Vancouver Noir tells the tale of crime and corruption and the city’s dark history


Two local writers explore the gritty lives of Vancouverites from the 1930s to 1960s

Vancouver Noir
Diane Purvey and John Belshaw. Courtesy of Derek von Essen

The Vancouver Police Museum is the perfect venue for learning about the city’s criminal past, but that’s not the only reason Diane Purvey and John Belshaw chose it to host the reading of their newest book, Vancouver Noir. The museum, which has formerly served as the Vancouver Coroner’s Office and the city morgue, was also one of the biggest sources for their research material.

Written with the same lexicon found in true crime novels of the era, and illustrated with archival black-and-white photos, Vancouver Noir transports readers into times of vice and glamour in Vancouver. Unconvinced that the noir phenomenon was unique to American cities like Los Angeles, Purvey and Belshaw describe each noir element — civil unrest, corruption, murder — crucial to the formation of present-day Vancouver.

The Speed Graphic camera, more mobile than its tripod-dependent predecessors, documented stories in the 1930s. In Purvey and Belshaw’s portrayal, photographs were effectively used by the press of the noir period in order to “describe a bullet hole, a riot, vice, beauty, deformity, and powerful emotions in ways words could not.”

Scandalous headlines did more than just entertain the public: media portrayal of certain parts of the city led to their consequent decline.

“Newspapers would have a series of accounts on smuggling in the harbour, teen suicide, crime, and drug addiction, and they create a sense in the community that these things are happening all the time,” noted Belshaw. Photographs were used to introduce and enforce the “proper” standards of behavior through a display of obvious deviance—sex crimes, gambling, and bootlegging.

[pullquote]Vancouver Noir transports the readers into the times of vice and glamour in Vancouver.[/pullquote]One of the motifs of Vancouver Noir is “urban reform, planning as a vehicle of physical and social change.” The narrative traces the history of downtown Vancouver as shaped by city zoning plans and social stigma against anyone with a non-WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) background. City Hall’s move from downtown and the subsequent marginalization of Downtown Eastside, vilification of Chinatown and Skid Row, and the class division of East and West Ends are explored through excerpts from court cases and newspaper clippings straigh out of the noir era.

Despite dealing with heavy subject matter and gruesome images, Vancouver Noir is a highly entertaining read. It covers thirty years of history, complete with changes in local government and shifts in the city’s geography. The style, borrowed from noir fiction, never sounds contrived. For history buffs and true crime enthusiasts alike, Vancouver Noir delivers thrills while revisiting important moments from the city’s history.[hr]

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