Monday, November 30, 2009

"Underwater Safari"

In my third posting to this blog I related how I came to work for the Shines, doing research for them at the Library of Congress. I was looking for ten short stories that John D MacDonald had written, sold and received payment for, but that had never been located in an actual publication. I was given the titles, the publisher and, in case the story's title had been changed, the first paragraph of text. I spent a lot of time looking through hundreds of old, brittle pulp magazines but came away with nothing.

The most recent of those stories was something called "Underwater Safari," sold to Bluebook magazine, known after 1960 as Bluebook for Men. I was unable to find any copies of Bluebook for Men, let alone "Underwater Safari." But in 1984 a JDM "hunter" named Carmen Russell did find it, and Walter Shine wrote about it in JDM Bibliophile # 34:

"Bibliographers can't abide those few missing items seemingly lost in the misty past of the author's early days. We found ourselves throwing in the towel on 10 of JDM's stories... But still we searched. Then we realized that one of them, 'Devil Head' was already identified, it being another title for 'Three Strikes -- You're Dead'... [June 1949, All-Story Detective] So there were nine. But then we found another missing one, called 'Animal Cage' sold to Esquire Magazine long ago, and seemingly not published. And so there were ten again. Now, because of our devoted colleague, Carmen Russell, at the University of Florida, another has been tracked down. Carmen is an inveterate reader of rare books catalogs. She came across a Santa Barbara bookdealer's listing of a totally unrecognizable JDM title, 'A Dark People Thing', in the February 1961 issue of Bluebook Magazine. Since the only Bluebook story date unknown to us was 'Underwater Safari' we turned to it and there in dialect (at least to JDM's ears) was the sentence 'A dark pipple t'ing.' And so it was published under that revised title! An editor's nonsensical idea of a more 'catchy" title.'"
This entry is missing from most JDM short stories lists found on the Internet. I don't own a copy, but if I ever locate it I will title my blog posting under its published title. I found the cover image at this great site.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"The Mechanical Answer"

"The Mechanical Answer" was one of John D MacDonald's earliest science fiction short stories, appearing in the May 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It was only his fourth s-f story published -- out of a total of 55 -- and the second published in a science fiction periodical. It was included in MacDonald's Other Times, Other Worlds, and according to that anthology's editor Martin H. Greenberg, the story claimed a notoriety of sorts, being "the first story in the first anthology ever published on the theme of artificial intelligence (the other)." That anthology was The Robot and the Man, published in 1953 and edited by Martin Greenberg (no relation).

Set in the relatively near future (of 1948), "The Mechanical Answer" takes place on a re-nationalized Earth. Joseph Kayden, a citizen of the United States of North America, is the Director of Automatic 81, a factory that produces "portable tele sets." The huge facility is really a massive assembly line manned by robotic machines that require only one employee to run it: Joseph Kayden. Located outside of Albuquerque, Kayden lives on-site with his wife Jane, and as the story opens, Jane is in tears after she has heard the news that Joe has been reassigned to a super-secret project in Poughkeepsie, known generally as "The Thinking Machine." Jane is crying because she can't come.

Joe is considered "one of the practical boys" from the Department of Civilian Production, and the Thinking Machine -- known officially as the Project to Develop a Selective Mechanical, Numerical, Semantic and Psychic Integrator and Calculator -- has gone through four years of work without a breakthrough. The most recent Director was forced into retirement after the stress nearly drove him nuts, and Joe knows the consequences of failure are great, but he believes it's his duty to go when called. His unhappiness over not being able to bring Jane with him goes deeper than simple marital separation: Jane is his thinking companion as well, providing a right brain to his left (he calls it "horse sense"). "They don't know it," he tells her, "and I don't think you do either. But by myself I couldn't have done these things ... You've made me see things about this place I'd never have seen by myself ... You've brought the simple outlook of a child to this problem and all I've ever done is take your direct ideas and put them into shape. They don't want me, they want us."

But all they get is Joe, who relocates and begins learning about the Thinking Machine Project. The goal is to create a machine that can "duplicate the processes of the human mind." So far all they've been able to produce is one with "the mental processes of a four-year old child, emotionally unstable, with a limited I.Q. for its years." MacDonald's description of the facility is so 1950's:

"The Project was housed in a series of long, one-story buildings surrounded by a high electrified wall. Interception rocket stations were set up in profusion in the surrounding countryside, the scanners revolving perpetually. One building housed the best approach to a Thinking Machine that had been devised ... The main room was five hundred feet long and about eighty feet wide. All along the walls stood independent units of the machine. Each unit was plastered with switchboard panels, plug sockets and lamp indicators. Between the interstices of the panels showed an array of electronic tubes, circuit elements, relays."

Joe meets the scientist in charge, a German ex-pat named Dr. Zander, who is initially condescending and resists Joe's new ideas and input. Joe's communication with Jane is limited to letter writing, and after months of failure and dead ends, he is at his wit's end. Jane's heavily censored letters begin sounding odder and odder until Joe shows one to his assistant, who instantly recognizes that she has written a kind of code, mentioning things like "engrams," "frontal lobes" and "synthesis." Jane's "horse sense"dawns on Joe and the project changes direction. Jane has suggested aping the processes of the human mind by forming basic engrams, simple ones at first, becoming more and more complex until rational thought is possible. After many more months of re-working, Dr. Zander poses a single question to the newly-configured machine: "What hath God wrought?"

