Historian tells a tale of Canada’s first forensic sleuth
In an age when police departments relied on hunches and witnesses, Vancouver had Inspector John Vance, crime scientist extraordinaire.
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He was a pioneer in using science to solve crimes, faced death threats, invented a machine called “the robot detective” and was known as Canada’s Sherlock Holmes.
But Vancouver’s Inspector John Vance is little known today, perhaps because of his low-key personality, the opposite of what we’ve come to expect from fictional portrayals of brooding, brilliant detectives who solve inscrutable cases while wrestling with their own demons.
“The more I started reading about him the more fascinated I got, because he was so well-known and so heralded back in that time period, yet there was virtually nothing about him now,” said Eve Lazarus, a Vancouver author and historian who published a book about Vance this spring.
“I thought he’d be this big detective, but he wasn’t. He was very much like a high school principal or a professor. He just wanted to work in his lab and solve these mysteries and not really be bothered.”
Vance never went to university and got all his chemistry training through working as a mining assayer. He was originally hired to be Vancouver’s city analyst, testing food, water and alcohol to make sure it was safe.
But he proved to be a meticulous and ingenious forensics analyst, and as head of the Vancouver Police Department’s “Bureau of Science,” was in demand across British Columbia throughout the 1930s and 40s.
Lazarus’ book is titled Blood, Sweat and Fear. Blood refers to the first police case Vance was called upon to work in 1914: police needed to know whether stains found at a crime scene were blood or not.
Fear refers to the seven attempts on his life in 1934, from several bombs sent to him through the mail and put under his car to an acid-hurling assailant who badly burned him.
It was a period of Vancouver’s history when city hall and the police department were rife with corruption and both the police chief and mayor had ties to organized crime. The book documents Vance’s strong suspicion that the threats against his life were coming from within the police force.
“His evidence alone was enough to put people away,” said Lazarus, who uses court documents, newspaper reports and Vance’s original case files to build her story. “They were so scared of him, of going up against his science in court, it was almost magical.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the given name of the subject of Lazarus' book; he was Insp. John Vance.