26 August 2019

Domestic Suspense in Small Town Ontario

M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty
Frances Shelley Wees
New York: Doubleday, 1954
222 pages

M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty begins after a moment of high drama. A woman has been found not guilty of murdering her husband. The jury foreman sweats and sits as the presiding judge delivers his concluding remarks. The Toronto court room then empties in an orderly fashion.

No one is satisfied.

Members of the public are frustrated by the lack of resolution. Mrs Graham, mother of the murdered man, seethes – not for want of justice, but because a guilty verdict would've handed over her son's fortune. Helen, the accused, is unhappy that her name was not cleared. She thinks of her young son, Jamie, and worries how he'll get on in the world when some maintain that his mother murdered his father.

With the aid of her late husband's fortune – half a million dollars! – Helen sets out to clear her name. A book of forged cheques leads to a nicely furnished flat and diaphanous red negligee. There's no shock in this – Helen knew her husband was a cad – the value of the discovery comes in its connection to the town of Mapleton, a growing bedroom community not far from Toronto. There's a woman there, a curvaceous woman, with whom her husband had been carrying on.

Helen is so dedicated in her pursuit that she purchases and moves into a newly-built bungalow that borders the property of the curvaceous woman and her family. The young widow believes she's alone in her investigation, but she is wrong. Jonathan Merrill, "psychological consultant to the Toronto police," has long been on the case. His sister Jane spent several fruitless months snooping as Mrs Graham's maid, and has now found employ in Helen's new home. Constable Harry Lake, Merrill's right hand man, passes himself off as a gardener, and manages to get work tending to neighbourhood lawns.

As Helen, Jonathan, Jane, and Harry watch for someone to slip up, next-door neighbour Burke Patterson, a commercial artist, begins showing an interest in the widow. He's attractive enough, and seems a nice fellow, but why did he paint all those portraits of the curvaceous woman?

Wees's depiction of a post-war bedroom community, complete with country club, catty wives, bland business-minded husbands, and free-flowing liquor, forms much of the novel's appeal. And then there's the hanging suggestion that Helen's husband may not have been  murdered at all, but simply miscalculated the dosage of his sleep medication. Might adultery be the only crime?

With the novels of Margaret Millar and Wees's own The Keys of My Prison, it is one of the finest examples of Canadian domestic suspense.

Trivia: M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty first appeared in a condensed version as I Am Not Guilty (Ladies' Home Journal, February 1954). I much prefer the latter title. How 'bout you?

More trivia: M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty is the first novel to feature Jonathan Merrill, Jane Merrill, and Constable Harry Lake. The trio next appear in This Necessary Murder (1957). The model for Merrill was Toronto publicist and magazine writer James A. Cowan.

Object: A cheaply produced hardcover consisting of white boards and cheap paper, my horribly damaged copy is a book club edition. It was purchased last May for sixty cents (with a further $7.80 for shipping and handling). The jacket design is by Fred McCarroll. I wonder why "A NOVEL OF SUSPENSE" is so downplayed.

Access: M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty was first published by in 1954 by Doubleday. Used copies aren't plentiful online, but they are cheap. At US$20, the most expensive, a Very Good copy of the first edition, is the one to buy.

It also appeared – supposedly in full, though I'm not convinced – in Northern Lights, a 1960 Doubleday Book Club anthology selected by George E. Nelson. Mazo de la Roche wrote the introduction!

The last M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty saw print was in 1967 as a Pyramid Gothic title. It is not a gothic novel. The cover depicts Helen much as she's described in the novel. But is that really Toronto? Sure as hell isn't Mapleton. And who's that in the background? The judge?

There has been just one translation, the German Mylord, ich bin nicht schuldig. First published in 1960, I see at least two editions:

Copies of M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty are held by Library and Archives Canada, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and seven of our university libraries. Frances Shelley Wees lived the better part of her adult life in Stouffville, Ontario, so how is it that the Whitchurch-Stouffville Public Library doesn't have a single one of her books?

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19 August 2019

Bach to the Future, Part III: The Squeaking Wheel

Final words on A Voice is Calling and its author.
About eight years ago, I posted a piece on The Squeaking Wheel, an ugly, bigoted screed that was self-published in 1966 under the pseudonym "John Mercer." All I knew of its authorship came from the book itself, which claimed "John Mercer" to be two men, both English-speaking Montrealers, who worked in the fields of advertising and medicine.

That's not much to go on.

