26 November 2015

Ricochet Prefers Blondes

The postman brings the third Ricochet Book in as many months. As Series Editor, I couldn't be more proud. One of the greatest Canadian noir novels, Blondes Are My Trouble followed Hot Freeze as the second Mike Garfin thriller. Like the first, it's set in the private detective's hometown of Montreal. And, like the first, the focus is on vice. This time it's prostitution, a racket not even Mike's girl Tessie can escape.

I was introduced to the novel as The Darker Traffic, published in 1954 by Dodd, Mead under Sanderson's "Martin Brett" nom de plume. Blondes Are My Trouble is the title given by Popular Library for the 1955 paperback release.

Better, don't you think?

We think Popular Library's cover is better, too, so have adapted it for the Ricochet reissue. Sure, that dame depicted isn't a blonde, but aren't you intrigued?

This time out I tapped John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books to pen the Introduction.

I think of Hot Freeze as the very best of post-war Canadian noir. John tells me that Blondes is even better.

Could I be wrong?

Acknowledgement: The publication of Blondes Are My Trouble sees the return of all four – or is it three? – Mike Garfin thrillers to print:
The Darker Traffic (a/k/a Blondes Are My Trouble; 1955)
The last two are available from Greg Shepard's Stark House Press. It is thanks to Greg that we were able to contact Douglas Sanderson's son and secure the rights to Hot Freeze and Blondes Are My Trouble. Long a champion, in the past nine years Stark House has reissued six Sanderson novels, most recently Night of Horns and Cry Wolfsham.

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18 November 2015

A Rival for Margaret Millar?

The Keys of My Prison
Frances Shelley Wees
London: Jenkins, 1956

Is The Keys of My Prison typical Frances Shelley Wees? If so, she's a writer who deserves attention. If not, the worst that can be said is that she wrote at least one novel worthy of same.

The beginning is quiet and subtle. In the well-appointed private room of a Toronto hospital, devoted wife Julie Jonason sits watching over husband Rafe. Ten days earlier, he was involved in a car accident. Rafe's been unconscious ever since, poor man, but he is improving; Dr Prescott expects a full recovery. Julie has ever right to believe that things will eventually return to normal. Then Nurse Burnell enters and mentions, as casually as possible, that that morning her patient had mumbled something about a woman named Bess.

This shouldn't be taken as much – Nurse Burnell is a bitch – but it marks a beginning. Julie's life, with its inherited riches and ideal husband, is slowly revealed as something less than blessèd. For one, she's always had to deal with the tragedy of her birth, during which her mother died. As if in punishment, Julie was cursed with an unsightly facial disfigurement that had her hiding away for the first two decades of her life. No man would ever take Julie for his bride – on this everyone agreed – yet Rafe did.

Polite, contemplative, dedicated, diligent and sober is Rafe, but the man who emerges from the comatose state is none of these things. This Rafe denies he's Rafe and doesn't recognize his own wife. "And who the hell are you?" are his first words to Julie.

Doctor Prescott determines that the best course of action is to transfer the patient to the family home; a familiar environment is sure to restore his memory. And so, Julie is forced to share the Rosedale mansion built by her father with a crude, intemperate man who downs drams of whisky, keeps ungodly hours and might just be an impostor.

The Keys of My Prison is an exploration of identity, of course. That psychology plays such a part brought Margaret Millar to mind, though the similarities extend far beyond the psychoanalytic trends of the post-war era. The novel takes place in Millar territory: here are the comfortable Torontonians found in Wall of Eyes (1943) and The Iron Gates (1945). The novel also shares something with Millar's An Air That Kills (1957) in featuring a car accident that takes place between Toronto and cottage country. And then there's the dialogue… Not one Canadian writer of the time matched Millar, but Wees comes close.

If The Keys of My Prison is Frances Shelley Wees at her very best, she rose to the level of the average Millar.

That's a high watermark.

Object: A very attractive, very compact 190-page hardcover with jacket by English illustrator Eric Tansley. The scans above don't do it justice.

The very same year, The Keys of My Prison was published by Doubleday. Your guess is as good as mine as to which is the true first, though my money is on Doubleday. If it makes any difference, Doubleday's was the one sold in Canada.

The third and final edition appeared in 1966 as a Pyramid Books paperback. It has been out of print ever since.

