31 May 2012

Damaged, Dysfunctional and Decadent Toronto

Wall of Eyes
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, 1946

Wall of Eyes is one of Margaret Millar's Canadian novels, by which I mean that it's one of a handful she set in her home and native land. It centres on Toronto's Heath family, a clan that cover copy describes as "decadent" – the word that might first come to mind today is "dysfunctional".

Matriarch Isabel has been dead for some eighteen months, though her influence lingers. Amongst those she's left behind is a cowed, uxorious husband who spends his days holed-up in a third-storey bedroom. Her eldest children, Alice (an aspiring spinster) and John (a heavy-set half-wit with a thing for nightclub singers, dancers and waitresses) are slipping into middle age, yet still haven't left the nest.

Isabel willed the house and every cent of her money to the youngest, Kelsey, a cold and clever girl who is in every way her mother's daughter. Two years earlier, in Isabel's final months, Kelsey lost her sight as the result of a car accident. John was riding in a rumble seat with a cheap date who died at the scene. Kelsey's fiancé, Philip, a middling pianist, survived to play another day.

Philip lives at the Heath residence, but don't get the wrong idea; Kelsey hates her fiancé. As her mother did her father, she's turned her betrothed into an emotional cripple. Oh, every once in awhile Phillip will say he's had enough, but Kelsey knows he's too feeble to ever leave.

Wall of Eyes was Millar's fourth novel and first great commercial success. It's typical of her work: domestic drama and dialogue captivate; psychology, which she studied at the University of Toronto, comes into play. More than one-third of the novel passes before we encounter a body; in this case, poor Kelsey with a wide, deep gash to her breast. "A powerful hand had held the knife, a hand driven by hate or rage."

Kelsey's death brings Detective-Inspector Sands to the Heath residence. A loner, with "no wife or child or friend", he is one of Millar's greatest characters. Sands reappears in what might be her finest novel, The Iron Gates (1945), and the short story "The Couple Next Door" (1954). With him comes glimpses of Toronto's very tame wartime nightclubs, venues that are otherwise almost absent in Canadian literature.

Well... they were tame.

It's always a challenge to write about Margaret Millar – there will be twists and one hates to spoil. So, I'll leave off with a bold pronouncement: This woman, who has never been published in Canada, ranks amongst the very finest Canadian novelists of her generation.

Those familiar with her work know that I'm merely stating the obvious.

Object and Access: The first edition, published by Random House in 1943, is not at all common; five copies are currently listed online, but only one has the dust jacket. At US$95, it is a bargain. Beware of second and third printings.

Copies of the most recent reissue, International Polygonics' 1986 edition, can be had for a buck – others from Lancer and Avon go for not much more. For my money, the Dell edition, with cover by Gerald Gregg, is nicest. Very Good and better copies begin at two dollars and go all the way up to thirty.

Despite numerous mass market reissues, our public libraries almost all fail – our universities don't do much better.

Wall of Eyes has been translated, but less than the typical Millar title. Completists will be on the hunt for the Spanish (Muro de ojos, 1986), French (Des yeux plein la tote, 1990), German (Blinde Augen sehen mehr, 1990) and Japanese (眼の壁, 1998) editions.

Margaret Millar is the featured author this week at blogger Patti Abbott's "Friday's Forgotten Books". Lot's of good stuff by regular contributors, including review of The Iron Gates by Patti herself.

29 May 2012

Canada's Most Popular Writers (25 Years Ago)?

Unearthed this past weekend, this little list from the May 1987 issue of Books in Canada. It is as described, a "studiously unscientific survey", consisting only of those readers who cared to respond and sacrifice what was then a 34¢ stamp. Still, I think it interesting enough to comment, thereby risking ridicule and ruffled feathers.

I'll begin by stating the obvious (to me at any rate): The number of respondents was likely quite small, as indicated by the number of ties. And yet I think that the top five authors is an accurate reflection of the time.

