28 November 2016

Reading and Remembering Katherine Roy

The Gentle Fraud
Katherine Roy
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1959

Katherine Roy was known as "Kitty" to her friends. I can't claim to have been one, though we did once speak over the phone. This would've been in the early 'nineties. I'd been hired to look over the manuscript of a novel by an Englishwoman because it was set partly in Montreal. Mrs Roy was an old friend of the author's family. I can't remember just why we spoke, though it may have had something to do with the author's wish to dedicate the book to her.

Mrs Roy died just a few weeks later. The book appeared the following year, complete with dedication to Katherine Roy.

When I spoke to Mrs Roy, I knew that she herself had published two novels. Years passed before I came across a copy of her debut. Titled Lise, it was first published in 1954 by McClelland & Stewart and Peter Davies. The copy I found was an ugly 1967 mass market paperback, part of the former's short-lived Canadian Best-Seller Library.

I started in on Lise this past summer, and thought it fine, but work intruded to such a point that the book was set aside and I lost interest.

Make of that what you will.

Roy's second novel, The Gentle Fraud, had more appeal, if only because contemporary reviews promised a nice, light read. Given my schedule these days, I'm all about the nice, light read.

The premise will be familiar, particularly to moviegoers:

At forty-seven, Julia Gilmore, the "first lady of American theatre," has entered a tailspin. Her last three Broadway plays have flopped, and she's taken to drink. As bills begin to accumulate, producer Max Wilson urges her to play "footy-footy" with an admirer who has expressed interest in bankrolling a new drama.

Ten or so years younger, Julia's friend Harriet aspired to the stage herself, but was swept off her feet by Murray Baxter, the favourite son of a wealthy Montreal brewing family.

Each woman envies the other. From time to time, Harriet comes to New York on shopping trips. At the beginning of The Gentle Fraud, she is doing just that. The two women meet for lunch. Julia has a few cocktails too many then drags Harriet to see a mystic named Aloysius P. Reily.

It's the sort of thing theatrical types do.

Reily is nothing like expected. He has no beard, he wears no turban, and his sixteenth-floor office looks for all the world like that of a psychiatrist. Reily refers to himself as a consultant, one who can give advice by looking into the future to foresee the results. For that service, the women have already paid twenty dollars – but before the session begins he moves in for the upsell:
"I do not expect you to understand or believe me. Any more than years ago people understood or believed the discoveries and inventions which, today, are taken for granted. But I can, if the subjects are willing to undergo the experiment, change one person for another. That is to say, supposing you wished to live each other's lives for a specified time, it is in my power to transfer Miss Gilmore's spirit to your body, Mrs Braxter, and yours into hers."
Of course, Julia and Harriet don't believe him, but go along with Reily for a lark.

The next chapter opens with Julia, in Harriet's body, reading Ladies' Home Journal on a flight back to Montreal. The fantastic becomes more so when she spots Sid Field, her estranged husband's agent, in a neighbouring seat. Next thing you know she has invited agent and client to dine at the Baxter mansion.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Harriet discovers that the investor Julia is meant to woo is none other than Dwight Sloan, an old friend of husband Murray.

The coincidences did chafe, but the fun that followed made me forget the irritation. Julia and Harriet, pretend Harriet and Julia struggle to adapt to each other's lives. Their theatrical training helps, but the latter – that would be Julia as Harriet – steps out of character in downing a few too many drinks.

The Gentle Fraud was indeed a nice, light read... it was also a pleasant distraction. I remember its author as very gracious and patient. She had a beautiful, delicate voice. I expect "Kitty" suited her.

Good fun: At uncomfortable gathering of Baxters, cousin Jack, whose "little aberrations were a better of record in the London police courts," announces that he is about to be published by "McLachland and Suart":
"Oh," he said, "I doubt it will make any money, but at least I have the satisfaction of being out of the hands of the 'vanity' publishers; of knowing that a reputable firm has found my scribblings worth the risk."
About the author:

Object: A 184-page hardcover in orange cloth. I purchased my copy online this past summer from Ottawa's David Eves Books. Price: US$8.00.

The uncredited jacket illustration has its faults, but I like it just fine. The image was also used on the UK edition published by Peter Davies. Harcourt Brace picked up the novel in the United States, slapping on an inferior cover (above, on the left). I'll take this opportunity to point out that Julia is raven-haired, while Harriet is blonde. Both are described in the novel as very attractive women.

Access: Published in 1959 by McClelland & Stewart and Peter Davies. Harcourt Brace's American edition followed a year later. As far as I have been able to determine, there were no second printings.

