Monday, July 16, 2018

The JDM Master Checklist

A few weeks ago friend and author Dan Pollock wrote me to say that he was cleaning out some old files and that he has uncovered something that might be of interest to me. Dan shares my love of the writing of John D MacDonald and has donated much of his own collection of JDM ephemera to The Trap of Solid Gold, including articles on writing, past issues of the JDM Bibliophile, and many other items of interest I had no idea existed. This time he had discovered a copy of The JDM Master Checklist and assumed I had a copy, but wanted to offer it in case I didn't. Well, I did not own a copy and asked him to send it along to me. If truth be told, I had never even seen the thing.

The JDM Master Checklist was a project begun back in early 1965 by Len and June Moffatt of Downey, California, to catalog all of MacDonald’s writings up to that point. In the pre-internet age where little if any indexing of pulp magazines existed, this was no small task, but as the JDM Bibliophile -- the fanzine the Moffatts created to begin this project -- began to circulate, fans, researchers and fellow bibliophiles started contributing information for what would become The JDM Master Checklist. MacDonald himself was contacted and became interested, as he was in the process of renewing the copyrights on these works, and he provided much valuable information from his vast files. Finally, in early 1969, the work was published: a 56-page mimeographed, stapled, stenciled work that contained everything known -- up to that point -- on the works of JDM.

I never owned a copy of The JDM Master Checklist, for two reasons. First, it preceded my interest in John D MacDonald by about five years and was out of print by the time I became aware of it. Copies were hard to find back then as owners jealously guarded their own copies. Second, the list was superseded by Walter and Jean Shine’s John D MacDonald: Bibliography Biography, published in 1980 by the University of Florida. This I did obtain and it has been my primary source for keeping track of my own large JDM collection. There was to be a second edition of this work (something I myself worked on) but it never came to be.

When I was finally able to look at The JDM Master Checklist a week ago, I was surprised at how inclusive it was. I had assumed that the Shines had done much of the heavy lifting in cataloging the nearly 400 short stories published in various magazines of the last century, but the listings in the Master Checklist is nearly as complete as that of the Shines. In addition to that there is a section of works published in anthologies, one on the novels (including international editions), an index, and even a biography. A Herculean task, to say the least, but the Moffatts had help: a lot of help, and they listed these people in their introductory pages. John D MacDonald fans own these people -- most of whom have probably passed on by now -- a huge debt of gratitude, and I have transcribed their names here as The Trap of Solid Gold could not exist without the work that they did.


Anthony Boucher, Leonard Broom, Knox Burger, William J. Clark, Ed Cox, Jack Cuthbert, Les Deuel, Ron Ellik, Rory Faulkner, John Hale, Robert G. Hayman, Mrs. Eugene Hobel, George C. Hoyt, Jr., Brian Kirby, Cathy Konigsberg, John D. MacDonald, Hiroshi Onta, Thomas L. Powers, S. Gilbert Prentiss, J. Prince, Henry D. Renard, Takumi Shibanon, Rick Sneary, J. Clyde Stevens, Chuck Toole, Robert Turner, Gail & Tom Van Achtoven, Ramona Weeks, Mike Wharton, Bill Wilson, Ira Wolff, Stan Woolston, L. H. Zelders


Of greater interest to me was the biography that was included, running five pages and containing -- in addition to the standard stuff you can find anywhere -- much personal information on MacDonald, provided by the author himself, who is quoted frequently. I’m not sure any of this was really new to me, but I believe this is the only bio where one can find it all in one place, a rich collection of the minutiae of MacDonald’s interests when away from the typewriter. As such, I have transcribed it and present it below. At some point I’ll produce a stand-alone version with a link under The Trap of Solid Gold Resources over in the right column.

If Dan Pollock does any future file cleaning I’ll be sure to share it here. Thanks Dan!

A Brief Biography

John Dann MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania on July 24, 1916. He lived in Pennsylvania -- with summer trips to a small, unworked farm on the Pymatuning River in Orangeville, Ohio -- until he was twelve, at which time his family moved to Utica, New York.

After grade school, he attended the Utica Free Academy, graduated at 15, and took a post-graduate year there. He returned briefly to Pennsylvania at the age of 17 as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, but his formal education was to be completed in New York and in Massachusetts. He received a BS from the University of Syracuse in 1937, and an M.B.A. from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1939.

