29 October 2012

True Crime Stories from David Cronenberg's Dad

There's much to admire in Milton Cronenberg, a man who worked very hard to put food on his family's table. A writer and editor, through much of the Depression he owned and ran a bookstore on Toronto's College Street. Greg Gatenby's Toronto: A Literary Guide features a very nice photo of Cronenberg, père, in front of his shop. "COME IN AND BROWSE AROUND" invites one of the many signs in the window. Would that I could. The store sold new and old books, new and old magazines, and offered bookbinding and book repair services. "MANUSCRIPTS EXPERTLY TYPED" reads another sign.

Gatenby tells us that David Cronenberg has held onto his business diary: "though it is a fascinating document, the income statements (some days he grossed less than two dollars) make for sad reading." In 1942, as bookseller he closed up shop for the last time. Cronenberg seems to have thrown himself into writing for magazines – everything from Magazine Digest to American Gas Association Monthly – and would later have a stamp column in the Toronto Telegram. I'm most interested in the writing he did for Canada's true crime pulps, like the piece he penned for Greatest Detective Cases (August 1943) on Ontario's most infamous swindlers. Pipsqueaks all when compared to the charlatans working Bay Street today.

As a contributor, Cronenberg was better than most, but what really sets him apart is that he often – perhaps always – wrote under his own name. Sadly, I've never seen a copy of the Famous Crime Cases (May 1943) pictured above, so can't speak to "Toronto's Double Cross Death", but I do know the story behind "Death for $100", which Cronenberg contributed to the April 1942 issue of the same magazine.

It all begins with the 5 May 1941 disappearance of 52-year-old Ottawa businessman Charles Walton and the discovery of his wrecked car in Rockland, Ontario. Fourteen days later, two boys in a row boat found his body floating in the Ottawa River within the sight of the Parliament Buildings. It was thought that Walton had drowned, possibly after having been thrown from the Champlain Bridge. On 25 June, Edward Paquette and Germaine Doucet two RCAF servicemen, were arrested for the murder; seven months later each received 20-year-sentences for manslaughter.

Milton Cronenberg tells it much better than I do.

25 October 2012

Women of the Unchanging East

I'm not sure that I've seen a more generously illustrated Victorian travelogue; plates account for over thirty percent of the page count. Unfortunately, not one of the images – photographs all – bears a credit. While I suspect that at least a few of the more touristy shots are nothing but reproductions of postcards, I'm more confident that many of the images  – the grainy one of Black John, for example  – were taken during Barr's travels and troubles. Sadly, there are no images of the author himself, but we do find some portraits of people who figure in the book, including two of genial Maronite dragoman Selim G. Tabet.

However, the vast majority of the portraits are of anonymous women. Postcards perhaps, but these make for the most interesting images in the book. What follows are the finest, beginning with a Damascus girl and ending with an image that I imagine was consulted repeatedly by more than few adolescent Victorian males. Today's teenage boys will be less interested.

Related Post: 

22 October 2012

Through the Unchanging East with Robert Barr

The Unchanging East; or, Travels and Troubles in the Orient
Robert Barr
Boston: Page, 1900

Robert Barr died one hundred years ago yesterday. I spent much of the morning, afternoon and evening with the man. Yes, I did. The Measure of the Rule (1907) may be Barr's most autobiographical novel, but it's with The Unchanging East that you really get a sense of his character:
When the steamship company sent me their printed rules and regulations, one item therein immediately attracted my attention. It was to the effect that no passenger was allowed to bring liquor on board with him, so this reminded me that certain decoctions were grateful and comforting, as the advertisements say, besides there always being a pleasure in breaking the rules; so I at once brought four bottles from Caledonia in case I should meet some personal friend...
Only a fool or a teetotaler – same thing, really – would pass on the opportunity of joining a man such as this on his travels.

