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.

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  1. The vast majority of Mercury Mysteries, Bestseller Mysteries, Jonathan Press Mysteries and other digest-sized paperbacks, sold and distributed much like the Mercury Press magazines, were abridged.

    1. I'm hoping to come across an inexpensive copy, if only to see what was cut.