I’m a big fan of detective novels set in various cities and countries that provide a ground-level view of geography and place. The plot keeps you moving through the story, but the real delight is taking a tour through Tokyo’s suburbs, 1930s Los Angeles or the complex hierarchies of organized crime in Vancouver.
Eve Lazarus’s latest book — Cold Case BC: The Stories Behind the Province’s Most Intriguing Murder and Missing Persons Cases, a non-fiction exploration of police files that span 1943 to 1993 — offers this type of journey. If you travel with Lazarus along this dark road through cities, small towns and rural mountain highways, you’ll glimpse a portrait of British Columbia that doesn’t bear much resemblance to the glossy tourist version the province likes to present to the world.
Instead, you’ll find lonely rural roads, quiet suburban streets, strip clubs and bodies that lay undisturbed in city parks for years. You’ll find the endpoint of the colonial policies and social inequities that are part of B.C.’s history, and the power imbalances that are still at play today.
This is familiar territory to Lazarus, a Vancouver historian and journalist who penned a previous book called Cold Case Vancouver: The City’s Most Baffling Unsolved Murders, and has plumbed the city’s noir history in other true crime books, such as B.C. bestsellers Vancouver Exposed, Murder by Milkshake, Blood, Sweat and Fear.
Lazarus worked with many families of the victims featured in her newest book — collaborations that often began when family members contacted her through a Facebook page she started after publishing Cold Case Vancouver.
“I realized that families needed somewhere to remember and talk about their loved ones,” Lazarus writes in the new book’s introduction, adding that Cold Case BC is a “continuation” of the Facebook page and a podcast she hosts. She also wanted to explore unsolved murders outside of Vancouver.
The cold cases featured in the book include well-known files like the Babes in the Woods — skeletal remains of two children found in Stanley Park in 1953, who were finally identified as Derek and David D’Alton in early 2022.
The oldest cold cases in the book deal with the deaths of two young women in Victoria in the 1940s; both police investigations were badly botched, Lazarus’s research shows. In one of the cases, the relationship between a suspect and a deputy attorney general left lingering questions about whether a miscarriage of justice had taken place.
Lazarus devotes several chapters to Highway of Tears files, a series of missing persons cases involving Indigenous women in British Columbia’s central Interior. These are some of the most haunting sections of the book, as Lazarus details not only brutal murders of Indigenous women that have gone unsolved, but also disturbing cases of police officers and a provincial court judge who preyed on vulnerable young women and girls who had been caught up in the criminal justice system. Lazarus also highlights the ongoing work of an RCMP task force called E-Pana, which was formed in 2005 to re-investigate several Highway of Tears cases after many calls for more action from families of victims.
Not all of the cases featured in Cold Case BC remain unsolved, and some of the book’s chapters involve breakthroughs using new investigative techniques such as genetic genealogy, or well-tested tactics like “Mr. Big” operations. The latter is how prosecutors were finally able to convict Jean Ann James of the murder of Gladys Wakabayashi in Vancouver’s exclusive Shaughnessy neighbourhood, 15 years after Wakabayashi was killed in 1992.
A woman who exuded upper-middle class privilege, Jean Ann James was able to evade prosecution for years before falling for a Mr. Big sting — an expensive investigative gambit that involves undercover police officers convincing a suspect that they have a chance to join the upper echelons of organized crime, if only they’ll describe past crimes they’ve committed.
Many of the stories do not have tidy endings, and as Lazarus points out in her introduction and throughout the book, getting information from municipal police departments and the RCMP continues to be a frustrating challenge.
While Lazarus was able to interview several former police detectives, “most refuse to give out information on cold cases, even those that are several decades old,” Lazarus writes. “They hide behind media departments and so-called freedom of information requests, which in reality often take several months before they are inevitably turned down.”
Lazarus keeps the victims’ families firmly centred in each story and through her interviews with mothers, siblings and friends, takes time to craft a portrait of each missing or murdered person.
“I’m convinced that many of these cases can still be solved and that telling their stories is a way to help bring attention to them and keep them in the mind of the public and the police,” Lazarus writes.
“In a best-case scenario, this could lead to new information that might help close a case, or at least see it reinvestigated.”
'Cold Case BC' is published by Arsenal Pulp Press and is on sale now. Eve Lazarus will be signing copies of her book in Surrey on Dec. 3 from 12:30 to 2 p.m. at Black Bond Books, Semiahmoo Shopping Centre, 1711 152 St., and in Ladner on Dec. 10 from 12:30 to 2 p.m. at Black Bond Books, 5052 48 Ave., the Village.