20 April 2015

Discovered Vile

The Three Roads
Kenneth Millar
New York: Dell, [n.d.]

The Three Roads is a psychological thriller of the type in which Margaret Millar excelled. Here husband Kenneth, writing under his true name for the last time, falls a bit flat. But only in comparison.

This story from Millar, mari, concerns Second World War veteran Bret Taylor, a naval officer made amnesiac by the loss of his ship and his wife. Now hospitalized, he's visited by Hollywood screenwriter Paula West. It was only a couple of years ago that determined Paula, a divorcée, saw a second husband in Bret. They'd met at a vacation resort and had shared nineteen nice enough days together. No bed, true, but twenty-something navy man Bret was a virgin.

Months passed before they were able to meet again. When they did, Bret drank too much, felt pressured to perform and propose, and fled to Los Angeles. Forty-eight hours later – or was it seventy-two? – he found himself married to a nineteen-year-old barfly.

"Fast moving" pitches Dell.

Sure, but not 'til the second half.

The earliest chapters of The Three Roads have Bret lagging behind, struggling to recall what the reader already knows. I spoil little in disclosing that his young wife was victim in the "murder in sunny California" referred to on the back cover.

Bret saw her naked dead body beautiful and passed out.

See front cover.

Credit goes to psychoanalyst Theodor Klifter for kicking this novel into gear. He hands over newspaper accounts of the murder, Bret springs to his feet, "irises shining grayly like small spinning wheels", and we're off!

Nose to ground and grindstone Bret starts sniffing out the killer of the wife he can't remember. First stop is the Golden Sunset Café, a dive at which she spent her penultimate hours. But Bret's no detective. He ties one on, gets into a fight and ends up in the bed of some guy named Larry Miles. I made the made too much of this; Larry's interest in Bret isn't at all sexual:
The way things were going he and Taylor might end up as bosom pals. And that would be a belly laugh of the first water. He was a card, all right, a real wag out of the top drawer with bells on.
Or am I wrong?

Look, I'm no psychologist, nor am I a psychoanalyst. That said, I recognize The Three Roads as very much a post-war work – not because of the conflict, but for its focus on psychopathy. It's no accident that the Dalíesque cover of Knopf's 1948 first edition brings to mind Hitchcock's Spellbound. Herr Doktor Klifter is one of two – two – psychoanalysts who chew up page after page with theories as to the source of Bret's psychosis, Interesting stuff, I guess, but it was much more fun to read about Bret's bar fight.

It seemed more real, too.

To Margaret [Millar]
For now am I discovered vile, and of the vile. O ye three roads, and thou concealed dell, and oaken copse, and narrow outlet of three ways, which drank my own blood
– Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus
Trivia: In 1980, the novel was made into what looks to be a particularly bad Canadian film known variously as Deadly Companion, Double Negative, Killer aus den Dunkel, Kauhun pierre and Imagem Dupla.

The subject of a future post.

Object: A 222-page Dell mapback with cover illustration by Bob Stanley. I purchased my copy for $7.50 this past January at London's Attic Books, a mere three kilometres down three roads from the University of Western Ontario, Millar's alma mater.

Access: Published in 1948 by Knopf, for a fourth novel from a major house the first edition isn't cheap. We're well over US$300 before we find a copy in decent dust jacket.

The Knopf and Dell editions are the only to have been published under Millar's real name; the others – Cassell, Bantam, Corgi, Warner, Virgin, Allison & Busby and Vintage/Black Lizard – employ his more famous nom de plume. That last, the Vintage/Black Lizard edition, is in print at US$15.95/C$17.95.

While Americans are well-served, we Canadians starve. The only library copies I see are held by the Kitchener Public Library, the Toronto Public Library, the University of Toronto and the University of Calgary.

The University of Western Ontario does not have a copy.

As with most Millar/Macdonalds, translations abound: French (La boite de Pandora), Dutch (Drie wegen), German (Der Mörder im Spiegel), Italian (L'assassino di mia moglie), Portuguese (Vitória amarga), Polish (Troista droga), Czech (Rozcestí), Finnish (Valheen pitkät jäljet), Russian (Tri dorogi) and Japanese (三つの道).

