Who Killed Janet Smith?

Posted by Daniel on Sep 15, 2011 - 6 comments

I've mentioned before in this spot about the Vancouver 125 Legacy Books Project which is bringing back into print several books which are considered "lost classics" about the city.

One of these books is Who Killed Janet Smith? by Ed Starkins, first published in 1984 and now being reissued by Anvil Press. A murder mystery/social history, it has long been one of my favourite books about Vancouver and I was pleased to be asked to write a short foreword to the new edition. I reproduce it here to stir up interest not just in Janet Smith but in all the legacy books. Look for them wherever good books are sold.

"It can truly, and sadly, be said of Janet Smith that the most notable thing about her short life was her death. Her murder on July 26, 1924 is one of the most celebrated crimes in Vancouver history. The story of the 22-year-old Scottish nursemaid, with its undercurrents of drugs, racism, Jazz Age hedonism and upper-class entitlement, drove the tabloids of the day into paroxysms of yellow journalism. It helped that the mystery surrounding the crime eventually reached the floor of the provincial legislature, implicating cabinet ministers and war heroes alike. Conspiracy theories proliferated, and since the criminal was never identified we may still speculate Who Killed Janet Smith?

Every book of history belongs to two time periods, the period about which it is written and the period in which it is written. Who Killed Janet Smith? is about Vancouver in the 1920s when the city was emerging from world war and recession and finding its feet as a cosmopolitan community with pretensions to economic leadership. Edward Starkins needs no help from me evoking the inter-war city; his book does a wonderful job on its own. But what about Vancouver in the early 1980s, when Starkins was writing his murder story? What was the milieu out of which this path-breaking book emerged?

When Who Killed Janet Smith? appeared in 1984, Vancouver was seriously underwritten. (Some would argue that it still is, but that is another story.) Just two years later historian Patricia Roy observed: “it is safe to say that no aspect of Vancouver's history has been completely and systematically examined and that many subjects remain virtually unexplored.” Alan Morley’s Vancouver: From Milltown to Metropolis had been the standard source since its publication in 1961. (There was a copy on my parents’ bookshelf when I was in high school; it was probably the first book about Vancouver to which I was exposed.) The humorist Eric Nicol took another stab at a general history in 1970, while Patricia Roy’s own version in 1980, Vancouver: An Illustrated History, was an attempt to introduce some academic rigor to a subject that to date had been left to journalists. Along with Chuck Davis’s The Vancouver Book (1976), a compendium of information about all aspects of the city, these were the standard books when Ed Starkins set about his project. In other words, he was working in a bit of a void. The Provincial Archives had published Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter’s oral history collection about the city’s East End, Opening Doors; Rolf Knight had collected his own oral accounts of the working class city in Along the No. 20 Line; and Donald Gutstein had paid close attention to the baneful influence of the Canadian Pacific Railway on civic development in Vancouver Ltd. These were all valuable books but they set no precedent for Ed Starkins, who was attempting something else altogether, a close observation of the city’s ruling elite in its natural habitat.

I just called Who Killed Janet Smith? path-breaking. What was the nature of its innovation? First of all, it was a social history of the city, perhaps the first. During the 1970s historians had begun thinking that the familiar narratives about politicians and generals were not inclusive enough. History needed to expand its horizons to include the stories of working people, women, minorities; in short, everyone the “old” history omitted. To some, this meant history with the politics left out. Others saw it as a redefinition and expansion of what political history really meant. Regardless, Janet Smith was part of this trend. It tells a story of immigrant domestic servants and their mistreatment at the hands of a racist, privileged majority, not heretofore considered to be subjects of much importance. But Janet Smith is also social history in the more precise sense of being about High Society, in this case the well-to-do enclave of Shaughnessy Heights. Starkins uses the murder as a window through which to observe the mores of Vancouver’s rich and famous. It is not a pretty sight, but he describes it so well that it is impossible to look away.

Something else was going on when Ed Starkins began work on his book. Non-fiction writing in Canada was beginning to get some of the respect that previously had been reserved for “serious writing”; that is, fiction. For a long time it was considered remarkable for a writer of non-fiction to deploy literary techniques or to describe what he or she was doing in literary terms. The purpose of non-fiction was to convey information, pure and simple; it was not supposed to have pretensions to anything else. Then along came a few non-fiction writers whose work engaged the imagination as effectively as the novelist and the poet. Critics tried to distinguish this work from the nuts-and-bolts variety of non-fiction – cookbooks and car repair manuals -- by calling it literary non-fiction or creative non-fiction. Whatever it was called, it contributed many now-classic accounts of Canadian experience. I am thinking here of Farley Mowat, Pierre Berton, Myrna Kostash, Heather Robertson, Ronald Wright, to name just a few. Who Killed Janet Smith? definitely belongs on the shelves beside the works of these other, better-known writers.

Legend has it (with apologies to Virginia Woolf) that on or about April 5, 1986, Vancouver changed. On that date the city turned one hundred. A month later Expo 86 opened its gates and Vancouver supposedly became a world-class city. The north shore of False Creek was transformed into a giant fairground with pavilions from dozens of countries and corporations, restaurants, midway rides, and a space-age monorail. It was the most fun that $1.5 billion could buy at the time and the boosters who promoted it said that it put Vancouver on the map. Whether or not Expo 86 produced the success that was claimed for it, the centennial of which it was a part did produce an outburst of writing about Vancouver, in part subsidized by the city’s Centennial Committee and inspired by the sense of celebration that was in the air. Janet Smith pre-dated that centennial outburst but it was an important part of this mid-1980s literary coming of age.

A city cannot be consequential if it is not self-conscious; that is, aware of its own history and identity. To become self-conscious it does not need bread and circuses (or even Olympic Games); it needs a literature, a body of work in which the city thinks about itself and expresses what it finds. This is what a book like Who Killed Janet Smith? does and why it is so gratifying to welcome it back into print."