The Gentle Fraud isn't terribly common in any edition... but then it isn't expensive either. Used copies begin at US$6.50 for a Very Good Harcourt Brace (Very Good in Good dust jacket), and extend all the way to US$32.38 for a copy of the Peter Davies in similar condition. At US$20.00, the one to buy is a signed, Very Good copy offered by a Westmount Bookseller.

24 November 2016

Kenneth Orvis Cover Cavalcade (and a mystery)

What follows fails. It was intended as a visual feast of first edition covers for every book written by the mysterious Kenneth Orvis.

Close but no cigar.

Hickory House, the author's scarce Harlequin debut is here, as is Over and Under the Table, his much less common swan song. What's missing is Walk Alone, Orvis's second book. Described by Orvis as a novel, it features in every one of his bibliographies, yet WorldCat does not recognize; Library and Archives Canada has no copy, nor does the Library of Congress. No used copies are listed by online booksellers. Search engines bring nothing. I've yet to find a single review or advert.

Like its author, the book is a elusive... or is it simply a phantom?

Either way, these are the others, complete with snippets of poorly written cover copy:

Hickory House
Toronto: Harlequin, 1956
Cover illustration by Norm Eastman
Hickory House – the result of a lifetime's hopes and ambitions. After lean years of insignificant books with their small bets and mean losers, hurried movings and furtive payoffs, now Al Rossi was a Big Time operator with a whole city answering to him.
The Damned and the Destroyed
London: Dobson, 1962
When Maxwell Dent returned from the Korean War after helping to smash an enemy ring supplying narcotics to U.N. forces, he thought he had turned his back forever on this nefarious trade with all its unpleasant associations. Yet here he was in Huntley Ashton's elegant Westmount home being asked to undertake a similar task in Montreal.
Night Without Darkness
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1965
 Jacket design by Peter Edwards
Anton Fox, a Communist militant, has abducted a Western scientist, Beldon, and plans to use his new discovery, known as "paralysis mist", to get control of the Communist bloc – and take the Cold War off the ice.
Cry Hallelujah!
London: Dobson, 1970
Jacket design by Geoffrey Harrold
A beautiful girl with a vision starts a revivalist mission in a decrepit hall in Greenwich Village – her congregation a handful of down and outs and the prostitutes from the brothel opposite.
Into a Dark Mirror
London: Dobson, 1971
Jacket design by Colin Andrews
Mark and Toni become inextricably involved in a crime hunt in France when they are there to investigate the extraordinary disappearance of their fathers after a war reunion. 
The Disinherited
London: Dobson, 1974
Here is an audaciously original novel of human conflicts and suspense. In a story of nonstop tension it details the agony of the wrongly-accused and the guilty, and the public attitude toward them.
The Doomsday List
London: Dobson, 1974
Several CIA agents have been 'eliminated' in various particularly brutal ghoulish ways. These murders have taken place at regular intervals in different European countries, and Adam Beck from another top-secret agency, is detailed to investigate.
Over and Under the Table:
The Anatomy of an Alcoholic
Montreal: Optimum, 1985
Cover design by Emmanuel Blanc
I feel very excited. Over and Under the Table will be advantageous to family members of alcoholics, school children, ministers of religion and persons who work on a day to day basis with alcoholic members of our society.
Major R. Mackenzie
Director, Public Relations, The Salvation Army, Montreal
My thanks to St Marys Public Library, which managed to get me a copy of Over and Under the Table as an inter-library loan from McMaster University. Thanks to McMaster, too!

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21 November 2016

Kenneth Orvis: A Plea

Do you know this man?

I've been slowly making my way through the complete works of Kenneth Orvis (a/k/a Kenneth Lemieux). Eight books in total – perhaps nine? – it hasn't
been at all taxing. My favourite thus far is The Damned and the Destroyed, a 1962 novel dealing with drug dealing in 'fifties. I admit that my preference has everything to do with the fact that it is set in Montreal, the author's hometown and mine.

I'm certain I never heard a word about Kenneth Orvis growing up – then again, I never heard anything about John Glassco, whose biography I would write and whose letters I would edit. Two very different men, though they did share a penchant for drink; Over and Under the Table, Orvis's 1985 memoir, is subtitled The Anatomy of an Alcoholic.

The challenge in writing about Glassco was that he loved to fabricate; the man fancied himself "an accomplished liar" and "great practitioner of deceit." Things were made easier by the paper trail he left in his wake. And then there were his friends... many of whom became my friends.

I thank him for that.

Glassco died in 1981, more than four years before Orvis's Over and Under the Table saw publication. According to the author's bio on the back cover, the author had recently relocated to Montreal and was at work on a new novel.

