Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald

A Purple Place for Dying
In the third Travis McGee novel A Purple Place for Dying, McGee travels to an un-named state in the Southwest (likely New Mexico) to meet with the young wife of a local good ol' boy who has numerous business interests and holds all sorts of sway in the county. He is much older than his wife, and he was a friend and business partner of her father before he died. They were married after her father passed away a few years earlier.

The woman, Mona Yeoman, suspects that her husband, Jass, has bilked her out of most of the fortune her father left her when he died. McGee meets Mona Yeoman at the local airport and they drive out of town to a cabin she and her husband own. As they walk around outside the cabin and she explains the details of  how she wants McGee to help her, someone lines her up from a distance with a high-powered rifle and blows the back of her skull apart. The mystery begins.

The mystery also involves the man Mona Yeoman was having an affair with. His name is John Webb. He has disappeared, as has the corpse of Mona Yeoman. Upon reporting the murder of Mona to the local sheriff and then returning to the scene of the crime with him, McGee is stunned to see that her corpse is nowhere to be seen.

When McGee starts his own investigation, he meets Isobel Webb, the sister of John Webb, the man who is missing and now presumed dead. Isobel quickly becomes McGee's book-length challenge. The challenge is to try to uncover what makes this frigid woman tick. Yes, she's quite a beautiful woman, but she behaves like someone who has either experienced a bad relationship or no relationships at all. She dresses in a frumpy manner, and becomes haughty at any hint that a man is flirting with her. In lesser hands than MacDonald, this stereotype could quickly become cringe-worthy. Even so, it is a bit hard to wade through at times. Perhaps back in 1964 when the book was published, the notion was not so ridiculous that beautiful, prudish women needed a good seeing to so that they could behave the way women should behave.

Despite the absurdity of the frigid-woman stereotype, McGee and Isobel do engage in some entertaining scenes and dialogue. The character of Jass Yeoman is also explored to a reasonable degree. And there are some pretty good passages when things kick off and violence ensues. However, like the previous Travis McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink, the lack of insight into the people who have done the crimes is a serious weakness. As the book progresses, the mystery of who may have targeted Mona Yeoman and John Webb is relatively interesting. But after Jass Yeoman is subsequently murdered and it becomes clear that one of his illicit children and her half-brothers are behind the blundering attempt to ensure she is the only one in line for the inheritance, any tension that may have existed quickly dissipates. This is largely due to the fact that the characters that did the crimes are paper-thin caricatures.

As with the previous McGee novels, his cynical outlook on life and his numerous internal rants are what make the book worth reading. But while his views on women were previously quite entertaining if somewhat outdated and shamelessly chauvinistic, things take a nasty turn in A Purple Place for Dying. The constant comments about particular characters as well as women in general will definitely be a turn-off for some readers. Here are a few quotes from the book to demonstrate this. In this passage, McGee refers to Mona Yeoman, who is murdered in the first chapter:
So she was a big creamy bitch standing beside me in her tailored tight pants, and suddenly she was fallen cooling meat, and it was too damned fast.
About Isobel Webb:
Then it was the catalyst of things, of course. All of them. Night, death, fright, closeness, the security of the den. Male and female in the most primitive partnership of all. This was a twisted virgin, frightened by men, sex, pleasure, wanting—thinking it all of a conspiracy of evil against her. 
Later, McGee would seem to redeem himself somewhat in the eyes of modern feminists:
"Iz, if we get out of this. If I get you out of this. If you're ever in my arms again. Just one word will do it. Every time. No. That's all you have to say. No. And it stops. So don't say it as a nervous habit. Say it when you mean it. No. There's nothing wrong with my hearing."
But shortly after, McGee concludes his monologue on his honour code regarding women and negates some of that apparent chivalry:
"And you can say it any point you want, right up to the moment when we are, excuse the expression, coupled. From then on, it's Molly over the windmill."
In fact, a psychologist would probably have a field day analyzing the mind of John D. MacDonald vis-à-vis the words and actions of Travis McGee in A Purple Place for Dying. The height of the unpleasant attitudes towards women comes in the book's final pages when we find out the real motivation for murder by the illegitimate, half Mexican daughter of Jass Yeoman. You see, Yeoman had kept in touch with her, brought her into his home, and then decided to rape his own daughter. This information is delivered in a rather bland, matter-of-fact way, accompanied by one last caricature—this time of the woman who was raped—lunging at McGee like some kind of wild animal because he hints at this horrible information as a way to make her confess. Which she promptly does.

But this news about the rape (or perhaps many rapes over a period of time) really doesn't result in any negative comments from McGee towards Jass Yeoman. Throughout the book, McGee mentions that he really likes Jass. He's painted as a real man's man. And the rape revelation doesn't appear to change those feelings at all. In fact, McGee seems to have a hard-on for two male characters in the book: Jass Yeoman and the sheriff. Strange stuff.

I would still classify A Purple Place for Dying as well worth reading, if not for much of the writing, then at least as an exercise in seeing the progression of John D. MacDonald as a writer. The Travis McGee series has been widely praised, but the qualifier usually is that the quality of story telling improves greatly in subsequent novels.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book Review: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Rape is one of the most destructive, soul-destroying and contentious crimes of this or any other period in human history. No other crime elicits such a wide range of emotions, nor is there any other crime that is so burdened with myths, stereotypes and the views of a large percentage of the population who either genuinely don't feel rape is a serious crime, or are themselves rapists. This is all compounded by the rise of the internet and the ease with which multitudes of low-life pieces of human garbage can congregate online and validate each other's sick fantasies. In addition, an entire generation of ignoramuses weaned on the internet has acquired incredibly warped views about sex and intimacy.

The notion persists that rape is only "real" if committed by a stranger and only if it involves knives, guns or other weapons and repeated threats of harm (beyond the sexual assault itself). Also, most people have in their minds an idea of what "normal" and acceptable responses are to rape and other types of sexual assault. For example, many people believe that if a woman does not scream or violently resist her attacker, then it could not possibly be rape. In fact, researchers have found that reactions are often, if not usually, counter-intuitive to the collection of Hollywood-influenced stereotypes about how a victim should respond. Many victims freeze and are unable to do anything but wait until the horror of their assault is over. Many victims blame themselves in an attempt to push away reality and convince themselves the attack didn't occur or to lessen the psychological damage. And, yes, as hard as it may be to believe, many victims will maintain contact with their attackers (the likelihood of this is increased by the fact that most victims know their attackers).

In Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer describes five sexual assaults against female university students that take place in Missoula, Montana and the horrible effects suffered by the victims. Krakauer also details the actions taken by the university administration in each case, as well as the shockingly inadequate response of the local police and justice system. Because all the rapists are college football players, the crimes become a rallying cry for many of the local pieces of filth who have helped construct a subculture for the roided-up piece of shit athletes who think that they do not have to suffer any consequences for their criminal behaviour. Sadly, they are often correct in such thinking. It is instructive that out of all five cases, only one perpetrator was imprisoned, and that was mainly because he confessed on two separate occasions and both times his confessions were recorded.