Filled as it is with long technical passages on the inner workings of the machine and how the human mind was thought to work, "The Mechanical Answer" seems at times to be more of a historical curio than an engaging story about people, at least to the non s-f fan. Still, it zips along in typical MacDonald fashion. The plot twist of having Jane's input bring about the "eureka!" moment in the plot is loudly broadcast in the first few pages, and the only real suspense here is the answer to the question posed to the machine. As Greenberg wrote in his introduction to the story, "It is ... one of the most optimistic stories ever written about the implications of artificial intelligence."

MacDonald would take this idea and rework it several months later, with far superior results. In "A Child is Crying," the Thinking Machine is replaced by a highly gifted child who, at the young age of seven, is able to run rings around the best scientists of his day. The answer the child gives at the end of that story, however, is far more pessimistic than the one we hear in "The Mechanical Answer."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The Trap of Solid Gold" on ABC Stage 67

A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry titled The Name of This Blog, discussing the eponymous 1960 short story and its 1967 television adaptation. Here's what I wrote about the story itself:

"The Trap of Solid Gold" is MacDonald in Cheever country, without any of Cheever's moral ambiguities. It's a simple story of an ambitious young corporate executive and his family, and how the demands of keeping up appearances in order to impress the boss slowly eat away at the family's finances and, concurrently, the fabric of the marriage. Ben Weldon needs an expensive house in the suburbs, a country club membership, the ability and willingness to entertain frequently in his home, because that is what is expected in order to advance in the company. Already in debt, the Weldon's find that any crisis out of the ordinary locks them further and further into a "trap" they can never escape from. As MacDonald colorfully put it, "it's like being pecked to death by sparrows." It is a brutally realistic tale, marred by only one major flaw in logic, and the reader comes away with an admiration of MacDonald for the challenge he set for himself in making a riveting story out of such mundane subject matter. It also proved that JDM could step outside of the mystery and science fiction box and compete in the world of contemporary fiction, although this was certainly not the first time he did this.

I went on to write this about the subsequent television adaptation:

The ABC Stage 67 dramatization has never been officially released for home viewing or rebroadcast, to my knowledge. There was a rumor floating around once that ABC had erased the original masters (all 26 episodes were shot, for the most part, on videotape) and all that survived were black & white dupes housed in The Museum of Television and Radio. This doesn't jibe with the fact that the show's most famous episode, Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," was rebroadcast several years ago by A&E, and in color. I've seen
unlicensed copies of episodes for sale on the Internet purporting to be in color, including "Trap," but I've never tried to order a copy. Hopefully the series will be re-released one day.

Well, I couldn't leave well-enough alone, and immediately after I'd posted that entry I began searching the Internet for a copy of the show. It didn't take long, and, for about $20 I had a DVD of the dramatization a couple of weeks later. I've watched it and I am ready to report.

I don't recall ever reading a review of this show, or hearing of JDM's reaction to it, but for an author who justifiably felt ill-used by Hollywood, the ABC Stage 67 adaptation is faithfully retold, capturing both the narrative and the voice of MacDonald. Scripted by Ellen M. Violett, I can't imagine JDM having much to find fault with.

He certainly wouldn't have objected to the casting. Cliff Robertson, one of the great television actors of all time, played the lead role of Ben Weldon, and Dina Merrill, who Robertson married two weeks before this show aired, played his wife Ginny. They are both perfect in their parts as a young suburban couple trying to raise a family. Robertson especially communicates the slowly-dawning sense of dread as he realizes he's being sucked deeper and deeper into "the trap," and Merrill nicely compartmentalized her emotions until things become really desperate. Two of the supporting parts are real standouts. Bernard Hughes, a longtime veteran of television and film, is delightfully condescending as the small town banker Lathrop Hyde, taking great glee in refusing to extend credit to the Weldons. Relative newcomer Dustin Hoffman adapts to the part of accountant J.J. Semmins -- a much older character in the story -- with great gusto, and he really seems to be enjoying himself.

Violett's adaptation retains a surprising number of scenes from the story, including the night out with a client, the death of Ben's mother, and the subsequent scene with her housemate Geraldine Davis. The part of Ed Bartlett (played by John Baragrey) is expanded in order to compress some of the background scenes, turning him into a neighbor as well as Ben's direct superior. The scenes with Hyde and Semmins are both taken nearly verbatim from the story, albeit in a truncated form. There is a very nice scene, added by Violett, where Ginny admits to a friend that she would steal a tip off of a restaurant table if she were alone, only to break down in tears. The crisis of Chris Weldon's broken arm gets moved to later in the tale in order to provide a nice tipping point.

The dramatization doesn't quite convey the gravity of the story, however the attempt to do so in the confines of a 53-minute teleplay is commendable. There were no wholesale changes in plot or character, and the mood of steady sinking despair is well drawn, albeit with less intensity than in the story. It was a nice surprise to see such a respectful, well-thought-out attempt to dramatize MacDonald's story.