Access: My American cousins will have an easy time of it. The bad news is that in this country the novel is held only by Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library and six of our universities. The good news is that used copies are cheap. At US$5.00, the cheapest is a library discard of the Pyramid edition. Ignore that. The copies most worthy of consideration are:
  • the lone Jenkins edition, despite its "tatty" dust jacket. £4.00;
  • a Very Good Doubleday in Very Good dust jacket. US$14.50;
  • a Near Fine Doubleday in Very Good dust jacket, inscribed to Wees' doctor and his wife. US$25.00;
  • a Very Good Doubleday in Very Good dust jacket, inscribed to a person or persons unknown C$50.00.
I recommend the third option.

There is one translation: Das Gefängnis seiner Wahl (Frankfurt, 1960).

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12 November 2015

Hunting the Hun by the Banks of the Niagara

Young Canada Boys with the S.O.S. on the Frontier
Harold C. Lowry [sic]
Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1918

A boys' adventure story from the Great War, doesn't this look like a series title? Could've been, I suppose, had the Armistice not been signed the month after publication.

Lowrey's "Young Canada Boys" are the "Scouts of the Allies' Patrol", a Baden-Powell-inspired group  whose members more or less represent the Allied Powers. "Cod" Martin was born in Newfoundland. "Cinders" Thomas's father is a Welshman, "Marne" Armand's veins flow with French blood and "Rusty" Kelly will never deny he's Irish, "even though he hated the mention of the evil word [sic] 'Sein Fein.'" Twelve in number, they're a pretty tight group, though "Jap" Douglas, whose missionary parents proselytized in the Orient, is repeatedly accused of being "yellow".

All of 'em – well, maybe not Jap – are itching "to give the Huns such a corking good lickin' they'll never want another war as long as the world lasts." But because they're too young, the scouts do the next best thing by enlisting as Soldiers of the Soil.

Scouts of the Allies' Patrol existed only in Lowrey's imagination, but Soldiers of the Soil – the S.O.S. of the title – was very much real. Formed in the final year of the war, it sought to fill the labour shortage on Canadian farms with strapping young lads like Cod, Cinders, Marne, Rusty and… okay, we'll take Jap.

Young Canada Boys with the S.O.S. on the Frontier was intended as a work of propaganda, and Harold C. Lowrey was just the man for the job.

Canadian Grocer, 31 January 1913
True, he wasn't a novelist, but Lowrey was a fruit grower, a grocer and an agriculture journalist. I expect he also owned a typewriter. In his first chapter, "Enlisting", the scouts join Soldiers of the Soil. In the second, "To the Farms", they travel to adjoining farms in the Niagara Peninsula. Lowrey himself was from the region and uses his knowledge of same to good effect. He recognizes that there is only so much excitement to be had in pruning and tending to plum and cherry trees affected with black knot, so adds a chapter on a runaway horse and makes it so that one of the scouts nearly drowns in the Niagara River. Elderly farmer Grandpa Secord appears from time to time to share folksy tales of his Auntie Laura and the War of 1812.

Dumb luck leads the scouts to stumble upon instructions left behind by the clumsiest German spies found in fiction. They share the evidence with the commanding officer of nearby Niagara Camp (read: Camp Niagara), who promptly hands the group over to dashing Chief Intelligence Officer Major Watson. The scouts are smitten – the mere sight of the man sets "Anzac" Woodruff's "lithe young body a'throb with excitement" – but I wasn't so affected. To be perfectly frank, I found the Major himself a bit of a suspicious character. Consider this: Niagara Camp has fourteen thousand men, but Watson sets out to catch the enemy accompanied only by the boys and an underling named Lewis. Lowrey's explanation only fuelled my suspicions: "he could not resist smiling at the eager looks on the faces of the scouts. Anzac's keen eagerness quickly caught the officer's fancy and approval; he was a boy after his own heart."

My fears were unfounded.  The climax, such as it is, involves slingshots, revolvers, falling boulders and a pit of thirty-eight seventeen-foot rattlesnakes that crush the life out of two men.

Seventeen-foot rattlesnakes? The whole thing, fantastic and incongruous, was hard to take seriously.

