10 December 2018

This Necessary Read

This Necessary Murder
Frances Shelley Wees
London: Jenkins, 1957
191 pages

When buying this book I chose to ignore several significant clues: This Necessary Murder is the only Frances Shelley Wees novel that did not attract a North American publisher. The Jenkins edition was limited to a single printing. There has never been a paperback.

It begins:
Jane Merrill (our young Jyne, as Patch the gardener called her), ran joyfully down the broad polished stairs her brother Jonathan's ancient Toronto house and flung open the door. The birds were out of their minds with excitement over the fat worms hastily digging themselves underground on the dewy lawn, and the great variety of perfectly wonderful spots for new one-room homes. The air was heavy with flowers, budding leaves, new grass...
My heart sank.

Before reading those words, I'd hoped This Necessary Murder might make it as a Ricochet Book, the Véhicule Press imprint for which I serve as series editor.

And why not?

I'd liked the author's previous mystery, The Keys of My Prison, going to far as to liken it to the domestic suspense and psychological dramas of the great Margaret Millar. Ten months after reading the novel, The Keys of My Prison was back in print as a Ricochet Book.

This Necessary Murder isn't nearly so strong a work, but it's also not quite as awful as its publishing history and opening scene suggest.

Our young Jyne or Jane (we never do encounter Patch the gardener) is twenty-four years old. A single woman of indeterminate means, she lives with and dotes on her much older bachelor brother, renowned specialist in criminal psychology Doctor Jonathan Merrill. Dutiful Police Constable Henry Lake, “Jonathan’s extra right arm,” also lives in the ancient Toronto house, though this is a temporary arrangement.

Read nothing into Jonathan’s bachelorhood.

Backstory informs that the doctor has recently put his skills to use in taking down the notorious Barnes Gang, and was shot through the shoulder for his efforts. Now, with leader Jed Barnes and the rest of his gang locked away in the Don Jail, the threat posed to the small Merrill household appears over. Henry Lake stays on only to care for Jonathan as he recovers from his shoulder wound.

You know, instead of a nurse or Jane or Patch the gardener.

The morning of the fat worms brings a letter from Allie March, wife of Jonathan’s old college friend Danny:
We need Jon in Tressady just now. We have an odd little problem… an emotional business, nothing more. I wish Jon could come but I don’t dare write him. It’s only a small storm in a Wedgwood teacup, but there are possibilities of the sort of unpleasant gossip and long-term suspicions that are bad for a small town.
Justice being swift in This Necessary Murder, Jon isn’t able to help because he has to stay in Toronto to testify at the Barnes Gang trial. He suggests Jane go in his place:
“Me? In your place? Are you out of your mind?”
     “Quite sane. You have often acted as an observer for me before now. You could see what is troubling Allie… send me reports… get out of the city as you wish to do, and as soon as I am free I will come.”
     “How long will that be?”
     “Not long, I think,” Jonathan said quietly.
Again, justice is swift in This Necessary Murder; investigation, on the other hand, moves at the pace of a particularly fat worm.

But is there really anything to investigate?

The small storm in a Wedgwood teacup is being caused by Bill Edwards, the fiancé of Ann Elliott, small town dress-designer and heiress to a family fortune built on the lumber industry. It is assumed that the two would’ve wed by now had it not been for the recent deaths of Ann’s mother and sister. The old lady – well, she was in her fifties – died of heart failure. The sister, Myra, followed a few months later during a Toronto shopping spree. A vain asthmatic with an allergy to just about everything, she was discovered dead in her car smelling of a perfume she'd been advised to avoid. At the time, no one thought anything suspicious about either death, but Bill has begun to suggest that both women were murdered.

Jane doesn't get much of a chance to do much before the body of a real estate agent named Marina Thorpe is found just outside the gates of the Elliott estate. Jonathan and Henry Lake fly in from Toronto and things get strange.

Jonathan holds sway over the investigation... but why? Sure, he's worked with law enforcement in the past (see: Barnes, Jeb), but the doctor isn't in the employ of any law enforcement agency. As a Toronto Police constable, Henry Lake is well outside his jurisdiction. And yet, the Ontario Provincial Police allow both free rein. Meanwhile, Jane steals what she believes to be evidence from an innocent woman, and then accompanies Jonathan as he removes articles from murder victim Marina Thorpe's hotel room. In doing so, the doctor learns that the OPP sergeant standing guard has a pass key, and so asks him to keep watch as he goes through a room belonging to a man is known to have spoken to the murdered woman:
The sergeant looked at him sharply. “I got no orders, Dr. Merrill.”
     “Nor have I. We are definitely out of bounds. But I think that under the circumstances we could be allowed the latitude.
     “Well you wouldn’t do no harm,” the sergeant agreed.