The county attorney's office in Missoula at the time was staffed by some class-A bags of shit whose main concern was keeping their conviction rate as high as possible. To maintain the high conviction rate, they would only prosecute cases in which it was very likely they would get a guilty verdict. Because sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to win, the county attorney's office simply refused to take on any but the most black and white cases (such as the one where there were two recorded confessions). The following passage indicates just how shameless and inept the Missoula Country Attorney's Office was in prosecuting rape crimes:
In one case described in the DOJ [Department of Justice] report, the Missoula police obtained a confession from a man who admitted raping a woman while she was unconscious. The Missoula police referred the case to the county attorney's office with a recommendation that the prosecutor charge the suspect with rape, but the country attorney's office declined to file any charges, citing "insufficient evidence."
The DOJ report mentioned in the above passage was the result of an investigation launched by the federal Department of Justice in response to a number of high-profile rape cases in Missoula (some of which are discussed in the book) and the perceived general ineptness of the Missoula County Attorney's Office in dealing with rape cases.

In a further example of what absolute filth staffed the county attorney's office, one fleck of shit resigned so she could defend the rapist who was initially charged when she was a prosecutor! In a town where most people metaphorically eat the shit out of the assholes of all the local college football players and anyone else associated with the team, it's hard not to feel that most people involved in maintaining law and order are more concerned about remaining popular and are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that they have the best shot at remaining in or attaining highly-paid, elected positions.

Krakauer is in top form in Missoula, equaling or surpassing his other great books such as Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Under the Banner of Heaven. I hesitate to call Missoula a true crime book because of the connotations that go along with that genre. In his crisp, engaging prose, Krakauer provides detailed narratives of the crimes and their fallout, and those passages are without doubt the most riveting parts of the book. But he also includes research that has been conducted about the trauma suffered by rape victims, the counter-intuitive behaviour of victims, the laws surrounding consent, the subculture of university athletics, and the criminal justice system and how the odds are stacked against victims of sexual assault. Of course, often the discussion, while not explicitly stated, is simply about ignorance, herd-mentality behaviour and most people's lack of critical thinking skills.

The most harrowing, despair-inducing, difficult passages to read involve the trauma suffered by rape victims. In this passage, Krakauer writes about a woman's self-destructive behaviour after being raped, which unfortunately validated many people's confirmation bias about what is an acceptable way for a victim to behave:
Laura suffered intensely for many years from being sexually assaulted. And her misery she said, was magnified by the stigma attached to the unhealthy compulsions that tyrannized her existence after the assaults. In this regard she was like many other rape victims. Their self-destructive behavior is often held up as "proof" that they are unreliable and morally compromised, or that they deserved to be raped.
Later in the book, Krakauer further discusses the research about rape victims and the fallout they experience:
When I mentioned this to Trisha Dittrik, the therapist who supervised our group, she told me she wasn't surprised. Rape and war, she explained, are among the most common causes of post-traumatic stress disorder, and survivors of sexual assault frequently exhibit many of the same symptoms and behavior as survivors of combat: Flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, hypervigilance, isolation, depression, suicidal thoughts, outbursts of anger, unrelenting anxiety, and an inability to shake the feeling that the world is spinning out of control. 
If you're looking for just-the-facts reportage from Krakauer, you likely haven't read any of his books. He doesn't shy away from editorializing, or more accurately, he makes it clear exactly where he stands on the issues. That's not to suggest that Krakauer doesn't provide nuanced, balanced narratives of the events and people involved. He includes both sides of every account, interviews alleged rapists when they are willing, and delves into the topic of false accusations of rape. Yes, it does occur, although statistics and research indicate that it is a very small percentage of the vast number of sexual assaults that take place. Of course, that doesn't stop apologists from advancing the lie that false accusations are just as common as rapes. Strangely, the handful of high-profile cases in the past few years in which innocent men have been locked up for rapes that never happened, somehow resonate with most people in a more fundamental way than even the most brutal of sexual assaults in which the rapists are proven guilty beyond any doubt.

It's interesting that when trying to elicit understanding from the segment of the population who live confidently with the belief that they will never be victimized and who perpetuate the litany of myths about rape, it is often necessary to appeal to an imaginary situation in which their sisters, daughters or mothers are assaulted. Instead of direct empathy with victims, it's necessary to frame the issue in terms of loss of face, honour and a vague sense of male ownership regarding the people who suffer. Sure enough, in Missoula, a character witness who goes to bat for Beau Donaldson (the rapist depicted in the book who actually went to prison) only stops to ponder the seriousness of the crime he is essentially defending when a lawyer asks him if he would feel differently if his daughter had been the one who had been raped. When comparing the words of rape victims and rape apologists, it's also interesting to note that victims essentially focus on details of what happened while apologists use generalizations, cliches, logical fallacies and constant references to the invisible sky daddy.

Implicit in any discussion about rape is power, and Krakauer's book is no different. Rape is a crime of power. Unfortunately, the institutions tasked with providing assistance to rape victims and making rapists pay for their crimes, are part of the power structure in society. It's fair to ask: Is there some kind of affinity for rape (and all sorts of other crimes) within many of our institutions? Well, in any institution in society, a certain number of people with power seem to be rapists. Think of the Catholic church, residential schools, the military, police forces, university sports programs, and professional sports teams, to name a few. At the very least, institutions never do anything that will undermine themselves or reduce their power, and that often means a subculture in which predators can get away with their crimes without any concern for repercussions.

For example, in Canada, the federal police force, the RCMP, is currently facing a number of class-action lawsuits by current and former female officers who faced years of harassment and sometimes sexual assaults. A recent report bizarrely indicated that nudity is common in many RCMP offices. This is is some wackworld stuff. Until you consider the fact that the RCMP is an organization largely staffed with grade-12 educated individuals who carry guns and believe that they are above the law. The point is, how can we rely on corrupt, out-of-control, often extremely ignorant people who apparently embrace the misogynistic, sneering-at-rape-victim culture, to do an effective job of taking rape victims seriously and locking up rapists?

Whether people are attracted to power because of the impunity they know it will provide them, or whether power has an effect on some people in such a way that corrupts their character, is not completely clear. What is clear is that as human beings we have not come far enough in our understanding of power and how to more effectively monitor, regulate and sanction powerful people and institutions when necessary. What is also eminently clear is that few people adequately understand rape and the horrible effects suffered by its victims. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is not only extremely well-written and engaging, but is also a very important book that should be read by anyone who believes in justice, empathy and the importance of doing all we can to help victims of sexual assault.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Book Review: Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald

Nightmare in Pink
In the second Travis McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink, McGee heads to New York at the request of one his former war buddies. The friend, now bed-ridden and close to death because of a war injury, asks McGee to help out his sister, Nina Gibson, whose fiancé was recently killed in a mugging gone bad. After the requisite swooning of a number of females at his feet, McGee does some digging and unearths a muddled (muddled that is, in terms of what the reader ever finds out about it) scheme involving a real-estate investment firm being fleeced of millions of dollars. The boyfriend worked at the firm and started having suspicions of his own, and his curiosity appears to have cost him his life.

