By Kevin Burton Smith
Here we are. David Montrose’s The Body on Mont-Royal. The third and final of his books to feature private eye Russell Teed. First published in 1953, by Harlequin. Yes, Harlequin.
And now it’s finally back in print.
Pulp fiction chez nous. As vivid as Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, as Montreal as a quart of Molson.
But let’s get this straight. This is not your Montréal.
This is not the vibrant, bike-friendly, earnestly tolerant multicultural city which has thrown open its arms to the world, a celebrated hub of education, arts and culture; an important centre of commerce and industry; a player in the fields of aerospace, finance, technology, design, film and world affairs; a city so elastically hip that it gave the world both Leonard Cohen and Arcade Fire, Pierre Tremblay and Mordecai Richler, Cirque du soleil and Irving Layton, Joe Beef and the Montreal bagel.
No, this is another Montreal.
The Montreal of the 1950s. A wide-open city, the “Paris of the North,” a city of churches and sin, known for its taverns and gambling joints, neon-lit cabarets featuring world class entertainment, dingy pool rooms and dingier blind pigs, late night bars and beautiful women, colourful underworld figures and a stench of corruption so entrenched that even Chandler, 3000 miles away, considered Montreal “almost as crooked as we are.”
This is the Montreal of man-about-town Al Palmer’s Montreal Confidential, the tell-all 1950 paperback that promised “the low down on the big town.”
This is the Montreal of perpetual mayor Camillien Houde; of perpetual provincial premier Maurice Duplessis; of Toe Blake, Punch Imlach, Rocket Richard and Les Glorieux.
This is also very much the Montreal of Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes. Montrose’s lack of acknowledgement of the French population of Montreal (not to mention some of his other less than enlightened views towards women and minorities) is pretty much par for the course, and pretty much nails the “two solitudes” mindset of the era — already disclaimed and apologized for in the introductions to the two previous books by my predecessors, Brian Busby and Michael Blair. In their way, however, the three novels are as honest and fair a depiction of a time and a place as anything Richler or Beauchemin or Tremblay ever penned. But of course this is not their Montreal, either.
It is a Montreal, though, a real and vibrant Montreal, a Montreal where then as now people lived and worked and loved and died, pushed and pulled, divided and united by passions both real and imagined.
This is the Montreal of my father, who in 1953, the year in which The Body on Mont Royal was published, would have been a young man, just returned from Korea after serving in the Van Doos, dazzled by the brights lights and promise of a city laid open.
And it’s the Montreal of of private eye Russell Teed.
* * * * *
Russell Teed was created by David Montrose (real name: Charles Ross Graham). Graham was born in 1920 in New Brunswick and died in 1968 in Toronto. But in between, he lived for several years in Montreal and during that time wrote three novels featuring Teed: The Crime on Côte des Neiges (1951), Murder Over Dorval (1952) and the third and final volume that you now hold in your hand, The Body on Mount Royal (1953).
As you might guess from the violence contained within the titles alone, Montrose was clearly a disciple of the hard-boiled school. His wise-cracking gumshoe was a righter of wrongs; a good man to call when you’re in a bad jam; a seeker of truth and maybe even justice, going down those mean streets, neither tarnished nor afraid. But les rues maudit that Teed traveled were not the American alleys and avenues of Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles, Sam Spade’s San Francisco or Mike Hammer’s New York, but those of notre ville, from Craig Street (now rue St. Antoine) to the neon-lit Decarie Strip, from The Boulevard to Dorchester (now Rene Levesque).
And it wasn’t street names alone that made Teed so distinctive — he truly was one of us; a pure laine Montrealer no matter where his creator may have been born.
Unlike his contemporaries allies in the shamus game, Teed — in true Montreal fasion — did not necessarily drink alone. Over the course of three novels, he and his best buddy MacArnold, a “by-line bum” working for The Montreal Clarion and Teed’s would-be Watson, put away an astounding amount of beer and other assorted alcoholic beverages, occasionally with the help of (often on-duty) Montreal homicide dick Raoul Frambroise and other miscreants, while trying to sort out the mish-mash of lies, treachery, violence and jaw-dropping coincidence that were part and parcel of most hard-boiled plots of the time.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, not to mention Bob and Doug, would be proud.
