Way back before the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory was live, they maintained a WordPress.org site, where we posted a number of blogs, our “Adventures in Research.” Trying today to link to one of those blog posts, I discovered to my horror that they had not been ported over to the active CWRC project website. But all was not lost: I of course have copies of the content on my hard-drive, so I will repost our stories here for you all. The first describes the convoluted path to the discovery of nurse Jane Layhew, of Prince George, BC, also the author of Rx for Murder (1946), as well as the cousin-in-law of Northrop Frye… Here’s the original post:

10 September 2015: Adventures in Research Opus 5

Jane Layhew Rediscovered

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Coral Ann Howells (University of Reading) wrote asking for information about one of the authors on our long-list: Jane Layhew. All we had was that “Mrs. Jane Layhew” had written a novel, Rx for Murder that is mentioned in David Skene-Melvin’s bibliography of Canadian Crime Fiction. Not much to go on, but Dr. Howells had provided us some clues. She notes that “Bill New discovered that UNBC offers a Jane Layhew Nursing Bursary,” and that “JL graduated as a Registered Nurse from Prince Rupert’s District Hospital in 1935 and then worked for 35 years at Prince George Regional Hospital—’well respected by her peers and fondly remembered’.” The information on the UNBC website is sparse to say the least, and, as Dr. Howell’s points out, there is—not surprisingly—“no mention of her crime novel (if that is the same Jane Layhew).”

That was the fundamental question in the enquiry: is Jane Layhew the Prince George nurse the same Jane Layhew touted as “Montreal’s new mystery writer” in the 1947 advertisement in the Montreal Standard (also located by Dr. New)? And if so, what are her actual birth and death dates? Always keen on a research mystery, I set off. Let’s see if I can recreate the chain of events…

About the author

First stop, of course, was Ancestry.ca, where we discovered that a Lew Wallace Layhew was married to Jane Layhew. Lew was the twin brother of Hew Layhew (what a nasty thing to do to one’s sons!). Hew seemed to have been a good friend of Northrup Frye and Helen Kemp, as the name crops up in their letters, and Lew’s 1938 marriage is mentioned there (Denham 333). It turns out the association is much closer than friendship: Northrop Frye’s mother, Catherine Howard, was the older sister of Lew and Hew’s mother, Harriet, called “Aunt Hattie” in the letters. This familial connection suggests that this Lew’s Jane would have been, if only peripherally, a part of the Canadian literary and publishing world. Lew and Jane Layhew did live in Prince George in the second half of the 20th century, although I don’t have them there earlier than 1953. Further delving discovered that a Jane Thompson Potts, aged 25, married Lew Wallace Layhew in Alert Bay on 19 October 1938. So now we needed to tie Jane Potts Layhew of Alert Bay, then Prince George, to Jane Layhew the Montreal author.

Copyright for Rx for Murder was registered in Canada on 24 July 1946 and the book was reviewed in August 1946 in the Montreal Gazette and in Feb 1947 in the Ottawa Citizen. The book itself is held by the University of Toronto and UBC libraries; library copies, however, have no dust-jackets, but a copy for sale on ABEbooks did… A delightful bookshop owner in Oregon scanned in the dust-jacket flap with Jane Layhew’s picture and short bio, and I began to piece together more of the story of Jane’s life.

The dust-jacket notes that Jane was born in Vancouver, and lived in the Maritimes while her father was active in WWI. After the war they returned to a “small village near an Indian reservation” in BC. It also notes that she had 2 years at UBC, and 5 years as a nurse. The dust-jacket also notes (in 1946) that “Mrs. Layhew is now a resident of Montreal.” W.J. Hurlow, reviewer for the Ottawa Citizen repeats the information from the dust-jacket, but explicitly identifies the “small village” as “an island named Alert Bay.” (The island is actually Cormorant Island; Alert Bay is the community thereon.) D.S.S. Mackenzie, of the Montreal Gazette, proclaims that as a “Vancouver-born, Maritimes-bred, Montreal-resident,” Mrs. Layhew has “special claims to attention,” “drawing on her experience as a nurse and a Vancouverite” to lend authenticity to her story. We can be certain, then, that the nurse from Prince George, Jane Layhew née Potts, is the author of Rx for Murder. Ancestry.ca fills in the details:

Jane Potts was born in Vancouver, and her father did serve in WWI, returning to BC (specifically Alert Bay, where he was a customs officer in 1921). In 1949, a Jane Layhew was in Vancouver sans husband (is it possible he had been in the military and not yet demobbed?). In 1953 and afterwards, Jane and Lew Layhew were living in Prince George. The living-in-Montreal-in-1946 part of the story could have been because of WWII, just as living with her parents in Maritimes (actually, Oak Hill Farm, Nine Mile River, NS), was a response to her father being overseas for WWI.

