27 March 2023

A Crooked Cousin in a Cunning Cottage

Dove Cottage
Jan Hilliard [Hilda Kay Grant]
London: Abelard-Schulman, 1958
192 pages

Jan Hilliard's third novel, its curtain rises on the cramped three-room flat shared by underpaid, middle-aged bank clerk Homer Flynn, wife Dolly, and mother-in-law Mrs Bigelow. Sister-in-law Grace, a secretary at an advertising agency, lives across the hall. Grace's husband, Raymond, lost a foot in the Second World War, and with it the will to do much of anything. Mrs Bigelow thinks the world of Raymond, and very little of Homer.

Not long ago, Homer suffered the loss of Aunt Harriet, his late mother's sister. In absence of a will, solicitors Ramsey, Claxton and Stone have advised that he may be next of kin. Aunt Harriet was a widow. Her only child, Claude, ran away at sixteen, taking with him a fair amount of cash and jewellery belonging to his mother and her boarders. This crime was followed, years later, by newspaper accounts of Claude's ill-fated attempt to conquer Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Mrs Bigelow dreams that Claude's inheritance might provide just enough money to purchase a donut-making machine. She wants to start a business called "Granny's Greaseless Donuts." Dolly dares hope for $5000, all the while telling her husband that his expectations of $10,000 are far too high, and that he will only be disappointed. As it turns out, Homer inherits $250,000, roughly three million in today's dollars. Add this amount to the sale of Aunt Harriett's large Victorian house, bathed in the red lights of Lavinia Street. Mrs Bigelow is quick to question the source of the dead woman's wealth:

"I aways thought there was something funny about those boarders of hers. Her young ladies, she used to call them. 'What do they do?' I asked her, that time I went to see her. 'They're secretaries,' she said. 'Then why are they at home today?' I asked. 'It's their day off,' she told me. In the middle of the week."

Mrs Bagelow catches herself, demonstrating momentary restraint in recognition that, of a sudden, Homer has the upper hand in their relationship. She wants her son-in-law to move the family to the Riviera, but having spent a career in banking he is far too practical. Instead, Homer purchases a large country cottage for his wife and mother-in-law. Homer, who had always wanted to grow his own vegetables, fruits, and flowers, tends to his gardens with hired hand Mr Newby. Mrs Bigelow, who was never really interested in selling donuts, embraces the opportunity offered to become a landscape painter. In doing so, she attracts the romantic attention from neighbour George, an amiable wealthy widower who made his money selling fish. Dolly, the novel's least defined character, is just happy that her mother and husband are happy.

It's all very pleasant until the evening their cottage receives an unexpected, unkempt visitor. The man claims to be Aunt Harriett's son Claude, but is he? Homer, who hasn't seen his cousin in decades, is convinced. Claude – at least, the man calling himself Claude – lays claim to Aunt Harriett's riches, all the while admitting that there is a catch:
"I'm going to be perfectly honest with you. I'm going to lay my cards on the table. The minute I prove I'm Claude Jeffries, the police will move in, I'd spend the next twenty years behind bars. However," he raised his voice as Homer was about to say something, "there's no law saying a man can't inherit money because he happens to be in jail. You know of any such law?" 
   "I know very little about such things."
   "Take it from me, there's no such law. Now, the way I look at it Homer, we're both in a spot."
   "You're in a spot," Mrs. Bigelow said, but in a small voice. 
   "So here's what we'll do. I'll stay on here with you folks, share my inheritance with you. In return, you'll protect me, keep my true identity secret."
And so, Cousin Claude becomes "Claude Richards," Homer's childhood friend, back from adventures in Africa. Claude Richards is a travel writer, which serves to explain why Grace and Raymond, who are not in on the secret, had never before met the man. Because Claude believes the police are on his trail, he lies low under the pretence that he is recovering from "jungle fever." This, combined with Homer, Dolly, and Mrs Bigelow's understandable reluctance to discuss Claude only serves to make him a more intriguing figure, firing interest and desire in Grace and hired girl Eloise:
Knowing the value of first impressions, she did not want to be seen by him until tomorrow, when, her hair washed and set, she would be wearing her pink jersey sweater over her new brassière with the pointed cups.
Abelard-Schuman sold Dove Cottage as a "thoroughly delightful, completely comic and utterly frivolous novel." And it is. Enjoyable light entertainment, it reminded me of nothing so much as an afternoon attending local community theatre.

