Black River Road: True-Crime in Our Own Backyard – Book Review

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(photo courtesy of Gooselane.com, aka the publisher’s website)

 

It seems that a tradition is forming for the first book in the Lorenzo Reading Series each year to be a gruesome tale of murder and deceit. Of course, for fans of murder mysteries and true-crime books, what could be better?

Last year’s book, George and Rue, told the story of the Hamilton brothers, who were put on trial and convicted for killing a cab driver in New Brunswick. The author, George Elliott Clarke, is first and foremost a poet, and because of these influences was mainly popular among aspiring poets on campus.

This year’s book is quite different. Black River Road by Debra Komar is less a novel, and more a true-crime chronicle that details the famous, and local, Maggie Vail case. Readers get to dip their toes into nineteenth century Saint John, New Brunswick, and a particularly ghastly double murder that occurred near the book’s namesake.

My first note for potential readers would be that this tale is not for the faint of heart. As the subject matter would suggest, there are rather graphically written depictions of rotting corpses, including the skull of a dead baby. Children being harmed can be difficult to read about for many people, so it only seems right to inform readers that certain elements of this book may be upsetting. There are also a few photographs and drawings that could be considered disturbing.

Of course, readers should not be discouraged from reading the book for these reasons – I would just recommend not reading it right before you go to sleep, unless that sort of thing tickles your fancy, because the details of the murder are rather unsettling. Then again, what true-crime stories aren’t unsettling?

The Maggie Vail case involves the double murder of a young woman, Sarah Margaret Vail, and her infant daughter, Ella May. Their decomposing bodies were discovered just off of Black River Road by a group of teenagers who had been out picking berries, and accidentally stumbled upon their grisly shallow grave.

It was shocking that a group of teens found the bodies, because it sounds like the first five minutes of just about every episode of CSI in existence. GASP! A group of teens found not one, but two dead bodies! Cut to the title sequence!

It is this cliché discovery of the bodies (apparently it really does happen that way in real life) that will make Black River Road appealing to viewers of shows like Law and Order: SVU and Criminal Minds. Everyone loves to watch the bad guy get hunted down, and brought to justice. That being said, the interesting part about Komar’s book, though, is that there is no element of mystery to it at all.

Komar’s book should not be mistaken for a murder mystery. We know who the killer is, quite literally, from the very beginning, when she gives us his name in the prologue. It is true-crime at its finest, and most of Black River Road is spent giving the reader food for thought on the trial of the killer, an architect by the name of John Monroe. He was a pillar in the community of Saint John during his time; people thought that he was a good man – a respectable man. Surely he would never be involved in something as scandalous as an adulterous affair, the fathering of an illegitimate love-child, or a double murder!

In fact, the trial, and discussion of his “respectable” character, is rather reminiscent of a certain murder trial that occurred in Saint John, far more recently than John Monroe’.

There are little details about the case, too, which will really grab a reader’s attention. For one, desensitization to violence and a morbid fascination with murder are thought to be fairly modern concepts, caused by violent movies and the glamorization of violence in other forms of media. However, even over a hundred years ago, people were still a little bit dark and twisty.

During the trial, postcards with images of the teenagers finding the decomposing remains, along with one featuring Maggie Vail’s bullet pierced skull, were popular among the people of Saint John. I guess humanity has always been rather morbid, and Komar manages to demonstrate this without it even being the main point of her book.

Anyone interested in criminal law will find this book absolutely fascinating, because Komar proposes some interesting questions in her prologue. Should a person’s character be considered when they are put on trial for murder? Does your character govern your actions, or do your actions determine your character?

The book gives readers plenty to think about in a philosophical sense, and it will also instill an interest in the Maggie Vail case which, prior to reading Black River Road, many people will have never heard of despite how close to home it occurred.

 


Debra Komar will be speaking about Black River Road on September 14th at the New Brunswick Museum, in the Mary Oland Theatre at 7:30pm in the first event of the Lorenzo book series.
Doors open at 7:00, and everyone is welcome to attend. The presentation will be followed by a Q&A and a book signing  – refreshments will be served.