29 August 2013

Encyclopedia Brown Spoils the Day

A Body for a Blonde
Ken McLeod [pseud. Kimball McIlroy]
Toronto: Harlequin, 1954

Prior to this perilous trek through our neglected, forgotten and suppressed I'd read few mysteries. There was an Agatha Christie, something by Margaret Millar and something else by Ross Macdonald, but most were written by Donald J. Sobol, the creator of Encyclopedia Brown. An admirer of the boy detective, during my days at Allancroft Elementary School I studied his every case. Pretty much everything I know about solving crimes comes from good, good Leroy Brown; and so, it's really to his credit that I was able to finger the murderer by page seven of this pre-romance Harlequin. I spent the rest of the novel wondering just how long it would take the characters to clue in.

A Body for a Blonde isn't nearly as startling or shocking as the publisher would have you believe. That man behind the door is not being tortured; he's standing under a cold shower. The blonde is not that of the title, but his pal's tiny, baby-faced girlfriend. She should not be in diaphanous negligee.

No, A Body for a Blonde isn't startling or shocking, though it does contain a decent dose of humour. In the main, this is supplied by George Sloan, a hard working, seemingly well-paid writer plying his trade in post-war Toronto. George has just finished his latest when two burly movers appear at the door, interrupting his celebratory drink. He makes a mistake in granting the men entry, then compounds same by allowing them to leave a heavy steamer trunk in his living room. After they've left, George opens the trunk to find the cooling corpse of a dead man.

"Jee-zus!" says George.

His third mistake comes in picking up a gun that's lying on the body. It goes off, the cops rush in, and George is arrested for murder.

This would never happen in Idaville, Encyclopedia's hometown, but Toronto is different. George ends up drinking gin with jailer Joe in a holding cell. His one chance at salvation seems to lie in fiancée Mabel Jones, "a tall, beautiful, willowy girl who had paid her way through college by doing photographic modelling."

You know the type.

Former model Mabel is now a lawyer. Before she can get George off – nothing naughty intended – he makes a break that leads to her apartment and the shower scene so inaccurately depicted on the cover.

A Body for a Blonde is very wet. George, Mabel and their friends Roly and Rita spend about as much time drinking as they do trying to figure out who really dunnit. The whole thing comes off like a party game. There's a good amount of ribbing and ribaldry throughout, as when attention turns to George's blonde bombshell of a neighbour – yes, she of the title – Estelle Hilton:
Roly said, "I agree with George. I still see the thing just the way we had it figured out before. You two girls are just jealous of Estelle."
     Rita said,"Humph! That blowzy sex-bag? Nothing between her ears and everything between her..."
    Roly said, "Rita!" 
    "Well, it's true. Just because she's got a lot of blonde hair on her head and sticks out in all the right places you dopes figure she couldn't possibly be mixed up in a murder."
Meanwhile, the cops are so convinced of George's guilt that they don't really bother to investigate and are blind to strong evidence that might clear the writer.

The Toronto Police Service comes off very badly in this novel. It's because George gets a corrupt cop drunk on seized hooch that he's able to escape his holding cell. Minutes later, the murderer strikes again, killing within the very same police station. Whether sober or drunk, George moves freely through the city, climbing fire escapes breaking into apartments, and strolling through the lobby of the Royal York Hotel. He's present for two police raids on Mabel's miniscule apartment, but is not found.

See cover.

Worst of all, the murderer turns out to be a fairly senior member of the force.

Now, don't go accusing me of spoiling the novel; at worst I've ruined the first seven pages. Encyclopedia Brown would agree. A Body for a Blonde is recommended, but not as a mystery. A light read, a fun read and a bit of a ribald read, it should be kept away from the children of Idaville.

An observation: Though published in 1954, A Body for a Blonde at times reads like a novel from an earlier decade. Reference is made to Minsky's, the New York burlesque club that that city shut down in 1937. During his incarceration, George reads Zippy Stories, a New York-based magazine that didn't survive the Depression.

I've long been interested in this Canadian edition of Zippy from March 1939:

In Canada, the de la Roche surname was then nothing but a creation of Mazo de la Roche (née Roche), whose middle name just happened to be Louise. Could it be that the wealthy author of Jalna stooped so low as to contribute to a cheap, titillating mag? Of course not – but how to explain that name?

