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Author weaves tale of bandits on BC’s coastline

Jay Lang spent childhood years on Read Island in Desolation Sound

Best-selling author Jay Lang never imagined being chosen to write a Canadian historical fiction mystery novel for the province of BC, which was funded by the Canadian government’s Canada Book Fund.

The series includes one novel set in each of the Canadian provinces and territories. Earlier this year Lang was chosen to write a historical mystery using a factual setting somewhere in BC with characters woven within the story from the imagination of the author.

“After doing research on our interesting history in the province, I chose to write about the last hanging on Vancouver Island,” said Lang.

The book is titled The Flying Dutchman and takes place along BC’s coastline, including Lasqueti Island, which is Area E in qathet Regional District.

“One of the Cassidy gang, Henry Wagner, came up here [Pacific Northwest], killed a postmaster in Seattle and then fled to Canada and wreaked havoc, then hid out on Lasqueti Island,” explained Lang. “But it was Union Bay where he got nabbed; all of that part is true.”

The author spent months researching, looking through archives, scholarly documents and articles with the help of locals and experts.

During the 1900s, Desolation Sound and surrounding coastal islands were inundated with folks on the run from something, including the impending world war. Many came from the United States, including Wagner, who was part of the infamous Cassidy gang of thieves from Wyoming.

Wagner and others made their way to the Vancouver Island coastline, sailing up the Georgia Strait and causing mayhem in shoreline communities. The ship became known as The Flying Dutchman.

Lang reached out to her aunt and uncle, Bruce and Shirley Lyster, who live in Powell River, while writing the book. The author gives credit to them for providing her with interesting and important historical information including what an old yarn spinner looked like. 

“I wanted to put my family in the book as characters,” said Lang. “Aunt Shirley is a master spinner and painter, and Uncle Bruce worked at the mill years ago and was a volunteer firefighter. I owe a lot of the book's success to both of them.”

Lang is familiar with the northern Sunshine Coast and spent time living on Read Island, which is part of the Discovery Islands, and in Comox on Vancouver Island while growing up.

“Read Island had a one room schoolhouse, old hippies, draft dodgers, no electricity, kerosene lamps, very different from Vancouver Island,” recounted Lang.

The Vancouver-based author  usually writes thriller and murder mysteries.

“I haven't done historical fiction before, but I jumped in with both feet,” said Lang. “There was so much research, visiting archives and museums; halfway through I was thinking ‘what am I doing?’” 

Lang has written 12 gritty fictional novels, each with an undercurrent of a social issue and all based somewhere in BC. Many of the author’s protagonists and characters are based in the LGTBQS+ community.

The Flying Dutchman is set in the years prior to the outbreak of WWI and Lang uncovered a world in upheaval and societal tension.

“I had no idea we had that much interesting and crazy history in BC,” said Lang. “I researched historical events that happened here in BC and I found the Dutchman; I didn’t know about that guy.”

Wagner hid out on Lasqueti for a while but eventually made his way to Union Bay, a very busy port close to Cumberland, which was a busy coal mining town at the time. He was eventually found and taken to Nanaimo in 1913, where he was convicted of murder and hanged. 

Lang’s story outlines the true history of workers' strikes, coal mine strife and pre-war tension of the time. However, Lang also weaves in a fictional story of love, rebellion and resistance.

The theme of fighting for justice is woven into all of the Canadian fictional mystery series Lang is now a part of, and her book now belongs to Canada (literally).

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