13 September 2011

A Blockhead Tries Writing for Money

The Mayor of Côte St. Paul
Ronald J. Cooke
Toronto: Harlequin, 1950

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money", wrote Samuel Johnson. But is not one who persists in writing for money, without achieving a single sale, also a blockhead? The question – unintended, I assure you – lies at the heart of this, Ronald J. Cooke's second novel. Like his first, The House on Craig Street (1949), this is a tale of a struggling writer living in Depression-era Montreal. Our new hero is Winnipeg boy Dave Manley, who arrived in the city thinking that its rich atmosphere would inspire his short stories. Sadly, the seventy or so produced in the eight month since have brought nothing but a steady stream rejection notices.

Fortune both smiles and frowns when he spots a tall and leggy blonde walking at a furious pace along St Catherine Street. Dave follows her for a block or two before realizing that he's not alone:
"Time for you to check out, old boy," he said.
Dave's not talking tough to his fellow stalker, but to himself.
"You've got no business being interested in the dame. You're a struggling free-lance writer, remember. You haven't got time for dames – besides you're broke. And dames, particularly ones like that one ahead cost dough. And dough and you have no affinity. Turn your steps around bud – head back to Peel Street – buy a Star and go home.
"Nuts," thought Dave. "Editors tell me that I'm not selling my stuff because there's no life in it. Maybe this is a real life plot that'll shape into something profitable."
It doesn't matter so much that Dave is broke; turns out the leggy dame – Cherie is her name – made fistfuls of cash working for an underworld kingpin called the Mayor. "But I kept my skirts clean – no street-walking for me", she's quick to add. Now Cherie wants out. Her dream is to open a lingerie shop in little Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Cherie's escape, made with Dave's help, is remarkably easy. A lucky break. The Mayor is a sadistic psychopath – he murders by throwing darts, for goodness sake – but this doesn't stop Dave from working for him. You see, the writer is always on the hunt for new material. The way Dave figures it, "any character with as many ramifications as he has, is worth a story – maybe a dozen stories." It all turns out very badly, of course.

There's very little plot, "real life" or otherwise, in The Mayor of Côte St. Paul. Most of the book consists of Dave's persistent yapping, to himself and others, about the writing game, the writing life and ideas for the novels he's going to write. When the man does shut up, it's only so that he can listen to someone's life story, which he'll later mine for material. It's not that Dave has a passion for literature – he doesn't read – he sees it only as an easy way to make money. How frustrating then that what he calls his "stuff" doesn't sell.

As is usually the case with early Harlequins, the cover copy deceives. Sure, Cherie, "the girl from Lunenberg who had been learning about life since she was 16", intends to teach Dave what she knows, but does Dave want to know?

The first time she visits his flat, Dave welcomes her with a peck, before proudly showing off his stacks of unsold stories:
"Why don't you finish one job before you start another?" Cherie pouted.
"Meaning?" asked Dave.
"Meaning that you didn't finish that kiss."
"One is enough for me kitten," said Dave. "Your kisses are like dynamite – sort of rock me to my heels. After all, I'm just an ordinary guy – I'm no hero. And when a girl like you comes around it doesn't make it any easier."
"When I like a guy I like him," answered Cherie. "But you're the boss – if you don't want to kiss me it's okay."
"It's not that I don't want to kiss you," answered Dave, taking Cherie in his arms. "But you're so doggone feminine my head spins when you're in my arms."
"Just like a top, eh? said Cherie, running her fingers through his hair. "Okay, let's talk about your work."
And, as always, Dave does.


Object: A typical early Harlequin. The cover image is sort of interesting. Cherie's hair doesn't seem quite right for 1931; I'm not sure about that typewriter either. The depiction of the Mayor – a slim man with sharp-chin, high forehead, "well-made" nose and eyes possessing "the type of glow one might expect to find belonging to someone who dealt in the occult" – is completely off.

Access: Only the University of Calgary, the University of Toronto and McGill University have copies. It's much more common online, where decent copies go for about twelve bucks.

Related posts:


  1. Underworld kingpins in the city of Montreal???

    Certainly that could never happen in real life...not in my city!...not with Tremblay as Mayor!...certainly not with Charest in charge!...and definitely not with our blue collar workers tending to our road and bridge repairs!

    I guess that's the beauty of fiction. You can take a far-fetched scenario and get people to believe it!!!

    JAW fan

  2. I'm reminded of Ted Allan's original Love is a Long Shot (1949), which is as dark a the remake is light. Set in 1930s Montreal - like The Mayor of Côte St. Paul - it features this author's note:

    Every word in this book is fiction. Any resemblance to any living person is purely coincidental. There was a time, long, long ago, when there were gambling dens and houses of prostitution and police corruption in the City of Montreal; but that, of course, is not true today...

    Much funnier than anything in the novel itself.