17 April 2015

Remembering Ron Scheer… on a Friday

Ron Scheer died this past weekend. He was my teacher. We never met.

A son of Nebraska, for more than four years Ron served as a patient guide through the frontier literature of a century past. His blog, Buddies in the Saddle, opened the eyes of this cynical easterner so that I might recognize that these weren't simple novels of cowboys and Indians, but of commerce, railroads, mining, farming, timber, politics, suffrage, temperance, religion and racism.

Early last year Ron was diagnosed with brain cancer. Buddlies in the Saddle took a turn toward the personal. Ron's posts on books were now punctuated by musing on life, health, beauty, family. Family was the subject of his final post.

Ron posted his last book review seven weeks ago. His subject was Blue Pete: "Half-Breed", a popular 1921 novel by Ontarian Luke Allan (né William Lacey Amy).  The Canadian Encyclopedia has no entry on Allan, nor does The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, nor does W.H. New's Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada; everything I know about the writer and his work comes from Ron.

In the four years and nine months of Buddies in the Saddle, Ron tagged thirty book reviews with the word "Canada". Most were written by Canadians, while others had a Canadian setting. Some covered contemporary writing, but most came from the days of great and great-great-grandparents:

The Outlander – Gil Adamson
Blue Pete: "Half-Breed" – Luke Allan
The Blue Wolf – William Lacey Amy
Alton of Somasco – Harold Bindloss
The Boss of Wind River – A.M. Chisolm
Desert Conquest – A.M. Chisolm
The Doctor – Ralph Connor
The Story of the Foss River Ranch – Ridgwell Cullum
Woodsmen of the West – Martin Allerdale Grainger
A Man of Two Countries – Alice Harriman
The Promise – James B. Hendryx
Out of Drowning Valley – Susan Carleton Jones
The Stone Angel – Margaret Laurence
A Daughter of the Snows – Jack London
Scarlett of the Mounted – Marguerite Merington
The Lost Cabin Mine – Frederick Niven
Northern Lights – Gilbert Parker
The Backwoodsmen – Charles G.D. Roberts
Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse – Paul St. Pierre
Smith and Other Events – Paul St. Pierre
The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses – Robert W. Service
The Trail of '98 – Robert W. Service
Raw Gold – Bertrand W. Sinclair
Big Timber – Bertrand W. Sinclair
Wild West – Bertrand W. Sinclair
The Prairie Wife – Arthur Stringer
The Last Crossing - Guy Vanderhaeghe
A Good Man – Guy Vanderhaeghe
Frontier Stories – Cy Warman
The Settler – Herman Whitaker

So many neglected titles. Small wonder that Ron was a regular at Friday's Forgotten Books, that weekly round-up hosted by mystery writer Patti Abbott. His was a unique voice. Friday's Forgotten Books will not be the same without him.

"I read old books so you don’t have to," Ron wrote more than once. The thing was that he made you want to read them. His enthusiasm was infectious. He was a dogged researcher; I suspect he often had a hard time moving on. Ron's thoughts on Raw Gold by British Columbian Bertrand W. Sinclair spanned two posts. His longest review, it begins:
I have this funny habit when I hold an old library book. I wonder how long it’s been sitting on the shelf in the stacks untouched, then of the different hands that have turned its pages over the years.
I share the very same habit. Now, picking up Ralph Connor's The Doctor, I can't help but think of Ron.

Ron read this novel. 


08 April 2015

Collard's Cock-up (and a curious coincidence)

Edgar Andrew Collard seems to have been a pretty interesting fellow. A Montrealer armed with a M.A. in history from McGill, in 1942 he found to work in the Gazette library – eleven years later he was editor-in-chief. Robertson Davies, once a newspaperman himself, wrote of his tenure: "I follow about 25 Canadian editorial pages day by day, and I see nothing to compare with this work, either in subject or in treatment."

