Monday, June 18, 2018

JDM on Barzun

“[Any] attempt to make a crime story ‘a real novel’ is headed for failure. Every few months a publisher boasts that his author has accomplished the feat, but what the reader finds is a book with a fatally divided interest: the business of elucidating the crime stops dead while character and society are being depicted in depth; and when this part of the job is interrupted in its turn so as to resume work on the crime, one must make an effort to remember the small significant details and the progress of the inquiry. The seesaw, moreover, repeats, and in each phase, one is impatient at getting, or not getting, the appropriate kind of entertainment.”

-- Jacques Barzun, A Catalogue of Crime (1971)

Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) was a renowned social historian of the last century whose interests spanned much of American popular culture. His 1971 work A Catalogue of Crime, (written with Wendell Hertig Taylor) was a landmark study of the works of the literature of mystery and crime fiction, containing over 5,000 entries on novels written in the genre. But as important as this book was in the field, it had its detractors -- many who disagreed with his opinion of certain books and others who took exception to his very understanding of what crime fiction was and what it represented. The above quote, taken from the book’s introduction (or more specifically, the “Introductory,” as it was titled) seems, to the fan of John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, to be a direct aim and fire at the author. When a paper written for 1978’s John D MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detective Fiction, held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, brought up Barzun’s assertion, MacDonald responded.

[The writer of the paper] uses the Jacques Barzun dictum that “anyone who attempts to improve on the mystery genre and make it a real novel suffers from bad judgement.” He [Barzun] further claims that replacing clues with psychology and sociology is “childish tinkering with the genre.”... This strikes close to home, as anyone would know who reads the McGee books, Any writer who claims that he is writing a suspense story and at the same time writing more than a suspense story is open to a justifiable criticism of pretentious jackassery.

I know what I am trying to write. I am accepting the strictures and limitations of the medium and then, within those boundaries, trying to write as well as I am able, of the climate of the times and places in which the action takes place. I try to put violence into its contemporary frame of history, believing that not only does this make the people more real, it makes their actions more understandable. On page 45 of the Fawcett edition of One Fearful Yellow Eye, I have McGee’s interior monologue about Chicago women, slums, Hefner and professional sports. I did it because I felt then, and still feel, that the flavor of the city and its times is essential to an understanding of what had happened there to Doctor Geis.

I do not accept Barzun’s ground rules. No one can tell me that it is not within my authority to try to move my suspense novels as close as I can get to the “legitimate” novels of manners and morals, despair and failure, love and joy.

There are no ground rules. The only stipulation is: Does it work? And this, too, is an empty question, because any book, any author, will work for some and not for others. Any creative form presupposes a selective taste, just as the taste of the author, painter, sculptor or composer uses his own selective taste in the elements of his finished work.

Nor is the critic, amateur or professional, much help in establishing whether a specific book works or does not work -- does what is intended or fails to do so. Criticism in all the times we know of has been of little avail in judging contemporary work because such work is seen in the light of fads, fashions and degrees of public acceptance or non-acceptance. Only hindsight seems to have a precarious validity…

At any rate I shall continue with my sociological asides, with McGee's and Meyer’s dissertations on the condition of medicine, retirement, education, facelifting, ear mites, road construction, white collar theft, apartment architecture, magazine editing, acid rain, billyrock, low fidelity and public service in America today, permitting a certain amount of wandering, but subjecting it to the blue pencil when it begins to feel as if it has gone on too long.

The odd thing, I suppose, is that I find it easier to do this sort of thing in a medium where it is not all that customary than to do it in the novels I write which are not in the suspense genre.



Monday, June 11, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 2: October 30, 1947

Here is a transcript of the second installment of John D MacDonald’s Clinton Courier newspaper column "From the Top of the Hill," written back in 1947 when he was two years into his new job as a full-time writer. He reminisces about the war, tells a stale old joke, and opines on local matters.

The author once used Clinton as a model for the fictional town of Dalton in his 1956 murder mystery Death Trap.

The other night we stood on the sidewalk in front of the darkened shops at twelve fifteen, looking over toward the post office. The night was warm and quiet, with no car in sight.

Up over the post office, the windows were lighted and we could hear the hearty, solid stomp of a square dance step -- being done to the tune of "Roll Out the Barrel." Maybe it wasn't a square dance. At least it was something where a whole batch of shoes landed on the boards at the same time with a wonderful, vital thump.

The solid stamping was something in the present -- but the music was pure nostalgia. Maybe we are a sucker for symbolism. That tinny old tune made faraway sounds under the big elms. If the war ever had a universal tune, that was it. A half dozen nations picked it up and used it as their own.

Once we stood at the rail of a troopship and looked down at an Australian dock where the local band brayed and oom-pahed their way through it. We heard an Indian dance band at a swank New Delhi hotel fight their way through it. We heard British troops singing it as they swung down the main drag of captured Bahmo.

It is a song that somehow brings back the manic-depressive unreality of that big fat war. The other night it seemed strangely fitting that it should ring out across our peacetime village square. On the floor below the music were the empty mailboxes which were once cluttered with those stampless letters from APO numbers, from men under strange foreign suns.

It was very nice and somehow very sad to hear that tune the other night.

* * *

We shamelessly borrow jokes and tailor them for out purposes. Here is one.

It was dusk, and there were but a few minutes left to play in the bitter small-boy football game under the lengthening shadows of the elms in the village square.

The score was six to nothing, and Billy, a thin, imaginative boy with a streak of dirt across one cheek was desperately quarter-backing the losing team. Billy's team took over the ball on their own twenty, and as Billy hurried toward the huddle, he heard a deep, hollow-sounding voice just behind him say, "Around left end!"

Billy stopped and turned. No one there! Just for an instant he got the impression of a hulking, semi-transparent figure wearing the nose guard of yesteryear.

He gave directions in the huddle. The ball was snapped. Billy went around left end for a long gain. First down, minutes to play.

As Billy trotted toward the huddle, he slowed down and listened for the mysterious voice from the shadows of evening.

"Around right end!" the voice ordered. The quality of it sent shivers down Billy's spine.

He went around right end for a large gain.

The third time, he stopped and waited for orders. There was but one minute to play. "Right through the middle!" the voice ordered.

The ball was snapped. Billy juggled it for a moment. His line gave way. The opposition came through. Billy was hit and the ball bounced right out of his hands into the arm of an opponent who ran for a touchdown.

Billy stood up. Close in his ear the mysterious voice sounded.

"Oh, shucks!" it said.

* * *

Here is a statement of beliefs, and a guess about the future. We would very much like to join in a few arguments about this subject. We don't yet know enough about it. It concerns the future of Clinton.

Twenty years ago any design for living which contemplated commuting between Clinton and Utica was pretty optimistic. At that time Clinton was composed of two groups: the college and the village.

Now Clinton has three heads: the college, the village and the commuters. It appears that with the increase in the number of commuters, the village and the college have drawn closer together than ever before.

Once upon a time we lived in Fayetteville, just outside of Syracuse. Since it is a bit closer to Syracuse than Clinton is to Utica, its development as a commuter community has been more rapid.

At the present time it is a pretty deadly place. It is deadly because attempts at community integration have been feeble. As far as community unity is concerned, it is quite similar to a New York City apartment building.

We wondered how Fayetteville could have avoided becoming a residential satellite of Syracuse. Our guess is that a concerted community effort to make each new resident feel himself a part of the village structure would have helped.

We feel that Clinton is, in a sense, in the same position that Fayetteville was quite a while ago. The village, as an integrated unit, will be weakened by the influx of people who live here and work in Utica unless they can be made to consider themselves Clintonians who just happen to work in Utica. Every resident who feels that he is a Utican who just happens to live in Clinton weakens community structure, helps to make us a village of strangers and of cliques.

From a practical point of view, we can plan on continued growth, on a continuation of this migration. It can swallow us up. We feel that the answer is to absorb the new residents into community life. It is the best line of defense to maintain our integrity as a separate and distinct place.

Write us some nasty letters, will you? We can be talked out of this point of view -- if your arguments are good.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, June 4, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 1: October 23, 1947

Longtime readers of this blog are aware that John D MacDonald was the author of two separate newspaper columns, written 15 years apart, one published under his own name and the other under the pseudonym T Carrington Burns. Hugh Merrill, in his JDM biography The Red Hot Typewriter, discusses and excerpts the second column, but nowhere in any of the biographical material on the author is there a mention of the first. In the past I have transcribed excerpts from these early works, and now I think it is time to present the columns in full. I will post these throughout the year, usually when circumstances prevent me from writing a regular piece, and eventually I’ll create a link to them all in the Resources section of The Trap of Solid Gold.

This is the first column, preceded by an introduction I wrote back in 2010. These columns reveal a personal side of MacDonald from the earliest years of his writing career: from the parochial to the world view, from the expansive to the mundane, all presented in a relatively humble fashion, the polar opposite of his manner in the T Carrington Burns pieces. Or the Travis McGee rants.