Barr begins in a hansom cab bound for the Manchester docks:
A thick autumn fog, saturated soot in suspension, enveloped the town. The drive from the station proved most unattractive – I should not care to liken it to a trip in Hades for fear of exaggeration, because Hades at least is warm, and I believe the atmosphere must be more clear than that of Manchester.
Mancunians are not alone. The overly sensitive will wish to gird themselves; nearly every place and every people come in for a ribbing on this voyage. Not even the people of Scotland, the land of Barr's birth, are spared. Witness, if you will his comments on that petite Maltanese land mass we 21st-century English speakers know as Gozo:
The island should by right be inhabited by Scotchmen, for it possesses a coin valued at one-sixth of a cent, and if, as the saying has it, the farthing was invented to enable the Scotchmen to contribute to the cause of religion, then the islands of Goza [sic] and Malta should be three times more attractive to us Scotchmen than any other spot on earth.
The only people to draw complete and unqualified praise are "the Druses", whom Barr describes as "a most admirable people, extremely hospitable, ready to share their last crust with any stranger who happens along, invariably refusing money for the services they may render a traveller, and they are always fond of a joke."

Where other fin de siècle travelogues glaze the eyes, Barr's dry humour and observations make this a book that I would not put down. This isn't to say that there is not unpleasantness, but for much of the journey, our author's "troubles" are trivial: street vendors try to take advantage and trips by rail prove uncomfortable. He witnesses no violence, and relays old news of massacre and slaughter with the cold hand of a statistician.

The unchanging east? No longer. Much as I enjoyed the journey, throughout it all I couldn't help but wonder about the grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren of the Syrian women who looked out from the frontispiece.

Object: Two compact, bulky volumes bound in white cloth. Each is 256 pages in length and features 41 plates, one of which captures Black John, "a character the like of which is probably to be found nowhere else than in the Levant."

Access: The problem, of course, is that sets are so often broken up. Only two complete sets are listed online, but both are crummy ex-library copies. Ignore the dealer who describes his offering as "Very Good" – for library discards this is an impossible condition. Putting a set together is a tricky thing in that the work was issued in two separate bindings – one green and one white. Just one copy of volume one is listed online (US$20.00). Volume two (US$18.95 - US$25.85) is three times as plentiful, which is to say that it's not plentiful at all.

Headaches might be avoided by simply buying the single-volume English edition, published in 1900 by Chatto & Windus, except that it seems an even more uncommon beast. The only copy listed online is another library discard. The bookseller is honest – perhaps because it came from a church – describing its condition as "Fair". There was no Canadian edition.

As with so much of our literary heritage that is now in the public domain, print on demand monstrosities abound, Most are offered by folks who don't do the courtesy of indicating exactly which of the two volumes they're crapping out. Pictured right, with a cover photograph of the great northern pines of the Mediterranean, is the excrement offered by infamous Nabu Press.

Twenty-one of our academic libraries, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and the ever reliable Toronto Public Library have copies.

Related post:

21 October 2012

Hugh MacLennan Memorial Plaque

This coming Friday, 26 October, will see the dedication of  a plaque in memory of Hugh MacLennan at the Writers' Chapel of Montreal's St James the Apostle Anglican Church.

All are welcome.

Friday, 26 October 2012
6 p.m.
Church of St James the Apostle
1439 St Catherine Street West, Montreal (Bishop Street entrance)

A reception will follow.

20 October 2012

Thomas P. Kelley: He Kept Finding Cleopatra

Weird Tales
November 1938
July 1941
Uncanny Tales
July 1941
I Found Cleopatra
Thomas P. Kelly [sic]
Toronto: Export, 1946
I Found Cleopatra
Thomas P. Kelley
Linn, OR: Fax Collector's Editions, 1977

19 October 2012

The King of the Canadian Pulps Bowdlerized

The Fabulous Kelley
Thomas P. Kelley, Jr.
Richmond Hill, ON: Pocket, 1968

The Fabulous Kelley
Thomas P. Kelley, Jr.
Toronto: General, 1974

Thomas P. Kelley crowned himself "King of the Canadian Pulp Writers", so there should be no surprise that he considered his father a monarch amongst medicine men.

Who knows, maybe he was

From 1886 until his death forty-five years later, Kelley, père – a charismatic farm boy from Newboro, Ontario – operated the traveling Shamrock Concert Company. If Kelley, fis, is to be believed, their shows attracted crowds numbering 12,000 and more, bringing in many millions of dollars.

