26 June 2013

To the Big House... or not

The Little Yellow House
Jessie McEwen
Toronto: Ryerson, 1953

Mark Crosbie is a damaged war vet. A few years back, whilst downing Messerschmitts over Denmark, his plane took fire. Mark managed to parachute to safety and – more luck – found sanctuary in a little yellow house inhabited by an exiled German university professor and his beautiful daughter. Sadly, the airman's injuries necessitated the amputation of a leg; happily, he and the beautiful daughter, Adella, fell for one another.

This novel opens two years after the war's end with our hero standing on the deck of a ship bound for Canada. Poor Mark is returning to Toronto empty-armed, having spent a frustrating few months travelling through Europe in a failed search for Adella and her scholarly father. Mark hasn't even settled into his deck chair before he's approached by Charlie Griswold, a boozy friend of his cousin Alec. In the manner of drunks everywhere, ol' Charlie latches onto his semi-acquaintence and begins to babble:
"Got hitched in Lun'on a month ago and she's the fines' bit o' luggage I ever did see. Ain't nuthin' like her in the whole wide world."
The bit o' luggage – name: Margery – isn't all that, but there's something about her that reminds Mark of Adella.

Sadly, Charlie's honeymoon is short-lived. On the sixth night at sea he corners Mark. "She says she's going to dish me when we dock." mutters Charlie. "Says she only fastened on to me for a free ride."

The unhappy newlywed tries to enlist Mark's help in discrediting Margery: "swear you know she's a flossie [sic], fleesie or a what-have-you". In exchange, Charlie will give the goods on Alec. Mark refuses and returns to his cabin. A few hours later, he's awoken with the news that Charlie has gone overboard.

But wait, there's more.

It seems that Mark has long been suspicious of his cousin. This may have something to do with Alec's father, Alexander, who decades earlier embezzled money and property from the Crosbie family company. Alec's sister Monica, a columnist for The Toronto Daily Graphic, is so worried that her brother inherited dad's dishonest nature that she's set up a secret account to cover anticipated legal fees. She's also written a drama about a man who is caught stealing from his children. Efforts to sell the play brought her into contact with Isy Lerman, "a famous New York play agent", to whom she is now engaged. Monica is about to leave Toronto to marry her fiancé when she's stopped by Alec. Her fears have come true. Alec has been stealing from the family firm, just like dear old dad, and now needs her help.

Hold on, there's still more.

Alec is playing for time, and has managed to secure a good chunk of it in thwarting Mark's European search. Just as the one-legged veteran began his hobbling through Copenhagen, Cologne, Paris, Bruges, and who knows how many towns and villages on the Rhine, he had pal Charlie whisk Adella and her father off to Canada. They've spent the ensuing months at Ruthven House, the long neglected, seldom visited Crosbie family estate in rural Ontario. An odd place, "almost like a castle", it comes complete with a tower and hidden dungeon, but no telephone. Adella and her dad are cut off, and dare not venture outside as Alec has warned them of the deep hatred Canadians have of Germans.

Alec dispatches Monica to keep an eye on his Ruthven House house guests, trusting that she will stick by his story that Mark has been committed to a psychiatric hospital.

When Mark arrives back in Toronto, he's told by Alec that the missing Monica "has cracked up, gone to pieces."

It's a lot to take in, and the reader has only three chapters in which to do it. Things get easier but less interesting in the fourteen that follow as Mark and Monica struggle with indecision. The one-legged war hero tries to convince himself that Alec is good – "Alec is good. Mark said to himself. Alec is very good." – in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. When he finally does admit to himself that Alec is not good, Mark knows not what to do. Meanwhile, Monica spends some 200 or so densely packed pages debating whether she should come clean with Adella and the professor:

From chapter 14, this is one in a great number of angst-ridden paragraphs that I can't be bothered to count. Was it not enough to have read it? I trudged on as the book's editor fell by the wayside. This later passage is typical:
The inability to tell was an enormous, throbbing pain that took such fierce possession of her that, no matter with whom she was when it gained possession of her that, she rushed to Alec where he still cowered in the bedroom.
After the title page, after the copyright information, after the Table of Contents, the reader encounters a stark statement on an otherwise blank page:
This is the story of a crime.
Which one?

When time finally runs out for Alec, it's revealed that his criminal acts run aplenty – arson and attempted murder figure – yet he faces no charges because... because... Well, you must understand that as the wealthy son of a convicted man he was greatly disadvantaged.

I didn't buy it. Call me a law and order type, if you will, but I think some sort of police investigation was warranted. Besides, I'd really like to know who killed Charlie Griswold.

Trivia: An editor for Thomas Nelson Canada, Jessie McEwen (1899-1986) was the author of nine books, two of which were published under pseudonyms. Her most commercially successful work was the novel Taltrees (Toronto: Ryerson, 1949), which was translated into French as Les grandes arbres (Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 1951).

Object: A deceptively slim 249-page hardcover in dark blue boards with gilt lettering on spine. The uncredited dust jacket looks to be the work of a talented fifth grade student.

