Monday, March 17, 2014

Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street

“When the sun goes down and the neons go up Montreal becomes one of the world's most colourful cities. Through its countless night clubs, cocktail bars, lavish hotels and colourful streets pass a host of fabulous characters whose presence gives the city the atmosphere for which it is famous.

Into this pseudo-paradise came Gisele Lepine—fresh as the cool clear air of her Laurentian village and eager with the realization of a five-year-old dream—Montreal.

Gisele met the characters, basked in the synthetic glamor of the cabarets and reached the goal she had set as a climax to her personal five-year plan.

Few author could capture the life and atmosphere of Montreal as does Al Palmer in Sugar-Puss. He was born in the east end of the city and in fact celebrates his birthday (May 18th) on the same day as does his native city.”

[ From the 1949 edition's back cover ]

“One of the earliest Canadian noir novels, Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street tells the story of Gisele Lepine, beautiful farmer's daughter who leaves her sleepy faming community for the neon lights of Montreal. In the fast-paced city, dreams quickly turn to nightmares as the young 'farmette' finds herself surrounded by drug-dealers, newspapermen, nightclub owners, chorus girls and a fatherly boxer who is well past his prime. It's all a bit too much for innocent Gisele, who hasn't yet had to deal with the violence that is to come. All becomes a whirlwind set in the post-war 'open city' in which burlesque houses were plentiful, Dorchester Street was lined with nightclubs and Decarie Boulevard served as Canada's Sunset Strip.“

[ From the publisher's website ]

WARNING: May contains trace of spoilers! People allergic to the discussion of any plot's elements beforehand are strongly advised to take the necessary precautions for their safety and should proceed further carefully!

When I stumbled a few months back upon the weird Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society's blog [warning: NSFW link], it made me realized that the pulp fiction genre was alive and well, still having its dedicated bookstores and publishers. It made me curious about a genre in which I never had any interest before. My only brush with the genre had been reading late '50s to early '70s novels from the Fleuve Noir Anticipation collection (particularly the infamous Perry Rhodan series!) and hearing about Pierre Saurel's spy novel series Les aventures étranges de l'agent IXE-13, L'as des espions canadiens (published from 1947 to 1966, and adapted in 1972 into a film comedy by Jacques Godbout; strangely, I also read a few issues of an unrelated British comics series, Spy 13, published from 1960 to 1986, and which was also adapted into a 1964 movie parody). So, when Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street fell on my lap while opening a box of new arrivals at the library, I knew I really had to read it.

Pulp fiction is a genre generally defined as stories, often of poor-quality, dealing with lurid, sensational and exploitative subjects, printed on low-quality paper and published for the mass market [, Vintage Library, Wikipedia ]. It is a generic genre of escapist literature that encompass, among others, detective & mystery, hard-boiled, noir, science-fiction and western stories.

Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street is a fine example of pulp fiction and noir genre, but what's make it really interesting is its local connections: it is not only written by a Montrealer (Al Palmer was a journalist at the Montreal Herald and The Gazette where he covered the police scene and the city's nightlife), but it's also set in the city. In regards with the preface, which gives a lengthy description of Dorchester Street (later known as boulevard René-Lévesque), we can even say that the city is one of the main characters of the novel.

When she was thirteen, Gisele Lepine once visited Montreal with her parents for the St. Jean Baptiste parade. She felt ashamed at the way people were staring at their unsophisticated rural manners and clothing. She never went back with her parents, but vowed to go live there five years later. For all those years, she prepared herself by taking a job in a ski lodge and saving every penny. She worked hard to learn english, practicing until she could speak it “with only the slightest trace of an accent”. She studied the wealthy guests mannerisms, copied their clothes, collected a new wardrobe from abandoned items, and developed the “uncanny ability to ward off advances from the male guests without injuring their pride.” All this to escape the farming life and go to Montreal.

Five-years later, as planned, she arrives in the Dorchester Street bus terminal with only a small luggage. She rent a clean and cheap tourist room and buy every newspaper she can find to look for a job. The next morning, she finds a waitressing job at the first place she applied, “a cheap restaurant on St. Catherine east of Bleury.” Unfortunately, on the fourth day, she has to leave in a hurry, without being paid, due to the unwelcome advances of the greek owner. To calm herself, she goes into a department store near the corner of St. Catherine and University streets and buys a bathrobe!

Later that night, she goes into a café, The Breakers, a kind of club for boxing aficionados, and orders a Cuba Libre at the suggestion of the waiter. There, she meets Gaston Courtney, proprietor of Le Coq d'Or night club, who offers her straightaway a job of chorus girl! Since she's unfamiliar with the city and doesn't know anything about night clubs, Schultz, the helpful café's owner, introduces her to Jimmy Holden, a journalist at The Chronicle. He offers to bring her along on his night clubs' round, with a first stop at the El Zebra, near the corner of Peel and St. Catherine. She quickly finds herself involved with Jimmy but, after one or two well suggested love-making scenes, they quarrel over her work as a chorus girl. She leaves him for Courtney but becomes entangled in his quite shady business. Jimmy has been investigating for some times Courtney's racket, involving human trafficking and drugs. After the mandatory car chase and gun fight, Courtney is killed. His lawyer tells Gisele that, as Courtney's fiancé, she is the sole benefactor of his will. But she's tired of the city and ready to abandon everything to go back to her little Laurentian village…

Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street is a quick, nice reading. Of course, being what it is (a pulp fiction), it is full of cliché but, at least for a novice like me, it is nevertheless a good entertainment. It's a simple story of innocence corrupted by the big city and its seductions of fame, lust and cupidity. We can easily ignore the elements of the story that feel far-fetched or lack credibility (like the fact that the young heroine is excelling in everything—save in choosing the right man—but, after all, we are told that French Canadian girls matured fast) or be oblivious to the rather (too) happy ending.

It really feels like an old B&W movie with Humphrey Bogart: the atmosphere, the way they speak, the description of the places. It's a kind of window on the past, a time-traveling printed device bringing us in the post-war Montreal. Unfortunately, if the names of the streets are familiar, most of the location described are long gone… It's fun and pleasant to read, so I can only recommend this novel, particularly if you are interested either in pulp fiction or in stories located in Montreal.

I definitely find interesting this idea of reprinting vintage pulp fiction novels. Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, first published in 1949, is part of a Véhicule Press' imprint, Ricochet Books, that is dedicated to reprint such novels. So far, there are five titles (this one is the fourth) and a sixth title should be published in May 2014. I'll do my best to read a few more titles from this collection in a near future.

Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, by Al Palmer (with an introduction by Will Straw). Montreal, Véhicule Press (Coll. Ricochet Books), 2013. 220 pp, 7 x 4.25 in., $13.95 CDN. ISBN: 978-1-55065-349-6. Recommended for adults (16+).
For more information you can check the following web sites:

Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street © Véhicule Press, 2013. The publisher is pleased to respect any unacknowledged property rights.

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