Paul Palango’s 22 Murders: Investigating the Massacres, Cover-Up, and Obstacles to Justice in Nova Scotia (Random House Canada 2022) is an extremely detailed account of the mass murder of twenty-two people in the most unlikely of places: Portapique, Nova Scotia. The perpetrator, Gabriel Wortman, was on the loose for twelve hours, shooting rural Nova Scotia residents in an attack that began on April 18, 2020. The attack ended by accident: RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officers happened to come upon Wortman at an Irving Big Stop as he was filling up a car that he had just stolen from a person he murdered. The police shot and killed Wortman, ending his spree. As Palango details in 22 Murders, however, the ending of Wortman’s life would only be the beginning of many questions. One of the most pressing of these questions, and one that 22 Murders goes to great lengths to answer, is how Wortman was able to evade capture by the RCMP for twelve hours, leading to the death of twenty-two people.
There are things that I really liked about this book, but there were also things I questioned as a reader. One very important element that this book offers is a thorough assessment of the RCMP’s functioning (or lack thereof) in Canada. Something to know if you are not from Canada is that the RCMP is not your typical municipal police force. Palango explains why:
“Until the 1930s, the ten Canadian provinces each had their own police force. With the onset of the depression, the poorer provinces could not afford their own policing services. The federal government cut them a deal. If the provinces agreed to hire the federal force, the RCMP, to provide provincial and municipal policing, Ottawa would subsidize the cost by 10 to 30 percent. Every province except the three largest—Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia—took up the deal… [t]he result is that the Mounties have spent nearly a century policing hundreds of municipalities across Canada. The US equivalent would be FBI agents driving marked FBI cruisers handing out speeding tickets in Oklahoma. The provinces that hired the Mounties have little, if any, control over the force. Even though the Mounties are technically working under provincial laws and statues, the force reports to its own masters in Ottawa and is subject to federal laws and regulations” (33).
This “contract policing” is, Palango claims, “one of the most unusual policing arrangements in the world,” and it leads to abuses of power, negligence, and gross incompetence (33). Palango is the author of three previous books on the RCMP, as well as a veteran journalist, so the details he can offer about the culture of the force and its functioning in Nova Scotia is pretty staggering. This is not, however, the book you should seek if you are looking for a balanced interpretation of the RCMP—Palango is decidedly anti-RCMP, though he presents hard and convincing evidence for why we should all be. I appreciate the avenues Palango goes down to get to the truth about what happened in Portapique. He is dogged in his search, and he has to be. The RCMP stopped at nothing to provide Canadians with a smoke-and-mirror show after the massacres, leaving the Portapique community and the families of the victims with hardly any answers about what happened to their relatives. Palango sought out 911 calls, redacted RCMP documents, and interviews with witnesses to try to get to the truth that the RCMP seemed desperate to hide. He also does a great job of painting a picture of what Nova Scotia’s rural communities are like.
Although I think this book asks crucial conversations about what took place, if there was a major cover-up by the RCMP, and what their relevance is in Canada today, I did not always like the way these questions were asked. Firstly, the book is 565 pages long. I did not find that this length justified itself. There was a lot of repetition in the book, which really worked to dilute the important questions and points that Palango was making. Palango also included, sometimes in full, the newspaper and magazine articles that he was writing shortly after the massacre. Presumably, these were included to fill in the reader on smaller details, but also to display a contrast between what Palango was reporting and what other media outlets were reporting. Via this approach, it was made clear that Palango was reporting on things other media outlets were afraid to report on, but as a reader I found the inclusion of these articles in their entirety cumbersome. A lot of the details provided in the articles were already provided in the larger narrative and I ended up skimming most of them. These also contributed to the book’s already extensive length.
Additionally, I found Palango’s admonishment of other media outlets and journalists unnecessary at times. There are legitimate questions to be asked about the way the Portapique massacre was reported in the media, especially with the reluctancy of larger Canadian news outlets to critique a police force that was clearly going out of its way to gaslight the Canadian public. It is crucial that Palango did the work these outlets would not, but the way he critiques his colleagues in the book is sometimes off-putting and comes across as personal. Again, I felt like his very legitimate and important questions were being diluted by his approach to those questions. Overall, my critique of this book was not with its content but with its structure, length, and approach to certain issues.
Despite my hesitation with some aspects of 22 Murders, I would recommend it as essential reading if you wanted to learn more about the Portapique massacre. Palango leaves no stone unturned here, and you will learn a great deal about the problematics of RCMP culture, the culture of Nova Scotia, and those terrible twelve hours where twenty-two souls were lost.
Please add 22 Murders to your Goodreads shelf.
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 has been published in Crime Fiction Studies.