17 May 2021

He and His Arrow

Quest for Pajaro
Edward Maxwell [pseud Ted Allan]
London: Heinemann, 1957
116 pages

Before the title page, the reader encounters this:

It has the appearance of a publisher's note, but I suspect it was written by Allan. Either way, the fiction has already begun.

Quest for Pajaro is told in the first person. It's narrator, Edward Maxwell, is a son of great wealth and privilege. As a very young man, he designed and flew experimental aircraft. When came the Second World War, he joined the Royal Air Force, eventually becoming Chief of Staff to Air Vice Marshal Sir Matthew Brown Frew (right).

The war now over, Maxwell has settled into early middle age, living on the Buckinghamshire estate left by his parents. Of his personal life, he has only this to say: "I was married at the age of twenty-four, divorced a year later, and the less said about that unfortunate incident the better. At the age of thirty-seven I had still not found any woman I cared to share my life with."

Maxwell may be a bit off women , but his youthful enthusiasm for experimental aircraft has continued unabated, manifesting itself in an sleek jet he calls the "Arrow." The name will cause the Canadian reader to pause and brush away a tear. 

The Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow

Ted Allan was living in the UK when Quest for Pajaro was written, but I don't imagine for a minute that he wasn't following news from home about the real life Arrow, the most advanced jet aircraft of its day.

If anything, Maxwell's Arrow is even more remarkable in that it is both jet and rocket propelled. On the evening before the first test flight, which he himself is to pilot, our hero invites mathematician friend Alan Ryerman to discuss the project over dinner. A good amount of gobbledygook follows, much of it speculation as to what might happen if the Arrow cracks the "thermal barrier." Ryerman raises the intriguing possibility that his host might simply disappear. This speculation has to do with the speed Maxwell expects to achieve, combined with the speed of the Earth's rotation, the speed of our planet as it circles the sun, the speed of our solar system in the Milky Way, the speed of the galaxy itself, and... well, you get the idea.

As I say, gobbledygook. It's to Allan's credit that he keeps it brief.

The next morning's test flight begins just as hoped. Maxwell passes Mach I, then fires up the rockets. He sees a full circle rainbow, and immediately becomes confused as to whether the cloud ceiling is up or down. Then the clouds disappear, as does colour and all sense of motion. And then he blacks out. 

Maxwell regains consciousness in a one-room hut belonging to a Basque goat-herd and his wife. Their only child, an exquisitely beautiful daughter named Angelita, nurses our hero back to health. Just shy of twenty-one, at birth she suffered a brain injury which has rendered her mute.

There's a something of the fairy tale about Angelita. Though incapable of speech, she's able to communicate with birds through cooing and whistling. Her only friends, they fly in and out of the hut as in a Disney movie, and are talkative companions on walks.

Maxwell tells Pedro, the goat-herd, that he needs to send a telegram, only to be told that this remote corner of the Pyrenees has no such service. He offers to take a letter to Pajaro, the closest village, from which it will eventually make its way to San Bettino, then San Sebastian, and then to whichever destination it is addressed.

Maxwell accepts, sending a letter to Ryerman detailing his location. Days pass, during which our bedridden hero and Angelika become increasingly close. Eventually, Maxwell's letter is returned marked with "the careless script of officialdom" that the recipient is deceased. The cancellation date reads "19 Mayo, 1977."

It's only then that our hero realizes he's somehow flown into the future. The Arrow took off on the morning of 15 May 1956, months before the exquisite Angelika was even born! 

Bruce Petty's jacket illustration, itself exquisite, is more appropriate to a romance novel than a work of science fiction. But then, Quest for Pajaro is more a love story than a tale about a man and his plane. It's Maxwell love for Angelita – come now, you can't pretend you didn't see that coming – that drives the second half of the book. There's really something for everyone, fans of travel adventure included.

