Shanghai Alley

199 pages,
ISBN: 1896860109

Post Your Opinion
Vancouver Noir
by Kildare Dobbs

Jim Christy is a free-ranging writer whose last book was about eccentric homesteads in the Northwest Pacific region. This time he indulges nostalgia in a clever pastiche of private-eye romance, set in Vancouver's Chinatown of the Depression, when the Left was still struggling and starry-eyed. Those were the days when you could tell the good guys from the bad guys, and long before rich young punks put on bankers' suits and broke out in print to praise greed and privilege.

Gene Castle is the private-eye knight-errant of the mean streets. He conforms fairly closely to the Chandler tradition, a tough, wise-cracking shamus in a fedora, which he throws at the hatstand in his office and misses (cf. Mike Hammer), who drinks rum and rye and, when he has time, reads his Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. VII, "Libido to Mary, Duchess of Burgundy". An uncommon touch is his marital status (he has a wife in show-business) and his background in Carny. Like Bogart in Casablanca, he has been a rover, running guns in Ethiopia. We are not shown much of the Chinese in Chinatown beyond a glimpse of a Chinese laundry, and a high-class skibo gaff joint (I'm a stranger here myself), including an opium den. The bad guys are mobsters, city-hall crooks, bent cops, and other capitalist lackeys, all intent on breaking the power of the unions.

The big scenes occur in a whorehouse, where Castle is sweated by mob muscle and thrown off the roof. It is only proper that he should return to the house to give the bad guys their lumps, while exposing a grand conspiracy to smash the labour movement in the West.

Christy has studied the history of the Left in North America, the Wobblies and their successors, and introduces it with a light, allusive hand. Once or twice anachronism jars the reader, for example when someone is said to have "an élitist background". Élitist is a word from the '60s and background is questionable, too. "Bourgeois upbringing" is a more probable expression for the '30s. Again, the man who can afford to live anywhere in Vancouver can live in "one of those huge imitation-Tudor mansions in Shaughnessy Heights...or in a modern joint with lots of glass on the water at Point Grey" is being offered a choice not available in the '30s. The Shaughnessy mansions were there all right. But those "modern joints" were built long after World War II by my late/former mother-in-law Helen McAlpine, God be good to her. These are trivial points. The sleaziness of old Vancouver, which Malcolm Lowry called its air of sausage-and-mash, is well rendered. Here is a general view: "The city was tucked into a dense rainforest and there were more trees as far as the eye could see; beyond that there were more trees, north to the Yukon border and over to the Rockies to the East; all of them, by Jesus, just waiting to be cut down and turned into paper money." But in the area where the loggers and stevedores lived there were no trees-and thence by a graceful transition we leap into Stanley Park, the pride of the city. This is how Vancouver was and still largely is, a city of conflict and resentment between primitive capitalists and equally primitive labour bosses.

All this is background for a lively, cinematic story of low life and crime in a wet climate. Brief wisps of in-period song blow through the text like gusts of sunlight, and at one point there's a surprising translation of a poem by François Villon, reminding us of the mediaeval dance of death among the garbage cans, forlorn delivery trucks, and mangy alley-cats.

A character who claims to be a first cousin of Jesus says, "You are looking for thieves? Why not condemn the real thieves? Big property owners like the priests and the money changers and the industrialists. All of them robber barons." Ah, for the days when the heavies were so easy to identify! Now that so many little people are playing the stock market it becomes more difficult.

The story is, as I've suggested, a conscious pastiche, not to be read as escape literature but as an ironic exercise in which we seem tacitly invited to supply contemporary parallels and references. The literary influences are Raymond Chandler and the films noirs (is that the plural?) and TV series that echoed him. The enjoyment is partly nostalgic and partly from recognizing bits of old thrillers, even in the elliptic dialogue. I suppose one might call it "camp", if the word is still current. But the book is enjoyable, often very funny, and it does evoke Vancouver then and now, at least as it appears in the backstreets and the rain that raineth every day. 

Kildare Dobbs's most recent book is The Eleventh Hours: Poems for the New Millennium (Mosaic).


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