Black knot, on the other hand…

Bloomer? Bloomers?:
"Catch a spy ? Why say, kid, you couldn't catch a spiced pussy, let alone a German spy," laughingly asserted Chuck, giving Anzac the spanking he deserved. A lively tussle followed, which all the patrol enjoyed immensely.
Object:  A bland hardcover, 202 pages in length, the most interesting thing about it is the misspelling of the author's name on the title page.

Shades of News Stand Library.

Access: Two copes are right now listed for sale online, neither of which is in great shape. At US$25.00, the cheaper is falling apart and is splattered with white paint. The other copy is just about as bad, though it does bear the author's signature. It's yours for US$55.00. I bought mine earlier this year for one Canadian dollar at a thrift store not four blocks from my home.

Young Canada Boys with the S.O.S, on the Frontier can be found at the Toronto Public Library and seven of our universities. It can be read online here at the Internet Archive.

I wouldn't recommend it.

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11 November 2015

Remembrance Day

William Horace Humphreys
Machine Gun Corps
After the Armistice
My grandfather… not forgotten.

And remembering

06 November 2015

Ezra Levant and the Crude Art of Bowdlerization

The Rainmaker: A Passion for Politics
Keith Davey
Toronto: Stoddart, 1986

Pity Ezra Levant, not nine months ago he was making good money hosting his own show on the Sun News Network. True, ratings hovered around five thousand, but Brian Lilley and the rest of his stablemates fared no better. It was a dream job. Sun stood by its man as he smeared, misinformedinsulted, fabricated and spewed racist vomit. Job security seemed guaranteed. Separatist Pierre Karl Péladeau was committed to the "unapologetically patriotic" network… until he wasn't. There were no takers when it was up for sale.

Ezra Levant, Pierre Karl Péladeau and Rob Ford,
Sun News Network Launch, Toronto, 1 April 2011.
Levant has since turned to the internet, following Glenn Beck into irrelevance with a website supported in part by ads for mail-order brides. He calls it "The Rebel". Write him if you're interested in contributing. Don't bother if you expect to be paid (those ads for mail-order brides don't bring in much).

I'm not sure what The Rebel has by way of staff. Last May, Levant put out a call for an intern. Salary: $1000 a month with free lunches at McDonald's. Clearly, there's no researcher. Just last week, in an effort to expose Liberal bias, Levant told us that this man, James Armstrong Richardson, after whom Winnipeg's airport is named, sat in Pierre Trudeau's cabinet.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau was a teenager when James Armstrong Richardson died. The airport was named under Stephen Harper.

This week has Levant claiming that "Justin Trudeau is demanding that 24 Sussex Drive be totally rebuilt before he moves into it." This isn't a cock-up so much as another of Levant's fictions. Trudeau is demanding nothing, rather he's following the recommendations of a seven-year-old Auditor General's report that Harper chose to ignore. Maybe Rona Ambrose told him that asbestos isn't all that dangerous.

Levant makes no mention of the Auditor General's report, which deemed the renovations urgent, nor concerns coming from the National Capital Commission. Using his very best indoor voice, he tells us that the idea is Justin Trudeau's alone:
This is his first real fight – fighting for his own perks. Well, what was Pierre Trudeau, his dad, like when he was prime minister living in 24 Sussex? Was he a spoiled millionaire, too? Pierre Trudeau, like Justin Trudeau, inherited millions of dollars when he was born. He didn't have to work a day in his life.
Yep, didn't have to work a day in his life – except that he did. What follows is Levant at his most disingenuous and deceitful:
Let me read to you from Keith Davey's account of how Pierre Trudeau demanded a swimming pool at 24 Sussex Drive and threw a tantrum until he got one. Davey was a Liberal senator and senior campaign advisor to Trudeau. So, I'm going to quote now Davey's account. I'm just going to read it.

What Levant reads is a bowdlerized passage from Davey's memoir with all words, sentences and paragraphs that challenge his narrative removed. Here is the late senator's true account of what transpired, with the words Levant struck out:

So, there you have it, Keith Davey's account of "how Pierre Trudeau stamped his feet and had a tantrum like a spoiled child just like his millionaire son is doing now."

Pity Benjamin Harper, son of millionaire Stephen Harper. How long before Ezra Levant passes judgement?

Who am I kidding.

Levant won't say a word. After all, he's never gone after this billionaire's son.

