30 January 2018

Margaret Millar Makes Something of Herself

The Invisible Worm
Collected Millar: The First Detectives
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2017
We had a very Canadian eagerness to make something of ourselves.
— Kenneth Millar, 1971
The cover of this most recent volume in Syndicate Books' Collected Millar suggests that Paul Prye was the author's first detective, when the distinction really belongs to William Bailey. The novel opens with his sister, Amanda, being awoken in the wee hours by a disturbing phone call. A woman named Eve Hays has found a dead man in her stairwell – heart failure, she thinks. An indignant Miss Bailey suggests that a call an undertaker, and not the Inspector of the Mertonville, Illinois, police department, would've been more appropriate. A few minutes later, Miss Hays phones back to apologize for her little joke, confessing that she'd had too much to drink.

Then a body turns up in the lake behind the local country club.

Because Mertonville hasn't seen a murder in many a year, Bailey recognizes that the call is no coincidence, and heads over to the Hays residence. The house is never described, but we know it's very large because it serves as residence to no less than fifteen people, including a butler, a cook, a housekeeper, a maid, and a chauffeur. Eve, the girl who made the call, is the daughter of George and Barbara Hays, who own the digs. Christopher Wells, Eve's fiancé, is a frequent houseguest, and stayed over on the night of the murder. Richard Vanstone, second cousin to Barbara, is firmly installed, as is a woman named Angela Breton, who looks to be making a play for Simon, Eve's nineteen-year-old brother. George Hays' junior partner Peter Morgan and his newly wed wife Sally nearly complete the household census, but there is one more: psychologist Paul Prye, who George has been brought in to diagnose his somewhat unstable wife.

I found Prye irritating from beginning to end. This exchange with Bailey comes at that beginning:
"You are a physician?"
     "Well, more or – Yes, I am. But my practice for the last ten years has been in the field of mental abnormalities: neurology, psychoneurology, abnormal psychology, psychoanalysis. I'd rather be called a quack, however. It puts people at ease."
     "But you have a medical license?"
     "A medical license, a dog license, a driver's license. I even bought a marriage –.
     "You are whimsical, I see," the inspector said dryly.
     "Yes, indeed. 
            "The angel that provided o'er my birth
            Said, 'Little creature formed of joy and mirth...' 
      So you see how I stand."
I like Blake as much as the next guy – perhaps more – but Prye's habit of quoting the great man irritated. The humour, lighter and less sophisticated than in Millar's other novels, infects the dialogue, as in this interview between Bailey and the Hays family butler:
"Name, please," he said sternly.
     "Joseph Butler."
     "Joseph Butler?"
     "Joseph Butler," Joseph repeated firmly.
     "Sure, it's possible, Chief," Sergeant Abbott said eagerly. "I knew a broad once who was called Broad!"
     "A most striking analogy, Sergeant, but this is hardly the time for amorous reminiscences." Bailey turned to Joseph. "Now, Joseph, I'd like to point out to you that it is your duty to lay whatever information you may have before the police, even though it may seem to be damaging to your employers. I appreciate your loyalty but I must have truth."
An upstanding man with little time for nonsense, Bailey initially seems the very model of what one would want in a detective. However, as things progress, we come to recognize serious lapses in judgement, the most obvious being his acceptance of Prye's intrusion in the investigation. Bailey's biggest mistake is to place those living in the Hays' residence under something resembling house arrest. Ignoring the legality of the edict – Millar does – this doesn't prove in the least bit effective; in fact, the body count increases as a result. One character collapses from a poisoned digestif, while another is found dead in the kitchen pantry.

Bon Appétit!

The Invisible Worm was Margaret Millar's debut, but it's not the place for the uninitiated to begin – that would be An Air That Kills (1957). I can't quite bring myself recommend this novel, putting me at odds with the reviewers of its day, but there's enough of the writer Millar would become to make it worthwhile to her admirers.