Recorded in New York rather than Hollywood, the Stage 67 dramatization uses a combination of both video tape and film, with the film portions reserved for the few outdoor scenes that are staged. The taped portions have the look and feel of a live broadcast, and there is even a nearly-flubbed line or two. The copy I obtained was, happily, in color, so the rumor cited above has proven to be false. The opening Stage 67 intro, as well as all of the commercials, are missing. I found this show by doing a bit of Googling, and it didn't take me long. I recommend seeing it as an example of what television could do with MacDonald when it showed the proper care and respect for the source material.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Weep for Me

Ah... Weep for Me. The Holy Grail of John D MacDonald novels.
Published in December 1951 as a paperback original, Weep for Me is generally counted as MacDonald's fourth novel, although some issue dates would list it as his fifth, following Wine of the Dreamers. Without getting too picky, we can safely say that it was one of three novels he published in the second half of 1951, along with Judge Me Not and Dreamers. It did not receive a second printing until June 1959, where it featured a cover nearly identical to the original, yet drawn by a different artist. Some early novels received subsequent printings throughout the 1950's, such as The Brass Cupcake and Judge Me Not, but most didn't get reissued until the end of that decade, so Weep for Me is not unusual in that respect. It is, however, the only early MacDonald novel that was never reprinted again in his lifetime.


Quite simply, the author himself felt it was a work below his standards, a failed attempt at a pastiche of another writer, and he gave the orders not to republish. Between the two printings, a total of 567,000 copies of the paperback were issued, yet it's a book that is almost impossible to find, even back in the 1970's when I was searching the used book stores of Washington, DC. The Internet age has made finding copies a bit easier, yet the prices are beyond the range of all but the most serious book collectors (or readers with lots of disposable income). I myself have never read the book.

The plot goes something like this: Kyle Cameron, a 29-year old bank teller living in the fictional town of Thrace, New York, is engaged to be married to Jo Anne Lane, a blonde, blue-eyed virgin who is also employed by the bank. Kyle is an ex-serviceman who had been stationed overseas, where he engaged in several sexual affairs, and his decision to wed Jo Ann seems to him more like a surrender than a willing leap into a new life. He spends the days at the bank looking through the bars of his teller window at the pretty girls outside in their summer dresses, and thinks of Jo Ann, with her "incipient roll of fat around her middle," their future life together: "three kids," "the joy and misery of a normal contented marriage," and "[standing] on [his] flat feet behind the teller's window until they promote ... or retire [him]."

Then he meets Emily Randolph, a new bank employee who works upstairs in Accounting. She is everything Jo Ann is not. Dark, beautiful, with a strong sexual magnetism, Emily quickly becomes Kyle's obsession, and after a few lead-footed overtures to her that are emphatically rebuffed, he is driven into a frenzy and begins to choke her one night. This is apparently something Emily can relate to, she becomes aroused and they make love. Afterward she explains to Kyle that she will be expensive to keep -- as in $250,000 expensive -- and the two of them concoct a scheme to embezzle the money from the bank. After some initial hesitation, Kyle agrees, dumps Jo Ann (whose mother has just been diagnosed with cancer), steals the money and takes off for Mexico with Emily.

Then things really get out of control.

Emily has been keeping in touch with an old boyfriend, who is following the two as they escape out of the country. He and Emily plot to kill Kyle, but Kyle manages to turn the tables and kills the boyfriend. Once the couple reach Mexico, their plan is to pay an old acquaintance of Emily's to arrange for their ultimate passage to Argentina, beyond the reaches of extradition. But this acquaintance has his own ideas, and the world of Kyle and Emily quickly devolve into nightmare.

This reads like any number of Noir novels or films of the era, yet MacDonald claimed it was James M Cain's work he was aping in Weep for Me. There are a few plot similarities to Cain's Serenade, but the relationship between the femme fatale Emily and the helpless-to-resist Kyle comes straight out of The Postman Always Rings Twice, or even Double Indemnity. In 1977 MacDonald characterized the novel as "really quite a bad book... imitation James M. Cain ... with some gratuitous and unmotivated scenes." Earlier he had stated, "It should die quietly in the back of used paperback book nooks."

There have been three reappraisals of the novel published (that I know of), all of them in the pages of the JDM Bibliophile. To a man (and woman), they all assert that the book is far better than MacDonald claimed it to be and, while not perfect, state that it would stand with the rest of his output quite nicely. In 1968 (BIB # 9) Michael Avallone wrote "Weep for Me... isn't bad at all; it simply didn't strike the same funereal notes that Cain's classic does. Still, as early John Mack, it is very good indeed..." Later, in 1990 (BIB # 46), Don Sandstrom -- working from research done by Purdue English Professor Peggy Moran -- wrote, "Whatever John D. may have thought of this early work, it remains a very readable and enjoyable story. It contains evidence of his narrative power and his understanding of the human condition. I have read many new books in hardback that did not come up to the quality of this novel."

Then, in 1999 (BIB # 64) Ellen Smith wrote the best and most detailed review of the book, recounting how she came to find a copy, quoting copiously from the text of the novel, and providing some nice insight into the themes, imagery and symbolism of the writing. She wrote that the novel contains "a forceful narrative, well-drawn characters, convincing settings and significant themes. It's a real page-turner." She points out the "unified imagery" of the teller-window bars, the foreshadowing discovery of a man's shoelace in Emily's ashtray, and includes a very nice quote that really makes MacDonald's debt to Cain apparent: "[This feeling reminds me when,] as a little kid, I fell into Palmer Creek in the early spring. The water ran fast and deep and black."

