Blood, Sweat, and Fear: The Story of Inspector Vance, Vancouver's First Forensic Investigator
By Eve Lazarus. Arsenal Pulp, 218 pp, softcover
Eve Lazarus (like John Belshaw, Daniel Francis, and other writers) has brought a new seriousness to the study of Vancouver’s all-too-colourful past—especially its crime and politics, back in the days when the two were not always seen as separate endeavours. Following on her books Cold Case Vancouver and Sensational Vancouver, Lazarus focuses now on John F.C.B. Vance (1884–1964). He’s little remembered today but was a kind of hero in his time, one of the first individuals to bring cutting-edge science to the field of crime-scene investigation. The local papers liked to refer to him as a hometown Sherlock Holmes, but thinking of him as the real-life model for Insp. William Murdoch of the CBC series Murdoch Mysteries is a much more apt comparison. He was a genuine scientist and the opposite of a showoff. “Vance may have been paid by the police department,” Lazarus writes, “but he worked for the evidence, whether that convicted the guilty or set the innocent free.”
He started out as a city health inspector, checking for impurities in the drinking water and the milk supply. Because he understood blood work he was brought in on several spectacular murders. One of the most notorious—one that ignited a new wave of anti-Asian prejudice—concerned a West End matron, the wife of a CPR executive. Vance proved that she had been chopped up and incinerated by her “houseboy” Kong Yew Chung, a.k.a. Jack Kong. The killer was sentenced to life in prison but served only a few years before returning to China.
Moving chronologically from case to case, Lazarus shows how Vance kept adding to his knowledge of poisons, explosives, ballistics, and other fields. He became an expert in safecracking! Sometimes he even created new tools needed in his work. He was frequently asked to help in cases throughout the province and beyond. His life was often threatened—sometimes, he believed, by corrupt police officials themselves—and he was once splashed with acid. He was not only a modest, clever, and determined individual, but evidently a brave one as well. Lazarus has done quite a detective job herself in tracking down and piecing together his journals and papers. This is a fine Vancouver book indeed.
Eve Lazarus will launch Blood, Sweat, and Fear at 7 p.m. on Thursday (June 8) at the Vancouver Police Museum (340 East Cordova Street).