About the author: I have Thad McIlroy, the author's son, to thank for filling me in on his father's life and career:
My father, born Thaddeus Kimball McIlroy II (I'm "III"), was a dual citizen, born in New York City to an American father and a Canadian mother.
He went to elementary school in Canada and high school in the U.S. Then he mostly lived in Toronto and enlisted with the Canadian army, becoming a captain with the Royal Canadian Artillery and posted overseas. He stayed on in Europe after the war writing the official history of the Artillery in the 2nd War. He wrote for Saturday Night and for Esquire. He had radio plays performed on CBC.
     When he married my mother and started raising a family he moved over into public relations (as many journalists did, and do) in order to secure a steady income. 
Kimball McIlroy's only other published novel was The Fertile Four-Poster (New York: Crown, 1969). "Nothing came of it," writes Thad, "in particular: no paperback, not many copies sold."

He was working on a third novel, The Paddle that Wouldn't Float, when he died.

Object: A 158-page mass market paperback, with full-page ads for Raymond Marshall's Lady – Here's Your Wreath and Come Blonde, Come Murder by Peter George.

Access: A paperback original, A Body for a Blonde enjoyed one lone printing. Copies are scarce – just three are listed for sale online – though prices are reasonable at US$25 to US$35.

Worldcat provides no listing.

Get 'em before it's too late.

Related posts:

25 August 2013

H is for Hoffer

List 75: Canadian Literature
Vancouver: William Hoffer, Bookseller, [1989?]
In spite of his obvious weirdness I found myself liking him. When he launched into a diatribe, which he  did often, he would become intoxicated by his own rhetoric, then leap up bellowing and, like an actor, pace the store as though it were the stage of a theatre. He was, perhaps, the first person I ever met whose voice merited the word stentorian. 
– David Mason, The Pope's Bookbinder
How did I come to have this? A response to an advert in Books in Canada, perhaps. When it landed at my Montreal flat, sometime around the death of Doug Harvey, this catalogue was like nothing I'd ever seen. The bookseller seemed to be daring customers to purchase.

From the introduction:
There isn't very much Canadian literature, and most of it is garbage. It is the junk literature of a junk age. It is beneath those who care about anything.
The attacks begin with item #6, Margaret Atwood's Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (Anansi, 1982):
Having spent considerable time wandering 2nd hand bookshops, it recently occurred to me that the only people ever overheard congratulating or recommending this author are teen-aged girls of the least promising variety. Our animosity is, in this case, genuine. The more quickly this author is forgotten the better it will be for Canada. In the meantime we are optimistic in regard to selling our stock of copies to unpromising customers, Any regular customer who orders it may expect to be dropped from the mailing list.
I was not a regular customer; in fact, I never bought a book from William Hoffer. Spoiled terribly by Montreal's low book prices and the indifference paid things Canadian in New York, I found his prices high. Here Hoffer asks $75 for the Canadian first of Brian Moore's The Emperor of Ice-Cream (McClelland & Stewart, 1965), a book I'd bought for $2 in a Sherbrooke Street bookstore not three years earlier. I was lucky; another store had it for six.

He titled one of his catalogues Cheap Sons of Bitches.

My plea was poverty, but I still feel bad for having given nothing in return for this catalogue. Twenty-four or so years later, it continues to inform and entertain.

Cold eye or not, Hoffer knew Canadian literature far better than most other booksellers. Today, when my queries concerning Bertrand W. Sinclair are met with a blank stare, I consider this entry:

By 1994, the year I moved to Vancouver, William Hoffer was gone. He'd closed up shop, sold his stock, and was living in Moscow with a wife, two teenaged stepsons, and a growing collection of handmade toys. When he returned to BC, it was to be treated for the cancer that killed him. It's probably just as well that we never met. In his very fine memoir, The Pope's Bookbinder (Biblioasis, 2013), David Mason portrays Hoffer as a man of contradictions, about whom people held conflicting opinions. It only follows.

To Mason, Hoffer delighted in sowing the seeds of strife; he decimated the conviviality that had once existed within the bookselling community, very nearly destroying the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Canada in the process. Hoffer comes off as being as brilliant as he was demented. Yet, like me, Mason returns to Hoffer's catalogues.

 "You would be the only bookseller I ever met who purported to despise the only area you know anything about," he once wrote Hoffer.

I think "purported" is the key word.

Related post:

19 August 2013

G is for Glassco

Yes, G is for Glassco. After all, it's not been a week since the launch of The Heart Accepts It All: Selected Letters of John Glassco, edited by yours truly.

Most of Glassco's correspondents were writers – and all but one are writers whose work I've read. The exception is the prolific Geoffrey Wagner, a professor of literature at City University in New York City. The American academic was very important to Glassco's career, playing an advisory role in dealings with publishers of pornography. It was through Wagner's efforts that Glassco was finally able to place The Temple of Pederasty, a work Maurice Girodias had twice turned down.