"Even today their identities are a mystery," I wrote in my review. I doubt anyone was on the case – and wasn't myself – so, it was unhappy coincidence that in researching A Voice is Calling I came upon the obituary of its author (Montreal Gazette, 5 December 2001). It includes this sentence:
As an author he wrote A Voice is Calling, published in 1945; Trespass Against None, published in 1950; Le Dernier Voyage with Martine Hebert-Duguay, published in 1951; The Squeaking Wheel as John Mercer, published in 1965; Against the Tide, published in 1989; and Focus and Middle Distance, two autobiographical novels published recently.
And so, the identity of one of the two men behind The Squeaking Wheel is revealed. I wouldn't have guessed it from reading A Voice is Calling. The Squeaking Wheel is an anti-francophone rant, yet the hero of A Voice is Calling, Andre Brousseau, is a sympathetic and talented French Canadian. The novel's few anglophones are pleasant and encouraging. Given that every other character is a francophone, I don't think anything can be read into the fact that their number includes the three villains.

Eric Cecil Morris was the ad man behind The Squeaking Wheel – he was working for Cockfield-Brown at the time – but who was the medical man?

As before, I can't be bothered.

My original post on The Squeaking Wheel was deleted and rewritten for publication in The Dusty  Bookcase. Because I feel so strongly about the "John Mercer" book, I'm reposting my review as it first appeared on this blog on 27 December 2011:

The Squeaking Wheel;
     Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the French
and Love the Bomb
John Mercer [Eric Cecil Morris]
n.p.: Rubicon, 1966

Let's get rid of this so as to not track it into the New Year.

I came upon The Squeaking Wheel in an Ontario thrift shop; its bold, if inept declaration—"4TH. [sic] PRINTING OF THE BEST-SELLING BOOK ALL CANADA'S TALKING ABOUT!"—did attract.

I don't remember talk of this book; but then I was only just learning to speak when The Squeaking Wheel was first published. Sure looks like it was popular. The copyright page records four printings in three months! Two in February 1966 alone! In the foreword, author John Mercer tells us that the first two printings amounted to "many thousands" of copies. So why is this the only one I've ever seen? And why was there no fifth printing?

I'd ask John Mercer, but he's a fabrication, a pseudonym for two men to hide behind. "English-speaking Montrealers who have a curious desire not to be blown sky-high to a Protestant Heaven by a few well-placed sticks of dynamite," they reveal nothing more about themselves than that they work in the fields of advertising and medicine. Even today their identities are a mystery.

More furious than funny, those familiar with Rebel Media comment pages will recognize the John Mercer style. Irrational anger and uncontrolled ranting accompany fantastical statistics presented without citation. Quotations, even those pitching the book, lack attribution. It's all here, including that old saw about Quebecers being horrible drivers: “It has often been said by opponents of French-Canada that one way to solve the problem of Quebec is to give every inhabitant a car and turn all the traffic lights green for one day.”

Take care now. Those words come not from the authors, but the "opponents of French-Canada." Or so the John Mercer men would have you believe. The reader will soon recognize that they too are opponents.

The Quiet Revolution is five years old, the Bi and Bi Commission is just beginning, and already the authors, who "have lived all their adult lives in Quebec," are fed up. Their message is clear: "Quebec is a conquered country and its people are a conquered people"... and somewhat inferior:
We are a little tired of hearing about biculturalism and French-Canadian culture. We don’t quite agree with a noted politician who recently said the only thing French-Canadian culture has produced is strip-teaser Lily St. Cyr and hockey-player “Rocket” Richard.
Again, don't you be pinning this on John Mercer. That stuff about the stripper and the hockey player comes from some politician. Who? Who knows. The men behind the pseudonym are only repeating what they've heard, and they don't quite agree.

Not quite.

The Squeaking Wheel was never talked about by "everyone in Canada"; not even Montreal's English- and French-language presses gave it much attention. Serious discussion of the book is limited to a few sentences in journalist Solange Chaput-Rolland's Reflections (1968):
The pens of these English-speaking compatriots are certainly not very brave. Of course it is true that, when one describes unpleasant reality, one receives in return unpleasant insult. But liberty of speech demands the dignity and courage of that speech. And those who hurl invective at their compatriots, while keeping themselves well hidden, are not really respectable citizens.
Though I can’t top that, I’ll add that I don't think the cowards hiding behind the pseudonym were Montrealers. Real Montrealers know it's Lili, not "Lily"; and they know she was not French-Canadian, but American.

I'll add that we Canadians know not to hyphenate "hockey player."

There, sweet Virginia, I've scraped the shit right off my shoe.

