In 1993, a working class single mother from St. John’s named Brenda Young was stabbed to death 31 times in her living room as her two young children slept close by. Young’s boyfriend, Randy Druken, was charged with murder and convicted two years later on the strength of testimony from an informant who claimed Druken had confessed to him in prison. Druken served six years until DNA analysis of previously unexamined evidence—a cigarette butt that literally fell on the floor during the trial—exonerated him of the crime. When the test results fingered Druken’s own brother Paul as the true murderer, the latter committed suicide. In 2006, Druken was awarded $2 million for his wrongful conviction. The case, which came on the heels of two other discredited murder convictions in Newfoundland, caused a sensation and was part of the impetus behind the three-year Lamer Inquiry into repeated failures of the province’s justice system.
St. John’s being a small place, Michael Winter often passed the scene of the crime on his walks about the city during and after the trial. Winter decided the case would make a compelling book, and he had visions of dramatizing it in the manner of a latter-day version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. To this end, he gathered reams of documentation, including newspaper clippings, court transcripts and even print copies of the wiretaps taken during the investigation. But despite his initial excitement about the project, Winter struggled under its moral weight: “I was deep into the narrative and then, during times when I was not at work on the story, a cold emotion ambushed me: I didn’t like how I felt about what I was writing. The events were disturbing, and I was using someone’s tragedy for personal gain.”
Winter mothballed the project for a time but found he couldn’t dismiss it entirely. When he finally re-committed to it, it was with the resolve that he needed to present the voices of the people involved in as “unvarnished” a way as possible. To do this, he effectively changed his job description from that of author to editor, distilling 10,000 pages into 80,000 words, changing names, merging minor characters, reordering testimony and converting first person accounts into third.
All this is elaborately explained in the foreword to The Death of Donna Whalen, as are Winter’s intentions for what he hopes his “novel” will accomplish (“novel” being more apt as an adjective than as a noun in this case). This includes expressing “what it feels like to have someone murdered in a community that has never known much violence, how the legal system works or doesn’t work in conditions that provoke a murder, and what that murder unleashes.” He also strove to capture “the way people speak and the nuances of class and sexism, and how hatred and prejudice and complacency arise.”
Most of The Death of Donna Whalen is laid out in short sections, subtitled by character, that build the story around the case through their overlapping accounts, the titular Donna Whalen being Brenda Young, and Randy Druken being Sheldon Troke. It’s valid to question why Winter went about changing their names in the first place, given that nothing else meaningful is done to hide their identities. (Notwithstanding, that is, the futility of such concealment in this day and age anyway.)
Because the text is largely made up of verbatim transcripts, it can’t help but capture “the way people speak,” which in this case makes for fascinating but challenging reading. Here, for instance, is Sheldon/Randy:
The next day Donna said it was Kim and Rod and Eugene she give a run down to Kavanagh’s and they were in getting some beer and she ran out of gas . . . Cory was after throwing up and Sheldon told Kim, and Donna phoned and asked was Cory all right and he said he didn’t know if he got a temperature.
One does, of course, develop an ear for the rhythms of the characters’ speech—which borders on the Faulknerian—as the book moves along, but it would be a stretch to say it ever becomes smooth going. Part of the reason for this is that, the idiosyncrasies of working class Newfoundland vernacular aside, the transcripts also reflect the raw unevenness of everyday speech.
Randy Druken was wrongfully convicted of murder, but he was certainly not an unlikely culprit. Druken was a knife-toting, violent man already on parole for a stabbing that took place four years before Young’s murder. As the transcripts show, his and Young’s relationship was a stormy, jealous one that often got physical. Young, for her part, was a small-time thief who conscripted friends to help feed her pharmaceutical drug habit. She was often negligent in the care of her two kids. These are not naturally sympathetic characters, although Sheldon/Randy’s humanity does emerge in his obvious affection for Young’s children, whom he often babysat when Young was out partying.
The cast of characters is fleshed out with members of Druken and Young’s families, Young’s best friend “Kim Parrott” as well as various other neighbours and police investigators. It’s not what you’d call the happy gang, and issues of poverty and substance abuse are never far from the surface in private conversations and public testimony. That this was a community with a different standard for bibulousness comes into focus in Paul Troke’s acknowledgment that the 15–20 drinks he had at a local club one night constituted: “A fair amount, enough to be half-drunk.”
What perplexes more than anything is Winter’s fatal decision to change the characters’ testimony from first person to third—a move that, by giving the text a strangeness and artificiality, ultimately creates more problems than it solves. Using third person suggests we have a narrator who will neutrally represent all the characters. Yet each testimonial maintains the voice of the person speaking, and these are voices so distinct as to be virtually irrepressible. The disconnect is particularly apparent when we hear from the judge, whose speech is formal and devoid of grammatical errors, or from the Chinese take-out lady. To cope with the resulting awkwardness I found myself mentally substituting the name of the character in each section to “I”—essentially undoing what must have been a painstaking exercise in find/replace.
Another straightjacket Winter creates for himself is the impossibility of letting us know what anyone looks like. We do get snippets of identifying characteristics, yet none of these hint at demeanor. We’re told, for instance, that Paul Troke is blonde-haired, 246 pounds and 6’2 “with sneakers on.” That Donna wears “really tight jeans” and spandex workout pants and constantly takes diet pills. But is she thin or fat? It’s not until the coroner’s report about halfway through the book that we learn that she had “normal, shoulder-length black hair,” that her ears were “unremarkable” and that her eyes were brown. These are characters with less physical distinctiveness than the bags of salt-and-vinegar chips and Wendy’s wrappers that accumulate in their living rooms. Out of desperation I trawled the web for old news photos of Young and Druken, but came up empty-handed.
It would be a stretch, speaking to another of Winter’s goals, to say that the book shows us “how the legal system works or doesn’t work in conditions that provoke a murder.” This emerges only in the book’s 13-page epilogue, which sums up the case and its aftermath in Winter’s own plain language. The transcripts and testimony never allow us that wider perspective save in glimpses, as when the crown prosecutor flagrantly violates Druken’s right to be presumed innocent by asking: “who else other than the accused had a reason or a motive to kill her?”
Assessing The Death of Donna Whalen within its chosen category of “novel”— and by any standard definition of the term it really isn’t one—doesn’t feel good, nor, I would argue is it particularly fruitful to do so. Genre-wise, the book is closer to true crime, but lacks the suspense or sensationalism typical of the breed.
Enough genre-defying books are published in any given year to make the debate immaterial. Where Winter’s book does succeed is in the stunning, if not exactly Proustian, way it lays bare problems of perception and memory, especially as these slam up against the required certainties of a justice system seeking to process them. Accepting, for a moment, the “novel” rubric, what we’re left with is a chorus of unreliable narrators, even if they don’t begin as such. We see this in the subtle shifting and consolidating of accounts that takes place in the wiretapped conversations, in the characters’ attempts to get their stories straight, and in the way they react to new information gleaned from the press or to repeated visits from police. The testimony of one of Young’s downstairs neighbours, “Ruth Vivian,” for example, began to slant conspicuously against Druken after her own son became a suspect in the investigation. It’s self-preservation parading as duty and justice served, and through artful distillation Michael Winter does manage—despite a few procedural errors—to get at something universal, frail and wretched.
—Emily Donaldson (from the Winter/Spring issue)