27 September 2021

Six Forgotten Novelists at the Atwater Library

This coming Thursday – September 30 – I'll be speaking on "Forgotten Montreal Novelists" at the Atwater Library.

Forgotten Montreal novelists? Where to begin! I've selected six. I'll be talking about their lives with a focus on a novel by each.

These being strange days, I won't be appearing in person. Wish I could. The good thing is that you can watch through Zoom. The link to register is here.

C'est gratuit!

22 September 2021

The Dead of a Dead End Street

Poldrate Street
Garnett Weston
New York: Messner, 1944
256 pages

The first resident of Poldrate Street to die is Sarah Reckon. She's killed by two of her neighbours while stealing flowers from their gardens. Sarah's murder has nothing to do with theft, rather her discovery of a missing dog. Though she doesn't realize it – and never will – the mutt is key in a scheme involving extortion, embezzlement, fraud, mutilation, and sexual slavery.

Three more Poldrate Street residents will die over the next few days. A fourth will be drugged, kidnapped, and then drugged again. That's a lot of activity for a cul de sac consisting of just five houses. 

Eleven people live on Poldrate Street – ten after Sarah is killed. She lived in the first and most modest of its houses. Next to her were Mr and Mrs Gordon and their pre-adolescent son nicknamed "Face." To the reader, theirs is the most mysterious household, but only because the parents are never depicted. Face, on the other hand, plays a prominent role in the novel, despite his young age. He sees a lot of what others miss, mostly because he's a voyeur. It's Face's dog that is missing.

Doctor Ivor Palling lives in the middle house with a raven-haired bombshell named Violet. Everyone believes her to be the doctor's wife, but they're not actually married. Palling spotted Violet waiting at a bus stop one rainy night and offered her a lift. You could call her a pickup.

The fourth house is the home Jacob Sleep, the most elderly resident of Poldrate Street. Sleep had been living his final years alone when he received a letter from an old schoolmate asking whether he might care for her granddaughter. The poor girl had been orphaned, and the grandmother feared that she herself was not long for this world. Turned out she was right. And so, that is how nineteen-year-old Kitty McKay came to live with an old man on a dead end street. Sleep's interest in the girl begins and ends with her sizeable inheritance (of which she has no knowledge).

The last house belongs to Mafia Breene; it's also his place of business. An undertaker, Breene struggles to make a living dealing in the dead. He has some support from Cora, his live-in maid. In her quarters lies the tenth resident of Poldrate Street, Cora's motionless, voiceless, nameless, suffering child known only as "Him."

Of the Garnett Weston novels I've read, Poldrate Street is the very best. As far as I can tell, it's the only one to have enjoyed multiple editions. The second, published in 1945 by American Mercury, gives something away in providing a new title: The Undertaker Dies.

The last, published in May 1950 by Harlequin, uses the original title. Seven decades later, it remains the only Canadian edition. Its cover art, by Max Ralph, captures something of the book. 

Violet does bathe in the nude in her backyard fountain, though her hair should be black. Kitty McKay witnesses this and a whole lot more from a tree in Joseph Sleep's garden. Her hair should be red. The houses on Poldrate Street are Victorian, but not nearly so large as that depicted. The juxtaposition of the imagined house and the brewery makes perfect sense; the street has houses on one side and a brewery wall on the other. Most peculiar. The dining couple in the lower left-hand corner are something of a mystery. The scene doesn't feature in the novel. I'm certain that the lower right-hand corner is meant to depict Cora shooting her boss, though she is described as a rather large woman.

Things are revealed by the American Mercury title and in the Harlequin cover illustration. I've revealed even more myself – but not so much as to spoil the novel. Poldrate Street is populated by uncommon characters with unusual names. Pleasure comes in their interactions.

Not every character is a success. Kitty isn't much more than a pretty face. Her attraction to Jimmie Lane, Sarah Reckon's boxer nephew – it was in anticipation of his visit that she was gathering flowers that fateful night – exists only to elevate the burgeoning rivalry between her and Violet.

