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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  1. This review is as entertaining as I'm sure the book will be ;) Yes, though the title is a bit much, I do want to read this one now.

    1. Thank you! I'm betting you'll like this one. It's every bit as good as The Keys of My Prison.

  2. Doubleday from midcentury till absorption by the German conglomeration, made a point of making hardcovers (or at least the non-lead titles) as cheaply as anyone other than Grosset & Dunlap, and that certainly extended to their book clubs (the bc editions were no more downmarket than the trade editions).

    LHJ title less hokey; the magazine did publish more good fiction than anyone would believe today in the years it was a stablemate of the SATURDAY EVENING POST.

    1. True, Todd. It wasn't long after I began collecting that I noticed how crummy Doubleday's hardcovers were compared to those of other houses. Even the dust jackets seem fragile. On this side of the border, my complaint lies with Macmillan of Canada's books of the late 'seventies and early 'eighties - which were printed on decent paper, but had bindings that invariably separated I dare not read many first editions of Alice Munro and Robertson Davies.

  3. This reminds me that I still have not posted reviews on the two novels by Wees I found in my bookhunting/buying travels. They are LOST HOUSE and MYSTERY OF THE CREEPING MAN, two of her earliest titles. I'll try to rectify that next month. In the meantime, thanks for helping to sell a copy of the book you reviewed here to Marie Bottini, an excellent bookseller who I buy from frequently. She had a FINE/FINE copy for only ten bucks!

    1. I haven't yet delved into Wees's early offerings, in part because I don't see them (I've yet to come across even one Wees in a Canadian bookstore), and because I've been wanting to add more of her work to the Ricochet series (which, as you know, concentrates on the post-war). I had great luck with The Keys to My Prison my first Wees read, but was horribly disappointed by Where is Jenny Now? and This Necessary Murder. I'm keen on returning this one to print.

      Always happy to encourage the book trade!