27 May 2019

Gone Fishin' (without Frank and Joe Hardy)

The Phantom Freighter
Franklin W. Dixon [pseud. Amy McFarlane]
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, [c. 1958]
216 pages

I think I read a Hardy Boys book in elementary school. Was "Clock" in the title? It could be I'm wrong. It could be I'm thinking of the Three Investigators. Truth be told, I never cared much about Frank and Joe; not even when played by Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy. My interest in the Hardy Boys – very limited – came later in life, when I learned that fellow Canadian Leslie McFarlane had penned their earliest adventures. In fact, he wrote the very first Hardy Boys mystery: The Tower Treasure (1927).

McFarlane churned out twenty in total, but The Phantom Freighter isn't one of them. The twenty-sixth Hardy Boys Mystery, it stands alone as the only novel ever written by wife Amy. One story is that Leslie was away on a fishing trip when the outline came in. Could that be true? In a 19 July 1946 letter to the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which commissioned the novel, Amy writes: "Was interrupted in the middle of the job by a dental operation that meant the loss of 22 teeth at one fell swoop."

Whose teeth isn't clear. Either way, I'd like to see it as a Heritage Minute.

Would The Phantom Freighter make for a good twelve minutes of television? I ask because the first half of the 27 December 1969 episode of The Hardy Boys animated series shares the same title. I haven't seen it, but can imagine the challenges in adapting the story for the small screen. The novel Amy McFarlane wrote involves arson, impersonation, blackmail, sabotage, fraud, theft, smuggling, forgery, counterfeiting, several kidnappings, several assaults, an attempted murder, a second attempted murder, a third attempted murder, a fourth attempted murder, and numerous examples of poor customer service.

What to leave out?

It begins with a letter sent Frank and Joe from a man named Thaddeus McClintock, who is staying at a local hotel. He's looking to meet the boys because they have their "feet on the ground." Then Aunt Gertrude arrives. Their father's headstrong sister, she's ready to move into the Hardy home and give up her "nomadic life." An expressman delivers her trunk, along with a carton that is not hers. She learns that her carton, containing "irreplaceable family papers," was left in error at a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Frank and Joe head off, arriving at the address to find its barn ablaze. Joe risks his life in rescuing what he mistakenly believes to be the carton in question. Firefighters arrive, followed by the property owners. The appearance of the latter is coincidental; they've been away for several days. Next to arrive is the inept expressman, who reports that he was met at the farmhouse earlier in the day by a mysterious figure who called himself James Johnson. And then the boys are off to meet Thaddeus McClintock. A worn-out curmudgeon, "past middle age, and a little sloop-shouldered," he wishes to take a long trip with the two boys... as unattached men do.

This is rough sketch of the first sixteen pages. I wonder how it compares to the outline sent the McFarlanes. An awful lot happens in very few pages, rushed along by matter-of-fact prose and a police department that is as speedy as it is helpful:
From the hotel, the boys went to the police headquarters and talked to Chief Callig. He listened attentively, then reached for a telephone and asked for information about the motor launch Wasp. Apparently, little or none was available, for when the chief turned back to the boys, he said:
     "The launch doesn't seem to be listed. But we'll make some more inquiries."
It is, of course, Frank and Joe – not the police – who crack the case. Though there is no singular mystery in this Hardy Boys Mystery, Aunt Gertrude's missing carton and Thaddeus McClintock's curious desire for a lengthy getaway with the boys are both related to the phantom freighter of the title. This too is coincidental.

Fishing figures in the plot. Dentistry does not.

Favourite sentence:
"A man just made us a proposition and we have to do some thinking about it."
Second favourite sentence:
The Hardys were about to get into their car and drive home when Frank remembered that Mrs. Hardy had asked him to buy some socks and handkerchiefs for their father.  
Trivia: I don't remember the cartoon Hardy Boys, despite the series having its own Gold Key comic book. The cover of the second issue informs: "The Hardy Boys use their rock group as a 'cover' to solve spine-tingling mysteries!"

