16 February 2015

Portraits of a Marriage: James Montgomery Flagg and Arthur Stringer's Bittersweet Wine of Life

In the glow cast by Valentine's Day, no attention should be paid to Arthur Stringer's The Wine of Life, but I've been working on a piece about the novel for Canadian Notes & Queries.

Such a horribly depressing book!

Jobyna Howland, c.1908
The Wine of Life is a roman à clef born of the author's doomed first marriage to Jobyna Howland, the original Gibson Girl. So much has been made of his bride's beauty that Stringer himself is invariably given short shrift. Don't kid yourself, this son of Southern Ontario was one good looking fella. Madge Macbeth, no stranger to the roman à clef  herself, thought Stringer as "beautiful as Adonis, irresistible as Eros."

Bonus: At 6'2", he was even taller than Jobyna.


The Stringers met at a Manhattan party in 1900, married seven weeks later, and divorced in 1914. There's much more to their story than that, of course, but I'm saving this for CNQ. What I want to do here is share a discovery.

The Wine of Life was published in 1921 by Knopf; a cheap A.L. Burt reprint followed. Their dust jackets feature the same drawing by the great James Montgomery Flagg, though the books themselves contain no illustrations. What I've discovered is that Flagg sketched twenty-three others, printed in the last months of 1921when the novel ran in  newspaper syndication. The sampling here come the Pittsburgh Press. The one at the top of this post, published 26 October, is my favourite. They may be muddied on microfilm, but I think you'll agree that each remains a visual treat.

10 October 1921
3 November 1921
5 November 1921
9 November 1921
10 November 1921
12 November 1921
16 November 1921
15 December 1921
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23 January 2015


It was six years ago yesterday that I began this exploration of the suppressed, ignored and forgotten in Canadian literature. Brian Moore's Sailor's Leave, was the first read. A few hundred books by a few hundred writers followed, but I'll focus on Moore because it all begins and ends with him.

Though he would not acknowledge it as such, Sailor's Leave – a/k/a Wreath for a Redhead – was Moore's debut novel. A paperback written for money, it paid the bills. Without Sailor's Leave, and the six Moore paperback originals that followed, there would've been no Judith Hearne, no The Feast of Lupercal and no The Luck of Ginger Coffey.

Would that today's writers had similar opportunities.

Moore wrote a total of seven paperback originals, the last five under cover of pseudonym. I spent good money on each while he was still alive, but wouldn't read them. It was a misguided decision that had something to do with respect, I suppose. Moore's good friend Bill Weintraub encouraged a change of mind. "The books were immensely readable and his genius for atmosphere, dialogue and plot was everywhere evident," he wrote in his memoir Getting Started.

Bill was right.

I began reading Sailor's Leave on 11 January 2009, the tenth anniversary of Brian Moore's death. This blog's first post came eleven days later. There have been over eight hundred others, but each anniversary has been set aside for the next of Moore's disowned novels.

Yesterday's post on Murder in Majorca was the last, because it was Moore's last; he wrote no more paperbacks. I've now read all his books. It seems the right place to stop.

I've devoted six years to this exploration, and have made some real discoveries, but in all that time the only new books read were by acquaintances and friends.

No more.

It doesn't end here. Not entirely. I'll keep up my Canadian Notes & Queries Dusty Bookcase column. I'll keep reading old Canadian books, too. How could I not? The veins are so rich. There's every chance I'll have something to say about them. I'll return whenever I do.

For now, I've got to catch up on some reading.

22 January 2015

Brian Moore: The Last of a Paperback Writer

Murder in Majorca
Michael Bryan [pseud. Brian Moore]
New York: Dell, 1957

Murder in Majorca features no murder. There is a death, but it's an accident.

Brian Moore's working title was Free Ride Home. The free ride is offered to Isabel Kenner, the estranged wife of aspiring journalist Chuck Kenner. Home is the United States. Isabel and Chuck met two years ago in Paris; she was a student, he was an ex-serviceman with dreams of becoming a foreign correspondent. What little money they had was quickly spent, though there were efforts to economize. The couple relocated to Spain because the living was cheaper, eventually ending up on Majorca (the cheapest of the cheap).

