Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Mara Hvistendahl talks to Time Out about investigating the case of a murdered 22-year-old for her new book And The City Swallowed Them
In 2008, a young Canadian expat and model Diana O’Brien was stabbed outside her Shanghai flat 22 times, once for each year of her life. A Chinese migrant worker was convicted of her slaying. At the time, Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Mara Hvistendahl was living nearby. In her new book And The City Swallowed Them, the author and journalist examines the case. Here, she talks to Time Out about what she unearthed.
Why did you write this book?
I was a single woman in my 20s at the time of Diana’s murder. I’d always thought of Shanghai as a very safe place, it hadn’t occurred to me that there could be such a violent crime carried out against a foreigner so near to me. There was a lot of speculation at the time because the case was so opaque. Years later I had the opportunity to write whatever I wanted.
How much access to the story were you given?
It was difficult at first. Eventually Diana’s mother provided the documents she had on the case for me. I contacted the court, I contacted defence lawyers and a Chinese police show that had run an hour-long segment on solving the crime, which they wanted Dhs12,000 for. In the end, I spoke with former police officers, as well as criminologists |who specialised in China.
What were you looking for in this case?
I noticed that something was not right in the way the crime was solved. In America, the UK and other parts of Asia, you can assume a certain level of transparency. Evidence comes out in court and the presumption is that the bulk of it is true. That just isn’t the case here. Confessions are almost always used rather than hard evidence to convict; police can detain someone for up to 37 days without arrest; there is a 99 percent conviction rate. [But] the system is in transition and there are voices for reform.
What did you uncover?
I found there were parallels between Diana and the man charged with her murder. When I went to Salt Spring [O’Brien’s hometown in British Columbia], I found a very tightknit community, which was to some degree isolated. To come from there to Shanghai is a huge transition and is quite similar to the one that rural migrants make. In Diana’s case she was a model living in basic conditions, similar to all the rural workers living at the edge of the city. But this book is about more than whether the police got it right or not.
Dhs15, available for Kindle at www.amazon.com.au.