18 November 2015

A Rival for Margaret Millar?

The Keys of My Prison
Frances Shelley Wees
London: Jenkins, 1956

Is The Keys of My Prison typical Frances Shelley Wees? If so, she's a writer who deserves attention. If not, the worst that can be said is that she wrote at least one novel worthy of same.

The beginning is quiet and subtle. In the well-appointed private room of a Toronto hospital, devoted wife Julie Jonason sits watching over husband Rafe. Ten days earlier, he was involved in a car accident. Rafe's been unconscious ever since, poor man, but he is improving; Dr Prescott expects a full recovery. Julie has every right to believe that things will eventually return to normal. Then Nurse Burnell enters and mentions, as casually as possible, that that morning her patient had mumbled something about a woman named Bess.

This shouldn't be taken as much – Nurse Burnell is a bitch – but it marks a beginning. Julie's life, with its inherited riches and ideal husband, is slowly revealed as something less than blessèd. For one, she's always had to deal with the tragedy of her birth, during which her mother died. As if in punishment, Julie was cursed with an unsightly facial disfigurement that had her hiding away for the first two decades of her life. No man would ever take Julie for his bride – on this everyone agreed – yet Rafe did.

Polite, contemplative, dedicated, diligent and sober is Rafe, but the man who emerges from the comatose state is none of these things. This Rafe denies he's Rafe and doesn't recognize his own wife. "And who the hell are you?" are his first words to Julie.

Doctor Prescott determines that the best course of action is to transfer the patient to the family home; a familiar environment is sure to restore his memory. And so, Julie is forced to share the Rosedale mansion built by her father with a crude, intemperate man who downs drams of whisky, keeps ungodly hours and might just be an impostor.

The Keys of My Prison is an exploration of identity, of course. That psychology plays such a part brought Margaret Millar to mind, though the similarities extend far beyond the psychoanalytic trends of the post-war era. The novel takes place in Millar territory: here are the comfortable Torontonians found in Wall of Eyes (1943) and The Iron Gates (1945). The novel also shares something with Millar's An Air That Kills (1957) in featuring a car accident that takes place between Toronto and cottage country. And then there's the dialogue… Not one Canadian writer of the time matched Millar, but Wees comes close.

If The Keys of My Prison is Frances Shelley Wees at her very best, she rose to the level of the average Millar.

That's a high watermark.

Object: A very attractive, very compact 190-page hardcover with jacket by English illustrator Eric Tansley. The scans above don't do it justice.

The very same year, The Keys of My Prison was published by Doubleday. Your guess is as good as mine as to which is the true first, though my money is on Doubleday. If it makes any difference, Doubleday's was the one sold in Canada.

The third and final edition appeared in 1966 as a Pyramid Books paperback. It has been out of print ever since.

Access: My American cousins will have an easy time of it. The bad news is that in this country the novel is held only by Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library and six of our universities. The good news is that used copies are cheap. At US$5.00, the cheapest is a library discard of the Pyramid edition. Ignore that. The copies most worthy of consideration are:
  • the lone Jenkins edition, despite its "tatty" dust jacket. £4.00;
  • a Very Good Doubleday in Very Good dust jacket. US$14.50;
  • a Near Fine Doubleday in Very Good dust jacket, inscribed to Wees' doctor and his wife. US$25.00;
  • a Very Good Doubleday in Very Good dust jacket, inscribed to a person or persons unknown C$50.00.
I recommend the third option.

There is one translation: Das Gefängnis seiner Wahl (Frankfurt, 1960).

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  1. At last, something you're recommending that I've actually read!! This also has a lot in common with an old Patrick Quentin mystery called "Puzzle for Fiends" (at least as far as I remember the plot). And we share the same admiration for Margaret Millar.

    1. Would you have tackled any of her other mysteries, Noah? I ask because I'm wondering where to go next. From what I've read, the novel that preceded was well-received, but I'm having a hard time getting past the title: M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty. Ugh.

  2. I felt the same way reading Daughter of Time, Brian, wondering if any of Josephine Tey's other mysteries would be as well-written and entertaining. I've since read two more. They are!

  3. Great review and posting. I hope my library has a copy! Otherwise, it's hello Amazon as a last resort (I.e., the book seller we all hate but need).

    1. Thanks, R.T. I wouldn't be surprised if you find it in the library. American institutions seem to be so much better with their holdings. The public library in Stouffville, Ontario, where Wees lived most of her adult life, doesn't have a single one of her books.

  4. With a comparison to Margaret Millar, I will have to try to find a copy. Thanks for the review.

  5. Hmmm. Just checked the TPL holdings. All 17 items by Frances Shelley Wees are reference only, so can't be checked out. Including those at other locations than the Reference Library.

    I always get extra intigued by reference-only books. Could I really head down to Bloor and Yonge and spend the day there? (Apparently not, according to my online chat with Librarian3 just now. I might be lucky enough to find an available study pod, but not for the whole day. :^0)

  6. Just thought I would let interested readers know that Keys of my Prison is being reissued in the Fall by Ricochet Books in Montreal!

    1. I'm really pleased that this was noticed so quickly. You're really on top of things. The reissue was largely my doing as Series Editor. Toronto mystery writer Rosemary Aubert will be doing the Introduction.