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(photo illustration: David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)
(photo illustration: David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)

NON-FICTION

Review: Three new books look back on some of the most infamous crimes in recent Canadian history Add to ...

A Daughter’s Deadly Deception: The Jennifer Pan Story

By Jeremy Grimaldi

Dundurn, 334 pages, $19.99

Shadow of Doubt: The Trial of Dennis Oland

By Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon

Goose Lane Editions, 333 pages, $19.95

Dark Ambition: The Shocking Crime of Dellen Millard and Mark Smich

By Ann Brocklehurst

Viking, 378 pages, $32

Not every genre needs to justify itself. Biography suggests how, and how not, to live. Poetry puts music in our heads. Sci-fi shows the world refracted through the dark lens of the future.

Other genres face a steeper slope toward worth. Like the celebrity tell-all. Or pornography.

True crime falls into this second category. How do you make a case – unless you think people getting off on something is justification enough – for looking back hungrily at the details of a murder? On its face, the exercise seems no better than a vaguely sinister form of voyeurism.

Still, the case can be made. Not all true crime is merely creepy. (Let’s define the genre as factual, in-depth, retrospective accounts of murder – junkies of the stuff rarely have patience for anything less.) Sometimes, stories of that ilk help exonerate a wrongly convicted person, such as the classic Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line.

Another kind takes blood-spattered tragedy as a cue to examine broader social themes. Anything written about the O.J. Simpson trial, that extended metaphor for everything depraved and bleak in American life, has this to fall back on. Once in a while, true crime can even claim artistic licence. In producing his mostly true account of a quadruple murder in Kansas, Truman Capote knew In Cold Blood transcended its genre with superior craft.

The authors of three new books on prominent Canadian murders are not Capote. Or Dominick Dunne. Or Morris. These are books for people who have closely followed the murder trials of Dennis Oland, Jennifer Pan and Dellen Millard. Diligent, serious and full of fact, they have nonetheless clearly been written to land on shelves while the names of their subjects are still notorious.

Their publishers may also be hoping to cash in on the true-crime boom, exemplified by the podcast Serial and the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer – a highly produced subgenre made for a general audience with a social-justice bent.

But Shadow of Doubt by Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon (about the Oland trial), Dark Ambition by Ann Brocklehurst (about Millard) and A Daughter’s Deadly Deception by Jeremy Grimaldi (about Pan) are a different breed. As David Foster Wallace once wrote about the trouble with rating genre fiction, they are “the sort of thing that someone who likes this sort of thing is apt to like.”

In MacKinnon’s incredibly thorough account of Oland’s conviction for murdering his father in 2011 – the scion of Saint John’s Moosehead beer dynasty was awarded a new trial in October on the basis of an error by the original trial judge – the average reader may learn more than they ever wanted to know about the case. Somehow, it sticks in the mind that the sniffer dog employed by the Saint John police was called Leo.

For the “Oland murder aficionados” that MacKinnon notices in the public gallery, this stuff is gold. Her apt phrase tells you what you need to know about the wholesomeness of their hobby. These are murder fans. They follow violent death like it’s baseball. So if the books that cater to them are creatively and morally a bit vacant, it shouldn’t shock.

MacKinnon at least handles her gruesome material with tact. As a CBC reporter, her coverage of the trial was best-in-class. And in its way, the book’s relentless accretion of detail is impressive. It shows a laser-like focus and tolerance for boredom that ordinary readers may be hard-pressed to match, but which deserves kudos.

The facts, of course, are not pretty: police taking a “penile swab” of Richard Oland’s corpse, curtains stained five feet-high with blood, a section of the skull fractured like “an eggshell.” Why do people voluntarily read this “pornoviolence,” as Tom Wolfe once called it? It’s not just the gore that’s unsavoury. Even the most graphic war reporting keeps governments honest and citizens vigilant. But what public interest does “true crime” advance? We know, and hardly need reminding, that the world contains rogue psychos. Usually, there’s nothing we can do about it.