A good time was had by all.

About the author:

Object: A hardcover with Kelly green boards. The jacket illustration, depicting Claude, is by the talented William McLaren. Purchased in February from an Oxfordshire bookseller – price: £18.50 – it looks to have been a review copy.

Access: All evidence suggests that Dove Cottage enjoyed no more than one printing. Very Good copies can be found online for as little as US$15.

The year after publication, the novel reappeared as a "new story of suspense" in the Star Weekly Magazine.

Star Weekly Magazine, 22 August 1959
Other than a 1960 Dutch translation, De charmante bezoeker, there have been no paperback editions.

20 March 2023

By Any Other Name: Onoto Watanna's Hyacinth

The Heart of Hyacinth
Onoto Watanna [Winnifred Eaton]
New York: Harper, 1903
251 pages

Read last month, I've put off writing about The Heart of Hyacinth because I still don't know what to think. 

To begin with, this is a novel written by a Canadian of Chinese and Scots heritage, born and raised in Montreal, who passed herself off as Japanese. The story takes place in Japan, which the author had not visited.

It's a beautifully written work. The opening pages seduce with descriptions of Sendai and the surrounding countryside. Minute, seemingly insignificant elements are added. All is dreamlike and idyllic. At some point a kindly Presbyterian missionary couple land. A modest church is built and there are some converts to the faith. Years pass, the minister's hair grows white, and his beloved wife dies. Then comes an English vessel carrying ill-behaved sailors and officers. They woo the daughters of Sendai, only to leave them; but one Englishman stays behind. He brings a young woman, Aoi, to the elderly missionary, and they marry. There the Englishman stays, loving his newfound land, loving his wife even more, and fathering a son. All of a sudden, the Old World – his old world – descends into conflict, and he is called to join the battle.

Aoi awaits a promised return that is not to be. After a lengthy silence, letters arrive in a foreign script and language. She takes them to the missionary who informs that her husband is dead.

Komazawa, the fatherless son, is a carefree child, unaffected by all that has passed. His life changes with the arrival of a dying "white" woman in the family home. She has brought with her a baby girl. The local doctor recommends that an English counsel be informed, but the boy balks; the white woman has entrusted the infant, Hyacinth, to his mother, and in her arms she will stay. If anything,
the son is the greater protector and teacher of the girl. 

The Heart of Hyacinth is a stone skipping across a lake. It touches fleetingly on scenes and events, leaving the reader to imagine what has happened in between. The ageing missionary reaches the point at which he must hand the mission to another. His replacement, Mr Blount, has the strength that comes with youth, but is in every other way a lesser man. He lacks his predecessor's appreciation of the local people and their culture; love is absent.

At Blount's insistence, the adolescent Komazawa is sent off to study in England:
"He is, in fact, one of us. He has the physical appearance, somewhat of the training, and, let us hope, the natural instincts of the Caucasian. It would be not only ludicrous but wicked him to continue here in this isolated spot, where he is, may we say, an alien."
Komazawa does not return until four years later. In his absence, Hyacinth attends school in Sendai. Classmates laugh, pointing at her brown hair, and the sensei views the girl as a curiosity. She is taught that people from the West are barbarians and savages. When Komazawa reappears in English clothing, Hyacinth shuns him. When he changes into Japanese dress they embrace.

Hyacinth knows she is the adopted daughter of Aoi, whom she considers her mother. Born and raised in Japan, the girl thinks of herself as Japanese. Crisis comes with her betrothal to Yamashiro Yashida, son of the wealthiest family in Sendai. In opposing the union, Blount discovers that Aoi is not Hyacinth's natural mother – like the Yamashiro family, he had assumed that she and Komazawa shared the same parents. Then comes the discovery that both of the girl's parents were "Caucasian." The revelation comes as no surprise to the reader, who will remember her mother's dying hours, but to Hyacinth it is shocking and devastating. 

