Vancouver is in an uproar over the death by gunshot of a Scottish nanny, Janet Stewart. An almost deliberately ham-handed police investigation has Constable Hook suspecting a cover-up. The powerful United Council of Scottish Societies is demanding an inquiry. The killing has become a political issue with an election not far away.
The city is buzzing with rumours. Miss Stewart's fellow nannies have accused the Chinese houseboy of murder, capitalizing on a wave of anti-Chinese propaganda led by the Asian Exclusion League and enthusiastically supported by the sensational press--not to mention the Ku Klux Klan, which has taken up residence in upperclass Shaughnessy.
The White Angel is a work of fiction inspired by the cold case of Janet Smith, who, on July 26, 1924, was found dead in her employer's posh Shaughnessy Heights mansion. A dubious investigation led to the even more dubious conclusion that Smith died by suicide. After a public outcry, the case was re-examined and it was decided that Smith was in fact murdered; but no one was ever convicted, though suspects abounded--from an infatuated Chinese houseboy to a drug-smuggling ring, devil-worshippers from the United States, or perhaps even the Prince of Wales. For Vancouver, the killing created a situation analogous to lifting a large flat rock to expose the creatures hiding underneath.
An exploration of true crime through a literary lens, The White Angel draws an artful portrait of Vancouver in 1924 in all its opium-hazed, smog-choked, rain-soaked glory--accurate, insightful and darkly droll.
This rich fictionalized take on the real-life 1924 murder of Scottish nanny Janet Smith, one of Vancouver's most famous cold cases, is another feather in the cap of MacLachlan Gray (Not Quite Dead). Renamed Janet Stewart in the novel, the nanny is found shot in the head in her employer's mansion. It's obvious from the moment the Grey Point Police appear on scene that justice will not be served. Her death is immediately determined to either be a suicide, despite evidence to the contrary, or the fault of Chinese butler Wong Chi, unsurprising considering the rampant racism of the time. If not for one honest officer, Lance Corporal Hook, and journalist Ed McCurdy working together to get to the truth, the irregularities of the investigation, which later warranted inquiries, might never have come to light. While the politicization of Stewart's murder echoes history, the novel adds nuanced layers. Supporting characters, such as Sparrow, an undertaker's assistant, and Mildred, a hotel phone operator, exhibit a telling postwar aimlessness and cynicism. There's wonderful dark humor, which Gray uses as a weapon against ruling-class political aspirations, clueless cops, and the shameful racism of the time. This is a highly entertaining work of fiction informed by hard truths.