Lili St. Cyr [née Willis Marie Van Schaack]
1918  - 1999
Maurice "Rocket"  Richard
1921 - 2000

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18 August 2019

Nelson Ball (1942 - 2019)

Thoughts this weekend have been with Nelson Ball, who died this past Friday. I first encountered Nelson as a poet, and later as a bookseller. He knew more about Canada's fly-by-night post-war paperback houses than anyone. It was my good fortune to have been able to tap his knowledge. Unfailingly generous, Nelson shared my enthusiasm, encouraged my exploration of CanLit's dustier corners, and took joy in my discoveries (most particularly Richard Rohmer's pseudonymously published volume of verse).

Nelson supplied me with dozens of books over the years: Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, Flee the Night in Anger, Bad Men of Canada... but of all he sent my way, I value nothing so much as Minutiae, a limited edition chapbook he published in 2014 with Cameron Antsee's Apt. 9 Press. A gift, it was included in an order for Sin for Your Supper, Dirty City, Frustration, No Place in Heaven, Overnight Escapade, Strange DesireDaughters of DesireHe Learned About Women, and Too Many Women.

Its inscription reads "For Brian Busby - with admiration."

Right back at you, Nelson.

I thank you for your kindness. I'm grateful that our paths crossed.

You will be missed.

You are missed.


Addendum: Cameron Anstee and rob maclennan share their memories of Nelson.

12 August 2019

Bach to the Future, Part II: Le Dernier Voyage

Le dernier voyage: Un roman de la Gaspésie
     [A Voice is Calling]
Eric C. Morris [trans. Martine Hébert-Duguay]

Montreal: Chanteclerc, 1951
255 pages
A brief addendum to last week's post on Eric Cecil Morris' A Voice is Calling.
A debut novel by an unknown, A Voice is Calling received little attention when published and has been pretty much ignored ever since. So, how to explain this translation?

Consider this: A Voice is Calling was published in 1945, the very same year as Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes, described at the time as "the GREAT Canadian novel" (Chicago Sun). "Two Solitudes may well be considered the best and most important Canadian novel ever published” said the Globe & Mail. MacLennan's second novel, following the acclaimed Barometer Rising, Two Solitudes received the 1945 Governor General's Award for Literature and has been on high school, college, and university curricula ever since.

Two Solitudes wasn't available in French until 1963, a full eighteen years later... and, curiously, long after published translations in Spanish, Swedish, Polish, Dutch, and Estonian. Le dernier voyage, in contrast, appeared a mere six years after its English-language original.

I first heard of A Voice is Calling through Jean-Louis Lessard, who wrote about Le dernier voyage eight years ago. I'm a touch – just a touch – more positive about the work, though his review left me wondering whether we'd read the same novel. Had anything been cut in translation? A Voice is Calling is 487 pages long, while Le dernier voyage numbers 255. French translations of English texts are typically longer, not shorter.

And so, I bought and read Le dernier voyage. I can report that nothing was excised. Differences in layout, design and font size explain the divergent page counts. Translator Martine Hébert-Duguay is faithful to the original. My only criticism is that she is a touch – just a touch – more liberal in her use of exclamation marks.

Her efforts did not bring a change of mind concerning the original text.

The best Canadian novel of 1945 was, of course, Bonheur d'occasion – it, not Two Solitudes, is the GREAT Canadian novel.

Object: A nicely designed, well-bound paperback printed on good paper stock. Sadly, the cover image is uncredited.

Access: Held by Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and thirteen of our universities, Le dernier voyage is nearly as common as A Voice is Calling.

I purchased my uncut copy last month from a Montreal bookseller. Price: US$8.00.

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05 August 2019

Bach to the Future: A Voice is Calling

A Voice is Calling
Eric Cecil Morris
Montreal: B.D. Simpson, 1945
487 pages

The strangest novel I've read this year, I struggled to make time for A Voice is Calling between reference materials for my next book. This distraction may explain why it wasn't until late in the book that I remembered its prologue. In my defence, the scene depicted is uneventful: A middle-aged man and young girl enter a Montreal barber shop. A paperboy delivers a copy of the Gazette, and talk turns to the news that Andre Brousseau, wanted in the deaths of six people, has himself been found dead.

Still, I shouldn't have forgotten, because Andre Brousseau is the protagonist of this strange novel. His past is something of a mystery. An architect by training, Andre once worked in Quebec City, but something happened that made him quit both the profession and the city. Prologue aside, the novel opens with the poor sod working away as a lumber company clerk in the fictitious town of Trois Lupins. As a sophisticated city boy, he had attracted and married Suzanne Cote, the prettiest girl in town. It was her now-deceased father who got him the job. Fifteen years have passed – more than enough time to put to rest any idea Suzanne had that her husband will make something of himself. The couple have settled into a routine in which Suzanne nags him to remove his boots when arriving home from work. At the end of a particularly memorable workday, Andre brings news that his boss, M Lalonde, is transferring him to the Gaspé village of Ste Michele, where he will oversee lumber orders in the construction of a new factory. Suzanne, who once dreamed of Quebec City – and even Montreal – can't bear the thought. She confronts Lalonde in his office... and comes away defeated.

