26 June 2013

To the Big House... or not

The Little Yellow House
Jessie McEwen
Toronto: Ryerson, 1953

Mark Crosbie is a damaged war vet. A few years back, whilst downing Messerschmitts over Denmark, his plane took fire. Mark managed to parachute to safety and – more luck – found sanctuary in a little yellow house inhabited by an exiled German university professor and his beautiful daughter. Sadly, the airman's injuries necessitated the amputation of a leg; happily, he and the beautiful daughter, Adella, fell for one another.

This novel opens two years after the war's end with our hero standing on the deck of a ship bound for Canada. Poor Mark is returning to Toronto empty-armed, having spent a frustrating few months travelling through Europe in a failed search for Adella and her scholarly father. Mark hasn't even settled into his deck chair before he's approached by Charlie Griswold, a boozy friend of his cousin Alec. In the manner of drunks everywhere, ol' Charlie latches onto his semi-acquaintence and begins to babble:
"Got hitched in Lun'on a month ago and she's the fines' bit o' luggage I ever did see. Ain't nuthin' like her in the whole wide world."
The bit o' luggage – name: Margery – isn't all that, but there's something about her that reminds Mark of Adella.

Sadly, Charlie's honeymoon is short-lived. On the sixth night at sea he corners Mark. "She says she's going to dish me when we dock." mutters Charlie. "Says she only fastened on to me for a free ride."

The unhappy newlywed tries to enlist Mark's help in discrediting Margery: "swear you know she's a flossie [sic], fleesie or a what-have-you". In exchange, Charlie will give the goods on Alec. Mark refuses and returns to his cabin. A few hours later, he's awoken with the news that Charlie has gone overboard.

But wait, there's more.

It seems that Mark has long been suspicious of his cousin. This may have something to do with Alec's father, Alexander, who decades earlier embezzled money and property from the Crosbie family company. Alec's sister Monica, a columnist for The Toronto Daily Graphic, is so worried that her brother inherited dad's dishonest nature that she's set up a secret account to cover anticipated legal fees. She's also written a drama about a man who is caught stealing from his children. Efforts to sell the play brought her into contact with Isy Lerman, "a famous New York play agent", to whom she is now engaged. Monica is about to leave Toronto to marry her fiancé when she's stopped by Alec. Her fears have come true. Alec has been stealing from the family firm, just like dear old dad, and now needs her help.

Hold on, there's still more.

Alec is playing for time, and has managed to secure a good chunk of it in thwarting Mark's European search. Just as the one-legged veteran began his hobbling through Copenhagen, Cologne, Paris, Bruges, and who knows how many towns and villages on the Rhine, he had pal Charlie whisk Adella and her father off to Canada. They've spent the ensuing months at Ruthven House, the long neglected, seldom visited Crosbie family estate in rural Ontario. An odd place, "almost like a castle", it comes complete with a tower and hidden dungeon, but no telephone. Adella and her dad are cut off, and dare not venture outside as Alec has warned them of the deep hatred Canadians have of Germans.

Alec dispatches Monica to keep an eye on his Ruthven House house guests, trusting that she will stick by his story that Mark has been committed to a psychiatric hospital.

When Mark arrives back in Toronto, he's told by Alec that the missing Monica "has cracked up, gone to pieces."

It's a lot to take in, and the reader has only three chapters in which to do it. Things get easier but less interesting in the fourteen that follow as Mark and Monica struggle with indecision. The one-legged war hero tries to convince himself that Alec is good – "Alec is good. Mark said to himself. Alec is very good." – in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When he finally does admit to himself that Alec is not good, Mark knows not what to do. Meanwhile, Monica spends some 200 or so densely packed pages debating whether she should come clean with Adella and the professor:

From chapter 14, this is one in a great number of angst-ridden paragraphs that I can't be bothered to count. Was it not enough to have read it? I trudged on as the book's editor fell by the wayside. This later passage is typical:
The inability to tell was an enormous, throbbing pain that took such fierce possession of her that, no matter with whom she was when it gained possession of her that, she rushed to Alec where he still cowered in the bedroom.
After the title page, after the copyright information, after the Table of Contents, the reader encounters a stark statement on an otherwise blank page:
This is the story of a crime.
Which one?

When time finally runs out for Alec, it's revealed that his criminal acts run aplenty – arson and attempted murder figure – yet he faces no charges because... because... Well, you must understand that as the wealthy son of a convicted man he was greatly disadvantaged.

I didn't buy it. Call me a law and order type, if you will, but I think some sort of police investigation was warranted. Besides, I'd really like to know who killed Charlie Griswold.

Trivia: An editor for Thomas Nelson Canada, Jessie McEwen (1899-1986) was the author of nine books, two of which were published under pseudonyms. Her most commercially successful work was the novel Taltrees (Toronto: Ryerson, 1949), which was translated into French as Les grandes arbres (Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 1951).

Object: A deceptively slim 249-page hardcover in dark blue boards with gilt lettering on spine. The uncredited dust jacket looks to be the work of a talented fifth grade student.

I purchased my two copies of the first edition – there was no other – in April and May of this year. The first, lacking dust jacket, cost $1.50; the second, with dust jacket, set me back an even dollar. I won't say that I didn't pay too much.

Access: Fourteen of our universities have copies, as does the Toronto Public Library. Five copies are currently listed for sale online, four of which are going for US$10 or less. At US$3.68, the one to buy is the cheapest.

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