RARA-AVIS: Re: Montreal as a setting

Kevin Smith (kvnsmith@colba.net)
Sat, 18 Sep 1999 17:06:38 -0400

Our Bill asks:

>Can anyone think of any hardboiled stuff set in Montreal? There's been
>some news recently about the "Duplessis orphans"--children handed over to
>Catholic churches by the long-serving premier, Maurice Duplessis--and it
>reminded me that while he was keeping the entire province fairly repressed
>in the '40s and '50s, Montreal was a wide open city, with corruption,
>bribery, sex, jazz and all the rest. A perfect setting. Does anyone know
>if it's been used?

This is a set-up, right? Did anyone think I wouldn't bite?

Surprisingly, despite what I think are obvious (and self-serving) advantages to using Montreal as a hardboiled setting, it's been surprisingly underused. One of these days someone will get it right. "Open" only begins to describe Montreal back then (God bless Lili St. Cyr). And it's not exactly repressed now, either. Hell, Chandler once even referred to Montreal as "almost as crooked as we are" (in The Pencil). It's a line I'm, embarassingly, more than a little proud of.

There's THE MAIN, by Trevanian, which Paul (are you sure that's your address?) mentioned, which is probably the best use of Montreal as a setting. There's this year's CITY OF ICE by John Farrow, reminiscent of The Main, actually, which is certainly worth checking out (there's a review I did of it for January Magazine somewhere at http://www.januarymagazine.com/
), and THE PYX by John Buell, a sort of hardboiled, supernatural thriller
(he also wrote FOUR DAYS, a bank-robbing caper thing about to be filmed), which is set in Montreal, but rarely feels like it's really using the city to the book's advantage. Kathy Reichss currently uses Montreal, but her forensics-as-porn books are really amateur sleuth tales trying to cover themselves in body parts to look tough. At their centre, though, they're still pretty mushy.

There've also been several attempts at establishing a private eye series here, but the only two that I thought were really good were Russell Teed by David Montrose, and Mike Garfin by Martin Brett, both written back in the
"open" days. Nobody's taken a serious crack at a Montreal P.I. lately.

Various other writers have tried, with varying amounts of success, to write P.I. novels set here, including Maurice Gagnon (sissy stuff, mostly, and pretty poorly-written, as well), Aleister Foxx (an astrological P.I., and no, I don't think it's his real name either), Joel Newman (Anglo paranoia), Plume Latraverse (sort of a French Kinky Friedman-type), and Byron Rempel
(horny Prairie boy hits the big town and ends up working as a P.I.). And Robert Parker's THE JUDAS GOAT was set here, but I was disappointed by that one.

The late Brian Moore, before he became a high-faluting literary writer, wrote a couple of hardboiled pulpy novels set here, most notably SAILOR'S LEAVE (Wreath for a Redhead), about a sailor who takes a wrong turn or two and ends up in a "nightmare of violence and crime!" A real pulpy tale, that Moore supposedly later denied ever writing, but already you could see some of the themes he would focus on in his later work (the unwanted outsider, sex as sin, good ol' Catholic guilt and redemption, lonely women living lives of quiet desparation).

There were also a rash of political thrillers, by both French and English writers, about their various fictionalized interpretations of the FLQ/terrorist actions of the late sixties/early seventies (Brian Moore, now all respectable, wrote one that was actually worth reading). Some of 'em were hard-boiled, but most of them were just clumsy, and usually paranoid, as well.

One writer who I'd love to see tackle Montreal in a hardboiled novel would be Mordecai Richler. He's one of the few local writers who can still manage to get almost everyone in this town pissed off at him. Alas, his books are more satiric comedies of manner than crime fiction, but his dark humour, and his unrelentingly, unflinching contempt for pettiness, and disgust for sham would serve him in good stead, in a hardboiled novel. Duddy Kravitz, P.I., anyone?

Montreal's a hard city to pin down, and always has been, historically. It's one of the very oldest cities in North America, and it's always been not so much a cultural melting spot, as a stir fry. It's been supposedly dying for the last thirty years, yet it remains one of the most vibrant, exciting cities in North America, where passionate people argue loudly late into the night at bars and cafes, even as the city falls apart around them, where strip clubs and churches break up the shopping malls, bars and restaurants of downtown, and hookers ply their trade on streets named after Catholic saints. Crowds of 100,000 gather peacefully for free jazz concerts on hot summer nights, but a nine-year old gets killed by a car bomb in a quiet residential neighbourhood, another victim our seemingly endless biker gang wars (I wonder if our police force is the only one where promotion to the detective division depends more on seniority than any actual qualifications). And politically, it rubs almost everyone in Canada the wrong way. For the rest of Quebec, we're too English. For the rest of Canada, we're too French. Yeah, it's the largest city in Quebec, but it used to be the largest city in Canada, before various historical, economical and political forces shifted the business centre of power to Toronto, a fact we're all more than aware of. We're a feisty bunch, and we may not all agree about Quebec or Canada, but we're proud of our town. And I could go on and on, but I won't. It would take, well, a book.

Kevin Burton Smith The Thrilling Detective Web Site http://www.colba.net/~kvnsmith/thrillingdetective/ Still available! Our Summer Issue, focussing on Radio Private Eyes, plus new fiction by Peter Parmantie and Kathy Korty.

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