Ah, Violet... Violet is a full-bodied character. A femme fatale when first encountered, she gradually reveals herself as insecure and self-hating. Violet's greatest fear is that her exotic beauty might mean she had parents from different races. Her sexual encounters with Mafia Breene and Jimmie Lane – two last spoilers – have everything to do with her desire to be desired. She goes so far as to flirt with young Face, and thinks of him as a future prospect.

Awful things happen to awful people.

Despite its flaws – which are minor – Poldrate Street is by far the most interesting and entertaining novel I read this summer. Published just two years after Garnett Weston quit Hollywood, I very much doubt he had motion pictures in mind when formulating the plot – there's no way it could have passed the Hays Code. And yet, reading the novel I couldn't help but imagining Poldrate Street onscreen. The novel has all the ingredients of a brilliant limited series. 

Now is its time.

It's a shame that Poldrate Street is so obscure.


R. Rowe Holland was chairman of the Vancouver Parks Board and treasurer for the Liberal Party. A barrister, he represented Vancouver theatre owners. In 1932, he was part of a failed campaign to build a large movie studio in the city. In short, he wanted to make Vancouver Hollywood North.

Trivia: Max Ralph holds distinction as the cover artist for Wreath for a Red Head, the very first novel by Brian Moore. Canadian Fly-By-Night has a very good series on Ralph's work for Harlequin.

Beware!: The American Mercury edition is abridged. 

I suspected the Harlequin – 185 pages of text to Messner's 248 – to also be abridged, but Canadian Fly-By-Night's bowdler has convinced me otherwise. The word-count of the Messner is roughly 380 words per page, while the Harlequin is at least 500 per page. 

Object: A hardcover with yellow boards, all evidence indicates a single Messner printing. The jacket illustration is uncredited. The figure is meant to be young Face Gordon. The flashlight he carries was a reward for selling magazines door-to-door. Weston describes the beam it casts as white, not yellow.

I purchased my copy for US$37.50 from a New York bookseller. The shipping set me back a further US$25.00. 

Access: Copies of the Messner Poldrate Street can be found in Library and Archives Canada, Queen's University, the University of Toronto. the University of New Brunswick, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Victoria.

As I write this, no copies of Poldrate Street in any edition are listed for sale online. Ditto The Undertaker Dies.

Related post:

20 September 2021

'The Modern Politician' by Archibald Lampman

Canadian Illustrated News
28 September 1878

On the day of the 44th Canadian general election, verse from The Poems of Archibald Lampman (Toronto: Morang, 1900). 


          What manner of soul is his to whom high truth
          Is but the plaything of a feverish hour,
          A dangling ladder to the ghost of power!
          Gone are the grandeurs of the world's iron youth,
          When kings were mighty, being made by swords.
          Now comes the transit age, the age of brass,
          When clowns into the vacant empires pass,
          Blinding the multitude with specious words.
          To them faith, kinship, truth and verity,
          Man's sacred rights and very holiest thing,
          Are but the counters at a desperate play,
          Flippant and reckless what the end may be,
          So that they glitter, each his little day,
          The little mimic of a vanished king.

16 September 2021

Robert Fife Discovers a Five-Year-Old Book

You'd think Robert Fife might know a thing or two about the publishing world. His first book, A Capital Scandal, co-authored by John Warren, was a lead title in Key Porter's fall 1991 catalogue. Fife went solo two years later with Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician. A slight biography published by HarperCollins, it managed to land on bookstore shelves before her 132 days as prime minister were up. I consider this Fife's greatest accomplishment to date.

Bob hasn't published a book since, but he must surely remember something of his experiences with Key Porter and HarperCollins — which makes the front page of Tuesday's Globe & Mail so curious.

