Gam­bling With Fire

Broken Pencil - - Book Reviews -

David Mon­trose, 207 pgs, Ve­hicule Press, ve­, $14.95

Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est to Canadian read­ers of this clas­sic noir is its set­ting. David Mon­trose pro­vides a to­pog­ra­phy of post-war Mon­treal that called to mind Chan­dler’s Los An­ge­les. Dark houses hud­dled in wind­ing streets cut through low el­e­va­tions cre­ate a sense of iso­la­tion, dan­ger, or ro­mance. Bright rooms look­ing out from higher el­e­va­tions set the mood for more frank scenes. “He led the way to a broad sun-room at the end of the cor­ri­dor, a place walled with glass, floored with dull red tile, fur­nished with wicker chairs and great ferns. The win­dows looked on one side back to the glis­ten­ing snow and black-limbed trees of the up­per slopes of Mount Royal, on the other side down upon the heart of the city.”

Franz, a dis­placed Czech aris­to­crat, leads an en­sem­ble cast that cleaves to the genre — volup­tuous women in se­duc­tive evening wear, gang­sters, gam­blers, ty­coons, so­cialites, and gritty ur­ban bit char­ac­ters. “There was some­thing un­whole­some in the pic­ture they pre­sented: the big, rangy girl, the small rab­bit-chinned man drawn along with her as though caught in the suc­tion of her move­ment.” Mon­trose in­tro­duces im­por­tant char­ac­ters dis­cur­sively, so that when each, in turn, has his or her mo­ment to change the di­rec­tion of the plot, or to pro­vide un­ex­pected feel­ing and hu­man­ity, we ad­mire how well all these roles de­pend on one an­other.

Iron­i­cally, given this web of char­ac­ters, the story is medi­ocre and the book ac­tu­ally gets less in­ter­est­ing as it in­ten­si­fies. Ev­ery­thing else lives up to the rev­o­lu­tion in the crime genre started by Ham­mett and cul­mi­nat­ing in Chan­dler, whereas the ac­tion of the plot is pure dime novel, driven by Franz’s de­sire to carry out the wishes of Win­ter — a dy­ing former war-com­rade — by op­er­at­ing a gam­bling house in the face of Bau­mage, Win­ter’s ri­val. On the sub­ject of Bau­mage, “Win­ter’s face stiff­ened. The weak­ness of im­pend­ing death was gone; he spoke like a prophet chastis­ing a wicked peo­ple.” A vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion is in­evitable for 200 pages and it is never clear enough how much Franz’s run­ning the casino achieves, aside from giv­ing Bau­mage am­ple op­por­tu­nity to catch on. (Fe­liks Jezio­ran­ski)

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