"It had begun gaily, like a ride on a carrousel. But the carrousel slowed down."

It was on Majorca that their relationship came to an end. Chuck made arrangements for Isabel to return home on a free Pan Am flight from Paris to New York. His story was that he knew someone who worked for the airline.

At the aérogare Isabel met a man who handed her a first class ticket, two ten-dollar bills and a small package she was to deliver to someone who would identify himself as "the bridegroom". No mule, she returned, package in hand, to Majorca.

And that's just the backstory.

The action begins with Isabel's return. At the airport she meets Gregory Fall, an American magazine photographer who has arrived in Majorca on assignment. Neither realizes it immediately, but Greg's contact is none other than Isabel's ne'er-do-well husband Chuck.

Murder in Majorca was the seventh of Moore's disowned paperback thrillers. In his true bibliography, it follows The Feast of Lupercal, one the best novels I've ever read. Though Moore wasn't aiming quite so high here, I don't hesitate in saying it's one of the finest thrillers going. He shows his muscle by telling the story from various points of view. Isabel, Chuck and Greg make three, but there are many more. As in the real world, some are more interesting than others. Compare Maggy, who might be dismissed as a bit of a tramp, with former Waffen S.S. officer Helmuth Freitag. The latter is as sinister and complex a character as one could hope to find. Lest things become too dark, kleptomaniac Amée David provides tragic/comic relief.

Moore's next novel,  The Luck of Ginger Coffey earned a first Governor General's Award. Decades passed before he returned to the thriller. There were occasional flirtations with the genre, but these were at the suggestions of others.

Alfred Hitchcock approached Moore with the idea of a cold war thriller after Vladimir Nabokov turned him down. The resulting film, Torn Curtain, led to a falling out that gave birth to fat, flatulent Bernard Boweri in Moore's 1970 novel Fergus.

In 1971, he published The Revolution Script, but blamed that misstep on Jack McClelland.

The first Brian Moore book I bought upon publication was 1985's Black Robe, a historical novel set in seventeenth-century New France. The next, Colour of Blood, was his first thriller in three decades. Lies of Silence and The Statement followed. They're the sort of books Graham Greene, who considered Moore his favourite living author, would have described as "entertainments". Murder in Majorca is very much in their league.

I'm betting Greene wouldn't have written it off, despite the title.

Trivia: In the excellent Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist, biographer Denis Sampson suggests that Gregory Fall's occupation was inspired by photographer John Vachon, whom the novelist had befriended in post-war Poland.

Moore contributed the Introduction to Poland 1946: Photographs and Letters of John Vachon, published in 1995 by the Smithsonian Institution.

Weirdness: Four years after Moore's Murder in Majorca, Consul Books published a paperback with the very same title and a remarkably similar cover.

I wonder whether it features a murder. If so, does it take place in Majorca?

Object: A squat 158-page paperback with one further page devoted to other Dell First Editions, including Jack Finney's The House of Numbers. It's attractive enough, but I much prefer Eyre & Spottiswoode's hardcover British first:

Access: Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library and eight of our academic libraries have copies of the Dell edition, but they're all non-circulating. That said, cheap copies are plentiful. As usual, the online deals are found with booksellers who aren't aware that Michael Bryan was Brian Moore. The cheapest offered – "Very close to very good condition" –  can be had for eight American dollars. The most expensive copies are being flogged by two American booksellers, each asking the  absurd price of US$150. Their descriptions are identical. Pay no more than US$25.

The cover illustration by Barye Phillips depicts a scene that doesn't appear in the novel.

The Eyre & Spottiswoode edition is quite rare; the sky's the limit on this one, I'm afraid. Take heart – and advantage – of the fact that Moore is under appreciated and undervalued.

Flamenco pour un requiem, a French translation, was published in the late 'fifties as part of Presses de la Cité's Collection un Mystère series. Frank Jansen did the words. I have no idea who tweaked the cover.

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19 January 2015

Max Braithwaite's True First

We Live in Ontario
Max Braithwaite and R.S. Lambert
[Agincourt, ON]: Book Society of Canada, 1957

Yes, we do! In fact, we arrived seven years ago this week.

