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Brian Vallee: author, pianist and tourtiere connoisseur

Sault author remembered as one who shone the light on women who face domestic violence and told their stories 'with an authenticity that rebukes sensationalism'

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library: 

Sault Ste. Marie can claim true crime aficionado and author of grimace-inducing titles like The Torso Murder Brian Vallee as one of our own. International bestselling author Brian Vallee was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie and began his career as a Sault Star reporter in the 1960s.

He later moved to London, England where we worked for a few years before returning to Canada to work as a journalist for The Windsor Star. Soon after the Toronto Sun poached the talented Vallee who was famous among his coworkers as a member of the ‘Windsor Mafia’, a term used for journalists the Sun recruited from the Windsor paper in the ’70s.

Brian Vallee was the Toronto Sun’s, first Queen’s Park columnist and was remembered by his colleagues after his death in 2011, as a ‘dedicated journalist, fun pal, author, sometimes pianist and women’s champion”.

Vallee eventually moved on to work for CBC’s The Fifth Estate, a current affairs program, as a producer and director. He even covered local stories while working for The Fifth Estate including a CUPE dispute in November of 1983. Vallee was an Associate Producer for the 1983 Academy Award-winning documentary Just Another Missing Kid and recipient of two ACTRA awards.

Vallee, who was deeply proud of his northern Ontario roots also proposed and worked on a CBC Life and Times biography featuring Canada’s renowned realist artist Ken Danby who was also a homegrown Sault Ste. Marie talent.

As talented as Mr. Vallee was across multiple media platforms, his biggest legacy remains his novels, and in particular, his first book Life With Billy which began his lifelong campaigning against domestic violence.

Life With Billy, which was first published in Canada in 1986, tells the story of Jane Hurshman, the Nova Scotia woman who after five years of severe abuse by her common-law husband Billy Stafford, shot him to death while he was passed out drunk in the front seat of his half-ton truck. The jury acquitted Jane of murder, but the Crown appealed and won a new trial, this time accepting Jane`s manslaughter plea. Though overturned on appeal, the case led to the acceptance of Battered Wife Syndrome as a legal defence in Canadian courts. The case shocked and divided Canada but ultimately provided some enlightenment about spousal abuse and battered woman syndrome

Vallee first met the Nova Scotia woman when he produced a Fifth Estate documentary about Jane’s case leading to his decision to write a book about her experiences and to highlight the prevalence of domestic violence in Canada.

Thereafter many of Vallee's speaking engagements, conference talks, and documentary projects focused on battered women and the need for increased public awareness about the lives of women living with abuse.

Life With Billy was published three years after Jane Hurshman was first acquitted of first-degree murder and Vallee donated a portion of the royalties to a fund for battered women he established in Jane’s name.

Sadly, ten years after Billy`s death, at the age of 43, Jane Hurshman shot herself to death in the front seat of her car in a deserted parking lot on the Halifax waterfront.

Life with Billy was dramatized in a television movie on CBC in 1993 and subsequently won three Gemini Awards in 1995

Brian’s next novel, Pariah was published in 1991, a work of fiction dealing with ‘murder, madness and revenge.’

In April of 1991, Vallee returned home to the Sault to autograph copies of Pariah and he hosted a party for his friends - friends whose names he had used as names for the characters in his book. Pariah has been out of print for years and it is very difficult to acquire a copy.

Shortly after writing Pariah Vallee returned to the story of Jane Hurshman and began writing a sequel to the novel Life With Billy. Entitled Life After Billy, his third novel focused on Hurshman's experiences following the not-guilty verdict and her work as a fighter against domestic abuse. With Hurshman's death by suicide in 1992, ten years after Stafford's death, Vallee addresses her death and the truth of its circumstances, cutting through the mystery. Life After Billy uses her suicide as a focal point for discussing the long-term impacts of abusive relationships. In this novel, Vallee looks at women and the justice system through Ms. Corkum’s eyes.

Vallee wrote much of this novel, like his others, at his favourite place, his cottage on Lake Lauzon, where he loved to fish and write. He spent most of his summers there and was known to read by candlelight, as he didn’t like the sounds that emanated from his generator.

A mere two years later Brian’s next novel was published continuing his captivation with Canadian true crime stories. Edwin Alonzo Boyd: The Story of the Notorious Boyd Gang was released in 1997. The novel centred around Canada’s most famous former criminal who was a convicted 1950s bank robber and escape artist, who was incarcerated for nearly 14 years in Kingston.

Before his career as a bandit was ended in 1952, the glamorously handsome Boyd cut a swath through 11 Toronto-area banks, stealing thousands of dollars and igniting two manhunts of unprecedented scope. When he and his mates escaped not once but twice from Toronto's Don Jail, the Boyd Gang created headlines across North America and became an enduring Canadian legend.

Edwin Alonzo Boyd was paroled in 1966 and lived under an assumed identity, but he willingly shared his memories with Vallee so he could finish his book. Numerous others--including Boyd's former wife and various police officers involved with the Boyd Gang--also spoke candidly to the author.

In 1996 Vallee completed a documentary about Boyd entitled Two Men for the CBC’s Fifth Estate.

The year 2001 would bring the aforementioned Torso Murder to shelves. Torso Murder: The Untold Story of Evelyn Dick told the story of Evelyn and her missing estranged Russian husband, known as John Dick. His torso was discovered first, his head and limbs having been sawn from his body and — as later evidence revealed —disposed of in the furnace of her home in Hamilton.

She was defended in her first murder trial in 1946, convicted and sentenced to hang, but her lawyer appealed her case and won an eventual acquittal. In the meantime, however, a partly mummified body of a male infant was found in her attic, encased in cement in an old suitcase.

The infant was identified as her son Peter David White. She was tried for the baby's murder in 1947 and sentenced to life in prison but was paroled in 1958 after serving only eleven years in Kingston's Prison. Evelyn later disappeared and it is unknown if she is alive.

Brian Vallee’s final book The War on Women: Elly Armour, Jane Hurshman, and Criminal Domestic Violence in Canadian Homes was released in 2007.

“Vallee’s last book remains a legacy of his cross-Canada campaigning against domestic violence”, author Ron Base said in a tribute after Vallee’s death in 2011. Once again shining a light on the women who face domestic violence and telling their stories with an authenticity that rebukes sensationalism. His final work is the perfect example of Brian’s drive to shine a light on the issue of domestic violence in Canada."

In 2010, Vallee began the process of donating his literary archival fonds to Algoma University. Between 2010 and 2012 archives staff arranged and described Vallee’s records and made them accessible to the general public. The material — all linked to his writing process — also captures local and Canadian history. His records provide insight into societal views about domestic violence, the changing Canadian legal system, and the status of women in Canada.

Brian Vallee died at age 70 of cancer at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto with his long-time partner Nancy Rahtz by his side. Aside from his incredible career, Brian was known as an enthusiastic host and entertainer, renowned for his annual tourtiere parties.

In 2012, he was inducted posthumously into the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario Walk of Fame.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provide SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more "Remember This?" columns here.

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