The effects of the Great Depression were still in force during his college years, and he "pieced out the pocket" at various jobs. In Massachusetts he worked in a factory feeding a bank of automatic wood lathes. In Syracuse he was a chauffeur, a fruit-stand clerk, a janitor in the medical arts building, and a book-duster in a bookstore. In New York City he sold magazine and book subscriptions office-to-office, washed dishes in a cafeteria, and was "an under-aged liquor waiter, overworked bus-boy and overworked food waiter". He also had a stint of collection work, repossessing automobiles, refrigerators and washing machines.

During all of this time, he had no particular interest in writing as a hobby or as a career. He did write a little for his high school paper one year, but his writing in his college years was limited to the subjects he was studying.

However, he has always been a compulsive reader, reading as many as three or four books per week. His childhood hobby interests, other than reading, included stamp collecting and model airplanes. Golf, skiing and archery were to follow.

His father, a financial officer in the Standard Tank Car Company and Savage Arms Corporation, urged him to prepare for a career in the business world, and as John had no particular alternative to offer, he followed his father's wishes. From various sources we have learned that the literary world's gain was indeed the business world's loss. The brilliant writer could have been the brilliant business consultant. As a matter of fact, he became both an excellent writer and an outstanding businessman if only because of his business-like approach to the writing trade.

During the time he was preparing for a business career, he had no interest in writing, but another major interest entered his life. He married Dorothy Mary Prentiss, an artist, in 1937. Dorothy received an M.F.A. from Syracuse University. She has taught at Cazenovia Seminary, and at the Clearwater Art Center. Her work has appeared in national shows, and is in several private collections.

Their son, John Prentiss MacDonald, grew up to be an artist and a teacher, too. He and his wife, Anne, recently moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, with their three-year old son, Karsten, and one-year-old daughter, Margaret. John P. MacDonald teaches art at a girls' college in Christchurch.

John D. MacDonald's career as a businessman was interrupted when he joined the Army in 1940. He served until 1946, mustering out as a Lieutenant Colonel. His career as a writer began during his overseas sojourn. The latter included China, India, Burma, Ceylon, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, New Guinea, Okinawa, Ulithi, Hawaii and Saipan. Wartime censorship prevented him from writing long and detailed letters to Dorothy -- so he wrote a short story for her entertainment. The year was 1945. Dorothy submitted the story, and eventually it sold to Story magazine, where it was published in the July-August 1946 issue as "Interlude in India". Encouraged by this and subsequent sales, John continued to write. The short stories, novelets, articles and novels listed in this bibliography attest to how much -- and how well -- he has written in the past 23 years.

John brought his knowledge and talent for conducting a business to the very serious business of writing-for-a-living. He applied the accepted and workable habits of a good business to his own chosen profession, such as regular office hours -- or as regular as one can make them in the writing profession.

He knew -- instinctively, perhaps -- or perhaps it was just plain, hardnose common sense (or business sense, if you prefer) that one could not survive as a writer if one did not produce. Sitting around half the day waiting for "inspiration" to strike was fine for the dilettante writer, but not for the working writer. The more words going the rounds of the publishers, the more chance of selling some of them.

His first sales were to the pulps (although Story magazine, where his first story appeared, was not in the pulp class), a magazine market that had been somewhat depleted by the paper shortage in World War II, and which eventually breathed its last in the early fifties.
Television and the paperback market provided -- and still provide -- the same kind of entertainment that once could be found only in the pulp magazines. Today's “Man From UNCLE” was yesterday's "Doc Savage". But the pulps were only a training ground for MacDonald. He was a hack only in the sense of being capable of turning out thousands of words within short periods of time. This is not to say that his early stories were all gems of literary craftsmanship. He was learning the trade, and competing with writers who at that time were "old-timers" in the field. Many of the top-name writers of that era had started when they were very young men. Some of them went on to become top names outside of the pulps, and others never graduated from the pulp methods of story-telling.

But John soon became popular in all the various types of pulp magazines -- adventure, mystery, western, sports and science-fiction. During this postwar period, the MacDonalds resided in various places, from New York State to Texas to Mexico. They settled in Florida in 1949, and also have a house in the Adirondacks. Since then, then have traveled most frequently to the Bahamas and to Mexico, but they have visited many other states and places in this hemisphere. (John also visited Europe in the summer before college, wandering around England, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc.)

