29 January 2011

John Glassco: Thirty Years

John Stinson Glassco
December 15, 1909 – January 29, 1981


26 January 2011


There's no question that Al Palmer's Montreal Confidential (1949) was inspired by New York: Confidential! (1947), but who would've expected the ugly accusation of plagiarism? And yet, here it is, as reported by gossip columnist Fitz (Gerald FitzGerald) in the 14 October 1950 edition of The Gazette:

Combing through both books, I find the charge to be entirely unfounded. I add that no two chapters share the same title, though I did come across this:

Someone get on the phone to Gads Hill Place.

Palmer had no need of Lait and Mortimer; he was much more the wordsmith than either New Yorker. William Weintraub recognizes as much in his forward to the recent Véhicule Press edition: "Al is not content to simply talk about attractive women walking down the Street; for him they are 'local lovelies ankling along.'" Beer is "stupor suds", loose women are "trampettes" – and just look at these Montreal Confidential chapter titles:
The Scrambled-Eared Gentry
The Broken Leg Brigade
Caprice Chinois
Characters, Characters – Never Any Normal People
The Younger Degeneration
Any words lifted from Lait and Mortimer's books come from the cover of their follow-up, Chicago Confidential, which appeared at newsstands just a few months before Montreal Confidential. "The low-down on the big town!" says one; "The Low Down on the Big Town!" says the other. Did the pair even write this cover copy? Did Palmer write his? Never mind – no one bothered to trademark the phrase.

I expect that what upset the New Yorkers was the idea of someone honing in on what they believed to be a borderless franchise – one that exhausted itself well before the 1954 death of Jack Lait.

Palmer wrote no follow-up to Montreal Confidential. Given his ill-feelings about Hogtown and its inhabitants, Toronto Confidential was out of the question.

And Ottawa Confidential? Well, that just sounds silly. Even today.

Your morning smile: This small piece on an A.J. Cronin impersonator – I kid you not – from the very same column:

22 January 2011

Parisian French, not Québécois French

French for Murder
Bernard Mara [pseud. Brian Moore]
New York: Fawcett, 1954

With French for Murder, Brian Moore quit Harlequin as a publisher, abandoned Montreal as a setting and put aside his name for more literary efforts. I think the last of these is most important. This is a Bernard Mara novel, the first that the Irish-Canadian penned "pretending to be an American". The writing is much tighter than in previous pulps Wreath for a Redhead and The Executioners, but it is also less interesting. French for Murder is a novel with drive; it moves at a breakneck speed that affords no glimpse of character and little time for atmosphere.

Our hero here is Noah Cain, a luckless American who stumbles drunkenly upon a homicide in an otherwise polite Parisian hotel. Fingered as the murderer a Hitchcockian "wrong man" he is soon on the run, sprinting from Montmartre to Marseilles to Cassis in search of the girl who can clear his name.

Straightforward, conventional and bland, in French for Murder there are no real twists or surprises. Sure, the American military policeman turns out to be one of the baddies, but we knew that he was too good to be true. And when Cain is captured by crooks, we and he had sense that it was coming. His escape provides one of the more interesting passages in the novel:
I fired. His gun dropped to the carpet and he dropped on top of it, a pancake stain of blood growing in his thigh. He scrambled for the gun. I fired again. The second bullet hit him in the shoulder. He jerked convulsively and fell, face down, gasping. I felt no emotion. I had stopped him, the way you would shut a gate on a mad dog.
This is as good as it gets – and it's a darn site better than:
Uniformed police burst past me like the Charge of the Light Brigade. They were eager to do their duty.
Harsh? Look, I consider Moore one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. Nearly half-way through his pulp novels, I'm beginning to understand why they were disowned. French for Murder was written for money; in 1954 it's advance on royalties brought in US$2,500. Compare this to the C$227.30 advance received the following year for Judith Hearne.

We all have to eat.

Object: A slim, 144-page mass market paperback blessed with a cover painting by American realist painter Clark Hulings. Fawcett's Gold Medal paperbacks typically had print runs of 200,000 copies.

Access: Non-circulating copies may be found at Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library and eleven of our university libraries. At US$3.00, it's pretty clear that the cheapest copy currently listed for sale online has been thrown up by someone who has no idea that Bernard Mara is Brian Moore. Nearly all the others – a total of sixteen are hip. We begin with a US$25 "Fair reading copy", then go all the way up to US$200 being asked by two booksellers offering "unread" copies. However do they know?

