30 September 2012

A Second Body on Mount Royal

Snapped yesterday at the offices of Véhicule Press, the new edition of David Montrose's The Body on Mount Royal. How new? So new that it hasn't yet reached bookstore shelves.

It's been nearly six decades, since Harlequin published and abandoned private dick Russell Teed's final adventure. A scarce book, there's only one copy currently being offered online. And it ain't that pretty at all. And it costs $75.

But you'll soon be able to buy the new Véhicule Press edition for $13.95. Unlike Harlequin's, it's built to last. What's more, it has a new Foreword by Kevin Burton Smith.

My take on this, the most disturbing David Montrose title, can be found here:
The Unpleasant End of Russell Teed 

27 September 2012

One-Upping Elizabeth Smart

Before I Even Got to Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept
John Warren
London: Scorpion, 1979

24 September 2012

Good, it's a Packard

The Four Stragglers
Frank L. Packard
London: Hodder & Stoughton, [n.d.]
The Locked Room
Frank L. Packard
London: Hodder & Stoughton, [n.d.]

20 September 2012

Entering the Unknown with Frank L. Packard

The Four Stragglers
Frank L. Packard
Toronto: Copp Clark, 1923

It's hard to know just what to expect when picking up a Packard; reference books offer little or nothing, archived reviews are few, and with one or two or three exceptions book bloggers have given him a pass. Add to all this the sad fact that the dust jackets to his books are almost always missing, as is the case with this soiled, stained, beat-up copy I spotted last October in the "FREE" box at Montreal's Cheap Thrills.

A few pages into this free book, I was beginning to think that it might just end up being my favourite Packard novel. Although that first flush of excitement gave way to disappointment, I don't regret the read.

The Four Stragglers opens in the darkness of an unnamed battlefield during the Great War. Cut off from their respective units, three soldiers take refuge in a thicket; a fourth lies dead or unconscious a few metres away. Flares flying above reveal faces, and the cognizant come to recognize that they'd all played parts in a daring jewel heist not two years earlier.

It's a confusing, chaotic scene. Shouldn't it be? Shells rain down, a munitions dump explodes in the distance and somewhere out there march Germans with bayonets. Then there's that fourth straggler lying on the ground. The idea that he might be listening in on the reunion forces cryptic conversation. Eventually, one of the other three raises his rifle and fires:
     The first man screamed out:
     "Christ! What have you done?"
     "I think he was done in anyway... It was as well to make sure."
Dead. Dead. And yet the next flare that hangs in the heavens reveals that his body has disappeared.

We're transported suddenly to the Claremont, an exclusive gentleman's club in London's West End. The Armistice now more than three years in the past, the reader is listening in on a conversation between Sir Harris Graves and Captain Francis Newcombe. A man of obvious privilege, Sir Harris has the means and the time to pursue criminology as a sort of hobby. His current focus is the aforementioned theft and its connection with an elusive, infamous East End criminal known as Shadow Varne. The captain, transfixed, expresses concern:
"I fell impelled to say to you that, if this man is what you describe him to be, is so dangerous as you say he is, I would advise you, Sir Harris, in all seriousness to leave him – to Scotland Yard."
Sir Harris stands fast... and is murdered before morning. If it hasn't already, the reader's suspicion will fall on Newcombe, who is not only revealed to be the straggler who shot the injured soldier, but Shadow Varne himself.

I found the most interesting aspect of The Four Stragglers revolved around the idea of the T.G. – the Temporary Gentleman – a man who through obtaining commission would be permitted privileges heretofore enjoyed only by members of a certain class. For Varne, as Captain Francis Newcombe, lasting entry to a once closed-off world is made possible through wartime heroics. "I became a Permanent Gentleman", he tells doomed Sir Harris. "Democracy! Private Francis Newcombe – Captain Francis Newcombe – Francis Newcombe, Esquire."

Packard's novels are always peppered with the fantastic and improbable; for much of The Four Stragglers I took Newcombe's rise as another example. But then I thought of our own Sir Arthur Currie, GCMG, KCB, a man who himself rose from the lowest ranks. I don't mean for a second to suggest that Currie was a murderer – just an embezzler.