For example, I saw something of future Millar characters in Amanda Bailey, the inspector's sister. Like the aptly-named Prye, she interferes in the investigation, but only with the best intentions. Amanda is certain that a woman will confide in another woman before any man, and so sets out to visit the victim's widow. She plans to present herself as "a representative of the ladies of the Presbyterian congregation," blind to the fact that the widow, Dolly, is an adulterous former burlesque performer.

I was sorry that Millar didn't do more with Angela Breton, Simon's love interest. At thirty-four, the houseguest does all she can to appear younger by dying her hair and hiding the fact that she holds a degree in medicine from the University of Toronto. For reasons that aren't fleshed out, Angela (née Anna) also hides the fact that she is French Canadian.

The Invisible Worm has some workhorse passages – more than any I've encountered in a Millar novel – but there is also wonderful writing, like these opening sentences:
Mr. Thomas Philips smiled happily. Not every man can afford to retire at the age of forty-five; in fact, not every man in Mr. Philips's business lived to that age, The mortality rate in certain professions tends to be high, and Mr, Philips was planning an extended trip to South America.
     There was nothing of malice in his smile. He intended to retire gracefully. Old grudges were forgotten, and the past was a lucrative, even a pleasant, memory.
     He made an excited little gesture with his hands. He was going away and he was never coming back, and it was rather nice to be saying good-by to someone. Tomorrow, Mr. Philips explained, he and Dolly would be on their way, perhaps on the water by this time. It was very late, and he was tired. He scarcely felt the pinprick on his neck, and by the time the hand closed over his mouth it was too late to do anything about it.
     The pinprick and the hand... South America.... Dolly... and Mr. Philips's heart stopped beating.
Before The Invisible Worm, the earliest Millar I'd read was Wall of Eyes (1943). A remarkable novel, written with a sure hand, it could have been included in the Collected Millar volume that Syndicate titled The Master at Her Zenith.

It's that good.

To think that Wall of Eyes, her fourth, was published just two years after The Invisible Worm. Recognizing this, I'm looking forward to reading Millar's second and third novels – The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942) and The Devil Loves Me (1942) – even if the publisher describes them as "The Paul Prye Mysteries."

Trivia I: The Invisible Worm was written in response to a challenge from husband Kenneth; it was he who came up with the basic idea. The Doubleday, Doran contract lists the couple as co-authors.

Trivia II: In establishing Bailey's character, Millar writes that the detective was irritated by his sister's gift of a book titled Keeping Fit at Fifty for his forty-seventh birthday. No such book exists, though a much-referenced and much-reprinted Samuel G. Blythe article with that title was published in the January 15, 1921 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

Object and Access: A bulky, 541-page tome printed on substandard paper. The type is small, as are the margins, and yet I'm happy to own a copy. I'd wanted to read The Invisible Worm for years, but it was inaccessible. The  first edition, published in 1941 by Doubleday, Doran, enjoyed just one printing. Unlike most Millars, there has never been a mass market paperback. Apart from the Doubleday Doran, the only other time it appeared in the United States was as a Chivers large print edition.

The first and only UK edition, published in 1943 by John Long, misspells Millar's surname on the dust jacket (but not in the book itself). Uncommon, an Australian bookseller is offering a copy (left) at US$650.

Well worth the price, I say! Librarians, particularly those involved in rare books, are asked to take note of the seller's card. Strike now, before it disappears!

Library patrons will find The Invisible Worm difficult to access; Library and Archives Canada and the University of Toronto have copies of the Doubleday, Doran first, but that's it. I can't find one listing for Collected Millar: The First Detectives in a Canadian library – including that serving Kitchener, Ontario, Margaret Millar's hometown.

L'invisible ver, a French translation by Laurence Kiefé, was published in 1996 by Librairie des Champs-Elysées. Its cover is nowhere near as interesting as the attractive, if inept, 1943 John Lang edition.

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28 January 2018

Remembering John McCrae: 100 Years

One hundred years ago today, John McCrae lost his life to pneumonia in the No. 14 General Hospital in Wimereux, France. The struggle was not long, lasting less than four days from diagnosis to death.

A great deal of verse has been written in memory of McCrae. As far as I know, the first to have achieved publication is by Florence E. Westacott. Her "John M'Crae" appeared in the 13 February 1918 edition of the Toronto Globe, seventeen days after his death.

