12 February 2018

HBC as Murderers of Men and Killers of Dogs

The Land of Frozen Suns
Bertrand W. Sinclair
Chicago: Donohue, 1910
309 pages
A Scottish transplant by way of the United States, Bertrand W. Sinclair wasn’t Canada’s most prolific pulp magazine writer; I know of two hundred and ninety-four appearances, which is nowhere near the fifteen hundred or so (I lost count) logged by Ontarian H. Bedford-Jones. Sinclair isn’t our best-known pulp writer, either; that title belongs to Thomas P. Kelley, author of The Black Donnellys, Vengeance of the Donnellys, I Found Cleopatra, and, of course, The Gorilla’s Daughter
Sinclair’s distinction rests in being our best pulp writer. Though his plots are invariably marred by melodrama — a prerequisite in pulps — he usually brought something to his stories that shook convention. My favourite Sinclair novel is The Hidden Places. Serialized in The Popular Magazine (Oct 7 - Nov 20, 1921), it concerns a disfigured war veteran who seeks sanctuary on the remote BC coast from Vancouverites disgusted by his appearance. By great coincidence, he finds his nearest neighbour is his wife, who believes he'd died in battle. She is now married to another man. 
As I say, melodrama.
So begins my latest Dusty Bookcase review, posted today on the Canadian Notes & Queries website. Here's the link.

The Land of Frozen Suns was Bertrand W. Sinclair's second novel. It tells the tale of a Texas rancher's son who eludes American frontier justice by fleeing to Canada. Once there, he must contend with a company of murderers from which I once purchased a Braun coffeemaker.

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08 February 2018

Margaret Millar en français (et une petite histoire)

Several years ago, I had the idea of including Margaret Millar in the Véhicule Press Ricochet series. My plan was to revive every one of the out-of-print novels she'd set in Canada: The Devil Loves Me, Wall of Eyes, The Iron Gates, and Fire Will Freeze. I was hoping to find some way of adding An Air That Kills, her last with a Canadian setting, though it was then in print from Stark House Press.

By great coincidence, I knew Millar's literary executor; we'd first met decades ago, when the author was still alive. Response to my query brought the news that Syndicate Books had just negotiated the rights to reprint every single Margaret Millar title.

As a series editor, I was discouraged; as a fan, I could not have been more excited. At long last, I'd be afforded the opportunity to read uncommon Millar novels like The Invisible Worm, The Weak-Eyed Bat, Experiment in Spring, and Wives and Lovers.

The first volume of Syndicate's seven-volume Complete Millar, was published in September 2016. Titled The Master at Her Zenith, it includes Vanish in an Instant, Wives and Lovers, Beast in View, An Air That Kills, and The Listening Walls. Four more volumes have followed, returning a total of twenty-two novels to print. I've been pacing myself. The last two volumes of the Complete Millar will be published this year.

"Arguably the most talented English-Canadian woman writer of her generation, as a genre writer who lived much of her life in the United States Millar is often ignored by Canadian critics," I wrote in Millar's Canadian Encyclopedia entry. Had it not been for Gabrielle Roy, "English-Canadian" would've been unnecessary.

Is Roy still well known amongst Anglophones? The Tin Flute is studied, which is more than can be said about anything by Millar. This month, Roy's Street of Riches and The Road Past Altamont are being added to Penguin's Modern Classics series.

Sixty-seven years have passed since the publication of The Invisible Worm, Millar's debut, and she has never once had a Canadian publisher. Now is the time for French-language publishers of my home province to embrace her. Nearly every Millar mystery has been translated by Parisian publishers... and nearly all are out of print. As a starting point, I recommend Omelette Canadienne, the translation of Fire Will Freeze, the only Millar novel set in Quebec.

I'll leave you with four favourites.

