12 June 2019

The True Crime Book That Spawned an Industry

The Black Donnellys
Thomas P. Kelley
Toronto: Harlequin, 1962
158 pages
Oh you who hail from Ontario
Know the tale of the Donnellys Oh
Died at the hands of a mob that night
Every child and man by the oil torch light

                         — Steve Earle, 'Justice in Ontario' (2002)
It's likely because I hail from Quebec that I didn't know much about the Donnellys until well into adulthood. My introduction came through a work colleague when I was living in Toronto. Together, we made up a very small department in a very large book retailer – so large that it had its own publishing arm.

We were it.

After a few months working together, he suggested we reprint Orlo Miller's The Donnellys Must Die. I nodded in agreement, though Miller meant nothing to me, and I'd never heard of the book. The new edition of The Donnellys Must Die we ushered back into print sold twelve thousand copies. It's success led us to consider reviving Miller's next book, Death to the Donnellys. We joked about commissioning a third book to be titled Die, Donnellys, Die!

What Steve Earle refers to as "the tale of the Donnellys" is infused with bloodshed of a sort that we Canadians like to think of as foreign. It begins with the 1842 arrival of Irish farming couple James and Johannah Donnelly in what is today Lucan, Ontario. They had with them a son, who had been named after his father. Six more boys and a daughter would follow, all born on Canadian soil their parents had cleared. The respective births were punctuated by violence and murder. First to be killed was neighbour Patrick Farrell – "John Farrell," according to Kelley – whom patriarch James hit on the head with a handspike. The murderer then hid in the woods, and dared work his fields disguised in his wife's frocks:
Johannah was almost as tall and heavy as her husband; appareled in her clothes, Donnelly was taken for her by those traveling the road and seeing him in the fields, and he was able to get in the seeding. Later, still dressed in women's clothing, he brought in the crops, working with his sons, and did the fall plowing.
Murder by handspike aside, this episode is the lightest part of the Donnelly story. Kelley doesn't do as much with it as I thought he might, though he does go for laughs here and there throughout the book. Poor Johanna receives the brunt:
She looked like and should've been a man; her sex undoubtably robbing the bare-knuckle prize ring of a prospective champion. In later years she sprouted a miniature Vandyke, wore red flannels, and told of never having been "much of a beauty." Her picture proves the words to be an understatement.
In Kelley's account, the matriarch directed many of the misdeeds attributed to her offspring. Beginning in 1855, various members of the Donnelly family were charged with larceny, robbery, assault, and attempted murder, amongst other crimes. The events that most troubled this reader concerned animal mutilation. It all came to an end on February 4, 1880, when a mob descended on the Donnelly farmhouse, beat its residents to death, and set the building alight. They then moved on to the home of second son William Donnelly, where they killed third son, John Donnelly. 

Steve Earle is wrong. Not every child and man died that night. There was a survivor in John O'Connor, a hired farm boy, who hid under a bed when the mob broke in. No doubt that mob would've murdered him, too, just as they did Bridget Donnelly, James' twenty-two year-old niece, who was newly arrived from Ireland. No one was ever convicted of the slaughter.

That Kelley records John O'Connor's surname as "Connor" is typical. He made his living as a speedy magazine and paperback writer. He had a reputation as a man who could be relied upon to fill pages in a pinch. The Kelley technique is on full display in this passage:
The writer first heard of the Donnelly feud – bits of it, at least – more than twenty years ago when travelling around the Lucan area. Twenty at the time – ah, my lost youth – the history of Lucan and its violences of bygone years did not interest him. A pair of blue eyes in the nearby village of Exeter, did. Eventually marrying the owner of the eyes, and as time went on, learning more of the feud, it became apparent at last, however, that mere hearsay, a thorough knowledge of the Lucan district or even the tales of oldtimers, would not be enough to write the true story of the Donnellys.  Seemingly endless hours of research were and did become necessary – the reading of old files, old newspapers, police and court records, etc.
It's unlikely that the seemingly endless hours Kelley spent researching the Donnellys were many, but they were lucrative. They resulted in "The Donnelly Feud," a 1947 article written for New Liberty Magazine. It was reprinted in his book Famous Canadian Crimes (Toronto: Collins White Circle, 1949) and then reworked as "The Terrible Donnelly Feud" for his next book, Bad Men of Canada (Toronto: Arrow, 1950). The Black Donnellys, which followed four years later, is said to have sold more than a million copies.

The Black Donnellys is not the best place to begin reading about the family and its fate; I recommend The Donnellys Must Die or, better still, The Donnelly Album by Ray Fazakas. Kelley's book is a fun read, but is wholly unreliable – which is not to say that it is without value. What I find most remarkable about the book has less to do with its contents than it does its impact. Sure, those who hail from Ontario know the tale of the Donnellys, but this wasn't always so. I don't doubt that Kelley (1905-1982), an Ontario boy who toured the province with his medicine man father, claims he hadn't heard of the family until "travelling around the Lucan area" at the age of twenty. After they faded from the headlines, very little was written about the Donnellys. Published a full seventy-four years after the bloody events of February 4, 1880, The Black Donnellys was the first book about the family and its fate. It's inaccuracies and – here I'm betting – commercial success encouraged Miller to write The Donnellys Must Die. More than a dozen Donnelly books have followed.

