29 March 2012

A Dick's Deadly Dames

The Deadly Dames
Malcolm Douglas [pseud. Douglas Sanderson]
Greenwich, CT: Gold Medal, 1956

Douglas Sanderson's fifth novel, The Deadly Dames was the first to be published as a paperback original. Not quite the same as "straight to DVD", of course, but I don't think it's such a coincidence that this book is by far the weakest of the lot.

With The Deadly Dames we have a new publisher, a new nom de plume and a new hero. Sort of. That hero, Bill Yates, shares something with Mike Garfin, the protagonist of Sanderson's two preceding books: both are Montreal private investigators, both are the sons of French Canadian mothers and both have Scotch landladies.

As with Garfin's outings – Hot Freeze and The Darker Traffic – things start rolling when the private investigator is hired by someone of considerable wealth. In this case, the client is Philip Corday, a spoiled lush who hopes to get the goods that will allow him to divorce his cheating wife Grace. Yates has only just accepted the job when an expensively dressed woman tries to hire him away. Minutes later, she's crushed under the wheels of a streetcar rounding the corner of St Catherine and Peel. And so, what began as a bland divorce case takes a deadly turn. Pun intended.

St Catherine and Peel, Montreal, 1956

Mike doesn't stick around. No pun intended. Hoping of catch Grace and her lover, he heads north to the Corday country home. Things become complicated when he confuses the unfaithful wife with her beautiful older sister. Some PI.

Bodies pile up quickly in The Deadly Dames – nine corpses in 160 pages – but our man Yates is not one of them. Dozens of shots are fired in his direction, but none find their mark. He's beaten senseless repeatedly, but bounces back with superhuman speed. Not even a broken nose slows him down. Good thing too, because the action in this novel clocks in at well under 72 hours.

A lazy novel, the fast pace is provided by characters that exist for no other reason than to propel the plot. There's Corday's chatty Russian housekeeper, a talkative cop with an encyclopedic knowledge of Montreal's underworld and a rural hashslinger who likes nothing more than to listen to the police waveband. As for Yates, he's not so much Mike Garfin under a different name as a pale imitation. There's not much to him, and yet every woman, bar none, throws herself at him.

I lie.

There was that lady who was run over by the streetcar, but she never had a chance.

Worst sentence: "In that dress, in those surroundings, she looked like a poem that got printed by accident in an anthology of prose."

Object: A slim mass market paperback with vibrant cover image by Bob Peake, whose work graced this pretty pink book belonging to my mother:

Warner Brothers Presents My Fair Lady
New York: Warner Brothers Pictures, 1964

Access: The first edition enjoyed one lone printing. A handful are listed online, with decent copies gong for under ten dollars. I could find no library copies outside Ohio State University's William Charvet Collection of American Fiction. Yep, "American Fiction". The first British edition, published in 1961 by Consul, is both less attractive and less common. Two crummy copies are listed for sale online at £2 and £5.
Translated by Laurette Brunius, in 1956 Galimard published a French language edition titled Du Rebecca chez les femmes. The original features no character named Rebecca.

In 2006, a half century after the Gold Medal edition, The Deadly Dames was paired with Sanderson's next novel, A Dum-Dum for the President, and returned to print by the dedicated people at Stark House. The twofer is blessed with a very fine essay by expat Montreal critic Kevin Burton Smith, and an all too brief interview with the author. My copy, a second printing, was bought south of the border. The book is unavailable in Canada. 


  1. Those blonde volcanoes look very brunette to me. Now we merely have "She's/He's so hot." Give me 50s metaphors any day over what passes for figurative language in modern 21st slang. Except that dreadful one you singled out.

    Currently reading a lusty crime novel by William Ard that has a sequence set in 50s Montreal. Closest I've got to a pure Canadian PBO in a while. Tried looking for those Brian Moore Gold Medal books published under his pseudonym. My usual trustworthy shop had none. Disappointing, especially when it seems to me the store has at least one title by everyone who was published by Gold Medal.

  2. I agree about the two volcanoes, John. I'll add that Yates doesn't once don a chapeau or draw on a cigarette in the novel. That said, the front cover copy is pretty much spot on. The back appears to have been written by someone who half remembered what an editor told him over a three-martini lunch:

    - "They were custom-tailoring me a shroud - those two siren sisters up to their beautiful necks in murder." Not true, neither commits murder, nor are they so much as implicated.

    - "I'm Bill Yates, the lunkhead of a private eye, who tried to save one blonde sister from the gallows and make a house pet of the either." No one ever suggests that either of the siren sisters has anything to do with a murder. The lunkhead part is right, though.