26 April 2021

Nothing Tops Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street

Recently arrived titles at Montreal's The Word Bookstore. Palmer's epic and the others depicted can be purchased through the store's website.

New copies of Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street and other books in the Ricochet series* can be purchased through Véhicule Press.

* Full disclosure: I'm Series Editor.

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18 April 2021

Arthur Stringer Unshackled (then bowdlerized)

The Wife Traders: A Tale of the North
Arthur Stringer
Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1936
319 pages

Tooloona: A Novel of the North
Arthur Stringer
London: Methuen, 1936
248 pages

There's a good chance that anyone who's read more than a couple of Arthur Stringer books has been here before. I don't mean Iviut Inlet, the Inuit community in which The Wife Traders is set, I refer instead to the novel's premise. Like A Lady Quite Lost (1931), Man Lost (1934), and Intruders in Eden (1942), it involves a privileged American who, having suffered a crisis, seeks sanctuary and spiritual cleansing in the most remote regions of Canada.* This time out, that man is Owen Winslow, who flees his Park Avenue apartment and expansive Long Island house for a cramped cabin in Ungava.

Richard Stendal, not Owen Winslow, is the novel's main character. He's been pursuing Celina, the beautiful, leggy wife Winslow abandoned. Though Celina appreciates Stendal's assistance in these trying times, referring to him as her "knight," she remains faithful to her husband. Stendal likes to think Winslow is dead, while Celina is certain that he's alive.

Turns out Celina right.

By chance, the missing man's image is captured – if only fleetingly – in a film of an Inuit walrus hunt in Ungava. When screened, months later at a meeting of Explorers' Club, one of the men in attendance recognizes Winslow in the footage.**

Celina asks Stendal to travel to Ungava, find her husband, and convince him to return to New York.

It seems a rather large request, but then Stendal has been so very helpful in the wake of Winslow's disappearance, right?

The Wife Traders begins with Stendal's arrival at Iviut Inlet, at which the walrus hunt had taken place. There he finds the errant husband shacked up, quite literally, with a young Inuit woman by the name of Tooloona. Winslow considers her his wife.

Now, given Stendal's thing for Celina, one might think that he'd let matters lie and report the bigamy upon his return to New York. If so, one would be mistaken. Instead, Stendal does all he can to break up the couple, going so far as to bribe Ootah, the local shaman, into telling Tooloona that she must leave Winslow.

Stendal's motivation isn't spelled out until quite late in the novel, though I imagine more thoughtful readers than myself might spot it early on. From the start, Stendal sees Tooloona as primitive, a savage, an animal. Even after she saves his life, he compares her to a "faithful dog." Yet, inwardly, he struggles with his growing physical attraction to Winslow's new mate:  
He failed to remember the day or the occasion when he first grudgingly admitted that her body was a beautiful one, that there was something arresting in even the triangulated face with dark tangle of lashes along the smooth cheek, too pale to be called a daffodil-yellow and too dark to be compared to a gardenia. But he had not been compelled to revise his earlier estimate of her. Nothing was gained, he knew by contending that she was an undersized and flat-faced barbarian who exuded the odor of fish oil. It was the white man's duty to be loyal to his white race.
And there you have it.

A bold statement is made on the dust jacket of the American edition:

I've not seen the jacket for Methuen's first British edition, but don't imagine it makes a similar claim. The editor's red pen is found throughout, beginning with the title. The Wife Traders – problematic at best – is replaced with Tooloona. Other changes are much less apparent. Now and then a sentence is struck, and there are occasional word substitutions, like "wonton" for "bitch." The twentieth chapter sees the longest single cut – nearly two pages – in which Winslow criticizes Stendal's assessment of the Inuit as smelly.

The most eye-popping sentence in The Wife Traders does not feature in Tooloona. Anyone curious will find it on page 83, at the very end of Winslow's inept defence of the Inuit woman:  
"I'll concede that she has her own ars erotica. That's imposed upon her, I suppose, by her environment. She has to be warmer-blooded, in a country like this, just as she has to wear warmer clothing. You can write it down to Nature's plan for keeping the race going. Where the soil is thin there must be no mistake about planting the seed. I'm not a medical man enough to know how true it is that the Innuit vulva is more prominent and prehensile than the white woman's."
The Wife Traders is a well-intentioned book, but doesn't transcend the time in which it was written.

