14 August 2020

They Fell in Love With the Actress

The Darling Illusion
Margerie Scott
London: Davies, 1954
246 pages

Olivia Thompson's dead body lies in a slowly growing pool of blood, an apron belonging to her housekeeper, Mrs Baker, covering the head. Looking down, Inspector of Detectives John Sims believes the death a suicide, but Doctor Jordan Plant, the coroner, suggests otherwise: "I've been thinking—John, have you ever known a woman to shoot herself in the face?"

Olivia's final days favour the doctor's opinion. A young actress who had spent much of the Second World War in London, she'd returned to her Canadian hometown only four days earlier. In the short time between arrival and death, Olivia had purchased and moved into her childhood home. She'd hired Mrs Baker, ordered new furniture, and had started in on plans to renovate. No, nothing speaks to suicide, which made this reader question the inspector's rush to judgement. I didn't know what to think of the coroner, who has this to say about the murderer: "It's more likely to be a woman than a man to do a thing like that to another woman."

Is it? I honestly have no idea.

Save the housekeeper, Olivia had no contact with anyone except Louise Brand, Edith Temple, and Mary Anne Nesbit, each of whom had visited her in the days leading to her death. Names from Olivia's past, they all have a reason to hate her. The novel's structure, coupled with Dr Plant's conviction, encourages the expectation that one of these women did the bloody deed. But which one?

Don't look to Doctor Jordan Plant or Inspector John Sims for the answer, they feature only in the first of the novel's five sections. "Louise," the second section, serves to introduce a living Olivia and her family. Mother Meg, was a music hall performer in the Old Country. Father Tom was a smitten medical student, disowned over his choice of mate. Together Meg and Tom settled in a small Canadian city (read: Windsor), where they raised their children, Olivia and Gerry, and earned a reputation as a couple of happy oddballs.

But what of Louise? Though this is her section, she features hardly at all. It's instead given over to Reg Barnes. The son of a rumrunner who made a fortune during American prohibition, he's expected to marry pretty, buxom blonde Louise Williams, a member of a prominent family that had achieved its riches in the very same manner. The Barnes' and Williams' have money and pretense, but Reg is attracted to Meg and Tom's way of life... and their daughter. On the eve of the announcement of his engagement to Louise – invitations are back from the printer – he asks Olivia to marry him. She declines, Reg marries Louise, and in the section's climax, calls out Olivia's name on his wedding night.

"Edith," the novel's second section is named for Edith Temple. A frigid widow with a fetish for cleanliness, she'd once married a younger man, and had endured sex until pregnant. Her unfortunate husband was mercifully shot to death whilst running rum to thirsty Americans. Edith gave birth to a son, Jack, whom she raised with her cold, cold heart. It's no wonder that he's drawn to Meg and Tom's warm, loving home. Like Reg, he develops a thing for Olivia. Things take a turn when Jack learns of Olivia's plans to study the dramatic arts in London. He pleas with her to stay, is met with derision, and kills himself.

Though only sixty pages in length, "Mary Anne" is worthy of a paper. Historians will find interest in its portrait of a family, Meg and Tom's, in wartime London, but the real value comes in its depiction of attitudes toward homosexuality. "Mary Anne" begins in Canada. Mary Anne Nesbit and younger brother Bill are orphaned in their early teens. Against all odds, with the use of a useless aunt, they manage to maintain their independence. When comes the war, Bill is sent overseas. Mary Anne joins the Canadian Red Cross so as to be closer to her brother. On leave, Bill visits Meg and Tom, now living in London, and surprises everyone by proposing to Olivia. She accepts, only to frustrate her betrothed by deferring the wedding for the stage. Bill goes on a bender, ending up in a King's Road pub. A man named Christopher Bentley sidles up to him at the bar and, when Bill gets too drunk to stand, takes him back to his flat. From this point on, despite initial "self disgust" on the part of Bill, he and Christopher become a couple.

Mary Anne cannot accept Bill's new relationship, as evidenced in this exchange:
"It's your fault, " Mary Anne jumped up and stood facing Olivia, her face working, her hands balled into fists. "I didn't want him to marry you because I knew you'd never make him happy; I know as much about you as you know about me, and I know you'e selfish and cruel and always have been, but you did get engaged to Bill and you should have kept your promise instead of making him so miserable that he went off and got drunk and took up with... this..." she paused, thinking, and Olivia said with deadly sweetness:
     "Is 'pansy' the word you're looking for?"
Bill and Christopher's relationship is not only accepted, but embraced by Meg, Tom, their entourage... and Olivia.

I expect this has something to do with their being theatre people. That said I make a point in singling out Olivia because her acceptance of Bill's proposal is a greater surprise than her violent end.

"He loved her, but didn't like her."

I've never quite understood how that works.

Throughout the novel, Olivia is depicted as a dislikable, selfish, self-centred, uncaring woman, whose only desire is stardom on the stage. Meg and Ted's return to England has everything to do with fulfilling their daughter's dreams, and nothing to do with the overseas wartime service of their son Gerry.

Remember Gerry?

The male characters in The Darling Illusion serve no purpose other than to propel the plot. Ted is nothing more than the most adoring husband, happily supporting his wife's whims, including her impetuous decision to return to England. Gerry, at best the ghost of a character, provides an excuse for Meg and Tom's relocation. Once his parents are reestablished in London, he is – literally – killed off. Reg  Jack, and Bill exist only to provide Louise, Edith, and Mary Anne with reasons for hating Olivia.

It wasn't until I'd finished this novel that I read this in the jacket copy: "The Darling Illusion is not a thriller or detective story, but a penetrating novel of character."

A bold claim, it is both true and false.