"What right have you big-shot snooping outsiders got to come here and show up the regular officers?"   says the murderer, when caught. "A smart-alecky girl... an armchair thinker with his arm in a fancy black sling, a tin-horned cop with a notebook... and how do you think our Provincial men are going to look, going into court with all the credit going to you?"

Good questions. Of course, Jane, Jonathan, and Henry have no right at all. The Provincial men won't look at all good. What's more I'm betting that the evidence Jane and Jonathan collected will be thrown out of court.

And so, This Necessary Murder joins Wees's Where is Jenny Now? in being considered and rejected as a Ricochet Book.

Next up: M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty.

Here's hoping it's better than its title.

Most boring sentence:
The day moved on.
Most boring passage:
Bill Edwards, Allie and Danny had gone to Ann Elliott's. Jonathan had called Henry Lake to give him the news of Jed Barnes, and Henry had said at once that he would like to come in and see Jonathan, if suitable replacements could be found for him. There had been two more reporters, he said, and in any case Miss Elliott had been shut up in her room most of the day, alone, and it might be that she would soon waken and wish for company. There had been a special note in his voice that Jonathan recognized. So Allie and Danny had been encouraged to go out there, and Bill had insisted on going too.  
Trivia: Though Jane is the main character in This Necessary Murder, her name isn't so much as mentioned in jacket copy.

More trivia: Ottawa is spelled "Ottowa." I blame the British editor.

Still more trivia: The Herbert Clarence Burleigh fonds at Queen's University features a good amount of writing on Wees, including "MURDER IN MUSKOKA," a piece on This Necessary Murder clipped from the Toronto Telegram. Sadly, the fonds do not record the date, nor the writer, nor the artist who contributed this illustration:

The anonymous hand behind "MURDER IN MUSKOKA" writes that "This Necessary Murder starts out in Toronto and moves to Muskoka" (the novel places Tressady as being north of Toronto, but gives no specific location). Jonathan Merrill is described as a psychologist who lectures at the University of Toronto (something not mentioned in the novel). According to this same anonymous hand, Wees has confirmed that the Boyd Gang inspired the Barnes Gang (which plays a role only in the backstory). She reveals that Jonathan Merrill is modelled on a "Toronto public relations man (who is in on the secret)."

Object and Access: A compact hardcover in pristine dust jacket. The rear flap features an advert for The Keys of My Prison. I purchased my copy of This Necessary Murder from bookseller Stephen Temple this past summer. He was kind enough to knock off a few dollars from the asking price.

As of this writing one – one – copy is listed for sale online. Jacket-less and ex-library, it's being offered at $17.50 by a Chatham bookseller. It may well be worth the price.

Library and Archives Canada, the University of Calgary, and the University of Victoria have copies. C'est tout.

Despite disinterest from the Americans and paperback houses on both sides of the pond, the novel was published in German translation: Der Duft von Permaveilchen (Munich: Goldmann, 1962).

Related posts:

03 December 2018

Robert W. Service's Revised Christmas Miracle (with the poet's forgotten reading instructions)

Much of this past weekend was spent in preparation for Christmas, but I did manage a couple of hours with the December 1918 edition of Maclean's. The first to hit news stands after the Armistice, it makes for very interesting reading. The opening piece, a column titled "The Business Outlook," reminds that Maclean's started out as The Business Magazine. It begins:
Peace came with a suddenness that has left the world a little breathless. Men of discernment had predicted from the very first that, when Germany once began to crack, the end would follow within a short period. But who was there bold enough at any time before September of the present year to stand out and say that the break-up would have come before the New Year?
I doubt Maclean's editor Thomas B. Costain saw the break-up coming. How else to explain American John J. Pershing instead of, say, Sir Arthur Currie, on the magazine's first post-war cover? Even the advertising department appears to have been caught off guard:

"Now That the War is Won" by Lieut-Col J.B. Maclean, is the only article that looks to have been commissioned après la guerre. And it's very short. Other articles include "An Unsolved Mystery: A Story of Warfare Under the Earth" by Lieut C. W. Tilbrook and an interview with the U.S. Secretary of War conducted by Pvt Harold R. Peat (Mrs Peat has an article of her own in the "Women and Their Work" section). Fiction fairly dominates the issue, with short stories and serialized novels by W. Victor Cook, W.A. Fraser, Allan C. Shore, Arthur Stringer and Alice Muriel Williamson. Sadly, Shore's "Santa Clause in Petticoats" isn't nearly as titillating as its title, but Stringer's story is fantastic.

