26 May 2011

A Penthouse Killing in Montreal

The Pyx
John Buell
New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1959

In 1965, as the centennial approached and Expo 67 was beginning to take shape, Edmund Wilson published O Canada, his "notes on Canadian culture." A slight book, worth no more than a quick thumb through, it's remembered today only for the critic's oft-repeated pronouncement about Morley Callaghan: "...perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world."

Wilson really didn't know much about Canada; in the book's first sentence the septuagenarian writes that his introduction to the country's "cultural life" took place only nine years earlier. The critic then goes on to thank Robert Weaver, "an official of CBS" – he means a CBC employee – through whom he met all sorts of Canadian writers and academics.

Only three English Canadian novelists are discussed in O Canada. As one might expect, MacLennan follows Callaghan, but the third, John Buell, is a bit of a surprise. Studying at Concordia, CanLit canon comrades Callaghan and MacLennan peppered my reading lists; Buell, professor emeritus at the very same institution, was never mentioned. My copy of The Pyx, the first of his five novels, was bought in 1984 for 50¢ at a garage sale not two blocks from the Loyola campus. A signed first edition, for 27 years it moved back and forth across the country without being read.

Why did I wait so long?

I'll blame the spoiler of a film, which I caught as a kid on CBMT, our local CBC – not CBS – station.

Here's a coincidence: Like the previous novel discussed in this blog, The Pyx begins with a woman falling from a penthouse. In this instance, the deceased is not addicted to cocaine, but heroin. She is Elizabeth Lucy, a high-class call girl who – and I don't mean to be flippant here – is very much the heroine of the novel. Police Sergeant Jim Henderson investigates the death, but this is less a detective story than a woman's struggle with herself and her situation.

Wilson makes much of Buell's background – a French Canadian mother, an English Canadian father – describing The Pyx as a French novel. I was reminded more of Graham Greene than Georges Simenon (yes, Belgian, I know), but most of all, I thought of Brian Moore, with whom Buell shares considerable talent in creating convincing female characters. Elizabeth is one, but there are others, including friend Sandra and Meg the madam.

It's difficult to write much about The Pyx without ruining things for the potential reader – and this novel is recommended highly. I'll add only that Wilson all but dismisses The Pyx as "a horror story", writing: "It is not really a serious book, but it creates an ever-tightening apprehension that may hold even a reader not particularly susceptible to the coils of this kind of fiction."

Nonsense – you will be held.

Trivia: While the dust jacket informs that the setting is Montreal, the city is not named in the novel. Street names are invented, though anyone who has visited will recognize this jewel of the St Lawrence.

Access: Though The Pyx has been discarded by our public libraries, the universities do serve. Those looking to buy a copy will be happy to see that used copies are listed online for less than one Canadian dollar. The uncommon first edition can be bought in Near Fine condition for as little as US$15.

"What the hell's a pyx?" Henderson asks in the movie. Good question. The fact that it's asked at all goes some way in explaining The Chosen Girl, the novel's alternate title. Foreign language editions vary. The Dutch title is De duivelse oproep (The Devilish Call), while the Germans know it as Mister K. Verliert die Partie (Mister K. Loses the Game). The 1973 film, starring Karen Black and Christopher Plummer, last appeared on DVD as The Hooker Cult Murders.



  1. Another drugged-out femme splats the sidewalk. Wilson barely knows what he's talking about.
    Karen Black sings (not for the first or last time). And a recommendation! Oy, Canada, his post has it all, Brian.

  2. I tried to watch this movie last year. I managed to rent this from Netflix just before they pulled it from their rentals. It's now listed as "SAVE FOR FUTURE." This usually means you will never be able to rent it form them because they've removed it due to a high number of poor reviews and low ratings. Anyway, I just couldn't get into it at all. All I remember about it was the bleakness of the outdoor settings and a murky convoluted story line that made no sense at all. Plus the quality of the DVD transfer was horrid. A grainy scratchy film print was used. It's all a blur - literally and figuratively. I think I might have turned it off. I can't even remember. Must work better as a book. I think they ruined the story in adapting it to the screen. The occult element I was hoping for was practically absent and what was there was just dull and uninteresting. You have any comments on the difference between the film and the book? I'd like to read it since it seems like it's right up my alley - detective novel with other worldly aspects to the crime and all.

