22 November 2010

A Neglected Author's Forgotten Novel

Gambling with Fire
David Montrose [pseud., Charles Ross Graham]
Don Mills, ON: Longmans Canada, [1969]

Until this year, I had no idea that Gambling with Fire existed; most Montrose bibliographies – few and far between – don't recognize the title. Easy to see how it's missed. Where the author's other novels – The Crime on Cote des Neiges, Murder Over Dorval and The Body on Mount Royal – were cheap paperback originals from the early 'fifties, this hardcover landed in shops at about the same time as Abbey Road. I wonder if anyone was waiting. I wonder whether anyone noticed.

I've seen nothing more than a very brief Saturday Night review, and no adverts. There must be something else out there – in Quill & Quire, perhaps – but it appears that Montrose's fourth and last novel just drifted by, meeting the same fate as his pulps: a single printing. It could not have helped sales that the author died while it was in press.

Let's assume for a second that there was a Montrose fan out there, someone who had waited those fifteen years for the next novel. I imagine there would have been some initial disappointment. Gone is private detective Russell Teed, the good-natured, mildly quirky hero of the first three novels. In his place we have impoverished Austrian aristocrat Franz Loebek, a displaced person in a post-war world. Loebek is so very staid, less likable, and less of a character, though he does share Teed's appreciation of interior decoration and a love for what was then Canada's largest city:
Here was this great city of Montreal, old and seeming as educated in vice as European cities; berthed in her docks, ships of the world. Bars like London, churches like Paris, narrow streets that could be Marseilles, neon streets that could be New York.
Yes, this was Montreal – in many ways it still is – but the metropolis one encounters in Gambling with Fire pre-dates the novel's publication. Montrose presents us with a city that is "one-third English. Of which part, perhaps one-thousandth are the controllers of the industry, the business, the financial houses, the banks." This is a Montreal untouched by Jean Drapeau, the Quiet Revolution, the FLQ and Expo 67. In keeping with previous Montrose novels, this is very much an English metropolis. That said, though the French speaking characters are few in Gambling with Fire, they have a much greater presence. There's Nicole Porter-Smythe (née Desmarais), Loebeck's great love; Julius Trebonne, Loebeck's loyal cabby ; and Rosaire Beaumage, Loebeck's mortal enemy.

It is Beaumage's murder of Loebek's old friend Morris Winter that sets all in motion. I won't go on for fear of spoiling the plot. Gambling with Fire is worth a read. In fact, approaching the end, I was prepared to describe this as the best-written of the four Montrose novels. What prevented me is the final chapter which seems a grasping, hurried attempt at tying up loose ends and providing redemptive, happy endings for each and every character. I have no reservation in declaring these twelve pages the weakest the author ever published. A sad conclusion to a wonderful oeuvre... but, oh, the aftertaste!

Dedication: "To my most compassionate friend, LEV CHIPMAN". Stepping onto a limb, I suggest that the dedicatee is a descendant of Leverett de Veber Chipman of the Nova Scotia Chipmans.

Access: Toronto's public library comes through, though all others fail. Gambling with Fire can also be found in eight of our university libraries, but not any located in Montreal. For shame. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that Library and Archives Canada doesn't have so much as a listing. Only two copies are currently on offer from online booksellers – at US$15 and US$18.75. As an old prof used to say, "run, don't walk".

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  1. This appeared as a newspaper novel Aug 7, 1971 in the Star Weekly(Canadian) magazine

  2. Our local Library has "Gambling with Fire" (I'll finish reading your article after I read the book) and also "The Keys of My Prison" by Frances Shelley Wees (acquisition processed February 3, 2017). I was looking forward to reading all the Ricochet titles listed in the Wees book.

    1. Thank you, L. I'm always happy to learn that the reissue (and other Ricochets) have made it into libraries.