RENFREW OF THE MOUNTED
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Laurie York Erskine was in the forefront of living authors who reached a wide audience. He was also incredibly prolific: 20 full-length novels, over a hundred short stories in such magazines as Colliersand the Saturday Evening Post, articles in the New York Herald-Tribune and Life, eight motion pictures, major network radio broadcasts, a number of stage plays for boys, texts for United States Armed Forces Institute courses in citizenship for enlisted personnel, and a war memoir selected for the Library of the Imperial War Museum in London.
There can be no debate that his greatest success was Renfrew of the Mounted, the dramatic series of a Canadian Mountie who was more than a match for the wiliest and most hard-boiled of criminals. The cry known as the Renfrew call — which children all over America imitated, heard daily on the long-running radio program — echoed through city streets and alleys. In an era when brutality and bloodshed seemed to be exerting a baleful influence on young and old, Renfrew was unusual in that he dealt with his enemies without stooping to torture, dishonesty, and third-degree methods. In consequence, a greater strain was put on his courage and moral behavior, and he was respected, even revered, by the underworld. At the peak of his popularity, the followers of Erskine’s stories, books, and radio programs could be counted in the millions.
The Renfrew novels were written and published partly out of necessity; Erskine donated the profits from his handiwork to the funding of a private boys’ school. The school needed what money Erskine could chip in — far more than it needed his presence — which kept him busy at writing, and often took him away for prolonged absences. He always came back, and everyone on campus recalled his writing always played second fiddle to his interest in the educational influences of the school. It was this financial responsibility that sustained unceasing production of Renfrew of the Mounted adventures in both short story and novel form.
For a few short years Renfrew of the Royal Mounted reigned supreme as the top Canadian Mountie in both popularity polls and as a nationwide pop culture franchise. Such adventure stories of a frozen Northern territory in which Mounties replaced the heroic sheriffs and gunslingers of the American Western, exoticized locales such as the Yukon, offering the local color of dogsleds, fur thieves, trappers, drunk gamblers, and foolish gold prospectors. With the majority of the Canadian Mountie novels written prior to 1920, and the first Renfrew novel published in 1922, his stories were (historically speaking) belated entries in the sub-genre that proliferated in the early 20th century.
Although it has been said that Canada had no Wild West because the Mounties got there first, the truth is that before their heralded arrival Canada’s frontier was as wild as any Wild West dime novel. Native murders and whiskey traders were so common that such vandalism could never be depicted accurately on screen. Erskine made sure to apply a realistic approach with his Renfrew stories, choosing to incorporate romantic prose for the natural beauty of the Northern wilds, with nature a harsher enemy of the Canadian Mounties. Extremely well-written and highly treasured among aficionados of adventure fiction, the novels are still in demand among collectors — with greater demand for the fragile dust jackets that outlived the books themselves.
By the late 1930s, every movie studio in California attempted to cash in on the popularity of the Canadian Mounties. Cowboy stars Kirby Grant, Russell Hayden, and Charles Starrett swapped riding chaps and six-guns for scarlet coats with shiny brass buttons. As multiple film critics pointed out, Saskatchewan might as well have been in Texas. Laurie York Erskine, however, continued to write for the magazines, mapping out the plots for future Renfrew novels, and found continued success with Renfrew on radio for three separate incarnations over two different networks.
Soon after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Erskine found himself in the service of his country. Therein lies the sad countenance of this tale. Upon his return he discovered Renfrew of the Mounted was no longer sought after by the major radio networks. If anything, radio broadcasting made way for the growing trend of private detectives and children’s westerns. The subgenre of the American Western, that of the Canadian Mountie, was passé. Worse, Mountie stories diminished throughout the 1940s as Canadian publishers lost interest with the country’s growing independence, and a hero who embodied a discarded myth of empire that was by then an embarrassment — a political hotbed of coals for some.
To add to Erskine’s troubles was Challenge of the Yukon (later re-titled Sergeant Preston of the Yukon) which was syndicated across all 48 states. There was room for only one Canadian Mountie in a market that was oversaturated with cowboys and private detectives. Summed up, Erskine’s contribution to the war cause resulted in the demise of Inspector Douglas Renfrew, as well as any and all future income from the franchise.
To add insult to injury, the fictional Mountie was left largely to Hollywood. By the late fifties, Mounties in Canada were rarely portrayed from historical studies but rather ironic or satiric sketches on radio and television. Today the Royal Canadian Mounted Police remains the federal and national police service of Canada, but not (in general) an active provincial or municipal police structure for local policing. Few today can tell you who Inspector Douglas Renfrew was, but many can instantly picture the comedic efforts of Dudley Do-Right.
Sadly, despite multiple attempts to revive the franchise from the 1950s through the 1980s, Renfrew of the Mounted fell victim to hard times. Fewer than a dozen of the almost 400 radio broadcasts are known to exist in recorded form. Erskine himself bequeathed the rights to his character to a university who chose not to renew the rights or trademarks, as did a defunct low-budget movie studio that (in the late 1930s) produced a series of eight Renfrew motion-pictures. As a result, the franchise fell into orphaned status and — until publication of this book — was bound for obsolescence.