I love noir fiction (and film), so I was eager to read this book of criminal men with power, some in control, some out of control in the Prohibition Era of 1920-1933. On the back cover of The Carpenter from Montreal (2017, Linda Leith Publishing) it states to any curious reader that may pick up this novel: “In this cinematic and genre-bending novel, George Fetherling both honours the roots of serious noir fiction while also pushing its boundaries.” I’m not so sure about the “pushing the boundaries” part, but the “genre-bending” statement works for me.Mr. Fetherling “bends’ the noir novel format by not having a hard-boiled detective like the Continental Op character created by Dashiell Hammett tell the story. Instead the story of James Joseph Lahoud (“Jim”) and the “Carpenter” (an English version of Charpentier, or “Sharpen Tear” as the character Pete Sells would smugly say) of Montreal is narrated by three separate voices: a lawyer, a newspaperman and Cynthia McConnell, a young woman who is deceased as the story begins but continues, in her afterlife, to take an interest in how it all unfolds. Once you get used to the different voices, the story gets pieced together and progresses in a compelling way. It is about the rise of both men in the business of smuggling of liquor out of Canada (among other things) and selling it in the speakeasies of New York. It follows the eventual downfall of both as the gangster era ends after WWII. They must find new ways to make money. Some legit, as in real estate, others, as in prostitution, not so legit.
The novel begins in a definitely noir-ish way:
The muzzle flash was so beautiful, like the explosion of a bright five-pointed star, that it tempted the triggerman to continue firing a few seconds longer than necessary. But he was a professional, controlled, réservé, even timide, and did not allow himself to linger or be distracted. The racket, the yellow petals of pulsating light, the screams of the woman inside the expensive automobile, the man dead on the pavement—it was all part of a single event. It was three hours past midnight, three hours past New Year’s Eve 1937, and snow was coming down like ashes after a fire.
As was mentioned, the story behind The Carpenter From Montreal centres around Jim (in New York) and a large Montreal man known to all as The Carpenter. Jim travels to Montreal to see if he can get some business from Canada running liquor across the border. This man appears to control a lot of what goes in Montreal. The Carpenter meets Jim in his Montreal hotel room and informs him:
“…the next time you come to Montreal we will talk business before I” – he groped just a half-second for the right phrase – “give you a present of the town.” He made an expansive gesture with his massive arms. “We are surrounded by possibilities. Nothing is far away.”
The Carpenter left as quickly as he had come. Jim wondered whether the man had even been there at all.
Jim’s partner (and brother-in-law) is Pete Sells, a violent, reactionary man who likes big money, fast cars and flappers. He prefers to spend his money while Jim prefers to save and invest his. Pete is wary of The Carpenter and believes that the suggestions he gives to Jim about business will not work as well south of the border. But they do, and this further alienates Jim and Pete. Jim knows The Carpenter is smart and will often travel to Montreal for advice and a listening ear. The Carpenter, like Jim, abhors the inherent violence in the business. He confides to Jim:
“This whole business, it is not a moral way to live.” He looked sad – heavy and sad. “But that has never stopped us, has it?”
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.
The Carpenter From Montreal by George Fetherling
Linda Leith Publishing
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