As someone once said, "MacDonald seems to know something about everything and every place". This remark was of course inspired by the variety of subjects and places to be found in JDM stories. It is obvious that John has a fantastic memory, and is capable of transmitting the pictures in his mind to word-pictures on the printed page.

As a result, he did not become just another hack for the pulps. The slick magazines and the hardcover and paperback markets were goals he achieved because no market could be more demanding on him as a writer than he was on himself.

As a matter of fact, during his first full year of writing for a living (1946) he sold one short story each to Esquire, Liberty and Cosmopolitan, and in 1947 he sold ten or twelve stories to the slicks. He was not so much writing for the pulps as he was writing stories and then trying to sell them wherever he could. Had Collier’s rejected his first serial, it probably would have sold to Popular Publications.

He is "more intent on telling it true than in selling it once it is told". With this motto, he became more than just another writer of suspense fiction; he became a great American novelist and short-story writer.

In later years, when he was established and successful, he had his son, then about ten years old, help him burn approximately two million words of "impossible" manuscripts. Imagine the courage, the integrity and the self-criticism it took to do that!

He was one of the first -- if not the first -- paperback writer to be elected to the Presidency of the Mystery Writers of America. Writers of paperback originals (not to be confused with paperback reprints of hardcovers) have only recently come into their own -- that is, to be given the same "prestige" that was once reserved for writers of hardcover books.

By concentrating on the paperback market, and not being concerned about the prestige associated with hardcover publication, MacDonald helped to raise the quality of the market, along with others who did not worry about the comments of hardcover-oriented critics. Over the years be has won awards and acclaim, with many reprintings of his work, including translation into several foreign languages. He has been dubbed "the writing machine" by his friends, and is generally known as a "writer's writer". The latter translates into: "Geez, I wish I could write like that!"

Although he is generally known as a leading paperback writer, he has had twelve hardcover books published, not counting Three for McGee, which is a hardcover reprint of three paperback originals. Five of the twelve had been published at the time he became President of the MWA in 1962.

We once asked John to list his favorite writers. He refused to attempt a list of living writers, because an omission could sound like a knock, but he did list deceased writers who are among his favorites: "Faulkner, Chandler, Hemingway, Camus, Conrad, Maugham, Cary, London, and (so help us ) Kipling and Fitzgerald."

If you have read The House Guests, you know of the MacDonalds' love of animals. They still have old Knees, the goose, and her child Duck, a Peking from an egg she hatched. They also have two cats, each one-quarter Abyssinian, three years old, from the same litter: Beauregarde and Marilyn. Each has only one good eye, due to rhinotracheitis in the first week after birth. John says that both cats are "frighteningly bright", and -- if you have read The House Guests --we say that's as it should be.

John says that he exercises by walking, and that he is in pretty fair shape at six feet, one and one-half inches, and 173 pounds. We would consider fishing as exercise, but to him it is an avocation. He gave up golf because it took too big a piece out of the day.

On their annual visits to their home in the Adirondacks, John engages in his "traditional" exercise of felling, hand-sawing, splitting and stacking all of the cords of hardwood that they use. His interest in (and knowledge of) boats is well known, and he is rather proud of his "very fast and satisfying 240 horse Muñequita", and his little sailing catamaran.

He was once a semi-pro bridge player for large money and a "pretty fair country chess player," but these too would steal the hours he needs for his other major interests. He is wary of competitive games because he can get hooked on them, and they would take time that he prefers to spend in other ways. He does love poker, and considers himself a purist in that he prefers table stakes, pot limit, 3-card draw or 5-card stud, nothing wild. "I play to end the evening ahead, and have no wild, wistful optimistic urge to try to improve a nothing hand."

His favorite spectator sports are pro football, the bullfights and professional hockey, in that order. He is a long-time "wistful" supporter of the Cleveland Browns, dating from the first year they had Jimmy Brown. But he would rather be slowly parboiled than to have to sit through a basketball game.

John cannot stand the live theater. He sits with shoulders hunched, breathing shallowly, painfully waiting for a blown line, a bad line, a sickly goof. He says he sees a stage play about once every ten years. He goes to maybe seven movies a year, after seeing what Judith Crist, the New Yorker, Time and Holiday have to say about them. He claims that he hasn't seen a really bad movie in years. (The last movie he had seen, at this writing, was Rachel, Rachel, which he labels "Superb!")

