A Thoroughly Wicked Woman: Murder, Perjury & Trial by Newspaper by Betty C. Keller
Reviewed by Daniel Francis
Betty Keller has a fascination with the early social history of Vancouver that dates back at least to 1986 when she published On the Shady Side, her lively study of crooks and cops in the pre-war city. In A Thoroughly Wicked Woman her interest in the bad apples on the family tree continues, though with this new book Keller has exchanged roles from historian to novelist. That said, it is really not much of a switch. Her earlier book was history that at times read like fiction; her latest is a novel that keeps scrupulously close to real events.
A Thoroughly Wicked Woman is based on a murder that occurred in Vancouver in November 1905. Thomas Jackson, a middle-aged prospector who had just returned from the field to his Vancouver home, died when someone spiked his morning cocktail of Epsom salts and beer with strychnine. There were several suspects, including his young wife Theresa and her mother Esther Jones, who lived with the couple at their boarding house on Melville Street. Eventually Theresa and Esther went to trial, not for murder but for perjury. Convicted, they both served several months in the provincial penitentiary. But the murder remained unsolved.
The dramatis personae of Keller’s story are all actual historical figures, including newspaper publishers Walter Nichol and Louis Taylor, Mayor Frederick Buscombe, and police chief Sam North. Keller bases her narrative on the newspaper accounts of the murder and the courtroom dramatics which followed. It is when these sources fail her that she invents, imagining the domestic life in the victim’s home and the conversations between many of the characters.
Keller pursues several themes in her book. One is the social role of women and their dependence on, and independence from, their spouses. Another is the changing dynamic of the daily press. The pre-war period was an exciting time for newspapers, which were losing their strict affiliations with political parties and becoming populist vehicles of news and information. The Jackson murder provides an interesting case study of how this transformation was playing itself out in Vancouver. Another issue is prostitution, which was openly practised in Vancouver at the time and which police and local politicians were attempting to accommodate and/or eradicate. All of these themes provide the larger context within which Keller’s crime story unfolds.
Choosing to tell her story as fiction, Keller allows herself the freedom to invent, but it is a freedom she does not take enough advantage of, instead sticking so close to the main facts of the actual crime that a reader might wonder why she chose fiction at all. The choice means that she cannot offer the kind of context and analysis that non-fiction allows so that none of her themes is pursued in much depth. That said, her book rescues a curious legal case from obscurity and provides a lively snapshot of the city and several of its leading citizens as it came of age during the heady decade of prosperity and growth that preceded the First World War.
A Thoroughly Wicked Woman: Murder, Perjury & Trial by Newspaper
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2011 pp. $19.95
BC Studies, no. 173, Spring 2012.