About the book

The book is set explicitly in a hospital in Vancouver (26), although the hospital in question is Hamilton General Hospital, and driver of the car in the opening scenes lives on Belgrave Street (20). Now, there is a Belgrave Avenue in North Vancouver, but certainly no Hamilton Hospital in Vancouver; neither is there a Claremont nor a Lancaster Hotel. Still, the setting is Vancouver, despite that at least two other sets of researchers (Cooke and Morton, and Sloniowski and Rose, one doubtless referencing the other) say the novel is by Janet Layhew and set in Montreal.

The plot is unnecessarily complex; or rather, the explanation of the plot is unnecessarily confusing. The plot itself is fairly simple: a woman is struck by a car and wants her daughter—who has disappeared—found; the daughter turns up locked in a room with a dead man in outside the door; two importers of exotic items from the Orient and Mexico have separated the women, telling each that the other will be killed if they tell the authorities what they know. We are not told what they know, but to the modern reader it is obvious that the importers are dealing in drugs. Complications involving taxi drivers, a doctor at the hospital, and our heroine nurse’s ex-roommate ensue, and culminate in an explicable, but I must admit unexpected arrest. That the ending is not predictable is more due to a lack of solid evidence provided to the reader than to any artful construction on the part of the author. One of the highlights of the book was the language: mulct, matutinal, ingurgitate, lupine (adj)… and of course 1940s slang in joyful abundance.

What is most disturbing lies not in the book itself, which has no reference whatsoever to Native Canadians or communities, is the comment on the dust-jacket, taken and disseminated thoughtlessly. The dust-jacket calls the Alert Bay Native community “only two generations removed from the days of scalping parties—which [it notes] may account for [the author’s] morbid interest in murder.” Hurlow of the Ottawa Citizen further distorts this representation of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, erroneously attributing the final comment to the author herself: “According to Mrs. Layhew, her interest in morbid events and even murder may have stemmed from the influence of primitive and lawless neighbours.” The gratuitous inclusion of such comments both in the review and—worse—on the dust-jacket trouble my modern sensibilities, and really bring home how little respect or even understanding of Native cultures was current in the 1940s. The only rationale I have is that such sensationalizing of the author’s life was surely intended to boost sales. That such a tactic would work, for a novel that has absolutely no mention of anything Native, really does speak to how far we have come, regardless of how far we may have yet to go.

While Kirkus Reviews described the novel as “effervescent,” I have to say that I found it—while fascinating for a number of reasons—rather convoluted of plot and shallow of characterization. The novel appears to have been successful enough to have been serialized in The Montreal Standard; at any rate, “Prescription for Murder—fiction by Mrs. Jane Layhew” appears in the contents for 22 March 1947. The Saturday Review found it “adequate,” which is more in keeping with its rightful position on the detective fiction ladder of success: it did fade from view as a novel, much as Jane Layhew did as an author: as far as we can tell, this was her only foray into the literary world.

Works cited

“The Criminal Record: The Saturday Review‘s Guide to Detective Fiction.” Rev. of Rx for Murder. By Jane Layhew. Saturday Review 22 Sept. 1946: 41.

Cooke, Nathalie, and Susanne Morton. Introduction. Psyche. By Phyllis Brett Young. Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 2008.

Denham, Robert D., ed. The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932-1939, Volume 2: 1936-1939. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996.

Hurlow, W.J. “On the Book Table.” Rev. of Rx for Murder. By Jane Layhew. Ottawa Citizen 8 Feb. 1947.

Layhew, Jane. Rx for Murder. New York: Lippincott, 1946.

MacKenzie, D.S.S. “Blood and Thunder.” Rev. of Rx for Murder. By Jane Layhew. Montreal Gazette 30 Aug. 1946: 7.

Skene-Melvin, David. Canadian Crime Fiction. Shelburne, ON: Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 1997.

Sloniowski, Jeannette, and Marilyn J. Rose. Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Crime Fiction, Television, and Film. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2014. 36.