28 August 2023

One Non Blonde

Incendiary Blonde
Keith Edgar
Toronto: National Publishing, 1945
126 pages

When is a blonde not a blonde? When is a novel not a novel? Is a novel that is not a novel a series of novelettes? These questions weighed as I made my way through Keith Edgar's Incendiary Blonde, sure to be this year's most baffling read. Consider the title page:

'The Case of the Incendiary Blonde' has as its hero, lanky Star-Advertizer photographer George MacGregor. He's first seen leaning against a pillar in Grand Central Station, having fallen asleep whilst waiting to snap Hollywood heartthrob Yvonne La Flame. "We got to get some glammer shots of dis skoit," says a competing shutterbug. "She's got classy gams."

Indeed! Yvonne has legs and she knows how to use them, "perched on a baggage truck to coyly display the 'classy gams.'"

MacGregor wakes up in time to get the pics, but as he makes to return to the Star-Advertizer darkroom he's canoodled and smooched by a "red-haired girl" with "auburn curls." She whisks our hero into a cab, tells him she is a German spy on the run from G-men, and makes him take her to his uptown apartment. Once there, our hero gives her a good sound spanking.

Classic Edgar, it continues apace, adding a Nazi cabbie, an ineffective butler, a sinister trading company, and a Lone Ranger Cap Pistol into the mix. My only complaint is that it's all over too fast. At under seventeen thousand words, 'The Case of the Incendiary Blonde' is not a novel – not even a 20th-century novel. The publisher's note fails to clarify: 

MacGregor's adventure is the first and longest of what the cover sells as "STORIES OF MYSTERY & CRIME." Most of the remaining seven are bland retellings of true crime cases.

How bland? Here's a paragraph from 'Murder on the Steamer "Okanagan",' which begins with the 1912 manhunt for Walter Boyd James, a North Dakotan who'd held up a Kelowna general store:

At Penticton, 40 miles away, Provincial Const. Geoffrey H. Aston was stationed. Aston, a soldierly figure who had served in the 17th Lancers and the North West Mounted Police, had received a description of the bandit from Tooth, and immediately acquainted Penticton's Chief of Police, Michael Roche, with details of the Kelowna crime.

'Who Murdered Laura Kruse?' focusses on the still unsolved 1937 killing of a Minneapolis beauty school student. It features this passage:

Witnesses were called to review the case from all angles. They included Claussen, the milkman, Hanson, the motorman, F,W. Perlich, who found the body, M.T. Silvertsen, who found the personal effects, Mrs. Christ Larson [sic], near whose home the murder was believed to have been committed, Mrs. Carl Lind, who saw the flash of light as a car was leaving the alley, Arthur Kruse, brother of the girl, Sheriff Hannes Rykema of Pine County, Irene Chimelski, a friend of Miss Kruse, Ray Harrington, police identification officer, Dr. McCartney, Dr. Seashore, Detective Adam Smith, Arthur Olyson, Walter Hansford, John Anderson, morgue keeper, and Capt. Arnold Neitzel of the 6th precinct police station. 
Still awake?

When it comes to non-fiction, Edgar isn't much of a storyteller. To his credit, he does stick to facts, and makes only the occasional error. For example, in 'Drink, the Devil, and the Third Degree,' concerning the 1882 murder of Louis Hanier, the victim is a "French wine merchant" when in reality he was a Hell's Kitchen saloonkeeper. The case is broken by Thomas Byrnes, whom Edgar describes, unimaginatively, as "a real-life Sherlock Holmes."

Incendiary Blonde follows I Hate You to Death (1944) and Arctic Rendez-vous (1949) as my third Edgar. Both are quirky, fanciful, strange, perverse, titillating, and never dull.

"Do you expect me to believe this absurd story?" the main baddy asks MacGregor at the climax of 'The Case of the Incendiary Blonde.' Absurdity is at the heart of Edgar's writing (see: 'The Wonderful World of Mortimer Tombs'). Sadly, it comes and goes with the first "novelette."

