02 January 2011

Of Sex and Drugs and Montreal

Hot Freeze
Martin Brett [pseud. Douglas Sanderson]
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1954
It was cold; bitterly paralysingly cold. There was a dampness in the air that bit into the marrow of your bones and stayed there. The red in the thermometer was below zero and still dropping steadily, and the weather forecasts offered no immediate hope of a let up. The city lay rigid under the stiffening blanket of snow. The air as you breathed it felt solid.
A transplanted Brit, Sanderson knew winter and he really understood Montreal. Hot Freeze was his third novel; the first, Dark Passions Subdue (1952), was the one stab at a work of "literature". When it failed Sanderson turned to writing crime novels, beginning with Exit in Green (1953), a "Martin Brett" mystery set in the Laurentians. With Hot Freeze he hits his stride, introducing us to Michel Garfin, a no nonsense Montrealer of French and Irish heritage. Mike, as he's known, was a member of the RCMP until he was caught bedding a wife when he should have been chasing her husband. Now he makes a modest living as a private detective – Mike prefers "inquiry agent" – working out of an office in the city's east end.

Here he's summoned to upmost, uppermost Westmount by the exquisite Vivian Remington, who is troubled by her son Gerald. Great wads of cash have been passing through the young McGill student's hands and she wants to know the source... and where they're going. No sooner is the private dick hired than the rest of the household arrives home. Mrs Remington covers by introducing Mike as an interior decorator, there's some talk about lampshades, he's invited to dinner... but no hilarity ensues.

After, Mike offers cash-rich young Gerald a lift.
"Enjoy the dinner, Mr. Garfin?"
I never cheat a client. I had a job. I said: "The name's Mike. No, I was bored as hell."
It hit the mark. He patted my knee. We became pals. "Me, too," he said. "Let's counteract it with a little excitement. Two guys like us could have a lot of fun together. I know some very nice interior decorators. What do you enjoy, Mike?"
"Almost everything. But maybe you and I wouldn't agree on the ultimate enjoyment."
"You never know," he murmured. "Sometimes it takes time..."
The pair drive north to a barbotte joint, where Gerald places a series of losing bets and irritates our inquiry agent with yet another none to subtle pass.
"I know a couple of dames who'll suit us fine," I said coldly.
His eyebrows went up and suddenly he began to laugh. "Dear Mike, you said that with positive defiance. Did you think a woman would frighten me as I frightened you? Come don't be so constrictedly old-fashioned. Something for everybody is my motto. Flesh, fur or feathers, I take them all. And they remember it."

There's a good amount of sex in Hot Freeze, but you have to be alert. It usually appears out of nowhere and is over in less than a sentence. Here Garfin forces Felicity, a delicate blonde thing, into a cab after the stabbing death of her butch lesbian lover:
She fought for about twenty seconds and then the thaw set in. She melted like hot ice-cream and came back at me like a Hoover.
Yep, Felicity... and Vivian Remington's daughter, too. But in his own strange way Mike always stays true to his girl Tessie, who listens when he's low, dishes dough when he's broke, and shacks up with him "when the occasion arises, which is often."

"Sin Took Over When The Sun Went Down" pitches the lone paperback edition. True enough, I suppose, if one considers pre-dinner cocktails, heroin, cocaine, gambling and sex outside of marriage to be sinful. The greater sin, murder, takes place whether the sun is up or not. An awful lot of people are offed in Hot Freeze, most due to their involvement in the drug trade. The first to go is Gerald. I was sorry to see it there aren't many sexually aggressive nineteen-year-old bisexuals in mid-twentieth century CanLit. I'd have missed him more had it not been for the number of equally unfamiliar and unusual characters in the novel. Herein lies Sanderson's great strength, his Montreal is not only very real, but is populated by characters that are anything but types. Nothing is spelled out, they emerge over time, revealing more of themselves with each appearance. This alone is enough to get me to pick up Sanderson's other Mike Garfin novels.

I mean, I just gotta know, is Mike's girl Tessie a hooker or something?

A translation (for non-Montrealers): "I felt so good that I switched on the radio, and not even the frenetic announcer at CJAD could annoy me." = "I felt goddamned ecstatic."

Object and Access: A dull, grey hardcover, enlivened by a red hot dust jacket, several libraries in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have copies. In Canada, Hot Freeze is held only by the University of Regina. That said, it's not an expensive book to buy. Of the sixteen copies currently offered online, we find the Dodd, Mead first (US$13.50 -US$35), a lone copy of the rare English Reinhardt edition (£14) and half a dozen copies of the Popular Library paperback. This last appeared in September 1954, a mere seven months after the hardcover. A reading copy will set you back no more than a fin.

"Traduit de l'americain", in 1955 Hot Freeze was published by Gallimard under the title Mon cadavre au Canada. The few copies currently being offered online come from French booksellers. Expect to pay between €4 and €11.


  1. I'm crazy about the line, "And they remember it." As a description of the effect of ones lovemaking on dames. I think, had you and Stan and I encountered it in college, it would have become a staple of the lexicon. And not just for the ladies, either. "I eat a lot of french fries... AND THEY REMEMBER IT!"

  2. How come D. Bookcase has never written about "The Sixth of June" by the Montreal Gazette's Lionel Shapiro? I just enjoyed the film version, with the beach down the road doubling as France.

  3. As with "science", it all comes down to intonation. Said with a Martin Fry sigh and a melancholy note sounds in your lexicon of love.

    My thanks for suggesting The Sixth of June. Never seen the film... hard when you know the man playing the hero is an HUAC snitch.

    Coincidence: I bought a copy just last week from the thrift shop down the street... and they remember it!

    (Well, it was just last week.)