30 June 2012

The True North...

From Canada 1962, a proud publication of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics' Information Services Division, further evidence that we were once a stronger, gentler people.

25 June 2012

The World's Most Unusual Detective Magazine!

© The Estate of Leo Orenstein
Check out the gams! It took me a while to realize that that blonde's about to take a leap. Or is she being pushed? Whatever's happening here, the fella sure looks happy.

International Detective Cases was "THE WORLD'S MOST UNUSUAL DETECTIVE MAGAZINE!" No question. So unusual was the world's most unusual that it seems to have vanished without so much as publishing a single issue.

The above, which comes to me courtesy of the family of the late Leo Orenstein, looks to be yet another of the artist's unused covers. Formatting and presentation suggest that like Aphrodite, Against the Grain and Curious Relations of MankindInternational Detective Cases was an aborted effort of Toronto's Fireside Publications. But here's the thing, Fireside didn't produce any original material, rather they'd re-issue, re-package, re-package... My hunch here is that publisher meant to mine the corpse of a dead American true crime monthly by the same title.

International Detective Cases, December 1937
I'm keeping the file open.

An aside: Where the title of England's "A Case for Scotland Yard" seems rather ho-hum, the Canadian entry, "The Tale of Singed Dog Island", did intrigue. I spent a happy half-hour yesterday reading newspaper accounts of this forgotten case. It began 23 November 1935 when the appropriately named John Harms, a trapper, murdered his partner. He next terrorized a neighbour by showing her the body, then made repeated attempts to break into her home. Eventually Harms gave up, yelling: "Report to police that the kid is dead. I will be waiting for them at my cabin on Singed Dog Island."*

The Leader-Post, 30 November 1935
It's clear that the papers were hoping Harms would turn out to be another Albert Johnson, the "Mad Trapper" who had led the RCMP on a 16-day manhunt four years earlier. Instead, Harms sat in his cabin and gave himself up when the Mounties arrived on 3 December. Found guilty of murder, he was hanged five months later.

No detectives needed.
* There really is a Singed Dog Island; a nine-acre piece of land just inside the Saskatchewan portion of Lake Athabaska, from the air it resembles a rotting steak. The actual murder took place at nearby Spring Point, but "The Tale of Spring Point" doesn't sound nearly so interesting.

24 June 2012

'Ô Canada! mon pays! mes amours!'

Monument George-Étienne Cartier
For la Fête de la St-Jean, George-Étienne Cartier's 'Ô Canada! mon pays! mes amours!',  a song I've written about in the past. No reason to go over it all again here; instead I offer this link to my favourite recording, sung by M Alfred Poulin.

The above comes from Devoilement du Monument Sir George-Etienne Cartier, Baronnet, Le Six Septembre 1919. It's an odd little booklet as the Montreal monument had been standing for all to see for three years. Hard to miss. A note on the last page provides something of an explanation:
The celebration of the Centenary of Sir George Etienne Cartier [sic] was to have taken place in September, 1914, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. The outbreak of the war in that year necessitated a postponement of these festivities until peace had been declared.

Rien n'est si beau que son pays...

18 June 2012

Ralph Connor's Beautiful War of 1812

The Runner: A Romance of the Niagaras
Ralph Connor [pseud. Rev. Charles W. Gordon]
New York: Triangle, 1939 

The War of 1812 began two hundred years ago today. I've seen the bicentennial coming for some time – easily done when the year features in the very name of the conflict – all the while promising myself that I'd tackle this Ralph Connor novel in honour of the occasion.

That The Runner is the first Ralph Connor novel I've ever read says more about him than it does me. One hundred years ago, at the time of the centennial, Connor stood with Sir Gilbert Parker as our best-selling novelist; today he's pretty much forgotten. My father had a nice collection encompassing most, if not all, of Connor 's 26 novels. They might have been handed down from my grandfather... or maybe they'd been a gift from his neighbour. I wouldn't know; I never opened a single volume. At some point in the 'seventies the whole thing was donated to our church's annual rummage sale.

This novel reminded me of In the Midst of Alarms, Robert Barr's tale of the Fenian Raids. Such lovely descriptions of the Niagara Peninsula, so much fascinating stuff about things cultural and political in 19th-century Upper Canada... but after a couple of dozen chapters, one does begin to wonder just when the fighting will start. Not soon enough. It's next off to Boston, where the reader is treated to a fancy ball followed by a number of debates between Federalists and Republicans. I learned to be patient.

