The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson by Lois Simmie

The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson by Lois Simmie(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

John Wilson came to Canada from Scotland in 1912, leaving his wife and family with the promise to return in a year. In 1914 he joined the Mounties, and while stationed in Saskatchewan village, he caught TB and fell hopelessly in love with the young woman who took care of him. He would do anything for her, anything at all.

Winner of the 1995 Arthur Ellis Award for Non-Fiction, The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson is played out against a backdrop of catastrophic events; World War I, economic depression, the TB and Spanish Flu epidemics. It is the riveting account of a mounted policeman and the women who loved him.

I initially picked up this book because it was semi-local.  (When you’re in Saskatchewan, any fiction vaguely mentioning your province is ‘local’, no matter how far away the story plays out from where you actually are.)  I like true crime books, even if I don’t necessarily always review them.  But this one I had to review.

Now, the main problem with The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson is that it tries so hard to be both a novel and a nonfiction account of a cold-blooded murder.  In the end, it works as neither.  In some respects, this has to be a fictional novel because (despite the award for nonfiction!) Lois Simmie really does insert her own flair into it and speculates highly on what John Wilson was feeling at the time.  This is without backing it up with evidence like testimony from his trial or something similar, mind you.

And that’s why, despite the award, I also don’t consider this to be nonfiction.  This is more of that hybrid genre, creative nonfiction. Normally the genre of something wouldn’t matter to me at all except for the fact that this book works as neither fiction or nonfiction for me.  As fiction, it’s boring and as nonfiction it’s not exactly strictly true to the facts the way you see with other true crime.

Enough of my griping about categorization, though.  It’s not all that relevant when a short read like this (something like 200 pages) was threatening to put me to sleep.  As I said, part of it was the fact that Lois Simmie included almost verbatim the letters of Polly Wilson’s relatives, who had sent them to so many different policeman it made my head spin.  Frankly, the first part of the book leading up to the murder was boring as well.  There was too much focus on mundane events whereas the murder itself barely had any page time at all.

It shouldn’t have been because it really had the potential to let us watch John Wilson’s slow descent into madness and murder, but it was because Lois Simmie has a very dry writing style.  It’s like she’s writing a textbook for schoolchildren, not an actual book (be it nonfiction or fiction).  Even nonfiction writers can insert their own flair as long as they’re not playing with the facts, just like Toby Wilkinson in his book The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt.  He was very factual and backed up his speculations with evidence, but he also added in his own commentary of events on occasion in very cynical one-liners.  He also wrote in such a way that his audience was engaged whereas Simmie doesn’t seem to care whether anyone is interested in her book by the second half.

I had been interested in this murder case, having never heard of it before, which is why I picked up this book.  However, had I known it was going to be such a dull affair as this, I never would have wasted my time with it.  I can’t honestly recommend it.

I give this book 1/5 stars.

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