True crime illuminates the dark corners of the human mind, the places within our own psyches that most of us wouldn’t dare enter. Perhaps our society’s popular fascination with true crime is genuinely perverse and naughty, leading us to fetishize violence. Perhaps it emerges as a survival instinct, learning what we can from murderous motivations in order to avoid becoming victims ourselves. Maybe we are drawn to true crime to feed our inner activist, rallying for the pursuit of justice. Perhaps we are trying to quell our own fears with knowledge, or conversely, we enjoy the adrenaline rush of being afraid.
Whatever it is that feeds our true crime obsession, we can usually explore these sinister stories and the complex emotions they evoke from the distance and comfort of our living rooms. That is, until our city becomes the setting.
Eve Lazarus is a Vancouver-based author and local crime historian who sheds light on the criminal history of Vancouver. Boasting a self-described fascination with murder, she has penned a series of works on homicide, police corruption, bootlegging and brothels including Sensational Vancouver, Cold Case Vancouver and Blood, Sweat and Fear.
Her latest novel, Murder by Milkshake, follows suit. Lazarus has gone to great lengths to research and relay the story of the life and death of Esther Castellani, murdered in the1960s by prolonged arsenic poisoning. The culprit? Her husband Rene, an adulterous local radio celebrity with a clear intention to get rid of his wife in order to marry the radio station’s young receptionist.
Lazarus grounds this true crime tale in cultural and sociopolitical history, which adds compelling depth to the book, and challenges the idea of Vancouver as No Fun City. The murder takes place at a wildly transitional time, where the strict divorce laws and high regard for religious holy matrimony that marked the 1950s were giving way to the beatnik counterculture revolution of the 1960s. With the rise of folk music in the bohemian West End coffee houses and Summer of Love be-ins in Stanley Park, Vancouver was beginning to shed its conservative small-town values. This cultural shift also called the death penalty into question, resulting in a temporary moratorium that saw Rene’s eventual release from an Abbotsford prison.
Unlike other true crime chronicles, Murder by Milkshake brings Vancouver’s shadowy past right into your contemporary surroundings. For me, this means living around the corner from where the Castellanis once lived. Though you may see it as a safe haven from which to indulge in true crime, your vintage couch may very well have been part of the story.