If there’s edification to be found in these books, it’s in their depiction of the criminal justice system. We get a surprisingly cheering portrait, given that true crime often implicates cops and courts for getting the wrong man. Even the bumbling Saint John police who almost blew the Oland case are seen tripping over rules and procedures that are admirably strict, so when a cop accidentally touches Oland’s body with a high-tech forensic lamp, he scrubs the light down and makes a note of his mistake.

The system is imperfect, like any human thing. But at least it tries to plane humanity’s crooked timber. Rules are everywhere, amounting to a formalism that is almost moving in its rigour. The way the 13th juror is sent away after a long trial, with solemn thanks from the judge; the magnificent detail and care of a jury charge; even the concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” an unintuitive but necessary standard for reaching conclusions about criminal guilt.

Brocklehurst says her fear at the beginning of every major murder trial is that “justice will not be done,” by which she means that a guilty person will walk free. The justice system is shot through with the opposite fear: that an innocent person will be convicted. Everything about the way a trial is set up proceeds from this humane and challenging position.

In fairness, Dark Ambition treats a case in which guilt was rarely in doubt. Mark Smich and Millard were convicted in June of murdering the Hamilton-area family man Tim Bosma while test-driving his truck. It appears Smich and Millard were looking for a “thrill kill.” Both men are awaiting trial for another murder, and Millard faces charges in a third, that of his father.

Because of Bosma’s sympathetic mien, Millard’s obvious derangement and the crime’s shocking randomness, it became a favourite of true-crime fanatics. I wish I didn’t know that. But in an otherwise sober, reportorial book, Brocklehurst includes running commentary on the Bosma case from WebSleuths.com, an Internet forum that serves as an inane Greek chorus and does not reflect favourably on the kinds of people who spend their free hours stewing in the minutiae of unsolved killings.

Insofar as the book has ambitions beyond sating these obsessives, they don’t really get off the ground. Dark Ambition presents itself obliquely, and when it isn’t just a police procedural, as a study in evil. But the studying rarely plumbs beyond the rote and frankly unanswerable question: How could someone do this?

Grimaldi suffers the same problem. Pan was a young woman living in a Toronto suburb who hired hitmen to kill her overbearing parents and make it look like a home invasion gone wrong. Again, our author is inclined to ask where such malice comes from. But the meaning of evil is one of those subjects that’s less interesting than it sounds. Bruce Springsteen’s protagonist in Nebraska gave the cosmic shrug that the question deserves: “Sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

In any case, Grimaldi rarely pauses to mull theology. The book is pure story: chronological, downhill, fast. The crime and justice reporter for YorkRegion.com is capable of fine observations (“She walks gracefully into the courtroom each morning … the way one might enter a room if wearing a gown”), but no genre pulls its practitioners further into the quicksand of easy trope and stupefying cliché. After recounting a bit of delusional testimony by Pan’s father (who survived the attack that killed his wife), Grimaldi writes, as if it were a TV voice-over, “Oh, how blind he was.”

He is the most comfortable of the three with this kind of ginned-up melodrama, and time taken to add narrative flourishes might explain why he was slowest out of the gate with his book (the verdict came almost two years ago). Maybe the true fans will have held their breath. As he notes about the long gap between the murder and Pan’s trial, the public is “accustomed to waiting years for fascinating cases to reach the courts.”

Of course, that isn’t nearly true. Ordinary people don’t “wait” for trials to start – they go about their lives. It may, however, be true of Grimaldi’s intended readers, the true-crime “buffs” and denizens of WebSleuths.com, the kind of reader who can’t get enough of ominous titles, false suspense and blood-spatter analysis. I’m not sure what it says about the warp and woof of the human psyche that these readers are so numerous, and I’m not sure the publishing industry cares to know either.

Eric Andrew-Gee is a Globe and Mail reporter who covered the Dennis Oland trial.

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