The first-person, detective-novel trope rears its head and McGee is captured just as he starts to uncover the details behind the scam that left his friend's sister (she quickly becomes McGee's love interest) with a dead boyfriend and an envelope full of ten thousand dollars that he, the boyfriend, had finagled as part of his own snooping around. McGee and Nina aren't sure whether the dead boyfriend was himself part of the scheme as evidenced by the envelope full of money, though McGee soon determines that he had hoped to use the money as proof of the bad intentions of his colleagues at the real-estate investment firm.

John D. MacDonald's tight writing and the relentless cynical observations of McGee really make this book worth reading. However, there is little suspense in the book, either in individual scenes or in the overall arc of the plot. As mentioned, the reader never gets any real idea how the multi-million dollar scam, apparently planned and executed by a handful of people over a period of years, is pulled off. Details like that aren't always necessary in a well-written crime novel. But the lack of anything beyond a cursory glimpse of the bad guys involved in the fraud also detracts from the book. We get plenty of second-hand comments about some of nasties who are part of the plot, and then one brief passage in which one of the masterminds encounters McGee after he, McGee, has been drugged and held against his will at a bizarre mental institution. But it simply isn't enough to engender much hatred in readers or to fuel the inevitable revenge scene.

Yet, there still are many enjoyable passages throughout. That inevitable revenge scene does come about, although there is little imagination involved when McGee gets an opening and is able to initiate his escape from the mental institution. Sure, the psychedelic drugs McGee dumps into a coffee urn in the hospital's cafeteria do result in some bizarrely entertaining results, but as McGee himself laments numerous times, the only people who suffer are innocent hospital staff.

It's fairly easy to believe that MacDonald constructed the character of McGee partly as a parody of the playboy fantasy of easy women who readily offer themselves up or only need a solid right hook to make them contrite for their manipulative ways while simultaneously turning them on. So only the most frustrated and deluded readers will take this kind of dialogue seriously:
"So let's call it a draw. I'm an acceptable stud, and from the neck down you're Miss Universe. And if there was ever any reason to go to bed, we'd probably find each other reasonably competent. But I came here to talk about Charlie." 
McGee delivers the above lines to a woman minutes after meeting her. Of course, despite the absurdity of such encounters, they can be entertaining. And MacDonald recognizes the unbelievable fantasy-world, male-female interactions he creates and offsets them with McGee's own self-deprecating analysis of himself and his usual pessimistic take on everything, especially modern relationships.

And for readers who love a noirish, bleak take on life, McGee's running commentary about the state of the world and how he loathes so much of it, is one of the best parts of the book. For example, this passage is just one of many random observations McGee makes as he starts his investigation in New York:
New York is where it is going to begin, I think. You can see it coming. The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts. Until the locust population reaches a certain density they all act like any grasshoppers. When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world. We're nearing the critical point. One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. But this time they won't snarl and go on. They will stop and stare and then leap at each other's throats in a dreadful silence. The infection will spread outward from that point. 
After McGee's escape from the mental institution, the bad-guy scheme falls apart and the perpetrators are caught, though readers are never witness to any of the details. As the book draws to a close, McGee's friend—Nina's brother—passes away after an operation. All that remains is for McGee to take Nina back to Florida for some therapy aboard his boat, the Busted Flush. He hammers the emotional pain out of her and she achieves the appropriate Zen state of recovery, bids farewell to her saviour and returns to the real world.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

People Who Eat Darkness: Book Review

People Who Eat Darkness
Your child is missing: those are the most frightening words a family can hear. In many ways those words are more terrible than news that a child has been killed. When someone disappears, there is still hope of course, but imagining the horror that a missing loved one may be experiencing has got to be too much to bear. On the other hand, reading about people who have experienced the trauma of a missing child is fascinating and emotionally wrenching in its own way. The very word "disappeared" elicits so many dark and exquisitely terrifying emotions that stories of missing people are instantly appealing and morbidly engaging.

Those tales are doubly fascinating when the person goes missing abroad. Foreign lands are full of the mysterious and the unknown in the best of circumstances. The inscrutable cultural practices, incomprehensible languages and, often times, brazen discrimination or downright hatred of foreigners can combine to drag a family seeking answers about their missing child into a living nightmare.

People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman, by Richard Lloyd Parry, tells the story of Lucie Blackman, an eighteen year-old English woman who set off for Japan with her friend in May, 2000 and disappeared a few months later. Her family started a desperate search for their daughter shortly after she went missing, but their efforts would end in the worst way imaginable.

Parry goes into great detail regarding Lucie's life before Japan, reconstructs her two months in Tokyo, and then tells the story of the police work that led to Lucie's killer and eventually, the discovery of her body. The book also describes the efforts Lucie's family made to pressure police in Japan to find out what had happened to their daughter. It's a gripping, heart-breaking and utterly absorbing story.

As soon as Lucie's friends reported her missing, Lucie's already-divorced parents put their differences aside and quickly initiated a proactive media campaign and travelled to Japan to ensure that their daughter's disappearance received as much attention as possible. Based on what I have read about similar cases in various Asian countries, I believe it is a course of action anyone in a similar situation should seriously consider. While you obviously wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of the people whose assistance you would need in order to find a missing person and then, hopefully, to see justice done, you also wouldn't want to allow bumbling, shameless or corrupt police to operate without any pressure.

Lucie's father, Tim Blackman has a natural flair for organizing and motivating people and for interacting with the media. Some readers might consider some of his actions strangely out of place considering the situation at the time. But I think far more people will see his response for what it is: the desperate attempts of a distraught father to do whatever is necessary to find his daughter. Much later, after Lucie's body had been found, her suspected murderer arrested, locked up and sentenced to many years in prison for other rapes and assaults (though amazingly, he evaded a guilty verdict in Lucie's killing), Tim Blackman accepted a huge payout from one of the suspected murderer's close friends.

It's a tradition in Japan: the criminal or his family or close friends make a payment to the victim's family as a way of making amends. Some people call it "blood money." But as Tim Blackman would later say in interviews (not contained in the book), is it really any different than people who receive settlements after suing criminals in civil court? Of course, the Japanese blood money payouts are contingent on the person who receives the money signing a statement which can cast the criminal in a more positive light (if that is possible). Lucie's mother was outraged after her former husband accepted the payment, but Tim Blackman claimed much of the money would be used to finance an organization set up in Lucie's name. But at the time of Lucie's disappearance, those events would be years in the future.

