Monday, July 25, 2016

Memoirs of a Great Detective

John Wilson Murray, Memoirs of a Great Detective. 1904. Collins/Totem, 1979.


A friend loaned me this paperback because she is a fan of Murdoch's Mysteries and she knows that I like to read police procedure crime novels.

John Wilson Murray, 1840 - 1906, made a reputation for himself during the American Civil War. After working for police services in the States, he was enticed to accept a position as detective for the Department of Justice for the Ontario government where his jurisdiction covered the length and breadth of that province. The 30+ cases documented in this excerpted memoir cover the gamut of the origins of crime in patriotism, poverty, jealousy, greed, gang loyalty, lust, rejection, sadism, and mental illness.

As a detective in Canada at the turn of the twentieth century, inter-provincial and international borders seemed to matter less to Murray. Warrants too seem often to be afterthoughts. Armed with intelligence and empathy, the tools he used include a built-in shit detector, patience for surveillance and pursuit, and common sense. Not to mention close attention to details - footprint and wheel marks, blood spatter, weaponry. The crimes he detected include fraud, skimming, intimidation and extortion, forgery and counterfeiting, and killings, deranged or otherwise, manslaughter or premeditated murder. Murray is also careful to acknowledge the work of other sections of the criminal justice system - the lawyers, crown counsel, judges, and juries to whom he passes his arrested felons. He does comment also upon the quality of witnesses, and how their credibility is influenced by gender and class. Only once does he question a jury's decision as "a miscarriage of justice and a disgrace to the country."

In their own way, these stories are strangely reassuring, suggesting as they do that today's news, with the emphasis on terrorism, gangs, missing and murdered women and children, is really not that different from four or five generations ago. Indeed Murray concludes: "Where men and women are there will be found good and bad. But the bad are a hopeless minority." 

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