Wagner's own bibliography is remarkably varied, encompassing titles like Wyndham Lewis: A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy (Yale UP, 1957), Another America: In Search of Canyons (Allen & Unwin, 1972) and Five for Freedom: A Study of Feminism in Fiction (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1973), along with sadomasochistic porn penned under the pseudonym P.N. Dedeaux. His novel of "Prussian discipline", The Prefects (Taurus, 1970), uses lines from Glassco's Squire Hardman as an epigraph.

As I say, I haven't read anything by Geoffrey Wagner, but I think this might be the place to start:

The Heart Accepts It All includes four letters to Wagner, in which Glassco shares his thoughts on Penthouse Forum, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, high school hockey, The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, sadomasochism, riding crops and other things equestrian. They're worth reading in their entirety, but for reasons that will become clear I present this small excerpt from a letter to Wagner dated 3 December 1968:
Dear old Bizarre! It was an oasis back in the dreary fifties. Yes, I remember the wonderful photo of Mlle. Polaris, the Queen of the Wasp-waists, in her extraordinary corset, which John Willie unearthed and reprinted. I contributed a letter to his correspondence column. He was a Pioneer.
This sent me on a lengthy hunt through the 1824 pages of The Complete Reprint of John Willie's Bizarre (Taschen, 1995). I'd hoped to come across something credited to Miles Underwood, S. Colson-Haig, Silas N. Gooch or any of Glassco's many other pseudonyms. When nothing turned up, I started reading the letters themselves, thinking that I might just recognize something in their style and content.

And so it was that in issue #22 I found this piece of correspondence under the heading "WHITE CIRCLE CLUB":
I am fascinated by your magazine because, even though I am in my thirties, this is the first time I have been able to avail myself of the sincere, uninhibited thoughts of others regarding leather and bondage. So, due to Bizarre, I know my hidden desires are not quite so isolated as I had feared.
     An attractive girl, clad in snug, well-tailored jodhpurs or breeches which are well reinforced with suede or some other soft, resilient leather at the seat and the inner sides of the legs is certainly a lovely sight. And the thought that such a girl might entertain the desire to put me in bondage, or that she might enjoy giving me some discipline, is encouraging to say the least.
     But it is frustrating, here in staid old New England, to find the company of such a person. To be sure, I attend horse shows and ride often at nearby stables, but with no success, despite many conversations with attractive girls.
     So, why not suggest that those whose thoughts are similar to mine put a little circle of white paint on each of their riding boots, and at the rear, just where the heel is stitched to the soft leather? By so doing we could identify others with whom we have ideas in common.
     But, at any rate, I enjoy using your magazine as a "clearing house" for thoughts from other readers, one of whom might be intrigued in having a six-foot, 170-pound bachelor for her prisoner.
                                                                             J. FOSTER     
Now, Glassco didn't live in New England, but twenty kilometres to the north; he was also a few inches short of six-feet and would've been in his forties at the time. But then these sorts of letters are invariably replete with lies, exaggeration, camouflage and masquerade, aren't they?

In both style and substance, the words read like Glassco. Could J. Foster and J. Glassco of Foster, Quebec be one and the same? I can't say for certain. What I do know is that they shared proclivities, frustrations and, ultimately, loneliness.

(nee Émilie Marie Bouchaud)

15 August 2013

Sex, Violence and Some Very Strong Language

Torch of Violence
Gerald Laing [pseud. Tedd Steele]
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1949

Torch of Violence holds a secure place in literature as the first Canadian novel to feature the word "shit". History is made on the fifty-ninth page:
"You know me, Alf. I'll take so much and that's all. I don't care who it is... I'll take just so much shit and that's all. Am I right or am I wrong? Am I right or am I wrong, Alf?"
You expect some rough stuff in crime fiction, but here the language is particularly coarse and the violence extreme.

The novel opens with the bloody beating of a bar owner by mob boss Goldie Vincetti's boys. "Dirty dago bastards. Dirty bitches," mutters an elderly drunk. A kick to the stomach is quick to come. I'm not saying that the old man deserved it, but his slurred comment was hardly fair in that one of Vincetti's boys is a WASP by the name of Eric Benedict. A year or so earlier, young Eric, who has a bit of a record, was looking at ten years after the cops found drugs in his flat. He was saved by clean-living, married brother Chris, who took the rap and was sentenced to a year in Kingsville (not Kingston) Penitentiary for his trouble. The deal between the brothers was that Eric would go straight, finish high school and then study to be a chemical engineer. Instead, he's become tighter the ever with Vincetti and has added adultery to his list of sins by messing around with another man's wife.