This is a lengthy, thoroughly-researched, very well-written book. Beyond the developments of the case, the efforts of Lucie's family, and the trial of the man accused of killing her, Joji Obara, readers also learn about the horrific fallout experienced by Lucie's family, and the strange criminal justice system in Japan. And at every turn of the story, Parry includes more than just superficial descriptions, such as in this passage in which he discusses the history of hostess bars in Japan and the neighbourhood where Lucie and her friend Louise worked:
The earliest foreign participants in the water trade were Korean and Chinese prostitutes, colonial subjects of the prewar Japanese empire. In 1945, Westerners appeared in large numbers, but as buyers rather than sellers, during the seven-year-long U.S. occupation. It was during this period, too, that Roppongi began to emerge as a place of recreation. Its name meant “six trees”; before the war, it had been a nondescript residential area dominated by a barracks of the Japanese Imperial Army. The U.S. military took over the barracks after the surrender, and around its entrance sprang up little bars catering to off-duty soldiers, with names such as Silk Hat, Green Spot, and the Cherry. It was at this time that Roppongi’s curious motto originated. Locals noticed that the American GIs would greet one another by slapping palms together above their heads. One could imagine the scene late at night, as a curious Japanese barman asked his customers about this, and the long, drunken attempt to explain the theory and practice of the high five. It was mistransliterated into Japanese as hai tacchi, or “high touch”—hence the slogan on the walls of the Roppongi expressway: “High Touch Town.”
Parry paints a darkly evocative world of life in Japan for foreigners. I've lived most of my adult life in foreign countries, and I find that Parry captures that experience very well. As an expat, a vaguely unsettling feeling is always hovering at the edge of your thoughts. It's not always an unpleasant feeling—together with the relative anonymity, a day-to-day life that is more stimulating than in most western countries and the enjoyable aspects of the local culture, life can be very good as an expat in Asia. If the darker side of life as a foreigner remains an unrealized abstraction, it can add flavour to the script a person is always writing about his or her own life. Of course, when nationalistic, racist nastiness rears its head, that background music in the autobiographical noir film you're living can become quite frightening.

The outsider theme runs throughout People Who Eat Darkness. Lucie and her friend enter the world of foreigners working as hostesses in Tokyo bars, where they have few rights and willingly subject themselves to the advances of the creeps who have a fetish for young foreign women. The man accused of murdering Lucie, Joji Obara, is also an outsider of sorts in Japan. His parents emigrated to Japan from Korea and suffered all sorts of discrimination as they raised their son in a society which likes to claim it is the most ethnically homogeneous in the world. The author, who lived in Japan at the time of Lucie's disappearance, describes his own experiences as an outsider. Throughout the period when Lucie was missing, and then during the lengthy trials, Parry wrote numerous articles about the case and was eventually sued (unsuccessfully) by Joji Obara. He also became the focus of some nationalistic scumbags who threatened him through the post and confronted him in the street at least once.

I rank People Who Eat Darkness as one of the best true crime books of the past five years. Perhaps that's partly because I can relate strongly to the sentiments about living as a foreigner in Asia, but mainly, I simply feel it's an exceptionally well-written book. It certainly enjoyed a fair amount of success, but I'm kind of surprised it wasn't more popular. Of course, all books, no matter how good, are worthy of criticism. As I thought about what aspect of the book could have been better, I decided to take a look at the most common gripes other readers have made. Nowadays it's hard not to look at, and often be influenced by, reviews that appear on Amazon. Although the book generally receives favourable reviews on Amazon, I was surprised at the number of people who moaned about the overabundance of detail. Call me strange, but in an engaging, multi-layered, haunting tale that evokes such a powerful sense of place, I want all the detail the author can throw at me. In fact, it was one of those books that elicited a feeling of disappointment as the ending approached. I just didn't want the book to end.

Although it's not directly related to the writing, I found the cover art (there are at least three different covers I believe) oddly lacking. And for some reason, there have been at least three different subtitles for the book. Those are obviously very minor criticisms that take away nothing from the reading experience, but maybe are an indication that the publishers didn't give this book the publicity it deserved. Perhaps it doesn't quite rise to the level of the all-time greats in the genre such as Helter Skelter or The Executioner's Song, but People Who Eat Darkness is a book that most fans of true crime (save for those who apparently can't handle too much of a good thing) will find well worth their time.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jeffrey Dahmer: Confessions of a Serial Killer

Time flies. One minute you're looking ahead to the turn of the century like it's some far off, mystical event. And then suddenly, it's more than 20 years since Jeffery Dahmer was locked up for eating people. I recently watched an interview of Dahmer that was conducted by Stone Phillips for Dateline NBC more than 20 years ago (but only aired for the first time about ten years ago). The interview lasted 90 minutes and was entitled Jeffrey Dahmer: Confessions of a Serial Killer. Dahmer's father (Lionel Dahmer) and mother (Joyce Flint) were also interviewed. It's a very compelling, insightful, and downright creepy viewing experience.

Most people carry around a storyline about themselves that nicely explains their circumstances and their place in the world. A not-so-secret wish for many is to have others accept this storyline. Serial killers attract a lot of attention  and almost inevitably are given the chance to explain themselves and their actions. And so, Dahmer offers up his own narrative on his twisted desires and what he believes contributed to his motivations to kill.

Jeffrey Dahmer newspaper headline
Dahmer's bland, shameless explanation for his crimes together with his claim that he won't try to put the blame on anyone but himself, will go a long way to convincing people that he is telling the truth. But I don't quite buy everything that he says. First of all, Dahmer knows that his blunt admissions and refusal to blame others contribute to a profile that screams: I have nothing left to hide; I am going to share all the horrific details of my crimes and accept my punishment. In other words, many people will assume that with nothing to gain, he probably is telling the truth.

Of course, he knows this. And perhaps some of what he says is true. But then he can slip in other details to craft the public image he leaves behind. Granted, it's pretty difficult to rehabilitate such a horrific legacy. But someone like him probably wanted to sculpt and refine the nastier details so as to increase his infamy.

I also have trouble believing him because he contradicts himself. Mere minutes after proudly declaring that he won't blame anything or anyone else for his actions, he does just that. Like many prisoners who have nothing but time on their hands, Dahmer decides that proclaiming a belief in the invisible sky daddy will give him numerous dupes in the outside world to manipulate for the remainder of his days. And so he blames his slaughtering and cannibalism spree on the fact that he wasn't, at that time, a believer in the nappy-haired little Jewish carpenter who lived 2000 years ago. Which means he is shifting blame for his nasty crimes onto the big, bad, horrible society in which he was born and lived.

As the interview goes on, Dahmer continues  spinning and crafting the image he hopes people will accept. Did he try to stop the insanity? Why yes, he says. But after the second time he killed, it was pointless, he claims. But right at the moment he says this, he offers up one of those classic, body-language "tells." The nose-touch. I am fully down with the idea people do get itchy noses, and a scratch is not always a sign that they are lying. But it is interesting how often that gesture comes right at the moment when a person is trying to sculpt their own story or are otherwise commenting in a way that shines a light on their character.

