August 19, 2013

Lobsters and Lynch Mobs: a review of Steve Vernon's "Maritime Murder"

Maritime Murder: Deadly Crimes from the Buried Past
200 pages
ISBN 9781551099279

No matter where you go in the world, you're going to hear stories about the darker side of that place's history. The Maritimes, the three provinces nestled along the east coast of Canada--and my own stomping grounds--are such picturesque and quiet places that it's hard to imagine they could serve as the backdrop for mayhem and murder. But, oh yes, we've had our fair share of sin committed here, and folklorist extraordinaire, Steve Vernon, has drudged up some of the grizzliest murders in this region's history.

Take "A Bitter Harvest", the first tale in this collection, for instance. In 1873, a grizzly and astonishingly dimwitted murderer led his wife into the woods while their three children stayed home. In the quiet wilderness of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, a murder seems like an easy enough affair to get away with provided you don't draw too much attention to yourself. Mailman apparently wasn't that bright, or just didn't think anybody else in Lunenburg was, as he sloughed off questions from his children about their mother went with flimsy stories that she had gone to work on a neighboring farm. Never mind the fact he started gallivanting around the countryside with another woman, even sleeping with her while the kids were in the house. Asking the neighbor to see if he'll corroborate the story seems like a really big detail left out of Mailman's plans, and one that ultimately led to his conviction. Mailman's unsophisticated and truly bumbling efforts to kill someone and get away with it are not the only ones shown in this book though, as more than a couple killers are revealed to be simpletons in the ways of murder and deception.

Another murder occurred not that far from where I grew up. "A Crime of Cold Passion" takes place in Bear River, with a cowardly sailor kills a young girl he lusts after while he parents are away. While I lived down there, I never really had an appreciation for the area's history, so kudos to Steve Vernon for digging up this tale that just made my skin crawl as I read it. In fact, the lengths taken to scrounge up facts and little details about each of these murders and the subsequent investigations is even more astounding than the crimes committed. Stolen babies, botched hangings, revenge killings, and more.

Each story may only weigh in at a few pages, but Steve infuses his own style to bring the real-life characters off the page with a theatrical flare. The dialogue he adds, whether he's somehow discovered some of it through his research or simply invested to include pieces of information, feels very storybook in nature. Maybe it's a way of capturing the era of each story, but it certainly feel like the kind of dialogue I'd hear these days. Almost declamatory at points.

Just like Halifax Haunts, Wicked Woods, The Lunenburg Werewolf, and Steve's other folklore titles, Maritime Murder holds an indelible charm despite the grim subject matter. Tempered with humor and round-the-campfire quality, I'd recommend it to anyone who might be interested. I'm not so sure it would work as a tourism brouchure, though. Then again, maybe it would.

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