Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Robert J. Hoshowsky

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On Writing, with Robert J. Hoshowsky

When murders go unsolved, surviving family members are left to wonder while the rest of the world moves on and forgets. Author Robert J. Hoshowsky's book Unsolved: True Canadian Cold Cases (Dundurn Press) reminds us of Canada's most striking cold cases, and gives a sensitive, unsensationalized portrayal of the facts. Robert talks to Open Book about his personal connection to his subject and his readers.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, Unsolved: True Canadian Cold Cases.

Robert J. Hoshowsky:

Unsolved is a collection of 12 Canadian cold cases. While the majority are unsolved murders, there are a number of well-known missing person cases in the book.

Choosing which cases to include was a difficult process, and I spent months going through old files, talking to police officers, checking out websites and blogs and connecting with representatives from missing persons groups. I did not want to write a book about historic cases, but ones that still have a chance of being solved. With this in mind, I came up with a dozen unsolved cases, the oldest going back to 1967, and the most recent to the present day.

A number of the cases centre on Toronto, and will be familiar to some readers: Wendy Tedford and Donna Stearne, murdered in 1973; Chrystal Elizabeth Van Huuksloot, missing since 1977; Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour, linked by DNA and murdered by the same man in 1983; Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan, killed in 1983; Nicole Louise Morin, missing since 1985, and businessman Frank Roberts, shot to death in the parking lot outside his Obus Forme Factory, in 1999.

Compared to other books, Unsolved is very different. Many books on unsolved crimes are collections of old, previously-published newspaper stories presented in book form. For Unsolved, I interviewed everyone I could find connected to a particular case, including family members, friends, active and retired police officers, lawyers, forensic artists and private investigators, to name a few. All cases were updated and written to present the reader with as clear a picture as possible of the crimes from the time they occurred to the present day. I am especially grateful to family members who shared their stories about lost loved ones with me.


OBT:

What was your first publication?

RJH:

The first time I had anything published was when I wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Toronto Sun. I can’t remember the exact contents, but I believe it had to do with the Russians threatening a boycott of the Olympic Games. I was 12 years old, and received a handwritten letter in the mail from the editor, Peter Worthington. My first published article was when I was 16, written for an English-language Ukrainian newspaper called New Perspectives. It was about Toronto’s multicultural festival, Caravan. I can’t believe that was 30 years ago!


OBT:

What started you writing Canadian non-fiction?

RJH:

As a kid, I totally immersed myself in classic science fiction, fictional crime and fantasy. I read books like Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, and anything ever written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, including all the Sherlock Holmes stories and his novels, like The Lost World. My late mother, Ann, was a huge news junkie, reading the Telegram (later the Toronto Sun), the Toronto Star, Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, and of course, Maclean’s. I was hooked on facts and started to lose interest in fiction. As I grew older, I became a news junkie and studied Journalism at Ryerson.

I have always had an interest in Canadian history, which has been unfairly labelled as “boring.” Far from it! The way some professors approach teaching Canadian history may be dull, but not the history itself. When my first book, The Last to Die: Ronald Turpin, Arthur Lucas, and the End of Capital Punishment in Canada was published in 2007, I received lots of emails from younger readers in their late teens and early twenties who were fascinated by the subject. Many of them, even those studying law in high school, said they never even knew Canada had Capital Punishment! I’m pleased that some schools are now using The Last to Die as a textbook.


OBT:

What inspired you to write this book in particular?

RJH:

The victims and their families, were motivating factors. Just like a lot of police officers working cold case files, I don’t want these people to disappear from the public eye. The families I spoke to have been through hell, and they deserve some closure. For many of them, the pain of losing a loved one never stopped, even if the crime took place 40 years ago. What many people don’t realize is the utter devastation caused by murder. When a child is killed or abducted, parents often blame one another, with many marriages ending in divorce. Others succumb to drug or alcohol abuse, or paralysing depression. Police officers are not immune to these emotions, either. One of the cops who found the body of Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan in a fridge in the Annex quit the force less than two weeks later, while another — who was also at the scene — took his own life a few years after her remains were found in a rooming house fridge.

When it comes to unsolved crimes, time is a double-edged sword. Much has been made about trails growing cold over time — which they do — but not enough is said about people coming forward years after a murder with information. They do this because, sometimes, they no longer fear repercussions decades after someone is killed. My hope with Unsolved is that anyone with information comes forward, and contacts the police. Although some of the cases are getting on in years, they can still be solved. In the case of Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan, I still believe somebody out there knows the whereabouts of the sole suspect in her murder, Dennis Melvyn Howe, who remains at large, 27 years later.


