Dying for Gold

By Lee Selleck and Francis Thompson

At 8:35 a.m., September 18, 1992, nine workers at Yellowknife’s strikebound Giant Gold Mine were blown to pieces in an underground explosion. After a lengthy investigation, Roger Warren was convicted in 1995 on nine counts of second-degree murder.

There are some people, however, who still believe that Warren is an innocent man.

Despite its subtitle, Dying for Gold is more than a complex story of crime and punishment (and less effective, in this regard, than a book like Kirk Makin’s Redrum the Innocent). The murder investigation is really secondary to the story of the strike itself – an ordeal that tore families and communities apart and nearly changed the face of Canadian labour law. As an account of a vital piece of our history, the subject recommends itself.

You can count on most books by journalists to be well-written and thoroughly researched. Selleck and Thompson, who covered the strike in Yellowknife, don’t disappoint in either regard. They also have the ability to maintain objectivity and fairness despite their deeply felt convictions, and they share an invaluable understanding of the people and the environment they describe. In terms of making clear what happened and how, one could only wish for better maps (especially of the mine itself).

But books written by journalists also have their drawbacks. Typically, they lack structure and are weak in the presentation of character. This isn’t to say they should be more like novels, only that they should pay more attention to what works in terms of narrative. In both these areas the authors run into trouble.

Guilty or not, Warren is a fascinating character: well-read but inarticulate, strong-willed but liable to emotionally collapse at any time. Sadly, Selleck and Thompson only provide a thumbnail sketch of the man, and leave him to tell most of his own story through excerpts of the testimony he gave at trial. The psychology of the “false confession” never gets explored in any detail, presumably because it was rejected as evidence. Such lost opportunities are truly unfortunate, and hard to justify. Given the scope of their unofficial “commission of inquiry,” the authors need not have been afraid of writing a much longer book.

Any current account of the murders must necessarily be unfinished since Warren’s case is still winding its way through the courts. But there is also evidence of what seems to have been a rush to publish. There are several confusing printing errors and the photos of some of the victims are missing because they were unavailable at press time. Worst of all, the final chapter is a messy “Where are they now?” roll-call that seems almost tacked-on. It is no treat to finish on such a note.

Usually, books of this sort come out as expanded paperbacks that include various updates. It would be nice to see the authors take the opportunity of a new edition to make more extensive changes and writer the better book that this has all the promise of being.

Review first published August 23, 1997.


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