Monday, August 31, 2015


John D MacDonald’s very first sale to a science fiction pulp took place in late 1947 when his story “Cosmetics” was purchased by John W. Campbell for the February 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It was not MacDonald’s first science fiction sale -- as regular readers of this blog no doubt already know -- for the author had already published three sf or fantasy tales in other types of magazines, ranging from Doc Savage to Liberty to Bluebook. But the real cutting edge of modern science fiction was happening in the sf pulps, where this kind of writing was currently going through what we now refer to as its Golden Age, spearheaded in large part by Campbell and his magazine. Indeed, at the time of “Cosmetics” publication Astounding Science Fiction was probably the premier sf pulp in circulation, with Sam Merwin’s Startling Stories a close second. (Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction were yet to come.)

The fact that MacDonald was able to sell a story in a genre he hadn’t really mastered yet to the premier magazine of its type says a lot about his talents as a writer, even this early in his career, before the novels, before the move to Florida, and before Travis McGee. Still, “Cosmetics” is a bit rough around the edges, with lots of pontification and science details which probably appealed to Campbell but doesn’t sit that well in the modern ear. Tellingly, when the author, late in his career, published an anthology of his best sf work -- well, what he thought was his best sf work, a list some, including me, have issues with -- he omitted this early work altogether. Perhaps he thought it too long winded, too didactic, too poorly written and, perhaps, too derivative. He would be guilty to some extent on all of these charges, yet “Cosmetics” is an enjoyable read and a telling view of a future where one of mankind’s greatest desires could finally be fulfilled and, importantly, how that fulfilment changed society.

Set about one hundred years in the future, the Earth of “Cosmetics” seems a beautiful place. And why not? Thanks to a device called the autocosmeton, every man and woman can, through a combination of drugs, hypnosis and machinery, alter their appearance to any physical ideal they wish for. The cities and towns of the world are peopled with men who were “tall and incredibly handsome," and "long-limbed women [who] were the apex of the dream of beauty which had existed through the ages." The process, called autocosmetics, is primarily a “concentration of the psychic process” aided by drugs and mechanics. Every home has a autocosmeton and there is no limit to the number or kinds of appearances one can produce using the device. The first inclination is, naturally, to become a physical ideal, but many people alternate between beautiful and ugly, “frequently shifting to the grotesque, making life a succession of masks -- the lovely and the horrible, a spiced cookery of flesh and outlook.” But it is the beautiful that is chosen and kept most often, leading society to require that everyone carry an identification medallion pinned to their tunic. It’s the only way to keep track of who is who.

The story’s protagonist is one Jason Blood, a man who has joined with a small group of rebels who have decided not to change into the beautiful. As the story opens he is reading a letter from his wife, telling him that she is leaving. She writes:

“Do you remember when we were first married? You had none of these silly scruples about autocosmetics at that time. Our love was freshened by the rhythm of variety. Remember how I'd leave you a note telling you how I wanted you to look? Darling, you were such a wonderful succession of tall, strong men -- and I tried so hard to make myself into all the types of beauty that you wanted to possess... But now these things which you mysteriously label 'principles' have come between us. You have made no change in four years, and you talk about 'solidification of personality' instead of about what you can do to please me. Jason, darling, I don't like the form you selected for yourself four years ago. By retaining it, you are not living up to your responsibilities as my husband. I hate that lean, ascetic face, the thinning hair, the knobbed knuckles, the harsh look in your eyes.”

She goes on to reveal that she is having an affair with “a man who is something like what [Jason] used to be," but promises to return when he decides that he has "been wrong."

Enter Karl Dane, “a big man with pads of flesh around his small eyes, a mountainous belly and fat, freckled hands. He was an atrocity in a city of beauty.” He is the intellectual leader of this peaceful group of “ugly” rebels, and he begins by telling Jason that their group has lost another member. "He got tired of fighting... He turned himself into a pretty boy this morning and now he's out roaming the city, beaming foolishly at the rest of them." Then he proceeds to launch into a lengthy diatribe against autocosmetics and outlines the long history of the process, which began as far back as 1933. He then goes into the unintended effects of this mass process and what it has done to society.

“The best part of the human personality is conditioned by the face we present to the world. Our actions are in part a compensation for this static impression that we give. Thus, in a world where you can have a new face tomorrow and a new figure... there [is] no incentive to force changes on society in compensation for the static impression that you gave to all people... Much of our great art and literature were created by people who were seriously and hopelessly ill-- conscious of their illness and striving for some sort of immortality... We are in an era where the entire ego of the common man -- and woman -- is built around the idea of eternal change in outward appearance. Thus we have achieved a norm in personality that is deadly. There is no sublimation of dissatisfaction into creative channels. No invention, no art, no creative thought. Just maintenance. That's all. The Age of Maintenance."

