16 June 2020

Just Kids

Perilous Passage
Arthur Mayse
New York: Pocket, 1950
233 pages

A semi-conscious man looks about a boat's cabin as a woman presses a wet cloth to his forehead. She's young, her nails are short, and her small hands are calloused. When another man tries to enter, she grabs a gun: "If you come down here, Joe, I'll shoot you."

For a moment, the intruder doesn't move. "I don't want your damn' old hulk, Devvy," he tells her. When the woman threatens a second time, he leaves. "You'd better too," he says. "She's near sunk."

Who's Joe? Who's Devvy?

The semi-conscious man has been beaten so badly that he can't even remember his own name, never mind how he came to find himself in this situation. Devvy tells him he's Clint Farrell. She says they met two weeks earlier in a place called Martinez Cove. They're on a salmon troller that he and his partner operate out of Vancouver. That partner, a Finn named Aleko Johannsen, is nowhere to be found, though the amount of blood covering the deck suggests that he's dead. Devvy wants to know what happened. Clint remembers three men boarding the troller, but nothing more.

Joe was right, the troller is near sunk. Devvy tows the boat to calm waters and leads Clint back to her home:
"I want to help you, if I can."
"Because you were good to me at Martinez."
How so?

Clint Farrell has nearly as many questions as the reader, but as the fog clears and time passes, stark reality emerges.

Devvy is Devise Callahan – "stupid name, but Dad liked it" – an American farm girl who lives just south of the border between British Columbia and Washington State. Dad is recently dead, leaving her to share a house with Aila, a detested drunk her father brought back from the war.

Joe is Joe Peddar, a horny hired hand who once caught Devvy in the hayloft. She bit him and then fired his sorry ass.

Clint Farrell turns out to be a city boy from Oregon. The son of a son of a bitch, he was sent to reform school after flooring his abusive father. Clint jumped the fence to Canada. In Vancouver, he tried to reinvent himself as prize-fighter "Bill Ryan." After his first and only bout  – a loss – the cops nearly picked him up for underaged drinking, but Aleko interceded.

You'll note that I've shifted from "man" and "woman" to "boy" and "girl." I began the novel assuming that Clint and Devvy were adults, but they aren't – not according to the laws of the time. Clint is nineteen. Devvy is seventeen or eighteen.

Perilous Passage is atypical post-war Canadian noir in that Clint and Devvy are underage; Harlequin, News Stand Library, Collins White Circle, and Studio Editions never went there. It's also unusual for its setting; The Body on Mount Royal,  Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, Present Reckoning, and Flee the Night in Anger have nothing to do with country life.

Rural noir, right? If so, I'm hard-pressed to think of another Canadian example from the post-war years.

I'll write no more for fear of spoiling the plot of a recommended read, except to say that what struck me as being most different between this and other Canadian novels of the time was Devvy's strength. Clint has the fists, sure, but she is the stronger in both character and intelligence. What's more, her smarts save his butt. Turning to the back cover, after having read the final page, I see that I'm not alone in my opinion.

Girls mature more quickly than boys, right?

It was so in my experience.

Object and Access: A trade-size paperback purchased £5.00 from a UK bookseller. Much as I like the James R. Bingham cover illustration, depicting the opening scene, I'm quick to point out that Devvy's hair is too long and her breasts are too big. Her image on the dust jacket of the Morrow first edition is more faithful to the author's description.

Perilous Passage first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in seven instalments running from May 14 to June 25, 1949. A Canadian Press story (10 May 1949) reports that Mayse received $15,000 in return, "the highest price ever paid to a Canadian writer by that magazine."

Saturday Evening Post, 14 May 1949
That same year, the novel enjoyed two hardcover printings with Morrow. My Pocket Books edition is dated September 1950 (I've yet to find evidence of a second printing). In 1952, Frederick Muller brought out a UK edition. An uncredited Swedish translation, Farlig kust, also 1952, was published by B. Wahlström.

Copies in its various editions can be found amongst the holdings of Library and Archives Canada and in just four of our academic libraries.

My thanks to Beau, whose reminder encouraged me to read this novel.

Related posts:
Arthur Mayse: The Gift of His Extraordinary Life
Arthur Mayse, His Wife, and The Beachcombers


  1. I was pretty impressed by the depth of the human colour, though they spend marginal time actually in Canada. Mayse is a very good writer. What may have impressed me most was the evenness of the quality. I just finished reading "The Country of Strangers" by Francis Shelly Wees, and though it had some great passages, there was some clunky exposition that threw me off a bit. "Perilous Passage" was definitely a great thrift store score for me.

    1. Must admit, I was expecting to be at least slightly disappointed. The only recent review I could find - at Goodreads - led me to expect so much. But like you, I was impressed. This was a book written by a writer who really knew his stuff.

      My relationship with FSW runs hot and cold. I think so much of those I've liked that I've worked to return them to print (The Keys of My Prison in 2016; I Am Not Guilty this coming autumn). The others I thought were awful. I haven't come across a copy of The Country of Strangers, If I do, there'll be a sale in me. If not... well, I trust your judgement.