Here goes...

[From 2010] “In addition to the hundreds of short works of fiction John D MacDonald wrote in his lifetime, in addition to the scores of novels, the handful of biographical and fact-based books, a monograph, an anthology of mystery stories written by women and a movie novelization.... in addition to all of that, MacDonald wrote many non-fiction articles that appeared in the magazines and newspapers of his day. A well-educated man with an MBA from Harvard, he could -- and did -- pontificate of a wide variety of subjects over the years, the scope of which is pretty amazing. Not surprisingly, he wrote about the craft of writing, nearly forty articles that began as early as 1950 for the Writer's Yearbook. He wrote about the environment, a singular passion of his, in periodicals as disparate as Holiday, Life and The Conservationist (an organ of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation). And he covered lots of other topics, including sports, boating, travel, race riots, world population and even retirement planning. He was also a newspaper columnist -- twice.

“Readers of the two most readily accessible MacDonald biographies, Edgar Hirshberg's critical study for Twain's Authors Series and Hugh Merrill's cut-and-paste bio The Red Hot Typewriter, can be forgiven for not knowing this fact. MacDonald's authorship of [the first] column is mentioned nowhere in those books… Of course, Walter and Jean Shine knew of these works and owned copies of every column. They wrote about both of them in their JDM Bibliophile column and occasionally reprinted excerpts. MacDonald himself never talked about these obscure works and even attempted to hide his authorship of the second series -- it is one of the few cases in his career where he deliberately used a pseudonym...

“MacDonald’s [first column], undertaken in the very early years of his writing career… began in October 1947 and continued until the spring of the following year, 32 weekly pieces that represent the first known JDM works of non-fiction published. The column, called "From the Top of the Hill," was published in The Clinton Courier, the weekly newspaper of Clinton, New York, an upstate college town where the MacDonalds lived for about a year before heading to Mexico. The columns are fascinating reading today, not only for their examples of early JDM writing, but for the many biographical insights they drop: mentions of the two MacDonald cats who would later star in his The House Guests, discussions of the books he was reading, his progress as an author, and even a childhood recollection that would show up 20 years later as a part of a short story, "Woodchuck." He worries about things all young parents worry about, from local hot-rodders speeding past his house to the Communist Menace of postwar America. He has several very interesting reminiscences of his wartime service (including tales of a few Hollywood stars he met in India), and a piece on Merrill's Marauders where he explains why no real history of that Unit can ever be written (it involves a mule and a bomb).

“I own copies of all 32 columns and will be posting excerpts from them now and then. There is a nice Thanksgiving piece which I will post this November, and a hysterically funny Christmas recollection that should have been mined for one of his works of fiction (perhaps it was), plus lots of little bits here and there that make for interesting reading. He writes (as he did for the second column) using the editorial "we," a somewhat antiquated nosism that takes the modern ear a bit of getting used to, but one quickly adapts.

“The MacDonald family's relatively brief stay in Clinton deserves a little background. Despite being a native New Yorker, MacDonald's wife Dorothy hated cold weather and invariably spent most of each winter sick or feeling poorly. When John returned home from the war in 1945 the family lived in a second-story apartment in an old frame house on State Street in Utica. Although they remained in New York for most of the winter his first season back (1945-46) as John pounded out some 800,000 words that garnered 1,000 rejection slips, they did manage to briefly get away to Florida in February. The following winter, with no "day job" to hold them down, the family temporarily pulled up stakes, had Dorothy's mother Rita stay in their apartment to watch the cats, and headed south for Taos, New Mexico. They never made it. They got as far as Ingram, Texas, located in the hill country northwest of San Antonio, fell in love with the surroundings and rented a cheap, off-season cabin on a hillside. Upon their return next spring they discovered that they had lost the lease to their apartment and began looking for another place to live. MacDonald recalled that period in The House Guests:

'"After dreary rounds of overpriced and depressingly gloomy apartments, we decided to buy a house. Believing in our innocence that a small college town might provide a pleasant atmosphere for the writer, we looked extensively around Clinton, New York, near Utica, where Hamilton College is located, and at last found a large and very pleasant house up on the Hill, almost surrounded by college property.'

“The family moved in and John eventually snagged the columnist gig for the local weekly, an eight page tabloid that is still published today. At the same time he continued to produce an amazing amount of product, including fiction for slicks such as Liberty and Esquire, as well as for a large number of pulp magazines. The MacDonalds didn't head south the winter they lived in Clinton, mainly for two reasons: John's column and Dorothy's mother, who was ill and who would die in June of 1948. MacDonald ended the column with the May 27, 1948 issue and, quickly after Rita passed away the family packed and headed south again, this time for Cuernavaca, Mexico. They rented their home to a young couple but they had no intention of ever returning to live in Clinton. The academic and intellectual environment they had hoped to find in the town proved to be little more than constant gossip and bickering about faculty politics, and John himself felt as if he was viewed as some sort of quaint freak. Again, from The House Guests:

'"... it had been a bad choice of environment for us. We had found there many good and pleasant people, but instead of the intellectual stimulation we had anticipated from a college community, we had found a carefully established pecking order, with status often achieved and maintained through the elegancies of entertaining rather than any quality of wit or insight. As far as other outsiders resident down in the village were concerned, Dorothy treasures a ghoulish memory of a Save The Children meeting she attended whereat it was decided that those collage women who wanted to work at this charity but were not quite socially acceptable could be put in some sort of affiliated setup whereby they could work but would not be entitled to attend the teas. She attended no further meetings. We also discovered that we were the unwelcome targets of an avid and undisciplined curiosity. It is a mistake, unless you have an actor's flair and a poseur's inclinations, to be The Writer in a small community. No matter how limpid your normal behavior, how rotarian your tastes and habits, your every move will be examined and so interpreted that it fits the myths the townspeople choose to believe.'

“When the MacDonald's returned from Mexico late in the Summer of 1949, they came back to Clinton only to sell the house and tie up a few loose ends of Rita's estate. When they left that fall they once more headed south, this time to Florida, where they would live for the rest of their lives. John returned to Clinton only vicariously, in 1956 when he set his novel Death Trap in a small town with a college up on a hill, an obvious stand-in for the place he once called home. I've always wondered if the title of that novel had a double meaning for the author.”

Column Number One:

"The time has come," the walrus said... So right here and right now we begin a column which will speak of many things.

On the midway of a carnival the concessionaire spins his big wheel and the pointer stops on a number. We'll pick our items for this column in the same random way. And just like the man behind the wheel, we can put our foot on the lever and stop it just where we want it.

We discussed hiding behind a door and inventing a name to sign to the column. Somehow that seems akin to a window jimmied in the night by a gentleman in a mask.

So if one or both of our two friends stop speaking to us, or if people cross to the opposite side of the street when we approach -- it will be evident that we have said the wrong things.

* * *

Our opinions are not the result of long and constructive thought. They leap upon us from dark corners. On one day we read a profound statement. Three days later it has become our own opinion -- minus the longer words.

We will accept advice and criticism. A column is indeed a wonderful way in which to talk without interruption. We have long envied columnists their air of being lesser deities. Suddenly we have joined the ranks of those who have the impression (delusion, if you wish) that they have something to say. So your mailed comments -- the blunter the better -- will aid the Humility Department.

* * *

A week or so [ago] we pulled a bonehead play and we've been feeling slightly guilty ever since. A pleasant woman came to the door and said that she was taking orders for brooms made by the blind. We took a quick glance at our new broom and told her that we had a new broom, thank you.

She went away and we walked back into the house and leaned against the kitchen sink and wondered why we always find it so easy to say NO at the door. It must be the result of long practice. This time, we said it too quickly.

We have always believed that blindness must demand the highest quality of bravery and nobility in the human spirit. As children we fear the dark. To be in eternal darkness and to be unafraid is a test of the human soul. The blind can be less afraid of life if the work they perform can be sold for material gain. A man or woman who can earn money with his or her hands is not helpless.

And we refused to buy a broom.

A broom would have kept until our shiny, factory-made new one wears out. It would have cost as much as a trip to town to the movies. Or a small supply of cigarettes. Or a book which we have eyes to read.

Sometimes we say no too quickly.

* * *

We have always looked with great suspicion on the published results of the Gallup Polls. This may be because Mr. Gallup has injured our pride by never asking our opinion on national and world affairs. We acquired the habit of sneering and saying, "Bet he never asks anybody anything. Makes it all up out of his head."

But we are converted.

We have talked to a man who has been asked a question. We shook his hand. It was Dick Hughes.

Both Dick and his son were asked the same question: If at the present time you could vote for either Truman or Eisenhower for President, how would you cast your vote?

Dick wouldn't tell us his answer, but that is a minor point. The major point is that we now believe in Mr. Gallup.