In this way, it is Kelley's greatest achievement as a writer. Would that we could all have such influence. He's owed a debt of gratitude.

Postscript: I left the very large book retailer in 2001, and began writing books that were published under noms de plume. Eight years later, when living in the Ontario town of St Marys, roughly twenty-five kilometres east of Lucan, I was commissioned to write a YA book on unsolved Canadian mysteries. A chapter on the Donnellys – "Who Killed the Donnellys?" – seemed a given. The St Marys Public Library then held seven books on the family, each of which was represented on the shelves by a block of wood bearing its title. Patrons interested in checking out a volume brought the appropriate block to the front desk. This system had been put in place to prevent theft.

Object: A paperback original, The Black Donnellys was first published in 1954 by Harlequin. My well-read copy, a seventh printing, was won for $7.50 in a 2009 auction at a St Marys, Ontario, thrift store.

Access: A 2002 Globe & Mail story reported that The Black Donnellys had to that point sold over one million copies in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. I point out that that same article refers to The Black Donnellys as a novel. The only American edition (right) is a 1955 paperback published by Signet. I've found no trace of a UK edition.

The Black Donnellys helped build Harlequin. The original 1954 printing was followed by fourteen others. The last was in April, 1968, long after Harlequin had (otherwise) come to focus exclusively on romances. Subsequent editions have been published by Greywood, Pagurian, Firefly, and Darling Terrace (it's current publisher).

Unsurprisingly, dozens of used copies are listed for sale online. Prices begin at US$2.99.

Easily found in academic libraries, but uncommon in the public. I suggest instituting the St Marys Public Library block system.

Related posts:

27 May 2019

Gone Fishin' (without Frank and Joe Hardy)

The Phantom Freighter
Franklin W. Dixon [pseud. Amy McFarlane]
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, [c. 1958]
216 pages

I think I read a Hardy Boys book in elementary school. Was "Clock" in the title? It could be I'm wrong. It could be I'm thinking of the Three Investigators. Truth be told, I never cared much about Frank and Joe; not even when played by Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy. My interest in the Hardy Boys – very limited – came later in life, when I learned that fellow Canadian Leslie McFarlane had penned their earliest adventures. In fact, he wrote the very first Hardy Boys mystery: The Tower Treasure (1927).

McFarlane churned out twenty in total, but The Phantom Freighter isn't one of them. The twenty-sixth Hardy Boys Mystery, it stands alone as the only novel ever written by wife Amy. One story is that Leslie was away on a fishing trip when the outline came in. Could that be true? In a 19 July 1946 letter to the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which commissioned the novel, Amy writes: "Was interrupted in the middle of the job by a dental operation that meant the loss of 22 teeth at one fell swoop."

Whose teeth isn't clear. Either way, I'd like to see it as a Heritage Minute.

Would The Phantom Freighter make for a good twelve minutes of television? I ask because the first half of the 27 December 1969 episode of The Hardy Boys animated series shares the same title. I haven't seen it, but can imagine the challenges in adapting the story for the small screen. The novel Amy McFarlane wrote involves arson, impersonation, blackmail, sabotage, fraud, theft, smuggling, forgery, counterfeiting, several kidnappings, several assaults, an attempted murder, a second attempted murder, a third attempted murder, a fourth attempted murder, and numerous examples of poor customer service.

What to leave out?

It begins with a letter sent Frank and Joe from a man named Thaddeus McClintock, who is staying at a local hotel. He's looking to meet the boys because they have their "feet on the ground." Then Aunt Gertrude arrives. Their father's headstrong sister, she's ready to move into the Hardy home and give up her "nomadic life." An expressman delivers her trunk, along with a carton that is not hers. She learns that her carton, containing "irreplaceable family papers," was left in error at a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Frank and Joe head off, arriving at the address to find its barn ablaze. Joe risks his life in rescuing what he mistakenly believes to be the carton in question. Firefighters arrive, followed by the property owners. The appearance of the latter is coincidental; they've been away for several days. Next to arrive is the inept expressman, who reports that he was met at the farmhouse earlier in the day by a mysterious figure who called himself James Johnson. And then the boys are off to meet Thaddeus McClintock. A worn-out curmudgeon, "past middle age, and a little sloop-shouldered," he wishes to take a long trip with the two boys... as unattached men do.

This is rough sketch of the first sixteen pages. I wonder how it compares to the outline sent the McFarlanes. An awful lot happens in very few pages, rushed along by matter-of-fact prose and a police department that is as speedy as it is helpful:
From the hotel, the boys went to the police headquarters and talked to Chief Callig. He listened attentively, then reached for a telephone and asked for information about the motor launch Wasp. Apparently, little or none was available, for when the chief turned back to the boys, he said:
     "The launch doesn't seem to be listed. But we'll make some more inquiries."
It is, of course, Frank and Joe – not the police – who crack the case. Though there is no singular mystery in this Hardy Boys Mystery, Aunt Gertrude's missing carton and Thaddeus McClintock's curious desire for a lengthy getaway with the boys are both related to the phantom freighter of the title. This too is coincidental.