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02 November 2015

Sugar Pills and a Nurse Named Molly

Rx for Murder
Jane Layhew
Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1946

I've read Rx for Murder, but I'm not sure about anyone else; certainly the person responsible for this newspaper advertisement hadn't:

The Gazette, 30 August 1946
Nor D.S.S. Mackenzie, who reviewed the book for Montreal's Gazette (30 August 1946):

Ditto J.W. Hurlow, who wrote this in the Ottawa Citizen (8 February 1947):

And most definitely not the person who wrote the book's dust jacket copy:

I know this because the heroine's name is Molly, not "Mollie".

D.S.S. Mackenzie is right about one thing: Rx for Murder opens in a hospital – and much as described. Nurse Molly Thompson is on duty at Vancouver's Hamilton Memorial when arrives accident victim Mrs Mabel Landover. The poor woman, a widow, was walking along a city street when she was struck by a car. There's no crime here, rather Mrs Landover, lost in troubled thoughts, had wandered into traffic.

Perfectly understandable.

As we soon learn, lovely Landover daughter Clara is missing, possibly abducted. She's found soon enough, locked up in an apartment in Clifton (read: Abbotsford). The body of a man named Graves lies on the other side of the door. For no good reason, pretty Clara is suspected of murder… and for no good reason, Mrs Landover offers Molly's fiancé, chemistry student Larry Stone, $1000 to prove her daughter's innocence.

Larry stumbles about – sometimes with Molly, sometimes without – in an effort to figure out just what the hell happened. Lawyer pal Ronald Raft helps out. The trio benefits from remarkably talkative witnesses and absurdly detailed newspaper stories. Good thing too, because Mrs Landover is of no help whatsoever. Sure, she's concerned for her daughter, but that doesn't mean she's willing to share her suspicions about the murdered man. Larry's left in the dark… again, for no good reason. Or is it simply that Jane Layhew, a first-time novelist, believed she could create suspense through inexplicable obstruction.

Molly and Larry are novice sleuths under the influence of a novice mystery writer writing madly off in all directions. With a few exceptions, progress takes place off-stage, and is reported when next the betrothed meet. In this passage, Larry informs Molly that Clara was indeed abducted:

Publisher Lippincott positioned Rx for Murder as a mixture of homicide and humour. Return to the jacket copy above and you'll see "Mollie [sic] and Larry are as appealing, keen-witted and wisecracking a pair  of detective youngsters as ever bubbled through the pages of mystery fiction. Readers will chuckle with them and share their adventures with absorbed interest."

There are no chuckles to be had in Rx for Murder. Molly and Larry's idea of humour rests solely on stilted speech and caricature. The combination is never more tiresome than here:
"Come my sweet, at last we sleep," he carolled.
     "Oh, sweetheart mine, speak lower, I entreat," Molly responded tunefully.
     "There's none to hear my words, my own, my sweet," he finished the song. "None but Ronald, who has ears but hears not. We, the workers of the world, have many great deeds to do tomorrow while you sleep. Let us to our downy nests.'
     "Very well" Molly said, rising, "though to speak of my humble hospital cot as a downy nest is a euphemism of the most optimistic. Only such an expert slumberer as myself could even achieve a recumbent posture upon it."
     "Ah, well," Larry consoled her, "some day – after we're married, of course – you will share my bed, and I do insist on comfort. You must just be patient until that happy time."
Mine eyes fairly glazed ov'r, but not so much that I didst not witness this:
"You alarm me," Molly murmured. "Are you addicted to brawling?"
     "Can't take it, huh? Life in the raw doesn't appeal to you? Want everything to be a bed of roses, I suppose. Well, I'm a hard-drinkin', hard-fightin' man, Miss Thompson," Larry intoned, "and my wumman will just have to get used to being beat up a few times a month."
     "Ah, the price of romance," said Molly tenderly. "I'll learn to be brave; honest I will."
     "Well, I won't put you to the test right now."
This is Molly's reaction upon seeing the bruised and beaten face of her fiancé. Until that moment she had no idea that straight-laced, presumably straight-A student Larry had been roughed up. Her lack of surprise or concern might seem suspicious, but don't read anything into it, the author's just going for yucks.

