Montréal Eyes

Murder in a Distinct Society

“(Montreal is) almost as crooked as we are”
— Philip Marlowe in “The Pencil”

“I had to stick my finger in my ear and raise my voice to blot out the jabber from a gang of French-Canadians who had decided to convene near the exit to the Smith terminal. Montréal must be the loudest city north of Dallas.”
Amos Walker in The Witch Finder

You could blame it on Stephen Welch, the proprietor of S.W. Welch, a long-running used bookstore that’s popped up in various locations around Montréal for over thirty years now.

Once upon a time, I believed my hometown had produced only a handful of crime fiction. John Buell’s  The Pyx, maybe, and The Main, by Trevanian were all I knew.  Which is a shame, since Montréal seemed like such a natural setting for crime and detective fiction.

At least to me.

It’s a city suffering from chronic multiple personality disorder, always in conflict with itself. The tensions between English/French, European/American, Catholic/Protestant and Quebec/Canada are played out every day in a city being torn apart by its own doubts, even as we sew it back together every night by eating, drinking and dancing ’til dawn.

We line up on freezing February sidewalks outside Schwarz’s in the middle of the night  to scarf down a medium fat; we live or die by the Habs’ latest victory or defeat, we will argue about politics and art and hockey until the cows come home. Or they kick us out of the joint.

We’ve had political corruption as a grand old tradition since about forever (in the fifties, Los Angeles’ Raymond Chandler called Montréal “almost as crooked as we are”), the centuries-old, never-ending political squabbling between the English and the French, the fact we’ve served as a major smuggling center for everything from stolen cars to cigarettes to guns to drugs (the famous “French Connection” was from Paris, via Montréal, to New York) and booze (Seagram’s did very well by Prohibition, merci beaucoup) and we’ve had enough organized crime to keep a pissing contest between three or four levels of law enforcement, often corrupt and/or incompetent, going for years. We had homegrown terrorists blowing up mailboxes and kidnapping politicians, and we were at one point the bank robbery capital of the world.

Even now, we’ve still got that “open-city” mentality that seems to attract more than its fair share of strippers, bikers, fugitives, musicians, rebels, poets, pilgrims, students, runaways, artists, wingnuts, rock’n’rollers and other free-thinkers; leaving a city that’s never far from boiling over, a city that will break your heart with a flirtatious laugh — and then pick your pocket.

But I digress…

So there I was, back in my college days, back when S.W. Welch was located in Notre Dame des Grace, Stephen — noticing I was studying a rack of old Shell Scott and Mike Shayne paperbacks — clued me in to the secret world of Montreal crime fiction, sold me a couple of old crime pulps for a mere pittance thirty five or so years ago and mentioned a few P.I. novels I should check out that had been set in Montreal.  He mentioned Martin Brett and David Montrose, and then he offered to see who else there was.

“Let’s just check out Hubin’s,” he said, pulling out a huge green hardcover he had under the counter.

Hubin’s? I’d never heard of it.

He flipped through the massive directory, looked under setting, and started reading out many of the names listed below. I scribbled away on a piece of paper. He mentioned a guy named Guy who worked at Cheap Thrills, another used bookstore in Montreal, who might have some more leads. He did.

It wasn’t my introduction to crime fiction — I’d already been heading that way for a while, having discovered Chandler, Hammett, Ross Macdonald and Robert B. Parker by then. But Mr. Welch definitely goosed me along.

Not that we’ve completely without crime fiction. Hell, we’ve even produced a few decent fictional private eyes, but until now, I don’t think anyone’s tried to compile a list of them.

Looks like one of those situations where, if you want something done, you’ll have to do it yourself….

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

  • Randy “Frenchie” Lafleur
    Even though he works in Vegas, I consider this Quebecois errant, who appears in writer/director Bashar Shbib 1994’s film Ride Me, an honourary Montréal eye.
  • La Poulpe
    I have a soft spot for Palet dégueulasse by Michel Dolbec– it’s set in Montreal, has hockey in it and this Parisian gumshoe tracking down a hitman in the East End. Author Dolbec was the correspondent for La Presse Canadienne in Paris. There was also a pretty nifty graphic novel.

AND THEN, OF COURSE, THERE’S THE REST OF QUÉBEC…

  • Mary Roberts by Michael Lennox and George Zuckerman (Québec City)

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks for the prod, Sarah. But don’t even get me started on other Montréal pulp fiction… 🙂

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