||Don Bell's Found Books
We bookscouters who make our living hunting literary treasures in libraries, garage sales, flea markets and various obscure locales have a common disease brought on by our love of the bound-up word: Call it Bookitis.
Often you pick up a book with every intention of selling it at a reasonable profit but out of curiosity you sit down, start leafing through, fall in love with the book and instead of flogging it to n'importe qui end up keeping the lovely object. Collecting. Hoarding. It stays put on your shelves. Goes into your own ever-growing proud collection. Simply ain't up for grabs
The Pyx by Montrealer John Buell is a case in point. This 1959 Canadian thriller was spotted at a six-books-for-$1 U.S. deal at the Richford, Vermont public library. Hard-cover with a glistening violet-hued dust jacket and in close to fine condition. A marvelous strike since most of Richford's sales books are library discards in so-so condition; but now and then you can find a donated unmarked sleeper, as The Pyx certainly was.
Happy is the book scout when one like this falls into his well-disposed lap. I half-remember having intended to read The Pyx when it first came out, to excellent notices, but it must have wiggled away like so many books do. Now, 42 years since it's publication, it's a more or less forgotten Canadian classic, though it was made into a 1973 film produced by the late Maxine Samuels and featuring Karen Black and Christopher Plummer¨ "a rather laughable" production, as Montreal bookdealer Michel Lanteigne comments on his website where he is offering the same Farrar, Straus and Codahy Pyx first edition as the one found for $25 U.S.
The only flaw in the copy picked up in Richford was some slight discoloration on pages 110 and 111 caused by two yellowing newspaper clippings tucked inside the book. They tell an interesting story
In one, Leo MacGillivray of the Montreal Gazette describes The Pyx as a "brilliant first novel by a young Montreal writer ... John Buell, a teacher of English at Loyola College here ... His narrative is quick and exciting and his characters emerge clear and lifelike from the substance. It's writing skill at the very top level."
In the other, the Montreal Star's Walter O'Hearn describes The Pyx as "a first novel very much in the [Graham] Greene tradition, and one that succeeds on its own terms. Here is the familiar gleam of grace in the mud, the interwoven strands of sin and theology."
A handsome copy with neat clear print and easy to carry around. I put a plastic cover on the dust jacket, which gave the book an even shinier effect, and plunged into it, first at a Second Cup on Sherbrooke Street, then moving further west to a Dunkin' Donut, and finally reading the last tantalizing chapters chez Tim Horton, the book by then swilling in my gut like the five or six keep-going coffees.
The time is the 1950s and the city where the events take place is not specifically identified as Montreal, though we know it is. When reading Buell's tour de force, words like ominous and portentous and eerie come to mind; it mesmerizes you no less than Graham Greene's great Catholic novels.
The plot revolves around Elizabeth Lucy, a gorgeous drug-addicted prostitute whose shattered body is found by a cabbie, Jack Trudel, on the sidewalk below a chic penthouse apartment. Did she jump? Was she pushed? You're with Trudel as he pockets a locket found beside the cadaver, the symbolic "pyx" of the title, which is, literally, the linchpin of the book; the "pyx" is described by Buell in a note at the beginning, citing Webster's New International, as 1. "The vessel, case or tabernacle in which the Host is reserved. 2. The little vessel, usually watch-shaped, in which the Eucharist is carried to the sick."
The seven chapters alternate between past and present. The past is a portrayal of Lucy's life, the heroin dealers using her, the warped Meg Latimer for whom she works, the evil manipulator and sadist Keerson... And the present: the investigation by the well-conceived homicide detective Henderson, his piecing together of the events of Lucy's last day before she was pushed or jumped from the penthouse balcony, his quest for the why as much as for the who.
The book is filled with short pithy sentences that work. You can open it at random: "Henderson was stretched out on a squeaky frayed sofa in the captain's office; he didn't fit too well; the back of his ankles rested on the arm and his feet dangled slightly; he noticed his shoes needed a shine ..."
Fast-paced, the story moves along breathlessly as you become more and more involved with Lucy and Henderson and the other characters, and it reaches an absorbing satisfying conclusion, the culprit declawed, his secret literally unlocked (the locket found at the scene of the crime); this book is as much psy as it is Pyx and you'll want to read it to the end.
Buell, now in his mid-seventies and living with his wife in Montreal's Cote St. Luc area, is retired since 1987 from his English teaching job at Concordia (where he is Professor Emeritus). Born and raised in Montreal's Notre Dame de Grace district, he published four other books after The Pyx¨Four Days, The Shrewsdale Exit, Playground and A Lot To Make Up For¨all, like The Pyx psychological thrillers with dark themes and with tight well-constructed plots. Long out of print, they're not easy to come by but with luck may be found in secondhand bookshops in the Canadiana or crime sections, or in libraries; Four Days and The Shrewsdale Exit have been made into films, the latter a French adaptation called L'Aggression starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Catherine Deneuve. "It's only roughly based on the book," Buell said on the phone when I contacted him after pyxing it chez Tim Horton. Although he hasn't published anything since A Lot To Make Up For, which came out in 1990, he has written other books which have not yet found their way into print; lately he's been quietly and keenly working away on a new novel, routinely writing every day, but, lest he jinx himself, is reluctant to say what it's about or even when it might be completed. "Other than that I've been enjoying my retirement just hanging around with our nine grandchildren."
Is The Pyx for sale? Sorry folks. It's that Bookitis bug again. But there are a few copies floating around on Internet book sites in the $25 range. Unless you stumble on another one for two American bits in Richford.
Next month: A Bachelor in Search of a Wife by Annie S. Swan.
Don Bell is a writer and book scout who bounds between Montreal, Paris and Sutton, Quebec.