27 October 2021

Blue Plaque Special: Quebec City Edition

In the early days of the Dusty Bookcase – more than twelve years ago! –  I heaped praise upon London's blue plaques, singling out favourites affixed to the former homes of George Frideric Handel, Jimi Hendrix, and Canadian British Prime Minister Andrew Bonnar Law. "Despite all good intentions, and a great deal of effort, we have nothing that compares in this country," I wrote.

I was wrong.

As I discovered last week during a visit to my home and native province, plaques abound in Quebec City! Consider the above, which recognizes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 1942 stay at 25, avenue Sainte-Geneviève (below).

One night? Two?

Never mind, it's worthy of a plaque.

As in London, the plaques of Quebec are blue. I saw them on nearly every street in the old city. Here we have two plaques, both dedicated to literary figures – Félix-Antoine Savard (1896-1982) and Luc Lacourcière (1910-1989) – who at different times called 2, rue des Remparts home:

Below is a photo of 5, rue Hébert, once the residence of  Sir James MacPherson Le Moine (1825-1912). A lawyer and historian, Sir James is the author of Quebec Past and Present (1876) and, appropriately, Picturesque Quebec (1882).

(A mystery: The Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec website lists the plaque as being located at 1½, rue Hébert when in fact it is at number five. Installed in 2001, it would appear to have been moved one address over at some point after 2006. Waymarking.com has a photograph of the plaque in its former location.)

My favourite plaque bleu is found at 34, rue St-Louis, which served as residence of Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé (1786-1871) between the years 1816 and 1822. Built in 1675, one of the oldest standing houses in old Quebec, it's now home to the restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens.

You can't see the blue plaque in this photo, but it's there.

Sadly, the pleasure derived in seeing Quebec's blue plaques was tempered by the knowledge that Montreal has no similar programme.

Why not?

I speculated as to the reason in that twelve-year-old post... and have not changed my thought on the matter.

My last day in the province found me walking through Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. I passed 6879 Monkland Avenue. It once belonged to Irving Layton. The poet owned and lived in the house for more than four decades.

There is no plaque of any kind.

O Montreal!

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12 October 2021

A Shadow Moves Through a Shadowy Underworld

The Shadow
Arthur Stringer
New York: Century, 1913
302 pages

Time was when Jim Blake could pass unnoticed through the seedier side of New York. He'd hobnob with dips, yeggs, till-tappers, and red-lighters. Blake befriended ticket snips, queer shovers, hotel beats, bank sneaks, keister-crackers, dummy chuckers, sun gazers and schlaum workers. He studied their routines, their tricks, their hang-outs, their histories, and got to know the Tammany heelers, "the men with 'pull,' the lads who were to be 'pounded' and the lads who were to be let alone, the men in touch with the 'Senator,' and the gangs with the fall money always at hand."

All this was when he was a Secret Service man with the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. That job ended – rather he ended it – when the press began reporting on his exploits. Blake pretended that he wasn't encouraging the coverage, but his higher-ups at the Bureau were no dummies.

Good thing he'd made those connections at Tammany Hall.

Blake left the Secret Service to become Third Deputy Commissioner in the New York Police Department. His fame increased. There were newspaper features, magazine pieces, and even a Broadway play based on his exploits. Blake never forgot standing, in private box, to acknowledge the applause of an admiring audience.

But this is all backstory. Years have passed, times have changed.

The early pages of the The Shadow find our protagonist in decline. Not long after joining the NYPD, Blake was elevated to Second Deputy Commissioner, but there his career stalled. He'd known to throw in his lot with the Tammany crowd, but that was the extent of his political savvy. Younger members of the force have come to see Blake and his crude methods as relics from an earlier time. He's even been put down by a cop on the beat:
"You call yourself a gun! A gun! why, you’re only a park gun! That’s all you are, a broken-down bluff, an ornamental has-been, a park gun for kids to play ’round!"

The Cavalier, 21 September 1912
Stringer encourages the reader to share this impression with an opening scene in which an exhausted Blake summons a former lover, Elsie Verriner (a/k/a Chaddy Cravath; a/k/a Charlotte Carruthers). Years earlier, Blake had picked her up as an accomplice of con man and bank thief Connie Binhart. Elsie had pleaded that she'd change her ways. Blake had been taken in by her pretty eyes, protected her from the law, had fallen in love, and had gone so far as to propose. Elsie was reluctant, Blake pressed, and then she returned to Connie Binhart.

Never-Fail-Blake (New York: McKinlay, Stone & MacKenzie, [c. 1928])
Again, this was years ago, which is not to say that all is forgiven or forgotten. Blake comes down hard on Elsie, demanding that she tell him just where her old partner in crime has been hiding. The last seven months have seen Binhart chloroform a woman, shoot a bank detective, and make off with $180,000. The Commissioner is under pressure to capture the crook. When Copeland, the First Deputy, fails, Blake steps up, seeing the capture of Binhart as a means of reestablishing his old reputation. Under threat of arrest for an unrelated crime, Elsie hands over a letter Binhart has written from Montreal.