I spent many years looking for a copy of Weep for Me in the various well-stocked used bookstores of Metropolitan Washington, DC. I was eventually able to locate and purchase first editions of most of MacDonald's output, but never found Weep for Me. The closest I ever came was in a used bookstore (now gone) on Morrison Street in DC. The owner of that establishment (a dead ringer for the "Comic Book Guy" of The Simpsons) informed me that he once had someone come in and try and sell him a copy, and for a very high price, but an inspection of the book revealed a broken binding and several missing pages. He sent the guy packing. He warned me it would be unlikely that I would ever find a copy simply sitting on a bookstore shelf. It's value was known to even the most amateur of booksellers and would be snatched up immediately. This was in 1979, and he proved correct.

Current prices for used copies are staggering, as high as $950 (this for an autographed edition with the inscription, "Eddie please burn this bad book! John D. MacDonald").

In 2003, MacDonald's son Maynard, who is the administrator of the JDM Estate, permitted a limited edition hardcover reprint of Weep for Me by JDM's UK publisher Robert Hale. There are a few copies of this book floating around on the 'net, most pretty expensive, but not as costly as copies of the two paperback editions. I'm surprised Maynard gave the permission, considering his father's wishes for the novel's burial.
The only thing more surprising would be for him to agree to allow another Travis McGee film. Oh, wait...

It's my opinion that the artwork for the second edition is superior to the first, even though it is a copy of that cover, so I placed the second edition at the top of this blog post. That cover was illustrated by Barye Phillips. The original was created by Owen Kampen.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"The Innocent Victims"

Bluebook magazine was one of the longest running of the nearly ubiquitous fiction periodicals that were published in the fist half of the last century. Beginning in 1905, Bluebook lasted, with one four-year interruption, until 1975, and John D MacDonald published at least 12, possibly 13 stories there. "The Innocent Victims," printed in the November 1953 issue, remained unread and unknown by anyone who hadn't read it in that publication until 1999, when it was included in an anthology titled Pure Pulp, edited by Ed Gorman, Martin H. Greenberg and Bill Pronzini. Greenberg, whose name seems to appear on nearly every anthology of popular fiction printed in this country, also edited MacDonald's Other Time, Other Worlds and the two Good Old Stuff anthologies.

Running a brief 4,000 words, "The Innocent Victims" is nothing special; just a typically well-written, absorbing tale of crime, told with MacDonald's characteristic economy and narrative strength. Like "The Homesick Buick," which MacDonald wrote three years earlier, the plot hinges on a unique method of detection that ultimately brings down the bad guy, arrived at after all the standard criminal-catching methods have been exhausted. "Victims, " however, relies more on character, psychology and motivation, and is built around a main character rather than a dramatic event. The suspense of the story is created in waiting to see how a certain person reacts to life-changing information. The editors of Pure Pulp rate the story as "among [MacDonald's] most satisfying" and call it "undeservedly overlooked."

A forgotten carton of cigarettes brings Sergeant Dan Tate back to his police precinct office one night after he had already left for home and his family. A bruised, disheveled teenage girl enters the station. Seemingly catatonic, it's obvious to Tate that she's the victim of a rapist, one who has attacked several young women in a big, downtown city park over the past several months. After getting her to a hospital and informing her parents, he eventually gets her to talk and learns that she was able to scratch the face of her attacker, deeply enough to have tissue samples under her fingernails, and deeply enough to leave obvious marks that would take several weeks to heal. Unable to see the man, the girl remembers that he smelled "clean... like soap, and pine trees and talcum powder."

With the help of a friendly newspaper reporter, Tate manages to publicize the crime and asks for the public's assistance in reporting anyone with recent scratch marks on his face. Using the girl's recollection of the rapist's smell, he deduces the man is not a bum or criminal, but a middle-class citizen of the city, who must be wary of the marks she left on him. Yet, after a week of tracking down lead after lead, Tate is nowhere. Then, while picnicking with his family, he has a "eureka!" moment and rushes back to the station.
The story is too short to reveal any more without ruining it. A character is brought in who Tate must interact with, and it is that scene that contains the story's best, most wonderfully crafted writing. I'd love to quote some of it, but even that would reveal too much.

The brief few paragraphs where Tate visits and informs the girls parents are a model of how economy can speak volumes. His brief argument with the father reveals an entire world of lower-class inner-city life in the Fifties. A brief description of the younger siblings of the girl, up late watching television, contrasts nicely with the glimpse we are given of Tate's own family life. And the disintegration of inner-city life and the call of the seemingly-bucolic suburbs are beautifully painted in a few sentences between Tate and a colleague.

MacDonald always claimed that the best lesson he ever learned as a writer was economy, how to tell more with less, how not to describe but to show, and how two hard carriage returns between paragraphs could say more than a mountain of words. "The Innocent Victims" is a textbook example of that.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hardboiled America

Anyone interested in becoming introduced to, learning more about, or gleaning near-brilliant insights into the beginnings and rise of the paperback book industry in this country, need look no further than Geoffrey O'Brien's Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, originally published in 1981 but re-released and updated in 1997. Beautifully written and masterfully researched, it is one of the indispensable reference works in my library, although to call it a reference book narrows its value as a work of near poetic insights on the writers of paperback noir.