Here they are again with what would have been their most recent books:
1. Alice Munro – The Progress of Love (1986)
2. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
3. Timothy Findley – The Telling of Lies (1986)
4. Robertson Davies – What's Bred in the Bone (1985)
     Margaret Laurence – A Christmas Birthday Story (1982)

The unexpected comes with the five names that follow. The presence of Mavis Gallant, whom I maintain has never been accorded proper respect and recognition, is a pleasant surprise, while Janette Turner Hospital, Marian Engel and Audrey Thomas are... well, simply surprises. I don't mean to belittle, but I dare say that they wouldn't figure in a top ten "People's Choice" today.

But then, who would? Carol Shields, whose The Stone Diaries was six years in the future, seems a sure bet. Timothy Findley would be down, if not out. Richler would be up, bucking a trendy decent of the deceased. And here I return to the late Mrs Shields in stating boldly that she would have ranked higher in 2003, when she was still amongst us, than she does today.

How forgetful we are. All but two of the writers on the 1987 Books in Canada list were living. The exceptions, Margaret Laurence and Marian Engel, would have been safely described as "recently deceased".

No authors of another century feature on this "People Choice" – the first half of the twentieth century is unrecognized. Are we Canadians not unique? Imagine an English list without Shakespeare, Austen, the Brontës and Dickens; a French list lacking Balzac, Flaubert and de Maupassant; or an American top ten without Whitman, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

The most important and sad observation one might make about the Books in Canada list is this: francophones do not figure. Gabrielle Roy, perhaps the best hope, is absent, as are Michel Tremblay, Anne Hébert and Antonine Maillet.

Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau?

Don't give him a second thought.

Books in Canada, vol. 16, no. 4 (May 1987)

28 May 2012

Conversing with a Literary Tourist about Montreal

Audio of my recent conversation with Nigel Beale has just been posted here at the Literary Tourist.

Mordecai Richler, A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott, the Writers' Chapel, the Seville Theatre and Les Mas des Oliviers figure... as does Fiddler's Green Irish Pub, the establishment that has taken up residence in John Glassco's old Bishop Street pied-à-terre.

Related post: Blue Plaque Special

Cross-posted at A Gentleman of Pleasure

27 May 2012

Songs for Sunday Suggested by John Wesley White

Following Tuesday's post about John Wesley White's Thinking the Unthinkable.

Pastor White is a rock 'n' roll revisionist, a fearless man who strays far from conventional thought and expression. Billboard be damned. In Arming for Armageddon (1983), White put it that Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" not only topped the U.S. singles chart, but was part of a satanic effort to lure listeners into accepting the Antichrist.

Thinking the Unthinkable (1992) has Laurie Anderson allied with Kiss in playing the devil's music:
"The Elder", the bands's all-time top album, was "concerned with a group of god-like figures who've watched over the planet since its beginnings in primordial ooze." The Elder is "an orphan boy who, through a succession of events, comes to save the world"*
See... just like Kal-el.

During the nine years separating the two books, White has come to believe that the Antichrist is an orphan (hence the dropping of King Juan Carlos from contention); otherwise the pastor's thinking is unchanged: "Britain's successors to the Beatles were the punk rock groups. Most notorious was Sid Vicious..."

Here White continues to be confused about Sid, whom he describes variously as a man and a band. Eventually, he settled on a the former with a sentence lifted from Arming for Armageddon: "His theme song was "Anarchy in the U.K.", in which he boasted of being an 'anarchist' and 'antichrist'."

I take issue. Sid was no role model, but I can find no evidence that he appropriated "Anarchy in the U.K.", a song he didn't write, performed here by a band of which he wasn't yet a member.

White is never so interesting, nor surprising as when he writes about popular music. I was taken aback in reading that in 1993 teenagers were being drawn increasingly to old chestnuts about ending it all:
Elton John sings about contemplating suicide; Elyse Wineberg says he is mortuary-bound; and British rock group Tin Lizzy belts out 'Suicide'.

Emboldened by the pastor's wavering over Sid Vicious, I challenge his assertion about "British rock group Tin Lizzy" through verse:
Lizzy was thin,
Not made of tin,
And came from Dublin.

Phil Lynott, the man who sang "Suicide", was long dead when Thinking the Unthinkable was published, but not by his own hand.

