22 April 2019

Millar's Experiment in Springtime in Springtime

Experiment in Springtime
Collected Millar: Dawn of Domestic Suspense
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2017

Margaret Millar's seventh novel, Experiment in Springtime is the first to lack a corpse. The original dust jacket describes it as a love story, but the design suggests otherwise.

Experiment in Springtime is a dark tale of an unhealthy marriage. Charles Pearson, the husband, is himself unhealthy. In April, he arrived home from work complaining of a headache. Martha Pearson, the wife, gave him two aspirins, which sent him into anaphylactic shock.

Well, that was Dr MacNeil's diagnosis, anyway.

For several days, it looked as if Charles might die. Dr MacNeil did what he could, and Martha spent many hours playing nurse by her husband's bedside. Not to worry, though he's still bedridden, the novel begins with Charles well on the road to recovery. Convalescence has given Charles time to reflect on his five-year-old marriage to Martha. She doesn't love him – of that he is sure – but he hopes that she one day will. Did she ever love him? Martha has changed. Gone is the young woman of twenty-one who accepted Charles' proposal, replaced with an prematurely middle-aged matron for whom duty and appearance are paramount. Martha dresses the part, always in black, with hats as sensible and durable as her "low-heeled black suede oxfords." The car Charles presented as a birthday present is too sleek, too ostentatious; in her opinion, it doesn't match "the personality she had selected for herself."

Others living in the Pearson house – which was built for Martha – are more keen on Charles. The servants like him, in part because he's easygoing and not terribly demanding. Lily, the blushing young maid, has a bit of a crush on her employer. Laura, Martha's sixteen-year-old kid sister, likes that Charles doesn't treat her like a child. Mrs Shaw, Martha's widowed mother, is just shy of being indifferent; she's happiest when alone in her room counting tangerine pits. Everyone, Martha included, agrees that Charles is a highly intelligent man; after all, he's on the board of directors of the Matson Trust Company.

Though Charles and Martha's marriage is at the centre of this novel, scenes featuring the couple are few. Early in the novel, quite unexpectedly, Charles accuses his wife of having tried to murder him. Concerned with keeping up appearances – the staff are around – she places a hand over his mouth. Charles bites her, drawing blood. The following day, with chauffeur Forbes, Charles departs for rest at some remote, unknown location.

Enter – or re-enter – Steve Ferris, Martha's former fiancee, now back from the war. She rents him the vacated chauffeur's flat above the garage. Given Martha's obsession with what others think, it might seem an odd thing to do – but she has her motivations, not the least of which is spite.

Experiment in Springtime does not have a dead body, though the appearance of one wouldn't have been at all jarring. There is danger in this novel in the form of a denial of mental illness. It's all to do with ignorance and the desire to maintain – I'll say it again – appearances.

It's frightening to think how little things have changed in the seven decades since it was written.

Dedication: "To my husband, Kenneth Millar."

Trivia: Early in the novel, Steve is invited to dinner at the home of his aunt and his spinster cousin, leading to this exchange:
"Well Bea," he said. "How's business?"
     "Oh, fine." She sat opposite him, smoothing her dress carefully over her knees. "Same as usual."
     "I thought the old bas— tyrant would have made you vice president by this time."
     "It's all right. You can say bastard as long as mother's not around."
     They both laughed, but he knew he had offended her by changing the word to "tyrant." It was like moving her back a generation.
     She said crisply, "Remember the cartoon in Esquire years ago? 'I may be an old maid, but I'm not a fussy old maid.' Well, that's me."
The cartoon to which Bea refers appeared in the May 1934 Esquire. It isn't quite as she remembers.

Object and Access: Experiment in Springtime was first published in 1947 by Random House. There was no second printing, and no other editions followed. Its inclusion in the second volume of the Collected Millar marked the novel's first appearance in print in seven decades.

Curiously, a German translation was published in 1995 under the title Umgarnt. Its cover uses a detail of Felix Vallotton's At the Café (1909). One wonders why.

The Random House first is surprisingly uncommon. As of this writing, four copies are offered for sale online. At US$35, the cheapest is a Good copy that once belonged to collector and bibliographer Adrian Goldstone. Tempting, but the ones to buy are a signed Near Fine copy in Very Good jacket (US$45) and a Very Good copy in Very Good jacket inscribed by Millar to her sister Dorothy (US$375).