He is not a joiner. He belongs to the MWA, the Authors Guild and the P.E.N. Club (Poets-Essayists-Novelists). He resigned from the Players Club because he didn't use it.

John does not like to kill things, be they birds, crickets, spiders, snakes, rabbits or whatever. An angry, edible fish is the solitary exception, and "I do not like killing him, only catching him, provided he weighs more than the test of the line". (His reels have 4, 6, 8 and 12-pound test line on them. The 12 is for tarpon and dolphin.) He prefers fishing for small angry fish wherever they may be, St. Lawrence River or a brackish Florida canal, and he "will release anything I do not damn well intend to eat". (He does not knock hunters or hunting, but he cannot do it himself.)

About music, he says: "I just went down and checked the records most recently played, and find a most catholic assortment: Billie Holiday, La Misa en Mexico, Simon and Garfunkel, Pablo Casals, Modern Jazz Quartet, Brubeck, Chicago-The Blues Today, Ohana-Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, Eydie Gorme and Trio Los Panchos, Illya Darling, Tatum and Bach.

"I guess I like all music that has enough quality of invention, guile and surprise so that I get a feeling of pleasurable amusement when they fit the pieces together in a way I could not have anticipated. I have good stereo equipment, and built a lot of the pieces of it myself. Most 33 1/3's have some dreary bands thereon, so I tape to eliminate the drearies, and because I scrupulously clean tape heads and demagnetize, the per-play loss of quality on the tape collection is infinitesimal compared with the loss resultant from needle play, even on the Marantz turntable."

His favorite hobby is photography, and he has achieved a semi-pro status in that field. He is a member or the ASMP, and has sold color work to Venture and True. He has also done back-of-book studies of many writer friends. He uses Nikon and Rollei equipment, and prefers to work in black-and-white. He doesn't have the time to do his own lab work, and uses a professional lab in New York. He says that photography is good for the novelist's eye, "Keeps it fresh and questing."

We asked him if there really was a Plymouth Gin (a favorite or McGee's), not having been able to find any in this area, and also asked him about his other favorite drinks and foods. His reply: "Yes, Virginia, there is really a Plymouth Gin, and very good and dry and strong it is. I like it in a beaker of cracked ice, with a dab of extra dry sherry. Despise all sweet drinks. Like very spicy Mary's, like outdoor drink or Planters Punch, no sugar. Great Western Brut is damned fine champagne. Like dark beers. There is no domestic beer worth drinking. Have cast-iron stomach, and most enjoy the very spiced Spanish, Mexican, Italian dishes. Love Julia Child but hate French cooking. Indifferent to steak. Would prefer knockwurst and kraut any time."

John said recently that he is not "a political animal," and that was one of the reasons he supported LeRoy Collins when Collins was running for a seat in the U. S. Senate. (Unfortunately, a real political animal defeated Collins so overwhelmingly as to be heartbreaking.) John calls himself a pragmatist. He believes that "Government should protect men from one another and from the other organizations, devices, violences that man keeps creating. Government is always cyclical -- going from revolutionary to power-progress, to status-quo, to oppressive, to decline and death. All power corrupts; all committee effort is asinine, 99 of 100 politicians are warped, limited, saddening simpletons. Most of mankind is indifferent to political philosophy."

John believes in a divine, inexplicable order (i.e., shape, texture, rhythm) to the observable universe, from single leaf to island universe, but feels that joining in groups to celebrate such condition is grotesque, often ludicrous, sometimes cruel. Personal awe needs no congregation.

We asked John about his current and future writing plans. His answer: "In order: A McGee, The Blood Game (a novel he started some time ago but put aside until now), another McGee, The Primitive Experience (the second Coppolino trial), and that takes me so far into 1970 that I will not make any guesses as to what, God willing, comes after that."

When asked if there would be more than twelve McGee novels, he replied that it would depend on how he felt about it after the twelfth... He may not sit around and wait for "inspiration", but like all good writers he writes first of all for himself. So, if there are to be more than twelve McGee novels, we must hope that John's interest in Travis continues, and that he will not tire of McGee as Doyle did of Holmes.

John's mother is still living in Utica, N. Y. His sister Doris and her husband, a construction company executive, also live in Utica.