I admit, Elyse Weinberg was a mystery to me. A bit of digging reveals that Elyse is not a fella, as the pastor believes, but a woman. "Mortuary Bound" features on her 1968 debut album Elyse, which was released on the obscure Tetragrammaton label:

The same album peaked at #31 in the United States, and failed to chart in Canada, which pretty much explains why I'd never heard of Ms Weinberg.

The same album features a song with Neil Young on guitar:

Nineteen-sixty-eight was, of course, the year Young left Buffalo Springfield. He struck out on his own, playing intimate venues like Canterbury House, a small Anglican – sorry – Episcopal chapel in Ann Arbour Michigan.

Pastor White doesn't think much of the Episcopal Church.

Wonder how many people showed up for the free eats.

* The album – correct title: Music from "The Elder" – was a commercial failure. Released in 1981, it holds the distinction of being the worst-selling album in the band's 39-year history.

22 May 2012

Same Old Same Old About Armageddon

Thinking the Unthinkable
John Wesley White
Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 1992

The Salvation Army provideth. Three years ago, whilst whiling away an afternoon in one of their finer thrift stores, I happened upon Arming for Armageddon by berugged Canadian evangelist John Wesley White. Wild, wondrous and weird, the book is perhaps the most imaginative and fanciful work I've ever reviewed. In its pages, Pastor White posits that Spain's King Juan Carlos is the Antichrist, praises murderous Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, has Sid Vicious belting out "Anarchy in the UK", and warns against the evil influence of films like I Married a Monster from Outer Space.

Arming for Armageddon was published in 1983, during what were some of the frostiest days of the Cold War. A great deal had changed when Thinking the Unthinkable hit bookstore shelves: the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Berlin Wall had crumbled and actress Kristy McNichol had given her penultimate performance on Empty Nest.

Purchasing Thinking the Unthinkable, I was prepared to pity the poor preacher. So much of his interpretation of scripture had had the USSR playing a key role in the End Times. According to White, Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" would prove itself very evil indeed. The pastor wrote about this not only in Arming for Armageddon, but Re-entry: Striking Parallels Between Today's News Events and Christ's Second Coming (1971), WW III: Signs of the Impending Battle of Armageddon (1981), The Coming World Dictator (1981) and, predictably, Re-entry II (1985).

How would Pastor White handle the simple fact that there was no more Soviet Union? Its death must have brought about much rethinking and – forgive me – soul searching. One fairly feels the pangs of nostalgia when he writes in Thinking the Unthinkable, "what for seventy-four years had been the USSR is no more." This is the only acknowledgement of the Evil Empire's dissolution; in the 211 pages that follow the Soviet Union is very much alive with "shifty" Mikhail Gorbachev in charge.

All this print and paper discredits People's Church (Toronto) pastor Paul B. Smith's blurbed back cover belief that "John Wesley White has a grasp on world affairs that is uncanny."

There's a fair amount of recycling going on here. King Juan Carlos, José Efraín Ríos Montt and Sid Vicious all reappear in these pages. Pastor White continues to be troubled by a Hollywood blockbuster entitled The Little Beast, of which IMDb has no record. I Married a Monster from Outer Space has been joined by such "supernatural and satanic" films as The Idolmaker and Devil in a Blue Dress.

Snicker if you will, but those doubting the pastor as a prophet should note that the latter film was not released until three years after the book's publication.

I regret to report that, like Arming for Armageddon, Thinking the Unthinkable has me rethinking the value of an Oxford education. Pastor White, who holds a Ph.D. from the university, plays pretty loose when it comes to references.

There are none.

Franklin Graham, son of Billy, blurbs that this book contains "breathtaking facts that prick one's mind to action", but none of these burst my balloon:
 • "Jews, of course, invented the engines of war, all the way from nuclear bombs to the sophisticated guidance systems of vehicles that are able to deliver them." 
• "A Swedish bicycle has been produced that uses highly flammable plastic, and General Motors Corporation announced that it could shortly be manufacturing a car of the same substance."
• "A network TV newsman observed that there have been twenty-eight macro-earthquakes since 1958, compared to twenty-four during the whole period before that since the birth of Christ."
Mid-way through Thinking the Unthinkable, Pastor White cites a poll of teenagers that was published in the Chicago Tribune. He doesn't say when or where it was taken, and the sample size is left up in the air, but I don't doubt its findings: "Sixty-five percent of the kids thought a nuclear war would happen in the next ten years and that they would not survive it."