Fishing figures in the plot. Dentistry does not.

Favourite sentence:
"A man just made us a proposition and we have to do some thinking about it."
Second favourite sentence:
The Hardys were about to get into their car and drive home when Frank remembered that Mrs. Hardy had asked him to buy some socks and handkerchiefs for their father.  
Trivia: I don't remember the cartoon Hardy Boys, despite the series having its own Gold Key comic book. The cover of the second issue informs: "The Hardy Boys use their rock group as a 'cover' to solve spine-tingling mysteries!"

Here's something for those itching to hear Frank and Joe rock out:

Object: First published in 1947, it's likely that my copy dates from 1958. These are the clues:
  • the brown endpapers featured were introduced in 1958;
  • the list of Hardy Boys Mystery Stories printed on the front fly does not include The Mystery at Devil's Paw (1959).
Purchased in 2017 at London's Attic Books. Price: $1.00.

Access: The book I read features the original text. In 1970, a revised version edited by Priscilla Baker-Carr, first appeared. My understanding is that this is The Phantom Freighter being sold today. If I ever come across a copy, I'll  make a point of seeing whether this passage was made more contemporary:
Frank stopped the car in front of the hotel haberdashery again, and Hoe went in to purchase the socls and handkerchiefs for his father.
Hundreds of used copies of The Phantom Freighter are being sold online, the cheapest beginning at one American dollar. A first edition "according to the Carpentieri Bibliography (1947A-1)" is offered at one hundred American dollars. Pay no more than a buck.

13 May 2019

Grant Allen's Breezy Read

An Army Doctor's Romance
Grant Allen
London: Raphall Tuck & Sons, [1893]
113 pages

The publisher lowers expectations with a note presenting this novella as part of its Breezy Library, "an attempt to dissociate a shilling from a shocker." Rafael Tuck & Sons would like the reader to know that this is no Shilling Shocker, rather it is a "Shilling Soother." The unpleasant elements of other Grant Allen tales – adultery (A Splendid Sin), fraud (Miss Cayley's Adventures), arson (The Devil's Die), rail disasters (What's Bred in the Bone), suicide (Under Sealed Orders), assassination (For Maimie's Sake), poisoning (A Terrible Inheritance), and cannibalism (The Cruise of the Albatross) – will not feature. No man will be butted off a cliff by a savage moorland ram (Michael's Crag).

I don't believe I've read so slight a story as An Army Doctor's Romance since childhood. We open on "fresh English rosebud" Muriel Grosvenor, the object of affection of two men serving in the Royal West Badenochs. Oliver Cameron, the first we meet, is a handsome doctor of modest means. His rival, Captain Wilfred Burgess, is just as handsome, and has the advantage of being enormously wealthy. Of the two, Muriel's mother prefers the latter, but the heart wants what the heart wants. During an English garden party on an idyllic English summer's day, the army doctor professes his love and proposes marriage. Muriel in turn declares her love, but stops short of accepting the proposal for the reason that she promised her mother she would not. Her promise to Oliver Cameron is that she will accept no other proposals.

Thwarted by scheming widow Mrs Talbot, who threw Muriel and the doctor together, Capt Burgess has no opportunity to make his own play for Muriel's hand, and so has to resort to a proposal sent by Royal Mail. Mrs Grosvenor pressures her daughter into accepting by post. After the response has been sent, Muriel writes a quick follow-up, breaking off the engagement and "blaming herself not a little for her moral cowardice." But she misses the postman! To make matters worse, Dr Cameron, Capt Burgess, and the rest of the Royal West Badenochs have shipped out to deal with the Matabeles in Matabeleland!

Curiously, surprisingly, in something touted as a "Shilling Soother," there is unpleasantness in the form of a Matabele attack on the Badenochs. Cameron is captured and Burgess is injured horribly. Each thinks the other has been killed. The doctor is released by the enemy and eventually makes his way back to England. Meanwhile, the captain is nursed back to health by Miriam, the beautiful daughter of a famous missionary. Burgess falls in love... but what to do about his engagement to Muriel? The situation is resolved with ease, and everyone goes off happily.

Breezy indeed, An Army Doctor's Romance passed before my eyes without once causing me to pause and give thought. Following Eden Phillpotts'  Summer Clouds and Other Stories (1893), it was the third volume in the Breezy Library. Only three more followed.

I'm not surprised.

Trivia I: By far the least imaginative of the fourteen Allen novels and novellas I've read to date, I was surprised to discover that An Army Doctor's Romance was well-received by contemporary reviewers.

The Publishers' Circular (Christmas 1893)
The most puzzling was a review in The Speaker (25 November 1893), which describes the plot as "distinctly ingenious."

