by David Montrose
Véhicule Press, 2010 (1951)
Like many an author published by Montreal’s Véhicule Press, David Montrose can flat-out write. The Crime on Cote des Neiges is deliciously noir, first published in 1951 and still capable of delighting modern readers through a mix of great writing, intricate storytelling, and details about life in Montreal that are either charmingly dated or pleasingly unchanged. It is a solid choice as the first in the Ricochet Books series of pulp fiction reprints, started by Véhicule in 2010.
“There are two blondes and a brunette,” we read on the back cover. “One of them had killed John Sark.” But if the mystery is worth following, it’s the writing that steals the show. The tone and the tropes are familiar as our private detective, Russell Teed, investigates the case, delivering his assertions, put-downs, and witticisms in the sweet spot between world-weary and smart-ass.
Teed is “a private operative. Very big-time. All kinds of contracts. Does mostly company work. Not the cases where the bookkeeper skips with a thousand iron men, the cases where the chairman of the board thinks the secretary-treasurer has been cooking the company balance sheet to buy himself a small republic in South America. […] Maybe he’s thin, but he’s got more sinew than a cheap steak. He’s got a face that everybody loves and animals trust. And brains like an accounting machine.”
Perhaps even more importantly, as we soon learn, Teed is fond of “a cold quart of Dow” or two, and “not a man to let uneaten meals sneak away unnoticed.” He’s sleep-deprived and grouchy. In other words, he’s a delight to spend 233 pages with.
Along the way, there are dames with baby-blue eyes, glistening lips that tremble with desire (“Desire for what? Desire to keep away from the cops.”), buildings that had been built about the year Montcalm lost Quebec, sagging floors, rotting wood, dead termites, chipped wash basins, and stained enamel. This is Montreal’s dark underbelly, brought to life with on-the-money dialogue, large bunches of silence, and Montrose’s distinctive voice.
Because Montrose has a way with words, to say the least.
“I woke up worried.
I was worried because it was still pitch dark, and I shouldn’t be waking up to darkness. And I had a strong feeling someone was in the room with me. A very strong feeling; it was shaking my shoulder.
What I remembered most plainly was the last rye I shouldn’t have had.”
The one-liners are good enough to leave you constantly reading them out to anyone in the same room as you. Familiar comparisons are quickly outdone (“It was hotter than hell. It was hotter than a fundamentalist thinks hell is. It was hotter than it had ever been before anywhere else in the world. It was almost as hot as it had been in Montreal last August.”); even newspaper night editors, roused for exclusives, have an ear for a memorable wisecrack. The French accents are spot-on (“They mus’ be somewhere,” he said, a little excited. “I go back t’ere and look.”), and great swathes of back-and-forth questioning advance the plot swiftly and efficiently.
In short, The Crime on Cote des Neiges is fun, page-turning goodness, writing to wrap up warm in on a rainy day; a ticket to another world. And it would be a shame not to mention that it’s also available in French, translated by Sophie Cardinal-Corriveau as Meurtre à Westmount. The Hurtubise cover, like many a woman in Montrose’s book, is to die for.
Review by Peter McCambridge