PORT AUX BASQUES – Helen C. Escott was clearly enjoying herself during her author signing event at the Butterfly Book Boutique on Saturday, Oct. 17.
“This is so good. It’s wonderful. As an author you kind of work in a bubble, right? You kind of sit with your characters all day and you don’t see a lot of the outside world,” says Escott. “I love meeting people.”
The award winning St. John’s-based author is a retired civilian member of the RCMP and draws extensively on that experience to pen her crime thrillers, including her fifth and latest novel – Operation Wormwood: The Reckoning. Escott is particularly delighted to find a fan in Valerie Parsons, an independent book retailer who has been actively promoting Escott’s books, even though the two had no prior connection.
“But isn’t that just Newfoundland? We help each other and we do support local authors,” says Escott. “I know authors over in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and P.E.I. who’ll say, ‘ You know we don’t get the support that you guys get. You’re out doing book signings. People invite you in.’”
Escott says that authors in Vancouver, for instance, will tell her that readers will reject local books whereas in Newfoundland, where our culture is so closely tied to our music and stories, local is always popular.
“It’s fabulous when we get this support. It’s so unique to us, especially as an artist in COVID times. You know bookstores basically shut down in February, never opened again until almost June, that… nobody sold books.”
Escott includes her publisher, Flanker Press among the province’s book retailers who have struggled during the pandemic and resulting restrictions. Backups at Canada Post also impacted online sales, and Escott says people sometimes had to wait months to get their order.
“Newfoundlanders buy a lot of books. They’re a very well read people. My theory on it is we’re an island of storytellers,” says Escott. “You can’t be a good storyteller if you don’t read stories.”
As part of her provincial tour, Escott also stopped in at Corner Brook and Grand Falls. Last fall she also toured Corner Brook, Gander and Clarenville as well as the Avalon. This trip was brief since her husband, Robert, has to go back to work.
“He’s my bodyguard, my sherpa, my coffee getter,” laughs Escott.
In fact, Robert is the primary inspiration for Nicholas Myra, the protagonist of the Operation Wormwood books. Escott has no trouble basing characters on people she knows, who tend to be flattered by it. The realism and detail she puts into her novels means some fans become heavily invested, sometimes reaching out to her because they’re worried she will kill off a beloved character.
In her books, Escott deliberately uses St. John’s itself as a character.
“When I write I can kind of see it, I can see the movie,” says Escott, who truly believes that someday her books will be optioned to film. “If you’re going to make this movie, you can’t make it in Nova Scotia and pretend to be St. John’s, because the landmarks in the book are so important and I did that on purpose.”
Escott also spends considerable time and effort on research for her novels, even letting former colleagues and acquaintances double check sections to verify they comply with how an actual investigation would unfold.
“I’m meeting with a police officer next week who is an expert on human trafficking,” shares the author. “I don’t want a police officer to read this book and go, ‘Oh no. That would never happen.’ That’s not the way it’s done.”
Currently she’s speaking to law enforcement experts as she researches her next book, which she hopes will be released next Fall, that will see protagonists Myra and McNaughton team up for a joint Federal and Provincial investigation into sex trafficking. Escott says Newfoundland is by no means exempt from the practice, which exploits millions of women and children annually.
“When you look at organized crime and their top three moneymakers, number one is drugs, number two is arms and number three is women and children.”
She cites Hookers in the Holy Land, a report on the rampant sex trafficking in Israel, and zeroes in on cultural and ethnic bias.
“They would never expect their women to do this kind of stuff, so they bring in Russian women or Polish women, and they’re literally kidnapped off the street.”
Escott’s details of how the women and even young girls are tricked, then raped until broken are simultaneously harrowing and revolting. Even the police services in some of the more notorious countries are complicit.
“No little girl grows up wanting to be a prostitute,” notes Escott. “I get so enraged when I see these specialty groups wanting to legalize prostitution. What you’re doing is you’re legalizing the sex slave business. You’re legalizing slavery for women and children is what you’re doing. That is the vote.”
Escott wrote a blog about the sex trade she later sent to St. John City council. At the time, councillors and special groups were examining whether or not to allow more massage parlours.
“I went to them and I said what you’re voting on is not, ‘Do I want more massage parlours’, cause they have a ban on it right now,” shares Escott. “It’s do I want the City to be involved in the sex trafficking and sex slavery of women and children? That’s what you’re saying yes or no to.”
Escott once asked a police officer how to stop sex trafficking and sexual slavery once and for all.
“She said to me it stops when men stop buying women and children,” recounts Escott. “You can buy a woman. You can buy a child. And that’s the world we live in.”
Escott believes the key to changing that world is to raise better men and stop protecting the offenders in an effort to avoid small town gossip or scandal. She offers a typical scenario where instead of reporting an abusive uncle, family members and friends will simply make sure he has no access to or alone time with their children.
“As mothers we have to say no. That’s not okay.”