La femme de sa mort [Vanish in an Instant]
Paris, Presses de la Cité
Mortellement votre [Beast in View]
Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1957
Un air qui tue [An Air That Kills]
Paris: Presses de la cité, 1958
Au violeur! [The Fiend]
Paris: Gallimard,1966
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30 January 2018

Margaret Millar Makes Something of Herself

The Invisible Worm
Collected Miller: The First Detectives
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2017
We had a very Canadian eagerness to make something of ourselves.
— Kenneth Millar, 1971
The cover of this most recent volume in Syndicate Books' Collected Millar suggests that Paul Prye was the author's first detective, when the distinction really belongs to William Bailey. The novel opens with his sister, Amanda, being awoken in the wee hours by a disturbing phone call. A woman named Eve Hays has found a dead man in her stairwell – heart failure, she thinks. An indignant Miss Bailey suggests that a call an undertaker, and not the Inspector of the Mertonville, Illinois, police department, would've been more appropriate. A few minutes later, Miss Hays phones back to apologize for her little joke, confessing that she'd had too much to drink.

Then a body turns up in the lake behind the local country club.

Because Mertonville hasn't seen a murder in many a year, Bailey recognizes that the call is no coincidence, and heads over to the Hays residence. The house is never described, but we know it's very large because it serves as residence to no less than fifteen people, including a butler, a cook, a housekeeper, a maid, and a chauffeur. Eve, the girl who made the call, is the daughter of George and Barbara Hays, who own the digs. Christopher Wells, Eve's fiancé, is a frequent houseguest, and stayed over on the night of the murder. Richard Vanstone, second cousin to Barbara, is firmly installed, as is a woman named Angela Breton, who looks to be making a play for Simon, Eve's nineteen-year-old brother. George Hays' junior partner Peter Morgan and his newly wed wife Sally nearly complete the household census, but there is one more: psychologist Paul Prye, who George has been brought in to diagnose his somewhat unstable wife.

I found Prye irritating from beginning to end. This exchange with Bailey comes at that beginning:
"You are a physician?"
     "Well, more or – Yes, I am. But my practice for the last ten years has been in the field of mental abnormalities: neurology, psychoneurology, abnormal psychology, psychoanalysis. I'd rather be called a quack, however. It puts people at ease."
     "But you have a medical license?"
     "A medical license, a dog license, a driver's license. I even bought a marriage –.
     "You are whimsical, I see," the inspector said dryly.
     "Yes, indeed. 
            "The angel that provided o'er my birth
            Said, 'Little creature formed of joy and mirth...' 
      So you see how I stand."
I like Blake as much as the next guy – perhaps more – but Prye's habit of quoting the great man irritated. The humour, lighter and less sophisticated than in Millar's other novels, infects the dialogue, as in this interview between Bailey and the Hays family butler:
"Name, please," he said sternly.
     "Joseph Butler."
     "Joseph Butler?"
     "Joseph Butler," Joseph repeated firmly.
     "Sure, it's possible, Chief," Sergeant Abbott said eagerly. "I knew a broad once who was called Broad!"
     "A most striking analogy, Sergeant, but this is hardly the time for amorous reminiscences." Bailey turned to Joseph. "Now, Joseph, I'd like to point out to you that it is your duty to lay whatever information you may have before the police, even though it may seem to be damaging to your employers. I appreciate your loyalty but I must have truth."
An upstanding man with little time for nonsense, Bailey initially seems the very model of what one would want in a detective. However, as things progress, we come to recognize serious lapses in judgement, the most obvious being his acceptance of Prye's intrusion in the investigation. Bailey's biggest mistake is to place those living in the Hays' residence under something resembling house arrest. Ignoring the legality of the edict – Millar does – this doesn't prove in the least bit effective; in fact, the body count increases as a result. One character collapses from a poisoned digestif, while another is found dead in the kitchen pantry.

Bon Appétit!

The Invisible Worm was Margaret Millar's debut, but it's not the place for the uninitiated to begin – that would be An Air That Kills (1957). I can't quite bring myself recommend this novel, putting me at odds with the reviewers of its day, but there's enough of the writer Millar would become to make it worthwhile to her admirers.

For example, I saw something of future Millar characters in Amanda Bailey, the inspector's sister. Like the aptly-named Prye, she interferes in the investigation, but only with the best intentions. Amanda is certain that a woman will confide in another woman before any man, and so sets out to visit the victim's widow. She plans to present herself as "a representative of the ladies of the Presbyterian congregation," blind to the fact that the widow, Dolly, is an adulterous former burlesque performer.

I was sorry that Millar didn't do more with Angela Breton, Simon's love interest. At thirty-four, the houseguest does all she can to appear younger by dying her hair and hiding the fact that she holds a degree in medicine from the University of Toronto. For reasons that aren't fleshed out, Angela (née Anna) also hides the fact that she is French Canadian.