Here's something for those itching to hear Frank and Joe rock out:

Object: First published in 1947, it's likely that my copy dates from 1958. These are the clues:
  • the brown endpapers featured were introduced in 1958;
  • the list of Hardy Boys Mystery Stories printed on the front fly does not include The Mystery at Devil's Paw (1959).
Purchased in 2017 at London's Attic Books. Price: $1.00.

Access: The book I read features the original text. In 1970, a revised version edited by Priscilla Baker-Carr, first appeared. My understanding is that this is The Phantom Freighter being sold today. If I ever come across a copy, I'll  make a point of seeing whether this passage was made more contemporary:
Frank stopped the car in front of the hotel haberdashery again, and Joe went in to purchase the socks and handkerchiefs for his father.
Hundreds of used copies of The Phantom Freighter are being sold online, the cheapest beginning at one American dollar. A first edition "according to the Carpentieri Bibliography (1947A-1)" is offered at one hundred American dollars. Pay no more than a buck.

13 May 2019

Grant Allen's Breezy Read

An Army Doctor's Romance
Grant Allen
London: Raphall Tuck & Sons, [1893]
113 pages

The publisher lowers expectations with a note presenting this novella as part of its Breezy Library, "an attempt to dissociate a shilling from a shocker." Rafael Tuck & Sons would like the reader to know that this is no Shilling Shocker, rather it is a "Shilling Soother." The unpleasant elements of other Grant Allen tales – adultery (A Splendid Sin), fraud (Miss Cayley's Adventures), arson (The Devil's Die), rail disasters (What's Bred in the Bone), suicide (Under Sealed Orders), assassination (For Maimie's Sake), poisoning (A Terrible Inheritance), and cannibalism (The Cruise of the Albatross) – will not feature. No man will be butted off a cliff by a savage moorland ram (Michael's Crag).

I don't believe I've read so slight a story as An Army Doctor's Romance since childhood. We open on "fresh English rosebud" Muriel Grosvenor, the object of affection of two men serving in the Royal West Badenochs. Oliver Cameron, the first we meet, is a handsome doctor of modest means. His rival, Captain Wilfred Burgess, is just as handsome, and has the advantage of being enormously wealthy. Of the two, Muriel's mother prefers the latter, but the heart wants what the heart wants. During an English garden party on an idyllic English summer's day, the army doctor professes his love and proposes marriage. Muriel in turn declares her love, but stops short of accepting the proposal for the reason that she promised her mother she would not. Her promise to Oliver Cameron is that she will accept no other proposals.

Thwarted by scheming widow Mrs Talbot, who threw Muriel and the doctor together, Capt Burgess has no opportunity to make his own play for Muriel's hand, and so has to resort to a proposal sent by Royal Mail. Mrs Grosvenor pressures her daughter into accepting by post. After the response has been sent, Muriel writes a quick follow-up, breaking off the engagement and "blaming herself not a little for her moral cowardice." But she misses the postman! To make matters worse, Dr Cameron, Capt Burgess, and the rest of the Royal West Badenochs have shipped out to deal with the Matabeles in Matabeleland!

Curiously, surprisingly, in something touted as a "Shilling Soother," there is unpleasantness in the form of a Matabele attack on the Badenochs. Cameron is captured and Burgess is injured horribly. Each thinks the other has been killed. The doctor is released by the enemy and eventually makes his way back to England. Meanwhile, the captain is nursed back to health by Miriam, the beautiful daughter of a famous missionary. Burgess falls in love... but what to do about his engagement to Muriel? The situation is resolved with ease, and everyone goes off happily.

Breezy indeed, An Army Doctor's Romance passed before my eyes without once causing me to pause and give thought. Following Eden Phillpotts'  Summer Clouds and Other Stories (1893), it was the third volume in the Breezy Library. Only three more followed.

I'm not surprised.

Trivia I: By far the least imaginative of the fourteen Allen novels and novellas I've read to date, I was surprised to discover that An Army Doctor's Romance was well-received by contemporary reviewers.

The Publishers' Circular (Christmas 1893)
The most puzzling was a review in The Speaker (25 November 1893), which describes the plot as "distinctly ingenious."