Dahmer describes some of the usual background behaviour associated with serial killers. For example, he killed young animals when he was a child and says that he was obsessed with examining their innards. Just as all people want to know their fellow humans, this bit of childhood nastiness by many sociopathic murderers apparently is their literal attempt to understand life.

Father-Son Freakshow

Dahmer's father sits alongside him during parts of the interview and offers his own take on his piece-of-filth offspring. Both father and son exude the same bland, weirdly  unsettling matter-of-factness as they discuss the sick actions committed by Dahmer. I suppose there really is nothing else they can do as they have decided to discuss such macabre and repellent crimes. But the presentation of the supposed facts and their feelings comes across as weirdly unaffected and blasé.

I've often felt that people who are involved in any kind of traumatic events can benefit from writing books and getting caught up in the potential publicity of interviews and other public interactions where they are able to discuss their experiences. It all casts a surreal haze over everything and elevates their horrible, dreary lives into something worth discussing. And, in a weird way, while they are writing about and reliving their involvement in any number of terrible situations, it somehow makes it all seem easier to deal with.

And so, Dahmer's father felt it necessary to write a book after his son ate a bunch of people. I haven't read this book, but Philips references some passages and the overall types of musings from it during the interview with Dahmer and his father. Many of the half-baked possible causes that Dahmer's father discusses in the book regarding why his son slaughtered people are raised in the interview. All of the questions Dahmer's father apparently discusses in the book have the vague feeling of being interesting thought experiments on abstract ideas. Yet they are actually related to the murdering scum he fathered and who calmly sits next to him pontificating on his crimes and motives in his flat, monotone voice.

The parts of the interview where Dahmer and his father riff off each other and discuss their belief in god and dismiss evolution are some of the most revolting. The self-righteousness that comes through as Dahmer pukes up the standard jail-house horseshit of criminal filth converted at the last minute is truly pathetic.

Destroyed Lives

The calm, navel-gazing, oddly disconnected responses Dahmer and his father provide are in contrast to the interview with Dahmer's mother. It's impossible to know how people are affected by events based strictly on what they say and their manner (and Dahmer's father does mention this, noting that his outward appearance can make people think that he is somewhat cold and unfeeling), but you can only really listen to what they have to say. What people say, and how they say it, tend to indicate how much importance they attach to those words. And Dahmer's mother expresses what appears to be real pain for what her son inflicted on others. She comes across as being truly and irrevocably damaged by what took place, as opposed to the strange, sterile interview with Dahmer and his father, both of who seemed, at times, pleased that their bizarre story warrants such attention. Of course, in her words and rationalizations, there is still plenty to criticize about Dhamer's mother as well.

The interview continues on. Dahmer's father is also interviewed alone, Dahmer answers questions alone, and Dahmer's mother appears alone and with a co-author of a book she had planned on writing (but which was never published). Dahmer's mother never appears next to her son during the interview. In fact, the parts of the interview where Dahmer and his father sit next to each other, of course, took place in prison, while the interview with Dahmer's mother was conducted elsewhere.

I can't really see any reason why the people involved consented to these interviews. Aside from money (I have no idea if they were paid), or the aforementioned desire for attention, I can't see the benefit. However, Dahmer's father apparently encouraged his son to do the interview, as the book Dahmer's father had written was released just prior to that time. Stone Philips briefly mentions this as a motivating factor. As for Dahmer's mother, she likely wanted to ensure that her side of the story was heard. She divorced Dahmer's father years ago, and apparently didn't like some of the suggestions or outright claims he made in his book.

But if part of the motivation was to help people understand Dahmer, or even to paint him as a sympathetic figure, then it was a complete failure. No matter how rational or convincing you may sound, it's simply too hard to reach people when your offspring does what Dahmer did. The nastiness is bound to cloud most people's judgement of anyone related to such a perpetrator of evil.

Only nine months after the interviews were conducted, a fellow inmate bludgeoned Dahmer to death in prison. I wonder what was going through Dahmer's mind as the life was being hammered out of him? Relief? A dull sense of interest at this final experience before he ceased for all eternity? Hard to say. But something tells me no real remorse ever troubled the mind of this vile fleck of human excrement, either in the years following his crimes, or during those last, well-deserved moments of brutal justice.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

FX's The Shield: Review and Analysis

The Shield
The Shield was an extremely frustrating show to watch. The writing was monumentally uneven. The lack of imagination from the writers was almost enough, on occasion, to kill any interest in the show. And the acting...well, at times, and from certain actors, it was very good. But at other times it was laugh-out-loud horrible. In particular, Kenneth Johnson, in the role of  Curtis Lemansky, took cringe-worthy acting to a new level. He of the gesticulating mouth.

Borderline Melodramatic


Like so many poorly written shows and books, the main problem that plagued The Shield was "jumping." That phenomenon that indicates the writers are unwilling or unable to build up the requisite tension for scenes and story arcs to be believable and effective.

Things "just happen" all too frequently in The Shield. It's almost as if you can see the point where the writers were over-worked, deadlines were looming, and they said "Fuck it. Just have them hold a gun to someone's head and that person will give the strike team the information they need. End of storyline/episode/subplot etc."

Speaking of guns to heads, resistance, and believability, it quickly became a cliché in the show that whenever obstacles came up for Vic Mackey and the strike team, they did just that. They held a gun to someone's head. And the person gave them what they wanted. Or the bent pigs on the team offered the criminal a deal. And the person quickly conceded. Or they unplugged the camera in the interrogation room and threatened a suspect. And then the suspect buckled.

Tastes Unaccounted For


It is almost incomprehensible that people compare The Shield and The Wire as if they are in the same league. The Wire is so many miles above The Shield that it highlights a simple fact. Many people are incapable of recognizing quality. They simply don't possess the observation skills to appreciate, discern or understand why The Shield is so lacking in so many ways. It's the Dunning Kruger law of illusory superiority applied to appreciating drama.

Suspension of disbelief crumbled dozens of times throughout the seven-year run of The Shield. In the world of fictional police forces, it has been said that the cops either come across as unbelievably inept or unrealistically proficient. In the case of The Shield, the former is definitely the case. For if there ever was a group of invincibly and moronically gullible, easily manipulated and simplistically placated morons, the fools of Farmington district are it.

Vic Mackey repeatedly duped, with ease, scores of his colleagues and assorted other buffoons. Yet, none of them ever truly pulled their heads out of their asses until perhaps the last episode. You can almost see the exasperation on the actors and actresses faces as they go through the motions of allowing their characters to be suckered time and again. And that in a nutshell is the entire seven-year plot of the show: Vic is a self-serving, nasty piece of work who never accepts blame or accountability.