Blake makes for Montreal, only to learn that the crook has decamped for Winnipeg. At Winnipeg, he's told that Binhart is on his way to Calgary. No dummy, Blake realizes he's been set up for failure, most likely by Copeland. Because returning to New York would only add to his humiliation, Blake takes a train to Chicago, where he begins his own inquiries into Binhart's whereabouts. It's here that the chase really begins, taking the Second Deputy through the more seedier locales of the United States, Brazil, Central America, and the Far East. 

The Shadow follows The Wife Traders (1937) and The Devastator (1945) as the third Stringer read this year. I'm glad I gave it a go. While those disappointed, The Shadow proved entertaining, imaginative, exciting, and highly atmospheric. If nothing else, read Chapter XIII, set on a ship running guns to Ecuador. This is Stringer at the height of his talent.

Anyone with an interest in the criminal underworld and its slang will enjoy, though I do warn that racial epithets feature. I admired Stringer's disregard of convention. Blake's life will be saved by a sexy female assassin in Shanghai. Elsie will reappear – reformed – as an agent for the Treasury Department. Both disappear well before the happy ending.

No women feature.

Were you expecting a love story?

Trivia: The return address on Binhart's letter is 381 King Edward Avenue, Westmount. Part of the plant is that the letter was posted from Montreal's King Edward Hotel, not King Edward Avenue. Neither avenue nor hotel exist outside the pages of the novel.

Object: A bulky hardcover purchased earlier this year from the Princeton Antiques Bookshop. Price: US20.00 (w/ a further US$25.00 for shipping). Much as I'm happy to add it to my library, how is this right?

Access: There was a Bell & Cockburn edition, but I've never seen it. While I've yet to find evidence that the Century edition of The Shadow enjoyed a second printing, in terms of sales this novel looks to be one of Stringer's most successful. It first appeared in a shorter version in the pages of Cavalier (September 21 - October 12, 1912). Century's first American edition followed in January 1913. Nine years later, cheapo publisher A.L. Burt reissued the novel under the superior title Never-Fail Blake. It last appeared under that same title as part of a set of Stringer novels, "Supertales [sic] of Modern Mystery," published in the late 'twenties by McKinlay, Stone & MacKenzie.

As I write, two copies of the Century edition are being offered online. Neither is in wonderful condition, but they seem worth the $20 asking price. Copies of Never-Fail-Blake are best ignored. I don't imagine anyone is tempted by this:

The Shadow is held by Library and Archives Canada and is fairly common in our university libraries. Curiously, the Canadian War Museum, the Institut National de la recherche scientifique and École nationale d'administration publique also have copies. What's that about?

Public library users will find that only the Toronto Public Library serves.

The Shadow can be read online – gratis – through the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg. 

11 October 2021

Thanksgiving Verse by J.K. Foran

Poetry for this Thanksgiving Day by J.K. Foran, KC, Lit D, LL D., from the posthumously published collection A Garland: Lectures and Poems (Montreal: Gazette, [1931]).


      For the sound of waters rushing
            In bubbling beads of light;
      For the fleets of snow-white lilies
            Firm anchored out of sight;
      For the reeds among the eddies,
            The crystals on the clod;
      For the flowing of the rivers,
            I thank Thee, O my God!

      For the rosebud’s break of beauty,
            Along the toiler’s way;
      For the violet’s eye that opens
            To bless the new born day;
      For the bare twigs that in summer
            Bloom like the prophet’s rod;
      For the blossomings of flowers,
            I thank Thee, O my God!

      For the lifting up of mountains
            In brightness and in dread;
      For the peaks where snow and sunshine
            Alone have dared to tread;
      For the dark and silent gorges
            Whence mighty cedars nod;
      For the majesty of mountains,
            I thank Thee, O my God!

      For the splendor of the sunsets,
            Vast mirrored on the sea;
      For the gold-fringed clouds that curtain
            Heaven’s inner majesty;
      For the molten bars of twilight,
            Where thought leans glad, yet awed;
      For the glory of the sunlight,
            I thank Thee, O my God!

      For the earth and all its beauty,
            The sky and all its light;
      For the dim and soothing shadows
            That rest the dazzling sight;
      For unfading fields and prairies,
            Where sense in vain has trod;
      For the world’s exhaustless beauty,
            I thank Thee, O my God!

      For an eye of inward seeing,
            A soul to know and love;
      For these common aspirations
            That our high heirship prove;
      For the hearts that bless each other
            Beneath Thy smile, Thy rod;
      For the amaranth saved from Eden,
            I thank Thee, O my God!

