Ricochet Books is a series of vintage noir mysteries from Véhicule Press of Montreal, QC. Gambling with Fire is their latest release and the fourth novel written by New Brunswick-born David Montrose,the pen name of Charles Ross Graham (1920-1968). Originally released in 1968, Graham had passed away only a few months previously.
The setting is Montreal just after the end of the second world war. Austrian aristocrat Franz Loebek, who flew with the RCAF, lands in Canada penniless, but determined to find his way in his adopted country. In Montreal, he finds old-world charm mixed with the high spirits of a populace coming out of the bleak war years. Former squadron sergeant Morris Winter asks Franz:
“…and what will you do?”
Franz shrugged. “I have not decided. What does a refugee do? Perhaps I could be maître d’hôtel at some small restaurant. Perhaps a store clerk.”
“What did you do before the war?”
“I managed my father’s estate. That was nothing.”
Winter then offers him a job in his (illegal) gambling house, but Franz declines. Later, Winter suddenly is hospitalised, the victim of an apparent poisoning by Montreal gambling boss Rosaire Beaumage to whom Winter has steadfastly refused to pay protection money. Dying, he pleads with Franz to run the house. Franz is reluctant to get involved in an illegal activity in his adoptive country, but upon Winter’s death, he is moved to seek revenge on Beaumage by beating him at his own game. He reopens the gambling house and formulates his plan to bring down Beaumage. While all this is going on, Franz is in the company of a circle of Montreal’s social elite and falls in love with Nicole, the wife of Charles Porter-Smythe, business owner and dipsomaniac. Then there is Linda Warren, the gorgeous spoiled blonde who wants what she cannot have (i.e. a man), and once she gets it, tosses it (him) away like yesterday’s news.
There are a few subplots to Gambling with Fire and it all makes for a great story with a few twists and a less-than-tidy ending for Franz and friends. The mood is decidedly noir since most of the story takes place after dark until the wee small hours of the morning. There is dining, drinking, gambling and of course, romance. This book should come with a post-bop jazz soundtrack (a muted horn à la Miles Davis or a smoky tenor sax like Dexter Gordon’s) to complete the feel. All that’s missing is a hard-boiled detective type, something Graham/Montrose had in his earlier three Montreal novels. In its stead is beer-swilling investigative reporter Wally Burns, who is out to get a good story with or without Franz’ help. I can’t help but feel like if this story was told in a modern-day setting that it as carry a completely different meaning. Instead, you’d have our main character probably helping out at gambling websites like pick7.bet (https://www.pick7.bet/casinos-not-on-gamstop) instead of in a physical gambling house. I don’t think it would have the same impact though so I am glad it is set in a post-WWII setting.
It was a great diversion reading ‘vintage’ material like this of a place and time that has all but disappeared from memory. Reading of Montrose’s Montreal is like opening a time capsule; forever sealed in amber, of a great North American city before Drapeau, Expo 67, de Gualle’s “Vive le Québec libre” and separatists influenced its cosmopolitan makeup. It was a time of formal dining, cocktails, evening wear and suits and family owned business dynasties. This is all captured in Gambling with Fire, setting the backdrop for a story that is more than esoteric; Franz has some very philosophical moments as he struggles between love and desire, right and wrong, and ultimately what he is going to do with the rest of his life in Canada. Spend it in a jail? Or walk away from Montreal altogether? Great reading by an author who not only left us too soon but has gone unappreciated for far too long. Véhicule Press is to be applauded for the launch of Ricochet Books.
To read more about Ricochet Books and see its other titles (replete with original cover art), click: http://www.vehiculepress.com/1-ricochet.php