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.

Related posts:


  1. Are Orvis' books allset in Montreal? Thanks

    1. I'm slowly making my way through his bibliography, Howard. Thus far, this is the only one.