Thursday, March 29, 2012

True crime

It goes without saying that reading about the events in Mike McIntyre’s Journey for Justice: How “Project Angel” Cracked the Candace Derksen Case was difficult at times (especially from a parent’s point of view), but I’m glad that I read it. The case played an important role in Winnipeg’s history and had an impact that can still be felt today.

I was initially surprised and skeptical about the overwhelming sense of forgiveness and resilience of the Derksen family that was depicted in the book. However, after hearing Wilma Derksen speak at the seminar, all doubt was removed. She is a remarkable woman.

I enjoyed hearing McIntyre and Derksen talk about the book and the case. It was interesting to hear how the project was developed and put together (the story behind the story).

McIntyre offered insight into the challenges of writing a factual, journalistic story that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to read more to find out what happens nextespecially given the fact that many people are already familiar with the case. 

One of the most interesting topics of discussion was whether or not reporting on crime contributes to the sense of doom and gloom in the world. McIntyre said one of the reasons he believes there is value in writing about and reporting on crime stories is because he sees them as human interest stories.

Of course I think people need to know what’s happening around them, but I’m still torn about where to draw the line when it comes to the sensationalism that is often a part of crime reporting.

Derksen touched on the topic as well when she talked about the tendency to blame the victim. The example she gave was a headline that read: “Child snatched, door ajar.” Her comments reminded me about the importance to be critical of what I’m reading and to pay attention to how the story is presented.

The only true crime work I had read before reading this book included some podcasts and lengthy magazine articles. Reading this book was a different experience. It’s difficult to explain, but I was never completely immersed in the book because I was not used to the “reenactment” of events (being there in the moment) compared to other true crime articles that read less like a novel.

An example is the conversations between Derksen and her husband when they were alone in their home. It’s not that I doubt those conversations happened or that all of the information in the book is factual and accurate, I simply found it difficult to get used to the style in which the book is written. In the back of my mind I kept wondering how the exact words someone spoke in a private moment could be remembered in such detail.

However, what does work in this book (and is different from other non-fiction work that I have read) is the inclusion of excerpts from Derksen’s writing. I preferred reading about her feelings and reactions when I knew that she had written about them herself. Again, this just comes down to my own style preference.

In addition to the excerpts from Derksen, I was interested in reading about the medical reports about Mark Edward Grant and about the court case. I think including this information made the book stronger because it added to the complexity of the case, pointing out that it’s not as simple as a case of a “bad guy doing bad things.”

I also thought the information about jury selection was very interesting, in particular the inspiring discussion about jury duty being a civic duty (comments made by Justice Glenn Joyal, I believe).

I was fascinated by Grant’s defence lawyer Saul Simmonds. I thought including his arguments was an interesting way to provide more information about Grant in a book that mostly focuses on the Derksens.

At the seminar, McIntyre shared a story about how even though there was no guarantee he was going to get an interview, he hopped in his car and drove to Saskatchewan on the slim chance a family he wanted to talk to would agree to speak with him.

What stuck with me about his story wasn’t that he spent over four hours in his car, but what McIntyre did when he arrived in the town. Rather than drive straight to the family’s house to knock on the door, he stopped at a local coffee shop to call the family and let them make the choice to come to him if they wanted to talk.

As we’ve learned in PR, nearly everything boils down to respect. The same can be said with all professions, including journalism. We’ve heard from a few journalists who made a name for themselves by trusting their gut and not crossing that ever-changing line of how far is too far. I can only imagine how hard it is to balance what you need for the job (and what sells) with treating others the way you would want to be treated and knowing when to back down (or step up).

I think one of the things that can be taken away from this book is that once the spotlight fades and the headlines about a case are no longer in the newspaper, there are still people who have to live with the aftermath of the stories that to many of us will never be more than: “I heard about that. Isn’t it awful?”

I’m always interested in seeing reports that revisit cases/families/events after they’re no longer in the headlines. It can be easy to distance yourself from what you’re reading in the news and forget about the people who have to pick up the pieces. An example of this revisiting is the book Black Fire that Lindsey Enns wrote (for her IPP) about the fire that killed two Winnipeg fire captains five years ago.

Sure, it’s important to stay on top of what’s making headlines (what’s more immediate than a newsfeed on Twitter?), but take the time to think about the stories behind the stories, too.

 * Beverly Rowbotham’s kids don’t have a mother.

 * Although Graham James is in jail, his victims still have to get up each morning and live their lives forever impacted by his crimes—whether it’s front page news or not.

 * I can’t even bring myself to think about what Victoria Stafford’s family is going through.

* And, as we all know, life goes on for the Derksenswithout their first-born.

So what am I trying to say? I guess that gory details and court trials aren’t the end-all or be-all of crime writing. As I mentioned, the voice of Wilma Derksen was a constant reminder in McIntyre’s book of the lasting effects of this case and how they impacted her family.

As a result, the book was able to go beyond court transcripts, police records, newspaper stories and other media coverage to explore “behind the scenes”—things that many people might not think about. Taking the time to think about these things will make us more informed and more engagednot to mention better writers and readers.

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