Eric doesn't feel at all bad about the beatings or his brother, but the guilt and self-loathing brought through sleeping with "the bitch" weighs heavily. His retreat to a "beverage room" provides for the most interesting pages in the novel. Eric sits, beer in hand, watching others fight for a change:
     "I'm a Canadian. Jack. I don't give a dog damn whether you're a Scot or a Britisher or a Hungarian or a Chink. I'm a Canadian and that's what it said on my shoulder when I went overseas and this is Canada and if you don't like it           off back to lower Slobbovia where you come from." 
     "Ha, ha. A Canadian? What was your father... an Indian? This place might be called Canada, lad, but you're either an Englishman or a Frenchman or God knows what. The only Canadians here are the Indians, and if you're an Indian, they shouldn't be serving you in a beverage room. It's against the law."  
This may be hell of a sort, with brimstone that smoulders to this day, but it's a whole lot better than Kingsville Penitentiary. Behind its impenetrable walls, Chris shares a cell with a man who is descending into madness. You see, cellmate Trent Richards, just can't deal with the knowledge that Shirley, an old flame, once attended a petting party.

Cover copy pitches Torch of Violence as not just a crime novel, but "an intelligently sympathetic treatment of an important subject." That subject, infidelity, is one that pretty much every character must face. Chris has his own chance to cheat when Trent's replacement, a man named Bill English, tries to lure him into his bunk. After this fails, the new cellmate shares a rumour going around that Helen, Chris's wife, is sleeping with brother Eric. Big mistake. Chris beats English to a pulp, moves his bloodied body to his bunk, and covers it with a blanket.

Meanwhile, across town:
He screamed once as a bullet smashed against bone and then another bullet struck him full in the face and the red liquid made a hideous mask of his features. Only the eyes remained discernible and they were frightfully unhuman, wide open, staring as if at some nameless horror.
I won't reveal the victim's name, the identity of the assailant or the twist that brings this all about – don't want to spoil everything – but I can't resist sharing the novel's abrupt and absurd ending.

Chris has just tucked English into bed when he's brought to the warden under guard of a man named Baker. Readers who have no stomach for violence or poor punctuation will want to skip Chris's internal monologue:
I haven't any faith in God anymore, how could I have, but in case there is something, maybe the devil, I'll ask him for a special request. Let me find you two together, naked in each other's armsthe way you've been doing all this time. Oh, God, I hope I find you together . I'll kill you first Eric with Baker's gun... not easily... in the stomach so you can know how it feels to have an ache in your guts that won't come out and then I'll take care of you Helen. I know exactly what to do with you. I'll rape you first, you dirty bitch. A husband should have his wife when he returns from such a long absence, so I'll rape you while you're listening to my brother cough his blood and entrails all over the bed. And then I'll tear out your hair and slap you in the face with the bloody roots and then I'll put some bullets into you where they should go.
Chris is handed a near-perfect opportunity to escape, but chooses not to because Baker says something about trusting him as much as he does his wife. This makes the imprisoned man reconsider his own lack of trust, thus sparing Helen from horror. More reevaluation takes place when the warden introduces him to Shirley, Trent's old girlfriend. Seems she behaved herself at that petting party and can't quite understand why her old beau won't believe her. Enter smug prison psychiatrist Dr Ferguson, who between bemused chuckles explains that all Trent needs is a trusted person to tell him that Shirley is as chaste and true as she claims. It's Ferguson's opinion that Chris Benedict is just the man for the job:
He welcomed the task before him and knew he would be successful. His thoughts went to his wife Helen and he blessed her name... He had the vision of Helen's face before him. It was sufficient.
Now, I don't pretend to know much about the mysteries of the human mind, but I do question that Trent's psychosis can be so easily cured. Frankly, I'm not convinced that there isn't something more to his issues with Shirley and the petting party.* Doctor knows best, I suppose, but what with his mad (albeit internal) monologue and his dead or dying cellmate, it seems to me that a psychiatrist would detect something amiss in Chris. I don't know, call all it a "torch of violence".

Am I right or am I wrong?