                        He made for us the poppies glow
                                    In Flander's Fields
                        Forever we shall see them grow;
                        A crimson harvest row on row,
                                    They stand revealed. 
                        The torch back hurled with failing hand
                                    Is high upborne;
                        Its summons flaming land to land
                        Caught swift response from farthest strand
                                    Which greets the morn. 
                        All peacefully now the dead
                                    In Flanders Field,
                        Their course well run, their message sped;
                        The poppies bending overhead
                                    From guard and shield. 
                        Still flares the Spartan torch youths fling
                                    By Flanders Field,
                        But who the poet's song shall sing,
                        Or clearly strike that pulsing string
                                    His cold hands yield?

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24 January 2018

May Agnes Fleming's Very Worst Marriage?

The Heiress of Castle Cliffe; Or, Off With the Old Love
     [Victoria; Or, The Heiress of Castle Cliffe]
May Agnes Fleming
New York: Street & Smith, [c. 1917]
289 pages

The Heiress of Castle Cliffe, the most reprinted work by Canada’s first bestselling writer, May Agnes Fleming, appeared under many titles, but none so intriguing as Wedded for Pique, the one slapped on the 1878 edition. 
Wedded for pique? I couldn’t imagine what sort of slight would lead to matrimony. 
The affront is revealed in the last third of novel, just before an angry, malicious walk down the aisle. It follows a series of great misfortunes and misadventures, and leads to even more, resulting in a murder, a drowning, and a hanging. 
To think it all begins with a pleasant evening at the theatre.

My first book review of the year! The rest can be read – gratishere at the Canadian Notes & Queries website.

Pique your interest?


As recompense, I offer a visual treat comprised of three other editions. Interested readers are advised not to look too closely at the scribblings on the first, which give away the novel's twist:

Victoria; Or, The Heiress of Castle Cliffe
New York: Brady, 1864
Heiress of Castle Cliff [sic]
New York: Hurst, [1880?]
Wedded for Pique
New York: Dillingham, [1889]

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16 January 2018

Resuming Richard Rohmer: A Plea for Help

Four years ago this month, I set out to read every book ever written by Richard Rohmer.

It wasn't my idea.

My old pal Chris Kelly came up with the challenge, mutual old pal Stanley Whyte joined in, and we were off. Not only were we going to read Rohmer's entire bibliography, we were going to do it within the year!

We're still at it.

Our mistake was that we remembered Rohmer's years as a bestselling author, but ignored the decades in which he was not. We'd assumed his books would be plentiful, accessible, and cheap. Why, mere days before we began, I picked up his 1989 thriller Red Arctic for a buck in a Perth, Ontario bookstore.

What I failed to recognize is that it was the first copy I'd ever seen. I haven't come across another since. I didn't know that Red Arctic had come and gone in only one printing, and had never made it to paperback. As a kid, Rohmer mass markets were everywhere. I bought mine at the second closest drug store to my home, but I could've just as easily bought them at the closest. It has been over three decades since Rohmer was last published in mass market.

Rohmer's Ultimatum was the bestselling Canadian novel of 1973, but my local library doesn't have a copy; in fact, the St Marys Public Library doesn't have anything by Richard Rohmer. Its helpful staff did all they could in providing inter-library loans.

Stanley had access to slim holdings offered by McGill and Concordia, but these only went so far. He resorted to ordering one book directly from the publisher. It took several months to arrive.

Chris, who lives in California, had the hardest time of it.

Despite the challenges, we tackled sixteen titles in our first year, and wrote about each in a blog: Reading Richard Rohmer. Visitors will see that we slowed to eight in the second year. In year three, we tackled two: Raleigh on the Rocks and Ultimatum 2. Last year, our reading was Rohmerless.

I began 2018 determined to finish reading Richard Rohmer. We're four books shy:
  • Practice and Procedure Before the Highway Transport Board (1965)
  • The Royal Commission on Book Publishing (1972)
  • The Building of the CN Tower (2011)
  • The Building of the Sky Dome/Rogers Centre [sic] (2012)
The first two are held at the University of Western Ontario's D.B. Weldon Library. As reference material, they're not to be checked out, but I'm willing to suffer as many hours as it takes in that butt-ugly, brutalist building.

