28 September 2015

Ricochet! Ricochet!

Arriving in bookstores as I write, books seven and eight in Véhicule's Ricochet Books series. Following visits to Niagara Falls (James Benson Nablo's The Long November) and Toronto (Hugh Garner's Waste No Tears), we're returning to Montreal with:

The Mayor of Côte St. Paul by Ronald J. Cooke, the strange story of Dave Manley, a struggling writer drawn into the world of slot-machines and rum-running by a good looking gal who wants nothing so much as to open a lingerie store in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Both work for the Mayor, a sadistic crime boss who takes pleasure in murdering people with darts.

Printed once by pre-romance Harlequin in June 1950, the Ricochet edition is the first in more than sixty-five years.

Hot Freeze by Douglas Sanderson, post-war Canada’s greatest noir novel, introduces "inquiry agent" Mike Garfin, ex-RCMP (he made the mistake of bedding a suspect's wife). In this first of three or four adventures, he's hired to figure out what exactly is going on with one of Westmount's spoiled bisexual teenaged sons.

Published in 1954, by Dodd, Mead (New York) and Reinhardt (London), then in 1955 by Popular Library (New York), this edition is the first in sixty years.

Both The Mayor of Côte St. Paul and Hot Freeze feature Introductions by yours truly – my first since David Montrose's The Crime on Cote des Neiges (or, if you prefer, Meurtre à Westmount).

Long-time readers will recognize both titles. I first wrote here about Hot Freeze in the earliest days of 2011. The Mayor of Côte St. Paul consumed not one, not two, but three posts later that same year.

The Mayor of Côte St. Paul and Hot Freeze are available from the usual online sources, better bookstores and, of course, Véhicule itself.
I would be remiss in not recognizing the role played by Greg Shepard of Stark House Press in the Hot Freeze reissue. In recent years, Stark House has reissued six Douglas Sanderson novels, including A Dum-Dum for the President, the third – or is it fourth?  Mike Garfin thriller. 
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26 September 2015

Not Any Old Author, a Canadian Author

Night Without Darkness
Kenneth Orvis [pseud Kenneth Lemieux]
New York: Pan, 1968

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21 September 2015

'A Relentless Story of the Hell of Drug Addiction'

The Damned and the Destroyed
Kenneth Orvis [pseud. Kenneth Lemieux]
London: Dobson, 1962

How many novels begin with the protagonist being summoned to a mansion on Mount Royal? This very thing happens in Murder without Regret, the last book I read. Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of others: David Montrose's The Crime on Cote des Neiges and Hot Freeze by Douglas Sanderson. Not so The Damned and the Destroyed – here the reader has to wait for the third page. The first two set the stage: The year (unstated) is 1954. Thirty-eight-year-old Jean Drapeau (unnamed) has just been elected mayor of Montreal. His party, the Civic Action League (named), looks to close down the open city of Al Palmer's Montreal Confidential.

Private investigator Maxwell Dent is more than familiar with the city's unseemly underside, which is not to say he's of it. Straight-laced and upstanding, Dent studied law at McGill, then served in the Korean War where he took down "an enemy ring supplying narcotics to U.N. forces for the purpose of troop demoralization."

Huntley Ashton, the man whose mansion the PI visits, knows all this stuff: "I've had you checked, Dent. Screened thoroughly. I respect what I found." Ashton's due diligence is understandable. As one of the city's most respected businessmen, he has to make certain that Dent can be trusted. The case is a sensitive one. Ashton's daughter Helen has turned heroin addict, and he wants Dent to smash the drug ring:
"I know that is a big order. A huge undertaking. Nevertheless, I want the people that are selling blackmarket drugs to my daughter run out of business and jailed. I want them punished to the full."
Good Canadian that he is, Dent gives thought, then responds:
"I must ask you to bear in mind that in Canada offences against the Narcotic Act fall under the jurisdiction of the R.C.M.P. The R.C.M.P. wouldn't like your present attitude."
Despite his reservations, Dent takes the case. I'm not sure why exactly, but I think it has something to do with Ashton's love for his daughter.