It's true that The Darling Illusion is not a thriller or detective story; Inspector of Detectives John Sims and coroner Jordan Plant are nowhere to be found after the eighth page. It is is not true that The Darling Illusion is a penetrating novel of character. Of its population, only Meg lives. She stands in stark contrast with daughter Olivia. The young woman who so entices Reg, Jack, and Bill, has no such effect on the reader – and in this lies the novel's great flaw. Reg, Jack, and Bill all fall in love with Olivia, but the reader will be hard pressed to understand.

I didn't love her. I didn't like her. I didn't hate her. Olivia is a shell.

I spoil little in revealing that her death can be blamed on a mouse.

I'll leave the rest to your imagination.


The lines come from Roberts' "The Tantramar Revisited," first published in 1883.

Query: In the years after the war, would Olivia have been able to fly into Canada with a loaded revolver?

The novel's final page hinges on the answer.

About the author:

In fact, The Darling Illusion was the author's third novel, following Life Begins for Father (London: Hutchinson, 1939) and Mine Own Content (1952).

Object: A slim hardcover featuring mustard-coloured boards. The jacket illustration is uncredited. I think the artist did captured something of Olivia, a woman whom Dr Plant describes as a woman who "could give the impression of beauty."

My copy was purchased for nine American dollars from an Australian bookseller in mid-March. It arrived two weeks ago. As you might imagine, I'd pretty much given up.

It features this book trade label:

Access: Davies' The Darling Illusion enjoyed only one printing. There was a McClelland & Stewart edition, but I've never seen it. Copies of the novel can be found at Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and nine of our university libraries. The Windsor Public Library holds none of Scott's novels, though it does have Beyond All Recompense: The Story of the Honourable Profession of Nursing in Windsor (1954), a booklet she wrote for the Windsor Centennial Festival.

Three copies of The Darling Illusion are currently listed for sale online, the least expensive – ten Australian dollars – being in "Good+" condition. Were I to revisit my March purchase, I'd be tempted by the American bookseller offering The Darling Illusion (M&S edition) and her subsequent novel, Return to Today (Peter Davies edition), for forty-four American dollars.
My thanks to Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow for bringing Margerie Scott to my attention. His writing on the author can be found in this post.

07 August 2020

What's This?

I purchased Robertson Davies' What's Bred in the Bone upon publication, the exchange taking place in 1985 at the old Coles bookstore on the corner of St Catherine and Stanley in downtown Montreal. The second book in Davies' Cornish Trilogy, it is the earliest Canadian edition of a Davies book to feature a cover by Anna Bascove. Prior to this, she'd provided illustrations for the American editions of The Rebel Angels and High Spirits. Following What's Bred in the Bone, her work came to take over Davies' Penguin backlist. It also graced his final novels.

High Spirits (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 1982)
and High Spirits (New York: Viking, 1983)
Whoever hired the artist deserves recognition; Bascove and Davies were a perfect match. In my mind, they're forever linked.

I've been thinking about Davies because this year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. His star shone so brightly back then... but not so much now. Some Davies titles are still in print, though most are not.

I don't think of Davies as a neglected writer, which is why he hasn't been mentioned much in this blog or in my books. Here and there, I've mentioned that Davies' What's Bred in the Bone shares its title with Grant Allen's 1891 Tit-Bits £1000 award-winning novel. How odd, then, that I happened upon this rip-off being sold by a print on demand vulture using CreateSpace.

Someone call a lawyer. Anna Bascove is owed recompense.

Related post:

28 July 2020

An Obstinate Virgin Turns Old-Fashioned Girl

The Obstinate Virgin
Sinclair Murray [Alan Sullivan]
London: Sampson Low, Marston [1934]
314 pages

In Essentially Canadian, his 1982 biography of Alan Sullivan, Gordon D. McLeod dismisses The Obstinate Virgin in two sentences:
The most devastating word applied to some of Sullivan's fiction is "ephemeral." It accurately describes The Obstinate Virgin, the only novel published by Sullivan in 1934.
And so, of course, I turned to The Obstinate Virgin as the next title in my exploration of things Sullivan.

The titular virgin is Mary Hellmuth, twenty-one-year-old step-daughter to Mr Henry Bentick, late of Kent. Step-dad is dead. His demise, quite recent, quite unexpected, must surely came as a shock, though no tears are in evidence. Mary's mother – known only as "Mrs Bentick" – had remarried for money, which is not to suggest that Mr Bentick wasn't most kind and considerate. "I wanted the right sort of home for you," she tells her daughter. "I don't complain about the last four years in any way at all, and you shouldn't either." "I'm not," replies Mary, "but naturally just at the moment I can't pretend to be overcome with grief, and equally naturally, I'm looking ahead."

This exchange takes place on the train to London, where they meet with family solicitor Mr Spillsbury of Spillsbury, Burkonshaw and Clewes. Mrs Bentick's expectation is that has inherited an annuity of £5000, the same amount enjoyed by her late husband. It is the solicitor's sad duty to inform that with Mr Bentick's death the entitlement has been transferred to another; the widow can expect no more than an annual payment of £250 drawn from investments made on her late husband's life insurance. This unpleasant news is coupled with the revelation that the grand Bentick house and estate were leased. Of a sudden, mother and daughter are without a home.

Mary takes the news much better than Mrs Bentick; where the daughter is disappointed in having to give up her dreams of a carefree life in London, the mother suffers the horror of having married for money that never existed. Sullivan shows kindness in not passing judgment on either woman.

Mrs Bentick retreats to a modest rooms in Bayswater, demonstrating little concern regarding the daughter for whom (she claims) she had (in part) married Mr Bentick.

Mary's initial searches for steady employment are not at all successful. However, fortunes turn – or do they? – when she responds to an advert placed by Mrs Hathaway, a middle-aged American woman in need of a secretary. It soon becomes clear that the obstinate virgin is hired for looks alone.

But why?

