Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"This One Will Kill You" ("Death Writes the Answer")

John D MacDonald's short story "This One Will Kill You" originally appeared in the May 1950 issue of New Detective Magazine. One of 20 stories that were published in that monthly over the years, it's a type of mystery known generally as a "perfect murder" story. We could, I suppose, narrow that definition to a more specific type, the "how to murder your wife" subset. This kind of mystery has a long tradition, with such well-known tales as AA Milne's "The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater," Stanley Ellin's "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby," and John Collier's "Anniversary Gift" and, most famously, his "Back for Christmas."

These stories usually feature mousy, fastidious husbands, the kind who enjoy a good crossword puzzle, or their butterfly collections, but are either henpecked or mothered to death by domineering wives. They reach a point -- always on their own -- where they have had enough, and envision a perfect little world, if only the old bag wasn't around any more. These couples are always childless and the reader is usually left wondering at the outset, just how this guy managed to get married in the first place. The stories are typically puzzles in themselves, as we observe the main character devise a plot, set it up and (usually) carry it out. The story is not done correctly without some sort of twist or instant karma at the end that leaves the husband worse off than he was before.

Peter Kallon is one of those men who likes puzzles and contests, and the opening of "This One Will Kill You" finds him sitting in his efficiency apartment pretending to read a magazine, surreptitiously looking over at his wife Myra: "For the moment the excitement, the carefully concealed anticipation of the past month faded, and he wondered, quite blankly, why he was going to kill his wife." Six months ago his plot had begun as an intellectual game, but now he was more than ready to put it into action. Myra is not a nag, or domineering, but, for the "very tidy" Peter, she simply won't do any more:

"Eight years had thickened her figure, put a roll of soft tissue under her chin, but the years had done nothing to alter that basic untidiness which he had once found so charming ... Myra, even though childless, seemed to find it impossible to handle the housekeeping details of an efficiency apartment ... eight years of litter had worn away his quite impressive patience with the monotony of water dripping on sandstone... Murder became a puzzle."
Peter's plan begins by tricking the unsuspecting Myra into writing out her own suicide note, making her think she is helping him compose a letter to one of his clients. With that in hand, he devises a series of events that will keep the chronically fatigued Myra awake for long periods of time, leaving her enervated and hopelessly sleepy on the fateful day. Then there are the four strings connected to the gas stove...

Poor Myra is depicted as a hapless victim, deserving of nothing more than a good cleaning up, but for her husband, every little action of hers evokes disgust. MacDonald drops these little descriptions with delightful frequency:

"A strand of graying brown hair hung down her cheek. She sat with one leg tucked under her, an unlaced shoe on the swinging foot. She was reading a novel, and as she came to the end of each page she licked the middle finger of her right hand before turning the next page... Long ago he had given up trying to read any book Myra had finished."
She "scuffed her way into the kitchenette," poured herself a glass of water, drank it and returned, "wiping her mouth with the back of her right hand." She falls asleep reading, breathing "audibly through her open mouth." She can't tune a radio properly, writes in a "childish scrawl," her words "slanted uphill to the right edge of the paper," and she "was never on time, never able to move fast."

Monstrous! Well, to Peter it is, and his plan is meticulous, but you know it's not going to end the way he intended.

Like many of his early pulp submissions, "This One Will Kill You" bore a different title when MacDonald wrote it. He called it "Death Writes the Answer" and changed it back to that title when it was included in the first edition of The Good Old Stuff in 1982.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ballroom of the Skies

Ballroom of the Skies was John D MacDonald's sixth published novel, coming right after Wine of the Dreamers and before The Damned. Like Dreamers (his other early science fiction novel), it originally appeared in hardcover, published by Greenberg in what must have been a fairly limited run. But instead of enjoying a subsequent paperback edition (like Dreamers), it was reprinted in a magazine nearly two years later, included as one of the two novels in the Winter 1953 issue of Two Complete Science-Adventure Books. Then, like Dreamers, it went out of print and remained largely forgotten until both novels were reissued in 1968. As a result I think it's safe to say that, until 1968, Ballroom of the Skies was MacDonald's most obscure novel ever.