When Dane is done pontificating he departs to go visit with a possible new recruit, leaving Jason alone. As he sits thinking of his estranged wife, unbenounced to him two figures stealthily enter his apartment…

This story can be split into three parts: the exposition, Dane’s long speech, and the final bit, which I won’t reveal for would-be readers. What is most interesting to students of MacDonald’s work is the middle section. It is a fictional polemic that is nothing less than the genesis of that form which the author used in his final work, Reading for Survival, where Meyer and McGee (primarily Meyer) explore societal problems as great length through the mouth of a fictional character. (This device was also used in the Travis McGee short story, “Terminal Cases.”) Karl Dane even looks a bit like Meyer, and he certainly sounds like him. And while “spindly” Jason Blood is no Travis McGee lookalike, he plays the exact same role that McGee did in both of those later two works. It’s always fascinating to discover just how uniform MacDonald’s work can sometimes be.

John D MacDonald went on to write a lot of science fiction, and from 1948 to 1952 he produced over 45 stories and two full novels (both based on works that first appeared in the pulps.) It could be said that during this period he was a major force in science fiction, as assertion I’m sure a lot of sf fans might argue with. When the author collected what he deemed to be his best work in the field for Other Times Other Worlds in 1978, he wrote an afterword that seemed dismissive of both his work in particular and science fiction in general, and it pissed a lot of people off. But back when he began he was as enthusiastic as the wildest fan, evidenced by a newspaper column he wrote a few months after “Cosmetics” was published, titled “Fantasy, Unlimited,” which you can read on this blog. MacDonald would go on to write better stories than “Cosmetics,” exploring many different “subgenres” of sf, including space opera, time paradox, alien invasion, dying Earth, and lots of social science fiction. For me, I’d rather read a JDM sf story than one by anybody else, but then, I’m extremely biased.

As far as I can tell, “Cosmetics” has never never been anthologized.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"The Taste of Gravy"

John D MacDonald’s first short story to be published in Playboy magazine appeared in the relatively late year of 1967, long after his work had made appearances in nearly every other major (and minor) periodical in the United States. What took him so long is anybody’s guess, but one is tempted to go back to Travis McGee’s infamous 1966 rant in One Fearful Yellow Eye, where he refers to Hugh Hefner’s philosophy as “laborious,” “interminable” and the writer himself as “pseudo-educated.” This would certainly not put the author in Hefner’s good graces, assuming that Hef ever read a McGee novel. But MacDonald’s work was sold through his agent, and the agent worked not with the magazine’s owner, but with its fiction editor, who happened to admire and respect MacDonald’s writing. “Quarrel,” which appeared in the May 1967 issue, began a series of short story appearances that were marked by a more adult sensibility than that which had been on display in, say, his work for This Week or Collier’s, not surprising given the kind of magazine Playboy was. These included the titles “The Annex,” “Dear Old Friend,” and “Double Hannenframmis,” which was published in August 1970. MacDonald then took these stories and, along with three new originals, included them in his anthology S*E*V*E*N, which came out in April 1971.

But MacDonald would write one more story for Playboy, and it appeared in the magazine’s June 1974 issue. Titled “The Taste of Gravy,” it was one of the last short stories MacDonald would ever write. Both its tone and subject matter make it a good companion for his other Playboy works, and it would have fit nicely into S*E*V*E*N (had S*E*V*E*N been E*I*G*H*T), and would have, I believe, made for a better final “chapter” in that thematically organic anthology than the existing title, “The Annex.”

Paul Catlett, the story’s protagonist, is a close cousin to “Woodchuck’s” Aldo Bellinger and to Wyatt Ross in “Double Hennenframmis”: a corporate leader of questionable morals, a man who has built a business empire using any means available, legal or otherwise. In Ross’s case it was outright larceny but here Catlett skated just inside the boundaries, building “something so big there is a lot less there than meets the eye,” and he has done this by “stealing from the wolves.” As the story opens he has just completed months of preparation to unload the company onto another group of unsuspecting “wolves,” and to emerge “with enough golden booty to last [him] forever.” He is sitting in the first class section of an airliner flying from Los Angeles to New York when he is notified by a stewardess that the plane will be forced to land short of Kennedy Airport and is being diverted to Syracuse. It is then that he notices a passenger across the aisle, a “big girl, young, with a strong pale face... her hair... dark blonde, heavy and healthy.” (A MacDonald ideal from as far back as his beginnings as a writer.) As he is heading for the security check point before boarding the replacement flight he again notices the same girl, this time engaged in some sort of dispute with a security guard at the metal detector. She is triggering the device even though she is carrying no metal, and the same thing happens to Catlett. He makes a suggestion that gets them through this delay, but it is not in time and Catlett and the girl watch as their flight takes off without them.

