Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Peter McSherry

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Peter McSherry

Jack of all trades Peter McSherry has worked as a writer, a teacher, a truck driver and a taxi driver. Most recently though, he is the author of What Happened to Mickey? (Dundurn). The titular Mickey is Donald "Mickey" McDonald, one of Toronto's most notorious criminals, who first made headlines in the 1930s, as an opportunist murderer and later an escapee from the Kingston Penitentiary.

Peter speaks with Open Book today about Mickey's daring escape, a time when Toronto was a one-murder town and the uncertain end to the story of a man who was once Canada's most infamous public figure.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, What Happened to Mickey?

Peter McSherry:

What Happened to Mickey? tells the story of Donald "Mickey" McDonald, a career criminal who was a household name in Toronto for 20 years or more. It was his being charged with the January 1939 murder of Jimmy Windsor, a Toronto bookmaker, that made Mickey into a national crime figure. The later perception that he had gotten away with murder was what amplified Mickey into a big-time criminal. He afterwards participated in several major crimes, including the most clever escape in the history of Kingston Penitentiary.

In the end, Mickey was the only Kingston escapee of August 1947 who was not recaptured, killed or otherwise certainly accounted for. So far as the public knew, he just disappeared. As late as 1978, there was press speculation concerning whether or not Mickey was still breathing.

The book is divided into two parts that reflect the obvious watershed in Mickey's life and criminal career. Book I is titled "Gangland Toronto, 1939: The Days of Mickey and Kitty Cat McDonald." This deals with the Windsor Murder, Mickey's life and criminal career up to that time, and the resolution of the charge of murder against Mickey. Book II's title is "Mickey McDonald, Canada's Public Enemy No.1," wherein Mickey has truly grown into an obvious dangerous threat to society. At the book's end, I supply a number of stories that purport to answer the question What Happened to Mickey? These include the tale I believe to be substantially the truth of Mickey's end.

OB:

How did you first come across the story of Donald "Mickey" McDonald? What fascinated you about him?

PM:

My real interest in Mickey's story dates from July 1978, when I had just begun researching my first book, The Big Red Fox: The Incredible Story of Norman "Red" Ryan, Canada's Most Notorious Criminal. I was sent to see a former bank robber, who I was told might know something about Ryan. In fact, he did — but he knew a lot more about Mickey, including a believable answer to the important question What Happened to Mickey? The man's first rendition of Mickey's alleged death at the hands of the New York mob, replete with the storyteller's jarring language and criminal world view, shocked me at the time. It also addicted to me to Mickey's story. I knew it was a tale I just had to tell.

OB:

Mickey became, as you called him, Public Enemy #1 in Canada. Do you think we need someone to fulfill the role of the public villain, as Mickey did? Why do you think these sorts of stories capture so much interest and media coverage?

PM:

Inherent personal fear is what creates fascination with such characters as Mickey. The press of Canada asked the RCMP to regularly publish a list of Public Enemies in 1952 — and they did so. This list was updated periodically, but, I believe, the practice lost its prominence within a few years. The world moves on.

OB:

Margaret (also known as "Kitty Cat") seems to have had a prominent role in Mickey's adventures and crimes. Had they not married, do you think things would have gone differently? How do you see Kitty's role in Mickey's life and vice versa?

PM:

Mickey was 28 when he married Kitty, who was then 19, and Kitty was soon after arrested more than once for prostitution-related offences. Mickey was a user; Kitty, a likely victim. Both had psychological problems that the Depression magnified. If she had not involved herself with Mickey, Kitty might have bettered her lifetime of being "Toronto's most scandalous woman." Mickey, I sense, was foredoomed by his own view of himself and by his distaste for honest labour.

OB:

Are you interested in Toronto history generally? How would you characterize Toronto's relationship with its history and stories?

PM:

I am interested in Toronto history and in much other history. I have 3,000 books — half or more of which are history books. Probably I have 200 books about crime and criminals. There is an overlap in the two subjects — and, yes, it is important to situate such a story as Mickey's in the historical circumstances in which it took place. In each of the years 1936, 1937 and 1938, Toronto had one murder. Today, Mickey and his murder would get lost in the crowd. His is a story of its time — and how we then were.

OB:

While you were researching for and writing this book, what were you reading? Are there other books drawing on true crime that you've enjoyed?

PM:

When I work on a book, I try to read as many books as possible that are up the same alley. I think it's only sensible to check out how other storytellers deal with similar problems. The most difficult part of Mickey's story to write was the chapters concerning the murder trials. By Persons Unknown, by George Jonas and Barbara Amiel, about the murder of Christine Demeter, was more than helpful. I also consulted a number of law books. As well, I discussed matters with several lawyer friends — all of whom were more than generous with their time. Then there was the lengthy trial transcript of the first murder trial — and parcels of related archival documents. Also two similarly lengthy trial transcripts having to do with a December 1943 truck hijacking — "Toronto's Greatest Crime of World War II," as well as some 1,900 newspaper stories that I typed onto a computer disk. And much, much more to read. It all took me six years.

OB:

What are you working on now?

PM:

Several things. A book about heavyweight boxing. Another about Toronto murders between the wars. A lengthy set of questions and answers about Canada. They're all in different stages. I might get one book to press in 2015. Another in 2017. I'm getting good at this.

And I'm only 68.

Peter McSherry has worked as a high school teacher, a truck driver, a labourer and a freelance writer, but mostly he's been a taxi driver — and that's how he wants to be known. His first book, The Big Red Fox, about notorious criminal Norman Ryan, was an amazingly detailed work of history.

For more information about What Happened to Mickey? please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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