As I say, Glassco had friends. Did Orvis?

Of course, he did.

And so, this plea – directed at friends, family, acquaintances and colleagues – for information about the man. This for a future article about Orvis and his work.

My email address: brianjohnbusby[at]gmail.com... or you can just leave a comment.

All leads appreciated. No stones unturned.

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16 November 2016

Betting the House

Hickory House
Kenneth Orvis [pseud. Kenneth Lemieux]
Toronto: Harlequin, 1956

Bookie Alfredo Rossi can see the writing on the wall. The Feds are cracking down, and it's only a matter of time before they move in on him and sidekick Benny Kramer. Fortunately, Al has been good with his savings; he dresses like a million dollars, but is otherwise quite frugal. Al's also a guy who keeps an ear to the ground. He's heard rumblings about a corrupt mayor in some city on Lake Michigan. He's also heard that this same mayor, Carson Peters, keeps paperwork pertaining to his various illegalities in his office safe.

Al knows just the guy, a safecracker named Lou Kovaks, who can get him those papers. The poor sap was once a steady client – "Lou doesn't pick stretch runners as well as he does the locks on safes" – before he took one too many chances on the job. He's been serving time in the prison at Dannemora, but is just about to be sprung. Al is there when it happens: "'What's the matter, Al... afraid I'd be late for the first race?'"

Instead of the track, Al drives Lou to that city on Lake Michigan. Along the way, he fills the safecracker in on the job, complete with photograph:
"It's an old Continental," he stated soberly, "I've blown a dozen them in my time. A good jamb shot and the door pops open like a cuckoo clock when the hands point up."
Piece of cake. After Lou is paid, he leaves town and the novel. Al sticks around and blackmails the mayor into allowing him to set up Hickory House, a swanky nightclub and illegal gambling den on the edge of town. All goes swimmingly until the joint attracts the attention of big-time mobster Budsey Everest.

Hickory House is a first novel. In his 1985 memoir, Over and Under the Table, author Kenneth Orvis tells us it was written over an intense seven-month period: "Total absorption in plotting writing, and editing erased every other want and need except eating, sleeping, bathing, and defacating [sic]." I found this surprising, not because Hickory House is a bad book (it's perfectly fine), but because it's so short and simple. There is no real depth to the characters: Benny is devoted, Peters is corrupt, his tramp of a daughter is a tramp, and Al really know how to dress. Everyone plays their part, and the plot unfolds pretty much as you might expect.

Seven months?

Who am I to say it wasn't worth it? Hickory House went in and out of print within a month, but Orvis maintains that it brought all sorts of attention:
My novel had opened many new doors. After several radio and TV interviews and short pieces in local newspapers, more copywriting accounts than there was time for were easily available.
One can't help but envy.

So, yes, a worthwhile debut... for Orvis, if not the reader.

Shame that Harlequin forgot to put his name on the cover.

Object and Access: A 157-page mass market paperback. This past summer I snatched up the lone copy being sold online from a bookseller in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Price: US$12.95.

Not on Worldcat.

Good luck.

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14 November 2016

Arnold Viersen Has a Rhyme for Manure

                    Your lights are on, but you're not home.
                    Your mind is not your own.
The week Arnold Viersen was born, Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" topped the Billboard Hot 100. Who dares call it coincidence?

Like Preston Manning George Pepki before him, the rookie MP for Peace River-Westlock has a rhyming dictionary and knows how to use it. Anyone requiring evidence need look no further than his most recent speech in the House of Commons.

The poet first captured my attention this past May, when he presented this at the Conservative Party Convention:

Straight outta Barrhead, Alberta (pop. 4,432).

Viersen is a seer. Leadership no-shows like Tony Clement were included only because lines like this are to good to let slide:
                        I've got the chops,
                        Like to drink hops.
                        Even on twitter
                        I'm a heavy hitter.
                        In Cabinet for ten years,
                        Leave the Libs in tears.
                        The man from Muskoka,
                        I'm our party's Lee Iococa.
I'll allow that Viersen's not much good at reading prose,

but when it comes to verse he really shines. Consider "Farmers: Heart of Rural Canada," which the MP performed in the House on 6 May 2016:

     Springtime is here; our farmers are in their fields
     Assessing the moisture, gauging their yields.
     When rain is sparse and times are tough
     And the price of hay is especially rough,
     As Conservatives we understand
     It takes hard work to till the land.
     Alberta NDP passed a law for working on prairie farms:
     More expensive food – don’t care who it harms.
     They said, “John dear, we want your food
     But only feed your cows when we’re in the mood;
     No overtime or you pay the price.”
     Beef and pork will cost more than twice.
     We’re standing up for farmers, feeding cows ’till nine.
     We’re standing up for farmers, working overtime.
     You eat their beef, you sit on leather,
     Your feet are shoed in stormy weather.
     Without their food, life would be grim
     Unless you plan to be awfully thin
     Family farms are getting fewer.
     Once they’re gone, we’re in deep manure.
     Don’t egg me on, the yolk’s on you.
     If farmers leave, what will we do?
     Bottom line – You want to eat?
     Support our farmers – Buy their wheat.
"Don't egg me on, the yolk's on you." That line alone is worth every cent of the $170,400 the MP will earn this year.

To think it has been immortalized in Hansard.

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04 November 2016

Testing Jimmie Dale's Patience (and mine)

Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue
Frank L. Packard
Toronto: Copp, Clark, 1922

This third Gray Seal book begins where the second, The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale, leaves off. Gentleman Jimmie and lady Marie LaSalle are entwined, adrift in a small boat on the East River. Wizard Marre is dead... and with him the last remnant of the Crime Club that had once threatened their lives. Eventually, Marie breaks the embrace and begins to row. Jimmie looks on, "drinking in the lithe, graceful swing of her body, the rhythmic stroke of the heavy oars." All is calm and the pace is slow, despite Marie's exertion, until they reach Manhattan.

Marie acts quickly. Gaining terra firma, she flings the oars in the water, then pushes the boat – and Jimmie – back into the river.
"Jimmie! Oh, Jimmie!" Her voice reached him in a low, broken sob. "There was no other way. It's in your pocket, Jimmie. I put it there when – when you were – were holding me."
Jimmie watches as Marie disappears into the crowded street, and I nearly threw the book against the wall.

The pattern repeats. Jimmie Dale and the Phantom Clue begins in
much the same way as The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale. Our hero has vanquished the villains of the previous volume only to learn that another threatens Marie. Fearful that the link between she and he will expose the millionaire clubman's secret identity as the Gray Seal, Marie disappears to take on her new foe. The difference this time is that she expects to call on Jimmie's help every once in a while, as detailed in a letter she had left in his pocket.

There follows a new set of Gray Seal adventures; some work toward the defeating Marie's new nemesis, a mysterious figure she calls the Phantom, while others don't. The plots are clever and the writing is on par, but it's all a bit too familiar... and familiarity breeds contempt. I grew tired of reading details of Jimmie's costume changes and elderly
 butler Jason's pride at having "dandled" the infant Jimmie on his knee. We're told three times that the underworld's slogan is "Death to the Gray Seal!" (down from four in The Adventures of Jimmie Dale and eight in the The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale). Because the adventures were first published apart in pulp magazines, one might expect a certain amount of repetition and reminding, but the absence of an editor's red pen here just adds to the stagnant nature of the book.

I like to think that Jimmie Dale and the Blue Envelope Murder, the next Gray Seal volume, opens with the two crimefighters together, perhaps married with children, but I  really don't care enough to investigate.

At the end, I cast my mind back to the beginning, and wondered why Jimmie hadn't simply swum to shore.

Object: A 301-page novel in bland blue cloth with damaged dust jacket. The cover illustration is by A.D. Rahn. I purchased my copy in 2012 at London's Attic Books. Price: $15.00.

I have a second copy, one of the ten Gray Seal Edition Packards I bought two years ago. Price: US$25.00 (for the ten).

Access: First published in 1922 by Copp, Clark (Canada) and Doran (United States). The following year, Hodder & Stoughton put out the first UK edition. As far as I can tell, the novel was last published in 1942 by Novel Selections as Jimmy Dale and the Phantom Clue.

The novel is held by nineteen of our universities, but not one library serving the public. Library and Archives fails, as does the more reliable Toronto Public Library.

Twenty-two copies of one edition or another is listed by online booksellers, ranging in price from US$4.50 (a cheap A.L. Burt reprint) to US$100 (the Copp, Clark Canadian first, "near fine in very good dj"). My advice is to try Attic Books.

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01 November 2016

Stringer's 'The Song-Sparrow in November'

Verse for the month from the 1949 McClelland & Stewart edition of Arthur Stringer's The Woman in the Rain and Other Poems.

Don't know it? You should.

The London Free Press had this to say of the 1907 Little, Brown first edition:
The Woman in the Rain is a volume without which now no collection of poetry in Canada, meant to be representative of the best, written by Canadians, can be complete. 
I've got mine... and it's signed!

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