In 1971, Collard stepped down. Youngsters like myself remember him only as a columnist. From August 1944 to August 2000 – the month before his death – Collard's "All Our Yesterdays" appeared each and every weekend. With titles like "When Dominion Square Was a Cemetery", "Was Dr. James Barry a Woman?", "Strange Experiences of Colonel Ham" and "College as the Ruination of Girls", they focussed on the more colourful aspects of Montreal's past. Several hundred were collected in books like Montreal Yesterdays, Montreal: The Days That Are No More, All Our Yesterdays and 100 More Tales from All Our Yesterdays, but this column on the country's first political assassination isn't one of them :

Saturday, 16 November 1963
(cliques pour grander)
Writes Collard:
Did D'Arcy McGee foresee his sudden death at the age of 42? He did. And he wrote about his fate in a poem entitled "Forewarned."
"Forewarned" meant nothing to me; it doesn't figure in the 612-page Poems of Thomas D'Arcy McGee. A quick search reveals that the verse isn't by McGee at all, rather it belongs to Irish novelist, poet and playwright Gerald Griffin (1803-1840). You can find all 64 lines beginning on page 395 of The Life of Gerald Griffin (Dublin: James Duffy, 1872), written by brother Daniel.

I wonder if Collard ever realized his mistake. As far as I can tell, he never issued a correction. Published the following weekend, Collard's next column dealt with the sculptures gracing the Bank of Montreal Head Office.

Here's that day's front page:

Saturday, 23 November 1963
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07 April 2015

'Erin's Address to the Hon. Thomas D'Arcy McGee'

Verse on the 147th anniversary of the assassination of the great D'Arcy McGee. "Erin's Address to the Hon. Thomas D'Arcy McGee" precedes "Death of D'Arcy McGee" as the first of two poems to the politician in Nora Pembroke's Verses and Rhymes by the Way (Pembroke, ON: S.E. Mitchell, 1880).


O thou son of the dark locks and eloquent tongue,
With the brain of a statesman sagacious, and strong,
And the heart of a poet, half love, and half fire,
Thou hast many to love thee and more to admire;
But I bore thee, and nursed thee, and joyed at the fame
Which the sons of the stranger have spread round thy name,
I am Erin, green Erin, the "Gem of the sea."
Listen, then, to thy mother's voice, D'Arcy McGee.

Since the crown from my head, and the sceptre are gone
To the hand of the stranger, who held what he won,
I have borne much of sorrow, of wrong and of shame,
I've been spoken against with scorning and blame;
But still have my daughters been spotless and fair,
And my sons have been dauntless to do and to dare;
For as great as thou art and most precious to me.
Still thou art not my only one, D'Arcy McGee.

At the bar, in the senate, in cassock or gown,
Our foes being judges, they've got them renown;
On the red field of battle, of glory, of death,
They've been true to their colours and true to their faith;
And where bright swords were clashing and carnage ran high,
They have taught the stern Saxon they know how to die.
Well, no wit, poet, statesman or hero can be
More dear to my heart than thou, D'Arcy McGee.

Wild heads, may plan glories for Erin their mother,
Weak plans and wicked plans chasing each other;
To me worse than the loss of a sceptre and crown
Is a spot that might tarnish my children's renown,
'Tis the laurels they win are the jewels I prize,
They're the core of my heart and the light of my eyes;
For my children are gems and crown jewels to me,
And art thou not one of them, D'Arcy McGee!

I had one son, and, oh, need I mention his name!
He who well knew where lay both our weakness and shame;
His true, tender heart sought to measure and know
This thing, most accursed, formed of babbling and woe;
And his life did he dedicate freely, to slay
The monster that made my bright children his prey;
In the place where the wine cup flows deadly and free,
The bane of the gifted, oh D'Arcy McGee.

For so well hath the father of lies tried to fling
A false glory around it, so hiding the sting,
Saying wit gets its flash, and high genius its fire,
From the fiend that drags genius and wit through the mire.
Ah! it biteth, it stingeth, it eateth away,
And our best and our brightest it takes for its prey,
'Tis the bowl of the helot, no cup for the free,
As thou very well knowest, my D'Arcy McGee.