Max Braithwaite lived in Ontario, too. He's usually thought of as a Saskatchewan writer, but this province was his home for more than five decades. "I felt like I was born in the wrong place," Braithwaite once said. "Finally I got the hell out of Saskatchewan." The man best remembered for Why Shoot the Teacher? put it this way: "I was a writer, not a teacher, and I figured life's too short to do something you don't like in a place you don't want to be."

Any agent would cringe.

We Live in Ontario was rescued from the books left behind at the end of our public library's most recent book sale. It was an unexpected find. The title doesn't appear in any Braithwaite bibliography. It predates Voices in the Wild, the book regarded as his first, by five years.

We Live in Ontario was not co-author R.S. Lambert's first. A seasoned pro with over forty books to his name, Lambert is one of those worthy writers who have been snubbed by The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and W.H. New's Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. And so, I direct you to Wikipedia – yes, Wikipedia – which has a not so bad article on the man. A fascinating figure, you'll be intrigued. Guarenteed.

I've been meaning to read these Lambert books for years:
  • The Prince of Pickpockets: A Study of George Barrington, Who Left His Country for His Country’s Good (London: Faber & Faber, 1930)
  • When Justice Faltered: A Study of Nine Peculiar Murder Trials (London: Methuen, 1935)
  • The Haunting of Cashen's Gap: A Modern "Miracle" Investigated (London: Methuen, 1935)
  • Propaganda (London: Nelson, 1938)
  • For the Time is at Hand: An Account of the Prophesies of Henry Wentworth Monk of Ottawa, Friend of the Jews, and Pioneer of World Peace (London: Melrose, 1947)
Instead, I read We Live in Ontario.

Because it was there.

An elementary school textbook, We Live in Ontario explores the province through the eyes of Newfoundland's Baxter family as they settle into a new home "not far from Hamilton." Mr Baxter works for the Greenway Machine Company. Mrs Baxter sets the table. Jenny skips rope. Billy asks questions.

There's no real protagonist, but the Baxter boy does guide the plot. Bill's Ontario is a land of wonder. After breaking a lightbulb, he spends a full afternoon trying to wrap his head around the fact that its replacement will cost just twenty cents. How can that be?

Ask your father.

Mr Baxter is as good as his word. Bill not only visits an electric light bulb factory, but a farm, a bank, an airport and Niagara Falls. The family descend to the depths of a Sudbury nickel mine and help catch fish on a boat out of Port Dover. It's all quite educational.

I learned a lot. Did you know that lightbulbs were once made in Ontario? Electric irons, too. And clothing, refrigerators and farm machinery. Imagine!

The province I know is a very different place.

Object: A 226-page textbook with two-colour illustrations by Robert Kunz.

His works swings so wildly between the competent and incompetent that I can't help but wonder whether he didn't farm some of them out.

Access: Non-circulating copies are held by nine of our libraries (five of which are in Ontario).

Anyone looking to buy a copy – there is no reason why you should – will find three listed online. All in crummy shape, they range in price from US$10 to US$55.84. Had I not grabbed my free copy it would've been pulped.

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16 January 2015

Harlequin's Filthiest Title

The Feathered Shaft
Jane Arbor
Toronto: Harlequin, 1970
"For various reasons, Nicola was having to masquerade as the sister of Kurt Thesige. It was a worrying situation, as, quite apart from the ever-present danger that her deception would be discovered, she soon realized that her feelings for him were far from sisterly!"

Other Harlequins by Jane Arbor: Strange Loyalties, Dear Intruder, The Velvet Spur and The Growing Moon.

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12 January 2015

The Heiress, the Hooker and the Mystery Woman

Daughters of Desire
Fletcher Knight
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

"This is the most colourful and perhaps zaniest city in Canada," Montreal newspaperman Al Thomas says in the opening pages. So why move the action elsewhere?