The Fabulous Kelley is typical of the author's non-fiction writing in that it contains nothing in the way of endnotes, references or bibliography. It's also atypical, standing out as the most polished of his many titles. Credit could go to the editors at Pocket Books, whom one might expect were more strict than those of previous publishers Harlequin, Arrow Publishing and News Stand Library, but I'm sentimental enough to believe that Kelley made an extra special effort here.

This is the story of a beloved father told by his son. Thomas P. Kelley, Sr., was indeed an extraordinary and unusual man. He was also a charlatan. In the 208 pages of the Pocket edition junior remains blind to this fact, all the while providing damning evidence. His greatest and only defence is that Dad never wavered in maintaining that he was superior to all others. Here papa medicine man is confronted by a disgruntled Oklahoma undertaker:
   "We had a medicine man pass through here about three years ago. He came with a horse and wagon and peddled some worthless fluid he advertised as 'Snake Oil'. He called himself Professor Logan."
   "I've heard of him,"was the other's answer. "Logan is a fraud, a cheap pitchman working solo. He's not a medicine man."
   "Oh, then there's a difference?" and there was a tinge of sarcasm in the other's quietly spoken words. "How interesting. Pray tell me, just how much difference is there between a pitch man and a medicine man?"
   Doc Kelley, one hand on the doorknob, turned and shot a glance at those pallid features and asked: "The woman who answered the door is your wife?"
   "She is."
   "Have you seen a photo of the famous beauty , Lily Langtry?"
   "I have."
   "There is that much difference..."
This exchange, my favourite, is not found in General Publishing's 1974 reprint. In fact, the latter publisher cut over 30,000 words, something approaching half of the original text. Here we have an odd instance in which a hardcover edition bowdlerizes a paperback original. What makes this even more unusual is the fact that the 1984 edition of The Fabulous Kelley marks the first and only time in which Thomas P. Kelley, Jr. was published in anything other format than paperback.

I've taken some swipes at Kelley in the past, but won't here. Sure, there's a good amount of exaggeration and embellishment in The Fabulous Kelley, but this is easily stripped away to reveal an all too rare glimpse of the medicine show by a man who grew up in its world. General's edition, which is much more common than any other, does a great disservice in ridding itself of things that are verifiable.

Thomas P. Kelley, Sr.
14 April 1865 - 31 April 1931
This is not to say that there isn't superfluous stuff – the junior Kelley does tend to run on, but here I'm happy to let him go. What follows is Thomas P. Kelley's comment on his father's death from a heart attack on 31 July 1931 in the Ontario town of Uxbridge:
So died Thomas P. Kelley, the King of the Medicine Men. Yes, and the medicine-show period died with him. The entertainment that had brought joy to millions throughout North America for more than a hundred years perished with its King.
So ends the General's bowdlerized edition. The Pocket Books edition continues:
Passed into oblivion, its distant glories forgotten, like the flame of a candle blown out with his final breath, Now it was all over; at long last modern times had triumphed and the medicine show days were no more. But it was a triumph which could only be gained by the death of the man with the golden tongue. A death that marked the end of an era.
   And even today the dwindling few old-time medicine show performers continue to tell: "Nature made only one Doc Kelley then threw away the mold." 
- FIN -
Objects: The Pocket Books first edition is an unexceptional mass market paperback, but looks much more attractive than any of the other editions. Credit should go to Peter Max, though I'm betting he had nothing to do with the design.

The oh-so-bland General Publishing edition features a lazy 400-word Introduction by Gordon Sinclair. Yep, he's had a quick look through the book, and is ready to repeat a few tidbits. Consider them spoilers.

General dropped all fifteen Bob White cartoons found in the Pocket first.

Curiously, General also got rid of nearly all photographs of the Pocket edition, replacing them with others that are neither better nor worse.

Access: Bowdlerized or not, The Fabulous Kelley is next to impossible to find in our public libraries and is a rare thing at our universities. The Pocket Books paperback is both uncommon and cheap – the few copies available online can be had for five dollars or less. The General Publishing hardcover is not only much more easy to find, but much more cheap. Good copies can be had online for as little as a dollar. The last edition, published by Paperjacks in 1975, uses General's shorter text (Gordon Sinclair's snoozy Intro included). It's easy to find and cheap... but really, it's the Pocket mass market you'll want.

