The House on Craig Street
Ronald J. Cooke
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1949
Ronald J. Cooke's house was on Elm Street in the Montreal suburb of Beaconsfield; I would pass it walking to and from my high school. A bland bungalow, I knew it was his because of a sign nailed to the car port:
RONALD J COOKE
Black letters on small plates of cheap metal, glued to a piece of plywood, Cooke's name stayed with me. From time to time I would come across one of his saddle-stapled, self-published booklets at the local library:
Everyday is Pay Day: More than 19 Ways You Can Make Money from Home Including Details on the Mail-Order Business (1979)Re-writing News for Big Cheques! (1979)How to Write & Sell Travel Articles (1979)Tips for the Beginner in Self-Publishing & Mail Order! (1980)20 Ways to Make Big Money with Your Camera (1980)How to Clip Newspaper Articles for Big Profits (1981)How to Write & Sell Short Articles (1981)Canadian Publications Listings: A Listing of Daily Newspapers, Trade Journals, and Consumer Magazines (1982)Tips on Writing and Selling Romance Novels (1985)How to Publish & Promote Your Own Writing (1986)Here's How to Write and Sell Features & Fillers to Newspapers and Syndicate Your Own Work, Too (1986)Self-Publishing and Mail Order Made Easy (1988)
Cooke was also the publisher and editor of something called Canadian Writers Journal. I once made the mistake of purchasing a copy. Cheap, and nasty, the cover cartoon, depicting a cheery postman delivering rejection letters, seemed designed to discourage. By this point I was a university student living in Montreal proper. As years went by I thought little of Mr Cooke, and most certainly never considered turning to his publications for career advice. I don't imagine my 22-year-old self would have anticipated reading a Cooke book – but then my 22-year-old self had no idea that Ronald J. Cooke had written pulp novels.
Published thirty years before Re-writing News for Big Cheques!, The House on Craig Street, was the first. It's the story of Clive Winston, a brooding, yet cocky young man who lives with his family in the Craig Street house of the title. To Clive, life is "a bloody mess". Who can blame him? This is the Montreal of the 'thirties. Clive's sister is in danger of becoming a "dime a dance girl", Ma Winston has been forced to turn the family home into a rooming house and Pa does nothing but sit around all day working on get-rich-quick schemes. How to Clip Newspaper Articles for Big Profits would have appealed to the old man. Clive, on the other hand, has smarts, ambition and drive. He's spent his last four years teaching himself about advertising and making daily visits to every agency in town. An aspiring copy-writer, Clive knows that all he needs is a break. Sure enough, within weeks of being hired by the firm Stevens and Smith, Clive is known as the most promising ad man in Montreal. This newfound status doesn't escape notice of virginal Marian Anderson, the obedient daughter of a moneyed Westmount couple. It's less important to Rena Marlen, a fun, good-natured model who bedded Clive on the night they met. Of the two, our hero considers only Marian as his future bride. Why? Well, you don't marry a girl who sleeps around. Besides, well-connected, refined Marian better suits Clive's desire to make something of himself.
Craig Street, now St-Antoine, as it appeared in the 1920s, roughly ten years before the novel takes place.
The cover copy for The House on Craig Street promises a "gaudy, wicked, wide-open city which was Montreal in the roaring days". It's an interesting example of – ahem – false advertising, but not nearly as fascinating as the unlikely reference it follows: "For him [Clive] the choice was typified by two women; seemingly far apart in their wants and desires, he came to realize that Kipling was right when he said that 'the Colonel's Lady and [sic] Judy O'Grady are [sic] sisters under the [sic] skin [sic].[sic]'"*
The novel itself features no talk of Rudyard Kipling's "The Ladies" or any other literary work. Indeed, there's no indication, least of all from Clive, that any character cares about such things. So, it comes as a surprise when our ad man announces that he wants to become a novelist. The decision, abrupt and jarring, is prompted by Clive fear that he's being exhausted by the biz. How long has he been at it? A few months? A year and a bit? Cooke's timeline is vague and contradictory. And how old is Clive, anyway? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? As he tells a disapproving Marian, writing novels is a young man's job:
"In many respects it's just like explorers, most of them do a better job when they are under 45. By the same reasoning a young man can write a novel and put that missionary zeal and force into it that batters itself in the people's consciousness. It lives because by its very strength it can't be killed. I want to write sociological novels that will make people happier, and better able to continue their task because of having something to read I wrote."
Our hero takes seven of the twenty thousand Depression Era dollars he's banked, puts it down on a place in the Laurentians and escapes the city. There's no writing, but he does go fishing:
Suddenly Clive saw a long, lean brown form dart toward the fly. Then the fly and fish disappeared in a spray of blue water and Clive's rod was pumping wildly in his hands, and the reel was singing like a clothes line in a wind storm."I got a fish!" cried Clive. "I got a fish!" He began winding the reel, then he felt the tautness leave the line. Now there was full slack and the line went limp. He held up the empty rod in disgust.
The sexual imagery is unintentional. Sure, one might think this was all a joke, but there's nothing at all similar in the novel. Or am I wrong? Rena stumbles upon this scene, catching Clive off-guard. "I should be ashamed of myself", says our hero. "You certainly should", replies Rena.
And let's not forget that her surname is Marlen.
With just thirteen pages to go, Rena's reappearance marks the beginning of a rush to the end. There's plenty of action, most of it involving cars being driven through a rainstorm. Exciting stuff, but in the midst of it all, I found myself wondering about the title. The house on Craig Street is so seldom used as a setting, and plays no role in the plot. The mystery is solved in the last couple of paragraphs. By this time Clive has realized his love for Rena, who it turns out was not a tramp after all. The couple decide to remain in the mountains, where Clive will work on a great novel:
"I'll write about all the frustrated little people who are searching for the answer to life. And I'll center them around our little house – the house I knew so well," cried Clive."Wonderful," cried Rena triumphantly. "Why not call it 'The House on Craig Street'?"
Oh, my battered consciousness.
Object: Another cheap and nasty News Stand Library production, the poorly printed cover image is a good indication of what's to come.
Anyone who takes this on will struggle through 158 pages of poorly printed type and botched editing, including one chapter that ends not only in mid-sentence, but in mid-word.
News Stand Library's The House on Craig Street is an interesting case in that it was produced exclusively for the American market. It was preceded a few months earlier by a Canadian edition published by Harlequin, who then had no distribution south of the border. Fly-by-night has more.
Both covers, depicting the moment Clive and Rena meet, are by D. Rickard. The busy artist also did work for Arrow Publishing, Derby Publishing, Federal Publishing, Studio Publications and Collins White Circle. Among Rickard's many works is the original cover of Al Palmer's Sugar Puss on Dorchester Street (News Stand Library, 1949). Again, Fly-by-night has more, including this recent post.
Access: Two of our public libraries have copies, as do three university libraries. Decent copies of both the Harlequin first and News Stand Library editions can be had for about $20.
* Kipling's actual words: "...the Colonel's Lady an' Judy O'Grady/Are sisters under their skins!"
My thanks to bowdler of Fly-by-night for the image of the Harlequin edition.