Better the Devil You Know

Betty Keller

Set in Vancouver in 1907, Better the Devil You Know is the outrageous tale of three unique and curious characters: the small-time con man who passes himself off as an evangelical preacher, the scrawny street-worker whom he reluctantly befriends, and the five-year-old hellion left in his care by a former lady friend.

In the course of their adventures, these three misfits become involved with a larcenous lingerie salesman, a Klondike miner bent on recovering his stolen poke, a madam intent on revenge for past wrongs, a pugilistic lady barkeep, two doctors determined to acquire a cadaver of their own, a handful of incompetent and corrupt cops, and a piano teacher with reforming zeal. The pace is riotous, the action continuous, and nobody— good or bad—ever gets a break.

 

“Eee-yii-ee-ee-ee!”

The scream came from the direction Magnolia had vanished, and it propelled the Reverend Dodds the rest of the way down the cathouse stairs, only to trip over the footstool and sprawl on the parlour rug.

“Sneaky little bitch!” he heard Magnolia yell. “I done caught her at it dis time, Dora! I done caught dat Princess red-handed! She done swiped my tips ag’in and I done caught her! You gonna let her get away wid dis?” From the upstairs hallway a skinny little blonde clad only in long ringlets and a short chemise rushed down the stairs.

The Reverend scrambled to his feet and the blonde promptly ducked behind him. “She’s lying!” she screamed. “I never touched nothing! She’s making that up!” She latched onto the Reverend Dodds with surprising strength. “Don’t you let her touch me, preacher!” she demanded. “She’s a lying old cow!”

“Who’s calling who a cow?” By now Magnolia was on the upstairs landing, hanging menacingly over the railing.

“You’re a lying cow,” Princess taunted. “Ain’t that right, preacher?”

Suddenly behind Magnolia there appeared a towering, well-muscled redhead in a black peignoir. A cheroot was clamped in her teeth. “Shut your mouth, Magnolia!” she snapped. “They can hear you halfway to the courthouse!” And she backhanded Magnolia so smartly that the black lady sat down abruptly on the landing.

“Oh, Gaw-w-wd,” breathed the Reverend Dodds.

“You ‘spect me to be quiet,” roared Magnolia, “den you tell dat Princess to gimme back my money!”

“I don’t got her money, Dora,” the ringletted one yelled. “She’s making that up!”

But Dora Reno had lost interest in the battle of the tips. She was staring instead at the Reverend. “Well, if it ain’t Crumbie Dodds,” she said and smiled. And it came to him that he had once seen a tomcat grinning just like that at the sight of a mouse napping in his supper dish.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced, funny paperback to while away an afternoon at the beach or a ferry lineup or two, you could do worse than pick up Betty Keller’s latest.

Better the Devil You Know is an outrageous romp of a novel set in turn-of-the-century Vancouver when Gastown was still the hub of the fast-evolving city.

It was a time, if Keller is to be believed, when so-called staid Vancouver attracted a strange assortment of characters who would have made Queen Victoria feel quite faint if she had been informed about the carryings-on in her colonies.

The farcical action revolves around Rev. Abercrombie Dodds, a cross-dressing con man who passes himself off as an evangelical preacher. He cons his way around North American cities and turns up in Vancouver with a five-year-old love child in tow.

The unlikely pair becomes entangled with a skinny tip-thieving hooker who reigns in the red light district as the Princess of Paradise.

For various nefarious reasons, both Princess and the villainous vicar are trying to evade the clutches of an avenging “Angel,” a.k.a. Dora, Queen of the Cathouse.

While trying to make their escape they have to deal with a stinky Klondike miner angrily searching for his lost pouch full of gold nuggets; a larcenous lingerie salesman and a fiercesome female barkeep adept at defending herself with a billiard cue when necessary.

Just for good measure Keller throws into this zany mix Magnolia the Magnificent, a massive black woman of ill repute; a corpse that refuses to stay dead; and a crew of sewer-line diggers who believe they have struck it rich when they discover a couple of the lost nuggets in their freshly dug ditch.

Much of this story is down at sewer level with the various characters regularly tumbling into the ditch, much to the chagrin of a zealous piano teacher who lives nearby and has pleaded in vain with City Hall to order the workers to keep it covered.

Amazingly, Keller is not kidding when she says that much of this tale is constructed on fact. This story is also liberally peppered with actual photos, mostly prised from the BC and City of Vancouver Archives. Keller, a Canadian author now living in Sechelt, has obviously spent time researching this and previous works, including a biography of Pauline Johnson and On the Shady Side, a more serious study of Vancouver from 1886-1914.

The sewer line really was being extended at the time the novel is set; there really was a mini goldrush caused by the discovery of dropped nuggets; there really was a scandal over a cadaver and there really was a madam named Dora Reno.

However, Keller confesses candidly that she has used poetic license to play fast and loose with these historical facts. Clearly it was time for Keller, the historian, to let her literary hair down a little.

So why not suspend some disbelief and join her. After all, summertime may not be over yet. War and Peace will still be waiting when you’re done.

— Beth Haysom, the Times Colonist

The reader is in for a surprise and unusual entertainment by historical fiction set in Vancouver in 1907. The author is good enough to tell us what is fact and what is fiction. She has put the story together in such a way as to give the reader a rollicking, fast-paced, sometimes comical yarn to complete with appropriate accents and diverse characters. “Back to saving drunks!” Said the Reverend Dodds, who really is an ex-con and wears woman’s clothing as a disguise, when needed, “At least he could count on drunks to react with a touch more gratitude when he threw himself at their feet or clasped them to his bosom.”

The scrapping that continually goes on between the residents of the local cathouse will make the reader smile and, at times, chuckle out loud. The five-year-old Merton is a resourceful lad but we don’t learn the truth about him until the last few chapters where everyone is in court.

Fawkes, the Klondike miner experiences nothing but grief, once his poke disappears.

The antics of the ladies of the red house are hilarious throughout the story.

The author can keep the reader interested in her story, up to the last page. The fact that Keller has devoted her life to the written word is evident here. Another BC author we can be proud of.

— Beatrice Repp, The Coffee Mate