The book is usually referred to as a "companion piece" to Wine of the Dreamers, in that both books are JDM's only novels of straight science fiction, they both appeared at about the same time, and they both are built around a similar premise: that mankind's ageless, unsolvable problems are the result of alien influence and control. Hardly a new or unique idea, the "aliens are among us" idea goes back at least as far as 1931's "The Earth-Owners" by Edmond Hamilton and has been popularized most recently in the television series Battlestar Galactica with their "skin jobs." The publication of MacDonald's novels coincided with the cresting of a wave of anti-communism that occurred in the United States in the early 1950's, along with the concurrent fear that our enemies were secretly infiltrating our society, and they looked just like us! This "Paranoid" school of science fiction enjoyed a huge surge of popularity that decade, both in the printed word and in the movies, and it continues today, only slightly abated, with television series such as The Invaders and, more recently, The X-Files.

MacDonald's spin on the idea was that the aliens aren't actually among us but they control us, or some of us, from afar. In both of his novels this control is purely mental, where the outsiders are capable of entering and taking over our minds, enabling them to use our bodies for their nefarious purposes. It is those very purposes that differentiate JDM's two works. In Wine of the Dreamers the controllers are unaware of what they are doing, believing that the dreams they have where they take over other life forms are just that: dreams. In Ballroom there is both purpose and intent: the aliens know exactly what they are doing.

The post-World War III Earth of Ballroom is a different world from the one of 1952, but only by degree. With Europe finally a wasteland, and the United States damaged and out of natural resources, the new world is a reorganized group of aligned nations, with reunited "Pak-India" the world's industrial leader. Coalition nations have formed out of necessity, with the fascist South America (led by Brazil), China and the Middle East (now called Irania) providing the new friction that seems to be leading to a fourth world war. Dake Lorin is an idealistic newspaper columnist who has taken a year off in order to work with another idealist, Darwin Branson, a man who has been asked by the President of the United States to work with the other powers of the world to hammer out some sort of mutual assistance pact. It has taken a full year of "cautious dickering [and] meetings in furtive places" in order to get to where he is at the beginning of the book, nearly done, awaiting only a meeting with the representative from Irania to obtain their final agreement.

As he waits for both Dake and the representative, he is visited by a young couple. In the time it would take to wash his hands they have killed and replaced him with a dronish substitute. They disappear in a flash, "flickering like black flames" from the roofs and ledges of the nearby buildings before vanishing altogether. Dake arrives with the representative and is astounded when Branson basically scuttles the agreement by offering a cynical deal with the Irania government. A disgusted Dake quits and resolves to risk life and limb by publishing a column revealing his work for the past year, showing readers just how close the world came to a lasting peace.

The enervation of society in the United States is wonderfully described by MacDonald early in the novel, where he paints a post-apocalyptic world all too familiar to readers in 2009:

"The war of the seventies had caused a further moral deterioration. Man sought escape in orgy, in soul-deadening drugs, in curious sadisms. Along 165th Street the fleng joints were in full cry. In the mouth of an alley three women, loaded to the gills with prono, were mercilessly beating a Japanese sailor. Giggling couples pushed their way into a dingy triditorium to rent the shoddy private rooms where the three gleaming curved walls were three-dimensional scenes for a life-size, third rate showing of one of the obscene feature shows turned out in the listless Hollywood mill. Censorship restricted such public showings to heterosexual motifs, but further uptown, private triditoriums showed imported specialties that would gag a gnu."

That was written in 1952, and one wonders if his prescience was too kind.