* * *

One day seven years ago we found a small brown praying mantis on the sidewalk in Rochester, just in front of the Sibley, Lindsey and Curr Department Store. Since that time the mantis family has been a dead chapter until this summer.

This summer we have had dozens in the yard.

Their ability to swivel their heads around and stare at you seems to give them an incredibly evil look. They are absolutely fearless.

We found an article on the praying mantis. In the book it said they have dispositions to match their looks -- would eat any kind of a bug, including each other.

So we observed selected specimens. We spent several hours crouched in the yard staring at them. They stared right back. Assuming the duties of mess sergeant, we captured a few innocent insects and offered them to the mantis. In all, we offered a grasshopper, a cricket, a small red spider and a juicy-looking caterpillar. No soap. Our mantis stared woodenly at the offerings. The cricket crawled over it and the caterpillar shouldered it out of the way.

It may be that the article was written by a naturalist who had observed some poorly adjusted mantis -- one with paranoid tendencies. Or possibly Clinton is the home of the happy mantis.

At least ours are clean. They lick their elbows and use them to wash their heads. Much like a cat.

Maybe next year the new mantis generation will have the good old fighting spirit. We'll be out looking -- returning stare for stare.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, May 28, 2018

"A Corpse on Me!"

Any writer who produced as much fiction as John D MacDonald did in his 40 year career was bound to repeat himself now and then. When you write nearly 470 short stories, novellas and novels it surely couldn’t be helped. Many bits of business that originated in long-forgotten and mostly neglected pulp magazine tales later showed up as pivotal plot points in later stories and novels, especially in the Travis McGee series. I’ve written before about some of these, including the oft-used jewels-hidden-in wax smuggling trick that first appeared in “The Flying Elephants” and was eventually the mcguffin of The Deep Blue Good-By. The gaslighting via pharmaceuticals that was so important to the plot of The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper was first invented back in 1948 for the novella “No Grave Has My Love.” The singular way to defend oneself against an attacking, leaping dog that McGee used in A Deadly Shade of Gold originated in a Doc Savage story called “The Chinese Pit,” published in 1947. And on occasion MacDonald didn’t even need to go back to the pulps for help: the entire first chapter of The Long Lavender Look was a rewrite of his 1961 Saturday Evening Post story “Sing a Song of Terror.”

So it’s no surprise when digging out an old story one hasn’t read in years, like “A Corpse on Me!” from the March 1950 issue of Dime Detective, to discover yet another antecedent to yet another Travis McGee adventure.

“A Corpse on Me!” begins with the story’s protagonist -- named Brendan Mahar -- observing a young woman walking down a city street. The prose is terse and wonderfully descriptive:

At four o'clock on that long-awaited October afternoon, Brendan Mahar saw her walking down the sidewalk on the other side of the street, the suitcase dragging her shoulder down. Rain was a perpetual dreary mist, fattening to ripe drops on the dying leaves, darkening the gray stone wall that bordered the sidewalk, turning the litter of papers and leaves in the gutter to paste. There was an automaton quality about her walk and, even at a hundred feet, he sensed the expressionlessness of her face. She was hatless, her pale hair drawn tightly back.

The woman is Eileen Kraft and she has just been released from prison after spending four years there, jailed for being an accessory in a jewel heist. But instead of acting like the typical hardened female ex-con, Mahar observes Eileen’s complacent, disinterested attitude and, especially, her dead eyes. She must have been pretty once, but now her hands are puffy and bloated and her skin has an unhealthy pallor. Most noticeable is the ugly scar on the side of her mouth, the result of an attack by another inmate which was repaired haphazardly by prison doctors.

Mahar blocks her path and tells her he is going to help her, mentioning the name of a fellow inmate with whom Eileen was friendly. She is naturally hesitant, but woodenly agrees to come with Mahar, who has booked her a room at a local hotel. Mahar is a recovery agent working for an insurance company, although Eileen doesn’t know this and Mahar is eager to hide it from her. Once in the hotel room Eileen bathes and puts on some nice new clothing Mahar has purchased for her. They order room service and Mahar tells Eileen that he knows a plastic surgeon who can fix her damaged cheek. Eileen is curious about Mahar’s motivations but is too disinterested to ask too many questions. She is told that tomorrow she will see her old prison bunkmate, Betty Krastnov.

Mahar and his partner Cam Stoddard have concocted this ruse for a purpose. Eileen’s husband, Boo Renaki, was part of a four-man team who came up with the idea for the jewel heist. He was working on and planning the burglary unbeknownst to his new wife. But a few days before the planned snatch Boo decided that he could perform the deed on his own and freeze out his partners. With an unknowing Eileen acting as getaway driver, Boo robbed a safe and cracked an unexpected janitor over the head before hightailing it. The janitor soon died from his injuries, so now Boo was guilty of both burglary and murder. Plus, he had three very angry ex-partners now wondering where he had gone to. The couple was hiding out in a remote cabin on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and soon after the robbery Eileen returned from shopping to find Boo dead and the cabin turned upside down. Obviously the former partners had discovered Boo’s whereabouts and snatched the jewels before getting their revenge. Soon thereafter Eileen was picked up and sentenced to prison.

Mahar and Cam have convinced Betty Krastnov to go along with a ruse to pretend that the three of them are crooks looking for the whereabouts of the other partners, certain that Eileen must either know something or hold some unvoiced secret that will help them recover the jewels. But once Eileen realizes that they are “crooks” and that all the help Mahar has offered was only a means to an end, she comes out of her stupor and storms out of the hotel room. Suffering defeat, Mahar calls the hotel dick and asks him to stop her, thinking that having someone on the right side of the law pressure her might succeed where he had failed. But she is too quick and exits the hotel and walks down the street. After only a few moments outside a car stops and she is picked up and shoved into the back seat. The chase begins…


“A Corpse on Me!” -- which was, surprise, not MacDonald’s original title: it was “Sentence for a Lady” -- is a good, fairly representative example of MacDonald’s maturing writing skills during the dying days of the pulps. While the plot is straightforward and fairly obvious, the writing is peppered with keen, expertly expressed observation and even social awareness. Eileen’s background is compassionately described by Mahar in a conversation with his partner:

Cam: "Is she a pretty rough type?"

Mahar: "No. The Krastnov woman was right, Cam. I suppose women's prisons all over the country are full of them. Sensitive kids who grow up in the wrong neighborhood, too innocent to see what's going on right under their noses, then getting mixed up in something pretty shoddy. They get clapped into prison before they find out what the world is all about."

Cam: "If you're through with the philosophy and sociology, we'll get practical."

And even MacDonald’s typically glib ending is written to be shadowed in some doubt.

(For the seasoned reader of John D MacDonald, the clue that Eileen is a good girl is made obvious in her description: a blonde with pale gray-green eyes.)

The bit that was later reused in a Travis McGee novel occurs far too late in the story for me to reveal it here. It’s not terribly original and was probably used by countless other authors of the era, but still it’s similar enough to ring familiar tones in the mind’s ear of a MacDonald fan. The novel is the excellent eighth entry in the McGee series, One Fearful Yellow Eye, and the mcguffin was stolen and hidden by Saul Gorba.

As far as I can tell “A Corpse on Me!” has never been reprinted.

Monday, May 21, 2018

JDM on Spillane (and Other Things)

On Friday, February 19, 1955 John D MacDonald was invited to participate in an open discussion on writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The affair was a regular weekly thing and was called the English Coffee Hour. Supervising was FSU English instructor John H Lawler who, along with science fiction author Mack Reynolds, dished out the questions. The get-together was covered by the local Tallahassee Democrat, which ran the story headlined "Spillane Creates Mythological Characters Says MacDonald”. JDM's discussion of Spillane takes up less than two paragraphs of the story, but the headline is not surprising. Spillane was a Big Thing back in the early 1950’s, and his story intersects with that of MacDonald’s, which I’ll talk about after presenting a transcription of the article. For reference, in February 1955 JDM had just had published his thirteenth novel Contrary Pleasure the previous year and would see the appearance of number fourteen -- A Bullet for Cinderella -- in July. On the short story front, his excellent “The Killer” had just appeared in the January issue of Manhunt, and in May one of his true masterpieces, the award-winning “The Bear Trap,” would be published in Cosmopolitan.

Spillane Creates Mythological Characters Says MacDonald

Mickey Spillane's popularity stems from his ability to make "the little man with fallen arches" become a "mythological beast," John D MacDonald, novelist and short story writer, told guests at the English Coffee Hour Friday afternoon in the Westminster House at Florida State University.

"Spillane has created a completely impossible human gening who tears up gangsters and throws them around the room," MacDonald said. "Its modern mythology." Concerning the sadism found in Spillane by some critics MacDonald said "There is more sadism in Mother Goose."

MacDonald was questioned by John H Lawler, FSU English instructor, and Mack Reynolds, science fiction author who is visiting in Tallahassee.

