10 January 2013

Dope Rings in Canada! Oh My!

Die with Me, Lady
Ronald Cocking
Toronto: Harlequin, 1953
If you are having dinner with a group of Montrealers and suddenly bring up the subject of Toronto, chances are that someone will remark, "Toronto? Please. Not while I'm eating."
– Al Palmer, Montreal Confidential, 1950
There was no Toronto Confidential for the same reason that there's no Hogtown equivalent to William Weintraub's City Unique: post-war Montreal was sin city; post-war Toronto was dullsville.

Montreal's noir writers – Brian Moore, Ted Allan, David Montrose, Douglas Sanderson, Ronald J Cooke and Al Palmer – set novels in the city in which they lived, playing it up with titles like Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, The House on Craig Street, The Mayor of Côte St. Paul, The Crime on Cote des Neiges, Murder Over Dorval and The Body on Mount Royal. But the urban grit found in the fiction of Toronto's Thomas P. Kelley, Tedd Steele, Keith Edgar, Horace Brown and Danny Halperin belongs to the streets of New York or, more often, some faceless North American city.

No snide remarks, now.

The notable exception amongst Toronto's pulpists is Hugh Garner, who used the city as the setting of Cabbagetown, Present Reckoning and Waste No Tears, his infamous "Novel about the Abortion Racket." And who can forget The Door Between, Halperin's one Toronto novel? Not me. His best, it lingers as one of the most peculiar novels I have ever read. Now we have Die with Me, Lady, the only novel that transplanted British newspaperman Ronald Cocking set in the Queen City.

Bay Street, looking north to Old City Hall, c. 1955
Fewer overhead wires.
We begin at the corner of Queen and Bay, opposite Old City Hall, where withered and weathered newsie Timmy McGuire sells the day's papers. Ask for the Star and press a wadded bill into his palm and he'll hand you a well-folded copy containing a cocaine supplement. As evening begins and the business crowd thins out, old Timmy packs up and takes the streetcar east, past the Union Station, past the grain elevators, to the Island Ferry. He's being followed and he knows it. He'd call out for help, but what's the use: "There was tomorrow, and the next day. The little man's heart contracted at the thought of the constant terror. Anything was better than that – anything."

Timmy is resigned to his fate, but still tries to dodge it. Aboard the Sam McBride, hoping to reach his modest Centre Island rental alive, he seeks safety in the toilet:
   "Come here, Timmy."
   The little man turned, trying to peer through the blood-red mist that was fogging his sight. It was Him, of course.
   Then he felt his wrist being gripped, and his forearm was suddenly bare. A sharp pain, a little pressure.
   "There, Timmy. That was painless, wasn't it?"
   The sleeve of his jacket was pulled down, and then he was being pushed through the open doorway.
   "Go back to your seat, Timmy. You'll need to sit down in a minute."  
Exit Timmy McBride, dead by morphine; enter Al Morley, drunk as a skunk. Al works the police beat at the Toronto Daily News; Timmy would've sold thousands of his words. A pilot during the war, he spent three years as a McGill med student before drinking got the better of him. Now he works in a field that "places a premium on failure," one that "has gathered unto itself the refugees from more different professions than any other occupation except prostitution."

His words, not mine.

Al's losing money playing poker with a morality squad cop when the call comes in about Timmy's death. They make their way to the morgue, Al blathering on about some of the stuff he learned in med school:
   He fell silent, suddenly nauseated with his own inane conversation. The siren cut a noisy swathe for the car as it rolled down Bay Street.
   All at once he hated the solid smugness of the city. He felt as though he wanted to get a giant sledgehammer and smash the stony temples of industry; crack the into a billion pieces.
   I'm going crazy, he decided dispassionately.
It was at this point I put down the book and placed orders with UK booksellers for Cocking's other novels. Then I wrote a few friends advising them to get the book while there were still copies to be had.

My enthusiasm was premature.