17 October 2012

A Timely Editorial Cartoon from 1875

L'Opinion publique, August 1875

The biggest thing that Elections Canada can wield in a case where a politician overspends is a thousand dollar fine. Now, theoretically you can also send somebody to jail for up to three months, but everyone knows that's not going to happen.
— Terry Milewski on Power & Politics, 17 October 2012

Minister Peter Penashue and Prime Minister Stephen Harper
24 January 2012

16 October 2012

Young Tom Kelley, King of the Canadian Pulps

A portrait of the artist as a young man. Here we have Thomas P. Kelley, a very dapper little boy who would grow up to write Bad Men of Canada, No Tears for Goldie , The Gorilla's Daughter and 'The Soul Eater':

13 October 2012

Isaac Brock: 200 Years

Sir Isaac Brock
6 October 1769 - 13 October 1812
'Brock: Valiant Leader' by J.D. Logan
Canadian Poets and Poetry

John W. Garvin, ed.
(Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1916)
from Brock Centenary, 1812-1912:
Account of the Celebration at Queenston Heights, Ontario, on the 12th of October, 1912

Alexander Fraser, ed.
(Toronto: William Briggs, 1913)

12 October 2012

Crazy, But That's How It Goes

Crazy to Kill
Ann Cardwell [pseud. Jean Makins Pawley]
Winnipeg: Harlequin, 1949
191 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

08 October 2012

The Sudden Violent Deaths of Arthur Stringer and His Family (and Their Respective Resurrections)

One of the earliest Canadians to really make a killing in the writing game, Arthur Stringer led a pretty eventful life. More than sixty books bore his name and twenty-three movies were made from his work – no one has yet come up with an accurate count of his hundreds of magazine appearances. 

And then there was his marriage to exciting Amazonian Jobyna Howland, Gibson Girl, Broadway babe and minor Hollywood star.    

Yes, an eventful life, so much so that the drama detailed below – front page news in Montreal, Toronto and New York – doesn't rate so much as a footnote in Arthur Stringer: Son of the North, Victor Lauriston's 1941 biography: 

The Pittsburgh Press, 21 May 1912
In fact, Stringer had no home in Niagara Falls, New York. He and his family then divided their time between a flat in New York City and "Shadow-Lawn", their house in Cedar Springs, Ontario. Though described in the Canadian Bookman as a "summer home", it was at the northern address that the Stringers spent the better part of the year. 

The Canadian Bookman, August 1909
"Shadow-Lawn" figures in the curious correction that went out over the wires hours later:

The Regina Morning Leader, 21 May 1912
Caught off guard, The New York Times, which had somehow missed all the excitement, published a modest piece:

The New York Times, 21 May 1912
Stringer, Stockton... Cedar Springs, Niagara Falls... so easily confused.

Sadly, Stringer and the beautiful Jobyna eventually went their separate ways. In 1936, the actress was found dead of a heart attack on the kitchen floor of her Hollywood home. Stringer lived on until 1950, before being felled by same.

I've not been able to track down anything concerning their daughter.

Entertainment: Yes, I've posted this before, but after the horrors above isn't something a bit cheery in order? Here's Jobyna Howland with Wheeler and Wolsey in The Cuckoos. Oddly appropriate, I think.

05 October 2012

Scientology Comes North

Another proud publication of Galaxy Press ("publisher of the fiction works of L. Ron Hubbard"), owned by Author Services Inc. ("exclusive representatives for master storyteller L. Ron Hubbard"), which in turn is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Church of Spiritual Technology ("an autonomous church of the Scientology religion outside of the international Scientology ecclesiastical hierarchy").

Got that?

01 October 2012

A Puppet of Passion in Boxing Trunks

Seconds to Go
Phil Strong [pseud. Danny Halperin]
Toronto: Arrow, 1950

Is anything to be made of the similarity between the name Danny Cannon, protagonist of Seconds to Go, and that of his creator Danny Halperin?

Hope not.