  3. Steve, the opening credits tell us that Ms Black not only performed by composed the songs featured in the film. Sadly, the YouTube post is of such poor quality that I can't even make out the words. Which brings me to...

    John, I wonder whether the old Netflix offering might have been sourced from the same crummy, muddy print as that posted on YouTube.

    I found the shots of 1973 Montreal interesting enough, but thought that the film didn't come close to capturing the look of the city. Curiously, it manages to capture the sound of the city, by which I mean the mix of French and English, with most characters switching from one language to the other. Fine for some viewers, but I wonder why no subtitles.

    You're right about the occult element being practically absent. In the novel, it doesn't really appear until page 157 (of 174) and is over in a flash. The film makes a much bigger deal out it... a death black cat stuck to the door with a knife, inverted crosses of smeared blood and, in one of the stronger scenes, a black mass. None of these things feature in the novel. It is, I think, interesting to note that until the last third, the film follows Buell's story quite closely. The deviations include a number of fights and an unintentionally funny, badly shot (no pun intended) bit of violence at the Old Port. All would seem to have been concocted with the box office in mind.

    It's hard to imagine anyone not preferring the book to the film. That said, I think anyone looking to read a detective novel will be disappointed... but not as much as horror fans.

  4. Michael Washburn17 August, 2011 09:23

    It is so unfortunate that the DVD available through Netflix has poor picture quality. If, by chance, you can obtain a videocassette of the film, your experience will be much better. The film really is an eerie, haunting, suspenseful masterpiece, enhanced immeasurably by Karen Black's songs, one of which derives some of its lyrics from the Song of Solomon.

    Over the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting or speaking with a number of people involved with the film, including Terry Haig, who plays Jimmy, the young homosexual who tries to help Plummer's Sgt. Henderson solve the mystery of the prostitute's death. On one of my trips to Montreal, John Buell, author of the novel, was kind enough to set aside time to meet with me in person. It was absolutely fascinating to speak with him about the Montreal of earlier decades, his teaching, and the film's director Harvey Hart.

    John Buell is the author of four other novels, all of them brilliant and all, unfortunately, out of print in the U.S. They are Playground, The Shrewsdale Exit, Four Days, and A Lot to Make Up For. I would never have found a copy of Playground, but on another visit to Montreal, I found a used bookstore near the McGill University campus which had a special section devoted to "strange and unusual Canadian literature."

    The other four novels might be worth a blog post. . . .

  5. My thanks for this. I must try to find a decent copy of the film - the one I viewed was so poor that it was impossible to make out Ms Black's lyrics. Song of Solomon? I had no idea.

    I'm planning to read - and write about - all of John Buell's novels. You'll find a post on the second, Four Days, here.

    A section devoted to "strange and unusual Canadian literature" sounds right up my alley. I'll have to hunt down that bookstore when I'm next in town.

  6. Michael Washburn17 August, 2011 10:23

    P.S. I'm sure you know that Jean-Louis Roux, who plays the mysterious Kierson, is one of French Canada's most famous actors and personalities. As Phil Hardy puts it in The Overlook Encyclopedia of The Horror Film, Roux is "a quietly understated figure of menace" in The Pyx. An astonishing performance.

    And yes, Black's lyrics do have a distinctly Old Testament ring. Listen to "I Sought Him But I Found Him Not," which plays over the opening credits and later in the film. "The watchmen who go about the city found me . . . To whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loved . . . I held him, and would not let him go . . . until I brought him into the chamber of her who had conceived me."

  7. Agreed. In a film with any very fine performances, Jean-Louis Roux stands out.

    If only there had been a soundtrack album.