02 September 2014

Margaret Millar's Great Toronto Murder Mystery

The Iron Gates
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, 1960

Boris Karloff thought this was a great mystery and so do I. Does that convince? What if I add Anthony Boucher and Louis Untermeyer?

Margaret Millar's sixth mystery, The Iron Gates was the one that really made her. With its sales, she bought a house in Santa Barbara, sharing it with husband Kenneth, far from the cold of Canadian winters past.

The novel begins at the season's first snowfall, in the expansive Toronto home of gynaecologist Andrew Morrow, wife Lucille, daughter Polly, son Martin, and Edith, the doctor's spinster sister. Snow aside, the day promises to be memorable as Polly's fiancé, Lt Giles Frome, will be meeting the Morrow family for the first time. What does he encounter? Edith, for one, who insists on making a speech as he walks in the door:
She blushed and gave Giles an embarrassed and apologetic smile. "I know how sentimental that sounds but I think it's true, we are a happy family. Of course we have our lapses. Polly is invariably rude and Martin's high spirits are a trial…"
     "And Edith gets maudlin," Polly said.
     "Oh, I do not," Edith said. "And Andrew can never find anything and then gets cross, don't you, Andrew?"
     "I may become justifiably irritated," Andrew said, "but never cross."
     "As for Lucille…"
Yes, what about Lucille? Stepmother to Polly and Martin, they've never really warmed to her. Lucille had once been a neighbour and friend of their mother. In fact, the first Mrs Morrow was returning from a visit with Lucille when she was killed by an axe murderer. Her bloodied body was found the next day in High Park. The scene of the unsolved crime is laid-out in what is perhaps the least helpful of all Dell mapbacks:

Giles Frome never has the opportunity to develop his own feelings about Lucille because the lady vanishes the very next day. Late that afternoon, a shabby little man appears at the front door with a small package for Lucille. Annie, the most eager of the Morrow help, carries it up to her mistress's room. Moments later, there's a scream. Annie races back. From the other side of the locked door Lucille orders her away. Annie does as she's told, but returns a few minutes later to find her mistress gone.

Enter Inspector Bascombe, Sergeant D'Arcy and, finally, Inspector Sands, all of the Toronto Police.  It's the experienced Sands, veteran of Millar's Wall of Eyes, who tracks the missing woman to the Lakeview Hotel. Now quite mad, Lucille is whisked off to an asylum, the ambulance passing the slumped figure of the shabby little man, dead in the alley of a morphine overdose.

In 1945, the year The Iron Gates was first published, Warner Brothers bought the rights and hired Millar to work on the screenplay. The role of Lucille was offered to Bette Davis, who turned it down for reasons that would spoil in the sharing. Barbara Stanwyck committed, but nothing came of it. This may be just as well. To quote the first edition dust jacket, The Iron Gates is a "psychological thriller". Much of what makes the novel so very good has to do with the depiction of Lucille's less than lucid thoughts. We've all seen just how difficult it is to adapt these sorts of things to the screen. That said, I think, I couldn't help but think of David Cronenberg, particularly his brilliant adaptation of Patrick McGrath's Spider, when reading passages like this:
The fat pink sugar bowl was passed. Lucille would not touch it, its flesh was too pink, too perfect. Not real flesh at all, she thought, but she knew it was because she could see it breathing.
     Miss Eustace's spoon clanged against the grans of sugar. "One or two?"
     "There. Stir it up before you drink it. No, dear, stir it up first."
     She picked up her spoon, dreading the feel of it. Everything was alive, everything hurt. She was hurting the spoon, and though it looked stupid and inert it was hurting her in return, digging into her fingers.
     "Not so hard, Mrs. Morrow"
     Round the cup the spoon dashed in fury and pain, stirring up the hot muddy waves and all the little alive things. She swallowed them, in triumph because she had won, and in despair, because, swallowed and out of sight, they would take vengeance on her.
     Everything was alive. The floor that hurt your shoes that hurt your feet. The napkin that touched your dress that pressed against your thighs. Pain everywhere.
     No privacy. You could never be alone. You always had to touch things and have them touch you. 
Cronenberg is a Toronto boy, and this is very much a Toronto novel. You don't have to be very familiar with the city to recognize the department store in which Polly and her fiancé shop as Eaton's. The Arcadian Court, the Savarin Tavern and the White Spot (site of the city's first gangland murder) all receive mention. Giles takes out a room at the at the ill-famed Ford Hotel.