We first catch sight of Danny Cannon at age eleven as he's being beaten by his father Matt. A bat to the head, a fist in the face, whipping with a belt... and who knows what we've missed. But wait, there's more:
     Again and again the belt descended.
     At last Danny could bear it no longer. Like a caged beast suddenly freed, he turned on his father and wrestled with him for possession of the belt. Matt roared with rage; his meaty right hand clutched the boy's throat and he shook that twisting young body as if it were a rattling bag of coals.
     Exhausted, Danny went limp, Matt let him fall to the floor where he kicked him in the stomach. The boy writhed and screamed as the boot connected.
     "Now – now – what's yore answer?" said Matt, breathing heavily, laying down a fine mist of whisky breath close to Danny's face.
     "I – I'll go."
Where to?

Halperin maintains the mystery for a several more pages before having Danny walk through New York's East Side to Liffey's Canned Shrimp and Lobster. What follows is a Dickensian scene set in the Depression with the boy cutting off the heads and legs of shrimp in a dimly lit cellar. "They look like mama'" he tells his sister Gracie, "when she was lying in her coffin after she was dead."

A dance hall hustler, popular because she "did not wear a bras [sic]",  Gracie has taken to rolling drunken sailors in alleyways. Danny too will make good money through beatings.

The first half of Seconds to Go follows a familiar plot. Danny, a quiet boy with a drunken brute for a father, grows up to give is the old man his due. A tough but kindly old trainer provides guidance both in and out of the boxing ring, and the next thing you know Danny boy is a contender.

"Time passes quickly when we are doing something which concerns us passionately. So it was with Danny." The turbulent times he'd endured with Matt and Gracie – never mind shrimp-like mama – seem so long ago. Sadly, new troubles are on the horizon.

The first cracks appear when Danny beds Anne, Dave's floozy of a daughter. The trainer loves his daughter, but because he also loves Danny he feels the need to warn:
     "Look, Danny. This is as hard for me as it is for you –"
     "That's wrong," Danny interrupted. "This is easy for me. All I have to do is tell you to go to hell, Dave."
For a guy who lost his virginity mere hours earlier, Danny really seems to know what's what:
     "Listen to me, Dave. Sometimes you do things that even if they're bad you still have to do them and even if they'll hurt you they still have to be done. Do you know what I mean? I'm sure Anne feels the same way about it. She'll get over the novelty of me pretty soon."
"So you're just puppets of passion, eh?" responds Dave.

In the end, it's Danny who grows bored. As his star rises, he looks down on Dave and Anne, now so very small in his eyes. When big time boxing promoter Manny Easton makes an offer, Danny is only too happy to move on. Manny's wife Clara becomes the first of many women who take Anne's place. Melanie Jackson, Louise Ryrie, Gilda Channing and Mona Paulasohn try to use Danny, but are ultimately discarded leaving the fighter with a "conceited feeling of power over women combined with a monstrous contempt for everything female."

The climax of the novel takes place in the ring, and not in bed. Danny faces Dusty Rush in a championship bout at Madison Square Garden and is beaten to a pulp.

No pun intended.

Miraculously, misogyny vanishes, humility returns and a life with Anne seems a sure bet. I'd say that Danny had some sense beaten into him, but Anne has a different view:
     "That guy Dusty sure knocked something out of me," muttered Danny.
     "I know..." replied Anne slowly, "... and Danny... it's funny how everything turns out for the best!"
     "What d'ya mean?" he asked.
     "I think that guy knocked something bad out of you... and I'm glad!"
The magical, transformative power of the ring extends to the locker room, where Dave's blow to Manny's jaw ends their estrangement. And Clara? Despite her ellipses, Anne manages to fill in the blanks:
     "From what Dave told me... they're still in love with each other... always have been... it's just the way of life that's driven them apart."
So, is there anything to be made of the similarity between the names Danny Cannon and Danny Halperin?

Probably not – but what about Danny Cannon and Danny Fisher?

Worst sentence: The old wallpaper, a fanciful design of faded mermaids, was beginning to peel off the walls from the ceiling down, hanging in unsightly torn sheets like the frozen tears of a sentimental statrue [sic] in a wintry park.

Object: A particularly fragile early Canadian mass market paperback, the glue has dried to a point at which one cannot hope to read the thing without causing damage. Didn't stop me. Books are for reading.

Access: Not listed on Worldcat. The only copy currently offered online comes courtesy of a Toronto bookseller who provides no information as to condition. At C$45, it's probably worth the price.