Dake needs to find a newspaper willing to publish his expose, and that won't be easy in this restrictive and censorious new society. He finally finds a run-down rag who will run it as a paid advertisement, but it will cost Dake far more money than he has. He decides to ask his on-again-off-again girlfriend Patrice Togelson for the money, and flies from New York to Philadelphia to meet with her. Patrice is wealthy, a result of a family oil fortune and a hard-headed, pragmatic business sense. Despite her misgivings, she gives Dake the money and he returns to New York to begin typing out his story.

That's when the really strange things begin to happen. He starts hallucinating, imagining that he is suddenly in a cow pasture. Then back in the newspaper office, he starts typing gibberish, later seeing a tiny reproduction of Patrice's face on each key, faces that become smashed and bloodied and cry out in pain as he strikes the keys. After hearing a report on the radio announcing that Darwin Branson has died suddenly, he drives to the morgue to inspect the body, finding strange anomalies. Convinced that the corpse is not Branson, Dake begins questioning his own sanity. Then he meets Karen Voss.

Karen possesses strange, extra-sensory powers that the reader is made aware of, but not Dake. She takes him under her wing and introduces him to her friends. (She is described as having "curiously pale gray eyes," so MacDonald fans know instantly that she's a good guy.) After much more unexplained phenomena, including one that literally drives Patrice to insanity, Dake learns who Karen really is and suddenly finds himself on another world, in training to be able to do what Karen does and ultimately return to Earth.

Brimming with ideas and predictions of the future, Ballroom of the Skies almost chokes to death on its own detail. MacDonald is obviously taken with his future society and writes page after page on its politics and morality. It's tough going early on, and the first half of the book has lost more than one reader I am aware of. Thankfully the story begins humming along nicely once Dake is carted off to God-knows-where (actually a planet called Manarr), and when he returns to Earth MacDonald writes some of the best suspense of his early career. But getting there can take a lot out of the reader.

Writing in the third person allows the author to reveal things that Dake is unaware of, and it is this device that ironically both helps and hinders the narrative. We see bits and pieces of the alien insurgency, explaining the oddities that leave Dake wondering about his own sanity. These scenes often become overly confusing and slow the pace of the story considerably. At one point MacDonald completely departs from both the plot and his own writing style when he offers a brief description of Manarr. It's a wonderfully written paragraph that reads like he's channeling Bradbury, but jarring nonetheless:

"It was a fine summer morning on Manarr. The sun beamed hot on the shallow placid seas, on the green rolling traces of the one-time mountains. The fi-birds dipped over the game fields, teetering on membranous green wings, yelping like the excited children. Picnic day. Picnic day. Everyone was coming, as everyone had always come. Hurrying from the warm pastels of the small houses that dotted the wide plains, hurrying by the food stations, the power boxes. Hooray for picnic day. The smallest ones set their tiny jump-sticks at their widest settings and did crazy clumsy leaps in the warm air, floating, sprawling, nickering. The maidens had practiced the jump-stick formations and groups of them played towering, floating games of leapfrog on the way to the game fields, spreading wide their skirts, swimming through the perfect air of this day... Picnic day. Today there would be water sculpture, and sky dancing, and clowns. Day of laughter, evening of the long songs, night of mating. Time for work tomorrow..."

His depiction of some of the social problems in this new order are insightful, none more so than the plight of "the Negro":

"Though the war of the seventies had done much to alleviate racial tensions in the United States, there had still been small though influential Negro groups who had joyously welcomed the dominance of a dark-skinned race in world affairs. They had soon found, to their dismay, that the Pak-Indians were supremely conscious of being, in truth, an Aryan race, and brought to any dealings with the Negro that vast legacy of hatred from the years of tension in Fiji culminating in the interracial wars."

His ruminations on a has-been United States sounds like something out of today's global warming controversies:

"We had it, he thought, and we threw it away. We ripped our iron and coal and oil out of the warm earth, used our copper and our forests and the rich topsoil, and hurled it all at our enemies, and conquered them, and were left at last with the empty ravaged land."