Unbeknownst to Andre, Suzanne and Lalonde have been having an affair. She's now pregnant with his child and the boss wants her out of the way. The story Lalonde gives his clerk involves Ste Michele's new church, built in anticipation of the influx of factory workers. Andre will be expected to play the organ on Sundays.

There's no exaggeration in writing that Andre lives for the organ. His love for Suzanne is dead. Though he does love Anne, their only child, it's not nearly with the depth one might expect of a father. No, his passion is invested in the organ and, with near-exclusivity, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Something can probably be read into the fact that he keeps the great man's music underneath the marital bed.

The Brousseau family's arrival in Ste Michele is not a happy one. The village is much smaller and less refined than Trois Lupins – as is the house found for them by the parish  priest – and the winter weather is miserable. Suzanne spends the better part of her days in bed crying, while twelve-year-old Anne attends to her needs. Andre, on the other hand, settles in quite nicely. He finds a loyal friend and confident in goodnatured neighbour Lawrence Nixon, a cultured Englishman who has taken refuge in the Gaspé after having suffered some sort of tragedy.

Dust jacket copy describes A Voice is Calling as "a book for everyone – for those who like romances, thrills and adventure, for lovers of music, but most particularly for the countless thousands of readers who like a good, strong, interesting plot that will hold their attention on every page." To the point of Andre's budding friendship with Lawrence, the book held my attention, but this had more to do with it being something of a curiosity. Not many English-language Canadian novels feature French Canadian protagonists, and I can't think of another set in the Gaspé.

Then the novel took a very strange turn.

One evening, while playing the organ alone in the church, Andre senses a ghostly presence. This frightens him, but not so much that he doesn't return. He comes to believe that Bach is guiding his hands in performance. And then, on a later evening, a figure appears in coat, flowered waistcoat: "I am a friend of your's Andre Brousseau – you know me very well, said the  man, in a deep quiet voice, "I am Johann Sebastian Bach."

In order to allay skepticism, the composer invites Andre to visit his afterlife, which is an idealized version of 1735 Leipzig. Once there, the lumber  company clerk is treated to a chamber performance by members of the Bach family and falls in love with his host's dark-eyed daughter Katherina. He returns to twentieth-century Ste Michele intent on seeing her as much as possible, but doesn't want to press his welcome. Drama ensues when Suzanne attempts to abort the baby. Her departure by ambulance to a hospital in Rimouski fairly coincides Andre's discovery by two members of Montreal's Casavant Society, and an invitation to perform at Montreal's ill-fated First Unitarian Church.

First Unitarian Church, Montreal
27 May 1987
Andre's recital is a great success, but tragedy intrudes on his triumph with the news that Suzanne has died. Then comes further tragedy when the roof of the newly-constructed factory collapses. Andre is suspected of criminal negligence. He's taken to Quebec City for questioning, manages to escape, and heads back to Ste Michele in chapters loaded with tension and exclamation marks. Andre is convinced that by playing its church organ one last  time he'll be able to leave this world and live for all eternity with Bach and his beautiful dark-eyed daughter.

I won't reveal more for fear of spoiling things.

Or have I already?

Not as much as the prologue.

Trivia: Catharina Dorothea Bach was the first of the composer's twenty children. Morris errs in spelling her name "Katharina."


A bonus:

Object: An attractive, bulky book in navy blue boards. The dust jacket is by C.W. MacDonald.

Access: Held by Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and sixteen of our university libraries.

Four copies are currently listed for online. The good news is that they're going cheap, ranging in price from US$5 ("lightly rubbed," lacking dust jacket) to US$23 (Very Good in Very Good dust jacket). I purchased my copy in 2017 from a bookseller in Tacoma, Washington. Price: US$13.50.

Translated by Martine Hébert-Duguay as Le dernier voyage: Un roman de la Gaspésie (Montreal: Chanteclerc, 1951), the subject of next week's post.

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01 August 2019

Margaret Murray Robertson Matrimonial Mystery (& Canadian literature's most tear-stained novel)

Summertime, and the livin' is busy. Many irons in the fire add to the heat, the pressure is on, and I'm enjoying each and every day. This week I finished a Dusty Bookcase review of Margaret Murray Robertson's 1866 novel Christie Redfern's Troubles for Canadian Notes & Queries.