Or does it?

The Inuit are seen through the eyes of Stendal, Winslow, and Celina (yes, she eventually shows up). Stendal is a white supremacist. Winslow appreciates Inuit culture, but only when it doesn't cross his own beliefs. Interestingly, it's late-to-arrive Celina who has the greater recognition and appreciation of the Inuit – Tooloona above all. Though Winslow likes to think that he understands the Inuit of Iviut Inlet, his fragile ego leads to tragedy.

Someone is killed.

It wasn't the character I wanted dead.
* Stringer's 1927 novel The White Hands, in which a pair of Jazz Age sisters are sent off North Ontario, provides a bit of a twist on the premise.

** I can't help but note that in Helen Dickson Reynolds' truly strange He Will Return (1959), abandoned wife Constance Owen-Jones discovers her husband is still alive through a newsreel street shot. 

The Critics Rave:
Trash – and not "good trash" –  but none the less will appeal to the vast majority of those who demand nothing but "escape" from their reading. The story of a New Yorker who escapes civilization by joining a tribe of Eskimos in the Far North, "buying" a mate, and evading the claims of wife and home; succeeds in making so-called civilized ideals sufficient excuse for immorality.
Kirkus, 15 June 1936

Iviut Inlet is found nowhere outside Stringer's imagination. It later appears in his 1940 novel The Ghost Plane.

Objects: I have three editions of the novel, the earliest being the Bobbs-Merrill first edition. Bound in green boards, it has stood the test of time. In black boards, Tooloona, the first (and only) British edition, has shown itself a touch more fragile.

To these eyes, the most interesting in my collection is the third. Published in 1955 by Harlequin, it marks the last time Stringer has seen print. As far as I've been able to determine, it's faithful to the Bobbs-Merrill text. Both front and back covers would not make the grade today.

"What secret made him choose the arms of a dark savage instead of the elegance of a penthouse?"

Oh, I don't know. Might it have something to do with being more attracted to women than interior decoration?

Odd that Harlequin describes Tooloona as a "dark savage." Stringer doesn't. 

Access: The Wife Traders was first published in 1936 by Bobbs-Merrill and McClelland and Stewart. Tooloona followed later that same year. And then, of course, we have the 1955 Harlequin paperback.

Used copies of The Wife Traders begin at US$6.50 (the Harlequin paperback in "Good-Very Good" condition). As of this writing, only two are listed online. Get them while you can! The Bobbs-Merrill appears more common. Asking prices range between US$17.00 and US$85.00. Copies with dust jackets begin at US$30.00.

No copies of Tooloona are listed for sale online.

Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library, the London Public Library, Memorial University, the University of New Brunswick, Mount Alison University, Acadia University, Dalhousie University, the University of Toronto, McMaster University, Guelph University, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Alberta, Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Victoria hold one edition or other of The Wife Traders.

No Canadian library has a copy of Tooloona.

Note: I was inspired to read The Wife Traders by the 1936 Club week. 

Links to reviews of other 1936 titles can be found through here. I've only ever reviewed one other title from that year: Arthur Meighen's The Greatest Englishman of History.

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10 April 2021

Remembering Fraser Sutherland

I'm honoured to have been asked by the Globe & Mail to write an obituary of poet, critic, journalist, biographer, and lexicographer Fraser Sutherland. It'll be appearing in print this coming week. For now, you can read the obituary online through this link (note: it's behind a paywall).

Fraser was the first person I interviewed for A Gentleman of Pleasure, my biography of his friend John Glassco. He as unfailingly generous and encouraging. In this way, my relationship with the man was anything but unique.

One of the last times I saw Fraser was at the Montreal launch of The Heart Accepts It All, a selection of Glassco's letters I edited for Véhicule Press. He'd made the effort of travelling from his home in Toronto.