At 126 pages, Incendiary Blonde should've been a quick read, but wasn't. It took a long time to tackle; much more than it was worth. 

It's all a damn shame. I was really looking forward to it. The cover art promised the craziest Edgar book yet! The blonde! The devil! The four floating heads! Sadly, none of these feature in the book. I guess I'll never know the significance of the aqua blotch on the lower right-hand corner.

You can't judge a book by its cover, but you sure can sell it. That said, I think Incendiary Redhead is a much more exciting title.

Trivia: Incendiary Blonde was published the same year as a Hollywood film with the same title. It stars Betty Hutton as Texas Guinan, "Queen of the Night Clubs." I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest this is coincidence.

Object and Access: A cheap digest-sized paperback with thin glossy covers, it bears the swan logo of F.E. Howard, the publisher of Edgar's previous books. My copy appears to have been distributed in the U.K. by the now-defunct Rolls House Publishing Company.

Of interest is this notice on the interior cover:

I don't buy it. Is this the look of a layout resulting from space constraints?

Pages 86 and 87.

My copy of Incendiary Blonde was purchased earlier this year from a Lincolnshire bookseller. Price: £20.00. The very same bookseller is right now offering another copy, in similar condition to mine, at the very same price! 

There is only one other copy listed online. Also in similar condition, it's offered by another UK bookseller at £15.00. Seems a bargain until one reads the shipping cost: C$60.25.

You know which copy to purchase.

Incendiary Blonde can be found at the British Library.

That's it.

Not even Library and Archives Canada has a copy.

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21 August 2023

The Legs of Mary Roberts

Much of this past weekend was spent rereading Horace Brown's 1947 Whispering City; this in preparing its return to print as the next Ricochet Book. Whispering City is unlike the series' seventeen previous titles in that it is a novelization of a film. The heroine of both versions, young Mary Roberts, works the crime beat at fictional Quebec City newspaper L'Information. Brown himself was a reporter for the all-too-real Ottawa Citizen. I dare say he knew something of how a woman in Mary's position might've been treated:

She got up, not very tall, and walked on good legs to a door marked “M. Durant, Redacteur.” Her grey tweed suit set off her trim figure. Her very carriage seemed to radiate vitality and poise. Two or three pairs of eyes raised to follow her wistfully, then bent back to their tasks. The owners of those eyes had learnt that Mary Roberts was not interested.
The film is perhaps not so realistic. Mary's fellow reporters display no interest in her legs or trim figure. Professionals each and every one, their focus is on copy and the rush to put the paper to bed.

Brown's references to Mary's lower limbs amuse because the film makes nothing of them. This scene, which takes place in Quebec's Palais de Justice, provides a brief, distant, modest glimpse:

Brown's description:
Mary shrugged her shoulders prettily, and tapped briskly along the marble floor, while masculine heads turned to watch her twinkling legs.
Trust me, no one turns to watch.

Key to the plot is a performance of 'Quebec Concerto' by suspected wife-killer Michel Lacoste.

(In reality, the concerto was composed by André Mathieu, who was himself a tragic figure.)

After hearing a rehearsal, Mary returns to “M. Durant, Redacteur.”
“The Concerto is good, yes.” Mary Roberts sat on the edge of the editor’s desk, one shapely leg swinging in fast time with her thoughts. “So’s the story onto which I think I’ve stumbled.”
The scene plays out differently onscreen. Mary doesn't sit on the edge of Durant's desk. She never swings a twinkling leg.

In the film, Durant reaches into a desk drawer to hand the reporter a pistol. Brown's Mary cut her teeth at a New York tabloid; she already carries a gun:
The editor shook his head after her in some bewilderment. So much feminine charm running around on such nice legs should not be so efficient and possessed of that pistol in the handbag.
The pistol features in a key scene. Though smart as a whip, Mary has made a mistake. Chasing the story, she ends up scaling Montmorency Falls with the suspected wife-killer:
Her shapely thighs bared, as she climbed to the ledge where he was waiting. She looked down at her legs ruefully. “Just as I thought,” she said. “My nylons are gone. Guess I should have been wearing slacks for a climb like this. I’ll have to fix my garter.”