Trivia: A second edition, credited to "David Forrest", was published the very same year for the American market. Sensitive readers will prefer this version:
"You know me, Alf. I'll take so much and that's all. I don't care who it is... I'll take just so much dirt and that's all. Am I right or am I wrong? Am I right or am I wrong, Alf?"
More trivia: The novel contains what just might be the longest sentence of any book covered in this blog:
A night breeze came over the north wall in gay contempt of the guard towers, stirred the dusty sand of the prison yards, climbed the sheer stone side of the prison and thrust little inquiring fingers of fresh air into the rows of barred holes that broke the blankness of the stone, then recoiling at the heavy breath of the imprisoned men, the fingers withdrew as if from the touch of death and the breeze slackened, dropped lower, moved faintly across the prison yard and tried to scale it to the freedom of the night, then fell back and died in little swirls of dust above the flat emptiness of the prison yard.
Object: A poorly produced mass market paperback, this is typical News Stand Library, except that it tends to fall apart more easily than most.

Access: No library carries the Canadian edition, though the University of Calgary has a copy of that intended for export. Given the historical import – by which I mean the use of the word "shit" –  it's the Canadian you'll be wanting. Right now, just three copies are listed online at prices ranging from US$3.99 to US$32.00. Condition is an issue. The American edition is a bit more common, though prices are similar.

*Great name for a band, by the way.

14 August 2013

Ce soir: The Heart Accepts It All



Wednesday, 14 August 2013, 7:30 p.m.

467 Milton Street

12 August 2013

F is for First Statement

The editor of this mag, John Sutherland, is a very decent chap, about 30, a pretty good drinker too...
– John Glassco, letter to Robert McAlmon, 16 August 1944
The April & May 1945 issue of influential Montreal little magazine First Statement. Irving Layton, A.M. Klein, Patrick Anderson, Ralph Gustafson, Miriam Waddington... amongst the lesser-known writers we find Wingate Taylor, "a farmer in the Eastern townships [sic] of Quebec." He's better remembered – though, in truth, he's barely remembered at all – as Graeme Taylor, the man who shares many adventures with John Glassco in Memoirs of Montparnasse.

I've long been fascinated by Taylor, in part because he was expected to do such great things. Writing in the 'twenties, Leon Edel described him as one of the three premier Canadian writers of his generation, while A.J.M. Smith recommended his writing to anthologist Raymond Knister. I read nothing of Taylor's  that would justify such praise, but it appears Edel and Smith weren't alone in seeing something; while living in Paris, Taylor's writing appeared in This Quarter and transition, sharing pages with James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Paul Bowles and William Carlos Williams.

Taylor's lone contribution to First Statement, "The Horse-Stall" broke a fifteen year silence, marking his first appearance in print since those days in Montparnasse. It was also his last.

"The Horse-Stall" isn't a short story, but an excerpt from a lost, unpublished novel titled Brazenhead. The twelve pages in First Statement is all that survives  an apt reflection of a man who, as Michael Gnarowski has written, "remains unrealized and obscure to the present day."

A shorter, earlier version of this piece was cross-posted at A Gentleman of Pleasure. 

05 August 2013

E is for Early Work

I once met Barbara Gowdy at a Chapters Inc annual shareholders meeting; I owned stock, she was signing copies of The White Bone. Anyone who finds this at all peculiar is advised to revisit their memories of the 'nineties. The very same meeting saw the launch of a short-lived, ill-conceived venture, immortalized through laminated bookmarks slipped into copies of Ms Gowdy's novel:

The White Bone was free to anyone willing to stand in line. I took my place, but what I really wanted was Ms Gowdy's signature on the book pictured above. Published in 1988, Through the Green Valley was her first. I've not read it – 'tis a historical romance – though I am intrigued because it is so very different from the rest of her oeuvre. Where Falling Angels, the author's sophomore novel, is in print Through the Green Valley has been unavailable for a quarter century.

"I'm not sure I want to sign this," said Ms Gowdy.

I felt bad.

Brian Moore disowned his earliest novels. For three decades, friend Mordecai Richler kept his debut, The Acrobats, out of print. In university, this paperback copy made the rounds of my friends like a Bowie bootleg.

(Am I alone in being amazed by the speed with which it returned to print after Richer's death?)

I've been thinking of early work and all associated embarrassment ever since receiving a query brought by last week's post on doppelgängers:
You wrote that you used to write as Brian John Busby. Someone called Brian John Busby wrote for a Canadian TV show called "Time of Your Life". Are you that Brian John Busby?
Yes, I am. A low-budget, low-rent teen soap, Time of Your LIfe was my first paid writing gig.

The correspondent adds: "Great show!"

Wish I could agree, though I'll allow that the stray bits posted online point to something that is not nearly so horrible as I remember.

As for Ms Gowdy... I didn't press, and she proved to be a good sport.

Addendum (for my nieces):

01 August 2013

Margaret Millar's Michigan Murder Mystery

Vanish in an Instant
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, [1953]
224 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