I recall seeing the original publication back in 1981, and if my memory isn't completely shot, it was a handsome coffee table hardback filled with page after page of lush, beautiful reproductions of some of the most incredible cover art ever created. The price was out of my range at the time and I didn't purchase it, but I did spend a long time in the bookstore flipping through page after page of covers to books like Behold This Woman, The Naked Streets and The Splintered Man. Although I spent a lot of time in the many used books stores in and around Washington, DC, and owned a nice collection of old paperbacks, most of the covers were ones I had never seen before, and the titles were unknown to me. Reissued in 1997 as a paperback, the cover reproductions were now, unfortunately, in black and white. I purchased a copy anyway, as even a cursory scan of the writing revealed it to be much more than just an art book.

I'm including an entry on this book as a blog post here in order to quote a few of the things O'Brien wrote about John D MacDonald. His writing on the author is some of the best and most insightful I've ever read:

"... MacDonald proved himself from the start [to be] the kind of storyteller who makes other aesthetic considerations irrelevant. To read him is to hear a spoken voice -- pausing, digressing, joking, all the while drawing you into the yarn. It's not the story that's so remarkable; you've heard something like it before, you may even recognize chunks of it from another of his books, and after awhile, it will blend into all the others. The anecdote may be utterly banal. It's the voice that grabs you, the sure rhythms with which it measures out its story. And it can be any kind of story: MacDonald was a true all-rounder..."

"[The early novels] are considerably rougher and more pessimistic than the later novels. Reading them, one can envision one of those Fifties action pictures in black and white, something along the lines of Budd Boetticher's The Killer Is Loose or Joseph Pevney's Female on the Beach ... They all seem to spring out of some long, hot American afternoon, an unfamiliar Cadillac gliding menacingly through the streets of a small town, a hundred tiny dramas of loyalty and betrayal, small lusts, quiet madness, interior dramas of regeneration, all set spinning about each other, meeting and meshing; and of that meshing a plot is born."

"You may wince at the coyness of the lovers' dialogue, and find the subplots too neatly interlocked, but you can never doubt that MacDonald knows his America, his small town; especially if that town is located in Florida."

"MacDonald's narrative mastery gives him the advantage of being able to digress as much as he likes. So sure is his control over the basic impetus of the story that he can throw in a grab bag of extras, discourse on his somewhat courtly sexual philosophy, analyze the decline and fall of Plymouth Gin, give practical tips on anything from caulking a houseboat to stopping a killer dog in its tracks to doctoring a set of books without breaking the law."

"No use putting him into a category; MacDonald created his own identity, more garrulous than Cain, more full of color and joie de vivre than the monochromatic paranoid worlds of Goodis or Cornell Woolrich ... [T]here is always an element of measure, each book designed to contain a well-balanced set of ingredients as one would balance the ingredients of a meal, implying that MacDonald was not an obsessed man impelled to spell out the horrors of his vision; he was a professional, whose obsession was Narrative."

Hardboiled America is still in print and readily available. Those seeking used copies of the hardcover with the color reproductions may have to look harder and pay a lot more, but in this Internet era, most of the covers can be found online with a little searching.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Red Hot Typewriter

There was great anticipation in the world of MacDonald fandom toward the end of the last century when it was learned that a new, full-scale biography of JDM was being written. Up to that point the life of our favorite writer had been given rather short shrift, despite the fact that his meticulously-kept records were all housed by the University of Florida and available for study by any reviewer. The few biographical works that had been produced before 2000 were cursory and lacked depth. Walter and Jean Shine's 1980 Bibliography/Biography was little more than an outline, with the narrative portions of MacDonald's life taking up a mere six pages of that 209-page work. In 1982 David Geherin, an English professor at Eastern Michigan University, published John D. MacDonald, a 194-page work of mostly plot synopses and brief literary analysis; the biographical portion of the book filled a single 10-page chapter. In 1985, a highly-anticipated biography written by the editor of the JDM Bibliophile, Ed Hirshberg, was released. Despite the fact that Professor Hirshberg had direct access to the subject and to the Collection, the book he produced was a major disappointment, containing nothing new about MacDonald that wasn't already known to the readers of the BIB. It was filled with dull plot discussions and paid surprisingly little attention to MacDonald's short story output.

In 2000 Thomas Dunne Books published The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald, written by Hugh Merrill, a Journalism professor at Georgia State University. This was the book we had been waiting for... only it wasn't.

Make no mistake, this is far and away the best, most complete and meticulously researched biography ever produced about JDM, although it has little competition in that department. Merrill, who had previously authored a history of the early days of Esquire magazine, made full use of the JDM Collection. Unfortunately, that seems to have been about it. He did no original research for this book, in that he quotes voluminously from letters, manuscripts and previous sources, but has interviewed no one connected to MacDonald's life, and offers little insight into why MacDonald was a popular author. One would think that MacDonald's son Maynard would have at least been contacted, but that does not appear to be the case. The book reads to me like the work of a team of researchers hired by a would-be biographer to provide a starting point for the real work of writing a biography.

There are some errors that seem to indicate Merrill never read some of the more important of JDM's stories. "Looie Follows Me," famously referred to in the introduction of End of the Tiger and Other Stories, is misspelled and the description provided has nothing to do with the actual story. "Interlude In India," MacDonald's famous first story sold to Story magazine, is listed in the Bibliography under "Articles." Weep For Me doesn't appear to have actually been read, although he singles it out, and he seems to be unaware that Wine of the Dreamers originally appeared in a magazine as a novella, or that it was MacDonald's very first hardcover publication. The two Good Old Stuff anthologies are missing from the list of "Works by John D. MacDonald" in the bibliography, yet The Lethal Sex is included. The bulk of MacDonald's pre-1957 novels (from Dead Low Tide to Soft Touch -- 19 books) are reduced to a single paragraph on page 91, and he later states that the film version of Darker Than Amber was released as Dress Her In Amber. Where did he get that?!

