The Next Chapter

How John MacLachlan Gray put his own spin on a real life cold case

The playwright and author talks about the historical inspiration behind his latest novel, The White Angel.
John MacLachlan Gray's novel The White Angel is set in 1924 Vancouver and is inspired by the cold case of Janet Smith and the mystery surrounding her death. (Brian K. Smith Photo/Douglas & McIntyre)

Playwright and author John MacLachlan Gray's latest novel, The White Angel, follows the unsolved death of a Scottish nanny living in Vancouver. Set in the years following the First World War and at the height of Canada's anti-immigration campaign, Gray put his spin on a real-life cold case. 

What it's about

"The White Angel is a noir crime novel set in 1924 in Vancouver. It was at the height of anti-immigration. The Asian Exclusion League and political parties actively campaigned on the slogan for a white Canada. At the same time, British Columbia had these war veterans who had come back from war completely changed. The city was also a centre for drug trade. It was just an absolutely fascinating place. 

"This is one of those plots. I would compare it to a plot like Chinatown — the movie that Polanski made. There was a crime. The crime turns over a rock and exposes all the wriggly things that are underneath."

The real-life cold case

"The actual crime was the unsolved Janet Smith case. She was Scottish nanny who was found dead in the laundry room of her employer's house in Shaughnessy. Shaughnessy, of course, was the rich part of town. She was found dead with a bullet in her head. The gun was located and the police were torn between thinking it was suicide or that she was fooling around with the gun. What followed was a symphony of stupidity. The actual case was never ever solved, but I created a 'what-if' scenario. I think it's a lot more probable than any of the ones that have been put up so far." 

John MacLachlan Gray's comments have been edited and condensed