Crime Writing in Bars

My career as a crime reporter was over in a flash. In the late 1980s, I wrote a long story for Saturday Night magazine about the California serial murderer Charles Ng, who was captured in Calgary and, after a lengthy cross-border dispute, extradited to the U.S. to face twelve murder charges. Ng was believed to have raped, tortured, and murdered as many as twenty-five people.

I tried to focus that piece on the extradition question – should Canada, which has no death penalty, ship a man over the border to face charges in a state that carries the death penalty? – but the crimes were a necessary part of both my research and writing. I learned things I wish I’d never learned. Ng was eventually shipped south (not my recommendation) and convicted of murdering six men, three women, and two infants. He remains on death row in San Quentin.

I don’t think I ever wrote another crime story, and to this day I avoid literature and television shows about serial killers unless there is more to the story than the fact of the crimes and a (usually lame) effort to probe the mind of the criminal. I especially hate looking at crime photos, which is why this newsletter is mostly illustrated by photos of ancient trees.

All that notwithstanding, I plan to read Justin Ling’s Missing from the Village, coming out next week from Random House. The subtitle of Missing from the Village is “The Story of Serial Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System that failed Toronto’s Queer Community.” It is about much more than killing.

I’ve only met Ling (below) over Zoom and social media. His politics are all wrong and he’s a bit of a hot-head but he’s also smart, witty, a relentless reporter, and an elegant writer. It would be no exaggeration to call him likable and one of the most talented youngish journalists in Canada. I spoke to him about his book this week and was not surprised to hear that he almost refused to write it because of misgivings over what passes these days for crime literature.

There is a weird, cultish readership for stories of serial killers and vicious criminals, and Ling wanted no part of it. He’d had a taste of it in Montreal, covering Luka Magnotta’s infamous murder and dismemberment of a student from China. “I got approached for a book about that,” he says. “I remember I started working on it with a friend of mine at the time, and we'd been working on it for this small publisher and were two chapters in and it was so macabre. I was just getting this feeling of, ‘Why am I writing it like this? I don't believe in writing like this. I don't like books like this.’ And after a chapter and a half through it, I just put it down and said, ‘Forget this. This is just not what I want to be doing.’”

His interest in the MacArthur case began before it was clear that a crime had been committed. In 2013, police began investigating possible links among the disappearances of three men – Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, and Majeed Kayhan – from Toronto’s gay village. A task force was formed but it could not establish that a crime was committed, let alone turn up a suspect. As police shut down the investigation, Ling was informally picking it up.

He couldn’t shake the idea that the disappearances were related, and that the police were giving up too soon. “I was convinced it was a serial killer,” he says. “You kind of had to suspend disbelief to not think it was a serial killer, right? Three guys disappearing from a four-block radius, all similar age, all similar sexual orientation, all similar ethnicity, appearance, facial hair, you name it. Went to the same bars, knew some of the same people, went on the same dating sites. To sit there and be like, ‘This is just a coincidence,’ it just strained credibility.”

From 2015 to 2017, before he’d written a single story, Ling spent untold hours reading reports on missing persons, unsolved homicides, and unidentified human remains, looking for commonalities. “I was trying to figure out if there were other victims. Whether the killer was still active. Whether or not they may have changed cities or countries... Quite honestly, while I was working on it, I was of the opinion that it would just never get solved. I think I mused to some people that either whoever did it was arrested for something else, or they had died, or they had left the city or the country, or that they were still killing and we just weren't picking up on it.”

He didn’t solve the crime, although he did glance over several missing person reports that, in the end, were associated with MacArthur. He also traced the footsteps of one victim and stood next door to where body parts were eventually discovered, “literally feet away from where the epicenter of the whole story.”

Ling was living in Ottawa throughout this time, driving back and forth to Toronto for research. He had a day job, or what passes for a day job in today’s journalism: a lot of freelance work and short-term contracts with the likes of Vice, the Globe & Mail, and the CBC. He was fortunate to be able to pursue the story at all three of those outlets, working with other talented reporters, but only in spurts. Most of the time, the village story was a side project for him.

He was nevertheless able to keep it alive in the media, and he pressed the important question of why police were so reluctant to consider the disappearances the work of a serial killer—a question that only grew in urgency as police re-activated their investigation, more victims were discovered, and MacArthur was eventually arrested and convicted of eight murders.

Once all of MacArthur’s crimes were revealed, Ling figured his involvement in the story was finished. “I thought, why would I write a book about this?” His doubts were the same as they had been on the Magnotta case.

“I was working on a short-term reporting contract at the Globe and [reporter and author] Robyn Doolittle came to my desk one day and shoved a business card in my hand and said, ‘This is my agent. You’re going to go have lunch with her and just talk about doing a book.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not interested. I’m not doing it. I’m happy to write this stuff for the Globe, but I don’t need to write a book about it.’ And she said, ‘Listen, just do it. Just shut up and do it.’”

Ling met the agent Martha Webb for lunch. “I told her every concern I had about sensationalizing or bastardizing the story, and she said, ‘Great, don’t do it like that. Do it however you want. Write the book you want to write.’ And, ultimately, the selling point was when she said ‘If you don’t do this book, someone else is going to. You may as well be the first to do it, and do it right, as opposed to leaving the door open to someone else coming in and doing a real hack job.’”

He wrote a book strong on context, covering queer history in Toronto, Canada, and North America, looking at why certain cases are left unsolved, neglected, or ignored.

“I look at the fact that there's a woefully inadequate system of tracking long-term missing-persons cases. There are not enough resources for missing-persons cases. And there are still systemic problems in how police handle racialized, marginalized, and queer communities. And there are clear, obvious solutions for these problems that police consistently ignore.”

He was determined to do justice to MacArthur’s victims, who came off in some reporting as anonymous gay men. “It's frustrating because first off, not all of them were gay. Two of them were either privately or publicly bisexual. I don't think multiple of them would've even identified as gay or queer. Some of them were openly gay. There was also an error in some reporting that they were all in the closet. There seemed to be this assumption that because they were brown, or Arab, or South Asian, or what have you, that they were by default in the closet and ashamed of their sexuality, which in several of the cases was just completely untrue. There was a sort of generalization that kept happening, which I thought was really unfortunate. So, I wanted to show them as human. We actually brought on a really good, young illustrator. He helped us visualize the eight men based on ... what they looked like when they were alive.”

Ling completed his book while freelancing, producing regular journalism from nine to five, and working on the manuscript evenings, weekends, and off days. “I would get home at five or six and then usually go to the bar across the street from my place in Toronto and sit at the bar and write until eleven. Three to four nights a week. Generally speaking, it was an after-hours project. A lot of late nights.”

Which bar?

“Food and Liquor, in Parkdale. It was across the street, which helped. The locals were friendly and they all knew me and they had really good WiFi. I put them in my acknowledgments because some of the regulars had to deal with me sulking in a corner and looking miserable night after night.”