The location shifts to Monte Carlo, where it becomes clear that Mrs Hathaway hopes Mary's beauty might lure Hugo, her mentally unstable son, away from femme fatale Tonia Moore. Looking on is plain American girl Ann Mason who, being incredibly rich, has followed him across the Atlantic.

Monte Carlo, 1934
Mrs Hathaway holds slim hope that Ann might capture her son, though it's hard to see that there's much of a chance when compared to Tonia, "a sinuous, graceful, provocative creature who, when she moved, seemed to have no bones." Mrs Hathaway encourages Mary to chase Hugo, all the while making it clear that that she'd prefer wealthy Ann as a daughter-in-law:
"I've always been fond of her, and she's a fine girl, but she doesn't make any effort to attract, just thinks that it's enough to be natural. She was always like that. Of course, if you're a born beauty" – here she shot a different kind of glance at Mary – "no special effort is necessary, but believe me in Ann's case it is." 

Hugo never gives Mary so much as a second glance, though she does attract considerable attention from lively Italian Conte Guino Rivaldo and a rather serious Englishman named James Brock. The former can really cut a rug, and is recognized by all as Mrs Hathaway's gigolo (though no one suggests that they are lovers). Brock, who appears out of nowhere, somehow manages to attach himself to the group, despite being a right killjoy. As Guino woos the young virgin, Brock pooh-poohs her gambling, criticizes her use of make-up, advises her against swimming in cold water, and discourages her budding friendship with a certain Mme Gagnon. Within two weeks of arriving in Monte Carlo – and with considerable excitement – Mary accepts a proposal of marriage from one of these two men.

No points for correctly guessing which.

As a young woman who had expected an inheritance, had received nothing, and is left to make her own way, Mary Hellmuth is a familiar character. Her predicament is mirrored in Grant Allen's Juliet
Appleton (The Typewriter Girl; 1897) and Lois Cayley (Miss Cayley's Adventures; 1900), but Mary lacks their smarts and enterprise. She's more like the orphaned Monica Madden in George Gissing's The Odd Women (1893): a not-so-bright girl whose beauty tempts disaster. In short, Mary is a Victorian heroine moving through a Depression era novel. Reading The Obstinate Virgin, I kept having to remind myself that it was published the same year as Tender is the Night and The Postman Always Rings Twice. It is so old-fashioned that the passing of an automobile seems incongruous. Mention of a commercial aeroplane flight in the final pages was positively jarring.

This being 1934, Mary being twenty-one, I'll accept that she is a virgin – but obstinate? Mary, a free-spirit, is open to anything, which explains how she gets along with everyone, save spoilsport James Brock.

The last chapter is rushed. Should anything be made of the fact that the page count of The Obstinate Virgin and is nearly identical to that of What Fools Men Are!, Sullivan's previous novel for Samson Low, Marston?

Mary, loses all her money at the roulette table, and goes into debt to Mme Gagnon... who, it turns out, is a white slave trader. Just as she's about to whisk Mary off to Paris, with the promise of a position in a fashion house, the madame is arrested.

No points for naming the person who tipped off the police.

No points, either, for the naming the person who ends up saving Mary from drowning.

A half-point for naming the woman who is revealed as Guino's estranged wife.

As everything goes south, Mary flees north to London. Arriving at Victoria Station, she encounters Brock: "'Hallo!' said he, "'better come with me and have a cup of tea: you look a bit washed out.'"

In the nine remaining pages, Brock explains his motivation in being in Monte Carlo, justifies his actions in the principality, and insists they be married:
Already he was arranging everything for her and she had the complete conviction that he always would, and could see him standing on the hearth after dinner planning the day to come, but for some strange reason instead of vexing it now made her thankful. That practically, was all she knew about him; he would always arrange things, and she, just as regularly, would be glad he should.
As I've more than hinted, Mary is none too smart.

Bloomer: In speaking of Ann's devotion to her son Hugo, Mrs Hathaway has this to say:
"Why she still loves him – frankly, I don't know – but she does just the same. He's queer. Sometimes I think he's frightened of women."
Trivia I: The Bank of England informs that £5000 in 1934 is the equivalent of over £360,500 today. Mrs Bentick's more modest annuity of £250 amounts to something more than £18,000.

Don't know about you, but I'd be pleased as Punch with that kind of money.

Trivia II: Is it not interesting that Gordon D. McLeod describes The Obstinate Virgin as "the only novel published by Sullivan in 1934"?

The only novel? Should we have expected more?

Well, yes.

Between 1925 and 1933, Sullivan published an average of nearly three novels a year:
The Crucible
The Jade God
John Frensham, K.C. 
Human Clay
The Days of Their Youth
In the Beginning 
Brother Blackfoot
The Splendid Silence
The Verdict of the Sea
The Whispering Lodge 
The Broken Marriage
Double Lives
The Story of One-Ear
The Training of Chiliqui 
A Little Way Ahead
The Magic Makers
Mr. Absalom
Queer Partners 
Golden Foundling
The Ironmaster
No Secrets Island 
Colonel Pluckett
Cornish Interlude 
Man at Lane Tree
What Fools Men Are!
I wonder what happened in 1928. McLeod provides no explanation.

Between 1934 and his death in 1947, Sullivan appears to have relaxed, publishing seven novels, one collection of short stories, and a translation of Félix-Antoine Savard's Menaud maître-draveur.

Object: An unremarkable hardcover, identical in design to Sullivan's What Fools Men Are! (1933). The novel itself is followed by eight pages of advertising for the publisher's "POPULAR CHEAP EDITIONS," consisting chiefly of titles by Jeffrey Farnol, E.C.R. Lora, Leonard A. Knight, Moray Dalton, Silas K. Hocking, Richard Starr, Henry St John Cooper, Donn Byrne, and Faith Baldwin. My copy lacks the dust jacket, but within its pages, I found what may be the rear flap. It appears to have been used as a bookmark.

