Author, bookstore owner, and local historian of London, Ontario Vanessa Brown spent five years researching a series of unsolved, decades-old homicides in her quiet hometown. *Keith Morrison voice* Well, mostly quiet, that is: London had the unofficial and unenviable title of the “serial killer capital of Canada” at one point.
The Forest City Killer explores these murders, which Brown purports were done by the same person. She brings together a wealth of evidence about the various cases and builds a narrative of this possible serial killer’s crimes, mostly against young women but also several young boys, beginning with the murder of 15-year-old Jackie English in 1969.
Detective Dennis Alsop worked the case, and would spend 40 years trying to find Jackie’s killer. Brown had access to Alsop’s files, and they’re the major source underpinning the book. In examining these files and researching further, including conducting her own witness and suspect interviews when possible, Brown came to the conclusion that Jackie English might not have been her murderer’s first victim, nor his last — by Brown’s count, the so-called Forest City Killer could have had seven victims stretching into the 1970s.
Not to mention several suspicious fires that resulted in the deaths of some of Jackie’s friends and relevant witnesses, and some indication that this may have even been two killers working together. Brown even identifies them, and both have acknowledged connections to the cases. It is a strange, unnerving tale all around, always giving the impression that there’s more lurking under the surface.
It’s a page-turner, but there’s also a lot of information that becomes overwhelming and some misguided memoir elements. The author’s personal connection to the story is clear, as these unsolved cases have acquired their own kind of modern lore in London. But the personal details inserted, although obviously significant to her and her impressions around these stories, don’t read very well. Like a footnote about one location, noting “This was one of my favorite make-out spots back in the day. I used to ask boys to drive out there,” or identifying which church was her grandmother’s.
Maybe there are readers that find this kind of personal color interesting or enlightening but I found the details very flat and didn’t think they added anything to the narrative. And considering it’s quite a convoluted, detail-packed, often disorganized narrative as it is, it didn’t need any such further distractions. Her background as a historian is evident as she does establish a strong sense of the city and its inhabitants, but the frequent personal intrusions, often as footnotes, became irritating.
As interesting as much of this was, I was left confused. There is so much information to sift through, and so many people and so many links, that it’s hard to know what’s really important and what I should be trying to mentally hold onto for later relevance. At one point she writes, “Here’s where the story gets pretty convoluted,” and I thought “Only here?” The structure of the book is somewhat messy and unfocused as well.
There were also some odd details that make for a novel-like reading experience but made me suspicious in their specificity, like that a detective’s mustache “twitched thoughtfully” while listening to a story. My review copy didn’t include notes or sources, although the author assures that she stayed true to the files and records and only reconstructed events for the sake of improving understanding. But I doubt that includes mustache twitches.
These points aside, Brown can be a very compelling writer and her passion in researching and presenting this story is evident. There’s always great value in looking at cold cases like this, especially in our era of increased opportunities for research by amateurs, and the way that public pressure on police departments to reexamine long-open cases can sometimes make a difference. Brown notes that the Forest City crimes are good candidates for the web sleuth communities, and she’s provided a thorough foundation of facts to build on. 3/5
The Forest City Killer:
A Serial Murderer, A Cold-Case Sleuth, And A Search For Justice
by Vanessa Brown
published October 4, 2019 by ECW Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.