"She was beautiful, young, blonde and a junkie…" reads the pitch on the Belmont paperback.  The key word is "was". Helen was beautiful, or so Dent assumes, but those looks are gone by the time he sets eyes on her. Heroin has taken its toll, as it always does, and there's more: scars and weals crisscross her sunken belly, the work of a drunken abortionist.

Orvis – Lemieux, if you prefer – spent five years researching this novel. He hung with addicts and pushers, interviewed counsellors and read a mess of reports and case studies. There's a real feel of authenticity in the descriptions of his damned and destroyed: Frankie Seven, Dream Street Fay and wasted talent Phil Chasen. A classically trained concert pianist, Phil coulda been somebody, instead of a junkie, which is what he is.

Orvis handles these characters well – they appear real, and probably were – but falls flat with others. Drug kingpin Jack Moss, the "Back Man", comes off like a Bond villain. Shadow, his errand boy, is a young rapscallion who is equal parts Dondi and Oliver Twist. Inspector Welch of the RCMP is an inspector with the RCMP, and the only memorable thing about Helen's sister Thorn is her name.

Things fall apart in the second act with the shift from the first group to the second. By this point, I'd long grown tired of Dent, his outrage, his moralizing and his unwavering faith in himself. The PI is never more annoying than when he gets it in his head that he can cure Helen through tough love. He has her witness a police line-up, takes her to the trial of someone charged with possession, and forces her to visit Fay in the Fullum Street Prison:
My fingers tightened determinedly over Helen's shoulder. "Take a good look at her," I said with every ounce of firmness I could command… "Look at her face, her body. Listen to her screams, her agony. Listen and look well, because what you're seeing and hearing now is the end of the road for every addict. For everyone that thinks there's a thrill or an escape in heroin. For you – Helen Ashton!" 

Lee Child is a great admirer of The Damned and the Destroyed. Should I be surprised? I don't know, I've never read Child. But a thriller should thrill, right? At the very least, it should move forward at a good pace. This one stalls. Repeatedly. When it picks up, the reader is treated to lengthy descriptions of hours spent trailing Moss and stakeouts that go on for days and days. The climax, which comes as a relief, involves a risky plan of Maxwell Dent's own design. He gets RCMP support, but keeps the details to himself. "Just issue those orders," he tells Welch. "Issue them and wait."

Three people die as a result.

I'm sure our hero would tell you that it was the best of all possible outcomes.

Pierre Desmarais, Jean Drapeau and Pacifique Plante
25 October 1954


Coincidence: Amongst those thanked in the Acknowledgements is "Gordon W. Phillips S. Th., Consultant at the Allan Division, Royal Victoria hospital, and Chaplain Montreal prisons." A friend of the my parents, glimpses of Rev Phillips' good work is found in Adopted Derelicts, a pre-romance Harlequin written by his wife Bluebell. My father is named in the Acknowledgements of Mrs Phillips' book.

Object and Access: An unexciting 223-page hardcover in black boards with silver type. The 1962 Dobson is most likely the first, but those who follow the flag will want the McClelland & Stewart edition published that same year. An old Gazette column (29 June 1962) has McGraw-Hill publishing the novel in the States, but I've yet to see a copy. There have been two paperback editions: Digit (1964) and Belmont (1966).

Copies of The Damned and the Destroyed aren't plentiful, but they're not expensive. Those listed for sale online range in price from between £5 and US$30. I purchased mine this past June for £3.50 from a UK bookseller.

The Damned and the Destroyed was reissued three years ago – as an ebook only – by Prologue Books. Lee Child provides the Foreword.

A handful of our academic libraries have copies, as do Bibliothèque et Archives nationals du Québec and Library and Archives Canada.

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14 September 2015

Margaret Laurence's Cauliflower Soup

"I'm going out for more milk."

"You're kidding."

"It takes an awful lot."

"We have cream. Why don't you use that?"

"But then it wouldn't be the way Margaret Laurence made it."

Domestic dialogue between me and my wife from this weekend past. The subject is soup. I'd decided to tackle one of Margaret Laurence's favourite recipes. It was her very own creation. You can understand the attraction, I'm sure.