The displaced garter is used as an excuse to transfer the pistol from handbag to coat pocket. Mary's shapely thighs are not bared in the film; its ninety-eight minute run time features not so much as a knee.

Horace Brown's final mention of Mary's gams comes in the final pages as she struggles with the story's villain:
Her slim legs kicked futilely at him, became entangled in the evening gown that was to have been her happiness and now would be her shroud. His hand was pulsing hard against her breasts.
The film features no kicking. Not one breast is pulsed.

I'm keen on Whispering City as a film, but not on its ending; Horace Brown's is much better.

A muddy copy of the celluloid Whispering City can be seen – gratis – through the Internet Archive. As of this writing, only one copy Horace Brown's novelization is listed for sale online. Price: $316.50.

Whispering City returns to print in October. Price: $15.95.

Update: Whispering City has made the Globe & Mail list of sixty-two books to read this fall.

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14 August 2023

Margaret Millar's Muskoka Murder Mystery

The Weak-Eyed Bat
Collected Millar: The First Detectives
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2017

My aunt and uncle had a cottage on Bell's Lake, not far from Markdale, Ontario. I have memories of visiting as a child. Our journeys there would begin with the loading of the family Volkswagen Squareback in Montreal. The final leg had us on a narrow dirt lane at the end of which were four other cottages. I thought of these summer retreats while reading The Weak-Eyed Bat. Millar's setting is Ontario's Muskokas, roughly 150 kilometres northeast of Bells Lake, but it seemed very familiar.

The Weak-Eyed Bat was Margaret Millar's second novel. It followed The Invisible Worm, which I read five years ago. I didn't like The Invisible Worm, and really disliked Paul Prye, its protagonist psychologist/sleuth. Prye makes his return here, hence this delayed visit to cottage country.

I'm glad I made the journey. 

The Weak-Eyed Bat takes place within a small isolated grouping of summer homes like the ones on Bell's Lake, the exception being a large house belonging to Emily Bonner. A man of modest means such as myself might consider it a mansion. Unlike the neighbouring cottages, this Musoka residence is occupied year-round. Miss Bonner lives there, as do nephew Ralph and two servants. At twenty-three, Ralph has a hankering to "go out into the world," but Aunt Emily holds the purse strings. Remarkably, given his milquetoast demeanor, Ralph has proposed to summer neighbour Joan Frost, daughter of classical Greek scholar Professor Henry Frost. Joan's acceptance has everything to do with the aforementioned Bonner purse; she is very aware that it will one day come into Ralph's hands. In the meantime, eighteen-year-old Joan is happy to carry on with Tom Little. Another neighbour, middle-aged Tom had himself married for money. Since that time, plain Jane wife Mary has endured years of infidelity and, as seems appropriate, developed a severe heart ailment.

These are but five of the cast of characters living within this small community; Other residents include: Susan Frost (Joan's half-sister), Miss Alfonse (Emily Bonner's nurse), Jeanette (Mary Little's nurse/housekeeper), Nora Shane (a landscape painter), a "Mr Smith," and, of course, Paul Prye.

This Paul Prye is a different man than the one introduced in The Invisible Worm. Much of what made his so irritating in his debut is gone.  He no longer quotes Blake. Prye does quote Browning's 'Andrea del Sarto,' the source of the title, but that's nearly it:
          Too live the life grew, golden and not grey, 
          And I’m the weak-eyed bat no sun should tempt
          Out of the grange whose four walls make his world.
          How could it end in any other way?
Current publisher Syndicate does a disservice in describing Prye as a "poetry-quoting psychologist."

That was the old Prye.