Anyway, I used it for that purpose.

Access: If WorldCat is an indication, no Canadian library has a copy; the only copies it lists are held in the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, and Dublin's Trinity College Library.

As of this writing, just one copy, a later Sampson Low sixpenny paperback with paper cover (below), is being offered online. At £9.90, it's a steal. Heads up, Library and Archives Canada!

Related posts:

24 July 2020

Canada Reads 2020: "Shouts Out to Tara!"

After much delay, Canada Reads 2020 has come and gone. Congrats to Samra Habib, whose memoir We Have Always Been Here won the game show and was crowned "The One Book to Bring Canada Into Focus."

I listened with as much interest as ever, and was surprised to hear from people asking what I thought. This may have had something to do with "No Country for Old Books," an article I wrote last year for Canadian Notes & Queries. If so, the head doth swell.

As in other years, my thoughts take the form of complaints, like the 2014 decision to focus on the new.

Canadian Notes & Queries #104, Spring 2019

For those keeping track, all but one of the titles in this year's competition was published in 2019, the outlier being Eden Robinson's Son of a Trickster, which appeared in bookstores in 2017. The average age of a Canada Reads 2020 title was 13.5 months.

Canada Reads' preference for the front list was something I discovered through a letter CBC Books sent to publishers. An eye-opener, you can read it in "No Country for Old Books." In researching the game show, I've found CBC Books to be less than forthcoming. Imagine my interest when host Ali Hassan revealed, just yesterday, that Canada Reads has a style consultant named Tara Williams.

I remind that Canada Reads is a radio show.

My main quibble with Canada Reads remains. In its early years, panellists chose the books they wished to promote. In 2002, Leon Rooke, argued on behalf of The Stone Angel, a novel he'd read many times. The same can be said for Denise Bombardier, who in 2007 championed an old favourite in Gabrielle Roy's Children of My Heart.

This year, each of the "defenders" revealed that they had not read their respective books before being asked to participate.

We Have Always Been Here was a national bestseller before it made Canada Reads. It had won a Lambda and had been longlisted of the RBC Charles Taylor Award. The memoir was the subject of  Globe & Mail feature and a subsequent review. It was a 2019 "Globe 100" title. Published internationally, We Have Always Been Here was featured on The Next Chapter, and in the pages of  the Toronto StarNOW, Stylist, and something so distant as the Tampa Bay Times. CBC Books had been pushing We Have Always Been Here for more than a year, beginning with its excited 3 June 2019 article "10 Canadian books coming out in June we can't wait to read."

And yet... and yet, in making her case, Amanda Brugel, its defender, stated: "I wouldn't have been aware of this book until it had been brought to my attention via this competition."

Isn't this a sad state of affairs?

One last thing:

Ali, "The One Book to Bring Canada Into Focus"?

In 2020.

You're a comedian.

Was it too obvious?

Full disclosure: I wanted Eden Robinson's Son of a Trickster to win.

Related post:

13 July 2020

CNQ: Spring? Spring Ish

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

The same might be said of a magazine's Spring Issue landing in July. Something is seriously wrong, though I dare say we're getting used to it. Yesterday, I donned a mask, looked about, and felt good that others waiting to buy beer had done the same.

What a long, strange year this has been... and it's barely half-way done. I like to think the arrival of this new issue of Canadian Notes & Queries signals a return to better times. There's a whole lot to look at, like this issue's What's Old, which features:

Here I remind readers that my birthday is next month.

The Dusty Bookcase column in this issue concerns Robert W. Service's thriller The Master of the Microbe. Published in 1926, its hero, an American expat living in Montparnasse, stumbles over a plot to unleash a deadly virus that attacks the respiratory system. Its earliest pages are as interesting and entertaining as anything I've read this year.

You'll also find Bruce Whiteman on George Fetherling, whose The Writing Life (Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 2013) I edited:

I'm all in with Nigel Beale, who sounds off on the disregard this country demonstrates toward its literary heritage:

David Mason is spot on: There's no such thing as book hoarding.

The embarrassment of riches continues with Colette Maitland's contribution:

And then there's Cynthia Holz's memoir, 'Out of the Bronx':

Other contributors include:
Jeff Bursey
Page Cooper
Elaine Dewar
Meags Fitzgerald
Stephen Fowler
Ulrikka S. Gernes
Basia Gilas
Douglas Glover
Alex Good
Brett Josef Grubisic
Alex Pugsley
Kelly S. Thompson
Shelley Wood
editor Emily Donaldson

An unexpected treat, the copy I received included this insert:

Again, my birthday is next month.

06 July 2020

A Queer Thing, Nationalism

What Fools Men Are!
Sinclair Murray [Alan Sullivan]
London: Sampson Low, Marston, [1933]
316 pages

It's possible that What Fools Men Are! has the worst first sentence in Canadian literature:
Otto Banta, whose appearance gave no suggestion that he was a millionaire in dungarees, was running a lathe, the end one in a long row of warring machines driven by belts that ran from a shaft just under the ceiling and looking down the row one saw a dwindling line of men's heads, most of them young and dark, each very attentive to the mechanical creatures controlled.
The second isn't much better:
Heads, belts, lathes, the song of speeding leather, the low grunt of tool steel as it bit into the revolving thing it fashioned, the constant rain of bright thin cork-screws of sheared metal into the iron pan beneath the lathe; that was the perspective to which Otto was now accustomed.
This is a novel about men, their shafts, their leather, low grunts, and tool steel. Its hero, Otto Banta, earns respect by working next to other muscular fellows in the factory he will one day inherit from his father. When comes the "swelling, full-throated roar" that signals the end of the shift, he doesn't hesitate in joining them in the showers. However, on this day, he's interrupted when a man named Oster touches his arm:
Oster glanced around the room now filling with men peeling off their shirts, exposing bodies whose alabaster whiteness contracted sharply with the grime on faces, wrists, and hands. Their muscles had a smooth, silky play, the biceps buldging when their arms went up over their heads.
     "Can you come around this afternoon?"said Oster in a low voice.
He has something to show Otto – and it wasn't at all what I expected. On Oster's worktable is a new aeroplane engine that is lighter, more efficient, and more reliable than any other ever made. The inventor is set to happily hand it over to the Banta family in exchange for royalties and a brass plaque bearing his name on each engine... which, I couldn't help but note would add unnecessarily to the engine's weight. Why not aluminum?