Trivia II: In reading this novel – written for the money, surely – I came to believe that Allen was having some fun with the Breezy Library name because the words "breeze" and "breezy" appear four times in the text. However, research revealed that the words appear no less than nineteen times in the The Devil's Die (1890), my favourite Allen novel.

Object and Access: An attractive, somewhat unusual volume, the image and writing on the flexible chromolithographic cover are raised. The character depicted is Dr Oliver Cameron. His actions are a mystery to me. The interior features seven more images. All are by military artist Harry Payne.

Six of our university libraries hold copies, but not Library and Archives Canada. I've found five copies listed for sale online US$70 to US$250. I won my copy for US$16.99 in an online auction. As is often the case with things Allen, I was the only bidder.

The novella can be read online through this link thanks to the University of Alberta and the Internet Archive.

I don't recommend it.

06 May 2019

A Brief Review of a Book Bought in Error

Exit Barney McGee
Claire Mackay
Richmond Hill, ON: Scholastic-TAB, 1979
146 pages

We've all been there. It's the dying minutes of a book sale, volunteers are exhausted, and you're are encouraged to fill up a box for ten dollars... two dollars... whatever you'd care to donate. You scan the tables, scooping up anything remotely interesting, casting not so much as a glance. This is how I came to buy Exit Barney McGee, a title I read as Exit D'Arcy McGee. The fleeting glimpse of the cover image had me thinking it was a kid's time travel novel.


Exit Barney McGee is not a time travel novel, though kids today will find sentences like this old-fashioned, if not puzzling: "He dialled slowly, letting his finger travel backward with each number, muffling the insect buzz of the release."

Truth be told, I found the novel old-fashioned; not because my family had push-button phones in 1979, but because the story's beginning was all too familiar.

Thirteen-year-old Barney McGee was raised the only child of a single mother – his father having abandoned the family when he was a toddler – but he'd been happy enough. For ten years, it was just mother and child. When Barney grew older, he shouldered some of her burden with money earned through a paper route. Though a boy, he was very much the man of the house... until his mom met and married Mr Conrad, Barney's grade six teacher. Now, a year later, they've been joined by baby girl named Sarah.

Barney longs for the days when it was just him and his mom. The two used to go to the movies on Friday nights; now Mr Conrad takes her out for an evening of bridge with the school vice-principal and his wife.

Barney has had enough. He has a vague memory of a letter his father sent his mother, and rifles thorough his mother's lingerie drawer for a cache of letters. There he finds a scrawl sent from Toronto  by his dad. Ten years have passed, but never mind. A mouse named Saki joins the chip on Barney's shoulder as he sets out for the Hogtown address.

I was curious as to how things would develop. The beginning of Barney's story was so unoriginal that I anticipated some sort of twist. Sadly, Exit Barney McGee follows the road most travelled. There is – no surprise – a smidgen of comedy and adventure en route. A kindly lady offers a ride, but skids to a stop when Saki scurries across her pretty pink skirt. Deeper danger rears its head when Barney accepts a ride from Harry, a seventeen-year-old who is fleeing a botched mugging in a stolen car. Harry sees the runaway as his next victim, but the car runs off the road and Barney and Saki are thrown free.

Because Barney's is such a familiar story, I spoil nothing in revealing that the reunion between father and son falls far short of the boy's dreams.

From beginning to end, Exit Barney McGee was conventional; the only thing that stuck out was the entrance of kindly Nell Weatherston. A social worker, Nell has the task of dealing with Harry, who is revealed to be an orphan who has been abused by his uncles. Another of Nell's cases concerns an eleven-year-old who steals gifts for friends. At home, she is beaten by her patents. Nell, the police, and the hospital staff recognize that not all children are loved.  

Sadly, in today's Canada, this too seems old-fashioned.

Object and access: A slim, cheaply-produced paperback. My copy is a first printing. As far as I can tell, the novel was reprinted in 1987 and 1992. It benefits from five interior illustrations by David Simpson. Curiously, the cover references Toronto's Carleton Street, which is not mentioned in the novel. Used copies can be found online for as little as US$5.00. Mine is signed!

22 April 2019

Millar's Experiment in Springtime in Springtime

Experiment in Springtime
Collected Millar: Dawn of Domestic Suspense
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2017

Margaret Millar's seventh novel, Experiment in Springtime is the first to not feature a dead body. The original dust jacket describes it as a love story, but the design suggests otherwise.

Experiment in Springtime is a dark tale of an unhealthy marriage. Charles Pearson, the husband, is himself unhealthy. In April, he arrived home from work complaining about a headache. Martha Pearson, the wife, gave him two aspirins, which sent him into anaphylactic shock.

Well, that was Dr MacNeil's diagnosis, anyway.

