Justin Ling’s Missing from the Village (2020)is a thorough, timely, and incredibly thoughtful work of Canadian true crime that is a credit to the genre as a whole. Furthermore, the book is a powerful intervention into what we think we know about the way true crime is written.
The text’s full title, Missing from the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto’s Queer Community, gives us a glimpse into the subject of Ling’s book. Beyond McArthur’s crimes, Ling’s book asks the legitimate and complex question: what does it mean to be missing in Canada, and what does it mean to be missing from a marginalized community? The village Ling refers to is Toronto’s gay village, a notorious cultural center for the queer community not only in Toronto itself, but in Canada as a whole. I can remember reading memoirs and coming out stories centered around the gay village as a young lesbian living in the rural east coast. I understood, on some level, what the village meant to queer people, and I’ve always wanted to go myself.
But suffering can often go hand-in-hand with liberation. In hard-won communities like the queer community, the joy of taking up space often comes alongside tragedy. Alongside loss. Ling’s book examines that loss—not only the consequences of it, but the how, why, and when. How did a community come to lose so much in its ambition to gain safety, acceptance, and respect? Why, when the loss was so deeply felt in the community, did the Toronto Police not listen? And when does it end? Because, as Ling points out, the loss has not ended.
Published at the end of September 2020, Missing From the Village gives the impression of a work in progress—not in the careful writing or the meticulous structure, but rather in its inclusion of up-to-the-minute events. Ling’s text centers around a series of murders, but serves as an interrogation of social systems and groups and their role in the continual marginalization of queer people. Therefore, Ling’s work spans decades, and he recounts crucial moments from the mid-twentieth century all the way up to the events in the of summer of 2020 that sparked massive protests that questioned the validity of police systems and the money we put into them. Furthermore, Ling addresses the ways that these protests highlighted the complicity of all people and groups in systemic, micro/macroaggressive oppression. Work to change these systems, as Ling notes, is ongoing, and there is major work to do that does not start or end with McArthur’s apprehension.
Bruce McArthur’s crimes shocked the country in the mid-2010s. As Ling points out, serial murder has a different, less ubiquitous, presence in Canadian criminal systems and media. The revelation that a serial killer had been operating in Toronto’s gay village for a number of years, a serial killer with eight male victims who were members of the queer community, was distressing to those on the outside. However, there were many more who were not surprised. Indeed, Ling underscores that the village feared and insisted upon the existence of a serial killer for years before they were taken seriously. In prioritizing the perspective of the village, Ling points out that the presence of a predator was not unknown or silent, but rather ignored by the Toronto Police.
Ling’s book not only interrogates the mistakes the Toronto Police made in identifying and investigating a serial killer who was murdering queer men, but he tracks the systemic problems that have developed between the police and queer people in Toronto in a thorough historical survey that serves to position McArthur’s crimes and his ability to commit them within a context of marginalization. From the numerous raids on bathhouses (such as Operation Soap) to infamous arrests (such as the Brunswick Four), Ling clarifies that McArthur’s crimes are at the center of a city—and of two communities—that have always been at odds, with wounds on one side that justifiably run deep. However, Ling also paints a vivid picture of the positive, celebratory sides of life in the village (such as Church Street on Halloween) (39). Although he acknowledges that the notion of a ‘queer community’ is a fraught one, Ling does characterize an environment where people look out for one another, and where friends and family were doing the work that the police simply refused to do. And it is amidst this simultaneously joyful and marginalized environment that McArthur committed his crimes.
Ling’s text proceeds to oscillate between specific details of McArthur’s crimes and their relationship to a larger picture of police negligence and brutality. A striking aspect of his work is his earnest dedication to giving a voice to the victims and their experiences as queer men, men of colour, and victims of both a killer and a flawed system. Ling works to legitimize these men in the context of a society that has delegitimized them repeatedly. Through his victim-focused work, Ling rejects heterosexual media’s habit of framing a human life in relation to their ‘lifestyle,’ which is a perpetual problem he addresses in the book.
Beyond Ling’s specific accounts of the victims and their lives, Ling asks: what does it mean to be a missing person in Canada? He notes that many people vanish twice in the course of going missing, because they disappear in literally, and then virtually, as they are lost between the cracks of a flawed digital system (58). In Chapter 17, entitled: “They’ve all purported to listen” (242-258), is a fascinating look inside the reality of becoming a missing person in Canada/Ontario, and what really happens when someone disappears. He points out that, in many cases, whether a missing person is found depends on the biases of law enforcement as well as what he calls a person’s social capital:
To conclude that police forces are racist, and conclude that is an answer in in and of itself, misses the more pernicious problem: that to be prioritized as a missing person, you need social capital. And social capital is not an infinite resource. It is not equally available to everyone. This is a fundamental, structural failure of the way every single police department in the world handles violence against marginalized people. (245)
Ling connects this general idea of social capital to McArthur’s crimes and his victims, pointing out that the social capital between victims is varied, but that marginalization played a key roll in the misapprehension of the cases. Furthermore, he writes that McArthur understood this in that
He navigated the community because he was of the community. And he must have known, better than anyone, who could go missing from his own community without appropriate follow up from police. He knew who could go missing and be written off as a drug user. Who could be brushed off by the media as some closeted, conservative, Muslim man who probably ran off. (168)
The marginalization that comes with bias, coupled with the digital, documentary, and moral failures of the police created the perfect storm for someone like McArthur, who could move within an environment that he understood—an environment that was otherwise overlooked in fundamental ways by investigators.
However, perhaps the most salient portion of Ling’s book rely not on his indictment of the police—which is significant—but on his interrogation of the work that the queer community needs to do in order to become the ‘community’ it purports to be. Ling points out that privileged queer people should recognize and remember more vividly the fight all queer people endure in order to take up space, and how hard we should still be fighting for the more vulnerable members of our community.
Powerful, well-researched, and emotional, Ling’s dedication to this work is abundantly clear throughout the text. It is a privilege to read such a careful book that is so exceedingly well-informed. Like many modern true crime texts, Ling doesn’t shy away from addressing the systemic problems that, though they are difficult to narrativize, are at the center of this book. A wonderful addition to Canadian literature and true crime as a whole, as well as an educational wake up call, this book is not to be missed.
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About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA in English from the University of New Brunswick and an MA in English Literature from Queen’s University. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and is forthcoming in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbraryand the co-creator of True Crime Index. Rachel is also co-Editor-in-Chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.