Oster is a bachelor, as is Otto, but do not get the wrong impression. The millionaire in dungarees is engaged to a woman, Hilda Theres, whose "white breast" – which one? –  he longs to one day fondle. His fiancée's parents, Hugo and Mathilde, emigrated from the Republic of Sardosa some fifteen years earlier. They're now prominent citizens in Lunga, the capitol city of neighbouring Aricia, in which Hugo has established a remarkably successful import/export business. Forty years ago, his home country was involved in a terrible war with Aricia in which the Province of Modoris was lost. It's best left unmentioned.

Hugo and Mathilde are just as happy with the engagement as Otto's parents, John and Maria. "Yes, I think they'll hit it off," John tells Hugo. "Of course Maria is very pleased, and holds there might be more of these marriages between your people and mine. Queer thing, nationalism, isn't it? I used to try and persuade myself that the world was moving away from it, but now I have my doubts."

The seasoned reader will know to share John's apprehension.

What happens next is packed with incident:

Though sworn to secrecy, Otto tells Hilda that he's been asked to form a team of volunteer aviators meant to supplement the Arician Air Force. Without permission, Otto takes his betrothed up in his aeroplane, crosses the Aricia/Sardosa border, and lands on the grounds of the Sardosan mansion in which she spent her earliest years. Though welcomed, Otto and Hilda don't know that the lord of the manor happens to be a man named Hammon, owner and editor of the influential Sardosan Tribune. The couple then return to Lunga for a private dinner hosted by Hugo and Mathilde Theres. Otto's parents are in attendance, as are Boris Parka (President of the Arician Republic), General Mark Kekwich (Arician Minister of War), and Paul Constantine (owner and editor of the Lunga News). As the evening winds down, Otto's departs for the Lunga Club, where he chairs the first meeting of his secret squadron.

Otto has had a long day; the steel shafts, leather, and showers, must seem so long ago. On the way home from the meeting, he happens upon a street artist flogging paintings beneath the imposing marble statue of Sardosian hero Dimitri Collo, a gift from Sardosa to the people of Aricia. Though the consequence is unintended, their brief exchange encourages the artist to deface the statue, making a mockery of a man Sardosians consider a national hero.

And then the shit hits the propellor.

The front page of the following day's Sardosan Tribune is devoted to the defacement, the news of Otto's incursion into Sardosa, and his role as secret squadron leader. Oster's engine is stolen by suspected members of the Sardosian Secret Service, a Sardosian Air Force hanger is destroyed by a saboteur, rioting breaks out in Modoris, anti-Sardosian sentiment takes root in the Banta factory, and the Arician political and upper classes snub invitations to the Theres family's monthly reception. Meanwhile, Constantine and Hammon stoke the fires by printing speculation and fake news in their respective papers.

As might be expected, these tensions have ill-effect on star-crossed lovers Otto and Hilda. Still,  I couldn't help but feel that war would be averted and that all was heading toward a happy ending. I can't say why. Blantyne–Alien, the only other Sullivan novel I've read, ends in great tragedy.

In any case, I was right that things end happily, but wrong in my prediction that the last page, as tradition dictates, would belong to Otto and Hilda. Instead, it's given over to minor characters General Mark Kekwich and his wife Alicia. Poor Mark had been banished from the bedroom due to his treatment of Theres family, but all is forgiven:
On the second floor of the house of the Minister of War, a big bedroom glowed warmly in softened light, and Alicia, her back against a heap of pillows, wearing a very low cut and diaphanous garment, toyed idly with a magazine, smiling to herself in the manner of one who contemplated the immediate future with delicately malicious pleasure, and it might have been midnight when a knock sounded on the door.
     "Come in." She spoke sweetly, aware that she was the most seductive thing in all Lunga.
     On the threshold stood Kekwich in slippers and yellow pyjamas, his cheeks dusky, eyes a little glazed.
     "Darling," he breathed. "Oh, darling!"
     The magazine slid to the floor and two very white arms extended towards him.
     "Silly!" said she as they enfolded him. "Silly old Mark! Come along." Then, a little later, rosy and delicious. "Of course, I loved you all the time – I never stopped – but why did you men get so excited over nothing at all? 
It's a jarring conclusion in that it doesn't fit with the tone of the previous 315 pages.

The last sentence is a joke, right?

If so, am I wrong about the first?

Trivia concerning white breasts: Hilda is not the only woman in Lunga with a white breast or two. Alicia Kekwich's rare appearances in the novel are almost invariably accompanied by some mention of her own. The introduction to the character, at one of the Theres family's soirées, features this description: "a small, fair, blue-eyed woman who carried her headline a flower and had, it was agreed, the whitest bosom in Lunga."

That she is Alicia from Aricia did not escape my notice.

Trivia concerning bachelors: Sullivan populates the novel with a fair number of single men – including Oster, Constantine, and Air Commodore Pollak of the Sardinian Air Force – remarking on their disinterest in women. The most prominent is Boris Parka, president of the Arician Republic, "a lean, saturnine man, a bachelor to whom women in general were neither an objective or of interest." We first see Parka in conversation with the stunningly beautiful Mathilde Theres "saying little but smiling faintly and watching her with cool appraising eyes in which none of her sex had ever caught the least flicker of desire."