      For the hidden scroll, o’erwritten
            With one dear name adored;
      For the heavenly in the human,
            The Spirit in the Word;
      For the tokens of Thy presence
            Within, above, abroad;
      For Thine own great gift of being,
            I thank Thee, O my God.
Sadly, I don't own a copy of A Garland. Happily, it can be read online at Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec through this link. Their copy was a gift to the Bibliothèque de la ville de Montréal from Dusty Bookcase favourite Ethel Ursula Foran, Dr Foran's daughter.

01 October 2021

Dustiest Bookcase: S is for Slater (not Mitchell)

Short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).

The Water-Drinker
Patrick Slater [John Mitchell]
Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1937
149 pages

I read Patrick Slater's The Yellow Briar a few months after moving to southern Ontario. Our new neighbours and friends had read it in school. Another friend, Michael Gnarowski, was preparing a new edition for Dundurn's Voyageur Classics series. Copies were plentiful in our newly adopted corner of the country. It took little effort, little time, and less than thirty dollars to amass a nice little collection of various editions. The new Dundurn edition set me back twice as much as the others combined. 

l-r: the 1933 Thomas Allen edition, the 1963 Macmillan edition, the 1966 Macmillan edition, the 1970 Macmillan edition, and the 2009 Dundurn edition.
My lazy pursuit was encouraged by clippings left by former owners. These were found between the pages of one of the two Thomas Allen copies I own:

I really liked The Yellow Briar, but can't quite remember why. Wish I'd posted a review on this blog. I didn't because these new neighbours and friends were so familiar with he book; it didn't seem neglected or forgotten. As years passed, I realized that the offspring of our new friends and neighbours – closer to me in age – knew nothing of Patrick Slater and The Yellow Briar

Slater wasn't really Patrick Slater but a lawyer John Mitchell. The Yellow Briar, sold by the author and his publisher as a memoir, was a hoax. As hinted in the headline of a clipping above – 'Author Who Jailed Self In Spite of Crown Dies' – Mitchell was a troubled soul. This photograph suggests as much:

The image comes from yet another clipping – this one from Saturday Night – which I found in the pages of my copy of The Water-Drinker.

Published four years after The Yellow BriarThe Water-Drinker is a collection of verse coming from a man who'd previously published only prose. It begins with a twenty-one-page introduction in which Slater/Mitchell offers a mea culpa, before expounding on literature, poetry, growing old, and purse picking. The thirteen poems that follow are interrupted by nine colour plates featuring paintings by F.H. Varley, Paul Kane, Cornelius Krieghoff, and Maurice Cullen, amongst others. A tenth illustration – uncredited – appears only in black and white:

Might it be by the poet himself?

My copy, purchased in 2010, once belonged to Louis Blake Duff (1 January 1878 - 29 August 1959). It appears to have been a birthday gift, presented on his sixtieth birthday:

Duff was the author of several books and chapbooks, most having to do with the history of southern Ontario. A respected local historian, his death was noted by William Arthur Deacon in the pages of the Globe & Mail:
Dr. Duff deplored what he called the booklessness of Canadians, their disinterest in literature. As a passionate bibliophile – his own library contained 10,000 volumes – he could not help but be depressed by this characteristic which he considered a national trait.
My copy of The Water-Drinker was one of Dr Duff's 10,000 volumes.

It set me back all of $2.50.

27 September 2021

Six Forgotten Novelists at the Atwater Library

This coming Thursday – September 30 – I'll be speaking on "Forgotten Montreal Novelists" at the Atwater Library.

Forgotten Montreal novelists? Where to begin! I've selected six. I'll be talking about their lives with a focus on a novel by each.

These being strange days, I won't be appearing in person. Wish I could. The good thing is that you can watch through Zoom. The link to register is here.

C'est gratuit!

22 September 2021

The Dead of a Dead End Street

Poldrate Street
Garnett Weston
New York: Messner, 1944
256 pages

The first resident of Poldrate Street to die is Sarah Reckon. She's killed by two of her neighbours while stealing flowers from their gardens. Sarah's murder has nothing to do with theft, rather her discovery of a missing dog. Though she doesn't realize it – and never will – the mutt is key in a scheme involving extortion, embezzlement, fraud, mutilation, and sexual slavery.

Three more Poldrate Street residents will die over the next few days. A fourth will be drugged, kidnapped, and then drugged again. That's a lot of activity for a cul de sac consisting of just five houses. 

Eleven people live on Poldrate Street – ten after Sarah is killed. She lived in the first and most modest of its houses. Next to her were Mr and Mrs Gordon and their pre-adolescent son nicknamed "Face." To the reader, theirs is the most mysterious household, but only because the parents are never depicted. Face, on the other hand, plays a prominent role in the novel, despite his young age. He sees a lot of what others miss, mostly because he's a voyeur. It's Face's dog that is missing.

