22 September 2014

Terrible, Just Terrible

A Terrible Inheritance
Grant Allen
New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, [c. 1890]

A Terrible Inheritance is by far the worst Grant Allen I've read to date. That it's so short made it no easier task; in fact, much of what makes the book so very bad is caused by its brevity. Subplot and character development have no space. The twists and turns found in Allen's best are all but absent – there's precious little room to manoeuvre. Coincidence, ever-present in the man's work, is forced to even more absurd heights. I blame the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, which in 1887 commissioned and published A Terrible Inheritance as part of its Penny Library of Fiction.

from Queer Chums by Charles H. Eden
(London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,  n.d.)
The Society was strict about its Penny Library of Fiction, ensuring that each volume numbered thirty-two double-columned pages. An old pro – he would've been thirty-eight at the time – Allen wrote to measure. Biographer Peter Morton tells us "Allen was able to manufacture featherweight novelettes like these in a few hours, surely without engaging his higher mental processes at all."

A Terrible Inheritance begins with the actions of an idiot, spoiling an otherwise very pleasant garden party at the English country home of Sir Arthur Woolryche. Here are the details: Some upper class twit, a would-be archer seeking to impress, strolls out onto the lawn, draws his bow, and hits the family pooch.

The tragedy is made all the worse with the discovery that the arrow, one of Sir Arthur's Guyanese curios, has a poisoned tip.

But wait!
"Mr. Prior's here," somebody answered in haste from the group. "He knows more about poisons and poisoning than almost any other man in all England. He's made a special study of it, as I know. Mr. Prior! Mr. Prior! Come here, you're wanted."
Good luck soon comes to outweigh the bad. Prior is not only an expert in poisons, but is the leading authority on curari, the very one used on the arrow. What's more, just days earlier he had received from South America an elixir that may well prove to be an antidote.

What are the chances!

Prior saves the dog, thus proving the corrective effective. The College of Physicians' awards him its gold medal. Better still, Bertha, Sir Arthur's beautiful daughter, falls for his "manliness and sterling good quality". Father gives his blessing, despite being troubled by the young man's resemblance to… to… Sadly, Sir Arthur can't quite place the face.

Remember, this is the tale of a terrible inheritance, not a happy union. As the wedding day approaches Prior learns that he is the son of a Dr Walter Lichfield, also an expert in curari, who had died in disgrace whilst awaiting trial in the poisoning death of an uncle.

The Terrible Inheritance
Grant Allen
London: E. & J.B. Young, n.d.
Prior releases the Bertha from their engagement the next morning. How could he not? By great coincidence, he and Sir Arthur had once speculated as to what had become of Lichfield's infant children. Said Prior:
"I don't know whether my profession makes me think to much of hereditary transmission, and all that sort of thing; but if I were born with a curse like that hanging over me, I'd give up my life entirely to some good for my fellow-men, and expose me least of all to any possible temptation. And I'd never marry."
Prior's only hope is that the man he now knows to have been his father was in fact innocent. Through his investigations, he comes to believe that Arthur Flamstead, Lichfield's close friend, was the actual murderer. Who is Arthur Flamstead? Why none other than Sir Arthur himself. "He assumed the name Woolrych instead, by royal warrant, on the death of a distant cousin on his mother's side, from whom he inherited a certain amount of property," explains Lady Woolrych.

Sir Arthur? A murderer? I didn't believe it for a second, in part because his daughter Bertha is such a sweet girl. A Terrible Inheritance plays upon Allen's pet theories regarding heredity, something he does to greater effect in What's Bred in the Bone, The Devil's Die and A Splendid Sin. This adds a certain of predictability – a drunkard's offspring become a drunkard, a gambler's offspring will become a gambler, and an expert in curari will spawn an expert in curari. Those familiar with Allen will look about the small cast of characters for the true murderer, but find none. Sure enough, the true culprit is introduced in the final chapter.

Do I spoil things more by revealing it all ends with a wedding?

Trivia (for Canadians): Prior doesn't know he is the son of Lichfield because he was an infant at the time of his father's death. His mother soon set sail for Canada, where she and her children lived "under an assumed name in a remote village".

