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A Friend of the Family: The True Story of David Snow, the Cottage Killer

by Alison Shaw

David Snow grew up in Orangeville, Ontario, a rural area north of Toronto, and in the early 1990s – before the suspicions, charges, and convictions – he dealt antiques. Alison Shaw, who moved to Orangeville with her husband Darris to do art, and live simply, worked out of Snow’s store, had him over to the farmhouse, and let him babysit her toddler daughter. Still, she didn’t like his attitudes about women. He had rotten teeth, serious body odour, and something about him gave her the creeps. The Shaws’ testimonies later helped secure dangerous offender classification for Snow in B.C. (where he kidnapped and raped), and his first degree murder convictions in Ontario.

Snow was the town eccentric, just a typical country guy; his grim silences and unorthodox personal hygiene were rationalized as anti-urban nonconformity. Shaw regrets how her intuition about Snow was dismissed by Darris, that she repeatedly faced a small community’s denial of Snow’s peculiarities. A Friend of the Family, Shaw suggests, disperses the regret – and guilt – she felt when the crimes Snow committed became public.

Illogically, husband Darris is also Shaw’s target. In Ontario, Darris hung out with Snow; they started a business scouting demo houses to strip, shared many beers; Darris defended Snow against Alison’s criticisms. His standard “We’re not in Toronto now” excuse for Snow’s extremes demeaned his wife’s concerns. At a Snow hearing in B.C., Darris attempted pleasantries with him despite the gruesome evidence. Shaw sees such fraternity as reprehensible and as a form of complicity on the part of her soon-to-be-ex-husband.

Written in a dull style further flattened by clichés, A Friend of the Family examines Shaw’s no-good husband alongside the daily life of a psychopathic serial killer. Which individual Shaw finds more culpable in her own loss of identity is difficult to infer. (Media and police officials also take predictable flak.) Writing the book is therapy, she says, and that might be a suitable reason to document some of this material. But the paradoxical “True Story” in the book’s title invites suspicion. Shaw has read, she says, a book about psychopaths, one about women’s intuition, plenty of true crime, and some Ann Rule. A better book might have resulted if Shaw had immersed herself in the kind of journalism that savours the ironies and errors of “I was there” accounts.