The Sins of a City
The story of Canada’s Sherlock Holmes is also a dark and revealing history of Vancouver
The multi-hyphenated subgenre to which Eve Lazarus’s Blood, Sweat and Fear: The Story of Inspector Vance, Vancouver’s First Forensic Investigator belongs—historical–forensic–true-crime—aligns multiple aspects of our cultural fascination with crime. It bundles deep social history with the satisfactions of science’s absolute-truth crime-solving promise and, in some texts, pornographically gory splatter. Lazarus’s Vancouver-centralized history, presented as a chronicle of the career of Inspector John F.C.B. Vance, hits the first two aspects but never dwells on gore, providing necessary details of shootings and bludgeonings without wallowing gleefully in blood and guts as some true crime writers, and readers, do. Vance, one of North America’s first forensic scientists and a pillar of investigative science in the growing city of Vancouver in the early 20th century, is a natural subject for Lazarus, whose previous book, Cold Case Vancouver: The City’s Most Baffling Unsolved Murders, provided a unique examination of the city’s history by focusing on crimes that reflected contemporary social inequities and tensions.
Providing sadistic thrills clearly is not Lazarus’s aim. Her methodology leans toward that employed by socio-historical crime chroniclers such as Paul Begg and John Bennett, contributors to that most frequently written-about series of crimes, Jack the Ripper’s killings. While many Ripperologists provide both photos and overly detailed descriptions of mutilated bodies, Begg and Bennett are as interested in Whitechapel gangs, British newspapers, and medical and police science as they are in the murders themselves. They recognize, as Lazarus does, that the story of a murder, a robbery or even a suicide, is the story of the world in which it happens.
As Lazarus alerts us in her introduction, the book is “not a biography; rather, it’s the story of Vance’s extraordinary work in forensic science in the first half of the last century, and in a sense, a history of the early work in forensics.” The book is more and less than that, as well—Lazarus often turns away from the forensic details of crimes in order to draw a fuller depiction of the place where the bad things happened.
In Lazarus’s case, that place is British Columbia in the first half of the 20th century. Although Inspector John F.C.B. Vance is the star of the book as a whole, Lazarus’s sociological interest in Vancouver and the surrounding areas at this point in history often has her chronicling crimes in which Vance took a side-stage role. Vance, surprisingly to the modern forensics aficionado or CSI binger, did not come from any sort of medical background. A Scottish immigrant whose father was lured to British Columbia by the promise of a solid living in coal mining, Vance made inroads toward the scientific skill set that he would later apply to crime solving by working as an assayer and chemist at various mines, extraction plants and smelters, eventually moving into a position in 1907 as a “city analyst” in Vancouver, primarily testing food and water supplies for safety. Self-taught in metallurgy and chemistry, he augmented his forensics-related skills as the field was coming into existence under the oversight of Fred Underhill, Vancouver’s first medical officer of health. Eventually, Vance’s skills and his particular interest in developing forensic technologies had him working with the police with increasing frequency. In 1932 he was given the title of honourary inspector by Police Chief Charles Edgett, and became head of the city’s new Police Bureau of Science. Lazarus’s chronological chapters mark important crimes that Vance dealt with over the course of his four-decade career. Vance features in every chapter, although Lazarus does not feel compelled to foreground him as the star investigator in each case. Forensics is an operative element of each chapter, but Lazarus’s larger project is to reflect the city Vancouver was by illustrating the motivations behind early 20th-century crimes and how they were dealt with institutionally.
Vance, called “the Sherlock Holmes of Canada” in international newspaper articles that heightened his profile and visibility to the point of endangering his life, did crucial work in his lab and at crime scenes, running early versions of the blood and DNA tests that are now a staple of network television. But he also had an essential role in the courtroom, to an audience more judgemental than readers: juries. Vance’s investigative gifts, technological mastery and reputation for accuracy made him an authoritative witness on the stand, leading to a series of attempts to kill him before he could give evidence, including a car bomb and a near-successful acid-throwing attack that left him with his pants in tatters and his legs badly burned.