For several days, it looked as if Charles might die. Dr MacNeil did what he could, and Martha spent many hours playing nurse by her husband's bedside. Not to worry, though he's still bedridden, the novel begins with Charles well on the road to recovery. Convalescence has given Charles time to reflect on his five-year-old marriage to Martha. She doesn't love him – of that he is sure – but he hopes that she one day will. Did she ever love him? Martha has changed. Gone is the young woman of twenty-one who accepted Charles' proposal, replaced with an prematurely middle-aged matron for whom duty and appearance are paramount. Martha dresses the part, always in black, with hats as sensible and durable as her "low-heeled black suede oxfords." The car Charles presented as a birthday present is too sleek, too ostentatious; in her opinion, it doesn't match "the personality she had selected for herself."

Others living in the Pearson house – which was built for Martha – are more keen on Charles. The servants like him, in part because he's easygoing and not terribly demanding. Lily, the blushing young maid, has a bit of a crush on her employer. Laura, Martha's sixteen-year-old kid sister, likes that Charles doesn't treat her like a child. Mrs Shaw, Martha's widowed mother, is just shy of being indifferent; she's happiest when alone in her room counting tangerine pits. Everyone, Martha included, agrees that Charles is a highly intelligent man; after all, he's on the board of directors of the Matson Trust Company.

Though Charles and Martha's marriage is at the centre of this novel, scenes featuring the couple are few. Early in the novel, quite unexpectedly, Charles accuses his wife of having tried to murder him. Concerned with keeping up appearances – the staff are around – she places a hand over his mouth. Charles bites her, drawing blood. The following day, with chauffeur Forbes, Charles departs for rest at some remote, unknown location.

Enter – or re-enter – Steve Ferris, Martha's former fiancee, now back from the war. She rents him the vacated chauffeur's flat above the garage. Given Martha's obsession with what others think, it might seem an odd thing to do – but she has her motivations, not the least of which is spite.

Experiment in Springtime does not have a dead body, though the appearance of one wouldn't have been at all jarring. There is danger in this novel in the form of a denial of mental illness. It's all to do with ignorance and the desire to maintain – I'll say it again – appearances.

It's frightening to think how little things have changed in the seven decades since it was written.

Dedication: "To my husband, Kenneth Millar."

Trivia: Early in the novel, Steve is invited to dinner at the home of his aunt and his spinster cousin, leading to this exchange:
"Well Bea," he said. "How's business?"
     "Oh, fine." She sat opposite him, smoothing her dress carefully over her knees. "Same as usual."
     "I thought the old bas— tyrant would have made you vice president by this time."
     "It's all right. You can say bastard as long as mother's not around."
     They both laughed, but he knew he had offended her by changing the word to "tyrant." It was like moving her back a generation.
     She said crisply, "Remember the cartoon in Esquire years ago? 'I may be an old maid, but I'm not a fussy old maid.' Well, that's me."
The cartoon to which Bea refers appeared in the May 1934 Esquire. It isn't quite as she remembers.

Object and Access: Experiment in Springtime was first published in 1947 by Random House. There was no second printing, and no other editions followed. Its inclusion in the second volume of the Collected Millar marked the novel's first appearance in print in seven decades.

Curiously, a German translation was published in 1995 under the title Umgarnt. Its cover uses a detail of Felix Vallotton's At the Café (1909). One wonders why.

The Random House first is surprisingly uncommon. As of this writing, four copies are offered for sale online. At US$35, the cheapest is a Good copy that once belonged to collector and bibliographer Adrian Goldstone. Tempting, but the ones to buy are a signed Near Fine copy in Very Good jacket (US$45) and a Very Good copy in Very Good jacket inscribed by Millar to her sister Dorothy (US$375).

Related post:

21 April 2019

'The Easter Winds' by Lilian Leveridge

Easter verse written in the midst of the Great War by Anglican Lilian Leveridge from her debut collection Over the Hills of Home and Other Poems (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1918).

                         The little winds of dawning,
                              Long centuries ago,
                         Went straying in a garden
                              With bursting buds aglow.
                         A wondrous tale they whispered
                              Of One Who loved, Who died
                         For men whose hatred pierced Him
                              In hands and feet and side. 
                         Bright angels told His story:
                              The winds caught up the song;
                         On viewless wings forever
                              They bear the strain along.
                         The flowers await His coming;
                              For love of Him they bloom—
                         The fadeless Rose of Sharon.
                              That blossomed from the tomb. 
                         O little winds of Easter
                              That blow amid the hills,
                         With lily perfume laden
                              And breath of daffodils.
                         Go, blow across the ocean.
                              And carry to "our boys,"
                         Our truest and our dearest,
                              A gift of Easter joys— 
                         The sweetness of the blossoms,
                              The music of the bells,
                         That, hour by hour unwearied,
                              The glad evangel tells—
                         Of life that blooms unfading,
                              Of love that cannot die,
                         Of rest and peace abiding
                              Beyond our shrouding sky. 
                         O viewless Easter angels
                              That wander round the world,
                         Where, reeking red with carnage,
                              The bolts of hate are hurled,
                         Where, rank on rank, the crosses
                              Stand silent on the hill,
                         Go, plant the amaryllis.
                              The rose, the daflfodil. 
                         Then all the winds of Easter
                              Shall bear upon their wings
                         To wounded hearts the essence
                              Of all life's sweetest things.
                         "The Lord is risen!" shall echo
                              From shore to farthest shore,
                         And Love shall reign eternal,
                              And pain shall be no more.

