Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960, by Diane Purvey and John Belshaw, Anvil Press, Vancouver, 2012.
Reviewed by Janet Nicol
The cold, open eyes of a bullet-ridden corpse, captured in a black and white photograph “reflected the sort of hard, Noir city Vancouver once was,” according to authors Diane Purvey and John Belshaw. It is one of several gritty pictures mined from the city’s archives and library collection to accompany this engaging narrative. The authors, both academics, forego some of their scholarly ways to use the lexicon and writing style of the times. And so they describe a lively city of blind pigs and brothels, grifters and mistresses along with ‘bent’ cops and city hall politicians ‘on the take.’
Canada’s terminal city was one of a string of west coast settings, from Anchorage to Honolulu, where life in those years seemed to be lived in black and white. Hollywood filmmakers originally captured this vision with movies set in Los Angeles and featuring hard-boiled private eyes and femme fatales. It was while attending a photography exhibit in San Francisco, however, that Purvey and Belshaw became curious about connecting the ‘noir’ period with Vancouver.
The authors contend in their opening and closing chapters, that Vancouverites experienced turbulence and fear as well as significant changes to the social order. Each thematic chapter—on protest, glamour and vice, crime, corruption and murder—illustrates how smaller events meld in to their larger ideas of the ‘noir’ era.
“There was, for starters,” the authors write, “the dress code of Noir. Hats. Trenchcoats. Furs. Beardless men with narrow moustaches and slicked-back hair. Women with perms in tight-fitting dresses. An unfiltered cigarette dangling from the corner of a mouth.”
If the thirties was a time of idealism, the post-war world was one of cynicism. The insistence on social conformity and order provided a stark contrast to a seething underworld—if sometimes only in peoples’ imagination. Contradictions abound. As suburban living reflected decency and family values, public concern was expressed about juvenile delinquency. Public (and even private) discussion of sex was generally taboo but the sex trade prospered in brothels and neon signs along Granville Street lit up dens of burlesque, booze and gambling.
Ladies and escorts began entering the regulated beer parlours in Vancouver through separate doors in 1927. Thirsty working men crowded these establishments after a hard day’s work and it was unseemly for a very long time, for women to mix freely among them. By 1954 cocktail bars were established so middle-class men and women could meet in an acceptable environment. Glamour arrived to the city in the form of supper clubs, emerging in the late 1930s and including big-name American acts like Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Mitzi Gaynor, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
Still segregation, not integration was the cultural norm as visible minorities lived in separate neighborhoods such as Hogan’s Alley and Chinatown, ‘sin’ was confined to a square mile, and police attempted to control the activities of drug pedlars and addicts. Attacking the poor and disenfranchised was common. Stanley Park rancheries, float houses under the Burrard Street bridge and other residential ‘blights’ to the city came under regular attack by civic authorities.
“There were plenty of moral panics in the first half of the twentieth century in Vancouver but none had the persistence and vehemence of the white establishment’s fear of the Chinese,” the authors also note with several examples of “yellow peril” stories to back up their assertion.
Besides resurrecting a fascinating physical map of old Vancouver communities, the authors recount a litany of colorful and notorious characters. At the top is Police Chief Walter Mulligan, exposed in a web of police corruption that made newspaper headlines for weeks. As news photographers roved the city with clunky but portable cameras, taking shots of smashed up cars and sprawled out corpses, reporters scribbled stories reading like pulp fiction. Vancouverites were fed a regular diet of news about criminals dubbed names like the “Southern Gentleman Bandit” and George “Squint Eye” Imbree.
Among the more horrific crimes covered by the press was the 1953 ‘Babes in the Woods’ murder, as it was called. The bones of two small children were discovered by a parks board employee in a wooded area of Stanley Park. Despite the best efforts of detectives, the murders of the unknown children (eventually identified as brothers) were never solved. But the coldest of the cold cases, the authors submit, is the 1958 Pauls crime, a grisly multiple murder on East 53rd Avenue in Vancouver.
The authors observe among the many contradictions people of the noir era experienced, was “a sense of superiority coupled to a queasy feeling of vulnerability among the most powerful.” But the reader is also reminded that the rise and fall of fascism in Europe provided a powerful influence on the ideas and behaviors of the times. ‘Vancouver Noir’ succeeds in exposing what lies beneath, delivering readers a fascinating glimpse of another side of the city.
Re-published from British Columbia History, Fall, 2012.