The Heart of Hyacinth is a novel about identity and self-identity. At its heart – there is no better word – it confronts issues of race and nationality, questioning how we perceive ourselves and others. The beauty of its prose contains an ugly reality that sadly remains twelve decades later. 

Object: The Heart of Hyacinth is one of the most beautiful books in my collection. The "decorations," which appear on every page, are credited to Kiyokichi Sano, about whom I can find next to no information.

I'm not so sure whether his hand also produced the four full-colour book plates. I suspect not.

My copy was purchased four years ago in Toronto.

Access: In 2000, after languishing out-of-print for nearly a century, The Heart of Hyacinth was revived by the University of Washington Press. Its edition includes an introduction by Samina Najmi.

Remarkably – astonishingly – copies of the 120-year-old first edition can be purchased online for as little as US$3.25. An Ontario bookseller hopes to sell his for US$105.00, but the one to buy is offered by a bookshop in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. Wrapped in wax paper in original presentation box, it can be purchased for US$71.65.

I expect it to be gone within minutes of this post.

No one who buys this novel will be disappointed.

The Heart of Hyacinth can be read online through this link to the Internet Archive.

14 March 2023

James Moffatt Wins the Race

The Marathon Murder
James Moffatt
London: New English Library, 1972
124 pages

On January 12, 1972, Canadian writer James Moffatt appeared on BBC 2's Late Night Line-Up.  The public broadcaster had a habit of wiping tape back then – most famously David Bowie's January 3, 1973 Top of the Pops performance of 'The Jean Genie' – but footage survives. At the time, Moffatt was the biggest paperback writer living in Britain. Skinhead was his greatest success.

The Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers describes Skinhead as a "million-copy seller." I don't doubt it. Every Brit I know around my age has read Skinhead.

Skinhead was published in 1970. By the time of his Late Night Line-Up appearance, Moffatt had followed it with Suedehead (1971) and Boot Boys (1972); Skinhead Escapades (1972), Skinhead Girls (1972), Top Gear Skin (1973), Trouble for Skinhead (1973), and many more followed, all published under "Richard Allen."

Moffatt once claimed that as a child he'd earned third prize in a Toronto Star short story competition. In one interview he spoke of studying law at Queen's, but in another he said it was chemistry. Moffatt talked about writing for pulps in New York, living in Hollywood, and being the publisher and editor of a bowling magazine.

Was any of this repeated on Late Night Line-Up? Segments of the 12 January1972 broadcast were used in the 1996 BBC2 documentary 'Skinhead Farewell,' but not enough to get a real handle on all that went down that night.

Because the episode itself hasn't been posted online, I rely on the publisher's note:

Added to this is Moffat's four-page author's note, in which he claims that The Marathon Murder began as a sort of spur of the moment thing with host Will Wyatt throwing out an an idea. "I had precisely five seconds in which to think of a title and write the first few sentences ON CAMERA!" writes Moffatt. 

Here are those first few sentences:
Munich was but two weeks away. This left Harry Nolan with two weeks solid training to get himself in shape. He had not been too keen of late to keep himself in shape because he had problems.
It's not much of a start. This gruff Canadian, a self-described veteran of hard-boiled American pulps, writes: "Munich was but two weeks away" and "He had not been too keen of late to keep himself in shape." Reading these words, I'm almost surprised that Moffatt used "two weeks" and not "a fortnight."

Anyway, here's my fix:
Munich was two weeks away. This left Harry Nolan fourteen days to get in shape, but he had problems.
It may be that Moffatt was going after word count; his thirty-seven to my nineteen. New English Library describes The Marathon Murder as a novel, but at 38,000 words it is more accurately a novella. The low number surprises in that, when divided by seven, it amounts to fewer than 5400 words per day. Two months earlier, in a Daily Telegraph Magazine profile, Moffatt claimed ten thousand words as his daily output. He repeated that very same figure on the Late Night Line-Up appearance.

