The Carpenter from Montreal

George Fetherling

September 2017

Worlds collide when a naïve young heiress takes a tumble for a bootlegger with a murderous temper and his business partner falls in love with Montreal, the way Americans are prone to do. One world war has ended and a second is in the wings. In the space between, the neon-powered city on the St. Lawrence is notorious for its lavish nightlife, obsessive gambling and evident corruption. Controlling the action from behind the scenes is a large and mysterious figure called the Carpenter. He is the city’s fixer, mediator and manipulator. He is the boss of the night, le caïd de la nuit. In this cinematic and genre-bending novel, George Fetherling both honours the roots of serious noir fiction while also pushing its boundaries.



George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator. The Montreal Gazette has described him as “a mercurial, liberal intelligence … the kind of which English Canada has too short a supply.” Xtra called him “something of a national literary treasure.” He lives in Vancouver.

"An amazing balancing act for the author, and one where the juggler never fails." -- Howard Engel, author of the Benny Cooperman mysteries.

$19.95 | ISBN: 9781988130477

$ 9.95 | ISBN: 9781988130484

$ 9.95 | ISBN: 9781988130491

$ 9.95 | ISBN: 9781988130507

What they say
Reviews

The File on Arthur Moss is a work of "incisive, complex beauty [by] a gifted phrasemaker [and] a fascinating meditation on the elusiveness of truth." Maclean's
 
Jericho may be Canada's first truly twenty-first-century novel. As a work of urban fiction--a slim category in Canadian writing--it stands among the very best." The New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal
 
Walt Whitman's Secret is “a resonant, shimmering work that stakes a claim on posterity." The Globe and Mail


The Globe and Mail

"Somewhere between New York and Chicago is a steel town that during Prohibition runs liquor from Montreal. It is the heyday of bootleggers Jim Joseph and Pete Sells, Lebanese boys with adopted all-American names who work under the mentorship of a French Canadian known only as "the Carpenter." Decades later, an ex-lawyer, a long-in-the-tooth newspaperman and a ghost narrate an obituary for their city in George Fetherling's latest novel. The people are Fetherling's invention, but the towns … at one point the Carpenter asks Jim Joseph why Americans call their cities "towns," and Joseph replies, "it's a way of showing our affection for it." Joseph's city is now, according to the ghost, "a ghost town." Montreal – the Carpenter's Montreal – is also gone: "Whatever Montreal may have been in the 1930s and 1940s, the city is something else now." Noir is an anti-romantic mode – this is an unvarnished world of violence, corruption and ethnic strife – and yet, it allows Fetherling the kind of affection that makes "towns" of illicit cities of the night."
Jade Colbert, The Globe and Mail, September 29, 2017.

 


A Q&A with George Fetherling

Why did you write your new book?
I'm not fond of genre writing but I make an exception for literary noir if it's the genuine article, such as The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. You see, the best examples were created by people born between 1890 and 1915, the first generation to come of age with the radio, the automobile, motion pictures, skyscraper vistas and the terror of a world war. In other words, with urban modernism. I wanted to tip my hat to this tradition while also testing its boundaries. The novel has a murder but no detective, and the most important character is a ghost. There's even a little swirl of magic realism in that the reader doesn't know whether the title character, a Québécois crime lord, is real or imaginary.

Whose sentences are your favourite?
In my view, the finest maker of English sentences was Sir Edmund Gosse (1849-1928), whose sinecure as librarian of the House of Lords left him ample time to write. I especially admire the musicality of his book about Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82), the most inventive prose writer of the 17th century.

What's the best sentence you've ever written?
It may be one from the new book: "It was three hours past midnight, three hours past New Year's Eve 1937, and snow was coming down like ashes after a fire." It sets the tone without revealing much of what's to follow.

What's more important: the beginning of a book or the end?
The beginning – and especially the opening sentence, because it tells you much about the author. Richard Nixon's autobiography opens with "I was born in the house my father built." In fact, he was born in a house in Southern California that his father ordered by mail from Sears in the East – a kit – and then hired exploited Mexican labourers to assemble it for him. This first sentence shows Nixon as the very thing his book tries to deny that he was: a liar. Also, one can easily imagine how various writers would have begun other authors' famous openings. If Philip Roth had written Moby-Dick it would have begun: "My parents named me Ishmael but you can call me Ishsy."

What's your favourite bookstore in the world? 
Depends where in the world. In London, the London Review Bookshop in Bury Place. Every important new work of literature, history or politic seems to appear there instantly – magically. It's also the site of many important literary events. In New York, the Argosy Book Store, a six-storey antiquarian paradise at 116 East 59th Street, run by two sisters whose family has had the shop since 1925. In Vancouver, MacLeod's Books at 455 West Pender. Mostly used and antiquarian, but with some new ones as well. The inventory is said to be 100,000 volumes in scores of categories. Amazingly, the owner knows where to find each one and, in very many cases, can discuss the contents. I once wrote somewhere that MacLeod's is one of the three pillars of Vancouver culture, along with the Penthouse Night Club and the Sylvia Hotel.