It lifted into the clear windy night, toward a diamond sky. He turned away and suddenly she took hold of his forearm with such shocking strength it made him gasp. He turned back toward her and saw her staring, her eyes wide and mouth slack, sagging open. He thought for an instant she was having some sort of seizure, but then he looked toward [the plane] and saw a long trail of orange flame, a dirty orange that made an arc, a gentle long curve toward the ground. There was a sudden bloom of orange-and-white flame that made him think of those television pictures from the Cape, when the booster separated and it would look for a few moments as if the whole rocket had blown up. The bigger blossom of fire continued along the same arc, while smaller burning pieces fell out of it. It coasted down out of the sky and disappeared behind a distant hill, and then a bigger flare lit up all of the night. Moments later, there was an audible "Whumpf" sound that shook the big window.

Understandably upset by the tragedy, the two would-be passengers comfort each other and head for the airport bar to calm their nerves. Through their conversation they gradually learn about each other. She is Sheila Christopher, a young woman currently having an affair with a married man in New York. She was flying there to embark on a 15-day cruise with him, hoping that when they return the man will have the courage to ask his wife for a divorce. She learns that Catlett is THE Paul Catlett, CEO of CatCo, made recently famous by a day's worth of congressional hearings investigating his shady business practices. He reveals that he is married, to an unfaithful second wife, and that his trip to New York was to put an end to CatCo by putting "gravy on the blade."

"Steal from the wolves and they come after you. There is a primitive way to get rid of wolves. You freeze a very sharp knife, blade up against the ice, with a little frozen gravy on the side of the blade. The wolves lick the blade. It is so cold they can't feel it slicing their tongues. They taste fresh blood, their own, and keep at it until they swoon and freeze. While I am far away, over the icecap and the mountains, and down the other side.”

Sheila becomes philosophical about the near miss and tries to understand its meaning.

“I have the feeling that something... valuable has happened to me. I want to sort of sit back and put it together and see what it says to me. If I go rushing about, inserting myself back into place, right where I was before, then I won't know what this meant…. we’ve got this chance to change things.”

She suggests that they pool their money, hop a flight to Biloxi, "where nobody will know us or give a damn." As Catlett considers the sudden suggestion, "he felt his heart lift for the first time in a year. He felt a hollow excitement in his belly. He reached to grasp her extended, challenging hand…”

Following that ellipsis MacDonald inserts a three-asterisk section break and resumes in a disorienting place. Catlett, with Shelia not far behind him, is walking through a canvas tunnel, boarding an airplane. They are the last two passengers to get on the replacement flight from Syracuse to New York City…

Without revealing anything further for the would-be reader, let me say that this is not fantasy or science fiction. The device is used as a means to an end, which takes up the second half of “The Taste of Gravy.” and is more about Catlett’s state of mind than any airline tragedy. Shelia is not really Shelia, but Sarah, a much more interesting character. It is an extreme example of the unreliable narrator, a literary device used in all of the stories collected in S*E*V*E*N. The big difference between “The Taste of Gravy” and the other stories in that anthology is in its ending, and it is primarily for this reason that I think it would have made a better final story than “The Annex.” Perhaps MacDonald felt that way as well, and wrote “The Taste of Gravy” as a kind of “what-if” ending to his unifying theme. And while “The Annex” was one of the author’s proudest short story achievements, maybe he thought, as I do, that it was out of place in S*E*V*E*N and belonged in a more appropriate collection such as his sf anthology Other Times, Other Worlds, where is was also the final entry.

“The Taste of Gravy” has never been anthologized or reprinted, as far as I have been able to tell. Used copies of Playboy are very easy to find online and prices can be reasonable. And of course, Playboy has made its entire run available digitally in its online archive, for something like eight bucks a month. There you can read “The Taste of Gravy” and MacDonald's other four Playboy short stories, as well as an excerpt from The Lonely Silver Rain, which appeared in the March 1985 issue.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Ceylon Memories

Another busy work week has thwarted my attempts at writing my weekly blog post, so I’m going to punt and post some of John D MacDonald’s own writing.