He repeats the canard that "John D, MacDonald couldn't write a sex scene," which, to me, is the same thing as saying that Ernst Lubitsch couldn't film a sex scene. We're talking about a gifted writer here, not Harold Robbins. Again, did Merrill even read any of the early books?

Still, this is the best we have and there is a lot of new information here that MacDonald fans should be grateful for. The biggest revelation is the discovery of a letter from MacDonald's wife Dorothy to an unhappy and discouraged John when he was overseas in the military during World War II, encouraging him to write fiction. "If you just wrote it down and sent it home," she wrote, "... I could save it for you, because it might be useful to you later." As Merrill correctly points out, MacDonald always claimed he wrote "Interlude in India" because "censorship wouldn't allow him to communicate anything else." It's a major revelation.

He relates the details of a perceived affair -- apparently one-sided-- between MacDonald and the wife of author Bordon Deal that I had never heard of. It is entertaining reading and reveals a side of MacDonald I didn't know existed. It reads like a fatal attraction story, and "the affair" appears to have never been consummated.

The final years of MacDonald's life are nicely covered, in good detail, including the death of MacDonald's sister Doris, from alcoholism. JDM's son Maynard is fleshed out for the first time ever.

The book includes only a single photograph, a headshot of MacDonald as a frontispiece, despite the fact that the family left tens of thousands of photographs with the University of Florida. This is probably something to blame the publisher for, not Merrill.

The great John D MacDonald biography is still waiting to be written. I've heard mention of just such a work, supposedly to be released this year, but I can find nothing official about it. The Red Hot Typewriter, with all its shortcomings, will do until something better comes along. For now, it is the single most complete story of the man's life and, as such, belongs in every MacDonald fan's library. It's no longer in print but readily available from used booksellers.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Works of Walter and Jean Shine

Since I have been referring so often to the research work of Walter and Jean Shine in this blog, and will continue to do so, I thought it might be a good idea to post an entry exclusively on that work. My earlier posting recounted my introduction to the JDM Bibliophile and how I came to correspond with, and work for Walter; this entry will focus on the legacy that Walter, along with his wife Jean, left to the fans of John D MacDonald.

Walter Shine, who passed away on December 10, 1997, was, according to JDM Bibliophile #60, "the world's most knowledgeable MacDonald scholar." A retired attorney and businessman, he didn't seem retired to the readers of the BIB. His column "The Shine Section" was the delight of every issue, filled with items and news available nowhere else, and most heretofore unknown. A resident of North Palm Beach, he and Jean made frequent trips to Gainesville, where the JDM Collection is housed, and spent hours going through that voluminous treasure. He also corresponded regularly with MacDonald himself. He did know more than anyone and wasn't ashamed to admit it. He did not suffer fools, perceived plagiarizers or sloppy researchers lightly, and his criticism of these lesser mortals was invariably harsh. I'm happy to remember that he was never less than gracious to me. Outside of one telephone call, our contacts were exclusively through the mail (snail mail, as we refer to it now), and he praised the work I did for him, even though I had no prior experience doing what I was doing.

We are currently living through a fallow period of appreciation for JDM. Most of his non-Travis McGee books are out of print and his work seems nearly forgotten, outside of a few dedicated websites. Perhaps the upcoming film of The Deep Blue Good-By will ignite a new wave of interest. I hope so, and if it does, Walter's work will still be that starting place for those interested in delving into the real meat of MacDonald's output.

The following is a listing of the Shines' published work. Following that I will briefly discuss the works I own and refer to in this blog. The list was taken from BIB #60, submitted by his widow and co-author.

1979 Special Confidential Report (on Travis McGee)
1980 John D MacDonald Bibliography/Biography
1982 An Index to the JDM Bibliophile
1982 Co-editors of The Good Old Stuff
1984 Co-editors of More Good Old Stuff
1984 Co-editors of The Official Travis McGee Quiz Book
1985 John D MacDonald: A True Bibliophile
1987 Special Confidential Report (on Travis McGee) 2nd Edition
1988 A MacDonald Potpourri
1992 Special Confidential Report (on Travis McGee) 3rd Edition
1993 John D MacDonald Bibliography/Biography (2nd Edition) --forthcoming [I'm not aware of this ever actually being released]
1993 Rave or Rage: The Critics and John D MacDonald

I own:

1980 John D MacDonald Bibliography/Biography 209 pages
The OED of MacDonald information, the most important and most often referred-to work the Shines produced. A major expansion of the Moffatts' JDM Master Checklist, it lists everything MacDonald ever published: by title, by year, by publication, and even with word counts. This includes his fiction as well as non-fiction work, awards and prizes he received, what and where certain works were anthologized, TV and movie adaptations, as well as a brief biography and section on criticism. If you own only one Shine book, this is the one. Unfortunately it has been long out of print (it was published by the University of Florida) and the few used copies available for sale are very expensive.