About the author: A forgotten son of Montreal, Alan Sullivan published forty-seven books in his seventy-eight years. He was awarded the 1941 Governor General's Award for his historical novel Three Came to Ville Marie, but I think Sullivan is better remembered, when remembered at all, for The Rapids (1922), a roman à clef inspired by the rise and fall of his former employer Francis H. Clergue. Though Sullivan started his writing career as a poet – his first book was The White Canoe and Other Verse (1891) – novels dominate his bibliography (thirty-nine in total; thirteen as "Sinclair Murray"). I've now read two. I'm happy to keep going.

Edward Alan Sullivan
29 November 1868 - 6 August 1947
Object and Access: A bland production bound in bland orange boards. Nothing is on offer by online booksellers, though Queen's University, the University of New Brunswick, the University of Toronto, and the Toronto Public Library have copies. Sadly, Library and Archives Canada fails.

The Sampson Low, Marston edition is the only one. I've found no evidence of a second printing.

Related post:

01 July 2020

Marjorie Pickthall's Canadian Hymn

On this one hundred and fifty-third anniversary of Confederation, patriotic verse by Marjorie Pickthall. This version is taken from The Complete Poems of Marjorie Pickthall (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1927), edited by the poet's father.


Canadian Hymn 
Out of the dust God called new nations forth,
The land and sea made ready at His voice;
He broke the barriers of the North
And bade our plains rejoice;
He saw the untrodden prairie hold
Empire of early gold.
Star of the North,
He bade thee shine
And prove once more the dreams of men divine. 
Ask of the seas what our white frontiers dare,
Ask of the skies where our young banners fly
Like stars unloosened from the hair
Of wild-winged victory.
God’s thunder only wakening thrills
The ramparts of our hills.
Star of the North,
No foe shall stain
What France has loved, where Britain’s dead have lain! 
Dark is the watch-fire, sheathed the ancient sword,
But sons must follow where their sires have led,
To the anointed end, O Lord,
Where marched the mighty dead.
Firm stands the red flag battle-blown,
And we will guard our own,
Our Canada,
From snow to sea.
One hope, one home, one shining destiny!
A Happy Canada Day to all!

Related posts:

29 June 2020

Arthur Mayse, His Wife, and The Beachcombers

Saturday Evening Post, 11 May 1946
My third post on Arthur Mayse in under two weeks.

Why not?

Shining a light on neglected writers like Mayse is the very raison d'être of The Dusty Bookcase. And make no mistake, Mayse is neglected.

Perilous Passage, the 1949 thriller that got me reading his work, was last published in 1950.  His second novel, Desperate Search (1952), which was adapted by Hollywood,  has been out of print for nearly as long. There's never been a collection of the dozens of stories Mayse published in Canadian, American, and British magazines. There's no collection of his newspaper work. His name doesn't feature in The Canadian Encyclopedia or The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature.

Argosy, November 1961
What intrigues me most are the scripts that Mayse wrote for The Beachcombers.

Canadians and Germans will understand.

IMDb lists just one: "The Hexman." BC BookWorld puts their number at four, but provides no titles. A call-out on the Friends of The Beachcombers Facebook page brought unexpected riches, including an email from actor Jackson Davies (Constable John Constable), who provided a complete list with episode descriptions drawn from the CBC database.

As it turns out, Mayse wrote not one, not four, but twenty-seven episodes – many with his wife Win. The description of the earliest, "Here Comes Santa Claus" (broadcast 22 December 1974), promises light fare, as befits a Christmas episode:
The Brotherhood of Unaffiliated Beachcombers sponsors the annual Christmas cruise which will carry Santa (Nick) and his sleigh to the kids on the outlying islands. Events get out of hand when an accident puts Relic in the Santa suit. Cast: Bruno Gerussi, Robert Clothier, Rae Brown, Juliet Randall and Bob Park. Guest cast: Franz Russell, Anna May McKellar, Gregg Morley, Annabel Kershaw, Jack Rigg, and Drew Kemp.
Arthur Mayse's second script, "Nick and the Amazons" (12 January 1975), in which Nick is kidnapped by private school girls, seems more unconventional. In "Too Many Cooks" (6 April 1975), his third, "Molly goes on a trip to Vancouver and winds up on skid row."

Jackson Davies himself appears in nine episodes penned by Mayse (or the Mayses), beginning with "In the Still of the Night" (21 December 1975). As the actor noted in his email to me, the writer often wrote stories focussed on the show's indigenous characters. "Voice of the People" (4 January 1981), Mayse's second to last Beachcombers episode, one of several to star Chief Dan George, is a good example:
Relic discovers that Nick and Jesse have stumbled upon some native artifacts. While poking around the site, Relic falls through the roof of an abandoned long-house and becomes entombed underground. He is finally rescued when Chief Moses orders Nick and Jesse to go back and cover up their find. Guest cast includes Chief Dan George, Len George, Robert George, John Callihoo, Willard Sam. Regular cast members are Bruno Gerussi, Robert Clothier, Rae Brown, Juliet Randall, Bob Park, Pat John, Charlene Aleck, Reg Romero and Jackson Davies.
I find I remember that episode quite well, though I'm certain I haven't seen it since it originally aired.

Chief Moses Charlie (Chief Dan George) and Jesse Jim (Pat John)
Looking over the synopses of Mayse's episodes I find some familiar, and others not so, though I'm sure I watched them all. Among the latter is "Boat in a Bottle," an episode that aired two parts:
Hugh and the family befriend a young Japanese-Canadian who has come to Gibsons to locate his father's old fish-boat which was confiscated during World War II. They run head-on into entrenched prejudice from Col. Spranklin but this does not discourage them from wanting to find the fish-boat and making it sea-worthy again. Cast: Bruno Gerussi, Robert Clothier, Rae Brown, Juliet Randall and Bob Park. Guest cast: Frank Wade, Paul Kariya, Jonathon Pallone, and Dick Clements.
"Boat in a Bottle" was broadcast on 30 January and 7 March 1976, predating Ken Adachi's influential The Enemy That Never Was: A History of Japanese-Canadians by several months... and predating reparations to Japanese-Canadians by well over a decade. It served as my introduction to an ugly scar on our history. We did not learn about internment camps in school.