I’m slowly developing an essay on the next JDM novel in the order I have been covering them. This one requires my normal two readings of the work, in addition to reading the magazine version and, a rarity, watching the film version of the book. It’s Soft Touch and it will take a while before I have anything ready to read. There is an aspect to the novel that was a standard background point in much of MacDonald’s work, especially in his early short stories for the pulps, and that is a character’s military past, stationed in the China Burma India theater during the Second World War. This was, of course, MacDonald’s own past, and he drew on it heavily, even up to the point of the first Travis McGee novel.

MacDonald was stationed first in India and later in Ceylon. He hated India and loved Ceylon. In 1948 he wrote a brief memoir of the island nation (now known as Sri Lanka) in his weekly newspaper column for the Clinton (NY) Courier.

We picked up some students headed down the hill toward the village the other day, and they were talking about various types of summer work and the relative merits thereof.

We were reminded of Ceylon. The army graciously dropped us into that garden spot for a time. It is a fine island. We were particularly intrigued with the type of summer work that many of the students perform.

During the spring monsoon, the heavy rains swell the streams and semi-precious stones are torn out of the mountains and carried down the steep slopes. During the summer months in the vicinity of Ratnapura, in the heart of the gem area, the streams are alive with students picking over the pebbles in search of semi-precious gems. They find topaz, blue and yellow sapphires, cat's eyes and other varieties.

We tried it. The standard technique is to find a place where a stream curves and has thus heaped up a mound of small stones. You make yourself as comfortable as possible and then start picking up likely looking rocks and holding them up toward the sun. You spin the stone in your fingers and, when you get a glint of colored light through it at any point, you stuff it in a bag.

When the day's work is done, you take the stones down to the proper alley in Ratnapura where the grinders work, You have to watch those boys.If you find something good, they are inclined to tell you it is worthless in hopes that you will throw it away where they can pick it up.

We squatted in the blazing sun for about two hours, getting very bored with the whole process of trying to look through pebbles. We must have looked through a thousand of them. Then suddenly one jagged hunk of stone gave forth a little gleam of yellow light when we held it up. We felt like a forty-niner.

Down in that alley in Ratnapura, the boys who do the grinding sit on the ground by a crude looking lathe with a grinding wheel on one end. The motive power is a bow string with rawhide. The rawhide is looped once around the lathe spindle. The bow is shoved back and forth and the grinding wheel is crudely geared so that it spins, of course, in just one direction. The end of the bow is held in the bare toes of the operator leaving both hands free to hold the stone against the wheel.

An ancient citizen took our precious rock, which we were sure was a priceless yellow sapphire, and ground it without ever seeming to look at it. It made us nervous.

Instead of a sapphire, it turned out to be topaz, about fifteen carats. And a darn poor color.

The man charged eight rupees for the grinding operation (About $2.60.) We have our topaz here and it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever -- because we found it.

Had not the army suddenly awakened to the fact that we were in a garden spot and sent along a cruel travel order, we would still be ankle deep in one of those streams near Ratnapura trying to see through pebbles and acquiring a terrific sunburn.

It is our nomination for the perfect kind of summer work.

    *    *    *

Speaking of Ceylon...

Now that we are on the subject, it is a good time to do a sales job.

Go to Ceylon!

India, to the north, is a big, dusty miserable country that gives the impression of being a circus ground the day after the circus left.

But Ceylon is a garden spot. Lord Louis Mountbatten is nobody's fool. When he was the big wheel of the South-East Asia Command, he put his headquarters right smack in Kandy in the Ceylonese Hills.

In India you are expected to at least pick up a smattering of Urdu. In Ceylon it is recognized that Sinhalese is far too difficult to learn and nobody questions some of the British that have lived there twenty years without picking up a word of Sinhalese.

It isn't as hot as India and there are miles of perfect beaches where the white surf comes rolling in and you can, with a little practice, ride a surfboard for a quarter of a mile toward the beach.

For between thirty and fifty dollars a month you can rent a huge "bungalow" on Bambalapitiya Road in Colombo. Another nine dollars will provide a cook, a houseboy and a combination chauffeur-gardener.

For recreation you can play tennis and bridge at the Garden Club, dance at a very svelte nightclub called the Silver Faun, swim at the Hotel Mont Lavinia, shop in the bazaars.

So you see, it's very simple. All you have to do is save up a hundred thousand dollars and invest it at four percent. The income will enable you to live like a little king in Ceylon for the rest of your days, where you will enjoy all the languor of a tropical island plus all the comforts of city living.
I wonder how MacDonald got that topaz home. Did he hide it in the bottom of a wax-filled canteen?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Travis McGee Reads Bluebook

An especially heavy work schedule these past few months has limited my writing time and caused me to exhaust my “backstock” of essays for The Trap of Solid Gold. Things may be a bit sporadic here for the next couple of months as I try and meet my own personal deadline of a weekly Monday morning posting. In the meantime, I offer this brief “discovery.”