As he did in Wine of the Dreamers, he presents a newscast depicting current affairs, both as a means of exposition and a way to vent his predictions:

"Massacre in a religious encampment in Iowa. Fire razes abandoned plant of Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Gurkah Air Force takes long-term lease on Drew Field in Florida, in conjunction with the missile launching stations at Cocoa. Maharani kidnap attempt foiled. Skyrocketing murder statistics blamed on prono addiction, yet growers' lobby thwarts legislative control. Bigamy legalized in California after Supreme Court review. Tridi starlet found dead in bed. New North China conscription planned. Brazil develops deadly new virus mutation. New soil deficiency isolated at Kansas lab. Texas again threatens succession..."

MacDonald saves his most savage predictions for his own country, as he envisions a tired, corrupt and jaded former superpower, one where there is no hope for the next generation:

"He felt uneasy riding through the dark streets with money in his wallet. Philadelphia was infested with child gangs. The dissolution and decay of the school system had put them on the streets. They had the utter, unthinking ruthlessness of children in all ages. The guerrilla days had filled the land with weapons. Put an antique zip-gun in the hands of an eleven-year-old child from a prono-saturated home, and you had an entity which thought only in terms of the pleasing clatter of the gun itself, with imagination so undeveloped as yet that the adults who were ripped by the slugs were not creatures capable of feeling pain, but merely exciting symbols of an alien race..."

Sound familiar?

Raymond Carney, an English Professor at Middlebury College, wrote an essay on MacDonald's science fiction novels back in 1980, titled "John MacDonald and the Technologies of Knowledge" and published in the JDM Bibliophile (#26). He called the novels "extraordinary science fiction" and concluded that:

"...MacDonald avoids being trapped by any of the various plots he plots. The success of his writing depends on his ability to deploy and negotiate the intersecting technologies of law, bureaucracy, history, and memory more deftly and humanely than even the best of his readers. The positive value that is affirmed by these novels is nothing very complicated -- it is something very [much] like an almost childish tenderness and affection for particular people and things. The value MacDonald appears to cherish above all else is simply the thoroughly human capacity to love, to play, to inquire, and to explore, in short man's ability by virtue of his mere humanity to resist any inhumane system that would contain or control him."

I think that sums up all of MacDonald's writing, not just his science fiction, and it reached its apogee in the Travis McGee novels.

As I mentioned in my posting on Wine of the Dreamers a few weeks back, the fact that Ballroom of the Skies originally appeared in hardcover allowed MacDonald to enjoy some of the only contemporaneous book reviews he would receive in his early career as a novelist. The Shines report that the book received notices in the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Saturday Review, along with a smattering of science fiction magazines. The reviews were generally favorable, although many of the reviewers definitely understood the novel's shortcomings. Startling Stories pointed out that "the story gallop[s] off in all directions," and the Herald Tribune noted that the "novel is a little less successful than its concept." The Saturday Review correctly said the "material often escapes the author's control," while the St. Louis Dispatch presciently opined "Mr. MacDonald should go back to writing detective novels."

He did, returning only once more to science fiction in 1962 with the breezy, comic novel The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything, a book the author rarely even considered science fiction, but fantasy.

Update (1/19/2015): In March of 2010 I decided to write a piece on MacDonald's January 1951 science fiction novella, "Hand From the Void," a work I had not read before. I discovered that it was, in many respects, an early version of Ballroom of the Skies, a fact that I had never known or heard about. You can read the posting here.

Monday, December 28, 2009

It's Been 23 Years...

John D MacDonald died 23 years ago today. As I write these words I find myself in a state of disbelief that it has been that long.

In September 1986 MacDonald checked into St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee for a "routine" heart bypass operation. He was 70 years old. The operation took place on the 18th and MacDonald developed pneumonia afterward. He was bedridden and did not improve. In late November he slipped into a coma and died a month later, on December 28, 1986 at 10:40 am.

According to biographer Hugh Merrill, MacDonald's doctor had assured him that the operation was relatively safe, with "only a 5 to 8 percent operative risk."