Hast thou risen my loved one and cast from thy name
All the shadows that darken thy life with their shame;
Thou hast raised thyself up, against wind, against tide,
Thou art high, thou art honoured, my joy and my pride;
Now the song of the drunkard is chased from thy place,
And my pride is relieved from this touch of disgrace.
Thou wilt help to make Erin "great, glorious and free,"
And I bless thee my silver-tongued D'Arcy McGee.

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05 April 2015

'The Easter Parade, 1915' by Robert Stanley Weir

Lines from a century past found in Robert Stanley Weir's After Ypres and Other Verse (Toronto: Musson, 1917).

With Easter wishes from the Chaplains of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

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30 March 2015

The Trouble With Charlie

The Fiend
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, 1966

"Even by Mrs. Millar's usually high standards, The Fiend is something extraordinary," wrote Anthony Boucher in the New York Times.

It is.

Here's why: The primary character, a registered sex offender, is the most sympathetic.

This is a novel of many characters and many marriages, all of them unhappy. The Brants, Ellen and David, fight over money. Neighbour Howard Arlington fights with wife Virginia over the attention she lauds on Jessie, the Brant's daughter. Mary Martha, Jessie's friend, is being used as a pawn in a particularly acrimonious divorce. Her mother's lawyer, Ralph MacPherson, was married, but his wife died. A middle-aged widower, he attempts to stave off loneliness by keeping early nights and a dog.

Ben Gowen was married too, but his wife left him when scandal struck the family. His younger brother Charlie was convicted of something having to do with a young girl. Now, thirty-two, Charlie has done his time and is back living with Ben in the modest house they inherited from their parents.

Charlie has a job as a stock boy at a paper supply company. When not at work, he can often be found sitting in his car, parked across the street from a local playground. The vantage point provides a fairly inconspicuous view of young Jessie Brant, Ellen and David's daughter. Charlie is very concerned about Jessie. He worries that she takes too many risks on the jungle gym. Her young body is so very thin and fragile. Her flesh is too exposed. It's very upsetting.

Charlie used to spend his evenings at the public library. It was there, about a year ago, that he met a reference librarian named Louise Lang. She's thirty-two, single, and has "a tiny figure like a girl's with the merest suggestion of hips and breasts."

Charlie and Louise are a couple, thanks in large part to Ben. It was Ben who told Louise about Charlie's past problems, though how much he disclosed is unclear. What is clear that Ben sees in Louise someone on whom he can unload the burden of being his brother's keeper. He hopes for marriage. Louise dreams of matrimony, and pushes Charlie to propose.

But why would Louise want to marry a registered sex offender? Why tie yourself to a such a socially awkward man? What about his increasingly frequent psychotic episodes? My first thought was that Louise was blinded by desperation, seeing only an escape from her unpleasant parents. I should've known better. There's never anything so uncomplicated or overt in a Margaret Millar novel. The Brants' marriage won't be made healthy through money. Virginia Arlington's focus on Jessie proves selfish. Divorce doesn't really explain Mary Martha's unhealthy home life. Adults use children in unhealthy ways throughout this novel. It's very upsetting.

Why does Louise want to marry Charlie? The usual reason. That the reader comes to understand speaks to Millar's talent.

Something extraordinary.

Interesting typo:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
Object: A mass market paperback, my copy follows the 1964 Knopf first edition as the first paperback. I bought it from a bookseller in Paris, Ontario. At some point in its past it ended up at The Book Nook in Batavia, Illinois. My understanding is that the store is no more.

Access: All but relegated to our university libraries – and not many at that – the only public library copies I see are in Toronto and Kitchener, Millar's hometown.

The Fiend has been through many editions from many publishers. It last appeared in 1984 as an unattractive mass market paperback published by International Polygonics. The one you want is the 1964 Knopf first edition with dust jacket by the great Arthur Hawkins. Near Fine copies can be had for about US$50. A steal.