Now, I'm a really crummy cook, so it really says something that I had a hard time sticking to the recipe. The temptation to tweak was great. Water? Why not broth? A red pepper might add colour and taste. Those two quarts of milk seem like a lot, don't they? Of course, Laurence suggests that I might use less, but how am I to interpret "or however much you need for right amount for your soup pot"?

The result was a bland, watery mixture. I raised spoon to mouth reminding myself that this was what might have been served had I ever been invited to the writer's Lakefield home. It would've been impolite not to finish. Having never read Laurence, my Québecoise wife and teenaged daughter pushed their bowls away.

When came time to clear the table I turned to my wife. "Margaret Laurence was a much better novelist than cook," I said.

"So are you."

"But I'm not a novelist."


As far as I know, the recipe for Margaret Laurence's cauliflower soup was first published in Those Marvelous Church Suppers (Kelowna, BC: Wood Lake, 1985). I took it from The CanLit Foodbook, (Toronto: Totem, 1987), which was compiled and illustrated by Margaret Atwood. Husband Graeme Gibson's recipes dominate.

The CanLit Foodbook was meant as a fundraiser in aid of PEN International and the Writer's Trust. Donations may be made by clicking on the links provided.

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08 September 2015

Bewitched, Bothered, but Not Bewildered

Murder without Regret
E. Louise Cushing
[New York]: Arcadia House, 1954

There are two ways to approach this novel: the first is as a murder mystery, the second is as an account of four pivotal days in the life of a repressed, frustrated and somewhat unpleasant lesbian. Both lead to intertwining paths, but the latter is much more interesting.

Murder without Regret was Enid Louise Cushing's second novel, and is one of several to feature Inspector MacKay of the Montreal Police Service. He'll be the one who solves the crimes, but the roles of protagonist and narrator fall to twenty-something Barbara Hiller. Babs opens the novel by driving through the gates of the Randall mansion on Peel Street. It's been some time since her last visit. She'd once been close to Julie Randall, heiress presumptive of the Randall fortune. The two had "gone around together" for years, but then Julie met Joyce Prescott and Babs was replaced. What Babs refers to as a "bewitchment" came to an abrupt end: "It hurt at first, but I got over it."

So, here we have Babs in her car, steeling herself in anticipation of Julie, whom she hasn't seen in years. Babs is at Randall House because Julie asked her – now, that phone call was unexpected – saying something about the reading of her grandfather's will. It seems that tonight's the night the fortune becomes hers. Just a formality, really, but Julie wants Babs present.

After all that build-up, the meeting between the two comes as an anticlimax. Julie sends Babs upstairs to her bedroom, but it's just to freshen up. Once there, Babs notices a girl slumped over the vanity, places her hand on a cooling left breast, and determines that she's dead.

Who's the dead girl? Why, Joyce Prescott, of course.

Enter Lieutenant Brandy Fernley, Royal Canadian Navy. He'd met Babs once during those years she and Julie had been close. She's forgotten all about him, but not he her: "Funny, I remember you so well… Your red hair, and the way your eyes always followed Julie." Brandy has returned for a reason, though Joyce's dead body serves as a spanner in the works:
"I was going to announce my engagement to Brandy," Julie sniffed.
     "Your engagement?" I said somewhat flatly. For some unaccountable reason, I had a funny letdown feeling. 
Who killed Joyce? Who cares. By this point I wasn't so much interested in the solution to the crime as I was in getting a read on Babs. News of a second murder victim, former acquaintance Paul Hadrill, doesn't distract much, though his name brings further insight. Babs is quick to make clear that they'd "never gone around": "It was true that we'd driven a lot together – he and Julie in the back seat and me alone in front." Babs later reveals that she'd taken in the action through the rearview mirror.

