31 October 2022

A WTF Harlequin Halloween

Murder — Queen High
Bob Wade and Bill Miller
Toronto: Harlequin, 1951

Over the years, the Dusty Bookcase has shared some very frightening covers from Harlequin's early history. Who can forget The Corpse Came Back, the 2014 Harlequin Halloween selection.

 I expect 2017's Out of the Night caused many a bad dream.


Murder  Queen High rates lower on the terror-inducing index, though I think you'll agree that it's pretty scary. A feline/human form threatens a gun-packing woman in a pink frock. What exactly is going on here?

The back cover only raises more questions:

Is the woman in pink the Queen? Is she Fay Jordan, "she of the sensuous figure and the mind to match"? Could it be "the curvy, swervy girl called Sin"? Whatever the answer, Murder — Queen High may just be the craziest novel Harlequin has ever published.

29 October 2022

Reverend King's Slow and Simple Swan Song

Satan as Lightning
Basil King
New York: Harper, 1929
280 pages

Basil King is the only Canadian to have topped the year-end list of bestselling novels in the United States. He accomplished this in 1909 with The Inner Shrine and came close to doing the same the following year with The Wild Olive.

Satan as Lightning came later – so much later that its author was dead.

William Benjamin Basil King
26 February 1859, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island -
22 June 1928, Cambridge, Massachusetts


King's flawed hero is John Owen "Nod" Hesketh. The son of a prominent New York City Episcopal minister and precentor, Nod has been able to get away with a lot in his twenty-nine years. Consider the time bosom friend Edward Wrigley "Wrig" Coppard altered a two-dollar cheque to read "two hundred dollars." Nod and Wrig used their ill-gotten gains to shower girls with gifts and – ahem – "give them money." The forgery was eventually discovered, but as the cheque was issued by Wrig's father, wealthy businessman William Coppard, the two chums weren't brought before the law.

Sons of privilege – obviously – both Nod and Wrig attended schools of higher learning. After graduation, Rev Hesketh and Mr Coppard pooled funds to buy their boys a garage.

A garage?

The purchase makes no sense, though it does play an important role in the backstory. After their first year in business, Nod and Wrig found themselves two thousand dollars in debt. William Coppard wrote a cheque for nine dollars – something to do with the balance owing on a church organ – which Rev Hesketh gave to his son for deposit. On the way to the bank, Nod handed the cheque to Wrig, who then altered the amount to nine hundred. Nod used his half of the money to pay the garage's creditor; Wrig kept his half for himself. When caught, the reverend's son fessed up; not so, the rich man's son. Wrig feigns ignorance, and so the full weight lands on Nod. Rev Hesketh is of the belief that his son would do well by paying the penalty for his crime.

Call it tough love.

After serving a sentence of three years and nine months, Nod emerges from fictional Bitterwell Prison a changed man. No longer "devilish," the clergyman's son is intent on doing good, which includes paying off debts to former garage employee Tiddy Epps. Nod does not return to the Hesketh family home for fear of causing embarrassment. He lodges instead with the Bird family in a hovel not far from Gracie Mansion. Danny Bird, an accomplished pickpocket, is a friend met in prison. Wise Katy Bird, Danny's unattractive "lame" sister shares the abode, as does the matriarch, Mrs Bird. Mr Bird died some years earlier in the electric chair.

The ex-con's new life is modest with modest expectations, save one: Nod is intent on destroying former bosom friend Wrig Coppard. "I want other people to find out what he is," Nod tells Katy. 

Tension is heightened with the introduction of beautiful Blandina Vandertyl – named after the the patron saint of those falsely accused of cannibalism – whose secret engagement to Nod ended when he was convicted. On the rebound, she married Walter Frankland, who was killed in the Château-Thierry salient. Just as well, Blandina knows she would've grown bored with him. Walter was too good and she has a thing for bad boys. The wealthy war widow is now being pursued by none other than Wrig Coppard.

In his time, Basil King was known for his ability to weave a complex plot, but that talent isn't much in evidence here. This novel trods a fairly straight path with few obstacles. The conflict between Nod and Wrig never takes place because Nod finds religion – not through his father's church, rather at an ecumenical weekly gathering known as the Sinners Conference.

The novel's epigraphs.

Basil King's spiritual journey was every bit as unconventional. An Anglican clergyman, he served as rector of St. Luke's Pro-Cathedral (Halifax, Nova Scotia) and Christ Church (Cambridge, Massachusetts), eventually resigning from the ministry due to failing eyesight and ill-health. During the Great War, King became interested in spiritualism, The Abolishing of Death (1919) being his clearest statement on the matter. Supernatural elements feature in much of his fiction, most notably in the novella Going West (1919), the novel The Empty Sack (1921), and in his script for the by all accounts great lost silent film Earthbound (1920).

Of the ten King novel's I've read to date, Satan as Lightning seems the most personal. Its plot is slowed and dulled by discourse on religion and Nod's writings about prison, punishment, reform, and redemption. but this Anglican Church of Canada congregant was more than satisfied. That said, as with Sunday sermons, I was happy when it was over.

Trivia: Though the place of worship is not mentioned by name, Nod's father, Rev Hesketh, serves at New York's St John the Devine.

Coincidence: Satan as Lightning follows Ralph Connor's Corporal Cameron of the North West as the second novel I've read this year in which a young man finds himself in hot water over an altered cheque.

Was the crime really so common?

Trivia: This is the first King novel I've read to include a character from the author's home province: "Effie, a Scotch-Canadian from Prince Edward Island."

