Thursday 29 Sep 2016

Hotbed of Crime
David Simmonds

Summertime, when living is easy and we read for fun. The time when we don’t squirm if someone catches us reading a John Grisham novel or rediscovering a yellowed Agatha Christie mystery.

I was a bit confused when, browsing for something of that ilk in the library, I picked up a book published in 2011 by the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, and printed by the University of Toronto Press, entitled “The Lazier Murder.” The murder part sounded okay. The Osgoode Society publishes such zingers as “Canadian Property Law Cases in Context,” while the U of T Press laughs all the way to the bank on such entries as “Overpromising and Underperforming: Understanding and Evaluating New Intergovernmental Accountability Regimes.

Indeed, the cover of the book was a dull-as-dishwater, a blue-grey line drawing of the Prince Edward County Courthouse from 1878. And the biography of the author was pretty brief. “Robert J. Sharpe is a judge on the Court of Appeal for Ontario” is all it said. No photo. No talk of his wife, pets, children, hobbies or previous incarnations. There are many footnotes, 381 of them, by my count. The restraint practically screamed that if I wanted to find the book interesting, I would have to do the heavy lifting myself.

I picked the darn thing up and, wouldn’t you know it: the book was absolutely riveting. It’s all about a real life murder that took place near Bloomfield in 1883, for which two men were sentenced to death and subsequently hung in Picton, the last men in the County to be executed. And the author, in his unassuming way; I can’t find a single florid or superfluous sentence in the book - lays out the facts in a logical pattern, starting with the day of the murder and ending with impassioned appeals to an unmoved John A. Macdonald.

The book raises a number of still burning questions. Were the right men convicted? Was the evidence, by the standards of the day, sufficient to convict them? Was the detective work up to snuff? Was the trial fair? Should the jury’s recommendation for mercy have been heeded? Did the community’s reaction to the crime itself, and then to the punishment, play a more significant role than it should have?

I was hooked. The book shows pictures of the gallows in the Prince Edward County jail and a crude but chilling tombstone in the Glenwood cemetery memorializing a man who was “unjustly hanged.” I can’t wait to take one of those guided night walks, on Friday and Saturday, which leave from the Regent Theatre at 6:30 pm, in order to learn more.

In fact, the County is rapidly becoming not a hotbed of criminal activity undoubtedly due to the massive OPP presence here, but a hotbed of crime writing and settings for crime writing. Old time County person Janet Kellough has just released her second “Thaddeus Lewis” mystery, which is set in Wellington. Her first, entitled “On the Head of a Pin,” was set in Demorestville and she is working on a third, also to be set in the County. County resident Vicki Delany has published “A Winter Kill,” an easy-to-read thriller featuring Nicole Patterson, a young probationary OPP constable, and set in the County. Next month she will release “More Than Sorrow”, set in a contemporary small scale vegetable farm in the County, but with a plot that invokes the memory of Loyalist settlers. Wellington resident Christine Bennett has published two books in her “Nelson County Wine and Mystery” series, set in a thinly disguised Wellington and played out in County vineyards. She has a third volume in the series coming out shortly as an e-book. Picton resident Robin Timmerman also weighed in recently with “The Pity of the Winds,” a mystery in which wind turbines to be erected in a fictional place almost identical to the County drive residents to foul deeds. Jeffrey Round, not a County resident, is also about to release a novel set in the County, entitled “Lake on the Mountain: a Dan Sharp Mystery Book”: and local author David Carpenter has already published four “Campbell Young” mysteries, set outside the County.

Add it up, and it seems the County might already be afflicted with ‘English bucolic village murder syndrome,’ whereby the number of sordid fictional murders vastly exceeds both the number of actual murders and the number of bucolic villages in which they could conceivably take place.

Kellough says that County history is such a rich vein because of its length: so many of the country’s bigger stories can be illuminated through the narratives of local families and County events. Bennett says Wellington is a thriving village, which provides a mine of story lines and characters.

The whole subject of writing fiction based on real settings and historical facts will be aired out on Thursday August 16, at a program entitled “A Tangled Web,” to be held at Books and Company at 7:00 pm. It will feature Kellough, Delany and mystery writers Ian Hamilton, from Burlington, and Barbara Fradkin, from Ottawa. Tickets are five dollars, and will benefit County libraries. If you’ve got time to kill, take my suggestions on how to do the deed.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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