Born in Ottawa on September 26, 1946 and raised in Truro, Nova Scotia, John Gray came to Vancouver to study theatre after his stints as a rock 'n' roll keyboardist in the Maritimes while attending Mount Allison University. He had also lived briefly in Toronto. He received his M.A. in Theatre from UBC in 1971. He co-founded Tamahnous Theatre in Vancouver, directing eight of its early productions, and later joined Toronto's innovative Theatre Passe Muraille in 1975, as a composer and director, a period that resulted in the premiere of his first musical, 18 Wheels, in 1977. Other early musicals included his bittersweet Rock and Roll, first produced in 1981, which became a prize-winning television presentation called The King of Friday Night, and the down-home Don Messer's Jubilee, Gray's tribute to the hokey but popular country music program that had aired for many years on CBC from Halifax. It was first produced in 1985. Gray's less successful Health, The Musical was first produced in 1989.

John Gray's legendary, second musical called Billy Bishop Goes To War, co-created with actor Eric Peterson, opened on November 3, prior to Remembrance Day, at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1978. Despite a newspaper strike at the time, it was held over for two weeks. Veterans from both wars came back stage to talk to the on-stage piano player John Gray and the versatile actor Eric Peterson, who played all 18 roles. An American producer named Lewis Allen, producer of the musical Annie, told the creators the show should go to Broadway. Allen contacted his partner Mike Nichols. The show proceeded to tour across Canada. During a snowstorm in Listowel, Ontario, Mike Nichols saw the show. Eventually a somewhat souped-up version of the play opened in Washington, D.C. in March of 1980. The New York Times and other American critics praised it. The show opened at the Morosco Theatre in New York on May 29, 1980 but partial success wasn't good enough to merit a long run. "Americans don't want to see unknown Canadians perform a play about an unknown Canadian war hero who fought in a war that America did not win," Gray later concluded. The play won a Governor General's Award, the Chalmer's Canadian Play Award and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award.

A keen and sometimes overly witty social critic, John Gray gradually diversified from theatre. He took more writing gigs, as a syndicated newspaper columnist for the Vancouver Sun (until 2000) and the Globe & Mail, and changed his name to John MacLachlan Gray to avoid confusion with others of the same common name such as the author of Men are Mars, Women are from Venus. Gray contributed 65 satirical pieces for The Journal on CBC Television, wrote many magazine articles and published a book of serious social criticism called Lost in North America: The Imaginary Canadian in the American Dream, as well as a non-fiction book on tattoos. His collection of three musicals (18 Wheels; Rock and Roll; Don Messer's Jubilee) was published as Local Boy Makes Good.

John Gray also wrote numerous scripts including the screenplay for the Canadian movie Kootenay Brown (1990), he premiered a new musical about aviatrix Amelia Earhart in 1993, and he premiered a new version of Genesis called 'The Tree. The Tower. The Flood.' in 1997. This period of gradual transition from stage to page in the 1990s bore fruit when he was able to launch a new series of historical thrillers for the new Millennium.

These were A Gift For The Little Master (Random House, 2000), The Fiend in Human (St. Martins/Random House, 2004), White Stone Day (Minotaur Books, 2005) and Not Quite Dead (Minotaur Books, 2007).

In 2000, Gray's agent Helen Heller took 80 pages of a work-in-progress to the Frankfurt Book Fair and managed to sign an international three-book deal for Gray that included republication of Gray's little-noticed second novel, A Gift for the Little Master, a contemporary serial killer thriller set in Vancouver. Gray had published his first novel, Dazzled!, to minimal fanfare in 1984. It was a light but shrewdly critical send-up of the manners and attitudes of Kitsilano during the heydays of hippiedom. Gray had persevered and envisioned a Dickensian thriller, The Fiend in Human, set in London, England in 1852. Its central character was a dissolute tabloid journalist named Edmund Whitty. This opium-addicted muckraker for The Falcon finds himself on the trail of a serial killer who is strangling and mutilating prostitutes with a white silk scarf. "The book is as much about the newspaper world and its moral paradoxes," observed reviewer Ian Dennis in Canadian Literature, "as it is about crime and punishment." Unfortunately this novel appeared in Canada around the time when Vancouver police were charging pig farmer Robert Picton with the multiple murders of women who had disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. But with the lucrative Frankfurt deal, Gray was onto the international fiction stage.

