Murder in the Yukon: The Case against George O'Brien


175 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography
ISBN 0-88833-096-0





Reviewed by Sidney Allinson

Sidney Allinson is a Victoria-based communications consultant, Canadian
news correspondent for Britain’s The Army Quarterly and Defence, and
author of The Bantams: The Untold Story of World War I.


Most of the time, aficionados of true-crime writing in this country must content themselves with accounts of cases in the United States or Britain. Part of this lack has only just begun to be filled through a new interest by writers delving into classic criminal cases here. Murder in the Yukon is a good example of the rich lode to be mined in records of some of our more spectacular trials. There’s the potential outline of a good commercial movie script inside this dryly told but inherently dramatic account of a triple killing that occurred at the turn of the century. When three men went missing on Christmas morning, 1899, along the Yukon River trail to Hootchikoo, an investigation was launched by an almost classically opposite pair — Constable Pennycuik, a stuffy English member of the North West Mounted Police, and Phillip Maguire, an irreverent Irish-American private detective.

Starting only with a missing-person’s report, they set off in bitter cold to search along 300 miles of the banks of the Yukon River between Dawson and Skagway. Author M.J. Malcolm makes good use of archival records to portray how the investigators gradually narrowed the search to a short stretch of trail. Lacking modern-day forensic equipment, the Mountie and the private-eye used only their persistence and observation to finally uncover patches of blood frozen under the snow. From this, they began to gather, painstakingly, dozens of other physical clues: bullet holes through tree-limbs, buttons from burned clothing, a pile of rifle cartridges here, a scrap of wool in a bush over there .... Displaying surprisingly good investigative training for the day, the pair reconstructed the entire series of grisly events that took place in the woods there, and portrayed them in a scene-of-the-crime map that was later used effectively during the sensational trial which followed.

Unfortunately, whatever drama may have been inherent in the original case which drew the author to write about it has been obscured in the telling. Not that there has been any lack of industry with research. It is just that the reader has the feeling of holes gaping in the narrative, of facts gathered but somehow left out, as if there were no need to know. For instance, despite accounts of lengthy discussions between the two detectives, we learn nothing in the end about them as people. The murderer, George O’Brien, is left as an even more sketchy figure. Vexing hints of his previously having had a lengthy criminal career are never resolved, though archival photographs of him are identified as having been taken by Scotland Yard. The book is nonetheless worth adding to the library of any student of Canadian criminal investigation.


Malcolm, M.J., “Murder in the Yukon: The Case against George O'Brien,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 12, 2024,