A month after his death an article appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel (reprinted in the JDM Bibliophile 39) written by one Joe Manning, describing JDM's time in the hospital:

"JDM's wife of 49 years, Dorothy, and their son Maynard, and a grandson, Karsten, were with him when he died ... from complications of heart disease...

"'You would not believe the impact his death has had on the hospital staff who were involved in his care. So many people had gotten close to him and his family,' said Steven Pinzer, hospital spokesman.

"Mrs. MacDonald and her son had remained in the Milwaukee throughout MacDonald's stay in the hospital.

"Nurses brought food from home Thanksgiving and Christmas so the MacDonald's could have home-cooked dinners together in the hospital's intensive care unit.

"A physician at St. Mary's said MacDonald 'had technically difficult arteries to bypass,' and complications to other organs led to intensive respiratory support.

"MacDonald's hospitalization had been particularly draining to the staff and family members because ' his progress was like a roller coaster, up and down.'

"'When it looked like he was going to make it, there would be a setback. Everyone thought he was finally on the road to recovery, but he had another coronary arrest and went into a coma,' the physician said...

"'There were MacDonald novels all over the hospital,' said the physician, who asked not to be named.

"The physician said MacDonald 'was incredibly lucid and his notes were extremely descriptive.' (JDM's wife Dorothy actually kept the notes, and wrote a detailed log of what she thought would be of interest during JDM's stay in the hospital.)

"'His intelligence came through all of it. He was unique in the way he coped with all the vicissitudes in the intensive care unit,' the physician said...

"Maynard, who lives in New Zealand with his wife and children and makes rocking chairs, remembers following behind his father on a family walk during a visit by his father.

"'He was walking alone with all of his five grandchildren in tow, as if they were following a big battleship. And this battleship, my father, had complete and constant awareness. He was aware of the people around him and he noted little things he saw. He had tremendous insights into people.

"'It was as if he had radar and electronic sensing equipment like a battleship would have, and nothing escaped his detection -- the exotic little things. He was very curious about the world.'

"During the visit, Maynard said, he told his father about a friend who worked in the sewer department. The friend had told Maynard that people often lose their false teeth down the toilet and the teeth are held at the treatment plant until claimed by the people who lost them.
"Maynard and his father had a hard time believing that, but went with his son to visit the friend, who worked the late-night shift.

"'My friend, Simon, took him into a room and showed my dad row upon row of false teeth that had been recovered from the sewer. He thoroughly enjoyed it. He was curious enough to go check it out for himself.

"I've been waiting for years to pick up a McGee and see the teeth thing in there,' he said..."

Nearly every newspaper in the country wrote some sort of appreciation of the man and his work, a fact that must seem astounding to anyone today who is not familiar with him. He was deeply respected, especially by his fellow writers, and authors such as Stephen King, Ross Thomas, Tony Hillerman, Dean Koontz and Donald Westlake all wrote appreciations. The Boston Globe wrote that JDM was "the Dickens of mid-century America -- popular, prolific and, if not conspicuously sentimental, conscience-ridden about his environment..." The Richmond News Leader said "No reader ever finished a MacDonald book without having learned something of value" and The Raleigh News and Observer said JDM was "almost certainly the most important novelist contemporary Florida has produced."
One of my favorite recollections of MacDonald came from Dave Hughes, a BIB subscriber from Colorado who had interviewed JDM in the mid-1970's:

"He was tall, broad-shouldered, with a ready smile and friendly conversation always waiting to be released. His love and pride for his wife and son were obvious and unmistakable. He loved life, he loved writing, he enjoyed good talk, he liked people. His grin and good-natured teasing were aimed at himself as much as at anyone or anything else. He flatly refused to take his fame and critical appraisals seriously. He was aware of his own foibles and had long since accepted them. He was satisfied with what he had become -- although he was never satisfied with his writing. No matter what stage of his career was discussed, he described himself as 'still learning my craft.'"

