Backstory: the grisly Yonge Street murder behind Anthony De Sa’s new novel

Backstory: the grisly Yonge Street murder behind Anthony De Sa’s new novel

A sadistic true-life murder becomes part of Toronto’s painful coming-of-age in the Canadian novelist’s gritty new book

Backstory: a sadistic true-life murder becomes part of Toronto’s painful coming-of-age in a new novel by Anthony De Sa
Backstory: a sadistic true-life murder becomes part of Toronto’s painful coming-of-age in a new novel by Anthony De Sa

On July 28, 1977, Emanuel Jaques—a 12-year-old shoeshine boy from the Azores—was lured into an apartment above a body-rub shop on Yonge Street just south of Dundas. There, he was tortured and raped by three men, who then drowned him in the kitchen sink. Three days later, one of the killers confessed and led the police to Jaques’ body, which was hidden under a pile of debris on the building’s roof. The remaining men were caught shortly afterward on a Vancouver-bound train in northwestern Ontario. (One died in prison in 2003; the others are serving life sentences for first-degree murder.)

The city was traumatized. More than 15,000 people—including a huge contingent of Portuguese Canadians—stormed Nathan Phillips square, demanding that authorities clean up Yonge, which at the time had the highest concentration of sex shops in North America. Calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty were widespread.

It was the moment when “Toronto the Good became Toronto the I-don’t-know-what,” says the Giller shortlisted writer Anthony De Sa, whose gritty new novel, Kicking the Sky, is set during that dark summer. “We realized that, yeah, we’re a city now. This kind of shit happens in cities.” De Sa, a second-generation Portuguese Canadian, was roughly Jaques’ age at the time of the murder.

Kicking the Sky is narrated by 12-year-old Antonio Rebelo, who spends his days hanging out with his best friends in the alleyways near Palmerston and Queen. While the murder terrifies their families and neighbours, Antonio and his buddies find that their world has opened up: Toronto is suddenly a place of big-city intrigue, excitement and terror. They become transfixed by the neon-lit land of hustlers and porn theatres downtown. “As kids, we were fascinated,” De Sa says. “We would ride up and down Yonge, because it was alive, it was colourful, and there was a sense there were no barriers.”

BOOKS

Kicking the Sky
by Anthony De Sa
Available Sept. 10

(Image: Newspaper courtesy of the Toronto Star; Group, Shop courtesy GetStock)