The Invisible Worm has some workhorse passages – more than any I've encountered in a Millar novel – but there is also wonderful writing, like these opening sentences:
Mr. Thomas Philips smiled happily. Not every man can afford to retire at the age of forty-five; in fact, not every man in Mr. Philips's business lived to that age, The mortality rate in certain professions tends to be high, and Mr, Philips was planning an extended trip to South America.
     There was nothing of malice in his smile. He intended to retire gracefully. Old grudges were forgotten, and the past was a lucrative, even a pleasant, memory.
     He made an excited little gesture with his hands. He was going away and he was never coming back, and it was rather nice to be saying good-by to someone. Tomorrow, Mr. Philips explained, he and Dolly would be on their way, perhaps on the water by this time. It was very late, and he was tired. He scarcely felt the pinprick on his neck, and by the time the hand closed over his mouth it was too late to do anything about it.
     The pinprick and the hand... South America.... Dolly... and Mr. Philips's heart stopped beating.
Before The Invisible Worm, the earliest Millar I'd read was Wall of Eyes (1943). A remarkable novel, written with a sure hand, it could have been included in the Collected Millar volume that Syndicate titled The Master at Her Zenith.

It's that good.

To think that Wall of Eyes, her fourth, was published just two years after The Invisible Worm. Recognizing this, I'm looking forward to reading Millar's second and third novels – The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942) and The Devil Loves Me (1942) – even if the publisher describes them as "The Paul Prye Mysteries."

Trivia I: The Invisible Worm was written in response to a challenge from husband Kenneth; it was he who came up with the basic idea. The Doubleday, Doran contract lists the couple as co-authors.

Trivia II: In establishing Bailey's character, Millar writes that the detective was irritated by his sister's gift of a book titled Keeping Fit at Fifty for his forty-seventh birthday. No such book exists, though a much-referenced and much-reprinted Samuel G. Blythe article with that title was published in the January 15, 1921 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

Object and Access: A bulky, 541-page tome printed on substandard paper. The type is small, as are the margins, and yet I'm happy to own a copy. I'd wanted to read The Invisible Worm for years, but it was inaccessible. The  first edition, published in 1941 by Doubleday, Doran, enjoyed just one printing. Unlike most Millars, there has never been a mass market paperback. Apart from the Doubleday Doran, the only other time it appeared in the United States was as a Chivers large print edition.

The first and only UK edition, published in 1943 by John Long, misspells Millar's surname on the dust jacket (but not in the book itself). Uncommon, an Australian bookseller is offering a copy (left) at US$650.

Well worth the price, I say! Librarians, particularly those involved in rare books, are asked to take note of the seller's card. Strike now, before it disappears!

Library patrons will find The Invisible Worm difficult to access; Library and Archives Canada and the University of Toronto have copies of the Doubleday, Doran first, but that's it. I can't find one listing for Collected Millar: The First Detectives in a Canadian library – including that serving Kitchener, Ontario, Margaret Millar's hometown.

L'invisible ver, a French translation by Laurence Kiefé, was published in 1996 by Librairie des Champs-Elysées. Its cover is nowhere near as interesting as the attractive, if inept, 1943 John Lang edition.

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28 January 2018

Remembering John McCrae: 100 Years

One hundred years ago today, John McCrae lost his life to pneumonia in the No. 14 General Hospital in Wimereux, France. The struggle was not long, lasting less than four days from diagnosis to death.

A great deal of verse has been written in memory of McCrae. As far as I know, the first to have achieved publication is by Florence E. Westacott. Her "John M'Crae" appeared in the 13 February 1918 edition of the Toronto Globe, seventeen days after his death.

                        He made for us the poppies glow
                                    In Flander's Fields
                        Forever we shall see them grow;
                        A crimson harvest row on row,
                                    They stand revealed. 
                        The torch back hurled with failing hand
                                    Is high upborne;
                        Its summons flaming land to land
                        Caught swift response from farthest strand
                                    Which greets the morn. 
                        All peacefully now the dead
                                    In Flanders Field,
                        Their course well run, their message sped;
                        The poppies bending overhead
                                    From guard and shield. 
                        Still flares the Spartan torch youths fling
                                    By Flanders Field,
                        But who the poet's song shall sing,
                        Or clearly strike that pulsing string
                                    His cold hands yield?