We're currently living through a period -- at least, I hope it's only a period -- when MacDonald and his works have become largely forgotten by the reading public. Except for the Travis McGee novels, there are only two of his other 56 books still in print: The Executioners (published under the title Cape Fear) and A Bullet for Cinderella, which was reprinted by Wonder Publishing Group as part of their Noir Masters series. A new biography promised this year by Schaffner Press seems to have disappeared, although it may see the light of day eventually. A film version of The Deep Blue Good-By is "in development" and will likely star Leonardo DICaprio, but that wouldn't appear until at least 2011 at the earliest, and it is one of 27 (!) films listed under DiCaprio's IMDb profile as being "in development," so who knows if it will ever be filmed.

Wouldn't it be ironic if a film version of a MacDonald work was the trigger for a new explosion of interest in his work? If the medium that never seemed to understand him or get him quite right was the cause behind having his books republished? I think even JDM would have a good laugh over that.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"The Cardboard Star"

Yesterday and the day before I posted entries on John D MacDonald's two Christmas short stories, "Dead on Christmas Street" and "Open Before Christmas." I had surmised, based on the stories I own and the titles of the ones I don't own, that these were the only two he had written. Well, I was wrong, and how I discovered it is almost a Christmas story unto itself.

I'm always on the lookout for JDM works I don't own. The Internet in general, and eBay in particular, are full of booksellers advertising old magazines, many containing stories I don't yet have. Unfortunately, the prices these merchants charge are usually out of my range, given the sheer number of stories I am missing. I wouldn't mind paying $15 for an old copy of Collier's if there weren't hundreds of other magazines out there I needed as well. Occasionally I will come across someone selling something I need at a reasonable price, and then I either buy or bid. Two weeks ago I began bidding on a batch of 18 issues of The American Legion Magazine from 1951 and 1952. MacDonald published only one story in the periodical back in December 1951, something called "The Cardboard Star," and I was delighted to see that the issue in question was among those for sale. The opening bid was a whopping $1.74 and I bid $5.00; a week later I won. The magazines arrived today, Christmas Eve, and I was dumbstruck to learn that "The Cardboard Star" was a Christmas story!

I suppose it should have been obvious to me, what with the title and the fact that it was published in a December issue, but I thought -- never having read an issue of The American Legion Magazine -- that it was a military story and that the star in the title was an officer's star. It turned out to have nothing to do with the military, but is a tale of a broken marriage, and the transforming power of this particular holiday. As a Christmas story, I think it's MacDonald's best, and is certainly the most sentimental and touching.

It's Christmas Eve (!) and Paul Wyath is angrily walking around the inside of his big, empty suburban house. Outside he can see the lights from the neighbors' house, where a Christmas party is taking place, one that he and his wife Martha had been invited to. But Martha isn't here. She and Paul have been separated and this will be their first Christmas apart. The kids are with Martha, who is now living with her mother. The lights and sounds of the party bring back memories of last year's party and the beginning of what Paul calls "the trouble":

"He winced as he remembered that he had been a casualty the year before -- trying to put bourbon on a big case of Tom and Jerrys. And on Christmas Day, complete with hangover, there had been the big brawl about Sylvia Bradley, the redhead. He couldn't remember much about Sylvia, but all he could remember had been bad."

Or perhaps it was buying this house, one that they could not really afford and located in a neighborhood where they did not belong: "...the standards of the people who lived on Arden Lane had not been the standards of the Paul and Martha Wyath of other, less-affluent neighborhoods." But upward mobility and multiple promotions had brought them here, "in a forty-thousand dollar ranch-type arrangement, completely surrounded by other similar edifices filled with neurotic wives and hospitable liquor." Feeling sorry for himself, Paul now realizes he has become "a cheap 1950 edition of something out of Scott Fitzgerald, complete even to making scenes at the country club and snarling at your kids."

Deciding that he can not spend Christmas Eve alone in the house, he gets ready to leave for the local hotel when he hears a car pull up. He opens the door and sees Martha. But despite the "tremulous hope" Paul feels in his heart, Martha is only there to collect a few Christmas tree ornaments, things she was supposed to take when she moved out but had forgotten.

