11 April 2011

The Jacket, the Dressing Gown and the Closet



Dark Passions Subdue
Douglas Sanderson
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1952

This is an unpleasant novel filled with unpleasant characters, but you musn't complain. The dust jacket cautions: "Mr. Sanderson is a terrifying critic of the social scene. His Montreal frauds can be found in big cities everywhere. His hero's crisis is the crisis not of an individual, but of an era."

A hero, a crisis... it's hard to identify either. The protagonist of this, Sanderson's debut, is Stephen Hollis, a young McGill student who lives with his wealthy, pious, Protestant parents in post-war Westmount. He's handsome and he's intelligent, but the reader will find that this poor little rich boy has the personality of a cinder block. To the characters in this novel, however, Stephen is very attractive indeed. Everybody, male and female, wants to be his friend – while he cares for no one.

And then Stephen meets Fabien, a sophisticated Noel Coward sort of figure who never leaves his large, luxuriously decorated Montreal house. Young, well-groomed and impeccably dressed, Fabien is a bon vivant who is always at the ready with a bon mot or catty remark. He is a comfortably directionless aesthete, content to bathe in the delights of fine wine and his intimate entourage of attractive young men. This includes Duncan, a perpetually shirtless dancer, whom Fabien has not only taken into his home, but supports financally.


Here I'm about to spoil things for the potential reader:

It's not true that Stephen's "crisis is the crisis not of an individual, but of an era" – quite the opposite, in fact. The moment comes with just pages to go when he professes his love for Fabien. Stephen begs to be held, Stephen is rejected. It is only then, when attempting physical intimacy, that Stephen learns Fabien is not a "queer".

"Whoops! Stevie dear, Whoopsie!" says Crystal, who reveals herself as Fabien's girlfriend.

Fabien himself is not nearly as goodnatured: "You fool! You bloody fool! You misunderstand me. I am a foreigner." Because, you see, foreigners are often mistaken for homosexuals.

What is a surprise to Stephen was also a surprise to me. Sanderson is guilty of toying with thr reader; playing upon stereotype in order to deceive. Here, for example, is our first glimpse of Fabien.
Up on the landing a shaft of light appeared from an opening door and a figure, smoking a cigarette and wearing a bronze-colored Charvet dressing gown, emerged, advanced, and leaned nonchalantly over the bannister. The voice was as pleasantly languid as the pose.
"Greetings, you infamous cow. You won't mind if I mention that I cooked a perfectly delicious Lobster Newburg and opened a bottle of Chablis?"
Duncan laughed. "I beg your pardon."
"Granted, of course."
"I was out with a woman. She wanted to know if I was an intellectual."
"You are, my dear. Far too. Did you convince her?"
"I don't know. I went home with her and she offered me some wine." He sat down on the bottom stair. "I suppose there is no way of helping anyone. That poor lonely woman. Christ, it was ghastly." He burst into tears.
The figure did not move. The voice softened. "Come upstairs and have a shower and tell me all about it, my pet. And let that great heart bleed for the world if it must, but please, please don't weep on the staircase. It simply isn't done. Come now."
Dear Duncan – in tears again. Earlier in the evening he'd wept while rejecting the advances of beautiful Westmount matron Miriam:
"I can't," he said, his breath was coming in sobs; "I'm sorry, but I can't." His hands were over his face, muffling his voice so that she could barely understand what he was saying.
"Duncan–"
"No, it's no use. I tried, honestly. When you came into the room I told myself I could do it because I was a man."
But you see, Duncan, a Scot, is also a foreigner.

In terms of sales, Dark Passions Subdue went nowhere. My copy appears to have been marked down several times with no takers. Reviews were awful and tended to be a touch unfair. Writing in Saturday Night, B.K. Sandwell chose to concentrate on the author's errors when writing French dialogue. One wonders whether The New York Times' John Brooks read the book at all; he describes it as a "first novel about a young couple living in Montreal."

The commercial and critical disappointment caused Sanderson to reinvent himself as a mystery writer. As "Martin Brett", the next year he published Exit in Green, which was followed by the wonderful, noirish Hot Freeze (1954).

Trivia: Credit for the dust jacket's design goes to H. Lawrence Hoffman. No great fan, I've always found Hoffman's work pretty forgettable, though his cover for the first edition of Mickey Spillane's The Long Wait (1951) does stick in the mind.

Access: Not found in a single public library in Canada. Eight university libraries come through for us, but not McGill. Five copies of the first and only hardcover edition are currently listed for sale online, ranging from C$10 (crummy, ex-library copy) to US$112.50 ("Very Good", although the accompanying description leans toward Good). The 1953 Avon paperback also first and only seems just as uncommon: five copies ranging in price from US$13 to US$46. Sadly, in purchasing the paperback one misses out on on the moralizing found on the hardcover's jacket copy. That said, you do get this: "Young Stephen Hollis discovered the irrevocable truth of his lack of normal maleness."

"Sexy Cover Art", says one bookseller. Not in my opinion.

Each to his own, I suppose.

3 comments:

  1. "...the irrevocable truth of his lack of normal maleness" Ugh. Sadly many people still think this way.

    Discovered your blog fairly recently when you popped at as Follower #13. Lucky #13 for me. Thanks. I'm adding this to my blog roll.

    I keep wanting to write a piece on how gay men were treated in the Golden Age thrillers. Not very well, as you can probably guess. This may prod me to crank it out.

    As for H. Lawrence Hoffman, when he was collaborating with Sol Immerman for Popular Library and the two of them signed their work as Im-Hoff he did far more interesting often surreal work. Though they tended to be fascinated with eyeballs. Like this one. And this one.

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  3. I admit I was a bit taken aback by the depiction of gays in Dark Passions Subdue - but then no one, save a few very minor characters, comes off well. To be honest, I was expecting something much more positive. Hot Freeze, the only other Sanderson title I've read, features a bisexual teenager who comes off as fairly worldly, intelligent and confident. True, he ends up being murdered, but he's just one of many.

    I wasn't aware of the Im-Hoffs, though I had noticed Hoffman's fascination with eyeballs. Disturbing.

    Many thanks for the add.

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