Trivia II: In reading this novel – written for the money, surely – I came to believe that Allen was having some fun with the Breezy Library name because the words "breeze" and "breezy" appear four times in the text. However, research revealed that the words appear no less than nineteen times in the The Devil's Die (1890), my favourite Allen novel.

Object and Access: An attractive, somewhat unusual volume, the image and writing on the flexible chromolithographic cover are raised. The character depicted is Dr Oliver Cameron. His actions are a mystery to me. The interior features seven more images. All are by military artist Harry Payne.

Six of our university libraries hold copies, but not Library and Archives Canada. I've found five copies listed for sale online US$70 to US$250. I won my copy for US$16.99 in an online auction. As is often the case with things Allen, I was the only bidder.

The novella can be read online through this link thanks to the University of Alberta and the Internet Archive.

I don't recommend it.

06 May 2019

A Brief Review of a Book Bought in Error

Exit Barney McGee
Claire Mackay
Richmond Hill, ON: Scholastic-TAB, 1979
146 pages

We've all been there. It's the dying minutes of a book sale, volunteers are exhausted, and you're encouraged to fill up a box for ten dollars... two dollars... whatever you'd care to donate. You scan the tables, scooping up anything remotely interesting, casting not so much as a glance. This is how I came to buy Exit Barney McGee, a title I read as Exit D'Arcy McGee. The fleeting glimpse of the cover image had me thinking it was a kid's time travel novel.


Exit Barney McGee is not a time travel novel, though kids today will find sentences like this old-fashioned, if not puzzling: "He dialled slowly, letting his finger travel backward with each number, muffling the insect buzz of the release."

Truth be told, I found the novel old-fashioned; not because my family had push-button phones in 1979, but because the story's beginning was all too familiar.

Thirteen-year-old Barney McGee was raised the only child of a single mother – his father having abandoned the family when he was a toddler – but he'd been happy enough. For ten years, it was just mother and child. When Barney grew older, he shouldered some of her burden with money earned through a paper route. Though a boy, he was very much the man of the house... until his mom met and married Mr Conrad, Barney's grade six teacher. Now, a year later, they've been joined by baby girl named Sarah.

Barney longs for the days when it was just him and his mom. The two used to go to the movies on Friday nights; now Mr Conrad takes her out for an evening of bridge with the school vice-principal and his wife.

Barney has had enough. He has a vague memory of a letter his father sent his mother, and rifles thorough his mother's lingerie drawer for a cache of letters. There he finds a scrawl sent from Toronto  by his dad. Ten years have passed, but never mind. A mouse named Saki joins the chip on Barney's shoulder as he sets out for the Hogtown address.

I was curious as to how things would develop. The beginning of Barney's story was so unoriginal that I anticipated some sort of twist. Sadly, Exit Barney McGee follows the road most travelled. There is – no surprise – a smidgen of comedy and adventure en route. A kindly lady offers a ride, but skids to a stop when Saki scurries across her pretty pink skirt. Deeper danger rears its head when Barney accepts a ride from Harry, a seventeen-year-old who is fleeing a botched mugging in a stolen car. Harry sees the runaway as his next victim, but the car runs off the road and Barney and Saki are thrown free.

Because Barney's is such a familiar story, I spoil nothing in revealing that the reunion between father and son falls far short of the boy's dreams.

From beginning to end, Exit Barney McGee was conventional; the only thing that stuck out was the entrance of kindly Nell Weatherston. A social worker, Nell has the task of dealing with Harry, who is revealed to be an orphan who has been abused by his uncles. Another of Nell's cases concerns an eleven-year-old who steals gifts for friends. At home, she is beaten by her patents. Nell, the police, and the hospital staff recognize that not all children are loved.  

Sadly, in today's Canada, this too seems old-fashioned.

Object and access: A slim, cheaply-produced paperback. My copy is a first printing. As far as I can tell, the novel was reprinted in 1987 and 1992. It benefits from five interior illustrations by David Simpson. Curiously, the cover references Toronto's Carleton Street, which is not mentioned in the novel. Used copies can be found online for as little as US$5.00. Mine is signed!