Object: The first Canadian edition, my copy appears to have been first owned by a man named Donald Shipley. A 1925 Christmas gift from "Claude", it bears the label of Wendell Holmes, a bookseller in London, Ontario.

Access: Canadians, look to your universities – of the public libraries, only Toronto's serves.

The Canadian first shares plates with the Doran American first and a later Burt reprint. It wasn't until 1934 that the Hodder & Stoughton British first appeared. Together, more than couple of dozen copies are listed for sale online. They begin at £4.00, but the one to buy is a $15 copy of the Canadian first with dust jacket by A.D. Rahn. The most expensive – forty dollars –  comes from an ill-informed bookseller  who writes: "THIS A 1923 HARDCOVER BOOK IT IS EXTREMLY [sic] RARE BOOK IT HAS A NAME INSIE [sic] THE COVER AND HAS BEEN READ THE BINDING IS SUNNED AND HAS NO JACKET THE CORNERS ARE BUMPED AND THE PAGES ARE TANNED EVENLY."

Čtyři zaběhlíci, a Czech edition, was published in 1928. Apparently the National Library of the Czech Republic has a copy.

17 September 2012

The Hidden Robert Kroetsch

(cliquez pour agrandir)
Discovered last week in the little town of St Marys, Ontario, the key to understanding and properly recognizing the symbolism, messages and codes hidden within Robert Kroetsch's 1975 novel Badlands.

An unknown hand reveals the secrets, so many secrets, held by each and every paragraph yes, each and every paragraph  of this 270-page novel.

I am now entertaining offers for this unique, invaluable volume.

Further images available upon request.

Serious enquiries only, please.

13 September 2012

Beer, Broads and Blackmail Bring Confusion

Mark it for Murder
Douglas Sanderson
New York: Avon, [1959]

Douglas Sanderson had left Montreal behind as both a home and a setting when Mark it for Murder was published, but traces of the city remain. Just look at John Molson, the name of our hero. We're told next to nothing about this man, except that he once studied at the Sorbonne. Europeans take him for an American, but I wouldn't be so sure.

The opening pages of Mark it for Murder find Molson at a private club on the French Riviera. He gets plastered with a Swede, makes love on the beach with beautiful Julie Chirac and pummels her escort Roger Lascelles before being called away to attend to Joseph P. Craddock, his wealthy employer. On the way back the Mercedes Molson drives loses a wheel and careens off a cliff into the Mediterranean. He bails, rescuing Louise (another love interest) in the process.

Stripped to its bare bones, the beginning of the novel sounds rather silly, but it's actually very strong. Mark it for Murder features some of Sanderson's finest writing, particularly in its sketches of Spain:
So up and down they walk, making talk as adolescents make drawings on a lavatory wall. From the same motive and with the same innocence. I listened. Spaniards talk so loudly it is difficult not to listen. They were describing as true the things imagined before falling asleep the previous night. But their lies were gracious, interesting and enthusiastic. They enjoyed what they were saying and politely hid their disbelief in another man's story.
The change in location comes courtesy of Craddock. An aged blackmailing businessman who has found religion, he's by far the most realized and intelligent character in the novel. Craddock's violent death, depicted on the cover of Cry Wolfram, the Secker & Warwick edition, marks an unfortunate downturn.

Craddock really knew the ins and outs of the extortion business; now that he's no longer around to explain the novel becomes a confusing mess. Things get so bad that by the third to last chapter, Sanderson resorts to a sit-down with a chatty, campy, faux-English queen who happily answers any and all questions that Molson cares to pose. This is followed by a chapter in which all the key players gather in a room to hear out the accusations and theories of the local governor. And finally – in the final chapter – an attempt at a denouement as Molson and Louise take in a bullfight.

A frustrating book, it features a surprise ending with Molson losing Louise to a matador on the final page. I'm not sure why, but I'm sure Craddock could've explained it... or maybe the chatty, campy, faux-English queen.

Object: A fragile 160-page mass market paperback. Though labeled "An Avon Original", it looks to have been preceeded by Cry Wolfram, Secker & Warburg's UK first. Both editions enjoyed just a single printing each.

Access: Canadian library patrons will find Mark it for Murder at Concordia University and Library and Archives Canada. The University of Calgary and University of Victoria have Cry Wolfram.