The writer at his desk.
Late Night Line-Up, 12 January 1972
The Marathon Murder was written when the Olympic ideal of amateurism still held. Hero Harry Nolan, who ranks amongst the very best long distance runners on the planet, is an English office worker. His wife, Emily, has left him for another man. He worries that this will... um, affect his performance. 

Terry Grayson is the other hero. A BBC journalist with no background in sport, for whatever reason he's been assigned to cover the marathon. Where Harry pines for Emily, Terry is stuck on some bird named Gloria. He just can't get over her, yet happily accepts leggy Sandra into his bed: "He had no illusions regarding their relationship. It was fleeting like fame. A fast, furious, fornicating union that had no basis in fact." Terry is surprised when Sandra follows him to Munich.

The Marathon Murder was written seven months before the start of the 1972 Olympic Games. It imagines violence, but in no way anticipates the actual horrors. At time of publication, Moffatt's likening the Olympic Village to a hastily constructed kibbutz would not have been chilling.

At some point in his Late Night Round-Up appearance Moffatt stands next to a New English Library spinner-rack."These are some of the 250 books I've written these past twenty years," he says. "During the last year I've written eight, nine books, due to the fact I haven't been too well." The words hint at his future. A drinker, Moffatt's addiction got the better of him. His final book, Mod Rule, appeared in 1980, after which he went silent. He died thirteen years later at the age of seventy-one.

James Moffatt (right) in the Daily Telegraph Magazine, 19 November 197
The Marathon Murder is no speedy read. A tough slog, it took me two weeks to reach the end.

I was outpaced by the author.

Trivia: Harry Nolan is a fan of James Bond and Silas Manners, the latter being a British spy who features in Moffatt's The Sleeping Bomb (1970) and Justice for a Dead Spy (1971).

Object and Access: A cheap mass market paperback, typical of its time, the last four pages are given over to other New English Library titles, including Skinhead, Suedehead, and Boot Boys

I purchased my copy last October for £5.00 from a Lincolnshire bookseller. As of this writing, all of two copies are listed for sale online. 

WorldCat suggests that no library, Canadian or otherwise, holds a copy.

Related posts:

06 March 2023

The Great Canadian Author Photo and Bio?

Purchased last week to treat myself. Lord knows I deserve it. Above is the cover of the first and only British edition of Hot Freeze by Martin Brett. Published in 1954 by Max Reinhardt, it follows Dodd, Mead's first American edition by a matter of weeks. I prefer the latter, but only for the dame.

I first read Hot Freeze in 2011, roughly nine years after the author died. It's the very best work of post-war Canadian noir, those by Brian Moore and David Montrose included. Four years later, I helped return it to print as part of the Véhicule Press Ricochet Books series. It is the only edition to be published under Douglas Sanderson, the author's true name. 

A few months later, Ricochet brought back Blondes Are My Trouble (original title: The Darker Traffic), the sequel to Hot Freeze.

Blondes Are My Trouble is the second-best work of post-war Canadian noir.

Sanderson is an unlikely top dog. A transplanted Brit, he began writing thrillers after the commercial failure of his literary debut, Dark Passions Subdue (1952). He claimed the turn toward genre was done on a dare. If true, it sure paid off; throughout the decades, he produced nearly two dozen, most of which enjoyed French translation.

Mon cadavre au Canada [Hot Freeze]
Martin Brett [Douglas Sanderson; trans Bruno Martin]
Paris: Gallimard, 1955
I wrote the intro to the Ricochet Hot Freeze and invited John Norris to contribute another for Blondes Are My Trouble. Greg Shepard of Stark House Press has done more than anyone in reviving interest in Sanderson, republishing nine Sanderson novels, featuring additional material by himself, Kevin Burton Smith, Paul Charoff, Jonas Westover, and the author's son John D. Sanderson. This, I believe, forms the bulk of Sanderson scholarship. What else have we got? Never mind The Canadian EncyclopediaThe Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, and W.H. New's Companion to Canadian Literature, not even Wikipedia recognizes Sanderson.

No, I'm wrong. The French Wikipedia has a Martin Brett entry – very informative it is, too.

I reference all this because after all my years researching Sanderson, the brief Max Reinhardt author bio brought some revelations.

That is one great author photo.