Trivia (for writers): A Terrible Inheritance was the first of three books Allen wrote for the Penny Library of Fiction; A Living Apparition (1889) and The Sole Trustee (1890) followed. Writers for the series earned between 30s and £10 per title – roughly £172 and £1150 today. I'm guessing that Allen's pay was at the upper end. Either way, it's not bad for an afternoon's work.

Object: A slim, 57-page hardcover, my copy, the first American edition, was purchased in August from a Yankee bookseller. The frontispiece, by an illustrator named Gallagher, has been simplified somewhat on the cover. Am I wrong in thinking it a novella? Is it a long short story? The word count is 16,226. You decide.

Access: A Terrible Inheritance enjoyed three editions and was later published in Danish (En underlig arv, 1891), Swedish (Mordet i Erith, 1917) and German (Ein schreckliches Erbteil, n.d.). The Kingston-Frontinac and Toronto public libraries have copies, as do the University of New Brunswick, University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University.

Last century, the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions produced microforms of the Crowell and Young editions. Both can be read gratis at the Internet Archive. As might be expected, they have attracted a wake of print on demand vultures, who in turn excrete all kinds of mess. Miami's Book on Demand demands US$55.78 for theirs; just under a dollar a page.

Advert for Monkey Brand Soap featured in the E. & J.B. Young edtion
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19 September 2014

Here's to Patti Abbott and Friday's Forgotten Books

It's been well over six years since Patti Abbott launched Friday's Forgotten Books, a weekly round-up of blog posts dealing with buried, obliterated and blown over titles from years past. A latecomer, I first contributed back in December 2011 with Touchable, a novel co-authored by the man who created Bizarro World.

Anyone interested in the obscure will find Friday's Forgotten Books a weekly treat. Last Friday's gathering included neglected gems like Dolores Hitchins' Sleep with Slander and The Deadly Climate by Ursula Curtiss.

Most of Patti's contributors are Americans, and much of the focus is on the American and British, but that doesn't mean there's nothing for the lover of Canadian literature.

It was through Friday's Forgotten Books that I first read Ron Scheer, whose Buddies in the Saddle has served as my introduction to Canada's early frontier fiction. What follows is just a sampling of the Canadian books he has covered through the years:

The Blue Wolf – William Lacey Amy
The Boss of Wind River – A.M. Chisolm
Desert Conquest – A.M. Chisolm
The Doctor – Ralph Connor
Woodsman of the West – M. A. Grainger
Out of Drowning Valley – Susan C. Jones
The Lost Cabin Mine – Frederick Niven
Northern Lights – Glbert Parker
The Backwoodsmen – Charles G.D. Roberts
Smith and Other Events – Paul St Pierre
Raw Gold –Bertrand W. Sinclair
Big Timber – Bertrand W. Sinclair
Wild West– Bertrand W. Sinclair
The Prairie Wife  – Arthur Stringer
The Settler – Herman Whitaker

Patti herself is a great champion of Margaret Millar, as am I, as is John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books. Though we've never met in person, I think John might agree with me that Martin Brett's Hot Freeze is the great Canadian noir novel. At the very least, he shares my opinion regarding Frank L. Packard's influence in crime fiction. I would be doing something of a disservice in not sharing this image from John's post on Canadian Fandom #17. It may well be the ugliest thing published in 1951, and here I'm including Taylor Caldwell's The Balance Wheel.

Returning to Patti, this week saw the announcement of her debut novel, Concrete Angel. Publisher Polis Books describes it as an "unflinching novel about love, lust and greed". Who can resist? Not me. I'll be picking up a copy.

15 September 2014

An Invalid Amazon Customer Review (and others)

Three reviews by Amazon customer Lamppu. I have problems with the first, disagree wholeheartedly with the second, and have no opinion on the third. 

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12 September 2014

University Professor Writes Roman à Clef Roman

Fasting Friar
Edward McCourt
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1963

Fasting Friar is a novel about the halls of academe and the politics therein, but I read it just the same.  The premise intrigued: Paul Ettinger, a professor at a nondescript prairie university, publishes a racy roman à clef about a professor at a nondescript prairie university. Titled The Proud and the Passionate, it raises the ire of the president, the board and fellow professor Walter Ackroyd. Not one week after publication, rumours swirl that Ettinger is about to be sacked.