Never have I seen a book fall apart quite so dramatically and melodramatically. Decay sets in when Al breaks into dead Timmy's home and encounters a girl "in cool green linen suit that set off her copper-coloured hair, cut short like a boy's in the new style." She is Valerie, the virginal daughter of import-export business tycoon Sir Wilfred Cremore. Next thing you know, Al has it bad. He turns from hard liquor to ice coffee, becomes a regular visitor at the Cremore mansion and sits like a puppy at Sir Wilfred's feet. Al's amusing enough as a drunk; sober he's a bore. For the reader, things hit rock bottom when Al declares his love for Valerie and they share their first embrace. It's the very type of writing that would one day turn Harlequin into Canada's richest publisher:
There was a mighty thundering in his ears, and his whole body was filled with the warmth and sweetness of her.
   After a while he said, with his mouth still touching hers! "I never knew this could happen to me. You read about it, and you hear about it, but I never knew that it could happen to me."
   She was crying, silently, and the tears ran down salty on his mouth. He kissed her again, marvelling at the fierce intensity with which she gave herself. She reached up and put her arms around his head, pulling his mouth closer to her...
   Presently she lifted her face away a little.
   "It's for ever and ever," she said softly. "You read that in books, too, don't you? But I've always waited for this, because I knew one day it would happen. Now – it had to happen this way. Forever may not be very long, darling, but that doesn't matter. We know what it's like to have found what some people call Heaven. But Heaven was never like this."
Call me unromantic, but I much prefer this from earlier in the novel:
   "Why," Patti said softly, "our boy sounds all tuckered out." She climbed up on the stool beside him. "Maybe I ought to take you back with me and get you relaxed."
   "Maybe," Al said, and his throat and mouth went dry at the thought. "Maybe."
   "Finish your drink, honey," she said urgently. "I can't wait. God! The things you do to me shouldn't happen to a dog."
   "You either got it," said Al, "or you ain't." Then he turned towards her. I'm sorry, Patti, I'm just a trifle stewed."
   "You're a doll," she said, staring at him. Her mouth was red and very moist. "You're a doll, Al," she repeated. "Let's go, huh?"
   "Where'll we go?" Al asked. She was very lovely, he thought. Her figure was perfect.
   "We'll go up to my room, Al," she said softly. "I'll pour you a drink, and we'll talk – then I'll relax you. Huh?" 
But let's remember that this is meant to be a mystery. Who killed little Timmy McGuire and why? Our reporter hero doesn't do much to find the answers. Instead he visits, revisits and revisits Sir Wilfred, his editor, the morality squad cop and a Mountie named Summers comparing notes. He doesn't know a lot, but it's enough to make a couple of parties very unhappy. Kidnapped once, shame on the crooks; kidnapped twice, shame on Al.

"For a reporter, you ain't smart," observes Sir Wilfred's dimwitted muscleman.

No, no he's not. Frankly, I question what he tells us about studying at McGill.

Trivia: Die with Me Lady or Die with Me, Lady? Mrs Vowels, my second grade teacher, taught me that the latter is correct.

Yes, her name really was Mrs Vowels.

Harlequin gets it wrong on the cover and spine, but correct on the back cover and title page. So, fifty percent, which at Allancroft Elementary School was a passing grade.

Object: A surprisingly bulky 224-page mass market. Published in June 1953 "by arrangement with HURST & BLACKETT LIMITED, London, Eng." A year earlier the British firm had published Die with Me, Lady under the title Weep No More, Lady. Harlequin's edition, the only Cocking novel to be published in Canada, was in turn followed by London's Mystery Book Guild in an attractive hardcover edition (right). All share the same text with no variations in spelling other than the occasion Harlequin typo.

Access: Library patrons, look to the west. The University of Calgary has one non-circulating copy of Die with Me, Lady, while the University of Regina holds the Hurst & Blackett Weep No More, Lady. That's it. Surprisingly, the Toronto Public Library and the University of Toronto's Thomas Fischer Rare Book Library do not have any edition of the novel in their holdings.

The true first from Hurst & Blackett is quite rare. The only copy listed online, Good without dust jacket, is going for £8. The mystery Book Guild edition is twice as common with Good and Very Good copies going for £7.40 and £10 respectively. Very Good copies of Harlequin's Die with Me, Lady are listed online at US$10 to US$12, but there aren't many. At that price, my advice remains to get 'em while you can.


  1. I just have one thing to say:

    "Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street"

    Knuckles G.

    1. Yes, Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street. You can read my take on the book here. After sixty-plus years out-of-print it'll be back this April. More here.

      I know you won't be able to resist, Knuckles.

  2. Too bad that went downhill so fast.

    1. It's been a long time since I was so disappointed by a novel, John. The opening easily ranks as one of the best and most striking in post-war Canadian noir.

  3. Fortunately, they're not re-printing it under the title "Sugar-Puss on Boulevard René Lévesque"

    Knuckles G.

  4. To someone from Detroit, Toronto seems like a world-class city.

    1. I think present-day Toronto and the Toronto of the 'fifties are in so very many respects polar opposites. It's now a better city, despite being saddled with a buffoon as mayor.

      Here's to Nathan Phillips!

  5. I had the book on my short Harlequin reading list but not any more. Thanks for the save.

    Terrific picture of 50s Bay street. I was there last year and took a similar picture.

    1. Oh, dear. Can I encourage you to read the first two chapters? Thirteen pages of the finest Canadian post-war noir you could hope to find. Things start to go down in chapters three and four, before entering a tailspin in chapter five, the appropriately titled 'We Write Our Own Destinies, Mr. Morley'.

      Nice that Old City Hall still stands, surviving the best efforts of the Eaton family.