The best way to learn to write is by writhing, MacDonald said. During four months of terminal leave following army service overseas MacDonald wrote some 800,000 words to get started on a writing career. While overseas he had sent his wife a story instead of a letter -- "we were censored 100 percent by both the British and Americans and you couldn't put anything of interest in a letter" -- and his wife sold the story to the old Story magazine. He decided the $25 she got for it was "easy money."

Of his 12 published novels, two are science fiction. Forty ar fifty of his short stories also are in that field which he said is "free of taboos you find in other sorts of magazines."

"If a magazine of mass circulation used a story about a man with a wooden leg, and three people in West Overshoe, Minn., don't like it, the editor will never again buy a story with a wooden leg," MacDonald said by way of illustrating the rules of various publications. "Mass circulation magazines have so many taboos you can't say anything. But most science fiction fans are crackpots and you can get away with just about what you want.

Reynolds remarked that as long as the author put his story "a thousand years from now on Mars he was safe. MacDonald answered that an author also can say a lot about here and now if he puts the story in a different "frame," so it won't offend too many individuals.

Concerning his writing techniques MacDonald said that he doesn't revise -- or if he does, it's in his own way. "If something mechanical goes wrong I throw away the page. If it's something structural, I may throw away four or five pages." But when he reaches the end, the first draft is the final one. He cannot go back and replace one word without another and then retype the story. "It sounds flat," he said.

His main difficulty is finding where to start. "It can't be too close to a main point of action, or you need too many flashbacks. If it's too far away, the story starts out slowly," he said. But once he gets the ending and the beginning he "plays the middle by ear."

MacDonald warned against "adopting a patronizing attitude toward a field you want to enter. If you're going to do a story on young love for one of the slick magazines, with a happy, upbeat ending, forget your superior attitude and write the best love story you can."

When you write for a certain, be sure it is one that you can read in with pleasure, he advised. He added that probably the reason the "confession" magazines pay so well is the scarcity of writers in that field. "Those who like to read that sort of thing can't write" was the way he put it. Then he added the exception to the rule was writing for comic books as "their readers can't recognize a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

In answer to a question he said that his favorite American author changes for year to year, but that right now he thinks the best bit of writing he has run across in a long time is the screenplay for the film On the Waterfront.

To be good a piece of writing has to be on different levels, he said. He finds them in Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, early Irwin Shaw and "some of that little man Capote." Reynolds mentioned John Collier as another who can "write on different levels."

MacDonald, who comes from Sarasota, was greeted at the coffee hour by a delegation of Sarasota students.

Leading with the Mickey Spillane quote was a way to sell newspapers, for the popularity of Spillane in the world of postwar popular fiction cannot be overstated. His first novel, I, the Jury was published in hardcover in 1947, followed by a paperback version the following year. Between the two of them it sold six and a half million copies in the United States alone. It’s protagonist, a private eye named Mike Hammer, was cut from the same cloth as many of the detectives introduced in the pulps, including Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but the writing was different and so was the action. There was sex -- lots of it, more so than in most other mystery novels of the time -- and the violence, well… the violence, which seems pretty tame to modern readers, was extreme and nearly over the top, eliciting cries of outrage from the literary community. They used terms like “atrocious” and “nauseating,” and even Spillane’s own father referred to his work as “crud”. That these beacons of high culture would even deign to mention Spillane’s name at all was a testament to his books’ popularity, their effect on popular writing of the day and on the culture in general. Raymond Chandler’s reaction is illuminating in that it shows not only the contempt, but the amazement at the success of Spillane’s work. In a letter to publisher Dale Warren in 1952 he wrote:

“...the taste of the public is as mysterious as the taste of critics. Look at the success a fellow called Mickey Spillane is having, a success comparable to that in England of James Hadley Chase, the distinguished author of No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Mickey Spillane is just about on the same low level of phoniness, and as far as I’m concerned just as unreadable. I did honestly try to read one just to see what made them click, but I couldn't make it. Pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff. It isn’t so very long since no decent publisher would have touched it. I suppose it won’t be long until the Book of the Month Club selects a handsomely produced volume of French postcards as its contribution to the national culture. This Spillane stuff, so far as I can see, is nothing but a mixture of violence and outright pornogoraphy. He and his publishers have had the courage, if that is the correct word, to carry these a little further than anyone else without interference from the police. I can’t see anything else in it. This sort of thing makes the home boys with their libraries of elegant erotica seem rather nice people.”

Knowing what we know about John D MacDonald, a man of strong opinions he was not afraid to present, it might be expected that his own thoughts on Spillane’s books would mirror that of fellow moralist Chandler, but if that was the case he kept it well hidden. For John D MacDonald owed Spillane a huge debt of gratitude, one that was inadvertent on Spillane’s part but went a long way toward launching MacDonald as a bestselling author.

When MacDonald’s 1952 novel The Damned was in galleys prior to publication, Ralph Daigh, the storied editor at Fawcett, loaned a copy to Spillane to read. He returned it later and told Daigh that it was a good book and that he wished he had written it. Daigh quickly wrote that remark down and asked Spillane to sign and date it, which he did. When the first edition of The Damned appeared in May of that year, splashed across the cover artwork was a banner which read, “I WISH I HAD WRITTEN THIS BOOK! -- MICKEY SPILLANE. That The Damned was, and still is, MacDonald’s best selling novel, is in no small part due to that unintended promotion. (I’ve often wondered how many Spillane fans bought The Damned, expecting a Hammer-like novel, only to be graced with the subtle nuances and brilliant characterizations of MacDonald’s first multi-perspective opus.)

MacDonald and Spillane went on to be friends of sorts. Spillane visited the MacDonald’s frequently in their Florida home and they exchanged letters throughout their lives. MacDonald once poked fun at Spillane in his early novel The Neon Jungle, where one of the more obtuse characters reads and enjoys a Mike Hammer book. And Spillane was one of the few people on earth to have been privy to the progress of the final, never-to-be-completed Travis McGee novel.

Monday, May 14, 2018

"Hang the Man High!"

John D MacDonald wrote nearly 400 original short stories and novellas that were published in the magazines of the last century: hundreds of crime stories, scores of science fiction, sports and mainstream tales -- and all of three westerns. Clearly, this wasn’t a genre of fiction that interested the author, and the quality of the stories bear that out. Only one of the three, the last-published “Nine Coffins for Rocking H.” reveals and deep background into the time, place and history of the old west. The other two -- “The Corpse Rides at Dawn” and “Hang the Man High” -- read like plot ideas so preposterous that the author could only fit them into a long-past, western setting. That was certainly the case for “The Corpse Rides at Dawn,” which featured a character weakness that would have been laughed out of any contemporary crime pulp of the era, and it’s also a weak point in the second story, “Hang the Man High!” I’m not sure exactly what MacDonald was trying to do here, but the plot is certainly something that would not have worked in any setting outside of an historical one.

The setting is the fictional small town of Chambers, a remote, dusty place in an unnamed state, built and settled to support the numerous cattle ranches that surround it. The story opens soon after the arrival of a stranger from the east -- in this case, way east, as in Eastern Europe by way of Boston. Stanislau Wadic has come to open a dress shop in Chambers, and he is portrayed as the classic effeminate: timid, fluttery, pinky finger permanently extended, everything but a lisp. Franklin Pangborn comes to mind. His first stop after renting a vacant storefront is to a local carpenter named Chub. The first words out of Wadic’s mouth are “I want wooden woman.”

That was when Chub dropped the pin he was working on and gave himself a shallow cut across the back of the thumb.

"You want a what?" he asked loudly.

"Wooden womans. For to put on dresses in the window my store."

Chub got up and limped over to the windowsill and got his pipe. He said, "Now let me get this straight, friend. You have a store?"

"Today I get it. With window. I paint my sign. Want womans in the window. For cloths."

Chub grinned as the great light dawned. "You want a dress dummy!"

A week later, after the mannequin is delivered, Wadic is in his store window dressing the dummy. It’s late on a Saturday and ranch hands from the surrounding area are pouring into town to enjoy a night of drinking and carousing at the local saloon. But before they get to boozing they are attracted to the strange new sight in Chambers, and congregate in front of Wadic’s shop, observing him at work.

The hands nudged each other and cackled in glee... "Seems downright indecent... Full grown man, too."

"Or, on the other hand, is he? Look how he keeps that little finger bent... There's no place in Chambers for that one"

Once inside the saloon and with a few drinks under their belts, the cowhands -- which include the slab-handed foreman Redneck George and little Tad Morgan, “a hundred and ten pounds of cured leather" -- begin to amp up their resentments.

"We ought to be able to show him somehow... Damn furriner, coming in to mess up our town, gettin' the women all gaga over his fancy cloth. Like as not he stole the stuff in the first place."