John D. and Dorothy MacDonald are "pretty much turned off and turned on by exactly the same things." John says that neither of them "are what anyone would call gregarious. We are sufficient unto ourselves, and stick with the very few good, close and true friends, cherish privacy, and find all the days far too short for all of the things we want to do."

-ljm February, 1969

Monday, July 9, 2018

"The Little People"

When writing about the early fiction of John D MacDonald, that period when he was just starting out and learning his craft, enough words cannot be said about the support and guiding influence of pulp editor Babette Rosmond. At that time she was an editor at Street and Smith, managing two of the publisher’s premier titles, Doc Savage and The Shadow magazines, crediting herself as B. Rosmond, probably because of her gender. Like every other editor MacDonald submitted stories to in the that six-month time frame between October 1945 and March 1946 when he couldn’t sell anything to save his life, she was among those who rejected many of his submissions, but her rejections were personal and encouraging. In one rejection letter she wrote, “I, too, am an admirer of atmosphere, but too much atmosphere and too unconvincing a plot make [your story] a weak yarn... However, I am extremely fond of the way you write -- so dry your tears and send me something else very soon." She was an early coach, mentor and -- eventually -- friend who not only helped him in getting a literary agent but counseled him to expand the scope of his stories’ locales.

To put it in real perspective, of the 57 stories MacDonald had published in his first two years as a writer, 30 of them, or 53%, were purchased by Babette Rosmond.

Much of MacDonald’s early work reads like just that: the earnest attempts of a man still learning his craft. While the plots and story ideas are strong, characterization and atmosphere still have a long way to go. This is certainly true of “The Little People,” a very early novella published in the November 1946 issue of Doc Savage, an issue that contained three different JDM tales, including “The Scarred Hand,” which was deemed good enough by the author to be included in one of the Good Old Stuff anthologies. “The Little People” isn’t as good as “The Scarred Hand,” but it’s better than the third story, “The Startled Face of Death,” a story that took place in -- you guessed it -- India.

“The Little People” takes place in the United States, specifically upstate New York, where the MacDonalds were living at the time the author wrote this. It’s a sprawling “heist” tale, carefully thought out and nicely executed, but as it goes on it becomes both repetitive and very predictable. Yet taken for what it is -- one of the earliest published works of a man who would go on to become a great writer -- it proves to be both instructive and enjoyable.

With any heist tale there has to be a mastermind, a leader who runs the show, and in “The Little People” it’s a man named Joseph Turin, a criminal whose slight frame is more than made up for by his ruthlessness and steely, “illimitable determination.” He has gathered a team of twenty men, "a collection of village hard guys from Northern New York State, with a sprinkling of city crooks." The plan is nothing less than to rob an entire town. The men have been chosen for their particular expertise, some in firearms, some with explosives, even one who can fly a plane. They gather in an abandoned warehouse in an unnamed location to make their final preparations.

"Now, men," Turin said, his voice low and hoarse with intensity, "before I go over the high spots again, let me tell you that some of you guys are going to get killed on this deal. It's in the cards. That's so you will understand the risks. But the profit is going to make up for it. Those that come through will be set for life. This is going to be the biggest haul in the history of crime. You guys are going to make history. But if any one of you wants to back out now, go ahead."

The medium-sized fictional town of Misoo Falls, New York, an hour or two east of Syracuse, was chosen for its location: only three roads in and out, with its western border taken up by a large lake. The various members of the gang will go in in groups, meticulously timed, blocking all of the roads, cutting the lines of communication and disabling the local radio station. Other teams will infiltrate the town and immediately overtake the small police station, while others will rob all of the town’s banks, its post office, jewelry stores, railroad station and even the local citizens they encounter. In the meantime, a hijacked C-47 will land at the local airport (where all the other planes there have been disabled) and stand ready while the thieves load their swag onto the airplane. Once done, all the teams will gather at the airport and take off, heading west to a secret location where they will split the stuff, separate and "melt away into the quiet places of the world, unsuspected, the possessor[s] of great wealth and a bloody secret that would stand unmatched in the history of world crime..."

There would obviously be some resistance from the citizens of the town, and the teams are instructed to deal with them accordingly:

"Don't shoot unless you have to. Don't let anybody corner you. If you have to shoot, make it a good clean job. We aren't going to be able to avoid knocking off a few guys and once that's done it doesn't make much difference how many more we have to get rid of."

