22 January 2009

Brian Moore's True First

Sailor's Leave [Wreath for a Redhead]
Brian Moore
New York: Pyramid, 1953

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Brian Moore. He was, I think, the most accomplished and versatile of our novelists, moving with ease through 17th-century Canada, 19th-century Algeria, Vichy France and Drapeau's Montreal. Moore wrote of missionaries, monasteries, revolutionaries and women. He had a particular talent for depicting women that remains unmatched by any other male writer. His debut novel Judith Hearne brought the first of these convincing characters. Mary Dunne followed, as did Sheila Redden, Eileen Hughes and, finally, Emmeline Lambert.

Of course, Judith Hearne wasn't really his first novel, rather it was the one that he chose to recognize as such. It's a very small secret that between 1951 and 1957 Moore published seven pulp novels. They had wonderful titles like French for Murder, A Bullet for My Lady and This Gun for Gloria. Some were published under his own name; others appeared under the noms de plume Bernard Mara and Michael Bryan. I bought these - a long hunt in the days before the internet - appreciated the lurid covers, but never read them.

Now, ten years after his passing, starved for more Moore, I turn to his pulps.

The first, Wreath for a Redhead, was published in 1951 by Harlequin, several years before it chose to focus exclusively on the romance market. My copy appeared in 1953 as Sailor's Leave, an American mass market paperback placed through Moore's New York agent Willis Wing.

The novel's hero is John Riordan, a "prairie sailor" who is traveling by train from Halifax to Montreal. At a stop in Levis, he encounters Joan Harlowe, "a redhead, tall and with a beautiful build". What follows is, of course, a pick-up - made possible through some seductive talk of Ottawa, Halifax, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and "Muskoka Lake". The spanking new couple ends up in a low-grade Montreal hotel where the long softness of Joan's thighs makes Riordan dizzy. They dine at a French restaurant on Mountain Street, Joan vanishes, and the sailor is left with a mystery. Then Joan reappears, but only long enough for Riordan to rip her silky delicates. She's soon found murdered. Riordan is, of course, fingered for the crime.

Those with an appreciation of Moore's talent are certain to be disappointed. The writing follows a strict formula the novelist once laid out in a letter to Mordecai Richler: short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters. "Imitate Hemmy with more sock and bash!" Moore advised his friend.

And so, we find passages like this:
Something cooks here, I told myself. The dame has plenty of money, or someone in this joint has. Yet ever since I came in, she's been behaving like a shoplifter with the loot under her skirt. She's sure acting like somebody who's got something to hide. And it wasn't her sex.
Not much sex in Sailor's Leave, I'm afraid - Moore leaves that to the imagination:
"Help me with these buttons," she said, pulling at her housecoat.
Afterwards, when we lay on the rug, she filled me up on her biography.

There is just enough quirkiness to interest the very dedicated Moore enthusiast. For example, Riordan learns he is wanted and follows the manhunt through the dailies, but only The Gazette (Moore's employer at the time) is mentioned by name. He places Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the Bee in the library of a gay photographer and has Riordan read Mutual Aid, the 1902 anarchist classic by Peter Kropotkin, in order to pass the time.
Of Sailor's Leave and the other pulps, Moore once said, "I did all these things for Judith Hearne". It is in this, I suppose, that this novel's true value lies.

Object: A cheap 25 cent paperback, 160 pages in length, Sailor's Leave joined other 'PYRAMID BEST SELLERS' listed at the back of the book:
THE SPITFIRES by Beril Becker - The story of two sisters who believed in free love!
ROAD SHOW by Jim Tully - A violent novel of circus life!
THE HOUSE OF MADAME TELLER - Stories by de Maupassant!
Access: Not the sort of thing found outside academic libraries and rare book rooms, Sailor's Leave is usually listed online at between C$100 and C$250. Best to remember that with a print run estimated at 200,000, it isn't particularly rare - if one is prepared to wait, a very good copy is bound to show up for under C$50. As might be expected, Wreath for a Redhead tends to be pricier. Expect to pay C$150 to C$350. One Toronto bookseller (who shall remain nameless) is currently offering two copies priced at well over C$850 each. Condition is not a factor.

Related posts:


  1. Any chance of this being reprinted? Please let me know so I don't spend $50.00! Thanks!

  2. Just got a copy of Sailor's Leave for 20.00! :)