The cheapest copies offered by online booksellers, regardless of edition, begin at US$2.50. The most expensive is listed by a crooked American bookseller who dares ask US$83.02 for the International Polygonics mass market, then tacks on a further US$50 for shipping.

As with most Millars, The Fiend has enjoyed a fair number of translations: German (Die Feindin), Danish (Barn forsvundet), Italian (Jessie è scomparsa), Spanish (El Maligno), Polish (Opiekun) and Japanese (Kokoro tsukarete). Sadly, there is no French translation.

25 March 2015

Pornography Dressed Up as a Cautionary Tale

Death by Deficit: A 2001 Novel
Richard Rohmer
Toronto: Stoddart, 1995

There are plenty of villains in this novel – Quebecers, bankers, the Japanese, a CBC reporter with beer on his breath – but only one appears more than fleetingly. This would be the unnamed former prime minister, a "burned-out politician" whose "lined round face was recognized by everyone in Canada."

I recognized him as Paul Martin, our twenty-first prime minister.

Rohmer's twenty-first prime minister is one of "the architects and the builders of the crisis." The emphasis, mine, is wholly justified. Death by Deficit is set in an imagined 2001, a future past, during the earliest days of the greatest crisis Canada has ever faced. Rohmer's twenty-second prime minister – known only, perhaps tellingly, as "Richard" – has just been sworn in when the economy collapses.

Not his fault. Blame Paul Martin, Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and their years of reckless deficit spending. As the country's accumulated debt approaches one trillion dollars, the Japanese get jittery and start dumping their Canadian bonds and securities. Richard announces to the assembled media that he is certain the Americans and Europeans will do likewise.

Which they then do.

Which is meant to show how smart he is.

This reader thinks he's an idiot – and not just for that self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm sure the author wouldn't see it that way. Rohmer's Richard is a hero. The leader of a new party created by the merger of Reform and the Progressive Conservatives, he sees crisis as an opportunity to do whatever the hell he wants: slashing the civil service, privatizing Crown corporations, ending foreign aid, giving "Indians" the what for and, of course, slamming the door on immigration.

I once wrote about this type of story in reference to a fantasy Preston Manning published in the Globe & Mail. Masturbatory to those who favour the right, I called it porn. It is. The U of T's Sylvia Ostrey can hardly contain her excitement: "As usual, Richard Rohmer tells a gripping tale – but this time about fiscal policy!"

Former Progressive Conservative MP James Gillies joins in: "Death by Deficit uncannily captures the atmosphere which dominates the House, the caucus, and the Cabinet when there is a crisis."


There's never been a crisis in which a PM has called for the RCMP to be brought in to House of Commons to quell dissent.

Not yet, anyway.

Richard snubs his Cabinet and meets with his neophyte caucus only to deliver a false primer on "the parliamentary principle of party discipline."

Enter that beery-breathed CBC reporter, who dares make the very observation that Richard did behind closed doors:
"You have a new, inexperienced Cabinet filled with people who don't even know how to find a washroom in this place, let alone how to handle this crisis. Don't you think you should get some help, call in the best brains in the country?"
A fair question, it's followed by others until Richard changes the channel (pun intended):
"There is no longer any justification for the continuation of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and its enormous drain on the public purse."
So ends the CBC. Cut the mike.

The prime minister never calls in "the best minds in the country", rather he phones Allan Greenspan Al Weinstock, Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States.

Weinstock states the obvious:
"…you'd better open the IMF and World Bank doors. At least knock on them and let them know you're coming."
As if he hasn't already helped enough, the Chairman of the Fed gives Richard some phone numbers.

Accompanied by Abbi Black, his very hot "director of international studies," Weinstock flies to Ottawa, susses out the situation, and presents the "Weinstock Solution": Washington will take on Canadian debt in exchange for free access to the country's fresh water, abrogation of cultural protection and unobstructed negotiations that would see British Columbia absorbed by the United States.

Richard accepts the proposal with thanks. No negotiation necessary. No need to call the President.

God, what a mess. It's not like we didn't see it coming.

Remember that 1993 episode of W5 devoted to New Zealand's meltdown?