Numerous potential story lines were sacrificed at the altar of that overriding, unrelenting, hammer-over-the-head, singular drum beat. Vic is bad. He destroys everything and everyone in his path. And he never changes. Never grows as a character. Never alters one iota.

Dominant Character Smothers All


Deus ex machinas crowd the sky. Plots wither and die. No audience expects a perfectly wrapped up and tidy ending to every storyline. But The Shield had too many dropped plots, stupid twists, and actions by characters that just didn't fit with what the audience had learned of them to that point.

How about the character of Julian Coles? The conflicted, self-loathing gay cop who is involved in a sham marriage? For the first few seasons, this was one of the most compelling narratives. Then...nothing. The writers threw in a clichéd scene in the final episode that involved him looking wistfully at two gay men. And that was it.

The absurdities are too numerous to detail here. But when you truly feel little when a character who has been on the show for five seasons is killed, you know something is wrong.

However, it is important to note that the quality of the show varied between seasons. Season one was quite good, and provided a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been an excellent show. Season two maintained some of the quality but  even then, the crime-of-the-week chintziness, the ridiculous plot twists and some of the other weaknesses detailed above were starting to push the show toward its borderline, melodramatic decline.

With the introduction of Glenn Close in season four, there was some hope that things might be improving. Unfortunately, season four was quite possibly the worst of the seven. On the other hand, season five was probably the best. With the appearance of Forrest Whitaker as Kavanaugh, the show received a much needed jolt of energy. A superb performance by Whitaker rejuvinated things and offered the possibility that The Shield might improve.

It didn't. The show withered from that point onward and offered one of the most ridiculous and unbelievable endings imaginable. The whole lack of authenticity surrounding the granting of immunity to a murderer/cop killer, armed robber, and drug dealer, was head-shakingly preposterous.

There are numerous holes in plots, continuity issues and scores of other amateur hour examples that further highlight The Shield as sub-par. In one scene, a temporary strike team member, Tavon, lies in a hospital bed being duped by Vic and his boys into believing that he had assaulted Shane's wife. After the fight with Shane and his wife, Tavon had subsequently been involved in an accident and does not clearly remember what happened.

Terrible writing, acting, and execution of the scene, make it laughably bad. The actor who plays Tavon offers up one of the worst crying scenes ever acted at anytime, anywhere in the history of acting. And then viewers are treated to a shot of an overhead microphone as it briefly dips into view. Horrid.

Other times, the lack of authenticity just screams: crap. In one scene, there is a streak of blood on a street from two criminals who have been dragged to their deaths. However, no one told the clods in charge that the average human has about five and half pints of blood in him, not the hundreds of gallons necessary to create the absurdity they chose to go with.

Themes?


With seven years' worth of episodes, surely there must be some regular themes that crop up? Perhaps that everyone has an affinity for blowhards and bullies and even feels a twisted admiration for those pushy, self-serving fucks because they have the guts to do what we all dream about doing.

But apparently little sociopathic wackjobs like Mackey's character also have the ability to dupe most of the people they interact with while simultaneously using them for whatever purpose necessary. Of course, individual episodes also had themes, and those were always telegraphed in the most awkward and brazen way possible.

But why put in the time to watch all seven seasons if I have so much to criticize? As mentioned, numerous individual shows were very good, as were (usually) at least a few scenes per episode. And while the range of concepts explored was limited, at least the writers did close out the show with Mackey screwing over every last person in his dreary orbit.

A last minute change of character just wouldn't have washed although the writers did flirt with this idea throughout the last few seasons of The Shield. In the end, Vic Mackey was no better, and in many ways far worse, than the scumbags he arrested. Also, watching flawed television shows or movies increases a person's appreciation for the truly great efforts and sharpens the ability to dissect what went wrong in the second rate offerings.

The Shield: a sometimes good, often mediocre show that could have been so much better.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book Review: On the Farm by Stevie Cameron

On the Farm by Stevie CameronOn the Farm: Robert William Pickton and the Tragic Story of Vancouver's Missing Women by Stevie Cameron, is a difficult book to read. Difficult because of the horrific crimes perpetrated by Robert Pickton, the suffering of the women and their families, and the failure of the police to adequately investigate the crimes early on in a case that was clearly the work of a serial killer. So much pain to wade through, and so much human filth.

White Trash Wonderland


The farm on which Pickton lived and slaughtered was a veritable magnet for the lowest scum on the face of the earth. With white trash royalty (Hells Angels) near-by to provide dead-enders with role models to look up to, you had a nearly endless supply of the kind of people who, to paraphrase Yves Lavigne, walk around with chunks of shit clinging to the hairs around their assholes. Low-bred criminals, drug addicts, and other assorted filth.

And while this very kind of rankism resulted in Pickton getting away with his crimes for so long, it absolutely has to be mentioned that many of the women who were lured to their deaths on his farm were also nasty pieces of work.

To take this rankism even further, filth can be sorted according to degrees of nastiness. At least two lowlifes procured women for Pickton. They would make an irresistible pitch to poor Downtown Eastside prostitutes, promising drugs and money if they came to Pickton's farm. And while it appears that the women doing the procuring did not know that Pickton was a murderer, they are certifiable scum for preying on such easy targets.

Because Pickton was surrounded by filth, it is inevitable that many of the people who relayed information to Stevie Cameron as she wrote this book were unreliable to some degree. Also, they maybe were conscious of the fact that they could paint a positive picture of themselves in their one shot at white trash immortality. As a result, you sense revisionist history coming through in some of the statements that are made. I lost track of the number of times that someone indicated that despite the fact that they spent countless hours on the farm, something they can't quite exactly pinpoint prevented them from ever eating the meat that Pickton produced. Right.

Cameron senses the unreliability of some of her sources of information and mentions when she feels their accounts may be less that truthful. But in a case where so many incomprehensible things took place, you may find yourself even questioning facts that have been confirmed beyond any doubt.

Weirder than Fiction


You simply could not make up some of the weirdness that played out over the years on the Pickton farm—and here I am talking about events that predated the murders. For example, many years ago a number of insane asylums were in the direct vicinity of the Pickton farm and it is clear that poor old freak-boy grew up an emotionally damaged individual. Reeking of pig shit and shunned by other kids in the neighbourhood, the seeds of his murderous hatred no doubt were sown in those early years.

Cameron interviews countless people who knew Pickton, and she paints a picture of a truly freakish environment. Strange incidents were the norm for Pickton growing up, and there is little doubt that he is, in some ways, a very deranged person. This is not to imply that he is not completely culpable for his actions. And there was never any attempt by his lawyers to claim that he was criminally insane. Later in the book when readers are presented with verbatim exchanges between Pickton and a cell plant, and interviews with police interrogators, the utter strangeness of this freak of nature comes through in spades. His weird rambling speech patterns peppered with skewed aphorisms, non-sequiturs, and bizarre descriptions of how he views himself, really highlight him as an exceptionally weird creature.