Is that really why she's there? Yes, re

"He looked into her eyes and saw no other motive there. No other chance there, for him. All the ugly, uncomfortable things had been said. It was finished and done -- beyond repair."

They pull out some old boxes and Martha goes through them, pulling out the few things she needs for her mother's much smaller tree. Then Martha finds a particular ornament, one that has a uniquely familiar history...

"The Cardboard Star" is about as sentimental as MacDonald ever got, which is to say, not very. But the things that man was able to express in not many words is awe-inspiring, and when he got it right, he got it right. Here, he nailed it. Having never seen the story before, I have to say it's the best "new" Christmas story I've read in many, many years. The ending presents a near-perfect balance of realism and transcendence.

I'm amazed that the story has never been anthologized. I can only guess that it's due to the fact that it appeared in a relatively obscure magazine, and one not known for publishing fiction. Hopefully an editor out there will discover its peculiar charm and present it to a wider audience. It certainly deserves to be read again.

Update (3/7/2015):

I've just discovered that The American Legion has digitized almost the entire run of The American Legion Magazine, and this issue is available to download free of charge:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Open Before Christmas"

As I mentioned yesterday, John D MacDonald seems to have published only two "Christmas" stories in his career. One is the mystery "Dead on Christmas Street" (which really isn't a Christmas story at all) and the other is the mainstream "Open Before Christmas," appearing in the December 1956 issue of Woman's Home Companion. It was MacDonald's only story to appear in that long-running magazine, and it came in the next-to-last issue before folding. In fact, by the time the issue hit the stands the magazine had already laid off it's entire staff just before Christmas that year, leaving over 2,700 workers without jobs or severance. Merry Christmas!

"Open Before Christmas" is a typically unsentimental tale told by an author who evidently didn't think much of the holiday. The story's main character, Benjamin West, is a suburban husband and father of two children, fifteen-year-old Kathy and twelve-year-old George. Three weeks before Christmas he makes a family "policy decision," and calls the clan together one Sunday to announce it. He prefaces the meeting with his nervous family thusly: "Understand me now, I am not saying Bah, nor am I saying Humbug." It is time, he says, to "get off the old-fashioned type Christmas kick." He wants to eliminate what he feels is the excessive ostentation of the holiday, " look at the whole thing objectively and knock off the pointless parts of the routine. We'll have plenty of Christmas spirit. We'll be surrounded by it. We shouldn't ever as a family let ourselves get trapped into too much tradition."

The "big monster tree" is to be replaced by a little table tree; brown paper will replace gift wrap; the "do-not-open-until routine" is out the window; turkey dinner will be replaced by steaks, and "the old Lionel Barrymore records" are to be dispensed with. Oh, and no red Christmas ribbon on the cat! He puts it to a family vote: his wife Helen abstains, Kathy votes with dad, and George doesn't care one way or the other, as long as he gets a new bike.

Of course, things don't quite work out the way Ben had planned. The boxes of ornaments that were to have remained packed and unnecessary for the new tree end up festooned along the fireplace mantel. The presents purchased by Helen come beautifully wrapped by the store where she purchased them, leaving Ben's wrapping looking "so terribly brown." The steaks are forgotten when Helen wins a turkey -- "about the size and consistency of a harbor mine" -- at the supermarket. George walks around "with a curious listlessness."
The story doesn't end quite the way one might expect, although considering the author, perhaps it does. And while Ben is nothing like the character who originally said "Bah humbug!" he does seem a bit gruff and distant. He continuously addresses his son George as "boy," seemingly unaware of how ugly that must sound. It's not clear if MacDonald wrote Ben that way or if he himself thought "boy" an acceptable way to address one's son. The ending is a happy one, if a bit subdued, where Ben realizes there are some things that shouldn't be changed.