I purchased my two copies of the first edition – there was no other – in April and May of this year. The first, lacking dust jacket, cost $1.50; the second, with dust jacket, set me back an even dollar. I won't say that I didn't pay too much.

Access: Fourteen of our universities have copies, as does the Toronto Public Library. Five copies are currently listed for sale online, four of which are going for US$10 or less. At US$3.68, the one to buy is the cheapest.

24 June 2013

A Highly Inappropriate St-Jean-Baptiste Advert

Something for la Fête de la St-Jean – St-Jean-Baptiste Day to we Anglo Quebecers – this century-old advert from Ottawa's Gowling Business College.

(cliquez pour agrandir)
The English text suggests that the image ran elsewhere, but I've only seen it in the 1913 Programme officiel des fêtes, a commemorative booklet put together for  the sixtieth anniversary of la Société St-Jean-Baptiste d'Ottawa.

I dare say that once seen the Gowling Business College advert cannot be forgot, though the products sold by these fellow advertisers may just help.

If not them, a half dozen others are peddling similar products.

Bonne fête!

21 June 2013

The Poetic David Montrose

From Ottawa comes a new chapbook of hard-boiled epigrams drawn from the writings of one of our finest noir writers. The words this time belong to David Montrose, whose three Russell Teed mysteries – The Crime on Cote de Neiges, Murder Over Dorval, The Body on Mount Royal – were the first reissues in the Véhicule Press Ricochet Books series.

A limited edition of 25 copies, it follows last year's In The Darkness. Both are the work of J.C. Byers, who has produced what are by far the most elegant treatments of Canadian noir. An Easy Place to Die was printed with a Vandercook SP-15 press on St Armand Old Master, and features fourteen epigrams. My favourite comes from Murder Over Dorval, Montrose's second novel:
     She was a water dryad,
     And she came
     Dripping crystal sparks of light
     From the lake,
     And it was getting brighter,
     And that was good.
Montrealers will appreciate this:
     I couldn't sleep.
          because of the heat.
     It was hotter than hell.
     It was hotter than a fundamentalist
          thinks hell is.
     It was hotter than it had ever been
          before anywhere else in the world.
     It was almost as hot
          as it had been
          in Montreal
          last August.
Also included is a brief biography of David Montrose – Charles Ross Graham – in which Mr Byers considers Teed's misadventures:
Over the course of three novels Russell Teed's investigations taint him as a result of his contact with the criminal underworld. By the time the stories have ended he has been beaten, often, humiliated, and robbed. He has also seen strangers, friends, and lovers killed. He has nearly been killed and he himself has killed more than once, sometimes quite viciously.

"A Private Dick's Disturbing Descent into Darkness", I titled my piece on Murder Over Dorval. As the novels progress, the once upstanding McGill grad fairly comes apart. "The bottle becomes a refuge and it is easy to image Teed disappearing into it", writes J.C. Byers. "Indeed, one can hardly imagine an alternate fate."

Too right. He's done.

Those wishing to obtain copies of An Easy Place To Die may contact the publisher through Wollamshram's Blog.

Update: Back from the Ottawa Small Press Book Fair, Cameron Anstee has posted more photos of An Easy Place To Die. "My favourite purchase of the fair," says he.

Related post:

19 June 2013

Reverend Kerby Comes Upon a Blazing Bosom

This third part of my review of George W. Kerby's The Broken Trail 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 post:

17 June 2013

Reverend Kerby Warns Against the Dime Novel

This second part of my review of George W. Kerby's The Broken Trail 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
Ernest Cashel
c. 1882 - 1904
Related posts:

13 June 2013

Reverend Kerby Treads Carefully

The Broken Tail
George W. Kerby
Toronto: Briggs, 1909
189 pages

This first part of my 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:

10 June 2013

The Year L.M. Montgomery Became Lucy Maud

The Canadian Bookman, January 1909
I have Erica Brown of the wonderful Reading 1900-1950 to blame for time wasted this past weekend. It was she who demonstrated just how much fun can be had with the Google Ngram Viewer, a tool used in charting words, names and phrases found in the 5.2-million books that the corporation has digitized.

Prof Brown, whose work focusses on the history of popular fiction, used the GNV to trace the rise of the term "middlebrow". I began with "Ontario Gothic" (as with all, click the graph to enlarge):

An interesting result, though one that should be viewed with a cautious eye. As Prof Brown points out, "5.2 million books digitized sounds great – and it is – but it isn’t everything, and it is skewed towards US publications." I'll add that the tool doesn't capture anything published after 2008, and that any ngram that occurs in fewer than 40 books will deliver a rather deceptive 0% flatline. Still, while not entirely accurate, I think it goes far in reflecting trends.

Here, for example, is a search that charts the shift away from "L.M. Montgomery" to "Lucy Maud Montgomery". Interesting to note that the two lines converge in the mid-nineties, when most of her work entered the public domain.

