Canadian forensic anthropologist Debra Komar spent decades helping the United Nations solve mysteries involving mass graves in the former Yugoslavia, Darfur, and other international political hot spots. Lately, Komar has been metaphorically exhuming Canadian graves to throw new light on old crimes.
First up was The Ballad of Jacob Peck (2013), about a gruesome 1805 killing in Shediac, New Brunswick. Komar returns with The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, in which she convincingly argues that, in 1896, the justice system sentenced an innocent man to hang for the brutal murder of 14-year-old Annie Kempton in Bear River, Nova Scotia. There were several strikes against the African-born Wheeler, including his race and the fact that he was a boarder in the home of an unmarried woman of dubious morals. Komar argues that the coroner in the initial inquest into Kempton’s death overstepped his bounds by suggesting Wheeler was the murderer. This resulted in the police and the press convicting the man even before Wheeler’s trial, during which some witnesses lied to incriminate him.
Komar knows how to write an entertaining and informative true-crime thriller. Her prose is cinematic, although a little melodramatic at times. The characters she describes are complex, nuanced, and believable. Legal and medical facts are presented in a manner that allows a general reader to understand even the most technical testimony. Her sleuthing through old court records, diaries, and other historical paraphernalia is first-rate.
From the title, we know how the story will end. Yet Komar’s prose holds our interest from the moment the murdered girl’s body is found until the moment Wheeler is hanged. Komar has plans for at least two more books revisiting old murders. Based on her first two, readers can expect to be shocked, informed, and entertained.