Karla's Web:
A Cultural Investigation of the Mahaffy-French Murders

by Frank Davey,
ISBN: 0670861537

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A Canaidan Way of Death
by Fraser Sutherland

THIS IS THE BERNARDO-Homolka book with the black band and the black blots. The band that girdles it seemingly honours the slain schoolgirls Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. The blots hide information that might prejudice Paul Bernardo's forthcoming trial for murder; they also allude to the court ban on reportage of the trial that found Karla Homolka guilty of manslaughter.

Viking's blackout edition strikes one as more than a little gimmicky, possibly hypocritical, certainly ironic. After all, Viking didn't have to blot out prejudicial passages: they could have been excised editorially. In any case, Frank Davey dismisses press claims of having been "muzzled, shackled, and gagged" by Judge Francis Kovacs's ban on most coverage of Homolka's trial. And, as much as any tabloid, Viking is a parts-maker in the "Bernardo industry" that its own author inveighs against.

Not that Davey is himself prurient or sensationalist, despite the fact that the "legal, media, and cultural web" invites such treatment, including not only Mahaffy's and French's murders in Burlington and St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1991 and 1992, but the 1990 death of Karla Homolka's younger sister Tammy and a later string of rapes in Toronto-area Scarborough. Davey rightly points out that this stuff was made for tabloid TV, especially for a culture in which the video camera, among other things, has made mediatization a way of life.

In Davey's view, disingenuous media latched on to a Gothic plot -- monstrous villains, martyred virgins -- to tell a story. Davey also relates this to a supposedly systemic misogyny in society that turns men to anger and women to self-hatred. He calls Canada "a culture poorly equipped to read its own crimes" and -- straining somewhat, ignoring crime fiction -- he decodes a short list of literary texts to show that

murder in Canadian literature is something self-righteous American men do because America makes them do such things. Or it is something helpless Canadian men do when the hand of fate or the veiled arm of mythology directs them to do it.

At this point, Davey veers away from Bernardo and Homolka towards what he sees as US cultural aggression on many cultural and commercial fronts -- a war between US individualist and Canadian communal values. Mediatization and free trade make things worse across an already porous, media-saturated border; good Judge Kovacs was trying to protect "a Canadian cultural tradition of balance, consultation, and negotiation." Davey bleakly concludes that "In a short time Canadians will not even remember that they once possessed alternatives to the American First Amendment or to CNN justice."

Making these highly debatable points, Davey becomes one of those reverse-mirror cultural nationalists who decree that any Canadian practice or institution, no matter how ineffective or wrong-headed, is intrinsically worth preserving if it differs from one offered by the United States. He even sniffs out unsavoury US libertarianism in the organized chaos of the Internet and its ban-breaking alt.fan.karla-homolka newsgroup, asserting that the Canadian "ability to interpret and punish, in its own way, the predatory sex-killing of its young female citizens" was subverted under the guise of free speech: "The legal system that Canadians hoped would catch and punish Mahaffy and French's killer is also the legal system that both killer and alt.fan.karla-homolka defied."

Sometimes Davey's metaphors get away on him. He says that "Over and over in the media coverage and the viewers' imagination the teenagers were murdered and remurdered." Yet not even the tabloid Toronto Sun butchered these unfortunate girls; a real person or persons did that. Moreover, I doubt that potential jurors in the Bernardo trial are so pitiably weakminded, unable to distinguish evidential fact from media fiction, as the Ontario attorney-general and court system would have us believe.

That so many shot-worthy ducks pop up in Davey's gallery is actually the great merit of Karla's Web. He asks the kind of questions that should be aired in the court of public opinion. As for Paul Bernardo, he'll get his day in court one of these years.


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