Related posts:

17 April 2019

Canadian Notes & Queries in Springtime

Behold, Canadian Notes & Queries #104 has arrived! Here it is on the hood of our aging Jeep Liberty.

I look forward to each and every issue, but am particularly keen on this one because it features "No Country for Old Books," my essay on Canada Reads. I think it's important, not so much for my opinions, but for exposing what our "literary Survivor" has hidden from CBC listeners. The show's letter to publishers, sent this past fall, is revelatory – and is printed in full. CNQ made the essay available online last month:
No Country for Old Books
But wouldn't you rather subscribe?

Of course you would. You can do so through this link.

I've also been looking forward to Ian Coutts' article on James Moffatt, the boozy middle-aged Canadian expat behind the bestselling skinhead novels of 'seventies Great Britain.

And then there's Michel Basilières' piece on the great Émile Nelligan in translation.

As he often does, Seth surprises; this time with a spread on The Children's Book about Pulp and Paper and other "little marvels of design and illustration" by Jacques Gagnier and Leonard L. Knott.

Also featured is a new short story by Cynthia Flood!

Other contributors include:
Myra Bloom
Andreae Callanan
Paige Cooper
Jason Dickson
André Forget
Stephen Fowler
Alex Good
Brett Josef Grubisic
Cynthia Holz
Ben Ledoucer
Dancy Mason
David Mason
Marko Sijan
Fiona Smyth
Pablo Strauss
Souvankham Thammavougea
Joshua Whitehead
Bruce Whiteman
My Dusty Bookcase column for this issue looks at The Arch-Satirist by Frances de Wolfe Fenwick. Regular readers of this blog may remember mention of this book in a previous post and on Facebook (yeah, I'm on Facebook). "How is it that a 1910 Montreal novel that begins with the ramblings of a drunken, drug-addicted teenage poet disappoints?" I asked my Facebook "friends."

Those who think I've been unfair to Miss Fenwick may wish to consider this from the July 1910 issue of Canadian Magazine:

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08 April 2019

The Mystery Anthology Mystery Solved?

Canadian Mystery Stories
Alberto Manguel, editor
Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1991
288 pages

My review of this, the eleventh of Alberto Manguel's twenty-two anthologies, was posted yesterday at Canadian Notes & Queries online:

What did I think?

Well, for one, it has the most inept introduction I've ever encountered. These jackets to books by writers who are not so much as recognized will provide further clues.

Phantom Wires
Arthur Stringer
Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1923
The Shadow
H. Bedford-Jones
New York: Fiction League, 1930
The Blue Door
Vincent Starrett
New York: Doubleday, 1930
The Maestro Murders
Frances Shelley Wees
New York: Mystery League, 1931
The Hidden Door
Frank L. Packard
New York: Doubleday, 1933
Trouble Follows Me
Kenneth Millar
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1946
Exit in Green
Martin Brett [pseud Douglas Sanderson]
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1953

Related post:

02 April 2019

The Return of Jimmie Dale, Alias Gray Seal

Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal
Michael Howard
n.p.: The Author, 2017
375 pages

My final year as a trick-or-treater was spent walking though cold, dark streets of suburban Montreal as the Shadow. I wore my grandfather's raincoat, his fedora, and a red winter scarf that belonged to my mother. I carried a squirt gun that bore some resemblance to a Colt .45. The fake nose I'd torn off a pair of plastic Groucho Marx glasses was left behind; I couldn't figure out a way to make it stick to my face.

Even then, at age eleven, I knew it was unlikely that the adults handing out candy would recognize my costume. I tried make things easier by affixing the Shadow logo, traced from the cover of DC Comics' The Shadow #3, to the paper Steinberg's grocery bag used to collect my loot.

I was a 'seventies kid steeped in the culture of the Great Depression. My favourite television show was The Waltons. Decades-old episodes of The Shadow played each summer on As It Happens. The pharmacy in nearby Pointe Claire Village sold oversized reproductions of Detective Comics #27 and Batman #1.

What I didn't realize then, or in the the thirty or so years that followed, was that my favourite crime fighters – the Shadow and Batman – had been influenced by the Gray Seal, a character created by Frank L. Packard, a fellow Montrealer, who had lived not fifteen kilometres from my Beaconsfield home.

The Gray Seal was born in the pulps. First appearing in the April 1914 edition of People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine, his  earliest stories were collected in The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1917). Four more Gray Seal books followed, the last of which, Jimmie Dale and the Missing Hour (1935), was published seven years before his creator's death.

Packard's bibliography offers some explanation as to why the Gray Seal is a forgotten hero. The author produced hundreds of stories for magazines, yet those featuring the Gray Seal are very much in the minority; just five of Packard's thirty-seven books feature the character. Unlike the Shadow and Batman, the creator retained ownership. No one else, save early screen scenarist Mildred Considine, who in 1917 helped bring the Gray Seal to the screen, wrote anything to do with the character that reached the public.

