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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  1. I'm pretty sure all the copies of this were library copies. Arcadia House published for the subscription libraries that were trying to compete with more affordable books by having exclusive authors, of which E. Louise Cushing was one. You couldn't buy this in stores. I honestly don't remember where I got my copy but I vaguely remember I paid more than I wanted to. I also remember that it wasn't the best mystery I've ever read.

    1. I'd remembered you'd written me about having a copy - I was so envious - but didn't know you'd actually read it, Beau. It wouldn't surprise me if we are the novel's only two living readers. Everything you've written about Arcadia House is new to me. Thank you for this. I now understand why the titles being sold online are more often than not "ex-library," and why it is that the dustjackets feature no prices.

      Not the best mystery I've ever read, either. In fact, it may just be the worst. And I've read Hulbert Footner's The Mystery of the Folded Paper.

  2. Douglas Carey or Hopkins Moorhouse might vie for the title.

    1. I removed all Moorhouse titles from my Abebooks cart after reading Every Man for Himself. This isn't to say I wouldn't pick one up if offered at, say, a church rummage sale. Carey is someone I've always wanted to read, but have never found a decent copy for less than three figures. The Scorpion sounds bloody awful. Have you read it?