The Runner moves at a slow pace, even at moments of high drama and emotion, such as when bullheaded Colonel Brookes' hotheaded son Hubert challenges thick-headed Lieutenant-Governor Francis Gore:
"Hubert, you have insulted His Excellency in my house. You must apologize or leave this house at once." (p. 154) 
"Hubert, will you withdraw your words?' (p. 155) 
"How can I? They are true." (p. 156) 
"But to-night, Hubert? Must you go to-night?"
"Yes, Mother, it is better to-night." (p. 157) 
"Good-bye! Good-bye, my son! My first-born son!"
"Go, Mother! Go! Go! You will break me up." (p. 158) 
"Have you said good-bye to Hope, Hubert?"
"To Hope? Why, yes Mother, we have said – good-bye." (p. 160) 
"Good-bye! Ha-ha! Good-bye! Why, certainly! Good-bye!" (p. 161)
Hubert, his mother, the colonel and Lieutenant-Governor Gore all have parts to play in The Runner, but the starring role belongs to young René LaFlamme. He of the title, René is – forgive me – a dashing figure. We see him first at fifteen, diving into the mighty Niagara to retrieve a ship's line that has eluded some clumsy wharfmen. Onlookers applaud. During the lengthy journey to conflict, René will save one girl's honour and another's life. He will demonstrate superior skills in shooting, fencing, fisticuffs, and will master ballroom dancing in six easy lessons. René will serve as scout and spy for Isaac Brock, help forge the alliance with Tecumseh and – on page 297 of this 481 page book – bring news to York that the Americans have declared war... At long last, those who purchased The Runner as a "beautiful historical novel of the Canadian border during the War of 1812" are rewarded.

For this reader, it was all too little, too late and, most of all, far too fanciful. René helps capture of Detroit, is a hero at Queenston Heights, kills the man who killed Brock, rescues Laura Secord and plans James FitzGibbon's attack at the Battle of Beaver Dams.

This novel has so very many faults, but the greatest lies in positioning René as a key figure in the war. No mere observer, no simple soldier, he's on par with Brock and Tecumseh.

We couldn't have done it without him.

Coincidence: Our home is right next-door to the author's boyhood school.

Object: A cheaply produced hardcover, purchased in Vancouver ten years ago for $1.75, this Triangle books edition marked the last time the novel saw print. The publisher's pitch brags that their books "cost pennies instead of dollars", yet are "complete and unabridged, printed on good paper from the expensive plates of the original editions." Don't you believe it – this morning's Globe and Mail was printed on better paper.

Access: Most of our public libraries cleared Connor from their shelves long ago. The good news is that copies of The Runner are cheap, cheap, cheap. Decent copies of the 1929 Doubleday, Doran first edition can be had for as little as US$6. At US$65, the most expensive is being offered by a greedy Connecticut bookseller. Damn Yankees.

15 June 2012

Arthur Stringer Under the Influence

Arthur J. Stringer
The Canadian Magazine, vol. XVII, no. 3 (July 1901)

Something less than not much of anything, the plot of this early Arthur Stringer story is simple. A middle-aged man marries a young beauty. The young beauty loses her baby and becomes depressed. Work calls her husband away and a young man aims to fill the void. Gossip grows. The climax occurs after the husband's return. Loggers both, the husband and aspiring paramour disappear in the drink while trying to clear a log jam; only the older man survives. "W'ere is he? W'ere is he?" screams the young beauty. Told that "he" is dead, she poisons herself. The gentle twist comes with the revelation that – gossip be damned – the young wife had remained true; she poisoned herself thinking that it was her husband who'd been killed.

Far from Shakespeare – though something might be owed Romeo and Juliet – I was surprised to discover that so slight a story went on to be reprinted throughout the English-speaking world.

I think that language had everything to do with its considerable commercial success. You see, the description of our heroine as a "young beauty" is mine. Stringer's narrator has her as "de mos' pretty girl on all de Reever, wit' cheeks lak de peach-blossom, an' de hair w'at she braid alms' down to de knee." Her husband – Patrice Gérin – is a "qui't feller" who "try hard to make some plaisurement for hees young wife an' always mos' kind wit' her." And the unfortunate man who tried to break up their marriage? He wasn't such a bad sort; one cannot fault him for "fall in loaf wit' Emmeline."

With "Emmeline", the ever-savvy Stringer sees and seizes the poetry of William Henry Drummond to produce profitable prose. Clever. In 1901, Dr Drummond was our best-selling writer; his distinctive dialectic verse sold in the tens of thousands. It had been that way ever since his debut, The Habitant and Other French Canadian Poems, arrived in bookstores four years earlier. Nineteen-aught-one saw the publication of Drummond's second biggest selling book, Johnnie Courteau and Other Poems
Who was de man can walk de log
W'en w'ole of de reever she's black wit' fog
An' carry de beeges' load on hees back?
Johnnie  Courteau! 
Johnnie, meet Patrice. He's a good man, though he doesn't have your skill in walk de log.

13 June 2012

Hector de Saint-Denys-Garneau at 100

Hector de Saint-Denys-Garneau
13 June 1912 - 24 October 1943

Paysage en deux couleurs
La vie la mort sur deux collines
Deux collines quatre versants
Les fleurs sauvages sur deux versants
L'ombre sauvage sur deux versants. 
Le soleil debout dans le sud
Met son bonheur sur les deux cimes
L'épand sur faces des deux pentes
Et jusqu'à l'eau de la vallée
(Regarde tout et ne voit rien) 
Dans la vallée le ciel de l'eau
Au ciel de l'eau les nénuphars
Les longues tiges vont au profond
Et le soleil les suit du doigt
(Les suit du doigt et ne sent rien) 
Sur l'eau bercée de nénuphars
Sur l'eau piquée de nénuphars
Sur l'eau percée de nénuphars
Et tenue de cent mille tiges
Porte le pied des deux collines
Un pied fleuri de fleurs sauvages
Un pied rongé d'ombre sauvage. 
Et pour qui vogue en plein milieu
Pour le poisson qui saute au milieu
(Voit une mouche tout au plus) 
Tendant les pentes vers le fond
Plonge le front des deux collines
Un de fleurs fraîches dans la lumière
Vingt ans de fleurs sur fond de ciel
Un sans couleur ni de visage
Et sans comprendre et sans soleil
Mais tout mangé d'ombre sauvage
Tout composé d'absence noire
Un trou d'oubli — ciel calme autour.

