March 28, 2012

Journey for Justice Review

I gave some personal impressions after reading Journey for Justice and attending a lecture by author Mike McIntyre and Wilma Derksen (read the blogpost here) but here's a more formal review of the book. In case, you know, that happens to be the actual thrust of the assignment. Let's consider this blogpost part two...


Journey for Justice: How "Project Angel" Cracked the Candace Derksen Case chronicles the 1984 disappearance of 13-year-old Winnipegger Candace Derksen, her family's efforts to find her, the discovery of her body and, finally, the arrest and trial of her killer 26 years later. The book is written by Winnipeg Free Press crime reporter Mike McIntyre (who turned 10 the day Candace's body was discovered) and closely follows Wilma Derksen (Candace's mother) through her journey of devastation, grief and recovery.

A Reader's Perspective

Whatever faults there are in this book, ranging from punctuation to stylistic problems, they're overshadowed by the gripping story of family struggling to deal with the random murder of their young, innocent daughter. There's something so universal about her story: Candace is one specific person, but anyone who has had justice violated in their own life - who has watched the world callously crush innocence - will be moved by this story. You'd have to have a wooden heart not to. I don't know if McIntyre should be praised for this - or for the Derksens' remarkable choice to embrace healing and forgiveness - but he's chosen the right story to publish. He can take credit for that.

He also adds moments of quiet, domestic life to this tragedy, providing the reader moments of relief as well as giving his characters a more three-dimensional form. When he chooses to paint the picture of an environment - a suspect walking down a street, a backyard meeting - he can form a vivid scene that places the reader in the moment, walking hand in hand with story's cast. When Journey rises as a book, it gets some good height.

But there are also lows. Forensic detail and psych evaluations supply cumbersome detail and poor reading. A number of scenes and witnesses exist without description and form; they pass by as voices and moments not grounded in the real world of Wilma, Cliff and Candace Derksen. McIntyre's thorough descriptions of evidence and desire to give his many, many sources their moments of coverage mean the reader will go over the same facts and events several times. It's understandable why he's done this, it may be commendable. But it doesn't make great reading.

A Journalist's Perspective

Journey for Justice holds a number of lessons for journalists, the most obvious one being there is still a venue for long form storytelling (so often unavailable in print, television and radio journalism). It delivers the pay off of that long term investment can yield, by showing the full arc of people who grow, change and live with the events that make them briefly 'newsworthy.'

Hearing McIntyre speak about his long form writing, you're able to fill in the background work that you suspected went in to Journey; how McIntyre carefully built a friendship with the Derksens first, how he transparently and approachably set about documenting the loss of their daughter. His example of how to approach victims is one more journalists should copy.

A News Addict's Perspective

But journalists also need to know what a great leap it is to move from short form coverage to multi-chapter, long form print because that's where Journey stylistically falls down. In his regular column, McIntyre is forced to edit down cumbersome police reports and trial testimony. With the wider space a book provides, McIntyre is free to let these reports stretch, to the detriment of his story.

McIntyre does have a valuable quality as a crime journalist that I was happy to see carry over to Journey; a lack of preachiness. I've found other crime reporters underline and highlight their writing with moral outrage, rage and disgust as they cover their beat. And McIntyre doesn't stress this. He doesn't have to; the facts do it for him. There is still loaded language and his word choice gives away his perspective very clearly, but it's no more pronounced than in his regular column. For the most part, he stays out of the way of his story. And I appreciate it - it leaves more room for the incredible people who populate this tragedy.

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