I’m currently going through the McGee canon for the umpteenth time, and for the first time in this most enjoyable of endeavors, I’m not reading the books one after the other, but reading other things between the novels. I always enjoy all of the McGee titles, but mixing them up with other works by other authors seems to make each subsequent McGee fresher and more original. As many times as I’ve gone through the titles from Blue to Silver in one gulp, I doubt if I’ll ever tackle the works that way again.

Anyway… I’m currently rereading A Deadly Shade of Gold and came upon a passage which was made a lot more interesting to me after reading and writing about a short story published years earlier.

As I drove back to Bahia Mar I wanted to hold fast to all the small speculations about her, the forlorn erotic fancies, because I knew that as she slipped out of my mind, Sam Taggart would take her place.

And he did, before I was home. I found a slot and then I shoved my hands into my pockets and walked across to the public beach. I walked slowly where the outgoing tide had left the sand damp and hard. The sea and the night sky can make death a small thing. Waves can wash away the most stubborn stains, and the stars do not care one way or the other.

It was a cheap and dirty little death, a dingy way to die. When dawn came, there would be a hundred thousand more souls alive in the world than on the previous day, three quarters of a million more every week. This is the virus theory of mankind. The pretentious virus, never knowing that it is a disease.

Imagine the great ship from a far galaxy which inspects a thousand green planets and then comes to ours and, from on high, looks down at all the scabs, the buzzings, the electronic jabberings, the poisoned air and water, the fetid night glow. A little cave-dwelling virus mutated, slew the things which balanced the ecology, and turned the fair planet sick. An overnight disease, racing and explosive compared with geological time. I think they would be concerned. They would be glad to have caught it in time. By the time of their next inspection, a hundred thousand years hence, this scabrous growth might have infected this whole region of an unimportant galaxy. They would push the button. Too bad. This happens every once in a while. Make a note to re-seed it the next time around, after it has cooled down.

Lofty McGee, shoulders hunched against the cold of the small hours, trying to diminish
the impact of the death of a friend.

This is a remarkably similar thought behind a short story Travis must have read when he was in college, titled “Virus H,” published in the June 1955 issue of Bluebook, and written by a guy named John D MacDonald.

Monday, July 13, 2015

“When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?”

John D MacDonald’s 1977 blockbuster novel Condominium fiction that works on many different levels. If we are to believe MacDonald’s biographer Hugh Merrill, the book was conceived as a revenge piece against a local developer who was attempting to build an eight-story condominium next door to the MacDonalds' dream home, into which they had moved only two years earlier. The couple fought this development tooth and nail, eventually launching a lawsuit, but it was all to no avail. The condo was built and the MacDonald’s had to live with it.

But the 447 pages of Condominium covers many other related subjects, such as building codes, zoning ordinances, hurricane formation, the venal business practices of amoral businessmen, and the great social plight of America’s retirees who have left the places they once called home to live out their lives in this retirement paradise called Florida. This is where the novel works best, in MacDonald’s detailed, insightful and mostly compassionate portrayal of old people starting the final phase of their lives in a place that is not quite what it was advertised to be.

Condominium was not MacDonald’s first take on the subject. Way back in 1953 he wrote an article for This Week magazine with the extremely clunky title of “When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” Advertised by the magazine as a cautionary tale exposing a problem America’s leaders needed to deal with, it was strongly implied that this was a work of nonfiction. The reader is led to believe that MacDonald went out, tape recorder in hand, and interviewed a typical Florida retired couple, then wrote an article about them. With no other information besides having read the piece, I’m pretty sure that was not the case, that this is fiction, a kind of early precursor to the kind of thing MacDonald was trying to do in his Travis McGee short story “Terminal Cases” and in the more well-known final JDM “book” Reading for Survival, where important issues are presented and argued by fictional characters.

Appearing in the March 8 issue, “When You Retire…” is told in the first person by the interviewer. This setup is a device to allow the retired couple to do most of the talking, which they do with little interjection by “MacDonald.” They are the Talmadges, Bert and Pearl, who moved down to St. Petersburg from Michigan several years ago, moving into the first home they ever owned, albeit with a mortgage. Bert was a lineman for the power company and Pearl a homemaker. Their two children are mentioned only briefly, in a typical MacDonaldian aside that speaks volumes: the son died and the daughter, after a bad marriage, is estranged and living in Canada. They have agreed to be interviewed as a typical retired couple, ones who are slowly getting squeezed between a fixed income, rising prices and unexpected expenses.

