The best books on Vancouver history

Daniel Francis Author Of Becoming Vancouver: A History
By Daniel Francis

The Books I Picked & Why

Who Killed Janet Smith?

By Ed Starkins

Book cover of Who Killed Janet Smith?

Why this book?

Janet Smith was a young Scottish housemaid who was murdered in the home of her well-to-do employer in 1924. Never solved, the murder is one of the most celebrated crimes in Vancouver history, featuring political corruption, racial animosity, sex, drugs, and jazz. The book is a wonderful evocation of life in the city in the 1920s when it was emerging from world war and recession and finding its feet as a cosmopolitan community with pretensions to economic leadership. This is one of the first books I ever read about Vancouver history and it remains a favourite.


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Stanley Park's Secret

By Jean Barman

Book cover of Stanley Park's Secret

Why this book?

The secret of the title refers to the fact that Vancouver’s most famous landmark, Stanley Park, was home to many Indigenous people before they were dispossessed and removed from the park following the creation of the city. Jean Barman is one of British Columbia’s leading historians and she combines her skill as a researcher with many hours of conversation with descendants of the original families to write a path-breaking book. Reading it was a watershed moment in my own understanding of the city.


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Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960

By Diane Purvey, John Belshaw

Book cover of Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960

Why this book?

Purvey and Belshaw are a husband-and-wife team of academics who know how to spin a great story for a general audience. Their book is an account of the “noir era” in the city, roughly 1930 to 1960. It is inspired by the black and white photographs of crime scenes and shadowy streetscapes that appeared in the daily press of the period. Reading it is like revelling in an old gangster movie. Amply illustrated.


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Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History

By Sean Kheraj

Book cover of Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History

Why this book?

Stanley Park occupies such a giant place in the city’s imagination. Most Vancouverites well remember the devastating windstorm that blew through the city in 2006 – it tore down several trees in my own neighbourhood and scared me witless – leveling great swathes of the park. Historian Sean Kheraj uses the storm as a jumping-off point to reflect on the park’s history and its complicated relationship with the citizens of the city.


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Along the No. 20 Line

By Rolf Knight

Book cover of Along the No. 20 Line

Why this book?

This unusual book is a tour through the working-class city in the middle of the last century. This is a portrait of Vancouver when working people occupied the waterfront, instead of glittering condo towers. Knight imagines taking a trip on the old No.20 streetcar that once ran the length of the city’s eastside waterfront, painting an evocative portrait of the mills, docks, flophouses, and beer parlours that occupied the strip. Then he turns the book over to a series of personal reminiscences from men and women who called the neighbourhood home. Vancouver prides itself today on being a world-class destination for the global super-rich. This is where it came from.


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