Carmine Starnino, Fraser Sutherland, and Mark Abley
at the launch of The Heart Accepts It All.
The Word, 14 August 2013

Fraser always expressed an interest in my work, particular the discoveries made while working on this long exploration of forgotten and neglected Canadian literature. My final visit to 39 Helena Avenue, the house he'd shared with his wife Alison, was to pick up some old Canadian pulp novels he'd wanted me to have.

I will never forget his kindness.

RIP, Fraser.


The Globe & Mail, 14 April 2021

05 April 2021

The Dustiest Bookcase: M is for Machar

Short pieces on books I've always meant to review (but haven't).

Marjorie's Canadian Winter: A Story of the Northern Lights
Agnes Maule Machar
Toronto: Briggs, 1906
315 pages

Another winter has come and gone... the twelfth since I found this book at the Stratford Salvation Army Thrift Store. It spent the season on my night table, vying for attention with The Sleeping Bomb, The Terror of the Tar Sands, A Gift to Last, The Wronged Wife, and all kinds of unkind works about Maria Monk. Snubbed yet again, Marjorie's Canadian Winter has been returned to the living room bookshelves.

Miss Machar's most popular novel, I feel it must be read in winter.


Don't know. After all, I'm always up for hearing "Theme from A Summer Place." Doesn't matter what time of year.

Because I dislike spoilers, I've made a point of skipping over all references to Marjorie's Canadian Winter when reading about Agnes Maule Machar. However, for the purposes of this post, I allowed myself this review of the original edition from the December 24, 1892 number of The Critic:

I can attest to the engravings being neat. Sure looks like Marjorie had fun.

Must admit, I'm intrigued by the reference to her encounters with those "not so satisfactory."

Ah, but I can wait 'til at least December. Spring is here! Besides, I found this today folded between pages 62 and 63:

There are conifers that need planting.

04 April 2021

'Easter Lilies' by Agnes Maule Machar

For this Easter Sunday, verse by Agnes Maule Machar, daughter of Church of Scotland clergyman John Machar, from her 1899 collection Lays of the 'True North' and other Canadian Poems
            Oh, where are the sweet white lilies
                  That grew by the garden wall?
            We wanted them for Easter,
                  But there is not one at all! 
            Down on the bare brown garden
                  Their roots lie hidden deep,
            And the life is pulsing through them
                  Although they seem to sleep;
            And the gardener's eye can see them—
                  Those germs that hidden lie, —
            Shine in the stately beauty
                  That shall clothe them by-and-by! 
            Even so, in our hearts are growing
                  The lilies the Lord loves best:
            The faith, the hope, the patience
                  He planted in the breast. 
            Not yet is their rich full blossom,
                  But He sees their coming prime
            As they shall smile to meet Him
                  In earth's glad Easter time! 
            The love that striveth towards Him
                  Through earthly gloom and chill;
            The humble sweet obedience
                  Through darkness following still— 
            These are the Easter lilies,
                  Precious and fair and sweet,
            We may bring to the risen Master
                  And lay at His blessed feet!

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01 April 2021

Montreal Most Strange (w/ mysterious directions)

Blood on My Rug
E. Louise Cushing
New York: Arcadia, 1956
223 pages

Miss Talmadge visits her St Catherine Street bookstore on a Sunday afternoon. This being Montreal, the decade being the 1950s, her business is closed for the day, but she's looking for something to read... because, I guess, the bookseller doesn't have much of a home library. Her choice is Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. Miss Talmadge is about to leave when she remembers that there's a letter that must be answered, and so she enters her back office, where she finds a man lying "messily dead" on her treasured rose Khalabar rug.

Miss Talmadge  phones the Homicide Bureau, stirring a napping telephone operator, who in turn sets bored policemen into action. A siren is heard, a car draws up, and Detective Inspector Richard MacKay emerges. Miss Talmadge finds reassurance in the "laughter lines at the corner of his eyes and quirk at one side of his mouth."

Within fifteen minutes, Inspector MacKay has learned the victim's name (George Albert Smithins) and hometown (Red Deer, Alberta). He shares both with Miss Talmadge, whom he's already determined had nothing whatsoever to do with the murdered man. 