The Iron Gates is a great mystery. I don't mean to suggest that it isn't flawed; the mystery surrounding the first Mrs Morrow's murder unravels in an unlikely manner.

That's it.

The Iron Gates is a Great Mystery. Remember, Boris Karloff thought so.

He had his own comic book, you know.

Trivia: The second novel I've read in three months to feature a Toronto gynaecologist.

Object: A squat, 222-page mass market paperback. My copy, the second Dell edition, is blessed with a cover that is superior to the first:

It follows The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Red House Mystery as #26 in the Dell Great Mystery Library.

Access: A rare find in academic libraries. Public library patrons who live outside Toronto are entirely out of luck.

Though long out of print – the last was a 1999 Thorndike large print edition – there are plenty of used copies out there. The 1945 Random House first in Near Fine condition can be had for as little as US$60. Those on modest budgets may want to consider one the numerous mass market editions from Dell (1948 & 1960), Penguin (as Taste of Fears, 1962 & 1984), Avon (1974) and International Polygonics (1987).

Toronto publishers take note: There has never been a Canadian edition.

The novel has enjoyed numerous translations: French (Un doigt de folie), Dutch (De poort van de angst), German (Sendbote des Teufels, a/k/a Das eiserne Tor), Italian (Sapore di paura), Spanish (Las puertas de hierro), Catalan (Amb la por al cos), Japanese (鉄の門), Estonian (Raudvärav) and Finnish (Rautaportti).

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01 September 2014

Labour Day Verse for "All Good Workers"

The dedication in The Workshops and Other Poems, the only volume of verse by Florence Nightingale Horner Sherk (1857-1930), otherwise known as "Gay Page".  James Hardy Sherk (1887-1975), a lawyer, was the poet's only surviving child. 

from The Thunder Bay Historical Society: Eighth Annual Report (1917)
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27 August 2014

The Long November in Late August

"Mysterious" is the word I used when first describing James Benson Nablo. This was four years ago. I'd just finished The Long November and I had questions:
  • How did a man who had never published anything bolt out of the gate with a novel from a major house?
  • Given its commercial success, why is The Long November Nablo's only book?
  • Why did the flurry of editions and printings of The Long November come to such an abrupt end?
It was my good fortune that my initial post on The Long November drew the attention of Nancy Nablo Vichert, James Benson Nablo's daughter. Had it not been for her, I'd have never known the answers. The mysterious Mister Nablo now seems less so now, but there remains much more to uncover about his all too short life. His Hollywood years hold promise of more riches.

Today, sixty-four years after the last edition, The Long November is again available as the latest in the Véhicule Press Ricochet Books series. I think it's worth a read. But then I would say that – I was the guy who suggested that it be reprinted in the first place. You'll find the answers to the question posed above in my Introduction.

Look, there aren't many novels out there that take place in Cataract City (read: Niagara Falls), Moreland Lake (read: Kirkland Lake) and Toronto (read: Toronto). This one is the real deal.

Write what you know.

Nablo wrote about rumrunning because he'd been a rumrunner, he wrote about mining because he'd been a miner, and he wrote about women because he had known more than a few. The Long November is a rough novel; back in 1946 its language offended a whole lot of people. If talk of "shacking up", "suck-holing"  and "being screwed without being kissed" offend, this isn't the book for you.

Stronger eggs and skirts will find The Long November just the thing for fin d'été. You Yanks will have to wait for autumn.

Den Lange November
James Benson Nablo [trans. Henning Kehler]
Copenhagen: Nyt Nordisk, 1948

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23 August 2014

The Angels of Mons at 100

The Angels of Mons, R. Crowhurst, c.1920
This day marks the centenary of perhaps the most extraordinary event in the Great War. The setting was Mons, Belgium, site of the first major struggle between British and German forces. The latter outnumbered the former by a factor of two to one, yet all the King's men proved victorious. They did so with the aid of angels. Or were they veterans of the Battle of Agincourt called down from heaven? Did St George lead the charge? Joan of Arc? Maybe it was the archangel Michael.

Gothic master Arthur Machen argued against all of the above, citing his supernatural fantasy "The Bowmen", not divine intervention, as the source the legend. His convincing and highly entertaining Introduction to The Angels of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (1915) should have prevented things like this piece of reportage from the 10 August 1915 Globe:

Got that? An unnamed man received a letter from his unidentified sister recounting a conversation with a certain Miss M, who had told the man's sister that an undisclosed friend told her about seeing angels. Later, another anonymous man told her that he too had seen angels.