Written with Senior Parliamentary Reporter Steven Chase, the article concerns the 2016 Chinese translation of Justin Trudeau's memoir Common Ground. This in itself isn't much of a story — the memoir was also published in  Germany (Für eine bessere Zukunft), Spain (Todo aquello que nos une), Armenia (Ընդհանուր հայտարար), Vietnam (Nền tảng chung), and Thailand (ก้าวใหม่ที่แตกต่างบนทางเดียวกัน) — but should you be paying attention to these editions?

Fife and Chase don't. Their focus is on Yilin Press, the publisher of the Chinese edition, 传奇再续, and the fact that it's owned by the Chinese state.* This, they suggest, was meant to stroke Trudeau's ego, and was part of Beijing's campaign for a free-trade agreement.

Oh, and it also wanted Trudeau’s help tracking down Chinese dissidents.

Yilin has published other writing by Barack Obama and other Western leaders."China's book industry is controlled by the government, with 582 authorized publishers," they inform, which begs the question  which Chinese publisher they might find acceptable. 
I don't know about Fife, but most of the contracts I've signed have given publishers permission to sell foreign rights and translations of my writing. If successful, we both get a cut. Seems fair.

Liberal campaign spokesman Alexandre Deslongchamps says this was the case with HarperCollins adding that the prime minister's share, and all royalties, have been donated to the Canadian Red Cross.

Fife and Chase have no reason to doubt M Deslongchamps' statements, yet they do.
HarperCollins Canada would not discuss the deal for the Chinese publication of the book or whether any money went to Mr. Trudeau’s private holding company, which is in a blind trust. “I’m afraid these things are confidential business terms that are not typically discussed with third parties,” HarperCollins editor Jennifer Lambert said in an e-mail

And so, I know not to ask HarperCollins about the terms negotiated for Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician.

The real question here is who brought 传奇再续 to Fife and Chase's attention? And why did they wait five years?

* HarperCollins is a subsidiary of News Corp. Yilin Press is distributed in the United States and Canada by Simon & Schuster, a subsidiary of ViacomCBS.
Related posts:

09 September 2021

Talking about Brian Moore's Pulp Fiction

My conversation with Joanna Braniff about Brian Moore's early pulp novels – part of last month's Lonely Passions: Brian Moore Centenary Festival – is now available online. 

We discuss Moore's Montreal years, his work at The Gazette, the plots of all seven pulps, and how writing things like French for Murder helped bring about Judith HearneThe Feast of Lupercal. and The Luck of Ginger Coffey.

Oh, and there's also a bit about Moore's work with Hitchcock.

Lili St Cyr is mentioned.

07 September 2021

Read Quebec. Read Montreal Noir.

Emily Mernin's article "Montreal Noir, from Passion to Print" has been up on the Read Quebec site for some days now. It's a very nice piece on Véhicule Press, its Ricochet Books imprint, and efforts to return post-war pulps to print. I've been remiss in not sharing. You'll find it through this link.

The penultimate paragraph reveals something:

Two of Ricochet’s forthcoming books, much to Busby’s excitement, will be firsts for the imprint: Perilous Passage takes place on the west coast, while another is set between both Toronto and Montreal.
It's true!

Arthur Mayse's Perilous Passage, which I listed last December as deserving a return to print, will be republished next month. The author's daughter, Susan Mayse, is providing the introduction.

As for the unnamed title to follow – "set between both Toronto and Montreal" – I'm not about to reveal. 

Related posts:

01 September 2021

The Prince Classics Robert Barr (Monsarrat mentioned)


Prince Classics is new to me, but has quickly become my favourite print on demand vulture. I have it to thank for the introduction to Dutch artist Jac Mars (1919-1992), whose illustration graces the cover of its edition of this Robert Barr novella.