Such is my willpower and dedication that I plan to read all four, despite reservations concerning Rohmer's authorship of Practice and Procedure Before the Highway Transport Board and The Royal Commission on Book Publishing. Sure, they appear in his bibliographies, but like Rohmer's claims about taking Rommel out of the Second World War, I have doubts that he played so great a role.

I look forward to being proven wrong.

Remarkably, the most recent titles are more difficult to find than half-century-old government reports. After many, many months, I've finally managed to get my hands on The Building of the CN Tower, but The Building of the Sky Dome/Rogers Centre is proving even more elusive. And so, I ask anyone with a copy to contact me.


Four years is an awfully long time.

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08 January 2018

A Winter's Tale of a Dry Summer

'Nemesis Wins'
Grant Allen
Phil May's Illustrated Winter Annual
London: Haddon, 1894

I often start the New Year with something by Grant Allen. Something to do with the letter A, I suppose, or that his work dominates the top shelf of the bookcase. Whatever the reason, Allen's "Nemesis Wins," which arrived by post late December, seemed a good way to kick off 2018. A short story, it appeared in the advert-heavy 1894 edition of Phil May's Illustrated Winter Annual...  and then never again. This fleeting appearance in print had me expecting little, and I was neither surprised nor disappointed.

"Nemesis Wins" starts as a love story, but ends in murder and devastation on a massive scale. The two lovers at the centre emerge unscathed and, one concludes, oblivious as to what actually transpired.

To think it all might've been avoided had it not been for the Elementary Education Act of 1870.

Education, particularly that of women, often plays a role in Allen's fiction; here it serves to open young Miriam Stanley to all kinds of possibilities, not the least of which is a life with handsome Jim Sladen. The two come from very different backgrounds; Jim is a gamekeeper for Squire Ponsonby of Hurtwood, while Miriam is the daughter of Septerius Stanley, king of the West Surrey gypsies. The relationship between the two lovers is the stuff of local gossip – gamekeepers and gypsy families being typically at odds. The worst of it, from Septerius's point of view, is that Jim is honest, and is known to refuse bribes. The gypsy king, who has done a stints for poaching in the past, and is in the habit of cutting gorse on the common for his horses, believes he'll soon be forced to move the royal van.

He seeks temporary respite from his problems at the local inn, where the chief topic of conversation is the state of the heath. "Been powerful hot o' late," says Sam Walters, the broom-maker. "Heather's dry as tinder. Surprisin' if Squire Ponsonby's heath don't get lighted somehow." Talk next turns to gamekeeper Jim, and speculation as why he hasn't arrived to raise a pint or two. Sam Walters and "half-wit" Dick know the answer, having seen Jim on his way to meet Miriam. Septerius is enraged, but not so much that he can't formulate a plan that will see the common go up in flames, Dick framed, and result in Jim's dismissal.

"Nemesis Wins" is a slight story, but opening mention of the "school-board and its fixed stern eye even on gypsie lasses" had me curious. Minutes after finishing, I was deep into reading about the Romany and the history of education in the British Isles... which is how I came to know everything worth knowing about the Elementary Education Act.

Ultimately, like the Winter Annual's advertisements, "Nemesis Wins" is one of those things made more interesting by the passage of time.

There's hope for me yet.

Object and Access: A 114-page paperbound book, loaded with illustrations and adverts. Allen's story takes up roughly four two-columned pages. I first spotted this copy at an online auction this past summer, and then kicked myself for forgetting to bid. Fortunately, it reappeared a few months later as a sale item. I paid US$4.88.

The University of Toronto has a copy. It can be read online here through the Internet Archive.