In a strange way, I began to feel sorry for Larry. All that running around with such little payoff – and a beating too boot – for no other reason than his creator has no idea what she's doing. In the eighteenth chapter, poor Larry encounters a kid named Wilson, but has no idea why. Our amateur sleuth can't help but compare himself with others:
Who of all his favorite characters would not by now have a complete case against someone? by [sic] now they would be working only for the collection of incontrovertible evidence; their theories would be such that a casual intruder like Wilson would be fitted into his place without a ripple. In fact, they would probably have been expecting his advent. Larry sighed with wholehearted dissatisfaction.
I too sighed with wholehearted dissatisfaction. Yet, I persevered through the remaining eighty-one pages.

As I say, I've read this novel.

The most regrettable passage: 
"I'm disappointed in Mr. Pearson," Molly said ruefully. "He seemed so friendly and pleasant, I had no idea he had a nigger in the woodpile."
A real mystery: The 30 August 1946 Gazette reports that Mrs. Layhew is at work on another "blood and thunder". Rx for Murder is her only book, though she did publish something titled "Prescription for Murder" in the 22 March 1947 edition of the Standard. I presume it's a bowdlerized version, but can't say for certain.

Object: A 252-page hardcover, published as part of Lippincott's Main Line Mystery series. The paper is a bit cheap, but the binding is good. I bought my copy online from a Shropshire bookseller this past summer. Price: US$22.50.

The uncredited dust jacket image depicts a scene that does not feature in the novel.

Access: Six copies are currently listed for sale online. The cheapest jacketless copy is listed at US$7.50. The cheapest with jacket costs US$30.00. No one is asking more than US$48.50.

The novel never enjoyed a paperback edition – not as Rx for Murder anyway. In 1950, a French translation was published in paper by Éditions des deux mondes under the title Meurtres aux rayons X? Note the question mark. X-rays are mentioned only fleetingly, and there isn't so much as a suggestion that they played a part in the murder. Le Meurtre de Roger Ackroyd? would have been just as appropriate a title.

Toronto Public Library, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia have copies. You won't find it at Library and Archives, but you will find Meurtres aux rayons X?

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01 November 2015

Archibald Lampman's 'In November'

from The Poems of Archibald Lampman
Toronto: Morang, 1905

26 October 2015

The Most Depressing Canadian Novel of All Time?

The new issue of Canadian Notes and Queries has landed in my Wellington Street post office box, bringing with it my thirteenth Dusty Bookcase column.

Lucky thirteen.

The subject this time is The Wine of Life, Arthur Stringer's dispiriting 1921 novel about the doomed marriage of Owen Storrow and Torrie Thorssel. Substitute Arthur Stringer for "Owen Storrow" and Jobyna Howland for "Torrie Thorssel" and you get some idea.

If this in any way seems familiar, it may be because some months back I mentioned my discovery of twenty-three uncollected illustrations the great James Montgomery Flagg undertook for the novel's newspaper syndication.

The Pittsburgh Press, 23 December 1921
Like Owen and Torrie's, the Stringers' relationship played itself out in the papers. Together they were fêted as New York's handsomest couple; apart they were irresistibly tragic figures.

The Times Dispatch [Richmond], 23 March 1913
The Times Dispatch [Richmond], 8 November 1914
"Peculiar Romance-Tragedy of an Actress and a Poet", which appeared in newspapers across the United States the year after the couple split, paints Stringer "a man of sorrows":
For know you, all girls and women who have wept and glowed and smiled over the poems of Arthur Stringer, that he is living a romance as sad and as surcharged with longing love as ever were any of his poems.
The new CNQ has me thinking about The Wine of Life again. In truth, the book never left me. It's hard to forget such a depressing a novel – doubly so a roman à clef. I won't mention Mencken's descriptions of the latter day Jobyna; it would only spoil your day.

But just look how sunny Seth's cover is! Sure to cheer you up. Also contributing to the new CNQ are:
Caroline Adderson
Chris Arthur
Marc Bell
Emily Donaldson
Kathy Friedman
Douglas Glover
Jason Guriel
Kim Jernigan
David Mason
Susan Olding
Peter Sanger
Robin Sarah
Carrie Snyder
JC Sutcliffe
Jess Taylor
Anne Marie Todkill
As always, subscriptions can be had through the CNQ website. A bargain!

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