Note: I read Satan as Lightning for the 1929 Club.

Other 1929 titles covered at the Dusty Bookcase:

Object and Access: A green hardcover, my copy lacks the dust jacket. It was purchased for six dollars at a failing London, Ontario bookstore. Marked down from $45.95.

All of three copies are listed for sale online, the cheapest being a copy – lacking jacket – at US$4.95. The other two, both of which have jackets, are offered at US$119.95 and US$125.00.

Take your pick.

Related posts:

25 October 2022

May Agnes Fleming: Lost Lady of CanLit

No surprise that I'm a devotee of Lost Ladies of Lit, "the podcast dedicated to dusting off books by forgotten women writers." For over two years, hosts Kim Askew and Amy Helmes have covered works by writers I thought I knew (Edna FerberOuida), writers I knew only as names (G.E. Trevelyan  Gene Stratton-Porter), and others who were wholly unfamiliar (Kay DickHilma Wolitzer). Always informative, I've looked forward to each new episode. 

And so, I was honoured when Kim and Amy invited me to talk about a Canadian lost lady.

Who to choose?

Why, May Agnes Fleming, of course! Our first bestselling novelist, no Canadian writer is so forgotten. With Halloween approaching, I settled on her 1863 gothic novel The Midnight Queen for dusting off.

And then I came down with Covid... Appropriate, really, as Fleming's novel takes place during the Great Plague of London. "Cries and lamentations echoed from one end of the city to the other," writes Fleming, "and Death and Charles reigned over London together."

Recorded on an early day in the reign of Charles III, things weren't nearly so tragic when we sat down to speak, though you can hear that the virus still has a hold on my voice.

The podcast episode was posted today:

Related posts:

12 October 2022

Quebec City Noir

Whispering City
Horace Brown
Pickering, ON: Global Publishing, 1947
190 pages

Whispering City may be Canada's very first film noir. This 75-year-old paperback may be the very first novelization of a Canadian film. The heroine of both is Mary Roberts, a young crime reporter with Quebec City newspaper l'Information. Mary is preparing to leave work one day when she receives a call that a woman has been hit by a truck. The accident victim, faded vidette Renée Brancourt, was once a big deal in Quebec until her lover, Robert Marchand, plunged over Montmorency Falls. The struggle to accept his death led Renée to be institutionalized. In recent years, she'd been living in a squalid flat on rue Sous-le-Cap in Quebec's Lower Town.

La rue Sous-le-Cap. Quebec City, 1947

Renée has held firm to her belief that Robert's death was no accident. She tells Mary as much from her Hôtel-Dieu hospital bed, pointing an accusing finger at Albert Frédéric.

Surely not! The man is not only the most respected lawyer in Quebec, he's a patron of the arts!

Frédéric is currently supporting talented Michel Lacoste, whose Quebec Concerto will soon be making its debut at the Palais Montcalm. Unfortunately, the composer's work on final revisions s stymied by Blanche, his shrew of a wife. Just you try working on your concerto with big band music blaring in the background. Can't be done.

Michel breaks her 78. She slaps him. He storms out, ties one on, and shows up in the wee hours at Frédéric's palatial home. It isn't long before Michel passes out. When he does, Frédéric dons the composer's overcoat and sneaks off to the Lacoste flat. His intent is to murder Blanche, just as he had Robert Marchand all those years earlier, but he arrives to find she's committed suicide. A note is pinned to her pillow, which Frédéric quickly pockets.

The following morning, Frédéric convinces a hungover and confused Michel that he killed his wife in a fit of rage. The lawyer then offers the composer a deal: Frédéric will work to save Michel from the hangman if he kills Mary Roberts. The reporter's investigation of the old Marchand murder is getting too close to the truth.

The story and screenplay are straight out of Hollywood – Americans George Zuckerman and Michael Lennox wrote the former; Americans Rian James and Leonard Lee wrote the latter – but adapt well to Quebec City.

Brown sticks close to the script, though there are departures. He improves on the dialogue and wisely does away with the talkative sleigh driver who introduces the film. Brown gives Mary Roberts a backstory as an American who had begun her career writing for a New York tabloid. In one memorable scene not featured in the film, Mary and Frédéric discuss Canadian painters. If anything, Brown depicts the lawyer as a more sinister figure – clearly a psychopath – making the book all the more dark.

Whispering City is far from a great film – its current 6.2 rating on IMDb seems fair – though I must say it gets better with each viewing. See for yourself; the film is now in the public domain. Of the muddy prints available on YouTube, this appears to be the best:

Sadly, Brown's novelization is nowhere near so accessible. This is a shame because his Whispering City improves on the film. It's easily the best Horace Brown novel I've read.

I wouldn't be surprised that it gets better with each reading.


Paul L'Anglais was the producer of Whispering City and its French-language version La Forteresse.

Fun fact: In 1952, the film Whispering City was rereleased under the title Crime City. Seems a bit unfair to Quebec, especially when one considers that there's only one criminal.

A mass market paperback bound in thin glossy covers. Whispering City is one of a very few books published by Brown's Global Publishing Company. Curiously, the spine features the name of its distributor, Streamline Books. I purchased my copy a year ago from a Burlington, Ontario bookseller. Price: US$89.95.

The novel is preceded by an enthusiastic foreword by the author followed by a "CAMERA-QUIZZ" in which readers are challenged to place twelve stills from the film in the correct order.

Don't mean to brag, but I had no trouble.

Access: The University of Calgary has a copy.

09 October 2022