The real fun comes in drawing comparisons between writers. Here, for example, are Canada's Booker Prize winners:

How about this graph featuring mentor Irving Layton and pupil Leonard Cohen:

Better yet, Irving Layton versus Louis Dudek:

Here we see the careers of rivals Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G.D. Roberts:

The declining interest in Seton and Sir Charles made me curious about Sir Gilbert Parker, our biggest fin de siecle author.

Sobering. Wonder how I'm doing. 


07 June 2013

Pamela Wallin Issues a Challenge

Read over my morning coffee:
Despite all the motives attributed to us, journalists seldom set out to uncover human flaws or scandal just for the sake of creating pain, or embarrassment, or defeat. But we do quite deliberately look for contradictions and incompetence, which sometimes leads us to uncover the aforementioned. And I'll challenge those who would question our pursuits and our legitimate curiosity about those who seek to lead us to explain why, as citizens, the less we know the better we are able to make choices.
— Pamela Wallin, Since You Asked, p. 58

Related post:

05 June 2013

Frank L. Packard's Wire Thriller (and others)

My review of Frank L. Packard's The Wire Devils, newly reissued by the University of Minnesota Press, is now up on the Montreal Review of Books website. You can read it here.

How good it is to see Packard return to print. Yes, some of the man's work has been available from POD publishers, but just how much confidence can one have in things like this "Frank L. 1877-1942 Packard" edition from Nabu Press.

Wait, isn't that Montreal's Spiš Castle? You know, the one built by 12-century Hungarians?

Amazon.ca sells Nabu's The Wire Devils for $31.54, and the new University of Minnesota Press edition at $12.96. I recommend the latter – and not because I'm cheap. The UMP's is not only free of the "missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc." that plague Nabu, but includes a very fine Introduction by Robert MacDougall of the University of Western Ontario.

Prof MacDougall describes the novel as a wire thriller, late 19th and early 20th-century works that use the railroad, telegraph and telephone "as a backdrop for adventure." Dime novelist Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey penned Fighting Electric Fiends (1898) and his Street & Smith stablemate Franklin Pitt served up Brothers of the Thin Wire (1915), but I think it was Canadians, in Packard and Arthur Stringer, who dominated the genre.

The Wire Devils first appeared as a serial that ran over six issues in The Popular Magazine (20 March - 7 June 1917), was published in Canada by Copp Clark, the US by George H. Doran and A.L. Burt, and in the United Kingdom enjoyed two Hodder & Stoughton editions.

Messrs Dey and Pitt would've envied Frank L. Packard's success, but I'd argue that the true King of the Wire Thrillers was the handsome, savvy Arthur Stringer.

As far as I can tell his first foray into the genre was a short story, "The Wire Tappers", published in the August 1903 issue of Smart Set. I've not seen it, but am willing to bet that it was the basis of Stringer's 1906 novel of the same name.

The next year brought Phantom Wires. By far the most commercially successful wire thriller, it saw editions from Little, Brown, Musson, McClelland & Stewart and Bobbs-Merrill, It's likely that the last, a cheapo from A.L. Burt, appeared in 1924.

Even in 1906 and 1907, when first editions of The Wire Tappers and Phantom Wires sat on bookstore shelves, the wire thriller must have seemed a touch old-fashioned. "Look!" exclaims the heroine of the latter "they're talking with their wireless!" Stringer anticipated the future by following the two with The Gun Runner, a novel in which a wireless operator from Nova Scotia plays hero.

Whither the fax thriller?

The Wire Tappers
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1922

03 June 2013

Funny Money and Legal Tender

Colby Cosh is right, I should really be paying attention to last week's court ruling about the Conservative Party database being used in voter suppression. It's just that the mass of Mike Duffy has so much pull. The fall of "Old Duff" – a term of endearment I've heard from his mouth but no other – mixes Leacockian whimsy with black humour and conspiracy worthy of a Richard Condon novel. Each day a new chapter.

Given all the excitement, our overtaxed journalists can be forgiven for having paid so little attention to the Bank of Canada's attempt to suppress the image above. The work of cartoonist Dan Murphy, I thought it silly fun, until I read this email he received from a bank employee:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
Good morning to you, too!

I dare say that Ms Jenkins' claim would not stand up in court. But don't take my word for it, look instead to Ariel Katz of the University of Toronto's School of Law.

There's not much I can add to Prof Katz's observation, except to say that Senior Analyst Jenkins is not so senior that she can remember 2006, when Ralph Bucks began appearing on the streets of Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer.

The Alberta currency was just another example of a Canadian tradition that stretches back at least half a century.

If Ms Jenkins is correct, even the old Progressive Conservative Party ran afoul of the law.

My favourite of all these faux bills is that 80¢ True Dough. I grabbed the image "Copyright: Unknown" from the Library and Archives Canada website. Ms Jenkins may wish to send them a letter. Better yet, why not visit? The LAC is just across the street from the Bank of Canada, located conveniently next to the Supreme Court.