A neo-Victorian sequel to The Fiend in Human, entitled White Stone Day (Random House, 2005) had been tentatively titled A White Pebble Day. Down on his luck again, owing 500 pounds to a boss criminal, Whitty goes undercover to investigate a quack psychic who claims to receive communications from Whitty's long-dead and disgraced brother. When the psychic is killed, Whitty is on the run as the prime suspect, trying to clear his name while trying to solve the mysteries of his brother's life, or else find the police chief's missing daughter, Eliza. An eccentric Oxford professor who enjoys photographing little girls connects Whitty to a deadly ring of child pornographers.

A follow-up called Not Quite Dead (Minotaur Books, 2007) had little traction. After four kicks at the can, Gray's foray into the big fiction tent was sputtering. Toronto might be willing to take a risk on historical fiction set in London; less so in historical fiction set in Vancouver. It took another ten years before Gray's West Coast novel The White Angel, set in the 1920s, would appear from B.C.'s largest publishing imprint, with a boost from one of Vancouver's two most successful, contemporary novelists, William Gibson, who wrote: "John MacLachlan Gray's mordant noir immerses the reader in a brilliantly detailed historical dystopia, scarcely less than a century in our past. The militant politics of whiteness, politicized murder, and a cast of characters who are purely, wonderfully Gray."

The White Angel, aptly described as simply 'a mystery,' greatly benefited from the publications of two excellent non-fiction titles on the same subject, both doing considerable spadework to outline the framework for B.C.'s most infamous unsolved murder. Gray cited Ed Starkin's Who Killed Janet Smith? but not Betty O'Keefe and Ian Macdonald's Canadian Holy War: A Story of Class, Tongs, Murder and Bigotry.

In July of 1924, Janet Smith, an otherwise ordinary Scottish nanny who was employed in a Shaughnessey mansion, was found dead by a Chinese Canadian 'houseboy' who was soon targeted as a murder suspect by the racist police force. There was a public outcry and much skulduggery involving the police. Some of the elite in Shaughnessey had links to drugs and the KKK. Nobody was ever convicted of any crime, but Vancouver's veneer of Victorian innocense was seriously eroded. John Gray's ability to reveal that same process on military terrain during World War One was at the heart of his success for Billy Bishop Goes To War. An argument could be made that with The White Angel, John MacLachlan had brilliantly and shrewdly returned to similar subject matter on a domestic stage. [See review below]

Featured on the cover of B.C. BookWorld [Winter 2017], The White Angel was shortlisted for Best Crime Novel in the 2018 Arthur Ellis Awards for Excellence in Canadian Crime Writing.

John Gray is an Officer of the Order of Canada. He lives in Vancouver.

BOOKS:

Billy Bishop Goes to War (Talonbooks, 1982)

Dazzled! (Irwin, 1984)

Local Boy Makes Good (Talonbooks, 1987)

I Love Mom: An Irreverent History of the Tattoo (Key Porter Books, 1994)

Lost in North America: The Imaginary Canadian in the American Dream (Talonboks, 1994)

A Gift for the Little Master (Random House 2000)

The Fiend in Human (Random House, 2003)

White Stone Day (Random House, Minotaur Books 2005)

Not Quite Dead (Minotaur Books, 2007)

The White Angel (Douglas & McIntyre, 2015). $29.95 978-1-77162-146-5

[top right: Eric Peterson stars in Billy Bishop Goes To War in 1978]
[bottom right: John MacLachlan Gray]

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2018] "Theatre" "Interview"