By: Nick Travis
Operation Vanished explores Newfoundland in a time not so long ago, when things were very different.
Helen Escott knows crime. In 1998, she became the founding member and Senior Communications Strategist of the Newfoundland and Labrador RCMP’s Media Relations and Communications Unit – a position she held for 18 years. Her behind-the-scenes knowledge of the world of police work has helped Escott pen truly gripping crime novels, where one almost feels like they’re watching over a real police investigation.
The I Am Funny Like That and Operation Wormwood author has returned with another crime thriller – Operation Vanished, yet again set in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“I think that the history of these books is the history of Newfoundland, and everybody who reads these books; either Operation Vanished or Operation Wormwood will see their history. They will see somebody they know there,” said Escott. “I was very specific in writing them as a proud Newfoundlander. I wanted these to be proud Newfoundland books, to represent the province properly, which is why I’m so specific about landmarks.”
Escott’s new novel follows Corporal Gail McNaughton, an RCMP officer who has just moved back to Newfoundland after some time away from home.
Tasked with investigating historical cases of murdered and missing women in rural Newfoundland around the 1950s, McNaughton starts to learn about the fairy culture of Newfoundland, and how it was used as a scapegoat for violence against women and children for many generations on the island.
“Fairies tend to be in rural communities, and they take the blame for everything that people don’t want to deal with,” said Escott. “They were also used to control women and children when they were going against the grain. If a woman was too smart, too angry, too outspoken then she would be accused of being a changeling, and that would give the excuse for the husband to beat her.”
Along the way, Corporal McNaughton meets Larry Morgan, the son of one of the murder victims in McNaughton’s investigation as well as an expert on the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Together with Morgan, McNaughton discovers a link between these cold cases, which leads her on a journey to find what she thinks was a serial killer operating in rural Newfoundland during that period in time.
Escott says her book explores the topic of women’s rights, and how different the laws and attitudes regarding women have changed in such a short time.
“It was only 1929 when Canada declared women were persons under law,” said Escott. “It was only 1964 before a woman in Newfoundland could get a bank account without a man’s signature. It was only in the ‘70s before women could join policing. It was only 1983 when Canada changed the criminal code so that a man could no longer rape his wife. Well, I was at a high school in ‘83. It was legal to rape me if I was married. So our rules are laws around women are not that old.
“My mother was born in 1927, and in 1929 she became a person. For the first years of her life she wasn’t a person. I was born in ‘63 – it was only ‘64 before woman could get a bank account without a man signing. My daughter was born in 2000. The idea that she could never be a police officer, or need a man to sign a bank account or wasn’t a person is so beyond her thinking, you know? She just could not fathom that world existed, but we’re talking three generations.”
Escott says she always tries to make her characters as flawed and human as she can, and tries to avoid them being “perfect Hollywood stars.”
“McNaughton is new in the major crime unit. She’s the only female, and she’s getting a hard time from her co-workers. She has severe night terrors, which is a symptom of PTSD and that not only affects her sleep, but affects how she does things,” said Escott.
“She has a mother who has dementia and she’s an only child. So on top of being a police officer, she’s a daughter who’s dealing with a mother who’s in late stages of illness. She herself has a lot of balls up in the air on top of trying to solve these crimes.”
Escott also wanted to move away from some typical tropes of female characters. She wanted to portray Corporal McNaughton as a real police officer, with a real passion for her career.
“I grew up reading a lot of books and every time I come across a female police officer, she’s always in a miniskirt with 3-inch heels wearing a blouse unbuttoned down to her cleavage. I just wanted to tear my hair out, because there’s no way you could possibly do the job dressed like that. So I made sure McNaughton was a real police officer, you know? She’s not the type to wear mini skirts, or high heels or anything like that. She’s focused on her job. She is a professional and she is the best at what she does, so she doesn’t need all that other bull.”
Operation Vanished can be found in book stores around Atlantic Canada, including Costco, Chapters and Cole’s or online at indigo.com, amazon.com and at flankerpress.com. Helen C. Escott can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and through her blog at iamfunnylikethat.blogspot.com.