Doctor Ivor Palling lives in the middle house with a raven-haired bombshell named Violet. Everyone believes her to be the doctor's wife, but they're not actually married. Palling spotted Violet waiting at a bus stop one rainy night and offered her a lift. You could call her a pickup.

The fourth house is the home Jacob Sleep, the most elderly resident of Poldrate Street. Sleep had been living his final years alone when he received a letter from an old schoolmate asking whether he might care for her granddaughter. The poor girl had been orphaned, and the grandmother feared that she herself was not long for this world. Turned out she was right. And so, that is how nineteen-year-old Kitty McKay came to live with an old man on a dead end street. Sleep's interest in the girl begins and ends with her sizeable inheritance (of which she has no knowledge).

The last house belongs to Mafia Breene; it's also his place of business. An undertaker, Breene struggles to make a living dealing in the dead. He has some support from Cora, his live-in maid. In her quarters lies the tenth resident of Poldrate Street, Cora's motionless, voiceless, nameless, suffering child known only as "Him."

Of the Garnett Weston novels I've read, Poldrate Street is the very best. As far as I can tell, it's the only one to have enjoyed multiple editions. The second, published in 1945 by American Mercury, gives something away in providing a new title: The Undertaker Dies.

The last, published in May 1950 by Harlequin, uses the original title. Seven decades later, it remains the only Canadian edition. Its cover art, by Max Ralph, captures something of the book. 

Violet does bathe in the nude in her backyard fountain, though her hair should be black. Kitty McKay witnesses this and a whole lot more from a tree in Joseph Sleep's garden. Her hair should be red. The houses on Poldrate Street are Victorian, but not nearly so large as that depicted. The juxtaposition of the imagined house and the brewery makes perfect sense; the street has houses on one side and a brewery wall on the other. Most peculiar. The dining couple in the lower left-hand corner are something of a mystery. The scene doesn't feature in the novel. I'm certain that the lower right-hand corner is meant to depict Cora shooting her boss, though she is described as a rather large woman.

Things are revealed by the American Mercury title and in the Harlequin cover illustration. I've revealed even more myself – but not so much as to spoil the novel. Poldrate Street is populated by uncommon characters with unusual names. Pleasure comes in their interactions.

Not every character is a success. Kitty isn't much more than a pretty face. Her attraction to Jimmie Lane, Sarah Reckon's boxer nephew – it was in anticipation of his visit that she was gathering flowers that fateful night – exists only to elevate the burgeoning rivalry between her and Violet.

Ah, Violet... Violet is a full-bodied character. A femme fatale when first encountered, she gradually reveals herself as insecure and self-hating. Violet's greatest fear is that her exotic beauty might mean she had parents from different races. Her sexual encounters with Mafia Breene and Jimmie Lane – two last spoilers – have everything to do with her desire to be desired. She goes so far as to flirt with young Face, and thinks of him as a future prospect.

Awful things happen to awful people.

Despite its flaws – which are minor – Poldrate Street is by far the most interesting and entertaining novel I read this summer. Published just two years after Garnett Weston quit Hollywood, I very much doubt he had motion pictures in mind when formulating the plot – there's no way it could have passed the Hays Code. And yet, reading the novel I couldn't help but imagining Poldrate Street onscreen. The novel has all the ingredients of a brilliant limited series. 

Now is its time.

It's a shame that Poldrate Street is so obscure.


R. Rowe Holland was chairman of the Vancouver Parks Board and treasurer for the Liberal Party. A barrister, he represented Vancouver theatre owners. In 1932, he was part of a failed campaign to build a large movie studio in the city. In short, he wanted to make Vancouver Hollywood North.

Trivia: Max Ralph holds distinction as the cover artist for Wreath for a Red Head, the very first novel by Brian Moore. Canadian Fly-By-Night has a very good series on Ralph's work for Harlequin.

Beware!: The American Mercury edition is abridged. 

I suspected the Harlequin – 185 pages of text to Messner's 248 – to also be abridged, but Canadian Fly-By-Night's bowdler has convinced me otherwise. The word-count of the Messner is roughly 380 words per page, while the Harlequin is at least 500 per page. 

Object: A hardcover with yellow boards, all evidence indicates a single Messner printing. The jacket illustration is uncredited. The figure is meant to be young Face Gordon. The flashlight he carries was a reward for selling magazines door-to-door. Weston describes the beam it casts as white, not yellow.

I purchased my copy for US$37.50 from a New York bookseller. The shipping set me back a further US$25.00. 

Access: Copies of the Messner Poldrate Street can be found in Library and Archives Canada, Queen's University, the University of Toronto. the University of New Brunswick, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Victoria.

As I write this, no copies of Poldrate Street in any edition are listed for sale online. Ditto The Undertaker Dies.

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