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24 January 2018

May Agnes Fleming's Very Worst Marriage?

The Heiress of Castle Cliffe; Or, Off With the Old Love
     [Victoria; Or, The Heairess of Castle Cliffe]
May Agnes Fleming
New York: Street & Smith, [c. 1917]
289 pages

The Heiress of Castle Cliffe, the most reprinted work by Canada’s first bestselling writer, May Agnes Fleming, appeared under many titles, but none so intriguing as Wedded for Pique, the one slapped on the 1878 edition. 
Wedded for pique? I couldn’t imagine what sort of slight would lead to matrimony. 
The affront is revealed in the last third of novel, just before an angry, malicious walk down the aisle. It follows a series of great misfortunes and misadventures, and leads to even more, resulting in a murder, a drowning, and a hanging. 
To think it all begins with a pleasant evening at the theatre.

My first book review of the year! The rest can be read – gratishere at the Canadian Notes & Queries website.

Pique your interest?


As recompense, I offer a visual treat comprised of three other editions. Interested readers are advised not to look too closely at the scribblings on the first, which give away the novel's twist:

Victoria; Or, The Heiress of Castle Cliffe
New York: Brady, 1864
Heiress of Castle Cliff [sic]
New York: Hurst, [1880?]
Wedded for Pique
New York: Dillingham, [1889]

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16 January 2018

Resuming Richard Rohmer: A Plea for Help

Four years ago this month, I set out to read every book ever written by Richard Rohmer.

It wasn't my idea.

My old pal Chris Kelly came up with the challenge, mutual old pal Stanley Whyte joined in, and we were off. Not only were we going to read Rohmer's entire bibliography, we were going to do it within the year!

We're still at it.

Our mistake was that we remembered Rohmer's years as a bestselling author, but ignored the decades in which he was not. We'd assumed his books would be plentiful, accessible, and cheap. Why, mere days before we began, I picked up his 1989 thriller Red Arctic for a buck in a Perth, Ontario bookstore.

What I failed to recognize is that it was the first copy I'd ever seen. I haven't come across another since. I didn't know that Red Arctic had come and gone in only one printing, and had never made it to paperback. As a kid, Rohmer mass markets were everywhere. I bought mine at the second closest drug store to my home, but I could've just as easily bought them at the closest. It has been over three decades since Rohmer was last published in mass market.

Rohmer's Ultimatum was the bestselling Canadian novel of 1973, but my local library doesn't have a copy; in fact, the St Marys Public Library doesn't have anything by Richard Rohmer. Its helpful staff did all they could in providing inter-library loans.

Stanley had access to slim holdings offered by McGill and Concordia, but these only went so far. He resorted to ordering one book directly from the publisher. It took several months to arrive.

Chris, who lives in California, had the hardest time of it.

Despite the challenges, we tackled sixteen titles in our first year, and wrote about each in a blog: Reading Richard Rohmer. Visitors will see that we slowed to eight in the second year. In year three, we tackled two: Raleigh on the Rocks and Ultimatum 2. Last year, our reading was Rohmerless.

I began 2018 determined to finish reading Richard Rohmer. We're four books shy:
  • Practice and Procedure Before the Highway Transport Board (1965)
  • The Royal Commission on Book Publishing (1972)
  • The Building of the CN Tower (2011)
  • The Building of the Sky Dome/Rogers Centre [sic] (2012)
The first two are held at the University of Western Ontario's D.B. Weldon Library. As reference material, they're not to be checked out, but I'm willing to suffer as many hours as it takes in that butt-ugly, brutalist building.

Such is my willpower and dedication that I plan to read all four, despite reservations concerning Rohmer's authorship of Practice and Procedure Before the Highway Transport Board and The Royal Commission on Book Publishing. Sure, they appear in his bibliographies, but like Rohmer's claims about taking Rommel out of the Second World War, I have doubts that he played so great a role.

I look forward to being proven wrong.

Remarkably, the most recent titles are more difficult to find than half-century-old government reports. After many, many months, I've finally managed to get my hands on The Building of the CN Tower, but The Building of the Sky Dome/Rogers Centre is proving even more elusive. And so, I ask anyone with a copy to contact me.


Four years is an awfully long time.

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