Much as I liked Quest for Pajaro, by the end I couldn't help but think it was better suited to the screen than the page. And so, it came as no surprise to discover that it had once been optioned. Thirteen days after the launch of "satellite moon" Sputnik, Queen of Hollywood gossip Louella Parsons reported: 

The Calgary Herald, 17 October 1957
The film has yet to be made, of course, but I'd love to see it done today as a period piece that moves between 1956 and 1977.

I wonder whether Ted Allan's papers, held at Simon Fraser University and Library and Archives Canada, contain a script. If so, I wouldn't be surprised if it pre-dates the novel.

Quest for Pajaro enjoyed just one printing. I purchased my copy earlier this year from a Wallingford, Oxfordshire bookseller. Price: £4. Until a few weeks ago, when I began encouraging friends to add the book to their collections, copies could be purchased on the cheap. As of this writing, the least expensive with jacket is being offered by an Australian bookseller at A$40.00. Not one of the listings identifies Ted Allan as Edward Maxwell.

The fiction that Maxwell is a real person is given a bit of a twist on the dust jacket's front flap:

Ted Allan wasn't a well-known writer when Quest for Pajaro appeared in bookshops. His previous books were This Time a Better Earth (London: Heinemann, 1939), a pseudonymously-published pulp titled Love is a Long Shot (Toronto: News Stand Library, 1949), and The Scalpel, The Sword (Boston: Little, Brown, 1952), a biography of Norman Bethune, co-authored by Sydney Gordon. He was, however, managing to support his family through work for the BBC and CBC.

The Gazette (Montreal)
27 September 1975
Looking back on his career, I'm not sure Ted Allan was ever a "well-known writer," though my thirteen-year-old self knew his name through Lies My Father Told Me (1975), which I first saw in first run at Cinema Place Ville Marie. I liked the film so much that my mother presented me with son Norman Allan's novelization as an Easter gift.

Was Lies My Father Told Me the high-point of Ted Allan's career? He was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, while the film itself received a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. I have no argument with those who instead point to Allan's script for the John Cassevetes film Love Streams, winner of the 1984 Golden Bear.

How is it Love Streams is so forgotten?

Ten Allan was an interesting man and an accomplished writer. One correspondent suggests that Allan's life would make for a riveting biography. Sadly, the days in which the flush publishers would be interested in such a project are long past.

Still, I hold out hope that Ted Allan will better recognized by people twenty-one years in the future than he is today.

Coincidence: The Arrow was rolled out to the public on 4 October 1957 (below), the very same day Sputnik was launched.

What exciting times!

Object and Access: A bland black hardcover in dust jacket by Bruce Petty. My Lord, his work is wonderful. Here's another example:

Pray for a Brave Heart
Helen MacInnes
London: Collins, 1955
Library and Archives Canada and three Canadian universities hold copies of Quest for Pajaro.

Related posts:

15 May 2021

The Dustiest Bookcase: N is for Niven

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

Old Soldier
Frederick Niven
London: Collins, 1936
256 pages

Twelve years of The Dusty Bookcase and I have yet to read a single book by Frederick Niven.

It isn't for lack of trying.

Regular readers will remember that I spent good money on an old Collins White Circle edition of The Flying Years, but couldn't make it past it's dull, dull, deathly dull cover.

I did better with The Three Marys – which I bought for its cover – only to give up after reading the publisher's description, in which it's revealed that the hero, portrait painter Robert Barclay, is involved in a rail accident: "Barclay is killed, and the books [sic] ends on this note of tragedy." 

Bit of a spoiler, right?

I own only two other Niven titles: Mine Inheritance and Old Soldier. The former is "a story based on the Red River Settlement, Canada," though you wouldn't know it from the jacket of the Collins first edition:

Leaving aside the fact that the clothing is from the wrong century, are those mountains I see?

Mine Inheritance appears to have been popular; plenty of cheap used copies are currently offered online. Sadly, mine is an abridged edition intended for use in Canadian schools.

This leaves Old Soldier, about which I know next to nothing. I say next to nothing because I made the mistake of hunting down 85-year-old reviews. The first mentioned something about a store... and then I smartened up and stopped reading.