Just then Wadic himself enters the saloon and, after a “good evening” to everyone, heads directly over to the bar. With all the ranch hands glaring at him silently, the newcomer asks for wine, is given a bottle of cheap stuff and sips it out of a shot glass. “It is bad,” he tells the bartender. He doesn’t notice that all of the hands have mockingly imitated his drinking gestures, pinkies extended. It doesn’t take long for things to get really ugly and eventually one of the men slugs Wadic.

"Why is fighting? Wadic asked.

"It's the custom for strangers here."

"With fists, yes? American way?

"That's right."

"Is necessary?"

"I'm afraid so, Mr. Wadic."

With Wadic preparing to fight by raising outstretched fists and closing his eyes, he is easily beaten and carried back to his apartment above his shop. But the evening doesn’t end there. After a few more drinks the rowdy bunch move to the streets, smash the window to Wadic’s shop and remove the wooden mannequin, tying it to the back of a horse and dragging it through the streets of Chambers. This proves a step too far for the newcomer…

If “Hang the Man High!” was MacDonald’s attempt to deal with prejudice, it was an utter failure, for the only way Wadic gains acceptance in Chambers is by becoming something like one of the good old boys. And while the ranch hands are portrayed as an especially ugly lot, the character of Wadic seems nebulous, like the author had to saddle him with enough obvious and characteristic attributes to make him a target, while also trying to make him sympathetic. It doesn’t really work. And the author’s glib ending, complete with mutual backslapping and “I’m buying you a drink!” lines ring especially false, considering the ugliness that has preceded it.

MacDonald’s brief dalliance in the world of the wild west seems to have been limited to a very short period in his writing career, from April 1948 to December 1949 and, unless I discover something else in the pages of an old Bluebook or Argosy, he never tried it again. The world of fiction is not poorer for that decision.

“Hang the Man High!” (a meaningless title, by the way… Wadic is never threatened with hanging) was published in the November 1949 issue of Fifteen Western Tales, has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted.

Monday, May 7, 2018

"The Giant Who Came to Our House"

John D MacDonald wrote 27 short stories that appeared in the weekly newspaper supplement This Week, spanning a 16 year period from 1950 to 1966. I’ve written about most of these brief tales, fiction that included situational comedies, family issues, youthful reminiscences and, yes, even crime. Considering the vast circulation of This Week -- it was included in scores of American Newspapers from 1935 to 1969 -- more people probably read John D MacDonald stories in this magazine than in any other. As I wrote in a previous post, “[This Week] started out being carried by 21 newspapers with a combined circulation of more than four million. Over the the next thirty years the magazine’s growth was explosive: eleven million issues per week in 1955 and a high of over fourteen million by 1963. These numbers dwarf those of contemporaneous newsstand slicks -- four million got a periodical into the big leagues, with only a few like Life (5.6 million) and Reader’s Digest (ten million) exceeding that.”

The quality of these various stories ranged from the fairly inconsequential (“I Love You (Occasionally),” “A Matter of Life and Death,” “Who Stopped That Clock?”) to superior works of popular fiction, like “End of the Tiger” and “Blurred View”. Between those two extremes were the so-so stories, interesting on a fairly superficial level but leaving little or no lasting mark. “The Giant Who Came to Our House,” which appeared in the May 5, 1957 issue of This Week, probably falls into this category: it’s engaging, creates a wistfully-remembered childhood past, and tells an easy lesson. But it’s really more interesting as a dress rehearsal for a superior short story MacDonald would write six years later.

“The Giant Who Came to Our House” is told in flashback, a man remembering an incident from his childhood, unimportant on its surface but lasting in the mark that it has left on him. In this regard it mirrors previous works like “Looie Follows Me” and “The Bear Trap” and would provide the template for that six-years-later story, “End of the Tiger.”

It happened on a Sunday long ago, on one of those hot still days in late summer. I was ten that summer, and it was a bad summer for me because of my father. It wasn't that I was ashamed of him. I just felt sort of let down. I think my mother felt the same way, but there wasn't anything we could do about it.

Billy Barret’s problem with his father Sam began way before that Sunday incident long ago. Sam had run his own “mercantile store” in town before partnering up with another local retailer, an obnoxious feed store owner named Ed Wadley. Wadley is a kind of character familiar to readers of MacDonald’s work: big and beefy, loud and obnoxious and given to using demeaning names to others (he refers to Sam as “Shorty”). Readers of “Blue Water Fury” and “The Killer” will recognize him immediately. The two argue constantly about the direction of the business and Wadley always wins those arguments, many of them taking place at the Barret home and in front of Billy. But the incident Billy is recalling took place outside of the business relationship and involved a third party, an outsider to the family.

Harry Sturmer is a circus performer, a seven-foot-four, three hundred and twenty pound giant whose stage name is Big Tex. Out of work and penniless after his circus closed unexpectedly and robbed of his stash of money, he wandered by the Barret place -- a large house and a yard big enough to fit a barn and an apple orchard -- asking for work. Billy’s mom Sarah took pity on him and, needing to replace their other handyman, hired him on at a dollar per day. Harry sleeps in the barn and, between chores, writes to circuses around the region looking for work. Billy’s recollection of the giant is characteristic MacDonald: tersely but tellingly descriptive, evoking a deeper character in as few words as possible:

His voice didn't sound the way a giant's should. It was thin and kind of rusty sounding. All in all, I guess he was a disappointing sort of giant. Unfinished looking. And nothing fit just right. He was powerful, but slow and awkward and clumsy. His face was long and he had a sad look and he sunburned easy. Every time I asked a question, he had to think over his answer and then he made it short.

Billy gets used to having Harry around the place and over time comes to admire him. So it is no surprise that the “incident” the story is built around takes place at Harry’s expense and involved the noxious Ed Wadley.

On that particular Sunday Wadley is over and he and the Barrets are out on the porch talking, with Billy playing in the yard and Harry doing yard work out near the driveway. The contentious conversation is, as always, about the store and at one point Wadley makes a point loud enough for everyone -- including Harry -- to hear:

"Now honestly, Shorty, how much respect am I supposed to have for the business judgement of a man who'd hire a freak to take care of the work around this place?"

There was a strange silence. The whole afternoon seemed to stop, even the birds. I was close enough to barely hear my mother whisper, "That was rude, Ed Wadley. Very rude. You've hurt his feelings."

But Sam Barret was silent.

And my father didn't do anything. He didn't tell Ed Wadley to get off the place. I felt sick inside. I wanted to make it up to Harry somehow, but there just wasn't any way I could think of.


“The Giant Who Came to Our House” ends happily, as one would certainly expect in a Sunday morning read from 1957, and its themes and concerns go deeper than most of the previous stories MacDonald wrote for This Week. The subject of prejudice and standing up for oneself surely trump tales of marital misunderstandings and household pets. But the story, seen now from the perspective of time and an understanding of MacDonald’s entire writing career, reads more like a dry run for the superior “End of the Tiger.” The author obviously liked these childhood tales told from the perspective of a grown man and he continued to write them throughout his career. He even tried it after “End of the Tiger,” less than a year after the publication of that great story, with another This Week effort, “Wild, Wonderful Old Man,” with much less success. And as good as “End of the Tiger” was -- and is -- it paled against JDM’s greatest recollection tale, “The Bear Trap.” Now that was a piece of writing.

“The Giant Who Came to Our House” has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted, but it can be easily read by anyone with access to an online newspaper database, either at home or through your local library. Microfilm archives of most US newspapers are readily available and many of these dailies carried This Week. Some examples are the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Star.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Beach Girls

Nineteen Fifty-Nine was another banner year for John D MacDonald, a banner year that capped a banner decade. He began the Fifties with a seemingly effortless shift from pulp writer to paperback author, and in only ten short years he had produced 23 paperback originals, 7 hardcover works of fiction, an anthology of his own work and an anthology of works by other authors. Plus, he continued writing short fiction, producing a mere 160 novellas and short stories for the magazines of the day. Not bad for a guy who didn’t start writing until he was 29.

By the end of the decade he showed little evidence of slowing down. While working steadily on the Mystery Writers of America anthology The Lethal Sex -- a project he once claimed “cost me a novel of my own” -- he knocked off four book length works of fiction: Please Write for Details and Deadly Welcome in March, The Crossroads in July, and finally, The Beach Girls in September. (The Lethal Sex would be published in December.) All four of these books are good examples of MacDonald’s breadth of talent: the great range of subject matter he could effortlessly master, the backgrounds and characters he could magically bring to life, and the amazing skill at storytelling that still holds up today as a masterclass in writing fiction. But there’s something unique in this collection of novels, something MacDonald had never attempted before. Two of these books were so similar in plot, tone and character as to be flip sides of the same coin. There’s even a character crossover, the only one I’m aware of outside the McGee series. It is almost as if the author wrote these works simultaneously (a practice he employed throughout his writing career), with each playing off the other. Or perhaps he was working on the same idea, trying two different tacks on the same plan, only to end up with two separate but very similar novels. In any event, his readers were (and are) blessed to have both of these works: Please Write for Details and The Beach Girls.