11 June 2012

Monday Morning with Aphrodite

© The Estate of Leo Orenstein
What better way to begin the work week than with Aphrodite? Sadly, it seems that this particular edition of Paul Louÿs' erotic novel of Alexandria was never issued.

All signs indicate that the image above, which comes courtesy of artist Leo Orenstein's family, was commissioned by Toronto's Fireside Publications. Had it been published, this Aphrodite would have competed in the Canadian market with American editions flooding in from the south. Since 1933, the novel had been part of the Modern Library – this is the cover being used in the early 'fifties, when Fireside was in operation:

At $1.25, Modern Library's tasteful hardcover might have challenged Fireside's cheap, pulpy 50¢ paperback, but the real competition would've come from Avon. No one exploited Aphrodite quite like Avon:

Avon was having such a good time that in 1957, Berkley got in on the action with this, the first of their two editions:

But just who is that on the Avon and Berkley covers? It can't be the Goddess of Love, she only appears in the novel as a statue.

No, it must be the beautiful courtesan Chrysis, the main female character. It seems that only Leo Orenstein knew the book well enough to depict her as Louÿs describes: a blonde.

06 June 2012


Scott Young and George Robertson
Toronto: Macmillan, [1971]

It's playoff time in the NHL and who cares? Canada, the nation referred to in the league's name, hasn't had a team in contention since April. The last ice I saw was in February. It's two weeks to the summer solstice, for goodness sake.

Face-Off dates from just about the time things started going south. Pun intended. This is not a literary endeavour, but a bit of hack work described awkwardly as "a novel based on an idea created by John F. Bassett".

That would be the John F. Bassett who was the son of John W.H., father of Carling, and owner of the justly forgotten Memphis Southmen, Birmingham Bulls and Tampa Bay Bandits. His idea – not at all bad – was to turn Love Story into something that would appeal not only to readers of Erich Segal, but Rolling Stone and The Hockey News. The novel would be followed by a feature film and, ultimately and improbably, a delicious chocolate bar.

George Robertson, screenwriter of the unjustly forgotten Quentin Durgens, M.P.,  was recruited, as was sportswriter Scott Young. The casting of the latter name was particularly inspired; Young had not only penned a few kids' hockey adventures, but was the father of Neil.

The hero here is Billy Duke, a defenceman touted as "the third in a line of Golden Boys" that includes Bobbys Hull and Orr. The hottest of prospects, Billy is about to be drafted when he meets beautiful, talented folk-rock chanteuse Sherri Lee Nelson, a hippy chick who has "a trim, lean figure with everything in about the right amounts distributed in the right places."

A warning to parents: This is no Boy at the Leafs' Camp or Scrubs on Skates. Billy makes mention of his penis on the first page, and the second... and will talk about laying your sister in the third. Though the sex peters out – again, pun intended – this is not a novel for children. Pretty Sherri, an unstable pot-head, will turn to LSD, mescaline and loads of other stuff as things turn sour.

I thought I'd have a field day with Face-Off; everything about it seemed on the surface so silly – "Happy flip-side and all that jazz... Pull up a joint and make the scene", Sherri's manager invites – and yet I came to care for Billy and Sherri and was shaken when the ending, which is set up to be very Disneyesque, turns out to be anything but.

Reading Face-Off has made me want to see the film... and reading about that film makes me want to see it all the more. A commercial failure, it was criticized for focusing too much on hockey; just about half the run time is taken up by footage of games. Like the novel, it skates between fact and fiction; Derek Sanderson, Bobby Orr, Brad Park and Jacques Plante all figure as characters.

Nine – just – when Face-Off was released, I was only dimly aware of its existence. Still, even as a young pup I recognized that it served as the inspiration for SCTV's Power Play, "the Great Canadian Hockey Film", starring William Shatner Dave Thomas, Al Waxman Rick Maranis, Helen Shaver Catherine O'Hara and Hockey Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler John Candy as hot prospect Billy Stemhovilichski.

The parody features in the DVD reissue of Face-Off.

Such good sports.

Object and Access: A slim hardcover in dark blue boards with shiny red type, the Macmillan first edition, with its 6000 print run, supposedly sold out by November 1971. That same month, Pocket Books let loose 50,000 mass market paperbacks, though you'd never know it from online booksellers. Three copies of the Pocket edition are listed at between US$5 and US$21 (condition not a factor). The Macmillan edition is more common online with all sorts of acceptable copies going or about ten bucks.