Who killed Paul? As with Joyce, MacKay is on the case. Babs is somewhat helpful – much less than she likes to think – but everyone else moves on. Joyce hasn't been dead twenty-four hours before Julie invites Babs to Malcolm's, an upscale downtown restaurant. Babs, who had anticipated an intimate luncheon, is irritated to discover her old friend surrounded by women she doesn't know: "Even before I'd a chance to declare my neutrality, I was ignored with the successful rudeness cultivated by and perfected by female cats who have decided after one glance that the latest arrival is not One of Them." Babs' own feline glances linger:
Kitty Buckley was a languid, black-haired would-be beauty, with mascara that thick. I gulped when I saw her dress. It was black and very smart, but it dropped down to here in the front. I was fascinated, and practically had to tear my eyes away to take in Kathleen Haines, beside her.
Cushing's Montrealers are either catty, cold or insensitive. Even "nice Inspector MacKay" (see review below) can't help but joke with Babs at the inquest into Joyce's death. Still, the detective is dedicated, solving her murder within a matter of days. Nothing is spoiled in revealing that the killer turns out to be Julie; she's the lone character the reader might have cause to suspect.

You'd be wrong to suppose that her arrest would upset Brandy Fernley. Julie's fiancé reveals that their engagement was meant as a joke played on assembled friends. It doesn't speak well for the mystery writer that what follows comes as the novel's greatest surprise:
"So you see, even last Tuesday night I had no idea of marrying Julie.
     "Oh," I said flatly. He had seemed to expect some noise from me.
     "Yes, I decided then and there I'd like to marry you. The party Thursday night rather clinched it. How does that appeal to you?
     "Quite a lot," I admitted honestly.
There's no talk of love, no embrace, no kiss; the two don't so much as touch. And so, navy man Brandy trades an engagement of convenience for a marriage of convenience, and Babs prepares union to a man who likes nothing more than being at sea in the company of other men.

That's it, really, though an awkward page is tacked to the end in which Babs learns that she, not Julie, will be inheriting the vast Randall estate.

All in all, a strange book… and I do like strange books. I'll be reading more E. Louise Cushing. One of her mysteries is about a Montreal bookseller who finds a body in her shop.

The title is Blood on My Rug.

Favourite passage:
"You always have been longer in stores than you intended to be," she said calmly. "I think you like to talk to the salesgirls. Anyway, I didn't mind at all; it seems perfectly natural for me to wait for you."
     I grinned. She'd hit the nail on the head; it seemed perfectly natural for me. I did like chatting to salesgirls, as she well knew…

Trivia I: Montrealers, particularly residents of NDG, will enjoy the local flavour. Paul's murder takes place at 4312 Melrose Avenue, which is currently the site of a Jean Coutu parking lot. His killer walks over from Wilson using the alleyway that runs just north of Sherbrooke. One minor character works in Simpson's – disguised as "Mason's" – and is shot just up the street on Mansfield.

Yes, shot. See, I haven't given everything away.

Trivia II: The only Montreal novel I've encountered to feature not a single French-speaking character. "Madame Cecile of the French Salon in one of the large stores" receives fleeting mention.

The critics rave: "Montreal gal's poisoning sets off chain reaction; nice Inspector MacKay takes over. Badly organized, plus other structural faults but holds interest. Fifty-fifty." – Saturday Review, 1 January 1955.

Object: A compact, cheaply produced hardcover in maroon cloth with black type. Depicting the scene of the crime, the uncredited dust jacket illustration is best viewed from afar; up close it looks nothing if not bizarre. That piece of furniture is awfully high for a vanity, is it not? The keys are the size of children's teethers and those coins look like pieces of eight. I'm not bothering with the levitating purse.

The rear cover and flap features ads for other obscure Arcadia mysteries by Fred Orpet (Murder's No Accident), R.A. Braun (Murder Four Miles High), Maude M. Thomas (Wait Long, Wait Still) and Harry Walker (né Hillary Waugh; The Case of the Missing Gardener).

Access: An uncommon title, Murder without Regret appears to have enjoyed one lone printing. Just three copies are currently listed for sale online. The cheapest, Very Good in Very Good dust jacket, is going for US$25. The one you'll want, sold by a Dartmouth bookseller, is inscribed by the author. Price: C$95.

Not a single Canadian library has a copy.