Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hard-boiled Canada: The Crime on Cote des Neiges

David Montrose's 1951 novel The Crime on Cote des Neiges, first in a series of vintage Canadian hard-boiled reprints from Montreal's Véhicule Press, would fit comfortably into Hard Case Crime's list alongside books by Richard Powell, David Dodge, and Mickey Spillane (though without Spillane's frothing jingoism).

At the same time, small differences in language and larger ones in sensibility make it a treat for native Montrealers like me and, perhaps, an interesting study for readers from exotic places like Europe, Australia and the U.S. A sofa is a chesterfield in Montrose's world, as it was in my childhood. Characters flee not to the hills, the mountains or the shore, but "up North," to the Laurentian mountains. A woman trying to discern if a house is occupied will call out not "Anybody home?" but "Who's home?"

Other differences are more noticeable. Our hero, Russell Teed, encounters beautiful, mysterious women, as would any wisecracking American P.I., only Montrose's descriptions are racier than their American counterparts.

And how about this, from Teed's client:
"In days like these, when the government has taken over most social responsibility, wealth doesn't carry social obligation any more. It's wicked to be wealthy, in the eyes of the majority, and young rich people too often act as though they were trying to live up to that reputation."
The wealthy client is a staple of American hard-boiled writing, but would an American crime writer use words like "social responsibility"? Would an American crime character talk of "social obligation"?
***
You likely smiled when you read the phrase "vintage Canadian hard-boiled" in this post's first paragraph. But think: Prohibition was a staple of American crime and crime fiction in the 1920s and '30s, and any number of U.S. crime novels and stories refer to cross-border booze-running from Canada. Who wrote about the Canadian side of the trade and the open cities that developed from it? One answer: Montrose.
***
My Montreal compatriot and age-group cohort John McFetridge offers some thoughts on Montrose's interesting use of Montreal weather.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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12 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

So where are the racy descriptions? I like to see how authors break out of the formula.

March 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Montrose will give you:

"She was tall and very brunette and there was no part of her that was not beautiful. No part, definitely. She was dressed in brief white nylon panties, very wet, very transparent. She had dark skin that she had tanned somewhere in private so that it was all tanned, including the skin under the nylon."

That's not formula-breaking stuff, but I think it is more explicit than what one would have read in American pulp novels of the time. That the author happens to have been Canadian makes me wonder whether Canadian attitudes toward depictions of sex were more relaxed than American attitudes in 1951.

March 12, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Thanks. Yes, that works. Nothing wrong with it. After all the author is in the observer's head, right? Difficult to clean that up.

March 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I know the author is not to be identified with the narrator, but several passages in the book virtually beg for such identification.

March 13, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

You must know the author. :)

Seriously, where do you think such thoughts originate?

Since I have a male protagonist, this sort of thing gets a tad trickier -- and more amusing.

March 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, that author left this world years before I started reading crime fiction.

In addition to the primitive, if natural, tendency to identify an first-person narrator with the author, this particular narrator muses in a brief passage about the gulf between his background of university and private schools, and that of a scruffy journalist whom he uses as a source. Since the author earned a master's degree in economics from Harvard, among other attainments, and since university is not part of the typical hard-boiled PI's background, it's easy to imagine that the passage reflects the author's own background.

March 13, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I like racy. I like racy and I like it when authors attempt to do sex scenes even if it causes them embarrassment.

But I'll tell you what I love...I LOVE that cover. Oh man, it's fantastic.

March 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The book's handling of sex is interesting. The one out-and-out, presumably consummated, sexual encounter happens off the page, but I hope you'll agree that Montrose did not embarrass himself when it came to describing women who get his protagonist's heart racing.

The woman emerging from the lake is rendered in terms a lot fresher than I think most pulp writers would have done in 1951. The account, in other words, is a lot more like what you or I would report after a similar encounter.

The woman on the cover looks like Lauren Bacall ten or fifteen years after The Big Sleep, which would be appropriate for most of the book's female characters.

March 13, 2011  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

Awesome post, Peter. You rock!

March 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. And I'm reading Murder Over Dorval this afternoon.

March 17, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

This book made up part of a troika of Quebec-set novels I've read over the last few weeks (the others = Barney's Version, by Mordecai Richler, and Fire Will Freeze, by Margaret Millar) and I wanted to like it, really I did. Hard-boiled period fiction? I'm so, like, there! But it was not to be. I was immediately put off by the "Publisher’s note (2010)" that, "…Typos that appeared in the original book have been corrected; the sexist and racist attitudes of the period remain." But I thought, oh well, that has nothing to do with the novel, so I began reading. Well, maybe the publishers corrected the original typos but they added a few dozen of their own. As for the p.c. disclaimer unnecessarily preparing my delicate sensibilities for Montrose's sexist and racist content, I can't recall ever reading anything similar in reprinted editions of UK or US period fiction of any genre.

Montrose clearly struggled with the genre conventions that he seems to have acquired largely from reading Chandler. The hard-boiled content seems forced and self-conscious most of the time. And like many Chandler acolytes before and after, Montrose overdoes the similes and many of them fall flatter than a [fill in the blank]. One of my least favorite: "[The entry] had a crystal chandelier as fancy as a young boy with dark red fingernails." Huh? Or jarring similes in which the comparisons bear no comparison: "…she would need a bra as much as a drill sergeant would need a second backbone." He even outright steals one of Chandler's most famous one-liners, "A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window." Only 11 years later it's: "An archbishop would want to kiss that lower lip, would want to bite it until he drew blood" and the image itself is stolen from the first big clinch in Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. I don’t know about other dames out there but biting my lip until blood is drawn just plain hurts and will not endear the kisser to me. This is the stuff of Mickey Spillane.

As for "Montrose's descriptions are racier than their American counterparts" I must disagree. By 1951, American hard-boiled fiction contained references to the color of women's pubic hair visible beneath shear panties (whoo-hoo!) and references to perky nipples à la Montrose's "two dark little points of surprise pricked out on her." And now that I think of it, Montrose’s "she had dark skin that she had tanned somewhere in private so it was all tanned, including the skin under the nylon" can't compare to Chandler's "I watched the band of white that showed between the tan of her thighs and the suit. I watched it carnally." Montrose may be racier, but Chandler is sexier.

Regarding "In days like these, when the government has taken over most social responsibility, wealth doesn't carry social obligation any more. It's wicked to be wealthy, in the eyes of the majority, and young rich people too often act as though they were trying to live up to that reputation." ...would an American crime writer use words like "social responsibility"? Considering US political rhetoric these days, ex. "tax the wealthy" and vitriolic arguments over how much the gov't should be involved in social engineering, I don't think it would be unusual to see a passage like this in a contemporary US crime novel. Not in a 1950s novel, however, I grant you.

In spite of my disappointment in Montrose's novel, I can see how native Montrealers would enjoy it. I know how much I kind of hug to myself those references to Los Angeles street and place names, restaurants, etc. when reading period crime fiction. It even makes the mediocre ones more fun. A little trip down memory lane.

August 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, it's not top-flight stuff, but it's enjoyable period piece, especially so, as you say, for we Montreal natives.

As for racier, I chose the word deliberately. And, come to think of it, I haven't read much American crime fiction from the 1950s. I was comparing this book to American crime fiction from previous decades.

And I don't think that even a contemporary U.S. crime novel would use words like "social responsibility," at least not a readable one. The sentiment, maybe. The words, no.

August 08, 2011  

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