Now, before you and Jan Harold Brunvand discount this story, I point out that the man who received the letter was "one of the most prominent citizens in Toronto", and that Miss M. was "daughter of the canon". The canon? Which canon? Why, Reverend Canon M., of course.

Lest you doubt an anonymous man's word about something written to his sister by a woman who was told something by someone and someone else, allow me to present this article about an unnamed preacher, who on alluded to the words of an unidentified soldier as reported by an unknown nurse. Ye of little faith are advised to consider that this featured in a sermon that was delivered somewhere at some point:

The Globe, 11 April 1916
A year and a half later, on 2 October 1917, the newspaper reported on another sermon. This time the clergyman was named:

Reverend Gustave Adolf Kuhring was several thousand of kilometres from the scene of battle, so relied on his powers of oratory in delivering a chilling account of the British advance as led by St George, his horsemen and his archers:
A German officer later taken prisoner asked:—
       "Who were those men with the bows and arrows? We tried to get their leader, the one on the white horse, but couldn't hit him."
       "It is sworn by numerous witnesses," said Mr. Kuhring, "that when the British came to examine the bodies of the dead, by far the larger number of them had no wounds on their bodies."
A century later, we're still looking for those testimonies, and that of the "nurse who had been brought into contact with one of the soldiers from the battle [sic] of Mons." In their absence, I recommend "The Angel of Mons" by Ethel Ursula Foran.

The Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914
Like Rev Kuhring, Montreal poet Ethel Ursula Foran was a believer; unlike Rev Kuhring, her faith was not blind. "The Angel of Mons" is the longest poems in her debut collection, Poems: A Few Blossoms from the Garden of My Dreams (Beauchemin, 1922). A piece of juvenilia, the date of composition is unknown. The poet was thirteen years old on the day of the battle.

(A legend of the Great War of 1914-1918.
The Great War that Napoleon in exile foretold
O'er the nations of Europe like a tidal-wave roll'd—
Crumbling Crowns into dust, snapping Sceptres in twain,
Shaking Thrones to earth to ne'er rise again,
Scattering armies of might, burning humbler homes,
Laying low in the dust spires, temples and domes,
Bringing death and grim ruin in its terrible wake
Until half of all Europe was a blood-crimsoned lake.
The fires of destruction blazed fierce on each shore,
All sounds were drowned out in the thundering roar
Of cannon, of rifle, of bomb and of shell,
Turning heavenly peace into furious hell.
While Death in all forms stalked over the world,
And its blood-stained banners were fiercely unfurled.
There were terrors untold in the Teutons' advance
Which rallied the forces of Britain and France.
It was thus in the midst of that world-shaking strife,
A struggle intense to save Liberty's life,
That the darkness of night was lit into a glow,
In the heavens above, in the valleys below,
When the flashing of shells, as they rushed through the sky,
To the thundering guns of the trench made reply,
When the "curtain of fire" cast its blaze o'er the plain,
And the soil was deep-drenched with torrents of rain,
When the signals of death rushed over the sky
And the hovering aeros inter circled on high,
When each trench was at once a shelter and tomb,
As the spirits of life and death met in the gloom,
Whence eager eyes watched for a move or a sign
To reveal the fate of their much-harassed line;
The sentinels on duty gazed anxious afar
For a hint of the fight in the trenches of war.
All through the long night as the Germans advance,
Sharp vigils are kept by both Britain and France.
Not a man at the front has a moment's repose.
No watcher dare sleep though his aching eyes close.
'Twas thus, 'midst the shreaks of a furious night,
A vision appeared over Mons' naming height, —
A something that seem'd supernatural to all —
A something that thousands of soldiers recall.
Was it a spirit of Hope or a spirit of Doom
That arose on their sight amidst stygean gloom?
What is it that the watcher with night-glass there cons?
They call it, who saw it, "The Angel of Mons." 
The soldiers of France, looking out of the dark,
Thought they saw on the hills Saint Joan of Arc,
Clad in armour of silver, with a sabre of gold,
Advancing to lead them as she did of old
 They claimed that the vision so wondrous to see
Was a heavenly sign of a grand victory;
And strong grew each heart that was growing faint,
As they thought they were fighting 'neath the eye of their Saint 
The soldiers of Britain saw the vision as well;
That wonderful tale these brave fellows tell
Just as ghost-stories are told with lowering breath,
For they feared such a vision far more than death.
Then one whispered the word, in a moment of awe,
It was England's Saint George that the whole army saw.
The courage at once revived in each breast,
Of victory's wave they were now on the crest —
They declared that the War was now rightly begun —
And would end with the crush of the barbaric Hun. 
The Belgians beheld Saint Michael the Great
In the vision of Mons, like a signal of Fate,
As he drove the dark legions from Heaven above.
So his power and his justice again he will prove
By leading the ranks that are fighting for Right.
By commanding once more against soldiers of Might.
It could not be other than the Archangel there
That appeared like a spectre, in the sulphurous air;
His invincible sword he unsheathes as of yore,
He will fight for God as he once fought before,
And the hosts of dark evil will again be hurl'd
From the face of the earth clear out of the world:
Such the Belgians thought was that vision so bright
That appeared above Mons in the depths of the night.
Be Michael, or George or Joan the Saint
That appeared over Mons amidst glimmering faint,
Like a spectre let loose from the region of ghosts,
Sent to cheer on to glory fair Liberty's hosts,
The Angel of Mons was a harbinger true
Of the victory the Allies eventually knew.
It may be a legend, or it may be a fact —
With the spirits of Power it may be a pact —
Or it may be a phantom of some horrible dream —
Or it may be of God a forerunning gleam;
But the Angel of Mons was the polar star
Of many a hero in that terrible war. 
It is said that soldiers, like sailors, are all
Superstitious and fear the supernatural;
They see spirits in trees and ghosts on the waves,
The dead in shrouds coming out of their graves,
They shudder to think of the spirits that walk,
And the beasts that like human beings oft talk.
It is likely that all the things that they dread —
Be they the living or be they the dead —
Arose to their fancy as on Mons' grim height
They witnessed the vision upon that dread night.
But one thing is certain and all question defies,
That Angel brought victory to the Allies.

