In 2018, Carys Cragg’s memoir Dead Reckoning: How I Came to Meet the Man Who Murdered My Father by Carys Cragg (Arsenal Pulp Press $19.95) was  nominated for a Governor General Literary Award in the Non-Fiction category.


BC BookWorld REVIEW (2017) by Joan Givner:

Dead Reckoning: How I Came to Meet the Man Who Murdered My Father by Carys Cragg (Arsenal Pulp Press $19.95)

At 4:20 on the morning of September 16, 1992, an intruder, high on drugs, broke into the Calgary home of Dr. Geoffrey Cragg, a resident in orthopaedic surgery, and brutally stabbed him.

Eleven-year-old Carys Cragg, the eldest of the doctor's four children looked downstairs at the bloody scene and, following her mother's instructions, called 9-1-1. Her father died in hospital of his wounds shortly afterwards.

The murderer, twenty-two-year old Sheldon Klatt, was apprehended the next day. He received a life sentence with eligibility for parole after twenty-five years. The sentence was unusually harsh because he denied his guilt and tried to blame the murder on a friend.

Twenty years later, Carys Cragg resolved to make contact with the man responsible for her father's death. As a "registered victim,"; she had received documents detailing the court hearings and later appeals but had paid little attention to them. Looking back after two decades, she felt frustrated by knowing so little about the event that destroyed her family. As a professional in child and youth care, she was familiar with restorative justice and understood how difficult the process would be, but she was determined to find out what happened and why it happened.

The complicated nature of her journey is reflected in the various voices that emerge in her narrative. The predominant one reflects her academic training and experience in counselling young people. She uses the vocabulary of her profession, which sometimes comes across as jargon (the terminology of most professions strikes outsiders as jargon), and speaks in the first person. Being familiar with the protocols, she accepts from the outset that her contacts with the offender will be mediated by three counsellors, two working on her behalf, one on his.
Interspersed with the chapters detailing her communications with Klatt are sections describing her memories of her father. Here, she uses the third person, the references to her younger self as "she"; serving to acknowledge the idealized nature of her memories. She recalls her father teaching her to ski, taking the family sailing and creating a celebratory dinner for her mother.

A different voice emerges when she begins to write letters. These are long and carefully crafted messages that will be monitored by three counsellors. The first letter is hard work, and the response is anticipated nervously as one might wait for the autopsy report after the death of a loved one. Both Dave and Sandi, her two counsellors, are present when she reads the first reply. Sometimes, Klatt's counsellor attaches a warning on the fax cover page-"He does write a bit about the actual crime, so she may want a heads-up about that.";

As the letters go back and forth between British Columbia and the minimum security institution in Drumheller, Alberta, the prisoner is transformed in her mind from a ghost-like entity to a human being who becomes clearer each time he writes. He writes fluently and she determines to overlook the typos, spelling and grammar errors, but his psychiatric treatment has left traces which she dismisses as "psychobabble.";

At first, they are wary of each other, and she postpones asking hard questions until they become more comfortable. Later she becomes frustrated by his evasiveness. She wants to make sure he knows the man he killed and the enormity of the loss inflicted on the family. And there is a mystery she hopes to solve; why on that summer night, did he choose her particular home in a section of town unfamiliar to him. Was that a random or a deliberate choice?

By a strange coincidence, it had been her father who was the emergency physician who once treated him in the hospital after he was injured in a car accident.
The dramatic climax in Dead Reckoning, as one might expect, is their face-to-face meeting in the prison at Drumheller. Carys is accompanied on the flight to Calgary by her counsellor, Dave, and she reads over the letters in her hotel room the night before the nine o'clock meeting. The session lasts all day, resuming in the afternoon after a lunch break.

At first there is awkwardness on both sides. Fearing that his appearance, partly because of his size, is intimidating, he sent a photograph but she avoided looking at it. He announces that he's "as nervous as hell." Both make polite overtures. '"I was going to bake muffins," he said. "But they said no."
"Thank you for the thought," she replied.'

When they feel more at ease, he surprises her by launching into a full account of what happened on the night of the murder. She notes discrepancies everywhere in his statements but, at the same time, senses that he is fragile and precarious.

When he tells her about his experience as her father's patient she realizes that all along he has been waiting to tell her this. His description of her father is accurate and she writes, "Right then I got it-I knew that Sheldon knew what he had taken away.";

The meeting ends on a cordial note with a handshake, the question of future letters being left unresolved. If she takes the initiative to write again, he will reply.

On the way home, she experiences the euphoria of having survived a dreaded ordeal. "I've just met my father's murderer. And if I can meet my father's murderer, I can do anything.";

But it is not over. In retrospect, she feels that he still hasn't accepted full responsibility for his crime; after 138 days she writes to him and the correspondence resumes only to increase her frustration. Yet she realizes that his inability to tell the whole truth comes from shame at what he has done.

Later, along with her mother, she attends a parole hearing, which is unsuccessful. A second one is successful and this time she concludes that finally his remorse is deep and genuine.

This book is characterized as True Crime/ Biography/ Memoir. It combines the suspense and mystery of the first genre with the human interest of life-writing. Its major achievement, however, is in powerfully conveying the long and arduous nature of the restorative justice process for both parties involved. 9781551526973

Joan Givner is a biographer and novelist based in Victoria.