Until now.

As its cover states, Michael Howard's Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal is "The first Gray Seal novel in more than eighty years!" I take care to include the exclamation mark in that quote because its publication is cause for celebration. Howard has done Packard proud.

Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal precedes Packard's adventures in that it imagines the character before his first appearance in People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine. While it is not an origin story, Howard provides more background than is found in Packard's Gray Seal books. Jimmie's father is still alive, the safe company that brought fortune is still in Dale family hands, and yet, Jimmie is already fighting crime as the Gray Seal. The first to experience his form of justice is Elias Hobart, a crook who preys on good people eager to donate money to the survivors of disaster. He's been doing it since the 1889 Johnstown Flood.

Mayor William Jay Gaynor
1849 - 1913
The reference to Johnstown marks one difference between the Howard and Packard Gray Seal adventures. Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal begins and ends with chapters set in mid-September 1920, but the twenty-nine in-between take place during a summer eight years earlier. Howard grounds both time and place with characters making occasional, casual references to events current and past. Figures of the day, my favourite being ill-fated Mayor William Jay Gaynor, make brief appearances.

Elias Hobart is dealt with in short order; the greater challenge in this novel comes from a group of men known as the Spider Gang. They use metal claws to scale the cavernous streets of Manhattan, abducting the New York's most beautiful women.

But for what purpose?

The women who fall victim to the Spider Gang come from all social classes, with the villains scrambling up the exterior walls of both tenements and mansions. No ransom is ever sought. I risk spoiling things a bit in revealing that their motivation has something to do with the occult. The supernatural is another element introduced by Howard. Though common in pulp writing of the Parkard's day, it doesn't feature in his Jimmie Dale adventures.

Or am I wrong?

I can't say for certain because I've read only three of Packard's five Gray Seal books. Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal has me wanting to read the others. I can think of no greater compliment.

Would that I could go out as the Gray Seal this Halloween.

Trivia: The Grey Seal of my boyhood:

Object and Access: An attractive print on demand trade-size paperback. The cover image is by Doug Kleuba. WorldCat suggests that the novel isn't held by a single Canadian library. It can be purchased through this link to Amazon. Heads up, Library and Archives Canada.

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31 March 2019

'When April Comes!' by Virna Sheard

In anticipation! Time to prepare your Easter bonnets!

The Miracle and Other Poems
Virna Sheard
Toronto: Dent, 1913

19 March 2019

Nature as the Devil's Playground

The Ravine
Kendal Young [pseud Phyllis Brett Young]
London: W.H. Allen, 1962
208 pages

Young Barbara Grey "saved for simply ages" to buy a silver bracelet for her mother's birthday. Now that that the day has arrived, she can barely contain her excitement. She manages to make it through her after-school art class, but can't wait for the teacher, Miss Warner, to drive her home. And so, Barbara heads off, cutting through the ravine.

Miss Warner – Christian name: Julie – notes Barbara's absence and ties to be brave. She rounds up her other students, piles them into her station wagon, and drives down into the ravine. It is a dark and rainy, mud makes the tires spin, yet Julie Warner presses on, dreading what she might find.

The car hits a particularly bad patch, spins out of control, and shines its headlights on a man resembling the devil standing over what looks to be a vast pool of blood. The figure disappears into the darkness. The pool of blood turns out to be Barbara's red raincoat... which covers her dead body.

Oh, Barbara, why did you go into the ravine? Not six months earlier, Deborah Hurst – then a student at your very school – was assaulted in the ravine. She hasn't been the same since, and now spends her afternoons waking blank-faced through the streets of your town.

Julie is devastated, of course, but what makes it particularly hard on her is that she has – or had – a little sister who disappeared from the luxurious lobby of the Warner family's Manhattan apartment building. The missing girl was on her way to a violin lesson.

The art teacher comes from a very different place than Barbara and Deborah. Her station wagon replaced a convertible. She works, though she doesn't have to. She has a flat above a drug store, though she can afford better digs. She doesn't have to live here.

But where is here?

Because of title, The Ravine, and the knowledge that it was written by a Torontonian (whose best-known work is The Torontonians), I began this novel thinking it was set in Toronto.

It is not.

The Ravine takes place somewhere in New England. The setting is referred to as a "town," though it appears to be a much larger municipality. There are two daily newspapers, a "foreign" quarter, and downtown streets that are unfamiliar to the art teacher. And yet, the community is so small that everyone knows everyone else; Julie, being relatively new, is the exception.

She's brought into contact with several people as a result of poor Barbara's murder. There's Dr Greg Markham, who treated Deborah Hurst, and has been following her movements ever since. Tom Denning is a newspaper editor, whose chief concern is circulation. Captain Velyan, head of the police, is doing his best to deal with crimes of a sort that just don't happen in a town like this.