Any historical true crime book also functions as a focused piece of media history. With primary sources—police files, diaries, trial transcripts, interviews—often impossible to access, lost to time or simply non-existent, narrative true crime writers like Lazarus are often left with only contemporaneous newspaper accounts to reconstruct the crime, the victim’s life, the killer’s motivations and the investigator’s drive. Thanks to her research and Vance’s packrat descendants, Lazarus has more than newspaper archives to work with: Vance’s journal, personal case notes, photos and clippings were waiting for her in one of his grandchildren’s garages, on Gabriola Island. Still, she also consistently turns to the Vancouver newspapers of the era, including the Daily Province, the News-Advertiser and the World, for a sense of the greater world around each of the killings or other crimes that she explores in each chapter. The chapter on the 1914 West End murder of Clara Millard by Millard’s Chinese “houseboy,” the teenaged Yew Kong (who went by “Jack”), is one in which Vance appears but does not come close to dominating. This is slightly disorienting, as the chapter on the Millard murder is the book’s first, and Lazarus’s supposed protagonist is largely absent.
In keeping with Lazarus’s larger socio-historical project, the chapter on the Millard murder provides a compressed portrait of anti-Chinese racism in early 20th-century Vancouver to show exactly how much trouble the young Jack Kong found himself in: the Chinese lacked voting rights and were “barred from working in professions such as law and medicine,” and their entrance into Canada depended on their ability to pay the infamous Head Tax. “Chinatown was viewed by outsiders as a place of immorality and sin, where gambling and prostitution thrived and where white women were corrupted by drugs.” Jack, accused of the murder of his white, female employer, faced the prospect of a deeply prejudiced legal system and society. Lazarus’s pulls from the media coverage of Jack’s arrest and trial reflect the racial climate, particularly this quotation from the Vancouver Sun justifying brutal interrogation techniques: “any method which can be used to extract the truth from the inscrutable Oriental is justifiable.”
Police bloodhounds found the partial remains of Clara Millard in the home’s furnace ashes, and the 29-year-old Vance, then a city health department scientist whose work revolved around testing food and water supplies, went to the home with city bacteriologist Dr. Charles McKee to analyze the physical evidence in the case. Detectives found a wet carpet with a stained layer of felt paper beneath it, and similar stains on Jack’s clothing, making him the prime suspect in the disappearance and death of Clara Millard. Here and elsewhere, Lazarus details the forensic testing procedures of the period in efficient, descriptive passages. In this particular case, the evidence Vance and McKee come up with is largely ornamental when the trial comes around: Clara’s husband, Charles Millard, gained police permission to interrogate Jack, and extracted a confession from the boy that was presented in court. The confession and its sensational contemporary reporting do much more than seal Jack’s fate (a life sentence that was commuted after eight years for reasons that Lazarus was unable to discover, followed by a return to China):
The effect on Vancouver’s Chinese population was immediate. Chinese men were stopped on the street and beaten. The St. Francis Hotel on Seymour Street publicly fired every Chinese man on staff and dozens of Chinese boys were dismissed from their employment in hotels, restaurants, and private homes. The Trades and Labour Congress tried to have all Asians banned from working in hotels.
The glimpse into racial politics that Lazarus gives us in this chapter, and in subsequent ones dealing with a murder in Japantown and a cop-killing at the Canford Indian Reserve near Merritt, speak to the book’s disinterest in centralizing Vance’s personal development. Lazarus emerges as a writer interested less in a narrative arc than in presenting carefully researched vignettes on crimes through the lens of contemporary media as a reflection of history. And Vance comes across as a man deeply interested in his work and in developing technologies to make it better, as well as in protecting his labours from the corrupt machinations of the occasional dirty police chief or politician he ran into across his 40-year career.
Vance’s early fame was owed to an impulse that our culture still has, linking him to Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero. A great part of Sherlock Holmes’s appeal was the logic behind his deductions, and the detective’s insistence that his spectacular discoveries were simply the result of applying observation and knowledge to the human, criminal matters in front of him. Crimes happen as a result of humanity at its most evil, its most chaotic, or its most socially entrapped and miserable, and applying a scientific solution and explanation to men and women at their most debased, even if it is only to confirm that the suspect was indeed the perpetrator, suggests a comforting, organizing logic to deviance, evil and irreparable social inequity. Small wonder that the newspaper accounts that Lazarus excerpts bear headlines that hail him as a “Super Criminologist” and “Test Tube Detective”: forensic science, as fallible as it has continually proven to be, has the appealing strength of drawing attention away from motivation, emotion and the social circumstances that fuel crime. Lazarus’s book never falls into this trap—enthralled as she is by Vance’s innovative drive and courage, Lazarus continually takes the reader outside of the lab to examine the racism, homophobia, and police and political corruption that are at the roots of the crimes Vance investigated, and that continue to inform urban crime.