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.

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