Pulp fiction: Véhicule’s local crime classics

Local indie press Véhicule reissues David Montrose’s 1953 The Body on Mount Royal, a hard-boiled detective case set in a very different Montreal.

Local indie press Véhicule recently re-released The Body on Mount Royal, a long-out-of-print crime fiction novel first published in 1953 by Harlequin. It’s the latest in a series of retro releases from Véhicule, including other David Montrose mysteries from the 50s, all similarly pulpy paperbacks littered with local references (The Crime on Cote des Neiges, Murder Over Dorval).

Each book follows boozehound private dick Russell Teed through a series of downtown haunts in various stages of inebriation, but while many references stick — some street names, Molson products, the odd extant architectural landmark — for the most part Teed’s Montreal would be culturally unrecognizable to us today. And there lies the book’s interest.

Montrose’s Montreal appears to be almost entirely devoid of francophones. The text is populated with Chesterleys and MacFaddens and Dovers, and the only Queb character in the novel is Teed’s police contact, the rather fruitily named Detective Framboise — which, in addition to being a wee bit effeminate in the hard-drinking, bar-brawling tough-guy world the book inhabits, is NOT EVEN A SURNAME. (Ever met a Framboise? Not likely. There’s exactly one in Montreal’s white pages.) But the very fact that Montrose would write the book that way is itself a clue or insight into at least part of the city’s history.

This, as the forward by Kevin Burton Smith notes, is very much the Montreal of Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes: while the obvious exclusion of over half the population grates today, it’s likely a pretty accurate reflection of anglo-Montrealers’ historically isolationist sense of community. It’s part of the city’s dirty laundry, in the same way that the book’s retrograde treatment of women reflects what was, at the time, a perfectly acceptable way of talking about broads. It’s like those jarring first few episodes of Mad Men, where today’s audiences are confronted with the sight of white middle class people smoking while pregnant, openly littering and making racial jabs in the office — it’s weird to watch now, but that’s kind of how life was then, for better or worse.

Original 1953 Harlequin cover.

The story itself is a pretty good yarn — Montrose is no Raymond Chandler, but fans of the hard-boiled detective genre are sure to enjoy his maneuvering through the complex case, complete with a pair Vertigo-style lookalike hot dames. He makes few departures from the generic template, although the detailed attention to Teed’s culinary practices made me LOL more than once (every meal he eats is described in such detail that the reader could reproduce the dish accurately at home, and the constant references to then-obscure cheeses are the closest the author comes to acknowledging francophone cultural influence on Teed’s lifestyle).

Montrose’s language is similarly boilerplate, adopting the cynical tough-guy voice that pretty much defines the genre. Overall, The Body on Mount Royal‘s campiness is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it gives the book a kitschy time-travel feel, while on the other, some of the prose comes off as dated and cliché, at moments almost laughably so. That said, it was a fun read.

If you read The Body on Mount Royal looking for traces of today’s Montreal, you may well be disappointed. Some street names are the same, and of course Mount Royal park is still around, but by and large the city, like its culture, has changed so much as to offer only the faintest resemblance to Teed’s world. But, read in the spirit of historical perspective or just to while away the long winter nights, it’s a gem. ■

The Body on Mount Royal, by David Montrose. Véhicule Press 2012 (Harlequin 1954), 238 pp. paperback, $13.95

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