A brutal double-murder was executed on the Southside of Harbour Grace in 1871.
Patrick J. Collins, a native of Riverhead, Harbour Grace, explores this tragic story in his latest book, "Belonging." A work of fiction, it is based on real life facts.
He explains: "I work to keep the basis of the story as true to my primary and secondary sources as possible."
Collins is no novice when it comes to writing historical fiction. Appearing on the literary field relatively late in life, he has established his reputation as a writer of some renown, starting with his biography of "a doctor for all time, a man who cured our hearts," Charles Cron, published in 2010. In 2011, he tackled the Harbour Grace Affray, which occurred on St. Stephen’s Day, 1883. In 2012, he celebrated 100 years of marine majesty by chronicling the story of the trusty and beloved "Kyle." Last year, he wrote about another murder, this one occurring at Mosquito Cove (now Bristol’s Hope) in 1870.
"The fiction," he says, "is written around the story to add intrigue." He strives to maintain what he calls "historical integrity."
It has been said that, in "Belonging," Collins "leads readers through an unexpected turn of events with all the dexterity of a skilled surgeon." His is a classic story of love, lust and greed, ingredients bound to whet the appetite of the connoisseur of murder mysteries.
The action embodied in the 32 chapters takes place in such diverse venues as, first, the Southside of Harbour Grace, followed by the Anglican Cathedral of St. John’s the Baptist, St. John’s; Nowlan’s Harbour, Labrador; Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, also in the capital city; Newfoundland Supreme Court; St. John’s Railway Terminus; Sisters of Mercy Convent, Dublin, Ireland; and Masnieres, France. The timeframe extends from 1867 to 1917.
Collins is a retired educator who, he admits, "writes more in retirement. The research is as enjoyable as the writing. Creating a parallel plot is where the greatest fun comes in."
He has a unique spin on the title he chose for his most recent work.
"We, as Newfoundlanders, are famous for asking, ‘Where do you belong?'" he says. "I took a more metaphorical approach to that meaning."
One of the characters, Fr. John Coombs, spends his entire life feeling as if he does not belong. As a result, he seeks his role, desperately trying to find real value.
"It was the proverbial desire to fit in," Collins suggests. "So many people ... spend their lives trying to find themselves. Really, they are trying to find true meaning."
Fr. John thinks his life is better served by being one of God’s servants. Another character, Joanna Hamilton, spends her life in search of self-value. Initially, she thinks her quest ends with one Patrick Geehan. However, he takes advantage of her desire "to be somebody."
Collins explains that, "while the book is about the murders, it is equally about John and Johanna wanting to belong to somebody or something."
Without spoiling the denouement for the reader, suffice it to say that Fr. John eventually discovers that he does, in fact, belong to somebody.
"There are," Collins adds, "many adopted children still trying to find out to whom and where they belong."
He says that, at the end of his book, he attempts to "explain a little by separating the chaff from the wheat."
The appeal of "Belonging" is increased by the inclusion of several photographs and illustrations, including the Harbour Grace courthouse and Spaniard’s Bay Road, along with original drawings and floor plan of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary. There is also a list of prisoners from HMP, on the day of Geehan and Hamilton’s incarceration. Contemporary newspaper accounts, including Geehan’s confession and Hamilton’s statement, lend historical integrity to the tale Collins spins.
"Belonging: The Murders of Jane Sears Geehan and Garrett Sears on the Southside of Harbour Grace, 1871" is published by DRC Publishing, St. John’s.
Readers will hear of Patrick Collins again. His next book is another mystery, again based on a true story and, again, set in Harbour Grace, this time in 1833. As a veritable "Energizer Bunny" of historical fiction, he should have that book in the bookstores next year!
— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org