What's the book about?

No idea. But I will read this Niven novel! What's more, I'm going to do it this year!

I wonder what the cover looked like.

Related post:

01 May 2021

Stringer's Swan Song

The Devastator
Arthur Stringer
Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1944
198 pages

Arthur Stringer's first novel, 1903's The Silver Poppy, concerns a young woman named Cordelia Vaughan who passes off a manuscript left by a dead man as her own. When published, the stolen work tops the bestseller lists, and its supposed authoress becomes the toast of Manhattan The narrator of The Silver Poppy, English poet John Hartley, discovers Cordelia's fraud, but is too much of a gentleman to destroy her life.

The Silver Poppy was one of my favourite reads of 2019.

I thought of The Silver Poppy often when reading The Devastator, Arthur Stringer's final novel. It too features a male narrator who becomes enmeshed in the life of a seemingly successful female novelist. This time out, the novelist is authentic.

It's narrator, Paul Ruxton, is not an aspiring writer, rather a New York attorney who'd once handled a copyright infringement case for London publishers Dearness & Dengate. Some time has passed, and now Mr Dengate has asked Ruxton to assist Sibyl Sencourt, one of D&D's more lucrative authors, as she disembarks for a new life in the New World. Ruxton acquiesces, waiting three hours on a windy Hudson River wharf. The reader is meant to understand that the lawyer's patience has much to do with Miss Sencourt's most recent novel, The Night of Denial, which he's found "sufficiently interesting, with its frankness and phrasing and its rather manlike sturdiness in exploring the timeworn paths of illicit passion."

Sibyl Sencourt is not quite the woman Ruxton was expecting; petite and practical, there's a whiff of tweed about her. In the months following their meeting on the wharf, they share nothing more than two unmemorable lunches, which accounts for Ruxton's initial surprise by Sibyl's request that he accompany her to a New Year's Eve celebration. Things soon become clear:
What she wanted, she explained, was a first-hand picture of that bacchanalian American evening in one of New York's most bacchanalian hotels. And if I would shepherd her through that night of tumult she'd expect, in the circumstances, to pay all costs.
On the evening in question ‐ 31 December 1939 ‐ the attorney is gobsmacked when Sibyl appears made-up and dressed-up in a low-cut gown. She's definitely on the prowl, but only for material. "It was more ink than wine we spilled that night," Ruxton reports, noting that his date spent the evening observing others, often removing a fountain pen and pad from her clutch in order to jot down a sentence or two.

The authoress's investment in a New York New Year's Eve pays off when a highly-spirited man commands the attention of a neighbouring table. He's Leo Ortell, a handsome, charismatic, self-absorbed, showy, dimwitted Hollywood actor who just happens to be one of Ruxton's clients. In the recent past, the attorney has had to "untangle him from a couple of petticoats." Sibyl is intrigued, seeing in Ortell the inspiration for her next novel, and so follows the actor west by taking a job in Hollywood. Months pass. Ruxton hears nothing from Sibyl until she reappears in New York for a Book-of-the-Hour Club launch. There she tells Ruxton that she must get closer to Ortell to write her novel, and so is set on marrying the actor. "You mean," says the attorney, "that you want to carry the watch home and take it to pieces and find out just what makes it tick."

The first of many weak points in this novel comes in that marriage. Setting aside his history as a philanderer, Ortell had always maintained that matrimony would hurt his box office appeal. How Sibyl manages to land the actor is unexplained, as is the subsequent revelation that she's fallen in love with her new husband. One of the strengths of the The Devastator is what happens next. In keeping with his past, Ortell quits Sibyl for Dorinda Perraton, a supple bathing beauty and aquatic queen he'd met on the set of his most recent film. But Dorinda proves unstable, causing scenes at the Mocambo Club and at the Trocadaro... and then she leaves him. 