The novels were handled very differently. Please Write for Details was published in hardcover by Simon and Shuster, while The Beach Girls was a paperback original put out by Fawcett Gold Medal. The hardback was given publicity and a book tour, while The Beach Girls seems to have come and gone like a thief in the night. Please Write for Details utilized MacDonald’s favorite narrative perspective, the multi-character third person pov, while The Beach Girls utilized a method he used all the way back in 1954 with All These Condemned, where each chapter is told in first person singular by a different character. But even there MacDonald gave up on that toward the end of the book and switched to third person. Finally, the characters are from different worlds. The people of Please Write for Details are middle-class gentlefolk, spending a few weeks in an art camp in Mexico, while those of The Beach Girls are tough, hard-living, boat people, living (for the most part) on their seagoing crafts.

But the plots evolve pretty much in the same way, with MacDonald’s focus on several would-be couples in various states of difficulty, and each novel has its climax build around a great get-together: a wedding in Please Write for Details, a birthday party in The Beach Girls.

Curiously, there is no beach in The Beach Girls, and it’s never certain who the girls are that the title is referring to. MacDonald’s working titles for the novel -- Six Girls Have I; The Ketch, The Gaff and the Girl; The Girls on the Beach -- don’t give much of a clue either. The action takes place in the Stebbins Marina, a fictional locale in the fictional resort town of Elihu Beach, on the Atlantic coast of Florida, somewhere between Palm Beach and Ft Lauderdale, on the western side of the Intracoastal Waterway. What beach there is is on the far side of State Route A1A, which runs north-south along the outer barrier island, but it is barely referred to in the novel. The Stebbins Marina is an old establishment and it has seen better days. Started in 1919 by Jess Stebbins, “it grew like a mushroom patch,” and now “nothing matches, everything needs paint, everything is about to fall down.” Jess has been dead for seven years when the The Beach Girls opens, and the marina is run by his widow, Alice, a “big horse” who is sturdily built and who is now 50 years old. She operates out of a small, rickety office and lives in a small apartment up on the second floor. She’s tough, crusty and profane, and she makes just enough money off the enterprise to keep afloat, both financially and literally.

There are several docks at Stebbins Marina, and most are identified by letter and number, but the focus of the book is on the residents of Dock D, where there are fifteen slips housing ten permanent residents, plus one corporate-owned boat captained by one of the residents, 35 year old Orbie Derr, and it is he who kicks off the novel with “his” first-person chapter. He gives us the lay of the land, briefly introduces the various characters that reside on D Dock, and establishes what will become the main plot with his first sentence:

It was a right pretty night when Leo Rice arrived at the Stebbins Marina. Friday, it was. the first day of August. It was later on the same month that everything went to hell for just about everybody. Maybe he was, like Joe Rykler explained to me, a catalyst. But I've got the general opinion everything was due to go to hell anyway. things had been working up to it.

The residents of D Dock are a tight, insular and protective group, and they resent it when Alice tells Rice to tie up on the end of “their” dock. They consist of Christy Yale, Helen Hass, Anne Browder and Amy Penworthy, four “girls” who live on two houseboats: Christy and Helen in the Shiftless and Anne and Amy in the Alrightee. All four women have day jobs in Elihu Beach and all four are unmarried. There’s Joe Rykler, a twice-divorced freelance writer who lives aboard his Ampersand, Gus Andorian, a big, aging, widowed grandfather who lives on a motorless scow, and Bud and Ginny Linder, a young married couple who were in the process of sailing around the world in their Fancy Free when it was storm damaged six mile offshore and the couple were forced to come to Stubbins, tie up and get day jobs in order to pay for the repairs. Other residents of D Dock, but not present for the arrival of Rice, include Syd Stark, a playboy with possible mob connections, living aboard the relatively luxurious Pieces of Seven with a young starlet named Francesca Portoni; Sim Gallowell and Marty Urban, friends and joint owners of the Sea Gal, a charter boat; and finally Rex Rigsby, owner of a Bahamian ketch called the Angel. Rex also makes a living taking charters, but he is not considered a member of the D Dock gang, for reasons that will eventually reveal themselves.

Leo Rice arrives, motoring down the Waterway and into the Stubbins basin in an old Higgins Sedan, and it’s clear he is a novice boatman. After asking to tie up he is instructed to back into Slip 13, but he bangs into the pilings twice before Orbie jumps aboard and takes the controls from him. Orbie’s first impression of Rice is neatly written and keenly observed:

He was about forty, a big lean guy, deeply tanned, with one of those pleasant ugly faces. He wore khaki shorts and he looked as if he was in fine shape. But he didn’t look sure of himself—I mean in more ways than not being able to handle thirty-four feet of boat. Like he’d been gutted. Like some of the running parts had been taken out of him and put back in with string.

Rice explains that he just purchased the boat -- the Ruthless -- two weeks ago up in Jacksonville and he received a brief lesson on how to pilot it. He keeps to himself that first night, not bothering the other D Dockers who are sitting around drinking beer and eating hamburgers. But the plot is set in motion.

There are many characters in The Beach Girls, but MacDonald wisely chooses to focus on a select few in telling the tale.

Orbie Derr has lived all his life on or near the water and is an expert seaman. Divorced, he is currently employed as charter captain for the Lullaby, a 40-foot diesel Matthews, owned by a Pennsylvania company that makes baby furniture. During the summer months the company sends "batches of women from the office" down to vacation at a nearby hotel and they have free run of the Lullaby. It is Orbie's job to accommodate them. The reader is tempted to suspect that these may be the "beach girls" referred to in the title, but MacDonald doesn't follow this thread very closely. And lest one think this is a dream job, piloting unchaperoned women around the Caribbean, Orbie states otherwise.

It’s a mess. I got four batches last summer, and this summer it will be five. Six to eight females in each batch. Maybe they’re just fine up there, but they go crazy down here in the summer. They get drunk and they get seasick and they get sunburned so bad they get chills and fever. They run from twenty-five to fifty-five, and they aren’t hired for looks. You should hear them all squeal at once when somebody hooks a fish. The better-looking ones sometimes seem willing enough, but I know damn well that if word ever got back to Pennsylvania that Captain Derr messed around with one of them, good-by job.

It’s not uncommon for MacDonald to begin one of his multi-perspective novels with one of the secondary characters, and that’s pretty much what Orbie is. His initial chapter is his only chapter and he mainly sets the scene in the marina.

Joe Rykler has been married twice and has vowed to never do it again. A writer of how-to books, he lives on his aptly-named boat the Ampersand. At 31 he is still young enough to be playing the field and has gone on several cruises with various women.

I am big, dark-haired and look slightly unkempt at all times. This awakens the mother in them. They want to sew on buttons and cook for me. I have brown eyes and I can look very hurt. I have various lines of patter and chatter that have proved out well. Also, I am a romantic figure. I am a writer who lives and works on his boat. They are inclined to sympathize with my creative urge to write a big novel. They are saddened that I must waste my substance by writing do-it-yourself books in order to support myself and my two ex-wives.

Joe’s real objective is Anne Browder, one of the two residents of the Alrightee, but that has been, so far, unsuccessful. “It wasn’t a case of not getting to first base. I couldn’t even catch a ride to the ball park.”

Ann Browder is the newest resident of D Dock, moving onto the Alrightee with Amy Penworthy eight months prior to the action of the novel, having relocated to Elihu Beach from New York City. She is a pretty blonde with a fabulous set of legs, but she’s reserved and controlled. She doesn’t smile much, she doesn’t date and she’s politely rebuffed every advance Joe Rykler has made. When she finally agrees to go out to dinner with Joe she reveals that she came down to Florida after a horrible ending to a three-year affair with a married man. When she decided to get pregnant in order to prod him into leaving his wife, he freaked and broke it up, sending Anne to an abortionist in Philadelphia. (A remarkably frank passage for MacDonald at this point in his writing.) She can’t get over it and is resigned to the fact that she is incapable of loving anyone else.

Forty year old Leo Rice is at Stubbins Marina for a reason, and it’s not because he just happened to stop by on his way down from Jacksonville. He’s a high-ranking corporate executive from Syracuse on a mission that has nothing to do with his job. A year ago his wife, tired of being ignored by his constant focus on work, confronted him with the news that she wanted a trial separation. She and a girlfriend were going to head down to the Bahamas and she was going to try and find herself. This was a bolt from the blue for workaholic Leo, and he protested but she was adamant. They put their two boys in boarding school and she left. And in only a few weeks later she was dead.

She had committed suicide after spending several weeks on a yacht with a man who wooed her, took her money, then dumped her. After much investigation Leo was able to discover that the man was named Rex Rigsby.

