04 July 2016

Thriller Most Foreign

The Quebec Plot
Leo Heaps
Toronto: Seal, 1979

This is a thriller written by a man whose own story reads like a thriller. A Jewish Canadian paratrooper in the Second World War, Leo Heaps fought in the Battle of Arnhem, was captured by the Nazis, escaped, joined the Dutch Resistance and returned to fight another day. He served as an advisor to the Israelis in the War of Independence and worked on the International Rescue Committee during the Hungarian Revolution. Heaps was also the son of A.A. Heaps, a leader in the Winnipeg General Strike and one of the founders of the CCF. Anyone collecting OAS today should raise a glass.

With a background like that it should come as no surprise that The Quebec Plot isn't just a thriller but a political thriller. It begins with Marcel Legros, chief of the secret French intelligence agency CEDECE, catching a plane at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Cut to Martinique, scene of a clandestine meeting between Legros and Gilles Marcoux, newly installed Parti Québécois Minister of the Interior. Our hero, Mark Hauser, makes his debut in Stowe, Vermont, where he's looking to get in some end-of-season skiing.

Hauser is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior journalist at a New York-based news syndicate. Far below, in age and experience, is a colleague named Freeman. When the younger man breaks his leg while on assignment in Quebec City, Hauser is tapped to take his place. Good choice. The American-born son of a French Canadian and a German Jew, Hauser is bilingual and knows a good deal about Canada. It would've been his assignment from the start had the agency thought there was much of a story.

What is the story? Harry Consadine, head of the syndicate, explains: "This new Quebec party wants the province to separate from the rest of Canada. You know how insular we are down here, Mark. We've always taken Canada for granted."

Still do, apparently, which is why they sent Freeman with his schoolboy French, and it is why Consadine reassures his star reporter that he'll be back on the slopes in a day or two. With great reluctance, Hauser leaves Stowe and his newfound love interest, an intellectual ski bunny named Hilda Beane, for an appointment that his boss has set up with Saul Klein at the Montreal offices of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Why? "The Jews are a seismograph. If they're leaving it's a sure sign something is wrong," Consadine tells him.

Klein is staying put.

The thriller only kicks into gear when Hauser leaves Montreal for Quebec City. Along the way he picks up a hitchhiker named Paul Lejeune who is heading for a hunting and fishing lodge north of Lac St-Jean... or so he says. Hauser notices an automatic weapon with folding stock sticking out of the Lejeune's rucksack.

What Hauser doesn't know is that his passenger is really en route to one of the training camps of something called the Quebec Army of Liberation. The Canadian government knows about the army, and is fairly certain that the bases exist, but can't seem to find any. Ottawa's doing much better with L'Inflexible, a French nuclear submarine it's tracking as it makes its way from Martinique to the Gaspé peninsula. Unbeknownst to the French, the Americans are following in their own submarine, Wolverine, which has been newly equipped with a secret weapon.

Ignore the bit about the secret weapon. Ignore the cover copy about H-bomb missiles (we're never told exactly what L'Inflexible is delivering). The most interesting parts centre on Hauser in Quebec City, beginning with his discovery that Freeman has disappeared from his bed at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital.

The Quebec Plot is taut, which is just the thing one wants in a thriller. I imagine it would've been tighter still had it not found a home with London publisher Peter Davies. I blame the intrusive hand of an editor for its worst page:

I won't criticize Seal – McClelland & Stewart, really – for letting these lines stand, but will take it to task for ignoring typos, "tyre" and glaring mistakes like "Party Québecois".

Don't let that dissuade you. The separatist movement of the 'seventies inspired several Quebec-based thrillers. Heaps' followed others by old pros like Philip Atlee, Lionel Derrick and Richard Rohmer. I expected little, yet found that The Quebec Plot rose high above the rest. Quite an accomplishment for a first-time novelist. The author's bio should've given me a clue.


Don't you believe it. That urbane Prime Minister is modelled on Pierre Trudeau. The chain-smoking Premier of Quebec is René Lévesque. The American President with the perpetual smile owes everything to Jimmy Carter.

Object: A 248-page massmarket paperback, featuring ads for The Snow Walker by Farley Mowat and Margaret Laurence's Manawaka series. The cover art is uncredited. I purchased my copy for three dollars in 2013 at the Merrickville Book Emporium. The following year, I came across a pristine copy of the Peter Davies true first (right) in London at Attic Books. Fresh as the day it was published, it set me back one Canadian dollar. 

Access: Held by seventeen of our university libraries, the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, Library and Archives Canada and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

After the Peter Davies first, The Quebec Plot reappeared in the UK as a Corgi paperback. Seal's first Canadian edition appears to have enjoyed one lone printing. Leo Heaps was no Richard Rohmer.

Used copies are plentiful. Very good copies of the Peter Davies edition begin at US$2.95. Pay no more than US$6.00.

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  1. Marilyn Engel's "Bear" was also published by Seal. Heap's book reflects the prevalent opinion of separatists by the English-speaking population. Enjoyed reading this, Brian!

    1. Not only Bear (with the infamous cover), but Richard Rohmer's Separation and Firespill by Ian Slater. Each thrilling in its own way.

  2. Brian – I am going to look for this one. Thanks for the review.

    1. It may be tricky to find, Elgin. As far as I know, it was never published in the United States. That said, those copies being offered online are nice and cheap. I usually gravitate toward hardcovers myself, but who can resist that paperback art!

  3. This does sound like a good thriller. It is a good thing that is easy to find online.

    1. It was a fun read, Tracy. Very much of its time politically, and much superior to most older thrillers in its treatment of female characters.