02 January 2013

Mr. Child's Simple Story of Dramatic Suspense



Mr. Ames Against Time
Philip Child
Toronto: Ryerson, 1949

Mr. Ames Against Time earned Philip Child a Governor General's Award and the second of his two Ryerson Fiction Awards. It is, of course, standard reading for any student of Canadian literature.

I kid. I kid because I love.

It's true that that Mr. Ames Against Time was so honoured, but I know no one who has read this novel. Even the very few contemporary critics and scholars who bother mentioning the work seem to have given it a pass. In his Canadian Literature in English, the usually reliable W.J. Keith errs in describing the novel as "a psychological spy thriller." It's not. Nor is it a "whodunit," as Irina Sobkowska-Ashcroft and Lorna Berman assert in Portrayal of Old Age in Twentieth Century Canadian Novels.

I will allow that Mr. Ames Against Time might be described as a crime novel. At its centre is the most tightly bound group of characters found outside a family drama. Mr Ames – he's nearly always referred to thusly – is a doorman at the Urania Burlesque Theatre, a seedy joint owned by crime kingpin Sol Mower. Mr Ames' son Mike gathers wads of bills as the crook's collector. Mike's sweetheart is Bernie Avery, a beautiful hoofer who performs daily in the Urania. Her father, a failed artist and boozehound, gets the occasional job painting signage and backdrops for the theatre. Bernie's best friend, hop-head Gipsy Beir – Mower got her hooked on the suff – also performs at the Urania. Gipsy has something going with Mr Ames' former ward Smoke, a rat-faced loser who does the worst of Mower's dirty work. All live in a building that is owned by the big boss. Mike loves Bernie, of course, but so does Smoke. What Mower feels for the dancing girl is best described as lust.

When Mower is murdered, suspicion falls upon premier paramour Mike. Mr Ames is thrust into a terrible situation in which he must testify that the dying man accused his son of the misdeed. Never mind, the elderly doorman has unwavering faith that his example and gentle efforts will encourage the real murderer to reveal himself, thus saving Mike from the hangman's noose. Mr. Ames' greater concern is that his weak heart will give way before he has achieved his goal. Ultimately, of course, Mr Ames wins the race "Against Time".

Now, before I'm accused of spoiling the plot, allow me to point to the dust jacket's front flap:


The very same words "From the Author's Radio Interview" are repeated on the novel's second page:


This is Morley Callaghan country, a harsh land through which sympathetic, simple people move, encountering moral dilemmas at every turn. Mr Ames is the exemplar:
He was one of those strange and simple people whose heart ached for other people. It was his secret belief that everyone in his world was in some way alone and afraid of something. This sympathy was with him a kind of disease of the soul, a kind of haemophilia of the heart: his heart bled for people and the heart's blood would not coagulate and form though scars over the simple emotion of love and pity.
Mr Ames might be strange and simple, but it's Smoke who steals the show. Whether trying to woo Bernie, fighting in the ring or simply walking his limping dog, his are the most memorable and best-drawn scenes. There's a mystery about Smoke, something revealed after he's handed a book on his family by an unknowing librarian:
   "You'll have to sign this slip, please, and read it in the building."
   She handed him a slip of paper and pencil. Smoke looked at her with his pencil poised.
   "Got to sign this?"
   "Of course. It's a rule."... A strange young man, she thought.
   "Say, look. I only want to see it for a minute. Couldn't I look at it at the desk?"
   "Everyone has to sign."
   He hunched his left shoulder and arm so as to hide the slip and scrawled his name.
   She took the slip and glanced at it, casually at first; then she caught her breath and her eyes jerked up and met Smoke's.
   "Sure, that's my name," nodded Smoke with bravado.
   "Look here, I shouldn't read it if I were you. ... Better not."
   "Give it here!" Smoke snatched it from her, fled from the desk and round the corner of the hall out of sight.
And so Smoke learns that he was born into a family of rapists, murderers and psychopaths. There's a good amount of inbreeding, too, but nothing in his unhealthy genetic soup has caused a haemophilia of the heart. Quite the opposite.

Smoke checks out before the end of the novel, while Mr Ames survives because of his aching, bleeding heart. Others who are not similarly afflicted in the tightly bound group are doomed. One dies through poisoning, one overdoses, while a third dies of sheer terror while contemplating his own mortality, leaving...

Ah, but that would be a spoiler – and I think that this is a book worth reading. Besides, I've already told you about Smoke.

Trivia: A veteran of the Great War, Child makes a curious error in repeatedly referring to the Attorney General as the "Adjutant-General."

More trivia: The novel's Postlude, a 48-line poem entitled "Descent for the Lost", signals a change in career. Child's final novel, Mr. Ames Against Time was followed by The Victorian House and Other Verse (1951) and the long poem The Wood of the Nightingale (1965).

Object: An attractive, well-constructed hardcover in turquoise boards. Sadly, the jacket design is uncredited. The signature "STEVEN" features in the lower right-hand corner.


Popular Library reissued the book as a mass market paperback in the 'sixties with a cover illustration that captures Sol Mower's final moments. The artist trimmed decades off Mr Ames and has moved the scene to the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. That's Bernie in Megan Calvet's dress. I think she's been sent off for coffee.

The Edmonton Journal, 3 June 1950
Access: Never mind all those prizes, the first edition enjoyed only one printing. My copy, purchased three years ago from a local bookseller, is the only one I've ever seen. Another lonely copy, just one – Good in "Worn and Torn Dust Jacket" – is currently listed for sale online at US$15. While the Popular Library edition is only a bit more common, copies can be had for less than five dollars. Library patrons are directed to Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library, the Vancouver Public Library and most of our universities.

Related post:
Mr. Steven Against Company Policy
(in which the cover artist is identified)

6 comments:

  1. Interesting. David Skene-Melvin in his Canadian Crime Fiction bibliography does not mention this novel, and Skene-Melvin is pretty through, especally with respect to "authentic" Canadian authors. So, booksellers can advertise this one as "not in Skene-Melvin". That should add a few dollars to the price.

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    1. How odd that Skene-Melvin missed this one. I wonder whether the awards work against it. One doesn't expect a crime novel to win a Governor General's Award, never mind the rather staid Ryerson Fiction Award.

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  2. I like the illustration on that first jacket design quite a bit.

    It's possible that "STEVEN" is Arthur Steven who was the art director for Ryerson Press for 20 years. His first job for Ryerson was in 1949, according to this essay;
    Arthur Steven at the Ryerson Press: designing the post-war years (1949-1969) (1).

    ~jim b.

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  3. On my way to CA. If you want to notify Todd Mason, he is doing FFB.

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