1360 Spirited Vancouver

Vile Spirits
by John MacLachlan Gray

Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2021
$29.95  /  9781771622776

Reviewed by W.H. New


Straight out: I loved this book. It’s lively and fast-paced, it sparkles with satire, and it’s chock full of arresting characters (and a few who get away). Vile Spirits is marketed as a mystery, and yes, there’s a mystery told and solved here — a couple of murders in fact — and there’s a worthy policeman named Hook who figures out who did the deeds and why. But that’s just the scaffolding. It’ll get you reading. (The Hook? Oh yes, there are puns aplenty.) Once you’ve turned a page, you’ll find you’re in another world completely, and the promise of mystery draws you in.

This is a follow-up book to Gray’s White Angel, a mystery based on the cold case Janet Smith murder in Vancouver in 1924. Suspects were many. Racism was rife. With this new book, a year has gone by. It’s now 1925 and DS Hook has to deal with shenanigans in both Vancouver and Victoria, and an even more complicated tangle of crooked politics, class presumption, the last war, racism, American interlopers, and drink. Quite a concoction, but Gray manages to keep it all bubbling along, with many turns and twisted motives, till all is more or less resolved.

Postcard view from the roof garden at the second Hotel Vancouver, 1920s

I say ‘more or less’ because this is not a tidy mystery of the sort that concludes with the villains carted off and the heroes, if there are any, mildly honoured and the world tucked to rights. I won’t reveal here who did the dirty deeds — that would spoil the read — but let’s just say that a lot of dirt is going round, and part of the enjoyment of reading the book is that so many of the unreasonable characters are reasonable suspects.

Gray sets the scene with a provincial government teetering on the verge of an election, a police force riddled with incompetence and corruption, a ‘liquor control board’ (newly established) that is making most of its money by hiring goons to attack bootleggers and spirit away anyone who might curb them. Reporters, for instance, or honest cops perhaps. Essondale is mentioned. Would a lobotomy be on anyone’s agenda?

Masons and artists with terracotta buffalo and moose head on facade of the second Hotel Vancouver, circa 1912. Vancouver City Archives

In reconstructing the 1920s, Gray generally avoids using ‘real’ historical names for his characters, but on occasion the reader can read past the fictional name and find history not far away. There’s an organizer for the Ku Klux Klan in this book, for example, named Daisy Douglas Tyler, who is angling to establish BC as a KKK stronghold. Any short history of the KKK in North America will provide the curious reader with a striking parallel in real life. The KKK was definitely trying to spread to BC in the 1920s — in 1925 it established a centre in Shaughnessy’s Glen Brae (now Canuck Place) — and it was using its ostensible claim to be a voice of temperance to spread its racist messages as well.

In 1925 BC, the KKK enlisted the willing support, apparently, of such organizations as the Women’s Christian Temperance League and the trade unions as well as that of numerous citizens who regarded themselves as upstanding. (Perhaps others thought them so, too, although at the time the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ seem both to have been redefined to mean ‘white privilege.’) The Asiatic Exclusion League, which was formed in California in 1905, had spread to Canada within two years, and by 1923 the Parliament of Canada had passed the Oriental Exclusion Act. At its core, Vile Spirits focuses on the end of prohibition, the rise of controlled liquor distribution, the availability of drugs and poisons, the attractions and distractions of sex, and the liquid temptations of political power. Racism underlay them all.

John Maclachlan Gray. Photo courtesy Facebook

So while the mystery to be solved in Gray’s novel is not necessarily motivated by any one specific act of racial prejudice, Gray makes it clear that prejudice permeates the daily lives of his characters. Only a few rise above it — his good cop Hook for one. For other characters, in differing degrees, the more obvious prejudices involve gender and money. Some men have power; others want it. Some men are surprised that some women also have power, though they don’t usually recognize where it comes from or how it’s being exerted. Newspapers, too, have power — and there are a lot of them mentioned here, their policies ranging from editorial flackery to scandal-sheet insinuation, which doesn’t make power any more reliable. ‘Truth’, in consequence — it’s the heart of any mystery — is hard to come by. And for the characters, it’s personally risky. One reporter may find himself closest to truth when he writes limericks (but it turns out they can be dangerous too).

Coaster from the Devonshire Hotel. Courtesy Glen Mofford collection

Despite all these serious and compelling issues, the novel manages above all else to be funny. I repeat: it’s a satire. And one of the great pleasures of reading the book comes from Gray’s mastery of both tone and concrete historical detail. I’m speaking of such things as the Avalon Dairy van and pretentious house design, the Devonshire Hotel (and the Castle), Wildroot hair oil and the Point Grey constabulary, the interurban, a monkey puzzle tree, and telephone conversations like this one, all conducted through an Operator:

MUtual exchange. Are you there?
Here is SEymour 330, Hotel Vancouver. MUtual 491, please.
I will connect you now.

Women — operators and stenographers and travelling writers — are key figures in this mystery; they hear and, yes, they exchange information and the men haven’t even noticed most of them are nearby. Too bad for them.

Vile Spirits is a marvellous book, with lots to say about the present as well as the past. It pillories the corruption of 1925, it castigates the misuses of power, it’s gentle with ordinary human love. It just might also be asking if Vancouverites are still living in 1925.

The main switchboard of the Hotel Vancouver, 1916. Photo courtesy BC Archives


William (Bill) New

William New is the author of Reading Mansfield & Metaphors of Form (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999); he has written widely on short fiction in Canada, Australasia, and elsewhere. He is also the author of a dozen collections of poetry, including The Rope-Maker’s Tale (Oolichan Books, 2009), Neighbours (Oolichan, 2017), and In the Plague Year (Rock’s Mills Press, 2021). Editor’s note: William New has also reviewed books by Bill Stenson, Jack WangMichael KenyonDavid BergenDarcy BysouthJulie PaulPhilip Huynh, and B.A. Thomas-Peter for The Ormsby Review.


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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors in all fields and genres. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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