27 December 2011

A Quiet Revolution and Still Cowards Complain



The Squeaking Wheel
John Mercer [pseud.]
n.p.: Rubicon, 1966
103 pages

This review now appears, revised and rewritten, in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through

25 December 2011

A Merry Christmas to All



A few favourite images from the 1961 Eaton's Santa Claus Parade Colouring Book. The entire thing – 32-pages, plus "COLOUR GUIDE IN FULL COLOUR" – is available for download here from the Archives of Ontario.

Merry Christmas!

23 December 2011

Pulp Noir à Montréal



The new edition of Canadian Notes & Queries lands, and with it comes another Dusty Bookcase sur papier. This time the spotlight plays upon Ted Allan's Love is a Long Shot. Not the Love is a Long Shot for which he was awarded the 1984 Stephen Leacock Medal, but a cheap, pseudonymous pulp novel from a quarter-century earlier.

Published by News Stand Library in September 1949, two months before newspaperman Al Palmer’s Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, this Love is a Long Shot holds the distinction of being the first pulp noir novel set in Montreal. As I write in CNQ, it ain't that pretty at all. The cover depicts, but doesn't quite capture, one of the darkest, most horrific scenes in any Canadian novel.


There's more to the issue, of course, including new fiction by Nathan Whitlock, new poetry by Nyla Matuck and – ahem
praise for A Gentleman of Pleasure from George Fetherling.

22 December 2011

POD Cover of the Month: The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib



Wait, isn't that Montreal?

It seems almost cruel to again focus on Nabu Press, but what better way to begin this day, the 150th anniversary of Sara Jeannette Duncan's birth, than to take a swipe at those dishonouring her work. Using a stock photo of a Slovakian castle for a novel set in India is one thing, but what I find more interesting is the botching of fair Sara's name:
Sara Jeanette (Duncan) "Mrs. Everard Cotes" Cotes
What dog's breakfast lies beneath that cover?

First edition:


New York: Appleton, 1893

A Christmas bonus:


Further ineptitude from POD publisher Echo Library of Fairford, Gloucester. The surname is correct.

Related posts:
POD Cover of the Month: Montreal for Tourists..
POD Cover of the Month: Rila of Ingelside

POD Cover of the Month: Romany of the Snows

20 December 2011

The Harper Hockey Book Watch (Updated!)



Regular readers and suffering dinner companions will know that for years my eyes have been scanning the horizon for signs of Stephen Harper's long promised hockey book. The prime minister does love to tease, promising a work that seems forever on the verge of completion.

Today, some hope. In her regrettably named "Morning Buzz", Globe and Mail reporter Jane Taber brings news that "there is a publishing date for the long-talked about and much-anticipated prime ministerial tome one [sic] hockey history." While the pub date – "next year" – seems awfully vague, we may take cheer in the fact the source is Stephen Harper himself. "He did not say who the publisher is," adds Ms Taber, leaving the reader to speculate as to whether he refused to say or simply wasn't asked.

Now, morning buzz turning to evening hangover, I see that the prime minister's critics are having fun with his writerly habits: "15 minutes every day for eight years". Oh, by all means, go ahead and snicker. Me? I admire the man's determination as much as I do his realistic expectations. Again, Ms. Taber:
He will not make a cent on it, he said.
I dare say, our prime minister understands something of what it is to be a writer in this country.

There's a sentence I never thought I'd write.

Later that day: Postmedia's Mark Kennedy reports that the prime minister has not yet completed the book.

Take heart, after today he'll be fifteen minutes closer.

16 December 2011

Keeping an Eye Out for Pamela Fry



The Watching Cat
Pamela Fry
London: Davies, 1960

Who was Pamela Fry? None of my Montreal friends, bookish types all, have been able to answer this question. Yet the married "Miss Fry" once lived in the city and twice used it as a setting in mystery novels. Both were published by respected houses, both were lauded in the pages of the New York Times and both have been out of print for half a century.

The Watching Cat, Pamela Fry's second mystery, stumbles out of the gate with an entirely unimaginative premise: Catherine Ellis, a young, single schoolteacher from a remote Manitoba town inherits a large Montreal house from a previously unknown, eccentric uncle. Much as I'd hoped the work would quickly ready itself, Miss Fry fairly clings to cliché as the story falters forward. Poor Catherine, an orphan, enters what she expects to be an empty domicile only to encounter an evil stepmother, an unstable half-sister and a tall, dark and handsome lodger. A shady lawyer works in the background as those in the know sneak about the house looking for riches hidden away by the recently deceased funny uncle.

It all seems so forgettable, but I'll remember The Watching Cat as one of the most disappointing novels I've ever read. The author has a peculiar penchant for planting, then ignoring, seeds of a dark psychological drama. When the evil stepmother relates stories of family mental illness, Catherine begins to question her own sanity – but only for a paragraph or two. Gaslight invariably dims to a Nancy Drew mystery, as when our heroine is awoken by a scratching sound:
The noise came from somewhere very close – surely it was the other side of this very wall, the wall alongside her bed. There was someone in Uncle Jeremiah's room... She looked at the luminous dial of her watch. It was three minutes to four... But who could be in there at this time of night – and for what reason?
So boring, so bland... and yet on occasion The Watching Cat stretches to rise above it all. Catherine's half-sister, for example, proves not to be mentally ill, rather she's a heroin addict. Her pusher is boyfriend Eddie, a young medical school drop-out who is not only in on the scheme, but is probably sleeping with the evil stepmother. And there's a good deal of fun, like when small town girl Catherine, dressed in a hideous handmade green taffeta gown, attends a party populated by beats.