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21 April 2019

'The Easter Winds' by Lilian Leveridge

Easter verse written in the midst of the Great War by Anglican Lilian Leveridge from her debut collection Over the Hills of Home and Other Poems (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1918).

                         The little winds of dawning,
                              Long centuries ago,
                         Went straying in a garden
                              With bursting buds aglow.
                         A wondrous tale they whispered
                              Of One Who loved, Who died
                         For men whose hatred pierced Him
                              In hands and feet and side. 
                         Bright angels told His story:
                              The winds caught up the song;
                         On viewless wings forever
                              They bear the strain along.
                         The flowers await His coming;
                              For love of Him they bloom—
                         The fadeless Rose of Sharon.
                              That blossomed from the tomb. 
                         O little winds of Easter
                              That blow amid the hills,
                         With lily perfume laden
                              And breath of daffodils.
                         Go, blow across the ocean.
                              And carry to "our boys,"
                         Our truest and our dearest,
                              A gift of Easter joys— 
                         The sweetness of the blossoms,
                              The music of the bells,
                         That, hour by hour unwearied,
                              The glad evangel tells—
                         Of life that blooms unfading,
                              Of love that cannot die,
                         Of rest and peace abiding
                              Beyond our shrouding sky. 
                         O viewless Easter angels
                              That wander round the world,
                         Where, reeking red with carnage,
                              The bolts of hate are hurled,
                         Where, rank on rank, the crosses
                              Stand silent on the hill,
                         Go, plant the amaryllis.
                              The rose, the daflfodil. 
                         Then all the winds of Easter
                              Shall bear upon their wings
                         To wounded hearts the essence
                              Of all life's sweetest things.
                         "The Lord is risen!" shall echo
                              From shore to farthest shore,
                         And Love shall reign eternal,
                              And pain shall be no more.

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17 April 2019

Canadian Notes & Queries in Springtime

Behold, Canadian Notes & Queries #104 has arrived! Here it is on the hood of our aging Jeep Liberty.

I look forward to each and every issue, but am particularly keen on this one because it features "No Country for Old Books," my essay on Canada Reads. I think it's important, not so much for my opinions, but for exposing what our "literary Survivor" has hidden from CBC listeners. The show's letter to publishers, sent this past fall, is revelatory – and is printed in full. CNQ made the essay available online last month:
No Country for Old Books
But wouldn't you rather subscribe?

Of course you would. You can do so through this link.

I've also been looking forward to Ian Coutts' article on James Moffatt, the boozy middle-aged Canadian expat behind the bestselling skinhead novels of 'seventies Great Britain.

And then there's Michel Basilières' piece on the great Émile Nelligan in translation.

As he often does, Seth surprises; this time with a spread on The Children's Book about Pulp and Paper and other "little marvels of design and illustration" by Jacques Gagnier and Leonard L. Knott.

Also featured is a new short story by Cynthia Flood!

Other contributors include:
Myra Bloom
Andreae Callanan
Paige Cooper
Jason Dickson
André Forget
Stephen Fowler
Alex Good
Brett Josef Grubisic
Cynthia Holz
Ben Ledoucer
Dancy Mason
David Mason
Marko Sijan
Fiona Smyth
Pablo Strauss
Souvankham Thammavougea
Joshua Whitehead
Bruce Whiteman
My Dusty Bookcase column for this issue looks at The Arch-Satirist by Frances de Wolfe Fenwick. Regular readers of this blog may remember mention of this book in a previous post and on Facebook (yeah, I'm on Facebook). "How is it that a 1910 Montreal novel that begins with the ramblings of a drunken, drug-addicted teenage poet disappoints?" I asked my Facebook "friends."

Those who think I've been unfair to Miss Fenwick may wish to consider this from the July 1910 issue of Canadian Magazine:

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08 April 2019

The Mystery Anthology Mystery Solved?

Canadian Mystery Stories
Alberto Manguel, editor
Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1991
288 pages

My review of this, the eleventh of Alberto Manguel's twenty-two anthologies, was posted yesterday at Canadian Notes & Queries online:

What did I think?

Well, for one, it has the most inept introduction I've ever encountered. These jackets to books by writers who are not so much as recognized will provide further clues.