The Mocambo Club in 1941, the year in which it opened.
That a woman gives up on Ortell ‐ and not vice versa ‐ should mean something, but Stringer doesn't make much of it; his focus is in reuniting the actor and his writer wife. Ruxton performs as unenthusiastic go-between in bringing estranged couple together: "no particular credit attaches to the agent who reunites two individuals already hungering for union."

Ruxton invites both to his home, then pretends that he's been called away. Returning two hours later, he finds a reconciled couple given to gush. Before long, Ortell begins going on about Sybil's stalled work in progress: 
"It's a wonderful book, Ruxton... And it's going to top everything Sibyl's already done."
     "What's it about?" I was foolish enough to ask.
     "It's about a two-legged vampire who feeds on the flesh of every friend he ever had. You understand ‐ a character study. He thinks he'd a mental wonder, while all the time masquerading as a moron ‐ just a shop window if you get what I mean."
     I proffered the opinion that it wasn't easy to make morons interesting.
     "But that's where Sibyl's a wonder, maintained her husband. "She turns him inside out and makes him so real you carry away the feeling he must have lived in the next block to you."
     I still wonder why some spirit of perversity should have prompted me to question: "Then who's the model?"
     I caught Sibyl's imploring look, and catching it, was glad Ortell had not seen it.
     She had none," he triumphantly proclaimed. "The bounder came out of her head. But I can't understand why she doesn't get busy and wind things up."
This is going to get good, right? Having fallen in love with Ortell, how can Sibyl finish her novel? Does she even want to finish her novel? If she does, will the reading public recognize what her actor husband doesn't ‐ that Ortell is the moron's model?

Sadly, just as The Devastator looks about to take flight, it takes an unexpected turn, skids about, and comes to a choking halt.

Against character, Ortell decides to join the war effort. Older than the average serviceman, the actor is rejected by the Air Force, the Navy, and the Army, but is somehow accepted in the Marines, becoming a member of the 1st Battalion, otherwise known as Edson's Raiders.

Here I note that the author's son, Hugh Arthur "Barney" Stringer (1919-2002), served as one of the Raiders. In fact, The Devastator is dedicated to the man:

Barney Stringer's all-too-brief obituary is well worth reading, but not The Devastator. In the novel's second half, focus shifts to Ortell's own engagements in the Solomons, where he proves himself a hero and leader of men. The transformation from egoist to self-sacrificing altruist is not convincing. Pages devoted to praising Major General Merritt Austin Edson, Sr, under whom the author's son was then serving, are out of place. Still, what struck this reader as most incongruous where four pages of aphorisms drawn from Sibyl Sencourt's novels.

They're not bad ‐ "Genius seems to be the faculty of having faith in everything, and especially one's self," for example ‐  though one wonders why they go on and on and on. My theory is that, at age seventy, Stringer saw The Devastator as perhaps his last opportunity to set in print pithy notes he'd made but had never used.

I may be wrong.

Either way, would that I had his stamina!

I admire Arthur Stringer's industry.

I always have.

Trivia: In The Silver Poppy, plagiarist Cordelia Vaughan is likened to a vampire for the way she exploits others. The same description is used twice in The Devastator, one of which is quoted above. The earlier occurs when Ruxton questions Sibyl's decision to marry the model of her novel: "'I'm not exactly a vampire," she protested, "I think I can give Leo something that he needs.'"

Object: Cheap wartime paper bound in blue boards. My copy was purchased last year from a bookseller in Chatham, the Ontario town in which Arthur Stringer was born. Price: US$21.59. It's inscribed, signed, and dated by the author.

The rear dust jacket lists thirteen recent Bobbs-Merril titles, the most famous being The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

Library and Archives Canada has a copy, as does the Toronto Public Library, the London Public Library, the Chatham-Kent Public Library, the Vancouver Public Library, and eleven of our universities.

Only one copy is currently listed for sale online. Price: US$23.00 (w/ US$30.00 shipping!). A library discard, sans dust jacket, it is not recommended. Give it a pass. You can do better.