It doesn’t take much imagination on the part of the reader -- especially given the story’s title (MacDonald’s own, believe it or not) -- to realize that the drama of “The Little People” involves how things go wrong at the hands of some of the citizens of Misoo Falls, those who fight back and eventually thwart the well planned heist. These incidents are told in a fairly rote, reportorial style, one after the other, all similar as the gang of crooks slowly dwindles in number. Here's the first such mishap, a good example of all that follow it, showing how one citizen deals with the first entry of the gang:

Buck Deegan was hot, tired and mad. He wheeled the dolly into the truck, loaded on the last box and wheeled it out onto the platform and into the warehouse. He cursed the fates that made him not only a truck driver, but a part-time stevedore. The heavy muscles of his shoulders ached. He stowed the last case and stood for a minute on the loading platform. He looked at the long line of red vans. The rest of the guys had finished and gone out to eat. Only sucker-Deegan was left. He looked curiously at a truck, an open job, loaded with men, that wheeled into the yard at a good clip. Men piled out of the truck and walked toward him.

He recognized the lead man who had worked with him for two weeks and then quit for no reason. He grinned and said, "Hi there, Winny! Who're your friends?" To Deegan's immense astonishment the little dark-haired guy walking beside [Winny] pulled a gun out of his pocket, leveled it at Deegan's middle and fired.

The slug crashed heavily into Deegan and he fell backward as the men swarmed up onto the platform. Through the swirling mists of pain he felt the upsurge of a mighty wrath. The men ignored him. Buck shut his eyes, grasped the fluttering remains of consciousness and bunched his muscles. He reached one hand around behind him and grasped the butt of a small heavy wrench protruding from his hip pocket. Feeling as though he was in a dream, he rolled heavily against a pair of ankles standing next to him.

Dimly, he felt the man fall. He brought the heavy wrench around and felt the deep pleasure as the wrench crunched against bone. He raised it and crashed it down once again into the misty circle of the stranger's face. He lifted it again and it fell with his arm as the second shot smashed the back of his head...

And so it goes, as the local citizens -- farmers, policemen, shop owners and radio station engineers -- all rise to the occasion, retaliate and gradually winnow the gang of men down to a mere handful by the end of the tale. And, of course, things end badly for Joseph Turin…

“The Little People” was submitted to Babette Rosmond along with another story, and in her written reply to the author (dated April 9, 1946) she tells him that she would purchase both of them. She really liked the unnamed story, and mentions that she will probably publish “The Little People” in The Shadow, "going on the excuse that there's a lot of action in it." Six months later it appeared in Doc Savage, giving one an idea of how long it could take from date of sale to date of publication, at least at Street and Smith. In this same letter she offers to help find him an agent (the one JDM was considering apparently was revealing himself to be “a joker”) and she wryly begs his loyalty after he becomes professionally represented. Mentioning a story his would-be agent was trying to peddle, she wrote, “As for "The Bright Flash of Vengeance,” don't worry about it. If your joker sells it, okay -- if not, remember mama." Rosemond would go on to publish that story in the January 1947 issue of The Shadow. (You can read the letter on Cal Branche’s JDM Homepage, here.)

“The Little People” has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted.

Babette Rosmond

Monday, July 2, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 3: November 6, 1947

John D MacDonald's third column for the Clinton Courier,  from the very early days of his career as a writer. This is pre-Florida for the MacDonalds, and here he seems every bit as involved in the governmental workings of his surroundings as he was to become as a Floridian.

I've mentioned before that Clinton was the model for the town of Dalton in MacDonald's 1956-57 novel Death Trap, and in that novel the author uses Clinton's town square as a central point in Hugh MacReedy's investigation. He even retains the name of one of the streets leading into it.

Incidentally, if you had taken JDM up on his two sports wagers offered at the end of the piece, you would have won the first and lost the second.

Now that the headlines on the testimony of various Hollywood characters have faded away -- to reappear later, no doubt -- we must confess that the whole affair gave us an odd feeling of unreality. There were those famous faces -- R. Taylor, G. Cooper, R. Montgomery -- performing for the investigating committee. We are used to those people as two dimensional beings on a flat silver screen. We are accustomed to seeing little publicity releases on their marriages and their swimming pools. To have then plunked down in the middle of a discussion of ideologies seems a bit like reading an appreciation of Einstein by one Mickey Mouse.

