#934 Murder on Texada Island

A Garden of Thieves
by Dean Unger

Duncan: Village Lane Press, 2018
$24.00 / 9780981306421

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Blessed Be the Bones: A Garden of Thieves, Book II
by Dean Unger

Duncan: Village Lane Press, 2019
$24.00 / 9780981306452

Both books reviewed by Valerie Green

To purchase copies of these books see here or call Dean Unger at (250) 715-7977

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Author Dean Unger’s book A Garden of Thieves is the first in a two-part series. It was self-published in 2018.

Amor de Cosmos. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

In Garden of Thieves, Unger covers an important and often over-looked fragment of British Columbia’s history — the Texada Island Land scandal. The scandal involved the inappropriate involvement by Premier Amor De Cosmos and his attorney general to gain lucrative iron ore deposits on the island. This topic alone would have been enough for a first-rate story, but Unger has interwoven it with other problems of the day like women’s rights and First Nations’ issues.

After a very long and rambling “Author’s Note” followed by an intriguing Prologue, the real story finally begins on page 26 at Vananda on Texada Island in what was then the Gulf of Georgia. It is September 1889, and a body has washed up on a beach, first discovered by woman journalist and photographer, Eve Walker.

Texada Island. Map courtesy Wikiwand

Walker notices that a schoolteacher with a group of children is about to arrive on the beach and she wants to protect them all from seeing the grizzly scene. That is only the beginning of Eve’s problems as she struggles through the following days after being arrested for trying to take a photograph of the body and interfering with police due process.

As a woman journalist/photographer who insists on finding the truth at all costs, she is destined to face many more obstacles, not the least of which is Quentin Reynolds, her publisher/boss at the Coast Miner newspaper. Reynolds took over the paper after the mysterious disappearance of the previous publisher, Jonas Prescott. Quentin is often reluctant to support Eve as she tries to dig out the true facts about the washed-up body. She also encounters many blockages from the BC Provincial Police as she further involves herself in the mysteries surrounding the body.

The SS City of Nanaimo at the Vananda wharf, circa 1900. Texada Island Heritage Society

Once the identity of the body is known the story becomes more and more cryptic. Eve is determined to find answers in order to write a powerful story for the newspaper. The dead body is that of Ernie Tsan, a formidable labour activist who had been fighting for safety conditions for local miners on the island. She soon realizes there is much more to the story than meets the eye after encountering Ernie’s widow, a Salish woman named Heidi, and is warned by her that her life is in danger. Ernie’s death is believed to be racially motivated. Heidi’s own brother, Eli, who had openly opposed his sister’s marriage to Ernie, is being blamed for murdering the white man.

Eve’s continued pursuit of the truth leads her along a dark path of discoveries which include hidden graveyards, more dead bodies, and a brutal man-hunt. She also meets with the ruthless mine owner Christian Maddox and learns of even more intrigue that goes to the very heart of Victoria and to the doorstep of Amor de Cosmos, the premier.

Unger’s characters are mostly strong and his prose enigmatic. He also includes Eve’s relationship with her stepmother and her dying father. In addition, his connection with, and honour for, First Nations people shines through in his text.

But I am a firm believer in tying up all loose ends in every book in a series with a mere hint of what is to come in order to keep the reader interested and to read the next book. Therefore, each book should also stand alone. Dean Unger does the opposite with Garden of Thieves. He leaves the reader with much more than a hint. His cliff-hanger ending makes it essential to read Book Two if you want to know the answer to any of the baffling questions posed in Book One.

A hotel on Texada, late 19th century. Courtesy. Courtesy Texada Arts, Culture & Tourism Society

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Dean Unger on Mount Tzouhalem

Blessed Be The Bones, Book Two of Unger’s Garden of Thieves series, begins with a Prologue that leaves the reader wondering where the story is heading after the obvious cliff-hanger ending he left us with in Book One.

Eventually, the story takes up again with the arrival of Indian Agent John West at the Vananda Jail House where accused murderer Eli Tomas awaits his fate of execution. Unfortunately, I was instantly irritated by the mis-spelling of Vananda in the second line, but continued on determined to find out what would happen to Eli.

West has come to the jailhouse with a young lawyer, Troy Pendergast, to introduce him to Eli as his new representation in the upcoming trial. But he soon learns that things are moving much faster than he had been told. Eli has already been found guilty in a kangaroo court and is now waiting for a sentencing hearing and a date set for hanging. Needless to say, Eli is not impressed that John West has only now just arrived to help him. He already knows his future looks bleak and doubts anyone can save him.

BC Provincial Police cap badge. Courtesy Hubert de Vries

But female journalist Eve Walker is still waiting in the wings and not willing to give up on finding the truth and saving Eli. She even agrees to help exhume the body of the murdered man, Ernie Tran, with her coroner friend who has received authorization to do so. And even though they are interrupted in their task by Red Sutherland, the Provincial Police Superintendent himself, Red has to relent in the face of all the necessary authorization paperwork from BC’s Attorney General.

At this point in Book Two, I found it hard to remember all the many characters Unger had introduced so far in both books — with more to be added as I read on. This was unfortunate because most of them were strong and very descriptive but only added to an already confusing story.

Armed with new decisive information that Eli was not the murderer, Eve, together with a disgraced Cree tracker, Tuimo Hansen, and her own Salish guide, Big John, races on to help Heidi save her brother from execution.

Dean Unger at Beachcomber Park, Nanoose, 2020

Her journey to find the truth now takes her on a long adventurous trek on the mainland to Hope and beyond which few women could have survived. An eventual meeting with Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, allows her to put her case to the highest authority and win justice.

In general, I found the second book in the series an even harder read than the first. Nonetheless, Unger has written his story with passion and a strong belief in the rights of humanity. His ending is strong and allows the reader to see a softer side of both Eve Walker and Quentin Reynolds, Coast Miner publisher.

Both books in this series could have greatly benefited from the discerning eye of a professional publisher/editor who would have cut a lot of unnecessary text from the story and picked up on a few typographical errors in both books. In all fairness, however, the copy of the second book in the series I reviewed was still an un-proofed copy.

I think it was a pity that Unger did not decide to combine the two books together as one, with less text from A Garden of Thieves. This is mainly because Blessed Be The Bones almost seems like an afterthought instead of what it eventually becomes — the build-up to a great climax in the whole story. Honing his craft as an author and perhaps finding a traditional publisher will, I’m sure, lead to even more fascinating stories in the future from Dean Unger.

Unger was born in Powell River and grew up loving the surrounding wilderness. He has written for many magazines and newspapers and has had a successful 25-year career in the media. He also has a life-long connection to First Nations people of British Columbia. This series is Unger’s first venture into writing books and he is donating a portion of each book sale to the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society.

A modern view of Texada Island, looking south down the Strait of Georgia. Photo by Paul Hamilton

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Valerie Green

Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books.  She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie’s most recent contributions to The Ormsby Review are reviews of books by Jody Hedlund, Dora Dueck, Tara Moss, Heige Boehm, and RM Greenaway.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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One comment on “#934 Murder on Texada Island

  1. The correct spelling of Van Anda is “Van Anda.” It was named after the family of a New York newspaperman at the turn of the century. Canada Post changed it to “Vananda” at some point but the citizens of Texada successfully petitioned to have the historic spelling restored.

    Peter Lock (a director of the Texada Island Historical Society)

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