My teenage self wasn't quite so pessimistic; I thought I'd survive. By 1992, the year I turned thirty, I was feeling pretty darn good about the future.

Object: A bland-looking, though well-constructed trade paperback, Thinking the Unthinkable is blessed with a cover that at fleeting glance looks like something flogged by a motivational speaker. My copy has been marked by someone who appears to have been particularly interested in cults.

Access:  Thinking the Unthinkable is much more common in libraries south of the border; Worldcat reports 27 American-held copies to Canada's two. I was surprised to find that the closest to me is located at an institution of which I'd never heard: Redeemer University College, located less than a two-hour drive from my home. Thirty-nine copies are listed through online booksellers, most of which can be had for under a dollar. An optimistic bookseller in rural Nova Scotia is hoping to get seven American dollars. I was charged 75¢ by the good folks of the Stratford Salvation Army Thrift Store.

A personal note: This past Sunday, as I put down Pastor White's book, my old friend Michael Bartsch emailed this photo he'd taken just outside Emigrant, Montana:

Make of this what you will.

21 May 2012

Cheery Victoria Day Verse from the Cheese Poet

Cheese Poet James McIntyre's celebration of the naming of Victoria Park in his adopted hometown of Ingersoll, Ontario, from his Musings on the Banks of the Canadian Thames (Ingersoll: Tribune, 1884):


Lines on the naming of Victoria Park, on Queen's Birthday, 1881. The ceremony was performed by Thomas Brown, Esq., Mayor of the town. 
Come one, come all, to Scottish games
On the banks of Canadian Thames;
You'll find that 'tis most pleasant way
You can enjoy the Queen's Birthday.

In future years it will be famed
The day whereon the park was named,
With its boundry great extended
And nature's charms sweetly blended.

Full worthy of the poet's theme
Is hill and dale, and wood and stream,
And glittering spires, and busy town.
Where mansions' do each mount top crown.

Come, witness the great tug-of-war,
And the great hammer thrown afar,
See running, jumping, highland fling,
At concert hear the sky lark sing.

And the bagpipes will send thrills
Like echoes from the distant hills,
And the bold sound of the pibroch
Which does resound o'er Scottish loch. 
Young men and maids, and fine old dames
Will gather on the banks of Thames,
And though we have a tug-of-war
'Twill leave no wound or deadly scar.
The Canadian Illustrated News, 4 June 1881

"In future years it will be famed/The day whereon this park was named", the poet predicts. The day is indeed remembered, but not for the reason described. That very same Victoria Day, not thirty kilometres to the west, along that very same "Canadian Thames", the country suffered one of its worst maritime disasters with the collapse and capsizing of the pleasure steamer Victoria. One-hundred-and-eighty-two souls, most women and children, lost their lives in its sparkling waters.

The Canadian Illustrated News, 11 June 1881
The poet would later memorialize the disaster in his somber, much more modest 'Disaster to Steamer Victoria in London'.

Related posts:

15 May 2012

Ambition, Amnesia and Murder

Douglas H. Glover
Toronto: Seal, 1984

What we have here is the debut novel of a man who would one day win the Governor General's Award for Fiction. A cheap, mass market paperback, it received a fair amount of publicity, strong reviews and was shortlisted for the 1984 Books in Canada First Novel Award. Precious sold out in just one month, then spent the next two decades out of print. Why this is so remains a mystery to me.

Precious is a mystery. Bantam/Seal certainly positioned it as such with cover blurbs by stablemates Stephen Greenleaf and Clark Blaise. The former, whose name means nothing to me, describes Glover's debut as "a novel of style and wit, wisdom and intrigue, one that travels well beyond the traditional bounds of the mystery story." Blaise, one of my favourite writers, has the better pitch: "Precious is about newspapers, small towns, love, honour and death. The spiritual forebear of Doug Glover is clearly Ross Macdonald, the original chronicler of ambition and amnesia, and their bastard offspring, murder."

Well, I do like a good newspaper novel – and who doesn't like Ross Macdonald?