Blood on My Rug is the third of E. Louise Cushing's five murder mysteries. Having read the first and second, I knew to expect little by way of intrigue. Mackay, who is so sharp in his first quarter-hour on the case, turns a sluggish dullard. Accompanied by Miss Talmadge, he interviews four of the five young women who work in her bookstore. The fifth, Ellen Pope, left Montreal on the evening of the murder. It's most unlike her, but MacKay doesn't follow up. Why should he? After all, two days later a telegram arrives to say that she's in Lachute caring for sister who has taken ill. 

As in Cushing's previous mysteries, the most suspicious character – indeed, the only suspicious character – will be found to have committed the crime. Though presented as a hero, MacKay errs repeatedly in dismissing evidence pointing to the murderer as "the long arm of coincidence."

St Catherine Street, 1956
St Catherine Street, 1956

It all  makes for a frustrating read, which is not to suggest that it isn't fascinating. What makes Blood on My Rug a real page-turner is its depiction of Montreal as an exclusively English city. There are no francophones. There are no French street names. There are no French newspapers. Every business has an English name. Cushing's Montreal is also one in which the discovery of a dead body might cause distress, but recovery is quick. Here's Miss Talmadge and her maid on the morning after the murder:
Miss Talmadge wakened early Monday morning, which was most unusual for her. She lay looking at the morning sun which glimmered coldly on her white curtains and decided to get up. After all, it was hardly fair to let the burden of any excitement that there might be at the store that morning fall on the girls.
     She stretched out a lazy arm and rang for Daisy, thereby startling that damsel greatly.
     "Did you ring?" she asked uncertainly.
     Miss Talmadge grinned at her. "I did," she said cheerily. "I think I'll go down to the store early, Daisy. Will you shut the window and bring me my breakfast, please?"
The missing Miss Pope's body will be found stuffed in a trunk at neighbouring Brown's Luggage Shop, but none of her co-workers are particularly disturbed. The luggage store closes for the day and police investigate, but business at the bookstore continues as if nothing has happened.

Trust me, Montrealers aren't so cold.

I spoil little in revealing that the solution to the murder comes courtesy of a note the victim hid in the copy of Gift from the Sea Miss Talmadge took home that bloody Sunday. The discovery drew my interest as I'd earlier found this within the pages my copy of Blood on My Rug:

A note found inside a book in which a note is hidden in a book. Whatever can it mean?

The directions continue on the reverse. I'll happily scan the back and send it on to anyone who requests on the understanding that if it leads to treasure we split it 50-50.

If it leads to a body, you're on your own.

Favourite sentence: 
"I know it's not very pleasant for you," he said pleasantly.

Irene Love Archibald, who was dead eleven years when Blood on My Rug was published, wrote under many names. As "Margaret Currie," she had a long-running column in the Montreal Star, at which her husband was editor. She left us with one book: Margaret Currie: Her Book (Toronto: Hunter Rose, 1924).

 Miss Talmadge tells Inspector Mackay that on the evening of the murder she was at the "Capital Theatre," which I take to be a reference to the Capitol Theatre, also on St Catherine Street. It was torn down in 1973. MacKay doesn't ask the name if the movie. I've read enough mystery novels to recognize his laziness. 

Object: A squat book bound in light green cloth. I'd been looking for a copy for about a decade. The one I purchased was first listed last month on eBay with a US$99.95 opening bid.

There were no takers.

The seller relisted at US$9.95.

I was the lone bidder.

An ex-library copy, it's in far better shape than might be expected. Sadly, the catalogue card has been removed. What attracted most was the dust jacket, which features a pitch for The Sting of Death by Perry D. Westbrook and these "RECENT ARCADIA MYSTERIES":
Run from the Sheep - Eline Capit
The Crime, the Place, and the Girl - D. Stapleton
A Few Drops of Murder - Isabel Capeto

Access: As far as I can tell, the only publicly available copy in this country is held by Library and Archives Canada. The book is more accessible south of the border. According to WorldCat, the Library of Congress, seven American universities, and two American public libraries have copies. What intrigues is that those two public libraries serve Kiowa, Kansas (pop 1026) and Mandan, North Dakota (pop 18,331).

No copies are currently listed for sale online.

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