Depends where in the world. In London, the London Review Bookshop in Bury Place. Every important new work of literature, history or politic seems to appear there instantly – magically. It's also the site of many important literary events. In New York, the Argosy Book Store, a six-storey antiquarian paradise at 116 East 59th Street, run by two sisters whose family has had the shop since 1925. In Vancouver, MacLeod's Books at 455 West Pender. Mostly used and antiquarian, but with some new ones as well. The inventory is said to be 100,000 volumes in scores of categories. Amazingly, the owner knows where to find each one and, in very many cases, can discuss the contents. I once wrote somewhere that MacLeod's is one of the three pillars of Vancouver culture, along with the Penthouse Night Club and the Sylvia Hotel.

 The Globe and Mail, October 20, 2017.

 


The Quill and Quire

“Am I trying to deal with a crisis I left behind?” wonders Cynthia McConnell near the beginning of George Fetherling’s neo-noir novel. Well might she ask, as she speaks to us from beyond the grave and her death has major repercussions in the lives of the novel’s protagonist, Jim Joseph, and his partner in crime, Pete Sells. 

The Carpenter from Montreal follows the rise and fall of Jim and Pete, both children of Lebanese immigrants who have rebranded in pursuit of success. Jim, born Fouad Lahoud, “knew he had to become one of the Americans to prosper as they did.” Pete changed his surname from Nassif “as a precaution” when he went to off to fight in the First World War.

During Prohibition, Jim accepts a proposition to collect an illicit shipment of booze from Montreal and carry it across the border. This profitable experience gives him ideas; before long he and Pete have a thriving liquor business of their own. When Prohibition ends, they turn to gambling, eventually opening a glamorous nightclub and casino, the Mount Royal Club. 

The club’s name is a gesture to the city where Jim gets his inspiration. “[E]verything in Montreal pricked his imagination,” we are told. “The city breathed money and coughed it too, discreetly, prudently, but unmistakably. Most everything about it was exciting, and all the rest was merely wonderful. St. Catherine Street made Commerce Street seem like a cowpath. The buildings were far taller, in both height and importance. And one just knew somehow that the stylish women passing on the sidewalks were wearing fine lace underneath.”

The Carpenter from Montreal is full of such evocative descriptions, though it is a better pastiche than a novel. Strong on atmosphere, it lacks both suspense and drama, as if Fetherling deliberately opted out of the propulsive mystery elements of his noir predecessors. Even Cynthia’s murder blends a little too smoothly into the period background: while it affects both Jim and Pete in different ways, it is not a pivot on which anything significant turns. The various narrators sound almost the same, and there is no real justification or payoff for the device of Cynthia’s ghostly presence. 

Instead of probing moral grey areas in the unsparing and philosophical style of Hammett or Chandler, Fetherling gives us a picturesque but largely unrevealing look at a world that came and went.

Quill and Quire, 2017

 


Engaging and entertaining

Fetherling spins his taut tale of two lads from immigrant families who Americanize their Lebanese names to Jim Joseph and Pete Sells. Through a combination of wits and good fortune, the two men become successful bootleggers and purveyors of games of chance in a “town” somewhere south of Canada. (My bet is on Brooklyn.) It’s Jim who encounters the French carpenter on one of his early bootlegging runs. A mentoring relationship of sorts begins. Unlike the expectations one would have of someone called “The Carpenter,” this character never touches tools traditionally associated with the craft. He’s more of a fixer—behind the scenes. From him, Jim learns about moving goods across borders and keeping the wheels of justice greased. And he acquires the carpenter’s habits of elegant attire, lavish surroundings and bodyguards. 
The story-telling in The Carpenter From Montreal is unconventional but compelling. Three characters—a ghost, a newspaperman, and a lawyer—recount the rise and fall of Jim and Pete against a rich backdrop of characters, conversations, and street-life. There were times when I marveled at how Fetherling, who was born after this epoch, had captured in almost cinematographic detail the corruption and swagger of the time. I was fully immersed in the period.
The Carpenter From Montreal is an engaging and entertaining examination of a period and a lifestyle from an author who is a master craftsman. (See a recent article in The Globe and Mail for an update on Montreal’s red-light district).


Bending the noir format

The Carpenter From Montreal was an unconventional kind of read, but the story coalesces in a way that individual drops of liquid Mercury quickly come together to create a larger whole. At times, you may be fooled into thinking that you are reading a work of non-fiction, particularly the recollections of the journalist Edwin Staffel. To the author’s credit, there is no profanity and physical sex is merely alluded to, tipping his hat to the noir masters of the past, who focused on a good story and fast action. I gave The Carpenter From Montreal 5 stars at Goodreads. More...
The Miramichi Reader, October 2018

 


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