Attendees of last week’s Speaker Series were in for a treat with local author Sam Wiebe taking the reins for our fourth presentation in our Vancouver Noir series. Wiebe, the award-winning author of the acclaimed Wakeland series of detective novels, shared his insights on Vancouver’s dark side and described how the city has influenced his books, all of which are set in Vancouver.
Wiebe began with an excerpt from his new novel, “Cut You Down,” which starts with his famed character, David Wakeland, observing shady dealings, characters and circumstances in East Vancouver, in a noir style that engrossed the audience from the get-go.
After reading, Wiebe went on to explain, “This book is crime fiction, but it’s based on a real city with real issues.” Among some of the issues tackled in his new book are corruption at a college, an incident which is actually based on a school that Wiebe went to.
With lots of audience participation, he went onto talk about the noir genre itself. Attendees listed famed movies that fit the bill, such as “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep” and “Strangers on a Train,” and Wiebe highlighted some of the common threads in all of these movies, including the style of dress, moral corruption and mystery. In fiction, he added, noir also has hallmarks such as bleak and cynical outlooks on society, stripped-down prose, a general mistrust of social order, femme fatales and a main character who temps fate and ends up in a bad way. However, while these are all great elements of noir, Wiebe argued that there is something more to discover. Quoting another author, Dennis Lehane, Wiebe called noir “working class tragedy,” or in his own words “…bad stuff happening to people much like ourselves. It reflects parts of society that we are uncomfortable with and don’t really like to think about.”
This gave the audience insight into how Vancouver, a seemingly idyllic city, came to be the setting for his popular series of crime noir novels. “How does noir apply to Vancouver? We hosted an Olympics… Ryan Reynolds is from here!” he joked. But, he explained that, despite these great attributes, there is a difference between what outsiders see, and what residents see.
“Outsiders see BC bud, we see insite and a fentanyl crisis; they see Stanley Park and we see a real estate market that pushes out anyone under 40.” Capturing this disjunction between the public and private places of the city, how this divide came to be and the cost of it all, were some of the critical elements he aimed to tackle in his books.
He added, “If this is the city of glass, then that glass is broken and is underneath our feet…Vancouver is unique in a lot of ways, it’s a colonial outpost and unceded territory of 3 first nations territories. It’s home to one of the largest Asian populations in North America—we are a city in flux and [a city] that’s trying to figure out who we are… a place that is ripe for storytelling possibilities.”
What was truly fascinating about Wiebe’s presentation was how he described the process of crime writing in conjunction with discovering elements of the city that many people do not discuss openly. For example, he described how the private detective novel lets you travel through the city between various classes and cultures.
In his book “Last of the Independents,” he explained, how his protagonist travelled through different areas of Vancouver that have their dark side, despite their very different appearances. From the old Flea Market on Terminal Street, with its dishevelled exterior surrounded by luxury cars, to the affluent West 49th area—each bears a darkness in its own way.
Wiebe also discussed how Vancouver’s missing women crisis wove into his second novel, “Invisible Dead,” and how he researched important notions that weren’t making National headlines, such as the discordant social structures of the city and the way that poverty, drugs, sex trade, colonialism and a host of other factors have contributed to this tragedy.
Wiebe later revealed that he wanted the Invisible Dead to capture how the horrible things that happen in the city rub up against the everyday world. “This book is a murder mystery, but it’s not about catching one killer, bringing him to justice and then bringing society back to this perfect harmonious state that it used to be.”
He added, “During my research, I was shocked at just how many serial killers have inhabited Vancouver, and how almost all of them targeted the same group… low-income women, some in the sex trade, addiction and visible minorities. What I hoped to do was show the complicity and the complexity as a city we have in creating this issue.”
He also showed incredible photos of the city, taken by his photographer friend, highlighting locales he used in his books, or that inspired his writing. Landmarks included the Astoria Hotel, which at one point, was a well-known hangout for criminals and serial killers, but also is a place Wiebe himself visited frequently in his twenties. In fact, his own brother used to Deejay there. “Good, bad, fiction and fact; it’s all there layered on top of each other,” he said of the establishment’s varied clientele.
View of the Downtown East Side and many of the landmarks that Wiebe talked about.
Other notable landmarks he mentioned included The Cambie Hostel, The Cobalt, and Crab Park, which he explained, stands for “Create a Real Accessible Beach,”—highlighting again, the social structures in the city that many people don’t know about. In particular, the park was created for local residents to have access to their own beach—a fact that many in the audience weren’t aware of.
Circling back to his latest book, “Cut You Down,” Wiebe discussed how the housing crisis inspired elements of his most recent work. In particular, he talked about how young professionals are getting priced out of the city, in addition to citizens in more desperate circumstances, such as low-income families, seniors, single parents, addicts and more. “For them, it’s not so much about a place to stay as it is about survival,” he said.
He also described how, for many, our identity is tied to our neighbourhood, and the removal of this neighbourhood, whether through gentrification or real estate pricing, can create problems that most don’t see. For example, his main character, David Wakeland struggles with the impending loss of his office, and he also travels to different parts of the province, encountering new realities for people struggling to adapt to a changing city and housing situation, whether it’s a suburban father commuting for four hours to get into the city, or a college students contemplating crime so he can afford a home. “These are economic challenges and moral decisions unheard of to previous generations,” he surmised, suggesting also that a lot of gang crime in our modern day draws from middle-class families, who struggle in their own ways to make a living in an expensive city.
A fascinating presentation from start to finish, audience members truly were privy to the inner workings of Vancouver as a ‘noir’ city for Wiebe’s novel, both in the traditional sense and in a deeper thematic sense that touched on many important issues the city faces today.
Don’t miss our final presentation of our series, ‘The War on Blight,’ happening on June 27th. John Atkin, a Civic Historian and Urban Planning Specialist will discuss the shady civic planning dealings that happened in the city post World War II. Learn more about it below!