02 January 2018

10 Best Book Buys of 2017 (one of which was a gift)

Last year was meant to be one of great austerity. By rights, the 2017 edition of this annual list should be the weakest yet. There were few trips to used bookstores, and mere minutes – not hours – were spent panning for gold at outdoor dollar carts. And yet, comparing the year's haul to those of  2014, 2015, and 2016, I think 2017 was the best ever. The riches were such that the copy of Frank L. Packard's The Big Shot above failed to make the cut. Hell, I couldn't even settle on the list until after the the year was over. Here be the shiniest nuggets:

The Shapes that Creep
Margerie Bonner
New York: Scribners,

The debut novel by Hollywood actress and BC beach squatter Mrs Malcolm Lowry. The jacket describes it as a "combination of murder, astrology, hidden-treasure, and cryptography – with the wild and romantic coast of Vancouver as its colourful background."

The House of Temptation
Veros Carleton [pseud.
   Amy Cox]
Ottawa: Graphic, 1931

A roman à clef set amongst Ottawa's wealthy and powerful. If it is anything like Madge Macbeth's The Land of Afternoon, also published by Graphic, I'm in for a real treat.

A Social Departure
Sara Jeanette Duncan
New York: Appleton,

It says nothing good about this country that I was able to buy a Very Fine first edition of this novel for $12.50.

The Cannon's Mouth
Wilfred Heighington
Toronto: Forward, 1943

One of the few Canadian Great War novels by a veteran of the conflict.  This was a birthday gift from my friend James Calhoun, the foremost historian of Canadian military literature, I didn't know The Cannon's Mouth existed until it arrived in the post.
Maria Chapdelaine
Louis Hémon [trans.
   W.H. Blake]
New York: Macmillan,

My fifth copy of Hémon's big book, I uncovered this on one of Attic Books' dollar carts. Inscribed by American college prof Carl Y. Connor, who provided an intro and notes, it serves as a reminder of the popularity this novel once enjoyed south of the border.
Wives and Lovers
Margaret Millar
New York: Random
   House, 1954

I'd long been interested in Millar non-mysteries, but could never afford them. Syndicate Books' Complete Millar finally granted me access. Wives and Lovers ended up being the best novel I read in 2017. Researching my review, I stumbled upon this first edition offered online at US$3.98.

A Voice is Calling
Eric Cecil Morris
Montreal: B.D. Simpson,

A clerk living a mundane life in mid-20th-century Gaspé finds himself transported through time and space when playing the organ of his local church. J.S. Bach serves as tour guide to 18th-century Leipzig!

Lust Planet
Olin Ross [pseud. W.E.D.
Hollywood: International
     Publications, 1962

Canada's most prolific novelist, Ross made most of his money writing romances and Dark Shadows TV tie-ins. Lust Planet is his second and last "adults only" novel. Ribald, it's the subject of my column in the next issue of Canadian Notes & Queries.

Hot Star
Robert W. Tracy [pseud.
   Alvin Schwartz]
New York: Arco, 1952

Following Touchable, further titillation from a writer who seems destined to be remembered as the creator of Bizarro Superman. I'm guessing Hot Star wouldn't have passed the Comics Code Authority.

Phyllis Brett Young
London: W.H. Allen, 1964

I've been meaning to read Phyllis Brett Young for some time, and everything I know about this novel tells me that it is the place to start. "The jacket reminds me of Hitchcock," says my wife. I agree.

Note: Author of Psyche, not Psycho.

A year of austerity? Who am I kidding? That edition of Packard's The Big Shot was the second of two bought in 2017.

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01 January 2018

Agnes Maule Machar's New Year's Wish (& mine)

'To know the love of Christ, that passeth knowledge.' 
               To know by surest inner sight
                    The love that ‘passeth being known’;
               To know that this, the Infinite,
                    Is yet for evermore our own: 
               As gentle as the falling dew,
                    Stronger than mightiest waves are strong,
               New, as each opening day is new
                    Old as the eternal years are long!  
               Wider than heaven’s blue above
                    The stars that most remotely shine;
               Nearer than human looks of love
                    That are but gleams of the Divine. 
               To know that love, most tender, true,
                    Closer than earthly ties most dear—
               This be the blessing ever new
                    To gladden this and every year.

A Happy New Year to all! 

Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear.

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