A forgotten bestseller published by the Religious Tract Society, I expect a fair percentage of sales came through purchase as gifts and prizes. My own copy, which I bought last year from a London bookseller, was presented in 1893 to Hattie Seymour, winner of Miss Moore's Prize at the Mall Board School, Brading.

The author herself taught at the Sherbrooke Academy in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Lorraine McMullin, who wrote the the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry for Margaret Murray Robertson, records that "as a teacher, she was devoted to her pupils, she never called a student by a pet name; instead, she looked to the intellect. Correspondingly, her students revered rather than loved her."

I think of Margaret Murray Robertson as "Miss Robertson." That she never married renders this undated edition curious.

That the scene depicted on its cover does not feature in the novel adds to the mystery.

My thoughts on Christie Redfern's Troubles will appear in the next issue of CNQ. What did I think? Well, I found the  following passages worthy of note. Préparez vos mouchoirs.

Night after night did her weary little head slumber on a pillow which her tears had wet. (15)

Amid a rush of angry tears, there fell a few very bitter drops to the memory of her mother. (22)

Christie did not speak; but the touch of her sister's lips unsealed the fountain of her tears, and clinging to her and hiding her face, she cried and sobbed in a way that, at last, really frightened her sister. (26)

If Christie could have found words with which to answer him, she could not have uttered them through the tears and sobs that had not been far from her all the evening. (39)

The disappointment was a very bitter one; and she turned her face away, that her sister might not see the tears that were gushing from her eyes. (41)

The tears that wet her pillow were very different from the drops that had fallen on it a little while before. (45)

Christie sank down, struggling with her tears. (64)

She was not a demonstrative child, usually; but now she dropped her face upon her father's hand, and he felt the fall of her warm tears. (80).

But she enjoyed the kind greetings and looks of sympathy that awaited them in the kirk-yard, though they brought many tears to Effie's eyes, and sent them gushing over her own pale cheeks. (90)

Her cheeks were crimson, and there was a light in her eyes that bade fair to be very soon quenched in tears. (121)

Her tears fell fast for a moment; but her heart was lightened, and it was with a comparatively cheerful face that she presented herself in the little back parlour, where she found Mrs, Mclntyre taking tea with a friend. (123)

There were tears in Christie's eyes as she raised them to look in Mrs. Lee's face, called forth quite as much by the gentle tones of her voice as by the thought of 'the bairns' at home. (130)

She was very much afraid that if Mrs. Lee were to speak so gently again her tears must flow; and this must not be if she could possibly help it. (137)

It was a troubled, tearful face that Christie laid down on her hands as she said this. (147)

It was only by a great effort that she restrained a flood of tears till her sister had gone. (156)

She went early, as usual, and had time for the shedding of some very sorrowful tears before the congregation gathered. (157)

Turning her aching eyes from the light, she did not, for a moment or two, try to restrain her tears. (166)

In a little while she grew unconscious of the tears she had tried to hide, and her hands fell down on her lap, and her wet cheeks and smiling lips were turned towards the face that her dim eyes failed to see. (169)

It was almost like seeing Effie herself, she told him, amid a great burst of tears that startled the grave John considerably. For a moment her sobs came fast. (191)

His words were light, but there was a meaning in his grave smile that made Christie's heart leap; and her answer was at first a startled look, and then a sudden gush of happy tears. (200)

Christie ceased to struggle with her tears now, but they fell very quietly. (214)

Remembering all they had passed through together, Christie could hardly restrain her tears. (221)

A few tears fell on the leaves of her little Bible; but by and by the former peace came back again, as she felt herself half resting indeed on the only sure foundation. (253)

The letter fell from her hands, and her face, as she burst into happy tears, was hidden by them. (260) Her face was flushed, and the tears filled her eyes, but she spoke very modestly and humbly too. (275)

To say that the surprise was a joyful one would be saying little, yet after the first tearful embrace, the joy of both sisters was manifested very quietly. (315)

Of Mrs. Lee's kindness she could not speak without tears. (317)

She was weak and worn out, and she could not manage to say what she had to say without a flood of tears, which greatly surprised her mistress. (323)

Her first night in the hospital was very dreary. No one can be surprised to hear that she shed some sorrowful tears. (327)
Was it any wonder that many a time her pillow was wet with tears? (332)

It was of no use to try to check her tears. They must flow for a minute or two. (333)

Christie's countenance lighted up with pleasure as he read, and the tears that had been close at hand flowed freely. (339)

Christie's face brightened as she turned her bright, tearful eyes upon him. (342)

Too many teardrops for one heart to be crying, wouldn't you say?

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