Nearly everything I know about the attractive Miss Fry is found in the book's author biography. Her debut novel, Harsh Evidence, published in London by Wingate (1953) and in New York by Roy Publishers (1956), is held by all of nine libraries worldwide. Harsh Evidence isn't listed for sale online, and seems exceedingly scarce – only the British Library has the Wingate edition – so you'll understand my surprise in discovering that it was translated into both Swedish (De döda tala ej, 1956) and Finnish (Kuolleet eivät puhu!, 1957) .

Did more mysteries follow? The only other books I've been able to uncover by Miss Fry are The Good Cook's Encyclopedia and The Good Housewife's Encyclopedia, both published in the early 'sixties by London's Spring Books. I'll step out on a limb and speculate that a third Spring title, Cooking the American Way, is naught but a repackaging of the first.

Who was Pamela Fry? Disappointed as I was by The Watching Cat, it contained just enough quirk to keep me in the hunt for the answer.


Object: A very attractive hardcover in dark blue boards. I can't quite make out the cover artist's signature. My copy, signed with publisher card, was purchased this past autumn from a Montreal bookseller who tells me that he has never seen another. It would appear that that this, the novel's only edition, received no second printing. No Swedish or Finnish translations this time.

Access: A rare book, Canadian library patrons will find The Watching Cat at the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria. A mere three copies are listed for sale online. At US$15.77, Serendipity Books of West Leederville, Australia offers the one in best condition ("top edge foxed else v.g. in worn and sl. torn d/w"). Second place, goes to a New Zealand bookseller who is selling a slightly less attractive copy for an even twenty American dollars. A Canadian bookseller in Oakville, Ontario brings up the rear by asking C$60 for a crummy thing that lacks the dust jacket and front flyleaf. On the other hand, The Watching Cat is so uncommon that it might just be worth the price.

Further reading: I follow Juri Nummelin in my attempt to track down more about Pamela Fry. His initial investigation is found at Pulpetti.
Related post: The Mystery Writer Mystery Unravels

15 December 2011

The Pan Jalna (and the Careering Jalnawagon)



The Whiteoak books represent the idealized portrait of Canada, which all English people have. Life is hardly ever painful at Jalna. It's comfortable, it's exciting, there are domestic dramas going on. I think that Englishmen like to believe that anywhere abroad life goes on as it used to go on in England. We always like to think that life for our parents must have been wonderful and life for us is horrid. Englishmen reading about the Whiteoaks think that life is lived that way now, and we know that life is not lived that way in England – or in Canada.
– Lovat Dickson
In the final pages of his 1966 biography, Mazo de la Roche of Jalna, Ronald Hambleton remarks on the very different reception the author has been accorded by her "three most important audiences". American acclaim, brought when Jalna took the 1927 Atlantic Monthly Award for "novel of the year", faded as the series progressed. Canadians cooled as that it became apparent that de la Roche's focus was on a country that had long passed. Hambleton concludes, "in Britain her reception continued and continues to be warm."

By the mid-sixties, Pan, de la Roche's British paperback publisher since 1948, had sold more than two million copies of the series' titles. Things were still balmy on 20 May 1971, when The Whiteoaks of Jalna began filming. In The Secret of Jalna, the enthusiastic Ronald Hambleton writes of "the careering Jalnawagon, whose pace as a literary phenomenon has showed no signs of slackening since Mazo de la Roche pencilled the first lines in late 1925."

In 1972, Pan issued tie-in editions that featured stills from the series and did one more revamp. Now, the Jalnawagon runs no more... at least not for Pan. Toronto's Dundurn Press publishes the sixteen books of the Whiteoak Chronicles with a cover image of "Benares", the Mississauga home upon with Jalna was modelled. They're attractive enough, but I much prefer the Pan editions of the 'fifties and 'sixties. A visual feast:


Jalna panned:


13 December 2011

Jalna's Dirty Little Secret Exposed! (Part II)



This second part of my review of Ronald Hamilton's The Secret of Jalna now appears, revised and rewritten, in:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through

The Globe & Mail, 3 March 1972

Related posts:

12 December 2011

Jalna's Dirty Little Secret Exposed! (Part I)



The Secret of Jalna
Ronald Hambleton
Toronto: PaperJacks, 1972
175 pages

This review now appears, revised and rewritten, in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through


Related posts:

07 December 2011

Max Braithwaite's Bawdy Book




Humorist Max Braithwaite was born one hundred years ago today in Nokomis, Saskatchewan. His Why Shoot the Teacher was one of the very first Canadian novels I ever read... and the 1977 film adaptation, starring Bud Cort, is a favourite.


So why is it that I haven't so much as picked up another Braithwaite novel?

The titles have something to do with it. The Night We Stole the Mountie's Car and The Commodore's Barge is Alongside gave off a folksy ring that had me covering my ears.


McClelland and Stewart's cover treatments neutered titillating titles...


...or rendered them dull and humourless.


So I passed on his books, offered in plenty at garage sales, thrift shops, and church bazaars, until last week I happened upon this, the one Braithwaite novel McClelland and Stewart did not publish:


Not bought at a church bazaar.