All this fiction! As the advert suggests, something to take a soldier's mind off the grim realities that he faces:

The same could be said for those on the home front. Neither would've found escape in 'The Wife' by Robert Service, the issue's only verse. I thought I knew the poem, but I was wrong. An unfamiliar note at the end had me hunting for my copy of Service's Ballads of a Bohemian (1921), in which 'The Wife' was reprinted. Sure enough, the note isn't there – and there are other significant differences:

[Maclean's, December 1918]
"Tell Annie I’ll be home in time
To help her with her Christmastree."
That’s what he wrote. . . Now hark the chime
Of Christmas bells—and where is he?
And how the house is dark and still!
And Annie’s sobbing on my knee. 
The page beside the candle flame
With cramped and cruel type was filled;
I read and read, until a name
Leapt at me. . . Oh! my heart was stilled!
My eye crept up the column, up
Unto its hateful heading: KILLED
And there was Annie on the stair:
"And will he not be long?" she said.
Her eyes were stars and in her hair
She’d tied a bit of ribband red;
And every step was Daddy’s sure;
Till wearied out, she stole to bed. 
And in the quiet of the night
Alone I decked the Christmas tree.
On every little ticket bright,
My tears were falling bitterly;
And in the street I heard them call.
"Another Splendid Victory." 
A Victory! What care I now?
A thousand victories were vain.
Here in my ruined hearth I vow
From out my black abyss of pain,
I’d rather, rather red defeat,
And have my man, my again. 
Aye, cowering by my cold fireplace,
My orphaned child upon my knee,
What care I for their Empire's pride,
Their pomp and power beyond the sea?
I'd gladly see it lost and lost
Could that bring back my dead to me. 
"But come, my dear; we will not wait.
Each tiny candle pink and white.
We'll set aglow—he may be late,
And we must ave all gay and bright."
(One makes mistakes. I’ll tell myself
I did not read that name aright.) 
"Come, Annie, come, We two will pray
For homes bereft of happiness;
For husbands fighting far away;
For little children fatherless.
Beside the shining tree we'll pray:
"'Oh, Father dear, protect and bless. . . Protect and bless. . .'" 
*  *  *  * 
What’s that? A step upon the stair!
A rush! The door thrown open wide!
My hero and my love! He's there,
And Annie’s laughing by his side. . .
I'm in his arms. . . I faint. . . I faint. . .
"Oh, God! Thy world is glorified."
NOTE.—The author wishes it understood that the sentiments expressed with reference to duty and the war are to be taken as an uncontrollable outburst in the first moments of bereavement, and not as in any sense an expression of opinion.

[Ballads of a Bohemian, Toronto: McLeod, 1921]
"Tell Annie I’ll be home in time
To help her with her Christmas-tree."
That’s what he wrote, and hark! the chime
Of Christmas bells, and where is he?
And how the house is dark and sad,
And Annie’s sobbing on my knee! 
The page beside the candle-flame
With cruel type was overfilled;
I read and read until a name
Leapt at me and my heart was stilled:
My eye crept up the column—up
Unto its hateful heading: Killed. 

And there was Annie on the stair:
"And will he not be long?" she said.
Her eyes were bright and in her hair
She’d twined a bit of riband red;
And every step was daddy’s sure,
Till tired out she went to bed. 
And there alone I sat so still,
With staring eyes that did not see;
The room was desolate and chill,
And desolate the heart of me;
Outside I heard the news-boys shrill:
"Another Glorious Victory!" 
A victory. . . . Ah! what care I?
A thousand victories are vain.
Here in my ruined home I cry
From out my black despair and pain,
I’d rather, rather damned defeat,
And have my man with me again. 
They talk to us of pride and power,
Of Empire vast beyond the sea;
As here beside my hearth I cower,
What mean such words as these to me?
Oh, will they lift the clouds that low’r,
Or light my load in years to be 
What matters it to us poor folk?
Who win or lose, it’s we who pay.
Oh, I would laugh beneath the yoke
If I had him at home to-day;
One’s home before one’s country comes:
Aye, so a million women say. 
"Hush, Annie dear, don’t sorrow so."
(How can I tell her?) “See, we’ll light
With tiny star of purest glow
Each little candle pink and white."
(They make mistakes. I’ll tell myself
I did not read that name aright.)
Come, dearest one; come, let us pray
Beside our gleaming Christmas-tree;
Just fold your little hands and say
These words so softly after me:
"God pity mothers in distress,
And little children fatherless." 
"God pity mothers in distress,
And little children fatherless." 
*  *  *  * 
What’s that? – a step upon the stair;
A shout! – the door thrown open wide!
My hero and my man is there.
And Annie’s leaping by his side. . .
The room reels round, I faint, I fall. . .
"O God! Thy world is glorified."

The original is better, don't you think? The note's disappearance speaks volumes to the differences between wartime and peacetime.

A note of my own: Lest anyone complain that the title of this post spoils the final stanza of 'The Wife,' I point out that this C.W. Jefferys illustration accompanied it's appearance in Maclean's: