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.


  1. For me, this is as close as MacDonald got to Hammett and I quite like it:

    1. That's an excellent observation, Bob. I can now see how three of MacDonald's earliest novels were drawn from other writers: The Brass Cupcake: Chandler, Judge Me Not: Hammett, and Weep For Me: Cain.