1979 Special Confidential Report (on Travis McGee) 34 pages
Published as a supplement to the JDM Bibliophile, this is the standard reference work for the details of all things Travis McGee. Written as a faux-investigative report, it details everything written about Travis in the 18 novels written through 1978 (subsequent editions added later volumes, but I never purchased them). If you want to know how tall Travis really was, or his distinguishing marks, his criminal record, friends, or military service, consult this work. Having trouble remembering what Nora Gardino came to Travis seeking to recover? A list of every client is here, along with their "Lost Item," "Recovery" and "Distribution." Eight full pages list every known detail of the Busted Flush. There's a page on the Muñequita, Miss Agnes, three pages on Meyer, and much, much more. Hopefully the film producers of the upcoming The Deep Blue Good-By have a copy. Again, out of print, very expensive used copies are available now and then.

1984 Co-editors of The Official Travis McGee Quiz Book 114 pages
A mass market paperback written by one John Brogan (featuring an introduction by JDM himself), this is a question-and-answer book testing the readers knowledge of the McGee series (Sample question: "In what city is McGee arriving as One Fearful Yellow Eye opens? a. Chicago, b. Miami, C. San Francisco, d. New Orleans." The Shines' names appear nowhere in the book, so I assume they were basically brought in as fact-checkers.

1988 A MacDonald Potpourri 219 pages
Subtitled "-- being a miscellany of post-perusal pleasures of the John D. MacDonald books for bibliophiles, bibliographers and bibliomaniacs --", this hardcover book is for fanatics and completists only. Described as being a collection of "all known information to identify almost all of the MacDonald books published in the United States," it's a book for "collectors, dealers and bibliophiles." If you need to know which edition your old copy of The Deceivers is, you can look that up here. You can also learn that the working title for that novel was The Faithless. You will see a black-and-white reproduction of the first edition cover, as well as reproductions of the covers of subsequent editions. Lots of stuff here, mainly for collectors. Out of print, used copies appear occasionally.

1993 Rave or Rage: The Critics and John D MacDonald 261 pages
"Lists and summarizes all available reviews and critical materials about MacDonald's work found in magazines, newspapers, books and journals." With the books listed in chronological order, each entry is followed by a line of two from a contemporary or recent review of the book. Again, for the completist. There's a brief section titled "Books About John D. MacDonald or His Works," where the unfortunate then-ongoing battle between Walter and Ed Hirshberg, the editor of the JDM Bibliophile, bleeds out into his brief comments on Hirshberg's biography of MacDonald. He savages Hirshberg's work, then goes on to tout his own MacDonald books, while claiming he will "offer no self-criticism." It comes off as overly nasty, even if what he says may be true. Out of print, but available used.

One final note on Jean. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I always assumed that Jean was a "silent partner," and that Walter did all of the writing. That assumption was borne out in issue #60 of the BIB, when Jean wrote to Hirshberg, "I CAN NOT WRITE. I researched and helped Walter in many ways but he was the writer." Basically correct, I'm sure she was being overly modest.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Judge Me Not

Once John D MacDonald began writing novels in 1950, he threw himself into the job with the same energy and focus he had expended four years earlier when he began with short stories. And while never abandoning the short form entirely, the year 1951 marked a turning point, from JDM the pulp writer to JDM the paperback novelist. He wrote three novels that year (he published four, but Wine of the Dreamers had originated in 1950 as a magazine novella) while "only" producing 29 short stories. Judge Me Not was published in October of that year and was his third paperback original, his first told in the third person. It is a gritty, direct work that, while lacking focus in places, shows MacDonald taking his fiction to a higher level of realism and violence.

The setting is the city of Deron in Upstate New York, with a population of 200,000 and a corrupt political machine running things, orchestrated by a crime boss named Lonnie Raval. In an effort to clean up the place, the city hires Powell Dennison as city manager, a man with a reputation for honesty and efficiency. He describes Deron and its problems to his assistant and protégé Teed Morrow, a 31-year old trouble-shooter who had worked with Dennison in the past:

"A slick little bastard named Raval has been city boss since before he was old enough to vote. Not only does he wax fat on the horseroom take, whorehouse row, kickbacks from cops and firemen, punchboards, slots, dope... in fact, the whole usual line of racketeer arrangements, but he owns the city government, lock, stock and barrel. His companies bid against each other for the privilege of paving the streets, building the schools, digging the sewers. On the surface, it looks like a two-party system, but actually nobody gets into office who isn't willing to play ball. His goons control the wards which swing the balance of power one way or the other. There was a big yen for reform last year among the better citizens. So Lonnie threw them a bone...[that's] me. I'm going to be a serious surprise to Mr. Lonnie Raval."

Yet Teed is undisciplined and more than a little foolish. He's having an affair with Felice Carboy, the Mayor's wife, who is using him to try and get Dennison to ease up on her husband. After a day of lovemaking in a remote cabin, he gets a whiff of her intentions and breaks it off. Raval, of course, knows what's going on and uses the affair to try and apply his own pressure. There's a wonderful scene where Teed visits Raval at home in order to return some bribe money, attempting to be moral and resolute, only to be completely out matched by the experienced Raval. After plunking his female "secretary" Alice in the head with a golf ball and laughing uproariously about it, Raval attempts to show Teed how he will eventually control him once he finds his "button."

[Raval] threw his head back and yelled, "Alice! Alice, come on out here!"

... She came out almost immediately [and] sat down in one of the chairs and said, poutingly "What a terrible headache I got!"

Raval said softly, affectionately, "Honey lamb, what happens if I tell you to go out there and see how much grass you can eat?"

She stared at him. "You going crazy?"