"Thirteen hundred dollars a year seemed like enough, back then," [Pearl] said ruefully.

"It was, Pearl. It was"

"But now,” she says, "it's little things like haircuts for Bert. Since I got the arthritis in my hand this year, I can't cut his hair... There's only  nine years left on the mortgage, but this year the homestead taxes went up again.

"And his teeth. And the man said it would be nearly two hundred dollars to get rid of the termites. I guess we're just going to have to live with them. It's all those little things that make me so nervous when I get to thinking about them."

As the interview progresses we see just how close to the edge their life in retirement is. In order to bring in some extra cash Bert bought a moped and started a delivery service. But the heat and several near-collisions dissuaded him of that endeavor. This is followed by a wonderfully concise exchange that reveals the extremes to which they have gone in order to make ends meet.

Bert: I sold the bike for forty dollars after I painted it fancy, and put the money in the plants I showed you out back. I think we'll do better with those."

Pearl (darkly): "Better than selling those greeting cards, I hope."

Bert: "There were just too many doing that. Just like with the animals you make out of shells, and like delivering those circulars. I used to deliver every one, too, not stuff 'em under a hedge like some did. If I was better with my hands I could make out better. But I always did heavy work."

Pearl: "You did too much heavy work, Bert. You worked too hard all your life."

During the conversation the Talmadges mention some other couples they know who are under similar pressure. There’s the retired postman and his wife, who after he got ill, was unable to keep up with the mortgage payments and lived on a diet of rice in order to try and save money. And “Old Ralph,” a retired school teacher who catches fish and sells them to local restaurants.

"[He's] over seventy. Goes to the same place on the bridge every day. Fishes for his dinner first, and gets that usually, and then fishes for something extra [for] the fish house... Used to like it, Now he plain hates the sight of fish and the taste and being out there every day, but he can't figure how he can quit."

All of these points of quiet desperation don’t support the Talmadges’ constant reassurances of “we’re getting along” and “others are worse off.” The cumulative effect of all of this, especially to anyone who is close to retirement themselves, must be unnerving to say the least, especially since this was written over sixty years ago and little has seemingly changed. Well, actually, lots has changed, and potentially for the worse. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the mass conversion of corporate pension plans into 401k’s, fixed benefit plans into fixed contribution plans, with the responsibility for managing those investments placed into the hands of the employee. The fact that most employees didn't have a clue as to how to invest for the long term didn't seem to matter to the businesses that switched plans or to the government that allowed it. The result was predictable: given a choice whether or not to save for retirement, most didn't, and those who did invested in the most conservative way possible, guaranteeing a nest egg that would not even come close to providing a decent middle class lifestyle upon retirement. At least the Talmadges' meager pension plan provided something, and it was good for life. Could any reader imagine Bert Talmadge managing a 401k?

“When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” is an interesting curio, a JDM short story that has never been included in MacDonald's list of fiction writings, except by me. (It's on my list of JDM short works in the Trap of Solid Gold Resources.) It's not going to win any awards or be something the reader would ever go back to for re-reading, but it does contain some good JDM characterization, developed mainly through the words of the characters themselves. And it does describe a particular American social problem in an era long past, one that has not really corrected itself in over sixty years of trying.

The story has never been anthologized, which is no surprise. But as with all of the work MacDonald had published in This Week over the years, “When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” is available to anyone with access to a newspaper database, provided the newspapers available were ones that provided This Week in their Sunday editions. If you don't have such access, perhaps your local library does.

Monday, July 6, 2015

"Finding Anne Farley" ("Ring My Love With Diamonds")

In 1977 John D MacDonald went from being a fairly well known writer of crime and suspense novels to a Big Deal. In March of that year his massive novel Condominium was published in hardcover by Lippincott to fairly universal acclaim and major sales. Only the year before the author’s sixteenth volume in the very successful Travis McGee series had been published and accounted for JDM’s first ever appearance on the New York Times Best Seller List, peaking at Number 3. With Condominium he again made it to that then-sacrosanct listing, where it sat for a full 27 weeks, peaking (again) at number 3.

Although the author had pretty much given up on writing short stories at this point in his career, this particular year saw the publication of three such works, all of them unusual to some extent. In the spring his “Wedding Present” appeared in the literary journal Antaeus, his first and only work for that title. It’s an ingenious and fairly typical JDM crime story centered around a particular method for committing that crime. It reads, however, like a much older work, and I’m betting that it was something the author had done years before and perhaps had it rejected by his first choice of publishers. In October New York magazine published the first Travis McGee “short story,” a monograph really, titled “Terminal Cases.” It’s basically McGee and Meyer conversing about a particular societal problem and is a precursor to the posthumously published Reading for Survival, a work we typically classify as a book rather than a short story.

