On the Farm

By Stevie Cameron

A big book on Canada’s biggest crime case – the eight-year investigation into the murder of perhaps dozens of Vancouver prostitutes by B.C. pig farmer Robert William (“Willie”) Pickton – was inevitable. In fact Stevie Cameron’s On the Farm is already her second book on the subject, after the ridiculously premature publication of The Pickton File a couple of years ago. And we can be sure there will be more, from other authors, soon arriving.

True crime writers always run the risk of being overwhelmed by the wealth of material thrown up by exhaustive police investigations and lengthy criminal trials. In an attempt to include as many of the facts as possible their efforts start to seem like scrapbooks. It is a trap that Cameron, faced with a mountain of evidence that included, at the Crown’s estimation, some 2 000 000 pieces of paper, has fallen into. On the Farm is overweight and out of shape, frequently settling into mere transcription and repeating all the key points in the story several times. The writing is only functional at best and there is no special insight brought to bear on Pickton himself or his crimes. Coming hard on the heels of what, one hopes, is the final legal act in the drama – the rejection of Pickton’s appeal by the Supreme Court of Canada in July – one suspects a rush to get into print. That the Supreme Court’s decision is only briefly mentioned on the last page, with no discussion of what it said or the breakdown in the court’s judgment, only strengthens this feeling.

Even in telling the stories of Pickton’s victims there is a tendency to proceed by rote. Each missing woman is identified by age, height, and weight, and given a thumbnail sketch that says a bit about her family background and how she wound up on the street. As admirable as this effort at memorial is, given the number of women involved and the similarities in their situations it doesn’t make for very interesting reading.

Of course the star of this freak show is the grotesque figure of Pickton himself. Canada’s – and perhaps North America’s – most prolific serial killer was a classic backwoods bogeyman, a smelly, cretinous, somewhat feral-looking ogre with kitschy and insatiable sexual urges who apparently fed pieces of his victims to his hogs (and, in some cases, to unsuspecting friends). In Cameron’s book, however, there is no attempt made at really understanding Pickton. One suspects that the environment of which he was the product was simply too alien for her imagination to enter into, leaving her with little to do but register all the stock responses of horror and outrage.

A veteran investigator of political scandal, Cameron seems on shaky ground when dealing with the subject of serial killers. Howlers include identifying the Boston Strangler as Richard Speck and repeating the Hollywood legend that Wisconsin ghoul Ed Gein kept his mother’s mummified corpse in his house (in fact, he left her grave undisturbed). She also champions profiling techniques uncritically, despite it being hard to see how they would have helped much in this case. Pickton was a prime suspect from the earliest days of the investigation. What the dysfunctional Vancouver police force really needed was evidence. This, given Pickton’s high level of proficiency at disposing of body parts (he took most of them to a rendering plant), was in short supply.

For all the obvious reasons, Robert William Pickton bids fair to become an abiding figure in the nation’s collective consciousness, a combination of nightmare and rural-urban myth whose impact will set forth wide cultural ripples in the years to come. And though Cameron may be the first off the mark with this early attempt at a full journalistic account, the last word is still a long way off.

Review first published September 11, 2010.

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