Rex Rigsby is the “bad guy” of the novel and Leo Rice hunting him down in order to exact some sort of revenge is the primary plot of The Beach Girls. Rigsby is remarkably similar to Paul Klauss, the villain of Please Write for Details: a sociopathic playboy who hunts, woos and ruins woman for sport. But while Klauss was a man who played this game in order to destroy the women, Rigsby mainly does it for the money he is able to extract from them. That they are emotionally destroyed is merely a nice dividend. And of course Rigsby is moored on D Dock, in the very slip next to Leo.

While Leo’s revenge is the main thread of the novel, there is another: the end of the Stubbins Marina. For years Alice Stubbins has been holding off would-be buyers who want to tear down the place and rebuild it into a pretty, expensive showplace, “like down in Lauderdale.” One particular real estate agent, the oily George Haley, calls often, and his entreaties begin to sound more like threats, in words familiar to any reader of MacDonald’s works:

“I’ve wasted time talking sweet to you. Now I’m going to put the cards right out where you can see them. This is a crummy, run-down place. It’s a damn eyesore. It’s hampering the development of the land around it. Important people own some of the land around it. They want to see that land value go up. You haven’t got the capital to improve this place. And so, sooner or later, in one way or another, they’re going to squeeze you out of it. Right?”

And then there are various side characters who take up more or less space depending on MacDonald’s interest. All are exceptionally well drawn and humorously portrayed. There’s Captain Jimmy Meirs and his new wife Jannifer Jean, a “swamp pussy” (MacDonald’s term, not mine!) who is twenty years his junior and whose hobby is sleeping around behind his back. There are Stan and Beezie Hooper, rich, lazy owners of the big Fleetermouse. Beezie is a MacDonald “type,” scrawny, leathery from the sun and mostly drunk. And Jack and Judy Engly, owners of the charter boat Judy’s Luck. Judy’s claim to fame are her loud ululations during sex, sounds that can be heard every night throughout the entire marina. It is introduced in the first chapter and will become a major plot point toward the end.

But as in Please Write for Details, it’s the couples MacDonald is most interested in writing about in The Beach Girls, and as in that earlier novel he focuses on three.

Ann Browder agrees to have dinner with Joe Rykler that first night when Leo Rice arrives at Stebbins Marina. This is a bolt from the blue for Joe. It is over dinner where Joe finally learns Anne’s story: her love affair, her abortion, her relocation to Florida. But Ann seems to have an ulterior motive for the date. After Joe admits that he is only after sex, that after two failed marriages he doesn’t believe in love anymore, Ann brazenly suggests that they repair to the Ampersand to sleep together.

“I wouldn’t want it to mean anything to you, Joe. That wouldn’t be fair, because it wouldn’t mean anything to me. You understand it wouldn’t mean anything to me. It would be like pretend. But I wouldn’t want it to be messy. I couldn’t stand that. Or a stranger. It has to be somebody I like. I want it to . . . change what I am, just a little.”

The couple’s lovemaking, however, is a failure, at least as far as Anne is concerned. In a passage as frank as anything MacDonald had written up to this point, Joe relates the “ordeal”:

We were there together possibly two hours. I tried. God knows I tried. And she did too. I am sure of that. But when she shuddered in my arms I knew it was neither excitement nor passion, but rather the reflexive tremor of the sacrificial animal. Though she tried to pretend, I could sense the regret, the remorse, the quiet despair—and the consciousness of shame. And when her breathing was rapid, it was merely the result of effort. Her rhythms had that erratic imbalance of contrivance rather than need. And when finally, in an admission of defeat, I went on to my own completion, it was but a sour spasm, lonely, meaningless and unshared. We lay deadened in the empty darkness until she gave a great sigh and climbed over me and found her robe and put it on. I got up and pulled my Bermuda walking shorts on, and turned on the light. Even muted, it was far too bright. We avoided each other’s eyes.

The failed cure, however, does have a very real effect on Joe, one that will provide his thread of the plot for the remainder of the novel. As he watches Ann walk away, down the dock toward the Allrightee, he is transformed:

And my heart burst. The tired old Rykler heart. Burst and sprayed acid into my eyes, misting the stars. I wanted to spend the next thousand years with her. So I tried to cope with the unexpected, unwanted invasion of Cupid. The little winged bastard had given up his bow and arrow and snuck up on me with a bazooka… You are a very cynical fellow, Rykler. You bear the wounds of two horrible marriages. That is a nice leggy blondie and you had the acquisitive urge to roll her over in the clover, and you did. Mission accomplished. End of incident. Love is a word on greeting cards. Love is not for you, Joseph. Eternity is a dirty word. She probably leaves hair in the sink, burns the toast and has a loose filling. She is glorious. She is what it is all about.

Alice Stubbins, at age 50, would seem an unlikely candidate for MacDonald’s love interests, but here he departs from his usual practice of focusing on twenty-somethings and writes about romance between people older than he was (43) when he wrote this. Alice has a fairly typical MacDonald backstory: married young and happily to a construction worker, blessed with a child, but it all went to hell somewhat suddenly. The child died at age 11 (reasons not divulged) and, after 22 “good years” of marriage, her husband Mike was killed in a construction accident. So at age 39 she found herself alone and in Florida, fishing off a dock at the Stubbins Marina, where she met Jess, who was nearly 25 years older than she was. He eventually proposed and, out of sheer loneliness, she accepted. The sexual part of the relationship is humorously recounted by Alice:

About the physical part of it, I didn’t know what to expect. After the ceremony he kissed me quick and timid. I knew I didn’t feel any more response to him than I would to your granddaddy, but if he figured that was part of the bargain, I wasn’t going to hold out on him. I needn’t have worried about him. By the end of the first week I had some pretty strong suspicions of what had killed off his first two wives. And my responses were all in order. I wasn’t complaining a bit. After twenty-two years with a man like Mike, you build up fires that never go out. Jess loved to have me joke him about his virility, expressing awe and alarm. He’d stick his chest out and swagger up and down. After our first couple of weeks he slowed down to the pace of a sailor on leave.

The marriage lasts only three years before Jess becomes ill and dies, and he leaves the marina to Alice. At first she had great plans to fix the place up, but she never gets around to it and now she just gets by, only fixing things that must be fixed and barely surviving financially. But she has grown attached to the residents of the Stubbins Marina, and is especially friendly with those of D Dock. And more than just friendly with Gus Andorian.

Gus is a retired steelworker, a widow approaching 70, who lives alone on a scow called the Queen Bee. Alice describes him as “big and thick and solid as a tree.” He moved to Florida after his wife died, much to the consternation of his six married daughters, who periodically come to visit him and attempt to convince him to come back and live with them. But Gus is having the time of his life, free from the control his wife had over him. As Orbie recalls in the first chapter, “she was a little bit of a thing, and she had strong ideas about drinking, swearing, spitting and gambling. She kept the lid on Gus.” The lid is now off, and Gus and Alice are having a relationship.

It began one evening when Alice twisted her ankle and Gus, passing by, rescued her and carried her up to her apartment over the marina office. After a clumsy attempt at first aid, something magical (and, in 2018, very politically incorrect) happens:

He knelt, admiring his handiwork, and then looked up at me. There was a sort of a click you could almost hear. And in the next second he sprang like a lion. I fought for maybe two whole seconds. Afterwards he wept, bashed his deep chest with his fist, demanding I call the police and have him locked up forever. He shouldn’t be free to assault innocent ladies. Finally I got it through his thick skull that the lady didn’t mind a bit. His whole craggy face turned into one vast mask of surprise. “Yah?” he said. “Yah.” So he came back to bed.

Once Alice has made the decision to sell the marina, her ongoing relationship with Gus is left is great doubt.

The most interesting relationship, and the one that MacDonald himself is obviously most interested in exploring, is that between Leo Rice and Christy Yale.

Christy is another MacDonald “type,” a woman who, wracked by doubts about her own physical appearance, masks her unhappiness behind the makeup of a clown. She has a clear antecedent in the character of Judy Jonah in All These Condemned and the similarly-named Christy Hallowell in Dead Low Tide, the “compulsive clown” who jokes her way through life with wisecracks and buffoonery. For while her body from the neck down is incomparable -- a “jim-dandy,” as she herself readily admits -- her face is something else:

This too-round face, devoid of any suggestion of a romantic gauntness. An afterthought of a nose, so inconsequential as to look embryonic. Mouth enough for a girl and a half. Eyes of a funny shade of green under furry black brows set into a face so asymmetrical that the left one is noticeably higher than the right… like Mickey Rooney, from the neck up.

A lifelong resident of Elihu Beach, Christy has her own tragic past, a fiance who died while serving in the military, “over there, on a hill with a number instead of a name, and when they’re dead you can’t tell whether it was a police action or a war.” She is resigned to a life of spinsterhood, with the occasional dalliance, until she meets Leo Rice.