But those early tales of his twisted upbringing will not lessen any of the loathing you will feel for this most repulsive and repugnant of individuals who does not truly belong to the human race. However, aside from likely wishing that he could be quickly exterminated and his existence erased from the records for all time, you may also find your hatred for Pickton has a strangely limited shelf life. As if you just can't waste the mind space necessary for such a low, sick animal.

However, you will almost inevitably feel a great deal of anger towards those whose job it is to solve crimes and protect the most vulnerable in society.

The Vancouver Police Department


After reading this book, you may be left with this impression: the degree of incompetence, ineptitude, and arrogance as demonstrated by the Vancouver police department (VPD) in this case, ranks them as one of the worst and most shameful police forces to ever exist. Their sneering arrogance and willful decision not to attach priority to a group of missing people may have indirectly cost countless women their lives.

To read the details of this incompetence and to know that these people are paid with tax dollars to protect us will quite possibly make you physically ill. The police forces in every society should care first and foremost for the weakest and least able to protect themselves.

But based on the facts in On the Farm, the VPD didn't. Their colossal, monumental and historical failure to adequately address the reports of missing women is difficult to comprehend. It is hard not to feel enraged when reading about the years when they disregarded and, according to the book, outright lied to the families of the missing women who literally begged them for assistance.

Cameron discusses the group in top management positions with the VPD who were more concerned with acting like petulant school girls than working to direct resources and instruct their force to solve this case. They had a world-renowned geographic profiler in Kim Rossmo working for them, but they refused to let him do his work. Work that could have led to the capture of Pickton. In this passage, Cameron gives an example of the pettiness that Rossmo had to deal with:
It was October 16, 1995, when Kim Rossmo stepped into the elevator at police headquarters at 2120 Cambie Street on his first day as a senior officer. One of his colleagues joined him. There were no words of congratulations; he didn't even say good morning. Instead the other man turned his back on him and stared at the corner as the elevator ascended. Wordlessly the two men left the elevator on the sixth floor, where top management worked, and walked to their own offices.

As Rossmo travelled to different parts of the world to share his expertise, his ignorant overlords in the VPD worked to undermine him because, according to the book, they were small-minded, jealous individuals. As a number of people point out in On the Farm, perhaps it is the fact that the VPD—like many of our police forces—was rammed full of individuals with only grade 12 educations that they were collectively so ignorant.

As early as 1991, the VPD were told straight up that a serial killer was at work in their city. This information was given to them by a group of expert profilers (including Rossmo). What did the police do with this information? Literally, we are told in the book, at that time, NOTHING was done to address this claim. Imagine the horror, grief, pain, and loss that they could have prevented if they had acted with all the urgency that such a reality should have dictated.

However, the police are not the only ones to blame. A lack of urgency also existed because we allow it. Because we are an extremely self-centred and selfish society who are satisfied as long as things are going well for us personally. That other people are being slaughtered is meaningless to most of us.

As much as you may want to give the police the benefit of the doubt, it is difficult with the information that is presented in On the Farm. Cameron writes about Bill Hiscox, someone who alerted the police to the crimes he felt were likely going on at the Pickon farm:
The way Hiscox remembers the Pickton farm is that after he and Yelds talked about Willie Pickton and all the women's clothing that was strewn around the place, he began to believe that Willie might just be the person responsible for abducting the missing women. It's a strange coincidence, he told Leng [Wayne Leng, owner of missingpeople.net], that the police charged Pickton with the attempted murder of Sandra Gail Ringwald in 1997. And that was because of "all the girls that are going missing, and all the purses and IDs that are out there in his trailer and stuff."

Yes, amazingly, years before Pickton was finally caught, information as brazen and straightforward as this was presented to the police. But for whatever reason, they weren't able to act on it to a degree that would allow them to catch the murderer much sooner. And so the slaughter continued.

Not only did they not follow up on leads as extensively as they should have, but passages in the book highlight the fact that the police continually insinuated, or even stated outright, that the missing women were not worth the effort involved because they were often drug users and prostitutes:

When Val went to the police to report that Kerry was missing, they weren't interested. Don't worry, she was told. "She is probably off partying." Val couldn't believe what she was hearing. Every time she spoke to someone at the Vancouver Police department the response was the same—dismissive and indifferent. One the of the receptionists, Val said later, told her that the women were "just junkies and hookers; don't waste our time."

And when they couldn't be further bothered, apparently they outright lied:

Months later Allan [Elaine Allan, who worked in a downtown Eastside drop-in centre] nagged Dickson [constable Dave Dickson] once too often, and he said he needed to talk to her privately. When they were alone, he said this was a little awkward for him but he felt he had to tell her—Tiffany [Tiffany Drew, one of the missing women] was fine , she was in a safe place, a recovery centre, in fact, but she didn't want to talk to Aschu or to Allan. Tiffany was afraid, he said, that she might start using drugs again if she saw people from her old life. Neither Allan nor Aschu was buying his story. It didn't ring true; Allan knew it couldn't be true. Why would Dave Dickson make this up? She couldn't understand it.
and:
Soon after the women had reported Patty's disappearance to Cameron, a police officer, Ron Palta, joined the conversation. Marion was told that Patty had gone to Montreal. That couldn't be true, Marion thought in horror. In her whole life Patty had never left Vancouver except for a visit to Lake Cowichan, on Vancouver Island. The police had to be lying to her. She was sure her child was the victim of the serial killer who was taking women from the Downtown Eastside.

The Missing and Murdered Women


The most harrowing and intriguing passages of On the Farm contain the tales of the missing and murdered women. Cameron interviews countless family members and friends and the results are very moving and compassionate, but also free of the clichés that so easily could have been used. And in the pitiful and heart-wrenching stories of the women's lives and their descents into the hell of life on the Downtown Eastside, Cameron really pays tribute to them.

When reduced to generalizations it is easy for many people to dismiss the tragedy of these women's lives. Even the most sneering of the "everyone has a choice" crowd, who smugly assume that because they have a reasonable life, all others who have made bad decisions deserve scorn, ridicule and whatever comes their way—yes, even the most self-righteous of those individuals may be moved to see that everyone is worthy of respect and no one deserves what befell these women:
As always, the stories begin when the phone calls stop. The women who went missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside called their families all the time. They called their children to wish them happy birthday. They called their mothers on Mother's Day and their sisters just to gossip. They phoned on Christmas and at New Year's if their families wouldn't let them come to visit. They kept in touch.