Glover's hero is Moss Elliot, a down-on-his-luck reporter whose unfortunate nickname gives title to the novel. Don't ask. Elliot's an okay guy, though the three failed marriages in his forty years might make you think otherwise. We catch up with him in a Toronto bar as he licks wounds incurred from an ill-advised dalliance with Anne Delos, the big-boned wife of a Greek professor/mini-Aristotle.

Hard up for work, the reporter heads east along Lake Ontario to Ockenden, a "small branch-plant city of about forty-five thousand", where he's lucky enough to be offered the position of women's page editor for the Star-Leader. For a drinker and a womanizer it's not such a bad fit. Elliott's biggest competition – no competition at all – comes in the form of Damon Barret, an aging alcoholic plagiarist who once had a fishing column in the Toronto Star. An eager kid named Ashcroft irritates, but he's also good for a round or two in the American House tavern.

They're not much of a team, but more than enough to handle happenings in grey Ockenden. Then an old woman is murdered – stabbed through the heart with a pair of scissors – and Elliot's tipsy world is rocked. The pursuit of a lurid news story leads to beatings, gunshots and a lovely and lonely damaged dancer who just happens to be the victim's step-daughter.

Precious doesn't much read like a first novel; it's too confident and a polished piece of prose. Admirers of Macdonald will be disappointed only in that Elliot vanishes with the end of the novel. A second 'Precious' mystery, promised in an old Gazette piece, never materialized.

But then you know what those newspaper people are like.

Favourite passage:
Ashcroft was getting on my nerves. I know a lot about human relations; they're like strips of flypaper. He just wanted a little professional advice, a mentor, a pal. And I wanted to be left alone. All three of my marriages had begun with as little provocation. Anne Delos had wanted to borrow a coin so she could use the bathroom. You never know where that sort of thing will end.
Trivia: The 1984 Books in Canada First Novel Award went to Perdue, or How the West Was Lost by Geoffrey Ursell. John Gray's Dazzled, the subject of an earlier post, was also on the shortlist.

Object and Access: A mass market paperback. Just two copies of the first edition - near Very Good at US$7.00 and US$7.98 - are listed for sale online. Can it really be so uncommon? Perhaps. A friend of the author tells me that he has never happened upon a copy.

The more durable Goose Lane edition from 2005 is also more attractive. Amazon doesn't offer the reprint, lending the impression that it's again out-of-print. Not so! Chindigo will ship it to you "in 3 -5 weeks", but why not just get it directly from the publisher?

Update: Over at Numèro Cinq, the author himself responds:
Brian Busby takes a look at my first novel, Precious. His blog’s subtitle is “A very casual exploration of Canada’s suppressed, ignored and forgotten” which tickles me no end & about sums me up. I am like Darkest Africa, the whitest Antarctica, Terra Incognita, the Unconscious: on Google Earth, I am the part you can’t see — there is no Street View of my house. BTW, for the reprint (which is still IN PRINT) I rewrote some of the book. Not a lot, but crucial bits at the end wherein the hero, Moss Elliot, performs heroic acts while incapacitated due to drink.
Mr Glover, you have yourself a sale!

And another: Bookseller Dan Mozersky, one of the four judges for the 1984 Books in Canada First Novel Award, generously shares a "small trickle of a memory" in the comments below.

13 May 2012

Images of the John Glassco Soirée

A few photographs of the John Glassco Soirée, held late last month at the Writers' Chapel of Montreal's St James the Apostle Anglican Church. All images and captions come courtesy of the fine folks at the Argo Bookshop, sponsors of the event.

Reverend Robert Camara started us off with a few opening remarks.
Michael Gnarowski, a good friend of John Glassco, followed Robert Camara with anecdotes about his old friend. A personal favourite was the recipe for one of Glassco's favoured summer drinks, the 'Glassco special':
1 part gin
1 part sparkling water
1 part orange juice
& sugar to taste
Judy Nesbitt spoke as a direct bloodline connection to Glassco. Before she spoke at the event about her Uncle Buffy, at the bar, she passed around the oldest photographs of the Glassco family.
One of our two featured speakers was Brian Busby, author of A Gentleman of Pleasure, enlightening us with facts and factoids, details and illuminations on Glassco's life and work.
Our other featured speaker was Carmine Starnino, who had edited John Glassco and the Other Montreal, a selection of poems. He had taken the side of interrogator and interviewer for the evening, posing questions to Busby about the contexts and underpinnings of Glassco's work.