It follows a fist fight between Leo and a marina tough over a bumped boat, where Leo is handily beaten to the ground. Christy takes him back to his own boat and tries to take care of his wounds. She has an ulterior motive, in that she wants to find out what Rice -- an obvious landlubber -- is doing piloting a boat and tying up at the Stubbins Marian. Leo is cagey, and turns the tables on Christy, asking her why she is perpetually clowning and telling her she is prettier than she thinks she is. This leads to a night of heavy tears and soul searching once Christy is back on her own houseboat, and the reader is now clear on whose romantic relationship will steer the balance of the novel. Leo eventually spills the beans on why he is there, telling Christy that he started out thinking that he would kill Rex Rigsby but is now uncertain of what exactly he will do. Christy, for her part, is worried about any confrontation between a 40-year old Leo and the very fit Rigsby. It all leads up to a birthday bash for Alice, the turning point in the novel, where Alice reveals to everyone that she has decided to sell the marina, and where Leo plans to finish what he came here to do.

Despite its obvious contrivances and dated morality, The Beach Girls is a lovely novel, beautifully plotted and imaginatively written and structured. MacDonald clearly has real affection for his characters here, especially the women, who he treats with respect and dignity, even though many are idealized. The motivations seem realistic and the setting, despite its rundown condition and precarious survivability, is presented as a kind of poor-man’s paradise. The writing is nearly without flaw and the novel contains some really transcendental passages. Here’s one from late in the book that gives none of the plot away:

The breeze died. The high white sun leaned its tropic weight on the gaudy vacation strip of Florida’s East Coast, so that it lay sunstruck, lazy and humid and garish, like a long brown sweaty woman stretched out in sequins and costume jewelry. The sun baked the sand too hot for tourist feet. Slow swells clumped onto the listless Atlantic beach. The sun turned road tar to goo, overheated the filtered water in the big swimming pools of the rich and the algaed pools of the do-it-yourself clan, blazed on white roofs, strained air conditioners, turned parked cars into tin ovens, and blistered the unwary. A million empty roadside beer cans twinkled in the bright glare. The burning heat dropped a predictable number of people onto stone sidewalks, of which a predictable number died, drove the unstable further into the jungly wastes of their madness, exposed the pink tongues of all the dogs in the area, redoubled the insect songs in every vacant lot, set the weather-bureau boys to checking the statistics of past performance, and sent a billion billion salty trickles to flowing on sin-darkened skins.

If I have one reservation about the novel it would be MacDonald’s near-cartoonish handling of the violence depicted. These are rough-and-tumble characters, especially the men, and they are strong, determined, and quick to fight when angered. But when they do, the damage done is so inconsequential as to seem to have come from a television western. Leo’s early fight on D Dock is brutal, and given his physical disadvantages, the beating he takes would have landed him in the hospital emergency room rather than back in his bunk sipping a highball mixed by Christy Yale. Still, that’s a small complaint for an otherwise immensely enjoyable reading experience.

There’s an interesting pattern in MacDonald’s structuring of the book, one that would seem to be sporadic and was, perhaps, due to outside influence. The first nine chapters of the novel are all written in first person singular, with the chapter title identifying the name of the speaker. But in chapters ten through twelve, he switches to third person -- these are the chapters describing the events of the big birthday bash. The chapter titles are “Happy Birthday,” “Happy Birthday to You,” and “Happy Something.” Did the author come to a point in the writing where he felt unable to continue with his original idea, or was that the plan all along? It’s not really that abrupt and it doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the book, but it is curious and unique in the MacDonald canon.

The final chapter -- titled simply “Chapter Thirteen” -- is an epistolary wrap-up of the events and characters of the novel, written by Joe Ryker several years after the great birthday bash. Joe is writing to an editor of his who stayed with him two weeks after the party. He begins the letter:

I can understand your feverish concern about what happened to all the people you met down here. It is because you are a very neat man, and you have to have everything tied up. It is the same reason you over-edit my copy.

If this isn’t MacDonald poking fun at an editor who may have sent The Beach Girls back to the author demanding a tidy ending to the book, I’ll eat my hat.

For most John D MacDonald fans, it is the setting of The Beach Girls that will draw the most interest. A marina featuring permanent residents situated on the Atlantic coast of Florida obviously has resonance with the Travis McGee series, and many go searching for similarities. Hugh Merrill, in his JDM biography The Red Hot Typewriter tried to make a big deal out of this, claiming the the author “cannibalized” his early works in the creation of his famous series character. Cannibalization is a term coined by author Raymond Chandler, used to describe his process for writing several of his novels (like The Lady in the Lake and Farewell, My Lovely) by taking the plots of earlier short stories he had written for the pulps, combining them and turning them into longer works. MacDonald did nothing like this, even when he reused plot points and character traits. He never had trouble in plotting any of his books and was quick to discard any number of pages or even chapters if something wasn’t going right. Outside of the fact that The Beach Girls takes place in a marina, there are few, if any, similarities to the McGee series.

The first edition of The Beach Girls was published by Fawcett Gold Medal and featured a cover illustration by Milton Charles, his first of a John D MacDonald novel. He would go on to illustrate the covers for Slam the Big Door and the 1960 reissue of Murder for the Bride. It features two swimsuit-clad young ladies (one only partially depicted) presumably sunning on a beach, while in the background are boats and a building that bears not the slightest resemblance to the Stubbins Marina. This cover went through five printings, all the way up to May 1970.

The blurb on this cover is rather curious. It reads “Under the bright Florida sun, six willing girls would find love, one sinister man would find death.” Outside of spoiling the end of the novel, I’m scratching my head over the number of “girls” who found love. There are only two of the main characters who do so; Alice has already found love when the novel opens, and one minor character is mentioned in Joe’s final chapter letter. Being generous and including these four, who are the other two? Readers are encouraged to let me know...

The book’s sixth printing took place in August of 1972 and featured the peerless artwork of Robert McGinnis, the illustrator whose work eventually graced 48 John D MacDonald books with 63 unique illustrations. There are six girls depicted on the cover, no one is obviously any specific character (certainly none of them are Alice) and there is a big schooner hovering in the background. The only sailboat in working condition on D Dock is Rex Rigbsy’s Angel, so I’ll have to assume it’s that. This cover lasted a total of six printings, through December 1978.

Finally there’s William Schmidt’s effort, first appearing on the December 1981 printing, the book’s twelfth. Like all of Schmidt’s other JDM covers, it features a detail of the plot imaginatively conveyed, this time in the reflection of a pair of broken sunglasses. It appeared on four separate printings, up through August 1987, after which the book, along with nearly all of JDM’s stand-alone novels, went out of print.

Since MacDonald decided to have The Beach Girls published in paperback (unlike Please Write for Details) it was barely noticed by the critical press of the time. In fact, the only contemporary review I was able to find of the novel was by JDM stalwart Anthony Boucher in his New York Times column. He liked it, writing “Another of fiction’s observant anthropologists visits one wild party… a curious social microcosm which MacDonald analyzes with insight and affection… primarily this is a novel of character and interplay, and a good one.”

Still, MacDonald had made such a name for himself by this point in his career that he really didn’t need reviews -- good or otherwise -- to sell books. By 1988 Fawcett had printed over a million copies of The Beach Girls. But three months before the novel was even published -- in June 1959 -- MacDonald signed a long term exclusivity contract with Fawcett, agreeing to publish all his paperback originals through the publisher, and any paperback version of a hardcover through Fawcett’s reprint arm, Crest. Fawcett had already characterized the author as “the most consistent bestseller in paperback history,” and the fact that his longtime friend Knox Burger was back with the publisher probably sealed the deal. As MacDonald explained to columnist Witney Bolton in July of that year, “I set up this exclusive arrangement with Fawcett because I have become convinced that they, through packaging, promotion, distribution and a carefully planned reissue program can best serve the relationship I have tried to establish between myself as an author and the ever-increasing number of readers who buy paperback books. I feel that the man who pays 35 cents for your book is worthy of as much bitter effort as the man who pays $3.50 -- and he is much more numerous."

The Beach Girls was one of the rare John D MacDonald novels of this period to be denied publication in a popular magazine. The Crossroads before it and Slam the Big Door afterward both appeared in Cosmopolitan, but Please Write for Details didn’t and neither did Clemmie the year before. I’m guessing that these particular novels were far too frank for a newsstand publication, especially ones that enjoyed a large readership through subscription, given the pornography laws of the day. As I’ve written, The Beach Girls was far franker in the areas of sex than anything MacDonald had ever written up to that point.

Like most of MacDonald’s standalones, the book was out of print for much of the past 25 years, but recently ebooks of nearly all of MacDonald's work have been “published” and are readily available through the normal channels. The last time I looked The Beach Girls was selling for only $4.99 on Amazon (for the Kindle). The few used copies of the various paperback editions available on Amazon are quite overpriced, and even the lower priced volumes one can find on eBay are more expensive than the average used paperback should be. Whatever way you like to read, however, I heartily recommend this book.