Hard, Tough and More Than a Little Nasty:
Martin Brett's Mike Garfin Novels
An Overview by Kevin Burton Smith
For a homesick Montréaler like me, Stark House's recent reprinting of The Deadly Dames (originally published in 1956) and A Dum-Dum for the President (1961), the third and fourth books to feature ma ville's greatest private eye, Martin Brett's Michel Garfin, provides an embarrassment of riches.
Not only was I invited to write the introduction to it (of which this essay was freely adapted) but, more importantly, I was allowed to expound upon two of my very favourite topics: Montréal and private eyes.
I mean, how cool is that?
And, as befits a city with more than a little identity confusion of its own, it's perhaps appropriate that Garfin is called Bill Yates in The Deadly Dames. This, despite two previous outings in which Garfin's character had already been established and his biography carefully sketched out - that of a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer of French-Canadian and Irish-Canadian ancestry who becomes a private investigator with an office in Montréal's centre-ville and an apartment in the Notre-Dame-des-Grâce district. The name change seems to have been merely a sop to a new publisher, Fawcett Gold Medal, because in the subsequent book - for yet another publisher -- Garfin is back.
And it wasn't just the hero who underwent a name change for The Deadly Dames. The author himself became Malcolm Douglas for that novel.
Make no mistake, though. The changes - and in the fictional Yates/Garfin's case, the altering of several minor biographical details -- are just window dressing.
Martin Brett (and Malcolm Douglas) were both pen names of Douglas Sanderson. And Big Mike remains the same bilingual lunkhead of a private eye he always was, whether you saddle him with the rather bland Anglo name of Bill Yates or not.
(Ronald) Douglas Sanderson was born in 1922 in England and passed away in 2002 in Spain, where he had lived for many decades. After serving in the RAF during WWII, he emigrated to Montréal, which was fast gaining a post-war reputation as une ville ouverte, a wide open town offering every vice imaginable - for a price. Sanderson worked a variety of odd jobs at first -- as a waiter, a clerk in a jewelry store, a nightclub singer and eventually a radio host for the CBC, where he began writing radio plays and documentaries.
In 1952, Sanderson published his first novel, Dark Passions Subdue, under his own name. An ambitious literary novel he claimed was a puritan ode to repressed homosexuality," its sales were disappointing. Keenly aware of the lucrative American market within spitting distance just a few miles south and noting that the late Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer books were selling in the millions, Sanderson decided to take a stab at crime fiction.
The result, Exit in Green (1953), published under the Martin Brett pseudonym, was a pulpy potboiler set in a small Québecois village in the Laurentians. It did well enough that it was followed by twenty or so other hard-boiled and noirish thrillers, mostly under the Douglas and Brett pseudonyms, featuring a wide range of settings, from Yugoslavia (Flee From Terror) to the French Rivera (Mark It for Murder), from Spain (Pure Sweet Hell) to Hollywood (Catch a Fallen Starlet).
But it's the four Garfin books, set in Montréal, the so-called Paris of North America, that I consider his best work - and not just because they offer a checklist of fond hometown memories for me.
Sure, I get a kick out of references to Rue Ste. Catherine and St. Laurent Boulevard, of Molson's brewery and the Jacques-Cartier bridge, of Saturday night hockey games at the Forum and the Steinberg's grocery chain, of Dominion Square and the old Montréal Herald. But it's more than that.
I'm enough of a goody two-shoes to enjoy a good, morally uplifting tale as much as the next sucker on the vine, but sometimes you just wanna wallow in the cheap thrills of pulpy sex and violence. And the Garfin novels are the perfect trough.
Hot Freeze, originally published in 1954, introduced the big time experienced P.I. Garfin would be Sanderson's only series character, but he was typical of most of Sanderson's protagonists - hard, tough and more than a little nasty, as one lover refers to him -- not so much a hapless Everyman caught up in circumstances beyond his control or a Chandleresque white knight out to battle the forces of evil, so much as a bête noire very much in the Spillane mold, as likely to be torn apart by his own inner demons as those of external forces, trying to survive in a world that frequently made little sense.
The ex-Mountie returned a few months later in The Darker Traffic and by then the die was pretty much cast. By whatever name he chose to go by, the fluently bilingual Garfin who could "pass" for either English or French turned out to be the perfect private dick for a city with more than a few identity issues of its own, a city that journalist Martin Abramson in a memorable 1953 Photo Magazine article tagged as
... the most two-faced community on the North American continent. During the day, it shows the tourist a facade of puritanical virtue. It is dotted with famous churches, parks and imposing buildings. At night, it becomes the happiest hunting ground in the hemisphere for prostitutes, gambling czars, racketeers, fixers and strong-arm men.
Even Los Angeles' Raymond Chandler got into the act, referring to Montréal in "The Pencil," his last Marlowe story, as "almost as crooked as we are."
And Garfin was as ambivalent about the city as anyone. When asked about Montréal, he unleashes this pithy stream of vitriol in Hot Freeze:
It makes me puke... Look at it. An illuminated cross stuck up on the mountain, street after street full of the reverend clergy, a self-congratulatory city council, pious editorials in all the newspapers, and as much vice and aberration and corruption as any city this side of Port Said. One level stinking and the other level smirking, and in between a layer of supposed public servants trying to stuff their greasy pockets with graft....
Okay, nobody would ever mistake Sanderson for a long lost literary giant or a master of subtlety. Nor was he any master of political correctness -- some of his opinions on race and ethnicity and homosexuality haven't aged well -- and probably raised more than a few eyebrows even then.
Until Stark House brought them kicking and screaming back into the daylight, most of Sanderson's books had long since lapsed into obscurity, at least in North America, and were sought after only by pulp and crime fiction aficionados. But his twisted and often nightmarish tales of obsession stand up amazingly well, even half a century later, and still boast a passionate no-holds-barred immediacy that's hard to deny.
The Deadly Dames, then, is typical pulp fare for the era, with our hero up to his neck in a satisfyingly head-spinning case, this time involving two beautiful but treacherous sisters (blondes, of course), murderous (and often sexually ambiguous) thugs, a missing fortune and all the usual private eye shenanigans. What sets it apart from the pack is its rather unique and - for many readers, particularly Americans -- exotic setting, and Sanderson's sure hand at keeping readers - and his hero -- off-balance.
But it's in A Dum-Dum for the President that Sanderson really kicks out the jams. Although Garfin never wanders much further than an hour or so's drive from Montréal and the requisite deadly dames, strong-arm men and gunsels are all in attendance, the novel offers a surprisingly global perspective, perhaps a result of the author's own then-recent move back to Europe. In it, our hapless hero gets roped into a case involving a deposed president from an unnamed but volatile South American country who's on the lam (after ransacking his homeland's treasury), hiding out in a deserted mansion up on Mont Royal from political enemies who fear his return may spark another coup.
Lord knows what they thought back then, but in this mission-accomplished world it all seems depressingly timely, what with all its skepticism regarding "insurgents" and "freedom fighters," true believers and the media, while the summary of the president's revolution-torn homeland sounds like nothing so much as modern-day TV news talking points: "...seven sorts of secret police. The clamp's on... the jails are fuller than ever. Torture is back. The... government is made up of idealists... You don't need trials when you have ideals."
Film at eleven, anyone?
Anyway, kudos to Stark House for bringing back these two primo slabs of pulp fiction, and for giving Michel Mike Garfin another shot. He deserves it.
Me? I'm gonna sit back, crack open a Molson, put up my feet and go home for a few hours.
Series overview submitted
Burton Smith. Adapted from the introduction to the 2006 Stark House edition of The Deadly Dames and A Dum-Dum for the President.
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