William Deverell — Novelist

The official website of William Deverell, Winner of the Dashiell Hammett Award for Literary Excellence in North American Crime Writing

Bill’s Blog, March 30, 2015

The act of killing is an act of ultimate love

bill holding books “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long.” It’s an old folk song that Arthur Beauchamp can’t get out of his head. But poor old Arthur will have lots to worry about, including his possible violent death.

The back-story:

“Any resemblance to persons living or dead…”

The plot of Worried Man was drawn from a headline murder case I prosecuted some years ago: a thrill killing with bizarre literary nuances–the accused was inspired, copycat fashion, by the serial killer portrayed in Lawrence Sanders’s First Deadly Sin.

Though I practised mainly as as a criminal defence counsel, I was on occasion retained by the Attorney-General of British Columbia for homicide trials, some of which attracted wide public attention.The trial featured in the opening section of this novel roughly recreates one of them, an alleged thrill killing in Vancouver of a lonely down-and-outer.

The accused was John Wurtz, a bright young man visiting from Toronto. On his journey west, he’d been absorbed in The First Deadly Sin, a popular thriller by the late Lawrence Sanders, whose mentally warped serial killer uttered musings like, “The murder of a stranger. A crime without motive… The act of killing is an act of ultimate love.”

Morbidly inspired by such ruminations, Wurtz befriended the victim, a stranger to him, and found himself accused of a copycat murder, his quarry stabbed 56 times with a pair of scissors. The only evidence putting Wurtz at the scene of the crime, a humble West End flat, was a single print on a beer bottle on a window ledge.

The chief Crown witness, Wurtz’s traveling companion, had originally cooperated with the police, but at trial changed his story, supporting Wurtz’s alibi. That involved a mysterious third man who’d shown up in the flat, the victim’s jealous male lover.

The trial was a difficult one, well-defended, but after a strenuous cross-examination of the accused, the jury convicted.

As Wurtz, in handcuffs, was led past the prosecution table to begin his life sentence for first degree murder, he paused by my chair and audibly (to me) whispered, “Some day, Mr. Deverell, I’m going to get you.”

Wurtz escaped from Kingston Penitentiary a year later…

(A truer version of the actual trial, based on a script I wrote, “Death of a Stranger,” was broadcast by CBC Radio in its “Scales of Justice” series, produced by the power duo of Edward Greenspan, QC, and Guy Gavriel Kay.)

Killer Review of Sing a Worried Song

Well, the first review is in and, inevitably, with my luck, it’s from the pen of my bete noir, Horace Widgeon. Somehow the old bugger got an advance copy and persuaded the editor of The Squib, a pretentious literary quarterly, to allow him to eviscerate Sing a Worried Song.

Killer ReviewOr rather, eviscerate its author. Maybe the people at The Squib thought it would be novel and fun to run a review by a fellow who sued the author for libel and plagiarism. (For those unaware of the history of enmity between me and the thin-skinned Cornish scoundrel, you’ll find it catalogued in the blog posts of 2014, January 22 to August 1.)

The attacks in The Squib border on the personal. “I believe I read somewhere that Deverell has a ‘cult following.’ One can only imagine what strange beliefs this cult holds.”

He writes: “An over-inflated ego is mirrored to us from his pages.” Well, if you’re looking at a mirror, Horace, aren’t you looking at yourself?

I am scolded for having an undeserved reputation. I am accused of sensationalism for recreating a real-life thrill killer. I have broken all the rules of the genre with my little literary games with voice and tenase and my “excessive doses of humour” which, by Widgeon’s fiat, are not permitted to mix with the sober business of murder.

That precept was set forth Widgeon’ manual, The Art of the Whodunit, in which he advises the aspiring writer: “Humour has its place in mystery novels in the same way in which a well-mannered child has his place in the home: unobtrusive, but permitted an occasional giggle.”

Mea culpa.

Widgeon seemed to have been dismayed to find himself mentioned more than in passing in Worried Song:

“Shockingly, a mystery I authored is widely referenced in Deverell’s seventeenth novel (compare my somewhat more generous output of thirty-three, plus three mystery-writing manuals). I found my 1986 work, For the Love of It, leaping from its pages as his source of inspiration for his thrill killing of a panhandling clown in a most tawdry fashion. (My novel, featuring as always Inspector Grodgins, my world-weary protagonist, is set not in mean streets or some remote island peopled with yokels, but in the dignity and grandeur of a nobleman’s castle.) At any rate, what we have here is a copycat murder case devised by a copycat author.”

As to the novel itself, the reviewer engages in a tortured and desperate attempt to disguise the fact he couldn’t put it down:

“I managed to finish this book in one go, finally closing my eyes at five o’clock in the morning—not that I was engrossed in it, of course, but being aware that the deadline for this review was pressing. For some reason I can’t account for, the climax has stayed with me, and in fairness to those who might find it too chilling for comfort, I feel a duty to to soften the shock.”

And, caddishly, he gives away the ending, without so much as a spoiler alert. Fortunately, The Squib has a minuscule readership, pretty well restricted to a few remote Cornish villages, and is not to be confused with the satirical English journal, The Daily Squib.