THE MERCHANTS OF VENUS: INSIDE HARLEQUIN AND THE EMPIRE OF ROMANCE By Paul Grescoe (Raincoast, 309 pages, $29.95)
Sodden publishers, counterfeit paperbacks, crooked printers, rogues and rakes and a catfight between two smallish redheads,
one of whom ends up hospitalized. Oh, what delicious potential lies in the tale of Harlequin, the Canadian publishing upstart that swamped North America with “romance novels” after the Second World War and has since sold more than three billion paperbacks worldwide.
Paul Grescoe sees it, but he does not quite get it. The Merchants of Venus should have been an inside look at surely one of the richest pageants of characters in businessdom, from wishful first-time writers to the loony ladies who publish the industry’s fanzines and will bonk one another over the head in the battle for market share (see redheads, above). Instead, the players here are too often thinly sketched. Maddeningly, their parts are not knit together to make a lovely whole. There is no tempo. There is no sweep.
There is no ... climax.
And that’s a darned shame because Harlequin is such an odd story, right from its roots, when the dashing Winnipegger Dick Bonnycastle tumbled into the pocket-novel trade after taking over the management of Advocate Printers there. The company’s main business was printing annual reports, with a small sideline reprinting Collins White Circle Pocket Novels. From there grew the idea to mass market paperback books in a new publishing company called Harlequin. In its first year of business, 1949, Harlequin published westerns (Painted Post Outlaws), romance fiction (Virgin with Butterflies) and crime thrillers (.Blondes Don’t Cry).
Bonnycastle never read any of them. But his wife, Mary, did, as did his secretary, Ruth Palmour. It was the “nice little romances,” as Palmour called them, that would prove to be financially explosive, particularly the nurse-and-doctor ones. The North American market was wide open to Harlequin because snooty New York City publishing houses felt such fare to be sub-
standard. But Harlequin needed content. It was
Palmour who wrote to the British publishing house Mills & Boon, seeking reprint rights to the light romances that were so popular overseas. With Mills & Boon providing manuscripts—which would be read first by Ruth and later approved by Mary— Harlequin had found the means to grow into the biggest paperback publisher in North America.
Dick Bonnycastle died in 1968. His son, Dick Jr., took Harlequin public (gadfly financier Christopher Ondaatje says he made his “first $2 million” out of Harlequin), bought out Mills & Boon in 1972, then sold out to Torstar Corp. three years later. Next, Harlequin went abroad. To Holland in 1975, with the Bouquet Reeks line (“Sounds better in Dutch,” says Grescoe of the series name that translated as “bouquet of flowers”) ; to France (“Harlequin books are like men,” said an ad campaign there. “It would be too bad to try only one”); to
Japan in 1979, where a critic said the Japanese “are far too literate to read that crap.” Harlequin sold 1.2 million books in its first six months there.
The magical power of the Harlequin franchise has been that the stories can be adapted to any taste. And while they are formulaic, there are few hard rules, other than the obligatory happy ending, aka the consummation. The fairy-tale aura extends to the authors behind the usually pseudonymous bylines. Grescoe offers up a bounty of women who have gone from running fish-and-chip shops to driving Mercedes to their tax-haven mansions—all because such titles as Valley of the Vapours sold in the gazillions. And they write them fast. Janet Dailey, an American author who got her start as a Harlequin writer (see Valley of the Vapours), admits to knocking one off in five days. To admit to four, she has said, would seem “obscene.”
Grescoe offers many such interesting tidbits, but he does not stew them together at all well. A narrative thread never appears, sent off into the ether by a first chapter that irritatingly tries to encapsulate the whole story in 16 pages before returning to the beginning of the Harlequin saga in Chapter 2. And why are people “failing of eyesight” or “bare of chest”? Grescoe could have used a Harlequin editor. He could have used Mary Bonnycastle.
Mary Bonnycastle died last year. The little
company she helped build is still in the bosom of Torstar, publishers of the Toronto Star. It has always
seemed an odd fit. ("Torstar was not, it probably is not now, a fun company,” says former executive I^arry Heisey, who left the company more then a decade ago.) But David Galloway, the chief execu-
tive officer of Torstar, reminds Grescoe that while the big daily paper is the company’s flagship, “Harlequin is bigger and makes more money, lest we forget.” Still, Harlequin has had its troubles, particularly through a brutal competitive battle with the Silhouette chain owned by Simon & Schuster in the United States. Harlequin ultimately bought Silhouette out, but the fracas, estimates Grescoe, cost the company about $100 million.
Today, Harlequin reigns as the largest publisher of romance fiction in the world (as Mary Bonnycastle would have put it, “A nice story with a happy ending”). And for those who have not succumbed to the Harlequin passion, Grescoe claims that the old chestnut is true—the one about readers of romance novels making love 74 per cent more often. He does not say more than whom.
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