There’s a new crime novel about the Downtown Eastside

Sam Wiebe's Invisible Dead is about serial killings. It is not, however, a serial killer novel

August 2, 2016

By Emmet Matheson

For Sam Wiebe, setting a private eye novel in his hometown was a no-brainer. “I don’t pretend to know anything about commercial viability,” says the Vancouver writer. “But they say it’s a big no-no to set books in Canada. It’s also supposedly a big no-no to write private eye novels. Writing about Vancouver… it’s what I know.”

His new book introduces Dave Wakeland, a former cop now toughing it out as a private investigator who stumbles into a case of missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Wiebe, who graduated with a master’s from SFU in 2010 and taught English at Coquitlam College until last semester, says he started writing it in 2012—just as the Oppal Report on Missing Women was being drafted. “This was just after the Olympics, where we had put on our best possible face. I couldn’t help but notice the duality,” he says. “It really felt like the official version wasn’t portraying a true version of the city and what was going on.”

Invisible Dead is a crime novel about serial killings, but it is decidedly not a serial killer novel. “We end up with these narratives where the killer is individualized and the victims become anonymous,” Wiebe says. “I really did not want to write a serial killer book. I wanted to take a look at what else is going on. To me, serial killers are not unique or fascinating people. In books and movies, they either end up as victims themselves or as these Hannibal Lecter-type geniuses. They’re neither. They’re symptoms of a society that doesn’t value certain people.”

Wiebe spent a lot of time talking to former sex workers and people who knew about aboriginal deaths in police custody, as well as reading up on criminology studies of mishandled cases like the Robert Pickton investigation. “It was really distressing to write about,” he says. “I had just moved back to the city and was really excited, but then there’s this other side to it. Vancouver is marketed as this paradise, but who that actually applies to is very restrictive.”

The ever-shifting foundation of Vancouver found its way into Wiebe’s writing process too. One of the locations in the book, a Ukrainian restaurant on Commercial Drive called Sorry Babushka, closed unexpectedly while Wiebe was on a trip to Toronto. “It’s rough,” he says. “You go away for a weekend and all of a sudden you’re writing historical fiction.”

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