Curiously, Cry Wolfram appears to be more common than Mark it for Murder. Seven copies of the former are listed online – all with dust jackets – at prices ranging from eight to thirty dollars. Very Good plus copies of Mark it for Murder can be had for between four and eighteen dollars. But hurry – only four copies are listed online.

A French translation using under Sanderson's Martin Brett pseudonym was published by Gallimard. Title: La semaine de bonté.

Not to be confused with Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté.

10 September 2012

Lilian Vaux MacKinnon and Her Critics

A fleeting follow-up to the previous post:

Lilian Vaux MacKinnon earned a English B.A. (Honours) at Queen's, though I don't see much evidence of this in Miriam of Queen's. What the university's website describes as a "critical success" received a mixed bag of reviews. The harshest appraisal comes from an anonymous critic in the December 1921 edition of Canadian Bookman:
The book gives one the idea that Mrs. MacKinnon enjoyed her student life under "Geordie" Grant to the full, and wants to enable others to see it as she did, but is handicapped in her effort by a desire to stick to literal facts. It is somewhat as if one were to attempt to describe  the life of a great university by reproducing a sophomore's diary.
There's more, of course, but I've chosen these words because they touch on the autobiographical nature of the novel. It's this reading of Miriam of Queen's – as a roman à clef – that brought the most positive reviews, like this one in The Ottawa Citizen:
Many of the characters in "Miriam of Queen's" will be recognized. There is for instance her father, a good civil servant. "Roderick Campbell had been in the government employ in increasingly responsible positions since he had moved to Ottawa from the Island of Cape Breton. Highly esteemed, reserved to the point of austerity, a scholarly man, books were his favorite pastime." The Campbell's lived "in a substantial brick house set among the trees" in the Capital.
Like Miriam, Lilian Vaux MacKinnon called Ottawa home, and like her heroine she travelled widely. The Citizen review describes Marion of Queen's as being "almost Dominion-wide in its scope, the scenes extending from the countryside to Cape Breton to the cities of eastern, middle and western Canada."

And so I'm left shaking my head over this:

Canadian Bookman, June 1922
Never assume that a reviewer has actually read the book in question.

Related post:

06 September 2012

Back to School with Miriam of Queen's

Miriam of Queen's
Lilian Vaux MacKinnon
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1921

Imagine, a Canadian college novel published just one year after This Side of Paradise.

I expected nothing quite so impressive from Miriam of Queen's. That said, what I'd thought would be a light fin de l'été read turned out to be the year's toughest slog; it took three runs at the first chapter before I found my footing. The opening pages bring Elizabeth Danvers, Aunt Laura, Mrs Roderick Campbell, Pauline, Sedley, John Hielanman, Aunt Hannah, Cora Hotchkiss and, of course Miriam. Many more will follow. Most, though not all, are related in some way to one another – but how? It's much like being thrust into a wedding reception at which one knows no one. Indeed, a wedding is in the offing, as Mrs Roderick Campbell reveals:
"You're getting another son, Ellen. Isn't that the modern form of consolation? And a bookish sort like Sedley, too." She turned suddenly to listen. "That is not his voice now is it? Mr. Rutherford's, I mean. It sounds familiar, though."
     "And so it should be, my dear," Mrs. Danvers rejoined, rising and leading the way across the hall. "It should be familiar, since it is your own nephew's – Fyfe Boulding, you know. He is to have a little part in tomorrow's ceremony, just a bit of distraction because of his connection."
I'm of the opinion that there's much to be learned from bad writing. In Miriam of Queen's lessons come  on every page, and are of such clarity that I feel no need to do anything but present. This paragraph comes at the end of Miriam's first year:
And at last came the days of the trial, when Convocation Hall was turned into a vast arena, where the competitors gathered in mortal combat and the witnesses were those bygone seers on the wall who, unmoved, had witnessed many a struggle, from their eventual element of calm, and whose lofty gaze inspired the frantic souls below to fight on. Elbowed by a science man on one hand, by a theologian on the other, Miriam wrote away. All her store of hardy-won knowledge was registered once and for all on paper, before the cares of this work-a-day world should have blotted it out. There was something fitting in the act, and a feeling of triumph visited those well-doers who were enabled to give an account at last of the laborious days they had lived.
Prose such as this leaves little room for plot. Miriam, our heroine, attends Queen's and looks on as dramatic events envelope others. Kind-hearted Cousin Sedley makes the mistake of marrying a vicious and vacuous flirt. Cousin Fyfe, a ne'er do well, is arrested, tried, and sent to Kingston Penitentiary. But before this takes place, in the most dramatic scene, both fall in the drink whilst playing hockey:
They are coming from all quarters. The ice is blackening with fleet figures. Will it be too late? The girls are lying flat and Elizabeth has caught Sedley's foot and Miriam, Elizabeth's, and the living chain moves nearer. Slowly, slowly, and oh, how carefully! Up, up and cautiously, cautiously! Out of the deathly waters, over the treacherous edge, Fyfe Boulding is drawn to safety. Then, just as the cry of thanskgiving rises to their lips, the ice gives way under double strain. there is an ominous crack, the sound of heavy body splashing down, and as Boulding creeps to safety Sedley Danvers goes down, down, into the icy waters of Lake Ontario.
     Stretch out your stick to save him now! If he can come up! Will he strike under the ice? Will the current bear him away? Or is there a chance, one chance in a thousand, that he may be seen again? The crowd presses nearer, strong arms stretch out to aid. Yes, there it is, that dark, struggling, helpless object at the edge of the break. Too late! Down, down it goes, while a cry of anguish breaks from the lips of the onlookers. Once more, once it comes. Now, men, now! They reached him , they drag him out, white and sodden and spent. Miriam, turning in horror from that death-like form, looks into Hugh Stewart's face.
     "Oh, Hugh,!" she screams. "Take me home! Take me home! Sedley is drowned! Don't you see? Sedley is drowned!"
    But no! It is a collapse, consequent on shock and exhaustion.
As I say, there's much to be learned from prose such as this.

