Historical non-fiction can sometimes present itself as a stained parchment paper timeline of facts, the kind that is best saved for a game of trivia or a college term paper. Other times, it can deliver as a timely, fascinating excursion. In this case, Daring, Devious, and Deadly is definitely the latter as an easy, must-read work. Author Dean Jobb does an extraordinary job of winding several notorious, landmark cases in Nova Scotian history into a book that should be on every Canadian History bookstore shelf. Each tale reads as a dramatic episode of a favourite mystery or court case TV program. In part, due to the verbatim capture of dialogue that journalists recorded at the time, Jobb was able to thoroughly research and document these criminal cases as captivating stories rather than daunting historical text. A read that is hard to put down mid-tale; history is held under a page-turning microscope, not too subtly blowing the dust off Nova Scotia’ sordid, unsettling history of deceit, bloody violence, and various courtroom shenanigans.
This book, which could serve under another apropos title of “Anglo Saxon Men Behaving Badly over Two Centuries”, opens with the sharp-tongued comedic legacy of A.B. MacGillivray, an early 20th century Cape Breton magistrate. Presiding as judge over cases resembling present-day courtroom reality tv, we are offered an initial flavour of Nova Scotia’s shifty legal system. Episode one features corrupt magistrates hastily resigning after a contentious libel case involving a victorious newspaper press. As if binge-watching Netflix, we are quickly spun into Death at the Waterloo Tavern, a suspenseful whodunit or who-done-who wrong at an 1850s brothel.
Every tale in this book was an attention-grabbing newspaper headline. Highlights include the controversial beginnings of the Bank of Nova Scotia, featuring decades-long mismanagement and embezzlement, and how bank tellers’ fear of missing out when the PT Barnum circus came to town led to a robbery in broad daylight; mariner crimes involving mutiny, murder, and libel; gruesome homicides, the resulting prosecution, public executions, and time served; and one of the most deadly cases in Nova Scotia’s history, earning it a 100-year commemoration by Canada Post, the 1917 Halifax Explosion.
Given the current global climate of radical political unrest, another timely historical piece, Death at the Polls, may have you wondering if this isn’t something that could occur in the present.
Earlier in 2020, I’d originally planned to visit a friend who recently relocated from the West Coast to Halifax, a city I’ve never travelled to before. Needless to say, with travel plans indefinitely cancelled, I am glad I had an opportunity to explore a piece of Nova Scotia’s controversial underbelly this way, perhaps fuelling a future trip with a connection I otherwise wouldn’t have considered while mindlessly traipsing down Barrington Street in Halifax. When the time comes, I will impress my dear friend with my knowledge of brothels, infernos, and hangings in her new backyard, as one does, post-pandemic.
About the author: Dean Jobb is an award-winning writer and the author of Empire of Deception. It won the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award and was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize. Dean writes a monthly true crime column for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and he is a professor of journalism and a member of the faculty of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Program at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
- Paperback : 240 pages
- ISBN-13 : 978-1989725238
- Publisher : Pottersfield Press (Sept. 21 2020)
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