"One Day's Courtship" first saw print in syndication; The Detroit Free Press, for which the author had once worked, was one of the newspapers that paid for the privilege. Set in nineteenth-century Quebec, the novella starts out as social commentary, moves to adventure, and ends as a love story. Jac Mars' illustration, which first appeared in the April 1962 edition of Woman's Realm, has nothing to do with Barr's story. There are no embraces, but one can imagine. My wife, a thirty-year veteran of the fashion industry, informs that the clothing is all wrong, and finds equal fault in Prince Classics' bind-up of "One Days Courtship" and Barr's 1894 novel In the Midst of Alarms:

To those who prefer In the Midst of Alarms on its own, Prince Classics can provide. The image they use, W.T. Brenda's Woman Riding Zebra, first saw print on the cover of Life (30 November 1922).

I remind that In the Midst of Alarms is set in 1866 and concerns the Fenian Raids across the Niagara River into what is today southern Ontario.

No zebras figure.

Longtime readers may remember my disappointment with In the Midst of Alarms. Barr is shaping up to be one of those writers who run hot and cold with me. I didn't think much of One Day's Courtship and The Heralds of Fame (1896), but remain enthusiastic about Revenge!(1896), The Unchanging East (1900), and The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont (1906)Prince Classics offers an edition of the last of these three: 

Don't know about that cover. Valmont looks like a down-on-his-luck gumshoe, whereas Barr describes our hero as "dressed in elegant attire, as if he were still a boulevardier of Paris." Here's Valmont, as depicted in the frontispiece of the first edition:

And then we have Prince Classics' pairing of The O'Ruddy (1903) and The Red Badge of Courage (1895). The latter is familiar to millions as Stephen Crane's great novel of the American Civil War. The O'Ruddy is the novel Crane was writing when he died. Robert Barr picked up his fallen pen and finished the novel. 

I've yet to read The O'Ruddy or The Red Badge of Courage, and so step out on a limb in describing the cover of Tekla (1898) as the most incongruous amongst Prince Classics' Barr offerings. A historical romance it's set in the thirteenth century.

Of all Barr books offered by Prince Classics, the one that most tempts is A Woman Intervenes (1896), but only because it recycles a painting by Tom Dunn. 

It was commissioned for the Pocket Books edition of Nicholas Monsarrat's The Story of Esther Costello.*

I'm getting on, but am not so old as to be familiar with the bibliography of Nicholas Monsarrat. It turns out that The Story of Esther Costello was the author's follow-up to The Cruel Sea. When published, in 1952, the novel caused some pearl clutching. Five years later, The Story of Esther Costello was adapted by Hollywood in a film starring Joan Crawford and Rossano Brazzi. From what I understand, the synopsis Wikipedia editor Sky Captain provides is equally applicable to the novel:
With her marriage to womaniser Carlo Landi (Rossano Brazzi) in ashes, wealthy and childless Margaret Landi (Joan Crawford) finds an emotional outlet in patronizing a 15-year-old deaf, dumb, and blind Irish girl named Esther Costello (Heather Sears). Esther's disabilities are the result of a childhood trauma and are psychosomatic rather than physical. As Costello makes progress with Braille and sign language, she is seen as an example of triumph over adversity. Carlo gets wind of Margaret's new life and re-enters the scene. He views Esther as a source of cheap financial gain and arranges a series of exploitative tours for her under a mercenary manager Frank Wenzel (Ron Randell). One day when Margaret is absent from the Landi apartment, Carlo seduces and rapes the now 16-year-old Esther. The shock restores the girl's sight and hearing. When Margaret learns of her husband's business duplicities and the rape, she consigns Esther to the care of a priest and a young reporter who loves her (Lee Patterson). Margaret then kills Carlo and herself.
Good God.

The Vancouver Sun
4 December 1957

If the November 1896 review is anything to go by, Barr's A Woman Intervenes isn't nearly so unpleasant:

I'm keen on reading one of the two.

You can guess which.
* My thanks to Jim Stephenson for identifying the Avati painting. Thanks also to my old pal Chris Kelly, who suggested the former had been used to illustrate a book titled Backstage: My Life with Clarence Darrow, the Amnesiac, and the Red Ladder. Coffee up my nose.