18 August 2014

The Return of the Amazon Customer Review

Okay, so they never went away – but they did from this blog. I had a grand old time a few years back tearing strips off homophobes, book burners, prudes, egotists, and those who think they know something about history and geography.

I wonder why I stopped. Too much fun? I do remember thinking that change was coming. After the Orlando Figes scandal, how could it not? No responsible retailer would allow its customers to be so grossly misled.

Sure enough, 2012 saw Amazon deleting all sorts of customer reviews. “My sister’s and best friend’s reviews were removed from my books,” sniffed self-published author M. E. Franco. “They happen to be two of my biggest fans.”

Now, there's a coincidence.

How many reviews did Amazon delete? The company was mum. Writing in the New York TimesDavid Streitfeld described the exercise as a "sweeping hazy purge". Neither friend nor family to M.E. Franco, I noticed nothing.

Then came 2013, a busy year in which Amazon's customer reviews cropped up in a trio of otherwise unrelated Canadian news stories.

The first concerned the resignation of Toronto District School Board director Chris Spence, who had been caught plagiarizing all sorts of things including – improbably – an Amazon customer review. Might it have been one by educator Rudy Patudy? Reporters were not so specific.

The Spence scandal was followed closely by a hysterical, media-created controversy over a print on demand publisher's sexy blonde Anne Shirley. Then came Stephen King, who just happened to give his latest the same title as a very fine 2006 graphic novel by Emily Schulz.

This in turn led to all sorts of nastiness from semi-literate folks who purchased the wrong book in error:

Good souls worked to repair the damage:

The author endured it all, recording her experience on a blog and coming out a winner with a refurbished MacBook Air for her suffering.

The current year had been much more quiet until I began receiving emails from a publisher encouraging me to ask family and friends to post reviews of my "books" on Amazon.

Before continuing, I want to make one thing clear: I have no books with this publisher. I have no book with this publisher. That said, I did play some small role in one tome's journey to print. This modest effort has resulted in messages such as these:
If you/your family and friends are unfamiliar with posting online reviews, we have included some guidelines below. Online reviews are a great way for authors and readers to interact online. Reviews are critical to both publishers and readers alike, and many consumers rely on these opinions when making purchases on Amazon. 
Lord knows this is anything but the golden age of publishing. I wish the publisher well. I wish the book well; it deserves to by widely read. But I cannot call on family and friends to plant online reviews. I cannot ask them to laud something they haven't read or encourage them to think better of a book because of some small connection to yours truly. Amazon customer reviews are unreliable and ill-informed as it is. Who wants to be part of that mess.

More anon.