Having read Mabel Broughton Billett’s The Robot Detective (1932), I was pleased to discover that the University of New Brunswick had a copy (apparently the only extant copy) of its precursor, Calamity House. I must say that I enjoyed Calamity House more than The Robot Detective, but that is perhaps because it is a more traditional detective novel, and I was somewhat underwhelmed by the inclusion of the robot “fact machine” in the sequel.

Calamity House presents the same attention to geographical detail as The Robot Detective, and the same careful and effective depiction of the nature around Merritt, BC—for Merritt is the setting, as I surmised from the geographical detail in The Robot Detective: the fictional Glenlogan lies at the junction of the Nicola and Coldwater rivers, which answers the question of location definitively. More than just curiosity, though, the significance of Merritt as the setting is made clear in a blog by Brodie Douglas on the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives site, in which he discusses a “haunted” house where, rumour has it, “George Tutill, a drug dealing doctor, murdered his wife and young child.” Douglas goes on to debunk the myth, but does note the story as the impetus for Billett’s 1927 novel, written only 4 years after Grace Tutill fell and cracked her head, dying from her wound. While Douglas titles his blog “Stranger than Fiction,” Billett’s novel is far more sensational than the truth seems to have been. Where Dr. Tutill was considered a drug-dealer for prescribing opium as a pain killer, Billett’s Dr. Townsend is evil through and through: crossed in love, he kills his lover’s first child and addicts her to heroin out of jealousy and spite; he drugs a young Native girl and rapes her, abandonning her in her pregnancy; later, he addicts his step-son in order to control the money left to the son by his murdered mother, the Doctor’s wife. There is no suggestion in Dr. Tutill’s story that such acts ever happened in Merritt, or anywhere; what I wonder is how often such occurrences were reported in newspapers of the time, if ever. My guess is that Billett had a rather over-fertile imagination; her plot at least supports those who argue against the notion of early twentieth-century “women’s novels” as mainly moral tales intended for the edification of society.

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