Sure you do. After all, the reporter was "one of Canada's best, probably the best, TV news magazine producer, Eric Malling." American Abbi Black thinks so much of the show that she presents the entire transcript to Richard, his Minister of Finance, the President of the Treasury Board and, ultimately, the reader. Thirty pages of disjointed prose follow.

"There's been some criticism of the program," hot Abbi acknowledges, "but it's okay for our purposes."

Criticism? Well, yes. In fact, Malling's report inspired Linda McQuaig's Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Myths, which laid bare Malling's… let's say "stretching of the truth."

Published six months before Rohmer's novel, McQuaig's Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Myths dominated the 1995 bestseller lists and was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award for English-language Non-Fiction.

Rohmer's Death by Deficit is, of course, pure fiction. You can tell because he inflates Canada's 1993-94 debt, has it that Employment Insurance is a drain on our taxes and repeats that old saw about Francophones controlling the civil service.

Think of it all as a novelist's prerogative.

Still, I can't help but think that Rohmer believes these things, just as I'm certain he believes the PM's warped version of parliamentary democracy is spot on. Death by Deficit is our world, but a little off, like cheese that's been left out too long smeared over the pages of The Plot Against America. In Richard Rohmer's Canada a female Governor General delivers the "Speech From [sic] the Throne" decked out like Eliza Doolittle at the Embassy Ball.

Death by Deficit predicts a Chrétien government that paid no attention whatsoever to the growing national debt, when in fact it began paying off same with record surpluses. Credit belongs to Paul Martin, who is referred to in he novel as a "lying bastard".

I'll hand the author this: Paul Martin did indeed become our twenty-first prime minister. What's more, our twenty-second, Stephen Harper, leads a party born of a merger of Reform and the Progressive Conservatives. What Rohmer gets wrong is that the Harper government has run the largest deficits in Canadian history, raising us to unprecedented heights of public debt.

What he gets right is that, like Richard's party, Stephen's votes as one.


Trivia: In Generally Speaking: The Memoirs of Major-General Richard Rohmer, the author describes Paul Martin as "a good friend of mine." Rohmer isn't mentioned in Hell or High Water, Martin's autobiography.

Best passage:
It was Abbi Black who was the sight to behold. The PM's male hormone computer told him she was one of the most strikingly beautiful women he had ever laid eyes on. His computer went up a further notch when she slipped off her heavy coat and white scarf. This tall, high-healed, long-limbed, slim beauty was wearing a tight-fitting black woollen sheath with a gleaming row of golden buttons running down from the discretely low-cut bodice that covered her firm breasts (just the right size, according to his computer).
     His eyes took in the cascade of wavy ebony hair and the smooth, unlined forehead, the black, well-shaped eyebrows arched over eyes that held deep-brown pupils in their centres. Her nose was perfectly shaped, her high cheekbones led to a wide, full-lipped mouth with exquisite teeth.
     The PM liked – very much – what he saw, but there was serious business at hand, and he switched off his internal computer as he shook Abbi Black's soft, well-manicured hand.
Highest concentration of hyphens in Canadian literature (but that's not why I point it out).

The doors of the Speaker's chambers opened. There the Right Honourable Pearl McConachie stood in radiant white, her long form-fitting gown reaching to the scarlet carpet. He sleeved arms were partly concealed by a purple cape that sat on her slender shoulders. The wavy blond hair was fetched upwards, seemingly encased in a delicate, glittering tiara.
Object and Access: A well-padded 234-page hardcover in Tory blue boards, my copy set me back 60¢ last summer. Online booksellers offer a dozen or so at prices ranging from $4.11 to $38.74. Condition is not a factor. Pay no more than 60¢.

Death by Deficit was printed only once and has never come out in paperback, meaning all copies out there are first editions. Pay no more than 60¢.

Thirteen of our academic libraries have copies, as does Library and Archives Canada. Public library users will find the book in the Calgary Public Library, the Red Deer Public Library, the Medicine Hat Public Library and the Toronto Public Library.
Death by Deficit was read for Reading Richard Rohmer
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