By Stuart Nulman
Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street by Al Palmer (Vehicule Press, $13.95)
If you wanted to know what was hot and happening in Montreal during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, then Al Palmer’s newspaper column was a must-read.
Palmer, a combination of popular American showbiz columnist Walter Winchell and journalist/writer Damon Runyon (whose eccentric street character-laden stories became the basis for the Broadway musical “Guys and Dolls”), Palmer had his finger on the pulse of Montreal during the height of its open city era, and chronicled everything from the happening nightclub scene, to the crime beat, to the city’s seamy underbelly in his columns for the Montreal Herald and later the Gazette.
And Palmer brought the Damon Runyon in him, as he decided to transcend his knowledge of the people and the streets of Montreal of 65 years ago in book form. In 1950, he told the true story behind Montreal’s open city world in the book Montreal Confidential (which Vehicule Press reissued five years ago). The previous year – in 1949 – Palmer went the pulp fiction route and published a novel that incorporated the elements of the Montreal he knew in a novel called Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, which Vehicule Press recently reissued on its Ricochet Book imprint.
The story focuses on Gisele Lepine, a young woman from a small town in the Laurentians who is tried of her life in such a conservative, religious, agrarian society. She decides to embark upon her own five-year plan to make a new life for herself in the bustling metropolis that is Montreal. After a previous visit to Montreal with her mother and father to take in the St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations when she was about 13 overwhelmed her, Gisele, after saving enough money waitressing in the restaurant of a Laurentians resort hotel and befriending its many Montreal-based guests, decides she is ready to make her life-changing trek south.
As Gisele arrives in Montreal (circa 1949), she is practically swept into its fast-paced world. She becomes fast friends with Jimmy Holden, a popular city columnist for The Chronicle, who gives her a quick lesson into the swinging night life of Montreal, especially the clubs, cafes and after hours restaurants that inhabit Dorchester Street (more than five years before the city administration widens it and transforms it into a boulevard). They quickly strike up into a relationship (and Jimmy already gives her a pet name … “Sugar-Puss”) and gets her a job as a chorus girl at a nightclub called Le Coq D’Or.
Gisele is swept up in the fast track world of Montreal and its hotspots, as her rapid success as a chorus girl catches the eye of Gaston Courtney, the club’s owner. In turn, she decides that attaching herself with Courtney is a way to further success, and dumps Jimmy the columnist for Courtney the club owner. However, Gisele discovers that Gaston Courtney is more than a night club owner; he is also a major mob figure who deals with the white slavery trade and guns down a policeman in cold blood. This is a dangerous dilemma that Gisele never expected when she came to Montreal to seek her fortune; now how is she going to get herself out of it without any harm coming to her?
Like Montreal Confidential, Palmer uses his vast knowledge of the fast-paced, yet seamy, world of Montreal of the pre-Drapeau years to great extent in order to make Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street a fascinating read and a gritty portrait of a not-so-innocent city. He captures the Runyonesque characters who pervaded the streets of downtown Montreal and the hardboiled street language that they spoke. In fact, there is even a hint of Montreal’s aversion to their patrician neighbour to the west, Toronto. When Gisele contemplates moving to Toronto to get a waitressing job there, she remembers Jimmy’s contempt for the city; as Palmer says it, “she remembered Jimmy’s expression that the city was ‘nowhere’.”
Part Mickey Spillane hardboiled detective novel and part Damon Runyon, Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street is a look at a fascinating aspect of Montreal’s lost colourful history wrapped in a crime novel. And only the rickety typewriter of the late Al Palmer can tell this gritty tale with the color and character of the city that he knew best.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.