These tales are distressing and very tough to read. For example, the story of Cindy Beck:

In her teens Cindy became pregnant and decided to have the baby, a boy she called Tony. Unable to manage, she had to give up Tony for adoption, which must have seemed to her exactly what had to happen; after all, hadn't she been adopted too? She drifted west and fell into the company of people who used drugs; before long she was working as a prostitute to pay for her addictions. In the summer of 1996 her family travelled from Kitchener to Vancouver to look for her but couldn't find her. By the time Cindy disappeared none of her old friends would ever have recognized her; she was careworn, sick, destroyed. There was no hope left in her eyes, no tenderness in her smile. She had seen too much and lived too hard and there was no fight left in her.
Or the story of Janet Henry, who survived an attack by another one of Canada's vicious serial killers, only to have her life ended (quite likely) by Pickton:
His name was Clifford Olson. A vicious con artist and psychopath, he lived in a housing complex in Coquitlam during a killing spree that lasted eighteen months, from December 1980 until July 1981. A teenage girl he stalked and assaulted during this time was named Janet Henry; on at least one occasion he and another man dragged her into a car, fed her drugs—probably chloral hydrate, a knockout drug he used on children—and assaulted her. She was one of the few he attacked who survived, but in the late nineties, Janet Henry, who found herself working the Low Track in the Downtown Eastside, may heve met a different predator. She was reported missing on June 28, 1997, and is thought to have become another of Robert Pickton's victims, but he has not been formally charged with her murder.

A haunting sense of loss lingers in all these stories. Sometimes, you just can't believe what you are reading. One young woman named Diana Melnick disappeared only to become a millionaire months later after being named a beneficiary in her grandmother's will. But she never found out. Pickton was later charged with her murder.

Any Hope at All?


Amidst all the grief and horror, there is the occasional uplifting occurrence. In fact, Cameron weaves the story of Sandra Gail Ringwald throughout On the Farm. She survived an attack by Pickton at his farm in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Her story is perhaps the most uplifting and hopeful part of this whole sad saga.

And what she did to the scum Pickton will have you cheering:

Lisa Yelds was shocked by what had happened to her buddy but thinks he was exaggerating the number of stitches. When she got there, she guessed he'd had about 150, many of them to repair two long stab wounds in one arm. As well as the stitches, the doctors had stapled the skin on his back to close a six-inch-long stab wound. The biggest job was repairing his throat and jaw. When Sandra Gail first slashed him with the knife she found on the kitchen table, she cut him from ear to ear and then from his ear to his mouth. Not only had the knife entered his mouth, it had cut off the tops of some his teeth and part of his jawbone, so he had to have extensive dental work done, with bridges to connect the remaining teeth.
Cameron informs us at the end of the book that Sandra Gail Ringwald now leads a relatively happy and productive life and she is no longer addicted to drugs.

More Indignities


Cameron addresses head on the sick possibility of what Pickton may have done after he murdered his victims. Many people speculated that he may have fed the remains to the pigs on his farm. Well, that is not only possible, but after reading the details in this book, you would say very likely. The sicker realization is that he may have mixed ground human flesh in with the pork that he sold widely to butcher shops and to individuals throughout the area. The remains of a number of women were found in frozen packets of ground meat in freezers on his property.

Evil and monumentally bereft of anything decent that makes the rest of us human, Pickton almost assuredly dumped the remains of his victims at a rendering plant in Vancouver. And that means that the scope of this horror is even wider than anyone could have imagined. For rendering plants sell the oils derived from the fat of animals to be made into soap and cosmetics.

When you read information like this, the human mind truly cannot compute. It's as if you can feel something short-circuiting in your brain, as if all the qualities you hope are good about people are wiped out by such an incomprehensible thing. And then you think about the families of the murdered women who have to hear about this, who have to allow this enormous monstrosity to settle in to the corners of their minds for the rest of their lives. And then your rage against the Vancouver police department ratchets up another few degrees.

The Other Side


One of the only omissions in this book is the lack of police response to the criticisms against them for perpetrating what is depicted as one of the biggest failures in the history of modern policing. I assume that Cameron tried to get direct responses from representatives of the Vancouver police with regard to their actions. But aside from the public pronouncements the police made in which they came across as disingenuous and ridiculous, no one ever tries to provide a comprehensive and reasonable defense of police behaviour. Of course, this is probably because there isn't one.

Still, I would have liked to have read an interview conducted in which high ranking police were braced with blunt questions such as "How is it possible that your police force failed so monumentally and completely?" Or "How can people beg you for years to investigate their missing family members, and your only response is to be dismissive?"

All we get instead are the gutless deflections offered by police spokespersons:

He wasn't going to discuss the VPD's investigation of Pickton at this time, Driemel told them, but he did add, "I think there's a ton of misinformation out there. I wish I could sit you down, show you the entire timeline, every meeting and everything that was done, right from the inception of this whole process. I feel pretty good about it, but... it's tough, we just can't make it public. If you armchair it and quarterback it now, is there things we could have done or should have done or might have done more of? It's pretty hard to put today's judgment of an issue that was there yesterday. But from what I've seen, it looks like we were reasonably diligent as far as how we dealt with the resources that we had available and how it unfolded.

That a full inquiry will be conducted into the police investigation of Pickton is fantastic news.

Writing Style


On the Farm is an exceptionally well-written book. Like all the best non-fiction books, Cameron uses facts and interviews to present true-life characters so that they come to life on the pages. From the early days of Pickton's life, to the time when he started murdering women, you get a real sense for what pure, undiluted filth this person is. You can almost smell the rancid, repulsive smell of shit coming off him in waves as he stalks his prey and attracts other like-minded bags of absolute scum to his orbit.

While most readers will have at least a bare outline in their minds of what happened in this case, you will still find your self gripped by suspense as police finally wise up to Pickton and the investigation on the farm starts to take place. The amount of research that went into this book comes out in the details—in-depth interviews with families of the murdered women, descriptions of the crime scenes on the farm and the forensic work in the labs, and the court-room narrative that makes up the final chapters.

The book is almost flawlessly edited as well. Only a handful of sentences that don't have first-reading clarity appear throughout the entire 700 page book. I may have seen a single typo of note: "The retired mountie who had hunted down Clifford Olson in the 1960's..." Surely it was supposed to read "1980's."

Regardless of whether you followed the Pickton case as it was being covered in the mainstream media, you will likely be shocked by many of the things that you learn while reading this book. For example, as a final indignity to the families of the murdered and missing women, Pickton was shockingly found not guilty at his trial for first degree murder of six of the women. While he was found guilty of second degree murder and will never again know a day of freedom for the rest of his worthless life, the absence of a not-guilty verdict on the first degree murder charges is stunning.

It is easy to judge people while reading this book. Especially those who failed to realize a serial killer was at work and were unwilling or unable to put every resource possible towards stopping him. You may feel exhausted at the end of the book because of such feelings. But in the same vein, the way a society treats its most vulnerable is a hallmark for judging that society. The lack of on an outcry by most of the rest of us while this was going on is also despicable.

The subject matter in On the Farm is handled with honour and grace that serve the memories and dignity of so many of the women who were murdered. A very engaging book that will pull you in and leave you emotionally hammered by the time you finish reading it, On the Farm instantly becomes one of the greats in the true crime genre.