13 October 2015

The Most Offensive Author's Bio of All Time?

Time has been tight, so tight that I've read no more than the front and back flaps of Jane Layhew's Rx for Murder, next up in my stroll through Canada's suppressed, ignored and forgotten writing. The author's debut, it wasn't suppressed, nor was it ignored – the novel was reviewed widely – but it is forgotten.

There may be good reason for this; the front flap doesn't describe any book I'd want to read. The most memorable thing about it is a typo – which isn't something you see every day on dust jackets.

In contrast, the back flap is unforgettable:

The 8 February 1947 edition of the Ottawa Citizen informs that the "small village" is Alert Bay, which would make the "Indian reservation [sic] whose inhabitants were only two generations removed from the days of scalping parties" that of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw.

The Ottawa Citizen, 7 February 1947
Jane Layhew never published another novel. Nearly everything I know about her is found in the above, though I can add that the author eventually returned to British Columbia, where she served for a time as Head Nurse of the Medical Ward at Prince George Regional Hospital. Here she is in the May 1970 issue of The Canadian Nurse, showing off her unique method for moving bedside lockers:

The last trace I've found of Jane Layhew is in an ad that lists supporters of Prince George alderman Phillis Parker (The Prince George Citizen, 13 November 1986).

There's a Jane Layhew Nursing Bursary, which is awarded annually to a worthy British Columbia nursing student.

Further digging will bring more, I expect, but as I say, time has been tight… and, to be frank, I'm not sure I care.

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  1. This is a sad little story indeed.

  2. On the plus side, at least she published one novel. Brian, we'll have to wait for you to read it so we can know if she had any talent. Otherwise, she seems to have lived a productive life. How times have changed re. the author bio and the "scalping" comment... Actually, read some Agatha Christie novels if you want some racist comments...

    1. You've reminded me of the title of Christie's 1939 novel, Stephen. Now I'm wondering about Mary Rinehart Roberts, "who may have been an inspiration to Jane Layhew" (and whom I've never read).

  3. I'd call that sentence ludicrous not racist. Do you think someone at that publishing house thought they were being funny? It's appalling, yes but... I hate to admit this... the writer's utter ignorance and preposterous presumption make me laugh out loud.

    Speaking of ignorance... I do have to say that I get so tired of reading someone saying Agatha Christie was racist. Hundreds -- dare I estimate thousands -- of books in North America and Europe are littered with so-called racist remarks made not out of hatred or bigotry but total ignorance. Be it anti-Semitic descriptions of "Jewesses" (I find this term used ALL the time in British popular fiction but have yet to encounter it in North American fiction) to the casual use of "nigger" to describe anyone with non-Caucasian skin coloring the world of popular fiction was a veritable gold mine for those looking for "racism". But I doubt every writer who foolishly resorted to the pejorative du jour, so to speak, was a true bigot.

    Though Rinehart will always be remembered for practically inventing a subgenre of crime fiction known for intrepid yet foolish heroines most people are surprised to learn some of her books are grisly. She loved ax murders! THE AFTER HOUSE, for example, is very noir-like (at least in the first half) than it is "Had I But Known".

    1. I do like to think that Jane Layhew had nothing to do with the author's bio, John, though I really am left wondering what a copywriter in Philadelphia could've known about little Alert Bay, BC. And I'm really not sure what to make of the piece in the Ottawa Citizen.

      I'm so ignorant of Christie that I wasn't even aware of the racism accusations. Sure, I know Ten Little Niggers, but I also know that the title isn't really hers, and that the song figures as an key plot point.

      I think its always good to remind oneself that language does change. I can see a day coming when my use of "actress" might offend. Maybe it does and everyone is too polite to tell me. I know I've used "poetess" a couple of times in this blog, but only to emphasize that the women in question came from a different time - a time when they described themselves as such.

      Thanks for your take on Rinehart, whose tomes invariably litter our library book sales. Any writer who loves axe murderers can't be all that bad.