Phantom Wires
Arthur Stringer
Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1923
The Shadow
H. Bedford-Jones
New York: Fiction League, 1930
The Blue Door
Vincent Starrett
New York: Doubleday, 1930
The Maestro Murders
Frances Shelley Wees
New York: Mystery League, 1931
The Hidden Door
Frank L. Packard
New York: Doubleday, 1933
Trouble Follows Me
Kenneth Millar
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1946
Exit in Green
Martin Brett [pseud Douglas Sanderson]
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1953

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02 April 2019

The Return of Jimmie Dale, Alias Gray Seal

Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal
Michael Howard
n.p.: The Author, 2017
375 pages

My final year as a trick-or-treater was spent walking though cold, dark streets of suburban Montreal as the Shadow. I wore my grandfather's raincoat, his fedora, and a red winter scarf that belonged to my mother. I carried a squirt gun that bore some resemblance to a Colt .45. The fake nose I'd torn off a pair of plastic Groucho Marx glasses was left behind; I couldn't figure out a way to make it stick to my face.

Even then, at age eleven, I knew it was unlikely that the adults handing out candy would recognize my costume. I tried make things easier by affixing the Shadow logo, traced from the cover of DC Comics' The Shadow #3, to the paper Steinberg's grocery bag used to collect my loot.

I was a 'seventies kid steeped in the culture of the Great Depression. My favourite television show was The Waltons. Decades-old episodes of The Shadow played each summer on As It Happens. The pharmacy in nearby Pointe Claire Village sold oversized reproductions of Detective Comics #27 and Batman #1.

What I didn't realize then, or in the the thirty or so years that followed, was that my favourite crime fighters – the Shadow and Batman – had been influenced by the Gray Seal, a character created by Frank L. Packard, a fellow Montrealer, who had lived not fifteen kilometres from my Beaconsfield home.

The Gray Seal was born in the pulps. First appearing in the April 1914 edition of People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine, his  earliest stories were collected in The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1917). Four more Gray Seal books followed, the last of which, Jimmie Dale and the Missing Hour (1935), was published seven years before his creator's death.

Packard's bibliography offers some explanation as to why the Gray Seal is a forgotten hero. The author produced hundreds of stories for magazines, yet those featuring the Gray Seal are very much in the minority; just five of Packard's thirty-seven books feature the character. Unlike the Shadow and Batman, the creator retained ownership. No one else, save early screen scenarist Mildred Considine, who in 1917 helped bring the Gray Seal to the screen, wrote anything to do with the character that reached the public.

Until now.

As its cover states, Michael Howard's Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal is "The first Gray Seal novel in more than eighty years!" I take care to include the exclamation mark in that quote because its publication is cause for celebration. Howard has done Packard proud.

Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal precedes Packard's adventures in that it imagines the character before his first appearance in People’s Ideal Fiction Magazine. While it is not an origin story, Howard provides more background than is found in Packard's Gray Seal books. Jimmie's father is still alive, the safe company that brought fortune is still in Dale family hands, and yet, Jimmie is already fighting crime as the Gray Seal. The first to experience his form of justice is Elias Hobart, a crook who preys on good people eager to donate money to the survivors of disaster. He's been doing it since the 1889 Johnstown Flood.

Mayor William Jay Gaynor
1849 - 1913
The reference to Johnstown marks one difference between the Howard and Packard Gray Seal adventures. Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal begins and ends with chapters set in mid-September 1920, but the twenty-nine in-between take place during a summer eight years earlier. Howard grounds both time and place with characters making occasional, casual references to events current and past. Figures of the day, my favourite being ill-fated Mayor William Jay Gaynor, make brief appearances.

Elias Hobart is dealt with in short order; the greater challenge in this novel comes from a group of men known as the Spider Gang. They use metal claws to scale the cavernous streets of Manhattan, abducting the New York's most beautiful women.

But for what purpose?

The women who fall victim to the Spider Gang come from all social classes, with the villains scrambling up the exterior walls of both tenements and mansions. No ransom is ever sought. I risk spoiling things a bit in revealing that their motivation has something to do with the occult. The supernatural is another element introduced by Howard. Though common in pulp writing of the Parkard's day, it doesn't feature in his Jimmie Dale adventures.

Or am I wrong?

I can't say for certain because I've read only three of Packard's five Gray Seal books. Jimmie Dale, Alias the Gray Seal has me wanting to read the others. I can think of no greater compliment.

Would that I could go out as the Gray Seal this Halloween.

Trivia: The Grey Seal of my boyhood:

Object and Access: An attractive print on demand trade-size paperback. The cover image is by Doug Kleuba. WorldCat suggests that the novel isn't held by a single Canadian library. It can be purchased through this link to Amazon. Heads up, Library and Archives Canada.

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