The next time we go a few steps up Fountain Street and buy ourselves a hunk of celluloid escape, we will gaze at those famous faces and ponder that the life of an actor or actress is indeed a hard one. Not only do you have the responsibility for getting rid of several thousand dollars a week, but you might at any time have to sit in front of a group of unsympathetic Congressmen and be led into a discussion of realities. Any touch of reality must be quite a jolt to our tinseled friends out there.

* * *

The number of cars on the road is constantly climbing. On these wet evenings at dusk it is becoming more and more of a dangerous experiment to drive through town. The Williams Street-College Street corner is particularly fascinating. Not only is traffic coming in from four directions, but people are also angling for diagonal parking slots along the curb.

Wouldn't one-way traffic around the square be a sound idea? Each of the six streets feeding into the square could become stop streets, including Utica Street. You wouldn't be able to turn left from Williams into College; you'd have to go all the way around. The blinker could be eliminated. According to the way people ease around the corner turning right into College Street, it doesn't do much good anyway. It might well be moved to another corner. Maybe where the kids cross. Or the corner of Bristol Road and College Street.

Or maybe we just haven't been informed of some unapparent but good reason why there should be two-way traffic around the square.

* * *

With elections over, we can talk about a few trends we have noticed. One is the change in county government. The Political Scientists have made clear during past years that the American City, financially speaking, is a dying organization. Cities have rigid boundaries and an assessed valuation which must bear the costs of running the cities. As total valuation decreases -- through increasing age of structures -- the dollar of assessment must bear a higher tax, thus penalizing new construction. The citizens continue to expect all city services. To avoid tax rates, the citizens buy or build outside the rigid city limits and still retain many of the commercial advantages of city life.

The State of New York has been quietly going to work on this problem, This past year all welfare was taken away from Utica and Rome and centralized under Oneida County. The state refunds 80% of all welfare costs. Thus the city tax burden is lightened and County Government becomes more of an agency of state government.

The boys who try to look into the future tell us that county and city government have overlapping functions in too many cases. They say that one day not too far in the future, all local governmental functions, including police and fire protection, will be consolidated in the hands of the county.

Frankly, we would like to see this happen. We have the idea that the towns and villages elect to the Board of Supervisors men less likely to be rubber stamps than are the men elected to the Common Council of a fair sized city. We believe that county government is the logical place, the logical body of men, to accept responsibility for the government of all the citizens of the county, country and city alike. We feel that no agency of local government is likely to be entirely free of the unfortunate effects of machine politics. We do feel, however, that if and when county government becomes the sole surviving agency, citizen interest will be focused to an extent that will make breeding conditions of machine politics a bit more unfavorable than at present.

Machine politics thrives in inverse ratio to citizen interest. Citizen interest can be measured by the degree of participation in such organizations as Community Councils, Bureaus of Municipal Research, Leagues of Women Voters, Taxpayers' Leagues -- and all other non-partisan city and county organizations. If such organizations were as healthy locally as they are in, say, Monroe County, we would have better county and city government.

* * *

Having attended three colleges at one time or another, we can usually depend on at least one of them to come through with a pretty decent football team. This year we are claiming Pennsylvania as the alma mater.

They are undefeated, but there seems to be a conspiracy among sports writers to ignore that fact. In national ratings Penn is listed lower than Columbia, which took a 34-14 whacking from the Penn men.

Somebody is taking the joy out of life. We brag about Penn and get blank looks. To get even, we will make a prediction. Penn will defeat Army by -- at least one touchdown, and Cornell by at least three. Any takers?

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Book's Author Likes Travis McGee Film

In August of 1970, two days prior to the public release of the film version of John D MacDonald’s 1966 Travis McGee novel Darker Than Amber, a private screening for VIP’s and selected members of the local press was held in Miami. The affair was hosted by the film’s producer Jack Reeves and he invited MacDonald, MacDonald’s wife Dorothy, and the film’s star Rod Taylor. The MacDonalds made it, Taylor didn’t: a week before the event he was injured in an automobile accident in California and his doctor would not consent to him traveling.

This article appeared in the August 13 edition of the Palm Beach Post and was written by staff reporter Dave Simms, who attended. The few bits of opinion JDM offered on the quality of the finished product are -- given the circumstances -- kind but vague, and in stark contrast to those he voiced later on.

