be people killing people, even if there are long periods of relative peace in between. Not only that, but society tends to take a morbid interest in such acts. “There is something in the human intellect that is both deeply and undeniably fascinated with murder,” writes Vernon in the preface of Maritime Murder, adding that he came to understand this while putting together his early ghost story collections, many items of which had firm foundations in acts of homicide.
Steve Vernon is a Nova Scotian storyteller and folklorist. In previous books he’s focused on tales of the supernatural from around the Maritime Provinces, as well as plunging into the territory of local monster legends for a children’s book, though Maritime Murder is the first of his works I’ve read. I’ve come to admire his storytelling prowess, not to mention his considerable research skills. For Murder he pored through the annals of local history in old newspapers, archives and books for just the right material, and married the factual fruits of his labor with a healthy dose of artistic liberty in the fleshing out of the scenes and narrative. The result is an engaging and entertaining ride through the nineteen ugliest murder cases he could find. I’m not the kind to take much interest in crime dramas or cop shows, but I kept eagerly turning the pages of this book with the kind of grim fascination that I suppose he expected his readers would have.
Vernon made sure to choose stories that were old enough to not risk them being seen as “muckraking and sensationalism,” and as a result there are no cases from later than 1936. Despite this, he writes omnisciently about the individuals involved, in a way that breathes life into people long dead, telling us their thoughts and feelings, sitting in on their private conversations and so forth. Sure, he’s turned them into characters of sorts, but to me this is great storytelling—the murders, investigations, court proceedings and hangings/imprisonments all happened, but he spins the tale and describes settings and encounters as if he was an astute fly on the wall every step of the way.
I also like the way in which Vernon freely interjects his own thoughts into the narrative, such as the moment in one tale when the estranged father of two boys, who are set to be hanged, shows up to say goodbye. “I wonder what they thought,” writes Vernon contemplatively, and perhaps a bit sadly, “looking at the man who had stepped so completely out of their lives thirteen years ago, now standing there on the very last night of their earthly existence.” At another point, while telling of a man catching sight of his friend’s house on fire, Vernon breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly, as if he’s talking to you over a few beers at a Halifax pub. “Let me tell you about the geography of the area,” he says, figuratively leaning forward in his seat while you figuratively sip your Keith’s India Pale Ale. “There are two peninsulas reaching out into the water, like the fingers of a dead man.”
And how about the stories themselves? They’re grisly and tragic, as you’d expect from tales of murder, but Vernon has a sense of folksy humor about him so the book isn’t without a few chuckles along the way. What makes them more special to me is that I’m familiar with many of the featured locations, even if the subject matter is unpleasant; these are my old stomping grounds, after all. Even places I think of as largely peaceful can have darkness in their history, and most probably do if you go far enough back in time.
Sometimes, however, you barely need to go back in time at all. The city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I lived for four years, and its sister city, Dartmouth, have become riddled with violent crime over the last decade, and Halifax was recently named the worst Canadian city for gun-related violent crime by Statistics Canada. The murders there, like the one in my hometown when I was a teen, are always unnerving when they occur, and people will undoubtedly discuss and write about them years and years later, until some perhaps wind up in their own book decades hence. There’s something in many people that really is fascinated by murder, but even more so when it happened in their own neck of the woods, and so these contemporary incidents will all fade into local history, dimmed but not forgotten, taking their place as fateful stains in the deep mesh of the Maritimes’ past.