Rarely have I read a book that is so precise about street names. Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street, originally published in 1949 and re-released in 2013 by Véhicule Press, is a pulp novel set in Montreal that would really like you to know where its events are taking place. In the book’s sole action scene, a car chase of sorts, we get:
- A convertible traveling “north of St. Denis”
- “just crossing Jean Talon”
- “swerved east on Cremazie”
- “they reached St. Hubert”
- “Near Papineau…” (these first five are all on one page)
- “east again on Cremazie”
- “the car reached Delorimier without mishap”
- “west on Sherbrooke, they had almost reached Papineau”
- “the car turned south on Papineau, tires shrieking”
- “the car screeched around corners and rights itself on Notre Dame Street”
- “over the bridge beside Place Viger Station…”
- “turned north, crossed Craig Street…”
- “He chose Charlotte Lane. Swinging the car he first hit Berger Street, then de Bullion and finally came out on Lagauchetiere Street, heading west”
- “zoomed across St. Lawrence Main”
- “They had almost reached Clarke Street when they saw the car…”
Spoiler alert: they crash into that car.
All of that in just four pages.
I bring all of this up not just because it is somewhat hilarious in its attention to detail, but because I used to walk many of these same streets when I was a graduate student at McGill. The streets have changed dramatically in the intervening half-century, of course. Indeed, very little of what Al Palmer describes of Montreal still exists - except for those streets. Maybe that’s why I find his mapping of them so interesting.
I bought this book in Calgary in December, at Pages (“we were on Kensington, approaching 11th”). I was browsing and the display of Ricochet Books caught my eye. They’ve reissued a handful of old Canadian pulps, and I bought this one primarily for the name. When I lived in Montreal I lived just below the intersection of Atwater and René Lévesque, by the Forum. When I told my grandmother this, an Anglo who left Montreal for the Toronto suburbs after living for five decades in Montreal, she snapped at me: “We say ‘Dorchester’, dear”. I can honestly say that prior to that moment I had no idea that the boulevard had been named Dorchester (I mean, I knew it had to have been named something prior to 1977…). The moment, clearly, has stuck with me.
Regardless, the combination of “sour-puss” and “Dorchester” was too much temptation. The book isn’t much to write home about – small-town girl moves to Montreal, becomes a waitress, a dancer, the bride-to-be of a mobster, you know, the usual. It’s the type of book that takes just as much time to not read as to read.
One of the great ironies is that the very first intersection named in the book is Peel and Ste. Catherine. I know that intersection very well – my graduate program was located in a converted house on Peel. When I was a student in Montreal there were protests among some students when a Chapters (three floors of books!) moved into the northwest corner of that intersection. Quelle horreur! Big box book retailing! Recently, I saw on Facebook that there was great sadness from colleagues in Montreal that the store had closed – replaced by a Guess store. A lot has changed in seventy years of Montreal, and a lot has changed in twenty years of Montreal bookselling.
Conflict of interest admission: When I got this book home I meant to mention it to my friend Will, a Montrealer with great interest in the period and in the pulps. I didn’t end up doing that, figuring he probably knew about it. When I finally opened the book I saw that he had written the introduction. So, a book by a good friend, but I honestly had no idea…
What I learned about Canada from this book: That in 1948 you were allowed to write a book in English about Montreal and simply leave all the accents off of the street names.