Last, but certainly not least, Bryan Sentes would season Carmine and Brian's conversation about Glassco by reading excerpts and poems: specifically, the poems "The Rural Mail" & "Brummel at Calais", with excerpts from The English Governess/Harriet Marwood, Governess, and the first three paragraphs of Memoirs of Montparnasse.
Argo co-owners Jesse Eckerlin and Meaghan Acosta at the book table.
It seems such a cliché, but there truly was something magical about the evening. I offer my thanks, once again, to the Argo Bookshop for sponsoring the event. Anyone looking for copies of A Gentleman of Pleasure, John Glassco and the Other Montreal and Memoirs of Montparnasse need look no further.

Cross-posted at A Gentleman of Pleasure.

12 May 2012

An Invitation from (and to) Biblioasis

An invitation to a book launch arrives... and with it comes the realization that publisher Biblioasis has received so little mention on this blog. Seems strange. I've been an admirer and customer since their first book, Leon Rooke's Balduchi's Who's Who, issued in a limited edition back in 2004.

In the eight years that have followed, Biblioasis has come dominate my new book purchases. Caroline Adderson, Clark Blaise, Terry Griggs, Stephen Henighan, Annabel Lyon, Judith McCormack, John Metcalf, Patricia Robertson, Rebecca Rosenblum and Norm Sibum account for just some of the Biblioasis books in my dust-free bookcase.

Such is the publisher's appeal, that I was convinced to purchase an old favourite...

Biblioasis, 2006
...when I already had a couple of copies:

House of Anansi, 1969
Porcupine's Quill, 1989
So, I return to my long-abandonned role of bookseller in inviting anyone not yet familiar to explore the publisher's website.

And I'll pass on the invitation to attend the launch of Anakana Schofield's Malarky this coming Tuesday:

Dora Keogh
141 Danforth Ave, Toronto
15 May 2012, 7pm

You can bet on me being there.

09 May 2012

A Leo Orenstein Triptych

© The Estate of Leo Orenstein
Three more uncommon Leo Orenstein covers courtesy of the artist's family. I find J.-K. Huysmans' Against the Grain the most interesting if only because it was the novel that most influenced John Glassco's fiction. He first encountered the Decadent masterpiece in 1935, courtesy of a copy loaned by H. Burton Bydwell, the “fat little lecher” of Memoirs of Montparnasse.

After reading the novel for the first time, Glassco turned to his journal, describing the work as one of the finest things he’d ever read: "it even gave me a bit of a set-back – just a slight jolt – to see how thoroughly, conclusively, & beautifully the spirit of Perversity has found expression."

I'm certain that Orenstein's Against the Grain cover was done at some point in the 'fifties. Who commissioned the work I can't say. If it was published – I can find no evidence – the fifty cent price point would have been steep for the time.

© The Estate of Leo Orenstein
The remaining Orenstein covers are less mysterious... in a way. Bowdler, the foremost collector of early Canadian paperbacks, identifies both as publications of Toronto's short-lived Randall Publishing Company. How short-lived? Well, it would appear that they issued only two titles: Stuart Martin's Seven Men's Sins (1950; first published in 1929 by Harper & Brothers as Only Seven Were Hanged) and The Queen's Hall Murder by Adam Broome (pseud. Godfrey Warden James).

© The Estate of Leo Orenstein
How many copies of The Queen's Hall Murder are out there... and did they ever find that missing apostrophe? Bowdler has never seen a copy and neither have I.

A curious thing about Seven Men's Sins is that Randall lived long enough to reissue the novel with a garish cover by pulp regular Harold Bennett.

Less Dalíesque, but the influence is still apparent.