But in May of ‘77, a month after the publication of Condominium, one of MacDonald’s more unusual efforts appeared, not just in one periodical but in many dozen across the country. The Field Newspaper Syndicate, an organization owned by the Chicago Sun-Times, contracted with MacDonald to publish a JDM novella he called “Finding Anne Farley,” to be serialized in five parts, with installments published weekly. The serial would appear in the syndicate’s flagship publication (in the paper’s Sunday magazine supplement) and be offered to the scores of regional papers that were members of the syndicate. To make things interesting, the editors at Field came up with the idea of delaying the story’s final installment so that readers could write and submit their own conclusion to the tale. A winner would be chosen by each member newspaper and a prize of $100 awarded. In addition, the Field editors offered its members the option of publishing the story under an alternate title, “Ring My Love With Diamonds,” and nearly all of the papers that picked up the serial did so using the second title.

For a protagonist, MacDonald went back to the beginning of his paperback career in creating a subject remarkably similar to Cliff Bartells, the hero of JDM’s first book, The Brass Cupcake. Oliver “Duke” Rhoades is an insurance investigator, especially adept at recovering stolen goods. Rhoades’ nickname is derived from his facial similarity to John Wayne, but he is not especially tall, and any other similarities to MacDonald’s other famous protagonist ends there. Rhodes, once employed by Equity Protection Insurance, is now a private “consultant” and hires out to whoever is paying. In “Finding Anne Farley” Equity is grudgingly using him as an independent for the first time.

The company has paid a huge settlement after a large amount of diamonds were stolen from an Atlanta jewelry story. Thirty-two items worth $600,000 was taken over a weekend from Westcott and Sons and replaced with professionally made but worthless copies. The initial investigation resulted in the conclusion that a long-time, trusted employee named Anne Farley was the thief. Using the opportunity of a weekend when the store’s manager was out of town at an auction, Farley apparently made her way into the store’s vault on a Friday and took the items, all of them worth in excess of $300, and replaced them with the phonies. After a pre-arranged weekend vacation, Monday rolled around and Farley didn’t come in to work. She hasn’t been seen since.

Duke’s first stop in his investigation is to a diamond broker in New York City named Wally Marks. Looking over the store’s reference photographs of the stolen items, Marks concludes that the pieces in question were selected not only for their value but for their anonymity: diamonds that could be sold with little effort and funneled back onto the market.

“Somebody had a channel to feed this stuff right back into the industry. Somebody had a lot of time in the vault to select these items and leave the fancy cuts behind. There’s no junk here. All these stones are salable, and probably already sold.”

The conclusion is that Anne Farley sneaked the photos of the items out over time and used them to have the phonies made, then waited until the Friday the manager was away to switch them and take off.

Duke then makes his way to Atlanta and Wescott and Sons. He interviews the store’s manager, one J. Trevor Laneer, who he finds is less than interested in reviving the case.

“Five different people -- two of them from Equity Protection -- questioned me at great length over a period of many weeks, you know. They extracted every scrap of information from me. Surely all that material is on record, and if you have a legitimate purpose in all this, surely it will be available to you. Frankly, I am sick unto death of it. I was deceived by a person I trusted. It took far too long to get the insurance settlement. I feel I was treated badly.”

But Duke hangs around the store afterward and meets one of the saleswomen, Libby Franklin, the only member of the sales staff who doesn’t appear “demure and bloodless.” Libby agrees to meet at a local bar after work to answer Duke’s questions. They eventually end up back at Libby’s apartment and order Chinese carryout. Duke learns that Anne Farley was a dedicated and severe assistant to a severe and authoritarian Laneer. The two of them were the only members of the staff with access to the vault. Farley, referred to by Libby as the “head vestal virgin” of the all-female staff, had no real personal life, had lived with her mother until she passed away, and had resided in a residential hotel until a week before the theft, when she moved to a motel near the Atlanta airport.

A romantic relationship eventually develops between Duke and Libby, but it is never directly referenced and doesn’t becomes part of the main plot.

Duke manages to track down a travel agency where Anne paid for a trip to CancĂșn, presumably to disappear. It is a plot development that bears remarkable resemblance to MacDonald’s Travis McGee novel The Empty Copper Sea, which he was presumably in the process of writing when “Finding Anne Farley” was published. But unlike McGee in Copper, Duke actually makes the trip to CancĂșn and to the hotel where Farley had reservations. Eventually he deduces that although Anne had a reservation and had paid for her room, she never actually arrived there.

