16 December 2011

Keeping an Eye Out for Pamela Fry

The Watching Cat
Pamela Fry
London: Davies, 1960

Who was Pamela Fry? None of my Montreal friends, bookish types all, have been able to answer this question. Yet the married "Miss Fry" once lived in the city and twice used it as a setting in mystery novels. Both were published by respected houses, both were lauded in the pages of the New York Times and both have been out of print for half a century.

The Watching Cat, Pamela Fry's second mystery, stumbles out of the gate with an entirely unimaginative premise: Catherine Ellis, a young, single schoolteacher from a remote Manitoba town inherits a large Montreal house from a previously unknown, eccentric uncle. Much as I'd hoped the work would quickly ready itself, Miss Fry fairly clings to cliché as the story falters forward. Poor Catherine, an orphan, enters what she expects to be an empty domicile only to encounter an evil stepmother, an unstable half-sister and a tall, dark and handsome lodger. A shady lawyer works in the background as those in the know sneak about the house looking for riches hidden away by the recently deceased funny uncle.

It all seems so forgettable, but I'll remember The Watching Cat as one of the most disappointing novels I've ever read. The author has a peculiar penchant for planting, then ignoring, seeds of a dark psychological drama. When the evil stepmother relates stories of family mental illness, Catherine begins to question her own sanity – but only for a paragraph or two. Gaslight invariably dims to a Nancy Drew mystery, as when our heroine is awoken by a scratching sound:
The noise came from somewhere very close – surely it was the other side of this very wall, the wall alongside her bed. There was someone in Uncle Jeremiah's room... She looked at the luminous dial of her watch. It was three minutes to four... But who could be in there at this time of night – and for what reason?
So boring, so bland... and yet on occasion The Watching Cat stretches to rise above it all. Catherine's half-sister, for example, proves not to be mentally ill, rather she's a heroin addict. Her pusher is boyfriend Eddie, a young medical school drop-out who is not only in on the scheme, but is probably sleeping with the evil stepmother. And there's a good deal of fun, like when small town girl Catherine, dressed in a hideous handmade green taffeta gown, attends a party populated by beats.

Nearly everything I know about the attractive Miss Fry is found in the book's author biography. Her debut novel, Harsh Evidence, published in London by Wingate (1953) and in New York by Roy Publishers (1956), is held by all of nine libraries worldwide. Harsh Evidence isn't listed for sale online, and seems exceedingly scarce – only the British Library has the Wingate edition – so you'll understand my surprise in discovering that it was translated into both Swedish (De döda tala ej, 1956) and Finnish (Kuolleet eivät puhu!, 1957) .

Did more mysteries follow? The only other books I've been able to uncover by Miss Fry are The Good Cook's Encyclopedia and The Good Housewife's Encyclopedia, both published in the early 'sixties by London's Spring Books. I'll step out on a limb and speculate that a third Spring title, Cooking the American Way, is naught but a repackaging of the first.

Who was Pamela Fry? Disappointed as I was by The Watching Cat, it contained just enough quirk to keep me in the hunt for the answer.

Object: A very attractive hardcover in dark blue boards. I can't quite make out the cover artist's signature. My copy, signed with publisher card, was purchased this past autumn from a Montreal bookseller who tells me that he has never seen another. It would appear that that this, the novel's only edition, received no second printing. No Swedish or Finnish translations this time.

Access: A rare book, Canadian library patrons will find The Watching Cat at the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria. A mere three copies are listed for sale online. At US$15.77, Serendipity Books of West Leederville, Australia offers the one in best condition ("top edge foxed else v.g. in worn and sl. torn d/w"). Second place, goes to a New Zealand bookseller who is selling a slightly less attractive copy for an even twenty American dollars. A Canadian bookseller in Oakville, Ontario brings up the rear by asking C$60 for a crummy thing that lacks the dust jacket and front flyleaf. On the other hand, The Watching Cat is so uncommon that it might just be worth the price.

Further reading: I follow Juri Nummelin in my attempt to track down more about Pamela Fry. His initial investigation is found at Pulpetti.
Related post: The Mystery Writer Mystery Unravels


  1. Reminds me of my obsession with Margaret St. Clair. I have yet to even find a picture of what she looked like.

  2. Tim, I must say that in a world of vapid author photos, Miss Fry's stands out. She seems to have a bit of a mischievous look about her, don't you think.

  3. Thanks for this, Brian! It's sometimes a mystery why some books have been picked up by Finnish or Swedish publishers, but clearly they really haven't paid much attention to the quality of the books they publish. I can't remember much about the Finnish-translated Fry, but clearly it didn't leave a lasting mark on me.

  4. The title alone reminds me of Mary Stewart and Phyllis Whitney. Of course it had to be a romantic suspense/quasi-Gothic.

    I wouldn't want to mess with that angry lady in red. Harsh Evidence looks a lot more interesting if the Finnish cover is an accurate depiction of the contents.

    Ruth Rendell adopts that enigmatic look in her early DJ photos, too. Is she quietly amused? Fed up? Bored? Contemplating what the lady in red is carrying out? Pamela looks like she could be a bit dangerous.

  5. Seems like that I haven't really remembered anything about the book at the time I wrote my initial blog post! I'm quite sure there's some strangling in the book - I seem to remember there are some people on the island who end up killing each other. There's also a connection to some bookish people, perhaps a writer or a jacket copy writer or some such. Maybe Harsh Evidence is a roman à clef!

  6. John, The Watching Cat certainly had a quasi-Gothic feel – and romance does bloom between Catherine and, as might be predicted, the tall, dark and handsome lodger.

    One thing I neglected to mention in the post is that the BBC TV dramatization (referred to in the author bio) ended up being by early Doctor Who writer Anthony Coburn.

    Juri, your memory is good. According to what I remember of the New York Times review, the heroine of Harsh Evidence is an editor at a Toronto-based women's magazine.

  7. How interesting about Anthony Coburn. I've just linked to this from a post of my own about the BBC adaptation; I didn't know that he'd written it, but by coincidence, Catherine was played by Jacqueline Hill, one of the regular cast of early Coburn-scripted Doctor Who. The world of British television was pretty small in those days, but I'm still pleased by the unexpected connection (which I only spotted after linking to you for general interest reasons).

    I'm slightly tempted to seek out a copy of the book now, flaws notwithstanding.

  8. One hopes that someone, somewhere managed to squirrel way a copy of the BBC adaptation (much like what happened with the recently uncovered 1973 Bowie Top of the Pops performance). It's interesting to note, I think, that though Pamela Fry was commissioned to pen the adaptation, hers was not the script used.

    I'm betting the Coburn adaptation exists - on paper, at least. It might be an interesting read. There seems to have been at least one liberty taken in that no cats feature in the novel - only statues.