Related posts:

20 January 2011

17 January 2011

A Termination that Dare Not Speak Its Name

The Letter of the Contract
Basil King
New York: Harper and Brothers, 1914

The contract in question concerns the marriage of Edith and Chipman Walker of the New York Chipman Walkers. Theirs is a union in which happiness has "grown more intense every month, each week, each day", and yet all is shaken when a not so young woman is spotted gazing at their luxurious Manhattan home from the park across the street. Just who is this "pathetically unobtrusive" figure? Elegant Edith, who simply must know, approaches the coy voyeur one fine spring day and makes a shocking discovery. It seems that eleven years earlier, before the Walkers had so much as met, Chip and this woman, simple-minded actress Maggie Clare, had had a relationship that involved "everything"... well, almost everything – from the start, Chip had made it plain that marriage was not in their future.

The exchange between Edith and Maggie gives way to confrontation when Chip arrives on the scene. Poor bewildered Maggie is caught in the whirlwind, as captured wonderfully by illustrator James Montgomery Flagg.

Edith accuses her husband of breaking "the letter of the contract". But has he? After all, his trysts with Maggie took place years before the marriage. Or could it be... could it be that Chip continued seeing the actress as a married man? We really can't be sure. So much of the unpleasantness in The Letter of the Contract is cloaked and screened.

Divorce, the subject of this book, is mentioned by name on only one of its 210 pages – but it does take place, propelled by Edith's Aunt Emily. At the end of it all, Edith emerges dissatisfied; the whole degrading, painful process had failed to bring Chip "a realizing sense of what he had done to her." She takes the children to Europe, expecting that the move will have an effect. When that fails, Edith considers marriage to an unattractive, weedy Englishman:
If she did marry he would know at last to what he had forced her. He would have forced her to looking to another man for what she should have had from him – and then he would be repentant. Surely he would be repentant then!
Meanwhile, Chip contemplates turning to the bottle:
He had known fellows who drank themselves to death; and except in the last dreadful stages it hadn't been so bad. They had certainly got their fun out of it, even if in the end they paid high. He was paying high – and perhaps getting nothing at all. Wouldn't it be better if he went off this minute somewhere, and made a night of it? – made a night which would be the beginning of a long succession of nights of the same kind? Then when he was ruined beyond recovery, or in his grave, Edith would know what she had done to him.
And so they move through their separate lives, each obsessing over the other, neither particularly happy or satisfied.

There is a message in this misery, one the author, a retired Anglican clergyman, first hammered home in his 1901 novel Let No Man Put Asunder.

In The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, Ken MacKinnon writes that The Letter of the Contract illustrates how "King's clever plots were declining into mere formulae". I won't disagree. As with all bland novels, I found myself clinging to the curious and quirky. Here these come in the veiled allusions to lesbianism. For instance, we have Aunt Emily, a spinster who surrounds herself with a "little circle of adorers". Even more interesting are the Misses Partridge, whom we encounter playing host to the writers and poets of Europe. Though sisters, Rosamond – "who looked like a coachman" – and the "thin and angular" Gladys appear to be based on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.

They were then in their seventh year as a couple.

No contract, though.

The woman's tears began to flow again.
"It's because I don't know what to do. When he doesn't come anymore–"
"Oh, so he doesn't come."
"Not unless I make him."
Trivia: James Montgomery Flagg work is also found in Reverend King's 1917 novel The Lifted Veil. Though an accomplished book illustrator, he's best remembered for his wartime propaganda posters, including this:

Object: An unremarkable hardcover, enlivened by four Flagg illustrations, my weathered copy was bought for $2.98 eight years ago in a Vancouver bookstore that specialized in science fiction, sword and sorcery, and comic books. It lacks the uncommon dust jacket. Edward N. Zempel and Linda A. Verkler's First Editions: A Guide to Identifications would have me believe that I own a first edition. If so, I suspect my copy is a second issue, following this marginally more opulent variant.

Access: An old familiar story, The Letter of the Contract is found in university libraries across the country, but when it comes to the public only Toronto serves. It is not held by Library and Archives Canada. The reverend's work being in the public domain, the print on demand folks have moved in. Nearly all ask more than US$15, at which price one can find a Very Good copy of the 97-year-old Harper first edition. Only one bookseller offers a copy with dust jacket – pretty rotten condition, though at US$50 it seems a fair price. An Aberdeen bookseller holds the distinction of listing the lone copy of the more attractive English edition (Methuen, 1914) – at £20, it too seems fair. The unfair? Look no further than the New York bookseller that lists no less than fourteen different POD editions at prices ranging from US$33.95 to US$153.95 (pictured). Expect to pay a further US$10.50 in shipping .

