I first became interested in Jeff Blackstock’s Murder in the Family: How the Search for my Mother’s Killer Led to my Father (Penguin 2020) after I picked up the book in a bookstore and read the first line of the prologue: “I think that my father murdered my mother” (1). It was equal parts tragic and intriguing to me that someone would have to live with a truth like that. Although my journey with Murder in the Family started with intrigue, it soon brought me many more emotions. This is a book of enormous emotional depth.
Murder in the Family tells the story of Jeff Blackstock’s upbringing. Blackstock’s father was a career diplomat in the Canada’s foreign service, so his childhood was very different than most. Blackstock’s family spent a lot of time living outside of Canada, and Blackstock recalls living in unknown spaces through a fascinating child’s perspective. Some of the most poignant moments in the text are the ones where Blackstock explains the sadness, neglect and fear he often felt when his father George was around. Harsh, indifferent, and unfeeling, Blackstock’s father comes across as a textbook psychopath, but this is not all Blackstock’s portrait of his father reveals. Although Murder in the Family offers a suspenseful tale of murder, it is also a portrait of a dysfunctional family with a little boy’s perspective at the center. This perspective is what makes this true crime book so unique within the genre.
Blackstock’s mother Carol becomes ill sixteen months after the family is posted to Buenos Aires. Carol begins vomiting, losing weight, and sleeping often. She sees doctor after doctor to no avail. Often, she begins to get better in hospital and then becomes sick again upon her return home. Blackstock makes it his mission to get his hands on all her medical records, as well as to interview the doctors who treated Carol. Blackstock provides transcripts of these interviews, and they are fascinating. Because it was the 1950s, “husbands were generally considered to have authority over their wives’ health care,” Blackstock observes, and his hunt through Carol’s records soon reveals how sinister that control could be (73). Blackstock also includes excerpts from Carol’s medical records. These records indicate an incredibly sexist perspective, one of the doctors calling Carol’s illness “a strong hysterical reaction” and suggesting that her uncontrollable vomiting and weight loss was due to “a strong dependency on mother and local nursemaid with a guilt complex towards her parents” (76,77). Blackstock’s interpretation of these records help the reader to understand just how much at a disadvantage Carol was—she had no one to advocate for her. Watching Carol’s control slip away was heartbreaking to read.
Since Blackstock reveals early in the book that he thinks his father killed his mother, this is not a murder mystery. The book explains, not long after revealing the events that surrounded Carol’s death, what she died of, though Blackstock doesn’t encounter these records until well into his adulthood. What is mysterious and perplexing about this story is the way the way George reacts to Blackstock’s questions about his mother’s death years later. Blackstock recalls that upon questioning, his father’s “performance was very smooth indeed, even in front of a critical audience. He’d covered a lot of ground so seamlessly and quickly, it was hard to put your finger on any serious missteps” (252). Blackstock’s quest to discover the truth about his mother’s death leads again and again to his father, and as a reader I felt deeply for him. His dogged search for the truth and his deep personal involvement with the potential perpetrator was as admirable as it was devastating.
Any good true crime story will leave you with questions. Questions about the nature of evil, the usefulness of the criminal justice system, and the dark corners that seem to exist within many people. Murder in the Family is the story of one son’s search for the truth, but it is also a story that questions what human beings can be pushed to do, and why. As a beautiful piece of Canadian true crime, this book is a must read.
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About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.