The Regina Leader-Post, 17 December 1921
Any value in Miriam of Queen's lies in what it captures of student life at Queen's University during the earliest years of the last century. Though their debut novels were published so close together, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lilian Vaux MacKinnon were of different generations. Mrs MacKinnon graduated from Queen's in 1902, a decade before the petting parties of Princeton. Her university experience – and Miriam's – consisted of muscular Christianity, college songs and fleeting glimpses of the Very Reverend George Monro Grant.

Modest mention in the 12 September 1942 Regina Leader-Post has Mrs MacKinnon as the author of two novels: Miriam of Queen's and The Guinea Stamp. I can find no record of the latter. The Queen's University Archives holds the manuscript of an unpublished romance "set near Brockville"  with the rather ribald title Hard by St. Lawrence.


I'm not at all surprised.

Object: An attractive hardcover in mustard cloth. I found my copy nine years ago in a Vancouver Salvation Army Thrift Store. Price: $2.

Access: A very scarce title, it appears that the only public library carrying the book serves the good folks of Toronto; Kingston's has no copy.

Miriam of Queen's enjoyed a single run, split by McClelland & Stewart and George H. Doran. All of two editions, the latter is by far the least common. One copy of each is listed for sale online. At US$75, the less expensive is a "Fair to Good, Reading Copy" McClelland & Stewart edition. The other is the one to buy: a Near Fine copy of the American first in "Very Good plus dustjacket" for US$175.

Great price! Take note, Kingston Frontenac Public Library.

03 September 2012

The Poetic Martin Brett

Cast your eyes on what is surely the most elegant Douglas Sanderson item. Printed with a Vandercook SP-15 press on St. Armand Old Master Rideau paper, In The Darkness is the work of J.C. Byers.

Mr Byers gives us extracts from four of Sanderson's Martin Brett novels "presented so as to highlight the poetic elements of noir novels."

The above, drawn from the opening of Hot Freeze, is a favourite, but the one that really got to me comes from The Darker Traffic:
This was a night
When I needed a friend,
In case I opened my eyes
In the darkness
And had nothing
     intimate and
     familiar and
To talk about,
To make me stop
That the little kid
With the big eyes
Was dead.
In The Darkness was produced in an edition of twenty numbered copies. I'm told that this is just the first in a series and that the hard boiled epigrams of David Montrose are next.

Those hoping to add a copy to their library can contact J.C. Byers through Wollamshram's Blog.

The photographs do not do it justice.