“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Vanessa Brown has been living with ghosts for more years than she cares to remember. Her research into a string of London murders is the laser focus of her new book, The Forest City Killer: A Serial Murderer, a Cold-Case Sleuth, and a Search for Justice. There are many ghosts that come to life from the pages, specifically ones from the London of 50 years ago.
It’s a mesmerizing book that carefully lays out the London of the 60s and 70s both culturally and socially and how the city dealt with – or didn’t deal with – the murders of a number of children, teenagers and young women during that time. The story centres around victim Jackie English, a fifteen-year-old girl who was abducted on her way home from work, and whose death is considered related to other murders that have never been solved.
This October 4th is the 50th anniversary of her death, and Vanessa will join Jackie’s surviving sister Anne English, along with other supportive Londoners, in the “Walk for Jackie.” The annual walk keeps the memory of Jackie alive, while pressuring authorities to keep the investigation active. Vanessa hopes that her book will work as a case file for professional and amateur sleuths alike, who want to find answers.
For Londoners from those times and those who live here currently, it’s an especially bracing read with the locales of the killings familiar to most residents. It’s ‘London The Innocent’ as a veritable stalking ground for a series of killings, a situation worsened by press and City officials vacillating between the impulse to downplay the dangers and the need to report the crimes to the public. The book clearly points to a few suspects, two of which are still alive and well.
A Q&A with Vanessa Brown
First of all, it’s a monumental feat of research. I think the beauty of this book is that you’ve pulled all of these stories together in one place. All towards a focused end.
It was insane trying to pull it together. There were times where there was so much information that I had no idea what to do with it. I was asking myself when I started to write it: how am I going to organize it?
You started with Jackie English and then moved back in time and made linkages between the locales of the crimes to the types of victims and finally to the suspects.
This is the essential difference between plot and story right? Story is what happened. So the story can be all this information laid out in logical order, but plot is how you choose to reveal that information to the reader.
So what I was doing is taking the facts and choosing how to use the skills of a fictional plot line to hook the reader so it would have a strong emotional impact.
It’s really easy for us to lose the impact without a plotline. People get murdered all the time. Yes, that happens all the time, unfortunately. But it happened all the time in one small place in a bizarre and particularly upsetting way. I needed to communicate that to the reader so it would stick, so that it would call people to action. It couldn’t just be a list of facts. It had to be a memorable story.
You touched on the Stanley Variety with its secret smut viewing room, just enough to make it seem like it was part of this.
This is one of the things about finding community memory. Stanley Variety, for example, is a place that only exists in memory. No one’s writing a history book about the Stanley Variety store. So places like that are lost in time.
I heard someone recently opened a business and was trying to do something on the second floor of some Dundas Street building. And the whole space was divided into little booths. It was like a peep show or a brothel or something. You would never find out about that history in books.
If you went up to the London room and tried to look it up, there’s no brothel in the records. Period.
In the book, it seems clear the police didn’t want to publicize some of the murders because they didn’t want London to be known as the murder city it was.
Well, if you think about it, it’s such a small town, right? Like it was 160,000 people at the time. No, London proper wasn’t pleased at all.
I’ve always had the view that cities are stages and we the people inhabit that stage for a time. And then another generation comes along to tell their own stories on this stage and there’s a sense of generational passing.
But here’s the crucial difference. The timing of this book is crucial. Not everyone is gone yet.
Your analogy about a stage is perfect because London really has not changed. We like to think that it has. You’ll have certain people that will say it’s better back in the day. If you go on the Facebook groups about London, it was just a picturesque, beautiful place.
Meanwhile, I did the math and about 1 in 2,000 kids were murdered during that time. That’s a very high amount. It’s statistically really improbable these days that your kid will be murdered by a stranger.
In fact, since 1970, there are only about 150 known abductions and murders of children in the whole country. You’re talking about almost 10% of that, happening not over 40 years, but in two years, and not all across the country, but in one place.
The idea that 1 in 2,000 kids were murdered by a sexual psychopath is terrifying, and it’s no wonder parents watch their kids so closely now, considering what the previous generation went through. We are scared now, but they had a real reason to be scared back then.
Looking in the archives, there are so many missing children and fires and also there were stabbings. It wasn’t a safer time then.
And of course, the police at the time didn’t report this because it might seem that they weren’t doing their job. I mean they don’t care now. This all happened a long time ago.
In the social culture of London, people didn’t want to talk about unpleasant things which is part of what allowed these injustices to continue.
After this book comes out there are some people in this book that are clearly suspects. What kind of blowback do you expect to get from their families or even those that are still alive?
People going to come and say “it’s unfair” or “it never happened” or perhaps something else. I’m anticipating a lot of community response to this book because this is a matter that really grips people on an emotional level.
Every time a book I write comes out someone will come up to me and tell me I got something wrong. Or I missed something that was important. Those people aren’t always correct. That’s fine. I’m prepared for that. I’m prepared for people to come to me with their own anecdotal stories to perhaps further flesh out the book and I’ll record that and maybe publish it in the future.
In terms of negative blowback. I’ve already gotten negative blowback from one of the victim’s families. They didn’t want me to write about the case. It’s like touching a sore spot. It’s like the bone is sticking out from a wound and they think I’m sticking my finger in there and it hurts.
When the victim’s families were upset, my response to that is, something horrible has happened to you and you’re allowed to grieve that for as long as you want in any way you want. And if being mad at me as part of that grief, that’s fine.
When it comes to individuals, I’ve named the suspects and everything in the book is true. It’s all been sourced. If you’re upset about the stuff you did and it’s in there, then you’re upset about the stuff you did. If you’re embarrassed about people knowing that you did it, then you’re embarrassed. That’s not my problem.
We’re talking about murders of children. So I’m sorry if you’re embarrassed that you committed crimes when you’re younger or you made some poor decisions socially or came across in a certain way that people thought you were suspicious, but you still did those things.
Vanessa Brown’s The Forest City Killer: A Serial Murderer, a Cold-Case Sleuth, and a Search for Justice, published by ECW Press is now available at all fine bookstores including Vanessa Brown’s Brown & Dickson on Richmond Row and online.