True-crime author Lazarus on the notorious Vancouver ‘murder by milkshake’

Vancouver true-crime author Eve Lazarus. Rebecca Blisset photo.

Earlier this month, Arsenal Pulp Press published Murder by Milkshake: An Astonishing True Story of Adultery, Arsenic, and a Charismatic Killer. The book, by bestselling historian-turned-true-crime-investigator Eve Lazarus, details the investigation into the death of Esther Castellani. The Vancouverite died after suffering through months of agonizing pain from arsenic poisoning. The killer was her husband, Rene Castellani, a local radio personality who was carrying on an affair with his station’s twenty-something receptionist.

We emailed Lazarus (whose other books include 2015’s Cold Case Vancouver: The City’s Most Baffling Unsolved Murders, a BC bestseller and 2016 finalist for the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award) to ask about the book and the state of true-crime in general.

Inside Vancouver: How did you become interested in the story of Rene Castellani?

Eve Lazarus: Actually, I’m interested in the story of Esther Castellani. I’ve had a fascination with the murder since I first saw the true-crime exhibit at the Vancouver Police Museum in the 1990s. It’s one of the most sensational murders of the last century, and I’ve read lots of accounts of the murder over the years, even written about it myself. But I’ve always wanted to know what happened to Jeannine, the Castellani daughter, who was eleven at the time of her mother’s murder. And, then last year, I found out.

Rene and Esther Castellani circa 1964.

IV: What is the ideal amount of time between the “end” of a case and exploring it (whether in book form or podcast)?

EL: When you are writing about murder, it’s easy to be swept away with the sensational nature of the crime, but you have to remember that there are real people involved and they have had their lives ripped apart by the loss of their loved one. Some people want to talk about it and some don’t—and it doesn’t matter whether it’s been six days or 60 years. The challenge in writing about a historical murder—in this case, one that is 53 years old—is that a lot of the people who could have helped to give me a more rounded picture of Esther are dead. On the other hand, writing about a historical crime gave me a very different perspective and more information than I would have had if I was reporting a murder for a newspaper right after it happened.

IV: Have podcasts taken the place of true-crime books to some extent, or is there an unending appetite for the stuff?

EL: Podcasts are just a different kind of way to consume true crime stories. I suspect podcasts are attracting a younger audience to the medium, and if anything, they are increasing the audience and the interest for true crime overall.

IV: Are some cities more conducive to sensational, or extraordinary, true crime stories than others? What is it about Vancouver that makes it a better/worse setting for a (true) crime story than other cities? (i.e.: records kept are better/worse, demographics, weather…)

EL: Statistically, Vancouver has a violent crime rate that’s comparable to other Canadian cities of its size. It’s only been quite recently that stories about our criminal past have come to light. It surprises people that Vancouver’s history is not just forestry, fisheries and rainforests, and streets named after old white men, but when you scratch beneath the surface, you discover the city’s underbelly and endlessly fascinating stories of bootleggers, brothels, corrupt cops and murder.

Murder by Milkshake: An Astonishing True Story of Adultery, Arsenic, and a Charismatic Killer by Eve Lazarus is available at better bookstores everywhere.

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