03 July 2015


The Crime of Ovide Plouffe [Le crime d'Ovide Plouffe]
Roger Lemelin [trans. Alan Brown]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1984

On 9 September 1949 a Canadian Pacific DC-3 exploded over Quebec's Cap Touremonte killing twenty-three passengers and crew. Amongst the former was Rita Guay, the twenty-eight-year-old wife of Quebec City jeweller and watchmaker Albert Guay. The plane was to have flown between Montreal and Baie Comeau. Mrs Guay boarded during a stopover in Sainte-Foy, just as a special delivery package was being placed in the cargo hull.

Two weeks later, on what just happened to be his thirty-first birthday, Mr Guay was arrested. The tip-off might have been that an acquaintance, Marguerite Pitre, had had that special delivery package put on the plane. Or it could've been that on the morning of the crash he'd taken out a $10,000 accidental death policy on his wife. Maybe it was the sorry fact that he'd been having an affair with a teenaged waitress named Marie-Ange Robataille. Other names came out in court, including that of Guay's business associate Généreux Ruest, a tubercular watchmaker who possessed the very skills necessary to make the bomb. Such a sordid tale. It even turned out that Albert Guay had been lying about being a jeweller and watchmaker. He was a salesman.

This novel grew from the tragedy, but also from Lemelin's work in adapting Les Plouffe, his most successful work, to the screen. That the resulting film was such a great critical and commercial success surely inspired.

Lemelin's first novel in three decades, The Crime of Ovide Plouffe  bolts out of the gate. The year is 1948. Théophile is dead, Ovide and Napoléon are married, and Guillaume works as a guide on Anticosti Island. Josephine and daughter Cécile now live alone in the same Quebec City flat that had once been such a hub of activity.

It will be hard grasp any of this without having read – or seen – Les Plouffe. Because I'd sat down with the novel not two months back, it held my interest.

As the title suggests, this is Ovide's story. Much of it has to do with the unlikely rise of a jewellery business he runs with a crippled watchmaker named Pacifique Berthet. Just as much has to do with his marriage to former boot factory worker Rita Toulouse.

Readers of Les Plouffe will remember Rita as being a bit loose. They'll also remember that Ovide has always been drawn to beauty. Rita is so beautiful that her former fiancé, impotent Stan Labrie, has managed to have her named the new Miss Sweet Caporal. He's also given her money to sleep with men, all clients of his low-key escort agency.

This last bit struck me as a stretch, but Lemelin – his omniscient narrator, anyway – assures that a fair number of housewives turned tricks in post-war Quebec.

Sweet and tender Rita tells herself she'll never, never do it again. And of course she won't – not until the next time. But when Stan orchestrates a drunken afternoon that turns into something resembling both a game show and a ménage a trios – I won't go into details – she realizes just how far she's fallen. Repentant, and possibly pregnant, Rita confesses her sins to her husband. Humilated, Ovide seizes upon the betrayal as justification to begin his pursuit of waitress Marie Jourdan, the only woman in all of Quebec City more beautiful than his wife.

If you're at all curious, Marie is described as looking something like French film siren Viviane Romance.

"It was like a bad melodrama," begins one chapter. For the most part The Crime of Ovide Plouffe is just that. Les Plouffe lose a dimension, becoming cardboard characters. Plot is predictable and disguises are donned. I've not encountered such a concentration of exclamation marks since Thomas P. Kelley:
There was no doubt about it, his rock in Berthet's pond had made waves! He must be biting his nails now! Just wait, just wait!
That was the narrator.

At 408 pages – an even 500 in the original French – The Crime of Ovide Plouffe is Lemelin's longest novel.

It needn't have been.

There's an awful lot of repetition. Plot points are raised time and again, as if Lemelin has no faith in the reader's memory, while stretches of nostalgia intrude:
They were there to hear Charles Trenet sing "Boum! When my little heart goes boum!" and "The sun has a rendezvous with the moon," and "When I was small," and "Ménilmontant." Charles Trenet's genius symbolized gaiety and youth, relegating pre-war songs to the mothballs and anticipating Presley and the Beatles.

Lemelin's debut, The Town Below, is one of the best novels I've read this year; The Plouffe Family, his second, was nearly as good. So, what happened?

Lemelin set those two novels in what was then the recent past. The Crime of Ovide Plouffe was written at a distance of more than three decades, a period divided by the Quiet Revolution. Markedly different times, Lemelin struggles in depicting the past, inserting observations that disturb the narrative.

Or was it simply a case of atrophy?

I like to think that Lemelin had more good novels in him, but we'll never know. Diagnosed with lung cancer, he managed just one more book, Autopsie d'un fumeur, a memoir inspired by that death sentence.

And Albert Guay? He was hanged. Généreux Ruest was transported to the scaffold by wheelchair. Marguerite Pitre holds the distinction of being the thirteenth and last woman to be executed in Canada.

Trivia: Lemelin knew Albert Guay before the disaster, attended Rita Guay's funeral, and covered the subsequent trial for Time. In the novel, Ovide's friend Denis Boucher covers the events for the very same magazine.

More trivia: The novel was adapted to the screen in a 1984 production directed by Denys Arcand. Not quite as well received as Les Plouffe, this clip from YouTube is all I've seen of the film. Neither scene features in the novel:

Object: The first and only English-language translation, this particular edition is the only in any language to have been published as a hardcover. It's also the most attractive. I bought my copy – signed – at the 1992 McGill University Book Sale for two dollars.

Access: Dozens of Canadian universities serve, but very few public libraries. Alan Brown's translation enjoyed just one printing in hardcover. In 1985, McClelland & Stewart reissued the novel as a mass market paperback. It too enjoyed one lone printing. Both feature Brian Boyd's excellent cover illustration.

Very Good copies of the first edition can be had for ten dollars. One Montreal bookseller is offering a signed copy at $44.95, but I find this a bit steep. Lemelin was very generous with his signature.

Not surprisingly, the French-language original has done much better, going through several editions including a movie tie-in. Stanké is its current publisher.

With sales in the six figures, used copies of the French-language original aren't terribly hard to find. Another Montreal bookseller has listed a signed first edition at $25.00.

Seems fair.

Go get it.

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  1. Oh, this brings back memories. (But not necessarily of the story in the book, which I agree was not exactly top notch.) I too have a signed hardcover copy, but it didn't cost me a dime - I won it in a library contest back in 1992. I read it with interest but was never tempted to delve deeper into the world of the Plouffes, but if, as you suggest, The Crime is the least stellar of the group, perhaps I should take another look at its predecessors. That is, if I can find them. Our local library system appears to have none on the shelves in any of the branches. (The constant book purges are decimating the collections.)

    1. Never mind what I think of the novel, a signed Lemelin is a very nice prize.

      I recommend The Town Below, even though the translation is crummy and it doesn't really have much to do with les Plouffe. The Plouffe Family is also recommended.

      The only Lemelin novel I've not read is his third, In Quest of Splendour (Pierre le magnifique, which I understand was so poorly received that it pretty much put him off novel-writing. It's probably worth reading for that very reason. How bad can it be?