The Beachcombers could be light fare, as with "Here Comes Santa Claus," but didn't shy away from the ugly. It reflected the country – particularly that part of the country – in a way other shows did not. I expect this is one reason why it remains so loved to this day. There is no Friends of the Trouble With Tracy Facebook page.

Amongst those who responded to my query regarding Arthur Mayse's contributions was Jo-Anne Campone, whose late husband, Merv Campone, also wrote for the show. After our brief exchange, I discovered that he also wrote Adventures on the Sunshine Coast (Toronto: NC Press, 1981), which I believe to be the only Beachcombers book.

I found a Fine hardcover copy listed for sale online.

You can bet I bought it.

My thanks to Jackson Davies for his generosity.

Related posts:

24 June 2020

Acerbic Saint-Jean-Baptiste Verse

On this Fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste, thirty-eight forgotten lines of nineteenth-century verse by S. Frances Harrison. Am I wrong in finding it curious? I admit I don't know much of the poet's work, but I was under the impression that S. Frances Harrison was a great champion of French-Canadian culture. This poem, from Pine, Rose and Fleur de Lis (Toronto: Hart, 1891) suggests her enthusiasm had its limits. Bur really, who can't help but feel sympathy for little Antoine?

     'Tis the day of the blessed St. Jean B'ptiste,
          And the streets are full of the folk awaiting
     The favourite French-Canadian feast. 
     One knows by the bells which have never ceas'd,
          Since early morn reverberating,
     Tis the day of the blessed St. Jean B'ptiste. 
     Welcome it! Joyeux, the portly priest!
          Welcome it! Nun, at your iron grating!
     The favourite French-Canadian feast. 
     Welcome it! Antoine, one of the least
          Of the earth's meek little ones, meditating
     On the day of the blessed St. Jean B'ptiste, 
     On the jostling crowd that has swift increas'd
          Behind him, before him, celebrating
     The favourite French-Canadian feast. 
     He is cloth'd in the skin of some savage beast.
          Who cares if he be near suffocating?
     Tis the day of the blessed St. Jean B'ptiste,
     The favourite French-Canadian Feast. 
     Poor little Antoine! He does not mind.
          It is all for the church, for a grand good cause,
     The nuns are so sweet and the priests so kind. 
     The martyr's spirit is fast enshrin'd
          In the tiny form that the ox-cart draws,
     Poor little Antoine, he does not mind. 
     Poor little soul, for the cords that bind
          Are stronger than ardor for fame or applause—
     The nuns are so sweet and the priests so kind. 
     And after the fete a feast is design'd—
          Locusts and honey are both in the clause—
     Brave little Antoine! He does not mind 
     The heat, nor the hungry demon twin'd
          Around his vitals that tears and gnaws,
     The nuns are so sweet and the priests so kind. 
     The dust is flying. The streets are lin'd
          With the panting crowd that prays for a pause.
     Poor little Antoine! He does not mind!
     The nuns are so sweet and the priests so kind.
Bonne fête!

Related posts:

23 June 2020

Arthur Mayse: The Gift of His Extraordinary Life


At ten, The Beachcombers consumed a steady portion of my week – one half-hour each Sunday evening – and yet Arthur Mayse's name meant nothing to me. Truth be told, I never paid much attention to the show's credits. Mayse wrote four of the early episodes; they followed more than sixty short stories, novellas, and novels published in Liberty, Argosy, Collier's, Maclean's, and the Saturday Evening Post. They also followed three novels, including 1952's Desperate Search, a Post serial and Sears Book Club selection, which was adapted to the screen in a film starring Howard Keel and Jane Greer. IMDb has the trailer.

Arthur "Bill" Mayse was a Manitoban, born amongst the Swampy Cree to Baptist missionaries, though he lived most of his life in British Columbia, the province in which most of his fiction is set. A newspaperman, Mayse wrote for the Vancouver Sun, the Province, and was for thirty years a columnist for the Victoria Times-Colonist. His obituary appeared in the same edition as his final column.

I moved from Montreal to Vancouver not long after Arthur Mayse died. In my fifteen years in British Columbia – eight of which I served on the Executive of the Federation of BC Writers (two as Vice-President, two as President) – I never once heard anyone mention his name.

How can this be?

Arthur Mayse lived a most remarkable life. This early part of his Vancouver Sun obituary (25 March 1992), penned by son-in-law Stephen Hume, gives a sense of what we lost in his passing:
He knew Cowichan shamans, Sointula pukka fighters, tame apes from the A-frame camps, Chinese laborers, unrepentant Wobblies. More than anything, he knew and loved the country. He lived it, breathed it, fished it and sometimes despaired at what was being done to it in the ignorant clamor called progress.
      He was an ace reporter for The Province from the day he was hired out of UBC, a prize-winning poet one course short of graduation. He'd been freelancing pieces at space rates until the managing editor noticed he earned more from his column-inch scale than reporters did on full salary and hired him to save money.
     In 1933, covering the first ascent of Mount Waddington, highest peak in the Coast Range and a notorious killer of climbers, he packed carrier pigeons to the high base camp. Hawks picked them off at the treeline, so he did a solo descent through brutal terrain, bushwhacked his way to tidewater, cat danced the log booms and sweet-talked a tugboat skipper into taking him downcoast to file his exclusive story.
It ends:
When word of his death came, we went outside and looked into a night sky blazing with stars. The Big Dipper wheeled down toward the horizon, the same constellation Bill watched from Cowichan Bay in his dugout canoe (heisted for him by shaman Cultus Tommy) as a boy so long ago. It seemed right that he should escape weary age and sorrow at the hinge of the year. He died just before dawn. It was equinox, the first day of spring. We took his two-year-old granddaughter to a sea-run cutthroat beach –  a child he loved, a place he loved – and gave thanks for the gift of his extraordinary life.
Extraordinary indeed.

