Four Days by John Buell
Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Montreal's Véhicule Press has brought back to life some great Canadian crime novels with its Ricochet Books imprint. Starring in this series are the works of the late John Buell. A native Montrealer. Buell wrote five novels from 1962 to 1995. Although Buell's novels in English were relatively well read, it was the French translations and the later film adaptations of two of them, which earned him international fame. The most famous of these translations was The Shrewsdale Exit, translated in 1973 by Jean-Patrick Manchette under the title Sombres vacances. It was adapted for the film L'Agression, in 1975, with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Catherine Deneuve in the main roles. We are pleased here to review Buell's second novel, Four Days, published in 1962, which was also adapted for American cinema in 1999, albeit with a much altered and less memorable screenplay.
The story revolves around four days in the life of a nameless 12-year-old orphan. Referred to in the novel as the boy or the kid, the protagonist lives with his older brother Milt in a rooming house attached to a downtown bar. It is pretty much a hand-to-mouth existence for the two, with Milt working as a short-order cook and the kid earning a few bucks with a paper route in upscale Westmount. But Milt has bigger plans and promises to get his brother out from the down-and-out.
At first, Milt has the boy identify who, among his paper route subscribers, will be vacationing, in order to pull off a few BNEs. Milt then heads for the big leagues with a daring plan to rob one of the city's largest banks. Milt and two friends will hold up the bank while a third friend blocks traffic with his car in order to delay the arrival of the police. The boy's role is to sit in a cafe just outside the bank. When Milt has the money, he will secretly hand it off to his brother before exiting the building. No one will suspect a 12-year-old, and if the police catch up with Milt and his accomplices, there will be no money on them. Once home-free, the two brothers will meet up in the Laurentians where the boy is ostensibly going to attend a summer camp. Things go awry when a rival gang tips off the police to ensure a bloody confrontation with the bank robbers. As Milt and his friends battle the cops, the rival gang will seize the loot, or at least that is the plan. But Milt has been careful to hide the role his brother will play, and the money is nowhere to be found when the gunfight is over.
Although the boy witnesses part of the shootout, he is unsure of its outcome and Milt's fate. He follows his brother's instructions to take the cash to a hotel in the vacation resort of Val Laurent, still hoping that Milt is alive. Both the police and the rival gang begin to gradually unravel the mystery of the missing loot, and the search for the boy begins.
Four Days goes far beyond the tropes of crime fiction. It deftly depicts the mind of a young insecure kid, who could be anyone's son. The boy is indeed one of the most sympathetic characters whom I have ever come across in literature, and his journey is a roller-coaster of loyalty and betrayal, courage and fear, trust and mistrust.
The very well written plot and memorable characters are just some of the joys of this novel. Buell also delights readers with vivid descriptions of English Montreal in the early 1960s—its Irish mobsters, aristocratic Westmount denizens, the city's affluence and its under-belly. Four Days also reflects the values and mores of its time, including a tinge of homophobia and the still prominent Catholic ethos of the era. Although it helps to know Montreal, this is not a must for enjoying the novel. Buell manages to touch upon a certain universalism in his portrayal of the boy's hopes, dilemma and eventual fate, transcending both time and place.
John Buell died quietly in 2013 in his beloved Montreal, his literary achievements no longer talked about in local literary circles. The days when prominent critics like the great Edmund Wilson would laud Buell's works had long since passed. And so, Véhicule Press has done a great service in republishing Four Days as well as Buell's first novel, The Pyx for a new generation of readers. This is literature well worthy of resurrection.