A son of Westmount (although he’s quick to point out not of its upper echelon), Teed drinks Molson and Dow (often ordered two quarts at time) and likes cheese from Oka. He went to McGill, worked for a while as a reporter for the Clarion, one of the city’s English-language dailies, and then went off to WWII for his King and his Country, where he saw more than enough of what men can do to other men.
Upon his return, he became a professional freelance investigator, setting up shop in the Canam Building across Dominion Square from the Sun Life Building, and specializing in white collar crime. As MacArnold explains it, Teed is “a private operative. Very big time. All sorts of contracts… mostly company work. Not the cases where the bookkeeper skips with a thousand iron men (but) the cases where the chairman of the board thinks the secretary-treasuruer has been cooking the company balance sheet to buy himself a small republic in South America.”
Seeking out and exposing financial shenanigans evidently pays well — Teed may not be rich, but he has a swinging little bachelor flat on Côte des Neiges, right near Westmount Boulevard and tools around town in a spiffy little Riley roadster (which he annoyingly calls Riley). Needless to say, he also enjoys the company of various beautiful women.
But somehow, despite his lofty and lucrative corporate work, Russ manages to get involved in some pretty down-and-dirty business. His cases may not have the most logical of solutions, and coincidence, happenstance and alcohol seem to be his chief deductive tools, but who cares? This truly is pulp fiction chez nous, warts and all.
And The Body on Mont-Royal may be the best of the bunch.
The plot is certainly tighter than its predecessors, although that may not be saying much, but the stakes, both mortal and personal, are just a little bit higher. There’s vengeance and blackmail and treachery, and more than enough action to keep things hopping. As well, the local colour is just a little bit more sharply rendered, as when Teed turns “poetic” (while sitting in the Stanley Street Tavern) about Montreal taverns with their “dark wood walls, smoked black from the fumes of a billion cigarettes” or when he offhandedly muses, while walking along with the wind rustling the leaves overhead on how “Montreal is a good city for trees.”
I’ve read most of the Montreal pulp fiction novels of the era, the Martin Sandersons, the early Brian Moores, Al Palmer’s own Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, and Montrose definitely had — dare I say it? — a distinct voice. It was more wryly observant and cheeky than the sober-minded Brian Moore, and Teed’s beer glass level view of our city recalled Chandler a little in his sense of place. Certainly, Montrose was more measured and grounded, and offered a much more vivid sense of community than Sanderson, whose desperate lone wolves seemed to be always on the verge of losing it — politically, emotionally, even psychologically. Sanderson was pulpier and darker — and messier. Montrose, I think, had higher aspirations. Or maybe not. Who knows?
None of the Teed novels ever made it to hardcover, and no respectable journal of the time reviewed paperbacks. The first two were published by White Circle, a British outfit, and the final one by Harlequin, back when the Winnipeg publisher still published all sorts of genre fiction.
And then, rien...
The Teed books didn’t exactly set the world — or even Montreal — on fire. Montrose seems to have stepped out of the light. A chemical analyst, a lecturer and a freelance writer, he finally returned to fiction with one last novel, Gambling With Fire, in 1969. It was a crime novel set in Montreal, but it did not feature Teed. By the time it appeared on bookshelves, Montrose had already passed away, although the author’s bio assured readers he was “living in Toronto.”
Which, for a real Montrealer, just about sums it up.
* * * * *
But now Véhicule Press, under their Richochet imprint, has resurrected the entire Teed trilogy, finally adding some much needed pulpy fibre to our literary consciousness.
My dad would approve.
So, reach into your pocket and buy this book. Then head to your favourite tavern, pull up a wooden chair, order up a quart (or two) of Molson, and settle back. You’re in for a good time.
Just remember, for the next few hundred pages, this isn’t your Montreal.
It’s Russell Teed’s.