Most of Daughters of Desire takes place on a private island in the Bahamas or aboard a yacht bound for same. Al is not along for the ride. We see the reporter only in the first and final chapters. Our initial sighting has him trying to make Dorothy, his wife's hot cousin, in a Montreal nightclub. Al's role is to provide backstory for the main characters seated at the next table: spoiled rich girl Carol King and high-class hooker Summer Day. An unlikely pair, they've been brought together by Lester Ogden, the latest in Carol's long line of frustrated fiancés. "She's probably Lester's idea of a bizarre and sophisticated gesture for the evening," says Al in reference to Summer.

The promised ménage à trios never materializes; Lester's only trying to shake things up a little. Carol wants to break off their engagement and he just can't have that. To Lester, Carol is much more than a redheaded looker, she's an heiress who will act as insurance if he's ever cut out of his own inheritance.

"This is my last night of the season and I always get drunk on the last night of the season," says Summer. Carol's drunk, too, which may explain why she's making a play for one of the club's "pansy" dancers. Lester interrupts his fiancée's pursuit by appealing to her penchant for gambling. He bets Carol $5000 that she won't be able to get the captain of his Uncle Henry's yacht to propose marriage. Carol, who thinks she's all that, ups the ante by promising to marry Lester if she fails.

The rich are different from you and me.

Uncle Henry, one of Montreal's wealthiest men, was a handsome fellow until polio disfigured. Now he stews cruising here and there in a magnificent yacht manned by a crew of mangled men. Captain Michael Cameron, he of the strong jawline, is an exception. A man with mommy issues, Michael was on a path to the priesthood before being knocked off-course by a nineteen-year-old temptress. To get back on track he's limited his contact to the crew of ugly men. Effeminate fourteen-year-old Cabin Boy Tommy Buttons – yes, Buttons – does not tempt.

Drunken Carol and her new BFF, bleached blonde Summer Day, sneak aboard the yacht. Though they're discovered the next morning, the voyage continues uninterrupted. They won't be afforded an opportunity to disembark before the next port of call: Uncle Henry's secluded Bahamian island.

Daughters of Desire is meant to be a mystery, I guess. The yacht's cook, goes missing, and Carol is attacked repeatedly by a man whose face is hidden by a "seaman's helmet". Some credit is due the author in that the sole suspect ends up being the baddie. The only surprise comes with the reappearance of newspaperman Al and his wife's sexy cousin in the final chapter. One year later, they find themselves sipping cocktails in the very same Montreal nightclub. At Dorothy's urging, the reporter fills her in on everything that happened between Carol and her fiancé, thus bringing the reader up to date.

Daughters of Desire bored. Setting it down, I couldn't help but wonder about the cover. Illustrator D. Rickard depicts three women: redhead Carol, faux-blonde Summer and… well, the third can only be "darkly glamorous" Dorothy. The scene depicted does not feature in the novel; she never so much as meets Carol and Summer. Why elevate her to such a level? Dorothy features in just fifteen of the novel's pages, though her bit part is crucial. It's her notice of the heiress in the opening chapter that prompts Al to launch into Carol's story:
"What a beautiful woman," Dorothy said suddenly, looking over her shoulder, "with the gorgeous red hair."
Dorothy seems positively fixated on the heiress, pressing Al for information:
     "I gather she hasn't a marriage to her credit."
     Al drew expansively his cigar and coughed a little. "Nope. A clean slate. And I'm not even sure she sleeps with her boy blues. There are those who say yea and those who say nay."
     "Tried it once and didn't get it," Dorothy murmured.
     "Nothing, nothing, just mumbling," Dorothy smiled sweetly.
One year later, Dorothy remembers Carol well – "She was the most beautiful red head I've ever seen." – and the questions resume.

I'm now wondering whether Al's failure to bed Dorothy might have nothing to do with the fact that she's his wife's cousin? Could it be that Dorothy is a daughter of sapphic desire? Or am I just making this justly ignored novel out to be much more interesting than it really is?

Trivia: The only Canadian novel I've read to feature a "blackface" performance.


Object: A 159-page poorly produced mass market paperback. The thing isn't even rectangular.

Access: Just two copies are listed for sale online – at US$2.95 and US$7.50, both are bargains. Library and Archives Canada has one. That's it.