Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Killing All Men!" ("Deadly Damsel")

"When she had awakened that morning, she had looked at her husband in the other bed. Howard's slack mouth was open, there was a stubble of beard on his chin and he was puffy under the eyes. It was at that moment she realized how bored she was.
"Howard Goodkin bored her and so did the little city of Wanderloo. Ohio. As had happened so many times before, the plot and the lines and scenery failed to wear well.

"When he came down to breakfast she kissed him warmly, smiled up into his eyes -- and wondered if he should be buried in the blue suit or the gray one."

So begins "Killing All Men!," the loopy title an editor assigned to John D MacDonald's March 1949 story he called "Deadly Damsel." The first two paragraphs could have come out of a short story published in any women's magazine of the period. The third could only come from a Pulp, in this case the king of all Pulps, Black Mask.

Founded in 1920 by no less a literary beacon than H. L. Mencken, Black Mask was originally intended as a money-making omnibus, featuring stories from all popular genres. It was eventually sold and quickly began printing crime stories exclusively. In 1926, under the editorship of Captain "Cap" Joseph Shaw, the magazine flowered into the premier mystery fiction magazine, publishing stories by the great writers of that genre: Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler. Shaw left the magazine in 1936 and became a literary agent. He eventually represented a young John D MacDonald and helped him begin selling his writings in the pulps. MacDonald's first published story in Black Mask was in the September 1947 issue and was called "Manhattan Horse Opera." "Killing All Men!" appeared almost two years later. In total, MacDonald sold seven of his early crime stories to the magazine, the last one appearing in July 1950, a year before the publication's demise.

"Killing All Men!" is the classic black widow tale, told with MacDonald's characteristic style and economy. Alicia Bowie is the wife referenced in the quote above, although she hasn't gone by that name since her first marriage, twenty-four years before the action of the story begins. Since that time she has wed and murdered five husbands, and now has grown bored with husband number six. She's 41, still attractive, and has grown to love the excitement and the cycles of her chosen life: meeting, being wooed, marrying and eventually killing and moving on to the next victim. Never staying in the same place twice, she's amassed a comfortable nest egg, hidden away in various safe deposit boxes throughout the country. It's a good life. Or lives.

MacDonald gets inside her head nicely in the opening paragraphs, revealing a methodical and well organized person who completely understands what she is doing and has no problem living with herself. 

"Death gave her a feeling of power that she bore with her wherever she went. She looked at the dull, tidy little lives of the women in the small cities in which she lived, and she felt like a goddess. She could write all manner of things on the black slate of life, and then, with one gesture, wipe the slate clean and begin all over again. New words, new love, new tenderness and a new manner of death... It was good to kill men... but it was not until her fourth death that she managed to connect her joy with that half-forgotten incident in the woods near her home when she had been fourteen...It bothered her that her hatred of men had to be based on a particular incident. She would rather it had been hatred without apparent cause, because it would have seemed cleaner that way."

The story abruptly changes scene, and we are now in Cristofer, Florida, "a small, inland town, sleepy in the hot sun." Ben Lawton is a former WWII POW who has recently been released from a VA Hospital, suffering from "tension," and who was advised by his doctor to avoid his stressful pre-war job (we're never told what it was, but it was important) and go find "some quiet and isolated spot -- manual labor-- no worries." He's working as a maintenance man at Komfort Court, a shabby resort motel consisting of sixteen one-room cabins, run by Jonas Bright, an elderly, semi-paralyzed man, and who also has another employee: his attractive daughter Serena, "tall, slim, young figure, [with] a proud walk, warm strength [and] fine sensitivity." In other words, MacDonald's ideal woman. Ben pines for Serena, but realizes "a subdued, solemn psycho case, a man straight out of a PN hospital, held no charms for her." Besides, Serena herself longs for Jay Kelso, a recently-arrived guest who rode into town in a yellow convertible, who is described as looking like a "racetrack tout who had cut himself a piece of the killing. He wore loose-weave sports shirts in pearl gray, lemon yellow and powder blue. His neckties were knotted into great bulky triangular knots... His faun and pearl slacks were knife-edged, and his sports shoes were obviously elevators... His face was wan and thin, with a deep tan over the sallowness, dark hair pompadoured with a greasy fixative, his facial expression a carefully trained imitation of a movie tough guy." How could Serena resist? Kelso and Serena become an item, despite Ben and her father's warnings.

Then, guess who shows up as the next guest? Yep, the recently-widowed Mrs. Goodkin, only now she's poising as the recently-widowed Betty Oliver. Kelso smells money, "Betty" smells a new victim, Serena gets tossed aside like yesterday's front page, and Ben... well, he's just waiting. The fun begins.

"Killing All Men!" is a terrifically sly, engaging piece of pulp writing, with MacDonald's beautifully-drawn characterizations the focal point. The plot is exciting and, at times brutal, but it is the characters of the widow and her prey Kelso that MacDonald hones and spends the most words on. They become real, recognizable people, although no one you would ever want to actually know. Their situations at the end of the story are extremely satisfying, and reading the last couple of sentences made me actually laugh out loud.

The character of Ben Lawton is of a type seen frequently in MacDonald's early writing: the returning WW II veteran, damaged by war and in need of healing, but never to the extent that you don't believe he'll ultimately pull it off. MacDonald himself had been one of those men, although how damaged he was will never be known. When he decided to give up the military and a business career in order to attempt fiction writing as a full time job, he was pitied and looked on as a "war case" by his neighbors and family (although not by his ever-supportive wife Dorothy). Probably much the same way Ben Lawton was.

"Killing All Men!" is included in MacDonald's last short story anthology, More Good Old Stuff, appearing for the first time under the author's original title.

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