OBT:

How did you come up with the idea for this work?

RJH:

Several editors at Dundurn, my publisher, suggested a book on old unsolved crimes, like the 1919 disappearance of Toronto theatre magnate, Ambrose Small, and the mystery surrounding the suspicious death of Canadian artist Tom Thomson in 1917. As much as I liked the idea, I felt my abilities as a writer and researcher would best be served working on a book about still solvable cases. While I was creating my outline, a number of cases were in fact solved, which is a risk when writing a book like Unsolved. The greatest challenge was knowing which cases to include, and I believe I’ve come up with a solid representation of cases, some known, others practically forgotten.


OBT:

What is your research process like?

RJH:

Very, very labour-intensive. It makes me with human cloning was already here, so I could send my genetic doppelganger out to do research for me! Seriously, I spend more time on research than anyone else I know. It is an addictive process, one that keeps you going, especially when you ask yourself: did I talk to everyone possible? The answer is always no. because research is infinite. Usually, I start with newspaper files, then move my way onto periodical indexes, to see what magazine articles have been written about the subject. I check books — Google Books is a fantastic research tool — then the Internet, blogs, court records, even Facebook. I make lists of names of key people, such as family members, friends of victims, neighbours, witnesses, lawyers, social workers, ambulance drivers, firemen, police officers, even reporters who covered the original story. I then try to contact them anyway I can — phone books, associations for retired police officers and so forth. For my first book, I checked cemetery records, the Salvation Army archives, church records, funeral homes and more.

The thing is, you never know where you’ll find information. Sources come from the strangest places. For The Last to Die, I told a friend of mine I was writing a book about the last two men hanged in Canada. He said, “There’s this older lawyer I know who drinks in the same bar I do, maybe he knows something.” I didn’t think about it again, until a few weeks later, when I was told to go to the bar. I did, and met the lawyer. As it turned out, the lawyer’s private investigator was a retired Toronto detective named Jim Crawford, who attended the last hangings at the Don Jail in 1962! Mr. Crawford sadly passed away last year. He was a tremendous help to me and my book, which goes to prove that you never know who knows what.


OBT:

Did you have an intended audience in mind?

RJH:

For books like mine, the audience is wide-ranging. There are True Crime buff, people with an interest in law, history, policing, even social work and psychology. Although I read a lot of True Crime, I find too many gory details to be a turn off. In my own work, I use explicit details when it is necessary, and try to focus more on the impact of the person’s death on surviving family members. A great, recent review of Unsolved called my book “sensitive and non-sensationalist.” So really, the intended audience could be anyone.


OBT:

What’s the best response you’ve ever received from a reader?

RJH:

Several come to mind. One was for an article I wrote on Pit Bull fighting in Yugoslavia for the defunct magazine, Equinox. The article generated tons of interest, and the magazine received about 50 or 60 letters. One of them, unpublished, was from a woman who was so horrified by what she read that she threw the magazine into her fireplace, burning it to ashes. Most readers, however, forwarded photocopies of my article to societies for preventing animal cruelty and the horrible practice was investigated.

One of my favourite stories comes from a piece I wrote for The Toronto Star about the urgent need for organ donors. A little girl named Ashley desperately needed a new heart, and I found out from my editor that someone whose child had just died read my article, and that the little girl got a new heart. Because of confidentiality, I never found out who the family was, or any other details, just that she got her heart. That’s all I’ll ever need to know.


OBT:

Tell us about your next project.

RJH:

I have several in mind. One is the slightly softer side of True Crime, white collar crime, specifically investment fraud. If I can enough people to trust me and agree to the project, I will go ahead with it, absolutely. The only problem is that there are potential legal repercussions for some of these people, so winning them over will be a challenge!


Robert J. Hoshowsky is an investigative journalist who has explored first-hand the world of cults, bikers, cops, killers, and thieves. A former researcher-reporter at Maclean’s, his work has appeared in more than 100 magazines and newspapers worldwide. His highly acclaimed non-fiction book, The Last to Die, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Awards. He lives in Toronto.

For more information about Unsolved: True Canadian Cold Cases please visit the Dundurn Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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