Book's Author Likes Travis McGee Film

MIAMI - There is this eidetic image stamped on the back of my mind of the John D MacDonald photographs printed on the back of the suspense writer's books:

His eyes peering curiously upward through horn-rims as if he were pondering a giant sculpture of Travis McGee;

His mouth firm on the stem of a briar pipe as if he were expecting the sculpture to issue forth with a McGee-ism;

His shoulders draped in the beginnings of what appears to be, incongruous for a writer, a business suit, sliced at heart-top by the crop of the photograph.

So I'm walking through the tubular maze of hallways in Miami's squatty, pink Wometco Building, the image of the MacDonald photograph in my mind imaging Travis McGee and his hairy companion, Meyer, walking the same corridors, getting step by step closer to the private screening room.

It's the room where John D MacDonald awaits, in the VIP row in back, the pre-public showing of his first Travis McGee book to be made into a movie.

I expect a pipe with some burly aroma steaming from its bowl. And, despite the summer Florida heat and the business suit in the image, I expect a jacket of tweed.

But John D MacDonald is sitting there in a pencil-point-gray, pencil-point-thin jacket over a blue-black, carbon-paper-colored shirt. And he's chain smoking little brown cigars.

The projectionists is late and the pre-public showing of Darker Than Amber is delayed 15 minutes, a half hour, a few minutes more.

MacDonald is murmuring in outwardly relaxed conversation about politics, youth, movie contracts and columnist John Keasler.

The clothes and the conversation feign nonchalance. But the rapid succession of little brown cigars, impulsively extracted from a package-box, suggests a different mood.

I don't think it would be too unwarranted to speculate that John D MacDonald is a bit apprehensive, flutteringly expectant and maybe downright nervous.

"We're awfully sorry about the projectionist," says a man, obviously used to coordinating things, who's been darting around coordinating the long wait.

John D MacDonald is done murmuring. "I loved the book," he chants with good-natured sarcasm.

Creator of Travis McGee in 1964 (he's written a dozen McGee books since then), creator of mathematical-minded Meyer at the same time to travel South Florida, Mexico, elsewhere with McGee, the two quite probably MacDonald's alter egos, the writer is becoming good-naturedly impatient at the delay of their movie debut.

Lights down finally, screen ablaze with opening scene headlights. And credits. John D MacDonald gets almost a full screen of credit. And Darker Than Amber is rolling.

Travis McGee, the human hero National General Pictures hopes will become a household word for movie-goers, the human hero MacDonald readers already have made into a household word, is on the screen.

But more about the movie itself, which was shot in South Florida, after it opens publicly Friday.

Movie over, lights up. John D MacDonald pops up from his VIP chair. "Well, back to glaring reality," he says with conviction.

I ask, in comment form, "It seemed to me he leered once. I can't imagine Travis McGee ever leering."

"No," says MacDonald with a hearty laugh this time. "He smirked, maybe."

The whole movie? "I liked it better than I expected I would," he says, bunched up with some others at the entrance to the dining room of the M-S Sunward, the cruise ship on which part of the movie was shot and to which the private screening party is bused for lunch.

He indicates he liked it much better than Cape Fear, a movie made a decade ago, in pre-McGee days, from the MacDonald-written The Executioners.

But he says, "I'm a grown up boy... enough so I realize that if you translate a book into a movie accurately, the movie would take eight hours to run and nobody would stay."

MacDonald's wife says he was unhappy with the first Hollywood draft of the screenplay, but it apparently improved along the way.

John D MacDonald ponders a restaurant scene in the movie that isn't in the book. "I thought those two buddies of that kid in the bar were quite chicken." If he had written a similar sequence into a book, he would have written it differently.

He muses over something else and suddenly says in a gee-whiz kind of innocent tone, "You'd think they had to raid a blood-bank to get the blood for the picture."

He's laughing now a bit and people are shuffling around John D MacDonald, trying to impress him with how many of his books they've read and how much they know about Travis McGee.

I get the feeling John D MacDonald is not the type of writer who gets impressed with that kind of tactic. But he bends a bit today, after the screening, to be especially gracious and polite about it.

Because, for John D MacDonald, Travis McGee, after six years in paperback, is now alive and well on the movie screen.

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.