13 October 2020

M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty: Title, Cover, Confession

The new Ricochet edition of Frances Shelley Wees's I Am Not Guilty arrived in my rural mailbox last week, meaning that it is well on its way to the very best Canadian bookstores. A proud papa, I can't help but note that its publication coincides with the tenth anniversary of the Ricochet Books imprint.

Wees was one of this country's earliest and most prolific mystery writers, and yet she has no Canadian Encylopedia entry. Her name is not so much mentioned in the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. What I know about the author and her work was derived from old newspaper articles and reviews read on microfilm. In all that fast-forwarding and rewinding, it became clear that two of her novels, M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty (1954) and The Keys to My Prison (1956), had been particularly well received back in the day. I bought and read The Keys of My Prison five years ago. Ten months later, it was reissued as the eleventh Ricochet Books title.

After that, I turned my attention to Wees's 1958 mystery Where is Jenny Now? I'm a sucker for titles that ask a question. Is anything better than Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? Should I have ended that sentence with a second question mark? I don't think so. Who knows? In any case, Where is Jenny Now? turned out to be disappointing.

Next up was This Necessary Murder (1957). Another good title, but like Where Is Jenny Now?, it is not the author's best work.

M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty is the very opposite of a good title, which is why I avoided the novel for so long. It wasn't until last August, five years into my exploration of Wees's work, that I managed to turn the title page. What I found on the other side was a clever and intriguing tale of domestic suspense, every bit as captivating as The Keys of My Prison.

And so, I proposed M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty as the next Ricochet Book, all the while shuddering over the title. I considered reissuing the novel as I Am Not Guilty, but this only made me unhappy. Who am I to retitle a work? But then I found this, on the inside flap of the Doubleday first edition:

I was pleased, the author's estate was pleased, and so we progressed to the cover.

A series devoted to post-war Canadian noir, Ricochet covers use vintage artwork from decades-old editions. The options have at times been overwhelming – as in the case of John Buell's The Pyx – but not so with M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty. It was first published by Doubleday as a hardcover:

What do you think?

I quite like the dust jacket because it was so like a film noir title screen, all the while recognizing that it doesn't really lend itself to Ricochet's mass market format. My only complaint is that "A NOVEL OF SUSPENSE" isn't given more play. 

Can you see it? It's there in the bottom right-hand corner.

The Doubleday edition found alternate life through the publisher's book club, after which it disappeared. Curiously, given Wees's low profile in this country, the novel next saw print in Northern Lights, a bulky 1960 Doubleday Book Club anthology devoted to Canadian fiction. It wasn't until 1967, a full thirteen years after M'Lord, I Am Not Guilty last saw print on its own, that it appeared in paperback. In keeping with the time, publisher Pyramid gave it the look of a gothic romance.

The novel is anything but a gothic romance.

So, which to choose?

I was pushing for the Doubleday, until I remembered that as Mylord, ich bin nicht schuldig the novel had enjoyed two German editions. Much as I like the author photo, the cover of the first, a hardcover published by Goldmann in 1960, didn't quite work.

A later Goldmann paperback from Goldmann, made the grade. Adapted by J.W. Stewart, it serves as the cover of this sixteenth Ricochet title.

I'm hoping that the seventeenth will be a novel I reviewed here earlier this year.

Any guesses?

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  1. I'll give that a shot!
    Looks good.

    1. That I can't say whether I prefer it to The Keys of My Prison says something.

  2. Congratulations of number 16. Is number 17 "The Last Canadian"?