Things get more complicated when Duke learns some additional facts about Laneer. The store manager’s older wife comes from big Atlanta money and the store is owned by a trust set up by her father. She suffered a paralyzing stroke several years ago and is completely incapacitated, able only to sit in a chair and look out the window onto an expansive rock garden that Laneer has lovingly built for her with his own hands.

“Finding Anne Farley” is a straightforward tale of investigation, clues and the solving of a meticulously planned crime. It has little characterization outside of MacDonald’s trademark economic descriptions and does not contain a single wasted word. The author didn’t write a lot of what could be classified as whodunits, but this story definitely fits that bill. It seems to have been fairly successful, with a number of papers around the country picking up the option to run it, from big city dailies such as The San Francisco Examiner and the Miami Herald to smaller publications like the Van Nuys Valley News and the Oil City (Pennsylvania) Derrick. It was successful enough for the Field syndicate to do it again the following year, with a serial titled “Friend of the Family.” The year after they published a third and final serial called “Eyewitness.”

I’m unsure if Duke Rhoades repeated his role as protagonist in the subsequent serials, as I don’t own copies and have never read them. If that was the case, and it seems likely, then we can add Rhoades to the list of JDM series characters that began with Benton Walters back in 1946. I can say that the third series, “Eyewitness,” was an adaption and expansion of an early JDM short story of the same name that was published in the September 1964 issue of Argosy. Although the protagonist of that earlier tale isn’t named Duke Rhoades, he is an insurance investigator, so it seems likely to me that these three serials all feature that particular character. “Eyewitness” (the serial version) appeared in very few newspapers -- in fact, according to Walter Shine, it didn’t even make it to the Sun Times -- so it has been hard for me to find out exactly who is in the new tale.

“Finding Anne Farley” was reprinted once, in the Best Detective Stories of the Year anthology for 1978, edited by Edward D Hoch. There one can read it as a unified piece without the installment interruptions. Used copies of this book occasionally turn up online. If you have access to a newspaper database, either at home or at your local library, you may be able to find it in its five parts, including perhaps the winning entries in the reader contest for the ending. If you can get into the archives of the San Antonio Express-News, you will find not only MacDonald’s own ending, but the winning reader’s ending and a handful of runner-up entries. One of them, written by Phillip D. Tritchler, has got to be one of the funniest and most outrageous bits of reader participation ever. Believe me, I’m giving nothing away from MacDonald’s own ending by printing Tritchler’s wacko conclusion below.

After his return to Atlanta from Mexico, Duke Rhoades talks again with each of the key figures in the case, looking for some unusual occurrence in the jewelry store's routine over the past year or in Anne Farley's woefully sterile life.

One of Anne's fellow sales clerks mentions the name of Travis McGee as the only man she's known Anne to show an interest in.

Duke finds that McGee was a highly successful salvage operator of sorts, recovering lost, stolen or swindled valuables for friends, usually for a fee of half the sum recovered.

It was on just such a case, involving precious gems, that McGee visited Atlanta and met Anne Farley.

What serves to whet Rhodes' curiosity even more is that McGee, in his last "salvage" operation, departed from his usual pattern and, weighing friendship and honesty in balance with greed, kept the entire bundle for himself.

Could he have done it again?

Following this trail, Rhodes goes to Florida to talk with McGee. But McGee's houseboat, "The Busted Flush," departed its usual moorings one day after Laneer's diamonds disappeared in Atlanta.

There was also, McGee's neighbors reveal, an attractive blonde on the houseboat. Anne Farley?

After weeks of searching the Caribbean, Rhoades finds the “Flush” anchored in an isolated bay near Bimini in the Bahamas and confronts both McGee and Farley.

After a brief but violent confrontation, McGee collapses with a fatal coronary. Turning to Anne, Rhoades notices that all those months of leisure in the sun have had their effect on her as well.

The mousy, shy clerk has blossomed into a woman worth second and third glances. Farley confesses the plot including the false Mexico leads was McGee's idea [sic] and produces the diamonds.

The catch in the caper, she said, came when her love for McGee turned to hate during the months of isolation.

Rhodes, staring at the beautiful blue-white diamonds and glancing at Anne, thinks of the return to Atlanta and comes to a decision.

With a smile and a gesture toward the houseboat controls, he asks her, "Can this thing get us to Brazil?"

It’s been a long time since I’ve wiped tears of laughter from my eyes after reading something.