22 January 2011

Parisian French, not Québécois French

French for Murder
Bernard Mara [pseud. Brian Moore]
New York: Fawcett, 1954

With French for Murder, Brian Moore quit Harlequin as a publisher, abandoned Montreal as a setting and put aside his name for more literary efforts. I think the last of these is most important. This is a Bernard Mara novel, the first that the Irish-Canadian penned "pretending to be an American". The writing is much tighter than in previous pulps Wreath for a Redhead and The Executioners, but it is also less interesting. French for Murder is a novel with drive; it moves at a breakneck speed that affords no glimpse of character and little time for atmosphere.

Our hero here is Noah Cain, a luckless American who stumbles drunkenly upon a homicide in an otherwise polite Parisian hotel. Fingered as the murderer a Hitchcockian "wrong man" he is soon on the run, sprinting from Montmartre to Marseilles to Cassis in search of the girl who can clear his name.

Straightforward, conventional and bland, in French for Murder there are no real twists or surprises. Sure, the American military policeman turns out to be one of the baddies, but we knew that he was too good to be true. And when Cain is captured by crooks, we and he had sense that it was coming. His escape provides one of the more interesting passages in the novel:
I fired. His gun dropped to the carpet and he dropped on top of it, a pancake stain of blood growing in his thigh. He scrambled for the gun. I fired again. The second bullet hit him in the shoulder. He jerked convulsively and fell, face down, gasping. I felt no emotion. I had stopped him, the way you would shut a gate on a mad dog.
This is as good as it gets – and it's a darn site better than:
Uniformed police burst past me like the Charge of the Light Brigade. They were eager to do their duty.
Harsh? Look, I consider Moore one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. Nearly half-way through his pulp novels, I'm beginning to understand why they were disowned. French for Murder was written for money; in 1954 it's advance on royalties brought in US$2,500. Compare this to the C$227.30 advance received the following year for Judith Hearne.

We all have to eat.

Object: A slim, 144-page mass market paperback blessed with a cover painting by American realist painter Clark Hulings. Fawcett's Gold Medal paperbacks typically had print runs of 200,000 copies.

Access: Non-circulating copies may be found at Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library and eleven of our university libraries. At US$3.00, it's pretty clear that the cheapest copy currently listed for sale online has been thrown up by someone who has no idea that Bernard Mara is Brian Moore. Nearly all the others – a total of sixteen are hip. We begin with a US$25 "Fair reading copy", then go all the way up to US$200 being asked by two booksellers offering "unread" copies. However do they know?

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