Related posts:

07 May 2012

The Great Fire of Ingersoll Remembered

One hundred and forty years ago today – May 7, 1872 – the small Ontario town of Ingersoll lost Oxford Street, then its main commercial thoroughfare, to fire. Newspaper reports of the day record that flames were first spotted just before eight in the evening in the stables of the Royal Exchange Hotel.

The disaster inspired verse by townsmen James McIntyre, Cheese Poet and undertaker. He included "Great Fire in Ingersoll, May, 1872" in his 299-page Poems of James McIntyre (Ingersoll, ON: Chronicle, 1889).

Though a nobler town did indeed rise, today the corner upon which the Royal Exchange Hotel once stood now serves as a parking lot used by folks visiting the Dollarama across the street.

03 May 2012

A Private Dick's Disturbing Descent into Darkness

Murder Over Dorval
David Montrose [pseud. Charles Ross Graham]
Toronto: Collins White Circle, 1952

Early in this second David Montrose mystery, private detective Russell Teed checks in at LaGuardia Field for a late night flight to Dorval. "Will you be using our limousine service from the airport into Montreal?" asks the airline representative. This same clerk then offers a few nips of Seagram's V.O. in the privacy offered by a back room office.

Teed loses the booze, along with his dinner, lunch and breakfast, during the flight. He isn't alone. All but one of the ten passengers is sick, as poor stewardess Maida Malone moves around a cramped DC-3 with "paper cartons at the ready – lids off, all set to be used."

So much for the romance of air travel.

The sole passenger to be spared the unpleasantness and indignity is Senator Cedric Kelloway. But he's dead of a head wound before the plane lands.

A DC-3 at Dorval Airport, roughly a decade before Senator Kelloway's murder.

Teed, the first to notice the senator's injury, suspects murder. Wanting "Grade A homogenized cops" on the case, he has the pilot radio for Inspector John Dorset, RCMP, a man who has "a mind like a Friden automatic calculator".

This is meant as a great compliment.

Ça change.

But then Teed too has changed. The private investigator introduced in The Crime on Cote des Neiges (1951) is something less in this follow-up. Gone is his preference for Dow – now any beer will do, and the hard stuff has really begun to flow. Teed's corporate clients appear to have been washed away. More of a drunk, he's grown dark and disturbing.

Your business has decayed pretty badly, Son", warns his old McGill pal Danny Moore. "Nobody outside a padded cell would take risks like this without reasons. Have you got reasons? Are you still doing jobs you want to, for some crazy motive? Or have you slid into this? If you have, please let me slap it out of you."

Danny doesn't know the half of it.

Later that same day, Teed will run his Riley over the already broken body of a man who'd tried to kill him:
There was a bump as the right front wheel went over the form, and a scraping tearing noise as the oil pan caught in something and then pulled away again. The differential ploughed through something more solid, and then we were clear.
He'll find a girl waiting at his flat and will suggest that she might be more comfortable in his bed:
   There was no reply, but bare feet whispered on the floor. Then my bedroom door clicked.
   I counted up to ten, just to give her time to reconsider. But even if she had changed her mind, I don't know what she could have done. There was an eight-storey drop from my window, and no lock on the bedroom door.
Just how low can he go?

Full disclosure: I'm Consulting Editor for Véhicule Press' Ricochet Books series, which last year returned Murder Over Dorval to print.

Object: A fragile, yellowing paperback, the anonymous cover art is all wrong. DC-3s had twin seats on one side of the aisle and singles on the other. The senator had chosen a single seat. A "neat little man" with sparse white hair dressed in the "executive grey suit", his final moments are described at the end of the fourth chapter: "The colour had faded from his smooth pink face, leaving it white with a grey overcast. He was slumped down in his seat, head back and mouth slightly open."

I'll add that the hair on the head of that panicked stewardess Maida should be "smooth and shining like black satin." Such is its sheen that Tweed can't help but notice as he attends to the dying senator.

Access: Véhicule's 2011 reissue features the same cover art and has the advantage of being properly printed and bound. Montreal mystery writer Michael Blair provides a Foreword. Price: an even twelve bucks.

Like all Montrose titles, the original edition enjoyed just one printing. A lone copy is listed for sale online. Price: US$59."Extremely RARE number in the White Circle Paperback series", says the bookseller. Can't disagree with that.