"No, I mean what happens if I really tell you to do that?"

She held his gaze for a long moment and then her eyes dropped. "I guess maybe I'd do it, Lonnie."

"Show the man."

"Gosh, Lonnie, I..."

"Show the man!"

The tall, tanned girl walked out into the yard. Raval watched her without expression. She bent over and pulled up a clump of grass. She raised it slowly and put it in her mouth, starting to chew.

"OK, honey-lamb. Spit out the nasty grass.Come back and sit down... Anything I tell her to do, she does, don't you baby?"

She looked down at her hands. "Yes, Mr. Raval."

"You don't ever want to make me mad, do you?"

"No, Mr. Raval."

"Because when I get sore enough at you, you know what I'm going to do to you, don't you?"

Her voice was a barely audible whisper. "Yes, Mr. Raval."

Teed leaves, unnerved, and is the butt of one final bit of intimidation when his car starts and a huge smoke bomb ignites under the hood. He drives away as Raval, his henchman and even poor Alice laugh thunderously at him.

The Mayor's wife calls Teed again, begging to see him one last time at the cabin. He refuses, but she tells him she has something important to tell him, and against his better judgment, he drives out. When he arrives, Felice is already there, lying naked on the bed, but suddenly two masked thugs barge in and Teed is out cold. He awakes to a raging drunk and a dead Mrs. Carboy. He panics, dumps the body in the trunk and leaves it at the local dump. Now there's real trouble.

Judge Me Not stands out not because of it's plot -- MacDonald was still learning the long form, and the finale is nearly over-the-top -- but because of his characters, who seem, by turns, real and disturbing. Dennison, a widow, has two daughters, and the younger, 18-year old Jake, has a crush on Teed. What begins almost comically later reveals itself to be a near-psychotic attraction. Jake's older sister Marcia is cool and aloof with Teed, almost like she knows his secrets, but she has problems and issues of her own, the origins of which we never learn. Lonnie Raval is a genuinely scary villain, who can use psychology as well as he uses a gun. But it is Barbara Heddon, a prostitute hired by Teed's lawyer to provide an alibi for Mrs. Carboy's murder, who is the most interesting.

MacDonald's description of her -- and Teed's reaction -- clue the reader that she is going to be more than just a passing character: "She was a tall girl, and her hair was brown, but nothing else matched his conception. She wore a dark green tailored suit, a silver fox fur, a pert green hat with a veil. Her face had a look of fragility, delicacy and breeding ... calm, deep-blue eyes and a slow smile." On the way to the cabin she drops her facade: "She turned in the seat to face him, and all the light had gone out of her blue eyes. They looked dead, long buried." She makes him promise never to ask her how she "got into the oldest profession." In a long, wonderfully revealed scene, we see the couple arrive at the cabin, go for a late swim in the lake, sit down to a hearty meal and then go off into separate bedrooms. MacDonald gradually chips away at her facade as she reveals more and more of herself. By the time the plot gets into real motion, she is a main character.

Teed's lawyer is also an interesting characterization. Armando Rogale is a second-generation Italian-American with a good reason for attempting to help bring down the crime boss and the machine that supports him. His back-story is colorfully told:

"I grew up in Deron. My old man was a carpenter, an immigrant, a professional patriot. Bill of Rights. Constitution. You know what I mean. In our ward there was a code of behavior. No matter how bright you were, you were supposed to ask for help when you voted, just like you were illiterate. Our ward always threw every vote to the machine. My old man went to night school. He did his own voting and kept splitting his own ticket. Bad example to the others. They beat him up three times, and the third time they accidentally cracked his skull and he was in a coma for three weeks before he died. After I passed the bar I tried to set up in Utica, then in Syracuse. No dice. I had to come back here. Now I'm a minor irritant. Someday I want to be some sort of avenging angel -- or maybe demon."

Teed himself grows, from a corner-cutting gigolo into the avenging angel Rogale longs to be. There is credible violence and real, surprising loss in this novel, and MacDonald's storytelling is characteristically superb. One can see -- in retrospect -- that he was developing the skills he later honed to near perfection.

Teed's humane treatment of the prostitute Barbara is an interesting preview of Travis McGee. Although no one could call Teed a McGee, the scenes between the two characters, especially their first night in the cabin together, ring very familiar, with Teed eventually focusing his efforts at restoring Barbara's self-esteem. His attempts throughout the rest of the novel are progressively more touching, and their relationship becomes the reader's real focus right up to the final pages.

Judge Me Not is almost unknown to readers today, and is rarely discussed even in MacDonald circles. Hugh Merrill, in his biography of MacDonald, had nothing good to say about it, comparing it to "first novels by writers from the Iowa Writers' Workshop," whatever that means. It went through 14 separate printings through 1984 -- a typical number for MacDonald's early novels -- but is currently out of print, as are most of the author's non-Travis McGee books. It received no contemporary reviews, and only one brief reappraisal in the pages of the JDM Bibliophile by Len Moffatt in 1994.

Merrill did point out one fascinating feature of the main character. His odd given name -- Teed --is, in fact, the su
rname of Dorothy MacDonald's first husband, to whom she was married for a brief time before meeting and marrying JDM. It is not made clear why the marriage lasted for such a short period, but it most likely had something to do with Teed's wealthy father, a retired Deputy County Treasurer, being held responsible for a missing $250,000 in the County's accounts.

Make of that what you will.