It wasn't until this month that I'd read anything by Arthur Mayse. The strength of that work, his debut novel Perilous Passage, sent me off on a tear through the short stories he published in Maclean's. It's sad to think that they came and went with each new issue – none were ever collected – and yet I can't help but appreciate a time in which fiction featured in our best magazines. And I can't help but admire the artists who provided illustrations for his stories.

15 February 1940
1 April 1945
15 May 1945
15 September 1945
15 October 1946
15 March 1951

Does "The Hex-Man of Croacker's Creek" have anything to do with "The Hexman," one of Mayse's Beachcombers scripts?

The question might be addressed in the introduction to a collection of his short stories.

Is the publication of such a thing not overdue?

Related posts:

21 June 2020

A Father's Love on Father's Day

A favourite purchase of last year, and a cherished volume for all time, my copy of Anne Hebert's 1942 debut, Les songes en équilibre, bears this inscription from her father:

Mine is anything but unique. That Maurice Hébert presented other copies with similar sentiments makes me love it all the more.

A Happy Father's Day!

This one marks my twenty-third.

I am blessed.

Related post:

16 June 2020

Just Kids

Perilous Passage
Arthur Mayse
New York: Pocket, 1950
233 pages

A semi-conscious man looks about a boat's cabin as a woman presses a wet cloth to his forehead. She's young, her nails are short, and her small hands are calloused. When another man tries to enter, she grabs a gun: "If you come down here, Joe, I'll shoot you."

For a moment, the intruder doesn't move. "I don't want your damn' old hulk, Devvy," he tells her. When the woman threatens a second time, he leaves. "You'd better too," he says. "She's near sunk."

Who's Joe? Who's Devvy?

The semi-conscious man has been beaten so badly that he can't even remember his own name, never mind how he came to find himself in this situation. Devvy tells him he's Clint Farrell. She says they met two weeks earlier in a place called Martinez Cove. They're on a salmon troller that he and his partner operate out of Vancouver. That partner, a Finn named Aleko Johannsen, is nowhere to be found, though the amount of blood covering the deck suggests that he's dead. Devvy wants to know what happened. Clint remembers three men boarding the troller, but nothing more.

Joe was right, the troller is near sunk. Devvy tows the boat to calm waters and leads Clint back to her home:
"I want to help you, if I can."
"Because you were good to me at Martinez."
How so?

Clint Farrell has nearly as many questions as the reader, but as the fog clears and time passes, stark reality emerges.

Devvy is Devise Callahan – "stupid name, but Dad liked it" – an American farm girl who lives just south of the border between British Columbia and Washington State. Dad is recently dead, leaving her to share a house with Aila, a detested drunk her father brought back from the war.

Joe is Joe Peddar, a horny hired hand who once caught Devvy in the hayloft. She bit him and then fired his sorry ass.

Clint Farrell turns out to be a city boy from Oregon. The son of a son of a bitch, he was sent to reform school after flooring his abusive father. Clint jumped the fence and made for Canada. In Vancouver, he tried to reinvent himself as prize-fighter "Bill Ryan." After his first and only bout  – a loss – he was about to be picked up for underaged drinking when Aleko interceded.

You'll note that I've shifted from "man" and "woman" to "boy" and "girl." I began the novel assuming that Clint and Devvy were adults, but they aren't – not according to the laws of the time. Clint is nineteen. Devvy is either seventeen or eighteen.

Perilous Passage is atypical post-war Canadian noir in that Clint and Devvy are underage; Harlequin, News Stand Library, Collins White Circle, and Studio Editions never went there. It's also unusual for its setting; The Body on Mount Royal,  Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, Present Reckoning, and Flee the Night in Anger have nothing to do with country life.

Rural noir, right? If so, I'm hard-pressed to think of another Canadian example from the post-war years.

I'll write no more for fear of spoiling the plot of a recommended read, except to say that what struck me as being most different between this and other Canadian novels of the time was Devvy's strength. Clint has the fists, sure, but she is the stronger in both character and intelligence. What's more, her smarts save his butt. Turning to the back cover, after having read the final page, I see that I'm not alone in my opinion.

Girls mature more quickly than boys, right?

It was so in my experience.

Object and Access: A trade-size paperback purchased £5.00 from a UK bookseller. Much as I like the James R. Bingham cover illustration, depicting the opening scene, I'm quick to point out that Devvy's hair is too long and her breasts are too big. Her image on the dust jacket of the Morrow first edition is more faithful to the author's description.

Perilous Passage first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in seven instalments running from May 14 to June 25, 1949. A Canadian Press story (10 May 1949) reports that Mayse received $15,000 in return, "the highest price ever paid to a Canadian writer by that magazine."

Saturday Evening Post, 14 May 1949
That same year, the novel enjoyed two hardcover printings with Morrow. My Pocket Books edition is dated September 1950 (I've yet to find evidence of a second printing). In 1952, Frederick Muller brought out a UK edition. An uncredited Swedish translation, Farlig kust, also 1952, was published by B. Wahlström.

Copies in its various editions can be found amongst the holdings of Library and Archives Canada and in just four of our academic libraries.

My thanks to Beau, whose reminder encouraged me to read this novel.

Related posts:
Arthur Mayse: The Gift of His Extraordinary Life
Arthur Mayse, His Wife, and The Beachcombers