“Terreur dans le Downtown Eastside,” a review

by Jacqueline Landry

Les Éditions David, 2013

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You’ve probably heard about it in a news report, and shuddered at the thought of setting foot there. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is just a stone’s throw away from the tall glass towers of the business district and the cobblestone streets of a popular tourist area of the city, but it has more than its fair share of drug, crime, and prostitution issues.

In her debut novel, the first in an upcoming trilogy, Jacqueline Landry takes us by the hand and leads us deep into the bowels of the ghetto, where a serial killer is targeting prostitutes who work the streets. It isn’t long before their bodies start to turn up on wasteland along the tracks that carry commuter trains to and from the city’s outlying suburbs.

One can’t help but draw parallels to the victims of the infamous serial killer Robert Pickton. But while Jacqueline Landry’s Terreur dans le Downtown Eastside: le cri du West Coast Express may look like a thriller about a police investigation into the disappearance and murder of sex workers, it digs far deeper into the seedy activity that goes on in the red light district than many novels would and explores how and why many of the characters end up in their situation.

You might wonder where the Quebec connection is to a novel set in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Originally from Saguenay, the author and journalist — who happens to be the TV news anchor for the French-language station Radio-Canada in Vancouver — moved across the country when her husband was posted out West with the RCMP. Bound in her work as a journalist to report the facts objectively, Landry is free to make use of her writing as an outlet for social commentary. While Vancouver itself is a relatively safe and clean-living city consistently ranked among the world’s best places to live, social problems have mushroomed in the cities in the surrounding Lower Mainland. The Downtown Eastside may be a downtrodden quarter riddled with street crime, drug abuse, and prostitution, but life in the suburbs isn’t as rosy as it once was, if the rising gang violence and drive-by shootings we hear about on the news are anything to go by. There is ample fodder here for Landry to explore in a series of crime novels, and she is well placed to weave elements of her experience and social and human outlook into her characters and narrative.

The opening page shines the spotlight on an undiscovered corpse by the railway, the only life in the scene an eagle swooping in on its prey. A symbol of great significance in First Nations tradition, eagles, and other legendary creatures native to the West Coast appear periodically throughout the book as if to remind the reader where the story is set, and suggesting that higher powers and spirits are watching over the characters.

“An eagle swooped down suddenly from the top of a tall tree, its sights set on its prey — a large, black, hungry rat reluctant to abandon the bone on which it was gnawing to seek refuge down a hole. The eagle took flight in the path of the train that, approaching at full speed, illuminated the brutal scene in a glare of headlights: the body of a woman along the tracks, her lifeless eyes staring straight at the train driver, who began shouting instructions. The woman’s pale hand hung limply over one of the rails and was severed as the monster thundered on through, unable to stop.”

Meanwhile, Sergeant Lucy Campbell of the Vancouver police is investigating the suspicious disappearance of a number of women from the Downtown Eastside in recent months, despite the infamous serial killer Edward Clayton being behind bars. She suspects a copycat is at work, and, since many of the women were reported missing by families in Burnaby, she calls on the local RCMP detachment for help in stepping up patrols on the street. Sergeant Major Greg McLeod puts officers Nicolas Higgins and Pierre Levac on the case, soon to be joined by a new recruit, François Racine, also from Quebec — perhaps a nod to the significant proportion of francophones working in the ranks of the RCMP across the country.

Fresh out of police training, middle-aged rookie RCMP officer François Racine’s first posting is to the Burnaby detachment, east of Vancouver. He and his wife Rachel, and their young daughter Sophie, sell their house and drive across the country with no idea where they will call home when they get there. Family life takes a hit for an upcoming officer and his family, we learn, starting at RCMP Academy in Saskatchewan.

“What with having orders barked at him from dawn until dusk, taking his classes, doing his course work, completing jobs that just couldn’t be done in one day, wolfing down meals, and enduring drill time, François had so little time to think about those he had left behind in Quebec. But every night, before drifting into a slumber that ended all too soon, he never failed to run his finger down the smiling faces of the middle-aged woman and the little girl in the pink dress with dark eyes and long brown hair in the wooden photo frame on his bedside table. He was in the dormitory, where thirty-two men were trying to forget their solitude.”

Once the family crosses the Rockies, things won’t get any easier either, with Sophie having to finish the year in a new school.

“Rachel sighed. Neither she nor François knew the name of the school, or even which town they would be settling in, let alone what their new address would be. They would only have three days when they got there to find the ideal house in the ideal neighbourhood in the city best located for the detachment François would be joining. And amid all of these constraints, they would have to find a school that wasn’t too different from the one where Sophie had been so happy.”

As the investigation into the missing women progresses, bodies are soon found near the tracks of the West Coast Express commuter train. Potential victims who appear to have had a lucky escape come to light and help the police with their enquiries, casting a harsh light on the reality of life in the ghetto for the Vancouver’s most impoverished residents.

As well as working the Downtown Eastside case, François and his colleagues are also closing in on the Red Scorpions gang in the Lower Mainland and it won’t be long before they deploy Operation Squall to round up the gang leader, Jarod Falcon. But little does François suspect that the girl his daughter Sophie has befriended at her new school, Loren — and her mother Jill, whom Rachel has been getting to know — are the gang leader’s apparently unsuspecting family, who stand to lose everything in the big sting.

Here is another snippet of Landry’s social commentary: how members of the most violent criminal gangs can appear to lead such ordinary, albeit lavish lives and keep up respectable appearances on the surface while hiding their illicit activities. While it may seem only natural for their homes, cars, bank accounts, and other assets — all presumably the proceeds of crime — to be seized, how fair is it to deprive their young families of the clothes on their backs and their children’s toys?

“I’m in the worst situation a mother could ever dream of,” said Jill. “I have no money and no roof over my head. We don’t have any clothes, Loren has none of her school things or her toys, she’s got nothing left at all […] Those things don’t belong to us anymore. We’re sleeping in a shelter for battered women because we have nowhere else to go.”

All this certainly sounds like a lot to cram into the plot line of a book not much longer than three hundred pages, but Landry draws the characters’ stories together along converging tracks and intertwines them admirably. While most crime fiction novels tell a story through the eyes of one central character, usually a detective, Terreur dans le Downtown Eastside feels more like a team effort as far as the investigations are concerned.

The central character here, in fact, is Rachel, and many of the events are seen through her compassionate eyes. There’s a lot going on in this book — the upheaval of a cross-country move, a string of murders and a major gang bust, just for starters — but the human drama feels very real and tugs at the proverbial heart strings. Landry explores topics here that few authors have dared to broach, and while the ending may not be as clear-cut as some may like, she paves the way for volume two of her trilogy rather nicely.

Review by David Warriner

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