Monday, October 4, 2010


More than Meets the Eye.

I’ve been musing about the value of mystery fiction lately. I feel deeply (and possibly truly and madly) that crime novels play an important role in enhancing our critical thinking. While researching my last Camilla MacPhee book, coincidentally called Law & Disorder, I took myself off to the Courthouse on Elgin Street in Ottawa, to get the details right. Boy, had things changed since the last time I had to check out the facts for Camilla.

For one thing, I had to go through a metal detector and my handbag had to be searched. I don’t know who was more flustered by that, me or the female officer who was probably afraid there was a mousetrap in there. But imagine, a metal detector! Who would have expected that? Times are different now, even in sedate old Ottawa. I found plenty of police presence.

The second thing that caught my attention was that all the crowds were down the hall at a different courtroom in which the mayor was on trial. Yes, really. So that’s where the party was. In ‘my’ courtroom, a brother was on trial for the fatal shooting of his twenty-one year old sister and her fiancé in a so-called honour killing. There seemed to be no question that the accused had pulled the trigger both times, but the alleged “dishonour” his sister brought upon her family by choosing her own husband was being presented as a pressure and a provocation for the accused. Could such a defence be used successfully to reduce the charge from first-degree murder to manslaughter? What astounded me as much as anything else about this case was that there were only fourteen ordinary citizens in the room, counting me and the Ottawa Citizen reporter. We were outnumbered by the jury, the lawyers for the Crown and the defence, the police, the judge and the court reporter.

This case was a truly significant one: as any acceptance of the pressure of culture and family to permit an honour killing would have had a staggering impact on Canadian law, not to mention Canadian women. Yet only fourteen people were observing it. The newspaper coverage was limited. It occurred to me that we have given over the entire administration of justice to the judicial system. We trust in it and we do not observe directly very often.

As a rule, we have an excellent justice system, but it is also the same one that has given us the travesties of justice faced by Donald Marshall, David Milgaard and Guy-Paul Morin and the many victims of pathologist Dr. Charles Smith among others. We should have learned by now that things are not always what they seem. Sometimes the good guys are bad guys and the so-called villain is but a convenient fall guy.

Some of the best crime writing in Canada is non-fiction that explores these and other cases: readable, gripping and horrifying investigations of why we must always be on guard. If you’d like to get a superb non-fiction view of how things go wrong, find yourself a copy of Redrum: the Innocent, Kirk Makin’s Arthur Ellis award winning analysis of the Guy-Paul Morin case. The 1998 edition takes us from the wrongful conviction through the exoneration. It’s a real eye opener into the impact of snap judgment and tunnel vision in the justice system.

I believe that contemporary Canadian mystery fiction also plays a role in helping us to be more critical in our reactions to media reports of crimes and trials. I think we can all remember the hysteria and the hounding of the families over the Victoria Stafford case. We have learned the hard way that things are not always as they seem. Or have we? Thank heavens for crime and mystery fiction (as well as non-fiction) for regularly encouraging us to avoid snap judgments and look beneath the surface. A healthy skepticism on behalf of the public is essential in a system that says ‘innocent until proven guilty’. We crime writers have a major role to play in that.

Is there a case that has troubled you or informed your writing or your opinions? Or a mystery that caused you to look at police work or court cases differently?

Mary Jane Maffini is a lapsed librarian, a former mystery bookstore owner and a lifelong lover of mysteries. In addition to the four Charlotte Adams books from Berkley Prime Crime, she is the author of the Camilla MacPhee series, the Fiona Silk adventures and nearly two dozen short stories. She served two terms as President of Crime Writers of Canada. She loves mysteries of all kinds and is enjoying the surge in Canadian crime (writing).

Her latest Charlotte Adams book is Closet Confidential (Berkley Prime Crime). She says she’s grateful for all the tips she gets from Charlotte and for the opportunity to write the series. She lives and plots in Ottawa, Ontario, along with her long-suffering husband and two princessy dachshunds. Visit her at


  1. Steven Truscott. How was it that with a known sexual predator in the neighbourhood, the OPP focused soley on one fourteen-year old boy?

    Excellent blog. I think you're right about the role both true crime and crime fiction has in giving us a healthy scepticism about the justice system.

  2. Mystery writers create the 'twist' and readers love untangled the skein and identifying the killer. I hope they apply those skills when following developments in real life trials. Perhaps so few people showed up at the court because Canadians as a whole abhor honour killing and consider it murder, pure and simple.

  3. Excellent, thought-provoking blog! I think snap judgments and prejudice apply not only to the possible villain, but to the victim. Witness all the women's evidence that was ignored in the Robert Pickton case, because the women were prostitutes, native....

  4. Thought-provoking post! I wish I felt more sanguine about the proportion of Canadians who are paying attention to issues of justice and injustice, whether through mystery/crime writing or any other avenues.