Ackroyd, not Ettinger, is the protagonist of the novel – by which I mean Fasting Friar. A solitary Milton scholar whose reputation far exceeds that of the university, Ackroyd takes pleasure in the thought that the budding novelist might be on the way out. He's long considered Ettinger a disgrace, dismissing the popular professor as a showman, a "sloop-minded snapper-up of unconsidered trifles… let loose in a classroom to wreak destruction upon the intellect." To Ackroyd, The Proud and the Passionate is irrefutable evidence that Ettinger simply lacks the intellect and good judgement expected of his position.

The faculty begin to rally in defence of Ettinger, pressuring Ackroyd, their most esteemed member, to join the struggle. The asocial professor emerges from behind his office door, and is forced to recognize the assault on the very ideals that have been at the centre of his life's work. By degrees, Ackroyd becomes Ettinger's greatest champion, even as his dislike for the man grows.

McCourt himself was a professor, teaching at the University of Saskatchewan from 1944 until his death in 1972. Very much a forgotten figure, before coming upon this novel I knew him only as the author of Music at the Close and The Wooden Sword, two of New Canadian Library's abandoned titles. The former won Ryerson's All-Canada Fiction Award, which, as noted elsewhere, means nothing. McCourt published six novels in total, Fasting Friar being the last. Three more followed, but failed to find publishers.

Given all this, I went into Fasting Friar expecting little. What I found was one of the most interesting and enjoyable reads of the year. It's a complex, yet taut novel written by a sure hand.

Shows what I know.

Trivia: In 1965, Fasting Friar was adapted for television, consuming four episodes of the CBC series Serial. The 7 April 1965 edition of the Gazette reports that the "principal role" is played by Michael Sarrizin. At twenty-four, I'd have thought he'd be far too young. Other newspaper articles describe Peter Donat as the star. IMDb has no entry on the production.

Object: A 222-page hardcover in dark blue boards. Sadly, the dust jacket illustration is uncredited. I bought my copy in Montreal just last month. Price: $9.50.

Access: The public libraries of Calgary and Edmonton serve, as do twenty-five of our university libraries (University of Saskatchewan included).

The novel sold somewhere in the area of three hundred copies. Six are currently listed for sale online, all but one being Very Good or better. At US$40, the one to buy is signed by the author. The others are listed at between US$20 and US$37.

Improbably, Macdonald published a UK edition as The Ettinger Affair (1963). A true rarity, one lone copy is listed online at £6.99.

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08 September 2014

A Coupla Canadian Copycats

Carnival of Love [Mardi Gras Madness]
Anthony Scott
New York: Red Circle, 1949
Cover by Ray Johnson
Carnival of Love [Mardi Gras Madness]
Anthony Scott
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950
Cover by Syd Dyke
The Glass Ladder
Paul W. Fairman
New York: Handi-Books, 1950
Cover artist unknown
The Glass Ladder
Paul W. Fairman
Toronto: Harlequin, 1951
Cover artist unknown

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06 September 2014

George-Étienne Cartier at 200

Such a young country. I'm still kind of a kid – really – and yet I remember Canada's centennial celebrations. So, it makes no sense – not really – that today, 6 September 1919, should mark the 200th birthday of George-Étienne Cartier. Yet it does.

A son of Saint-Antoine-sur-Richelieu, one hundred years after his birth, one hundred years ago today, saw the dedication of the most glorious monument in the Dominion.

The program for the unveiling, a two-hour affair, includes Benjamin Sulte's "La Statue de Cartier" and "The Statue of Cartier" by Gustavus William Wicksteed, both dating back to the 1885 installation of the statue on Parliament Hill. I think William-Athanse Baker's tribute to Cartier would've been more appropriate.

from George-Étienne Cartier
Benjamin Sulte
Montreal: G. Ducharme, 1919
Two hours. Imagine. Charles Joseph Doherty, Robert Borden's Minister of Justice spoke. What can we expect today from Peter Mackay?

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