15 January 2011

A New Year, a New Blog

Not the end of this one, but something dedicated to my biography of John Glassco, A Gentleman of Pleasure, which will be published in April by McGill-Queen's University Press.

The new blog will be a place for news and reviews, but will also serve as something of a repository for my shorter writings on Glassco. Those that appeared here as posts will be supplemented by even more illustrations and photos. In short, a visual feast! Please do visit.

11 January 2011

The Solid Walls of St James the Apostle

A very fine column by Mike Boone on St James the Apostle's Writers' Chapel from yesterday's Gazette:

City's Great Writers Honoured in Historic Church

"Montreal is a city of great writers. And it's fitting that distinguished men and women of letters be commemorated in one of the city's great places of worship", he writes.

How true.

10 January 2011


Many years ago, a publisher friend told me that he never took home advance readers copies. "Such ugly things", he sniffed. True enough back then, but things have changed considerably since. Where once reviewers, librarians and buyers were presented with objects like the above, they're now just as likely to receive something that might at casual glance be mistaken for a trade paperback. Consider the Chatto and Windus "UNCORRECTED BOOK PROOF" for Barney's Version...

... this ARC of Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden...

...or the ARC of A Gentleman of Pleasure, my forthcoming biography of John Glassco.

(Now, I ask you, who wouldn't want to take that home? Publication date: 1 April.)

Its arrival a couple of weeks ago has had me looking over some of the ARCs in my collection. The most interesting by far came out of McClelland and Stewart in the 'seventies. In those days the company didn't issue many ARCs – not surprising, given its reputation for missing pub dates – but those they did produce garnered attention. Take the "ADVANCE PROOF" of Charles Templeton's Act of God, which featured a cover letter cover inviting the recipient to guess the novel's sales.

Both copies in my collection are signed by Jack McClelland (and Charles Templeton); I've seen others upon which the publisher's name is scrawled by an unknown hand.

Act of God was a great commercial success, though I expect the prediction of 47,300 copies sold in Canada before year's end was a tad high. Ever the optimist that Jack McClelland. How else to explain the very generous $50,000 Seal Book Prize awarded in 1978 to Aritha van Herk for Judith, her first novel?

The news was announced in grand style, as reported by the Canadian Press:
Aretha van Herk, a 23-year-old Edmonton housewife and university student, good-humoredly climbed a ladder in a grimy downtown parking lot in Montreal recently to endorse her cheque – displayed on a massive billboard announcing "Congratulations Aritha!"... The Guinness Book of World Records will be asked to verify that the actual cheque – the billboard – is the largest cheque ever made.
The publisher built on the story by offering a signed ARC produced exclusively for women whose first name was Judith. "We want those who share her name to meet her first", says the cover.

Just how limited was this "limited press run edition"? In Jack: A Life with Writers, James King puts the number at 3500 – adding that the publisher received 4500 requests, including a good number from cheats looking to cop free copies.

I paid $3.95 for mine back in 1990. It still has a place in my home.

07 January 2011

The Feast of a Whiskey Priest

"I've taken more than a few swipes at print on demand publishers..." So I wrote here back in 2009, then just kept swinging. Boy, are my arms are tired.

Today I take a break and extend a welcoming hand to caustic cover critic J.R.S. Morrison, whose new Whiskey Priest Books proves that POD technology can be used to produce things of beauty, while resurrecting interesting titles that traditional publishers have allowed to die. This includes Michael's Crag, Ontarian Grant Allen's peculiar tale of a civil servant who believes himself to be the archangel Michael, which until now has been available only in some of most ghastly POD editions ever produced.

I know Allen's novel well, but the other twenty-two Whiskey Priest titles are unfamiliar. Here are just a couple that I look forward to reading this year:

'Casualty' [Arnold Gyde]
"A fictionalised memoir from one of the first soldiers ashore in France with the British Expeditionary Forces in World War One, drawing on his experiences of the horrific Mons campaign."
H.G. Wells
"Wells’s satire on literature, 'Boon' was originally published under the pseudonym Reginald Bliss; a follow-up to the Fabian-savaging 'The New Machiavelli'. 'Boon' was the book which destroyed his friendship with Henry James."
Though Amazon.ca fails, select titles can be found at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. All are available through the Whiskey Priest Lulu shop.

Well-chosen, attractive and modestly priced, this is print on demand as it should be.

02 January 2011

Of Sex and Drugs and Montreal

Hot Freeze
Martin Brett [pseud. Douglas Sanderson]
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1954
246 pages
This review now appears, revised and rewritten, in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through

01 January 2011