Of these three men, Greg is the most important. Struck by Julie's testimony at the coroner's inquiry into Barbara's death, he trails her to a filthy café in which she has taken refuge from reporters. He asks her to dinner that evening. By the end of the date, during which they share one brief kiss, they've become an item.

Julie runs around behind her new boyfriend's back in enlisting Denning and Velyan to entrap the devilish man. Meanwhile, Greg puts together a plan of his own, which he keeps from Julie. Neither action bodes well for a long-term relationship.

The educated, lithe, artsy, blonde, daughter of wealth, Julie is a type; she's as familiar as Dunning, the alcoholic newspaperman, and Velyan, the out-of-his-depths police captain. Dedicated doctor Greg is also a type, though I'd argue that his day has passed. From their very first meeting he looks to exert control over Julie's life:
"Your trouble is that you think too much about other people, Julie. You need someone who will put you first. Do I do that with your permission, or without it?"
The afternoon newspaper is anxiously awaited, a hospital switchboard operator causes concern, meals are taken in drug stores, and cigarettes are offered all around. This is a novel of another time, and nowhere is is more evident in its depiction of the ravine itself.
At midnight on that Thursday night, the ravine was as dark and silent as the valley of death itself. Its thick, black canopy of branches was as motionless as the windless darkness, as secretive as the deep earth trough it shielded.
     Unseen, soundless, the sullen pools in the depths of the ravine swelled and spread, bloated by rivulets of rain-water which slithered inexorably down its steep sides: which crept around the holes of the trees; which filtered noiselessly through the lesser resistance of undergrowth obscene with funguses which had ever seen the light of day.
     Shunned even by the owls, it knew no movement other than this dreary invasion of last minute streams which it would eventually absorb with slow reluctance. A reluctance not duplicated by the morbid eagerness with which it took the night into itself and became one with it.
     Severed, as if by a will of its own, from all but the powers of darkness, it seemed to brood with deliberate malice upon the evil secrets it guarded: seemed to reveal in a black, inanimate triumph belonging only to itself.
     Brooding over a dark past, savouring the taste and smell of recent death, the trees and bushes which were its real substance became linked one to another in a tangled threat as ugly as it was positive.
More fully realized than the encircling town, the ravine is seen by a great many in the community as "a tangled, cancerous growth." It is an evil place. The reader is told there are those who want it left alone, but none of them feature as characters.

After Deborah's assault, Denning's paper launched its "Abolish the Ravine" campaign, painting a picture of a changed landscape with roads, scattered shade trees, and "artificial drainage." It calls for light standards "as unobstructed as the moon and stars above." The campaign was a success in that circulation increased. Barbara's murder provided a second boost.

The novel's brief denouement, which takes place the month after Barbara's murder, features a passage in which the first snows begin to fall, "clean, white, and beneficent, gently covering the acres of raw stumps which are all that remained of the ravine."

For this reader, it was an unhappy ending.

Trivia: The dust jacket features an advert for other W.H. Allen titles, including Psyche, Phyllis Brett Young's first novel:
Kendal Young is the pseudonym of Phyllis Brett Young whose latest novel will be one of 1962's major films. It is the fascinating story of what happens to a young girl after she has been kidnapped.
I'm sorry, which novel will be one of 1962's major films?

The reference is to The RavinePsyche is the story of the kidnapped girl*

The Ravine was not a major film of 1962 or any other year, though an adaptation was shot and released nine years later under the title Assault. It is not to be confused with the 1971 gay porn film of the same title.

Must say, of the six novels W.H. Allen advertised on the dust jacket, the one that most intrigues is Touch a French Pom-Pom, with its promised probing of "the curious situation of four people with the same peculiar desire."

*Addendum: Phyllis Brett Young scholar Monika Bartyzel informs that the “major film” reference was indeed to Psyche: "Victor Saville had the movie rights, and cast Susannah York to play the dual roles of Psyche and her mother. It was announced far and wide, but then he retired from filmmaking in ill health (his last credits are from 1962) and the project floundered." She adds that “'Latest novel' is definitely a poor choice of words, especially since The Torontonians came out in 1960, the year after Psyche."

Thank you, Monika!

Object: A compact hardcover made of red boards. My copy was purchased for five American dollars (with a further twenty for shipping) from a dishonest New Zealand bookseller. Described as "Ex library used copy with wear and tear but overall clean square copy," the thing came apart in my hands.

Access: As far as I can tell, the W.H. Allen edition enjoyed just one printing. Pan published the first paperback edition in 1964, followed by a 1971 movie tie-in as Assault.

A German translation, Mein Mörder kommt um 8, was published in 1966.

The Ravine is held by Library and Archives Canada and McMaster University.

That's it!

Copies of the The Ravine is surprisingly uncommon. The Ravine was published in Canada by Longmans, yet there is no evidence of its existence online. I know of it thanks to Amy Lavender Harris, who owns a signed copy. As of this writing, there are no copies of the Allen and Pan editions listed for anywhere. Two copies of Assault are currently listed for sale online at £2.50 and £3.50. Get 'em before their gone. Like the Longmans, this edition isn't recognized by WorldCat.