The Weak-Eyed Bat is nowhere near the best of Margaret Millar, but it is worthy of attention in that it shows Millar becoming Millar. Things unfold more slowly than in her debut. It isn't until the last sentence of the fourth chapter (of eighteen) that the reader learns a character has died. The end of chapter five gives some suggestion as to who it might be. The identity is revealed in the sixth chapter, accompanied by evidence that the character has been murdered.

These discoveries come a touch early for a Margaret Millar novel, but then The Weak-Eyed Bat was only her second. She was finding her legs. Still, it is long enough for Millar to introduce and flesh out and make memorable characters, no matter how minor. My favourite is Emily Bonner, in part because she pretends to be much older than her 65 years so as to receive compliments on her appearance.

It's a neat trick.

Must remember it if I ever find myself swimming again at Bell's Lake.

Trivia: As with The Invisible Worm, the contract for The Weak-Eyed Bat names husband Kenneth Millar as co-author.

Object and Access: The Weak-Eyed Bat was first published in 1942 by Doubleday. It reappeared two years later in Two Complete Detective Books magazine (May 1944). A Spanish translation, El murciélago miope, which Google translates as "The Myopic Bat," was published by Club del Misterio in 1948.

And that was it until 2017 when it was returned to print beside The Invisible WormThe Devil Loves MeWall of Eyes, and The Iron Gates in the first volume of the Collected Millar.

09 August 2023

On Robbie Robertson (w/ update)

I don't mean to be an ass about this, particularly in light of such sad news, but do note that the New York Times' report on Robbie Robertson's passing includes three references to America, three references to Americana, and one to the Confederacy.

At no point is it mentioned that he was a First Nations man who was born and raised in Canada.

I'll add that not one of his Band bandmates is named, nor is Bob Dylan.

Damage control:

07 August 2023

Victorian Ladies in Day-Glo Green and Orange

Published thirty years ago by McGill-Queen's University Press, Silenced Sextet received laudatory reviews, but not its due. It is an essential work of Canadian literary history and criticism. The golden result of a collaboration between Carrie MacMillan, Lorraine McMullen, and Elizabeth Waterston, the volume features six essays on six Canadian women novelists, all of whom achieved popularity in the nineteenth century only to be more or less forgotten in the twentieth:
Rosanna Leprohon
May Agnes Fleming
Margaret Murray Robertson
S Frances Harrison
Marshall Saunders
Joanna E Wood
Silenced Sextet was added to my collection upon publication. I wonder how much I paid? It's currently listed at $125 on the MQUP website, so you can imagine my excitement in coming across a copy last week at a local thrift store. Set me back all of three dollars! 

Now, imagine my disappointment in getting it home to find this:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
And this:

Every page of the opening essay, 'Rosanna Mullins Leprohon: At Home in Many Worlds,' is underscored and highlighted.  The beginning of the second essay, 'May Agnes Fleming: "I did nothing but write" is simply underscored. I suggest that the green highlighter either gave out or rolled under a heavy bureau, forcing the scholar to do without. 

Evidence suggests that an orange highlighter was purchased midway through the Fleming essay.

Seems like a lot of work.

The near-absence of marginalia is curious. This rare instance marks the beginning of Carrie MacMillan's discussion of Joanna E Wood's The Untempered Wind:

Why is it that some passages are underlined but not highlighted? Why are some highlighted but not underlined? Why underline and highlight? Why are some dates, titles, and character names circled, but not others? Why is Elizabeth Waterston's 'Margaret Marshall Saunders: A Voice of the Silent' left untouched? Why is the purple pen all but absent in the final pages? Had it been misplaced? Had it rolled under a heavy bureau?

I haven't given these questions much thought. Frankly, I'm more irritated than puzzled. Besides, I'm still trying to wrap my head around that copy of Robert Kroetsch's Badlands I found eleven years years ago.

I purchased this thrift store Silenced Sextet thinking that I'd give it to a friend. As it turns out, she already had a copy. 

And so, I offer it to anyone who might be interested.

Postage is on me.

If interested, I can be contacted through the email link at my Blogger profile. Marshall Saunders fans may not find it so bad.

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