MacDonald himself grew up with a distant, withdrawn father who apparently passed on some of his traits to his son. Hugh Merrill quotes an old journal entry where JDM recognized some of those similarities: "He appears most often when I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror... it always makes me despise myself instantaneously..." Yet Merrill also quotes from an old school paper written by JDM's younger sister Doris, where she reveals that Christmas was the one time of the year when the senior MacDonald came out of his shell:

"... he dressed as Santa Claus and created great excitement, especially the time when, pretending to be climbing out of the chimney, he touched the draft and got covered with soot. The fact that his children have grown up doesn't lessen his Christmas paradise at all. He does his shopping after office hours, carefully hides all the packages in a back room and spends hours wrapping them. Attached to each gift is a poem, and the jokes of the entire year appear in that poetry. The family sits around the dining room table on Christmas Eve. Each one is requested to read his poem aloud and then celebration is always a howling success -- not to mention that father's voice usually leads the chorus."

Merrill doesn't speculate whether this is fact or pure fiction from Doris, accepting it at face value. Doris ended the piece by claiming that, behind his gruffness, Eugene MacDonald sometimes had "a twinkle in his eye." Then Merrill writes, "Maybe she saw it, but his son never did."

"Open Before Christmas" was anthologized once, in a collection published in 1960 by Llewellyn Miller and titled The Joy of Christmas. I purchased a copy in a used book store many years ago, but I still see used copies pop up now and again on the Internet. It's a nice collection, containing works such as A Christmas Carol (condensed), "A Visit from St. Nicholas," Robert Benchley's humorous "Christmas Afternoon," works by Dorothy Parker, Lincoln Steffens, Ogden Nash, and the wonderful "The Night They Gave Babies Away" by Dale Eunson.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Dead on Christmas Street"

As near as I can tell, John D MacDonald wrote only two Christmas-themed stories, and only one of them was a mystery. It appeared in the December 20, 1952 issue of Collier's and was titled "Dead on Christmas Street." You can pretty much tell from the title that we aren't going to be reading about goodwill toward men.

JDM was a self-declared agnostic, and I can only guess that Christmas wasn't a big deal in the MacDonald house. "Dead on Christmas Street" is a fine mystery story, but it really has little to do with the holiday. It's a straightforward tale of crime solving that happens to take place during the Christmas season, and I'm tempted to surmise that the setting was dictated by an editor, who may have wanted a Christmas theme for his December 20th issue. The story does not depend on the season and it would have worked just as well at any other time of the year.

The primary witness in an upcoming trial has been pushed out of a high rise office window a few days before Christmas, and without her the district attorney has no case. Dan Fowler is the Assistant DA assigned to the trial, and he knows that the three teenagers accused of the robbery she witnessed couldn't have been responsible, since they are currently sitting in jail. One of them, however, is the younger brother of local crime boss Vince Servius, and Dan immediately suspects he may have been involved. When Servius provides an alibi and convinces him that he doesn't much care for his younger brother, Dan and his fiancé Jane (who also works in the DA's office) begin checking into the background of the dead witness. They uncover a not very likeable woman with a lifestyle far beyond the means of an ordinary secretary.

"Dead on Christmas Street" seems an odd inclusion for the Christmas issue of a mainstream periodical, but MacDonald had already published several stories there, including the serialized "My Brother's Widow," which later became the novel Area of Suspicion. Nearly 20 years later "Dead on Christmas Street" was reprinted in the Christmas issue of a more appropriate monthly, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It has been anthologized at least twice, originally in 1990's Mystery for Christmas and Other Stories: From Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and again in 2002 in the collection titled Murder Most Merry. Used copies of both books are very easy to locate.

It's a well-crafted, enjoyable mystery story, but not necessarily one that's going to put you in the Christmas spirit.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How many short stories did JDM publish?

In the numbers game, every fan of John D MacDonald knows the two most important ones: 78 books and "over 500" stories published.

The books are fairly easy to quantify, although many sources miss a title or two, usually Reading For Survival and Two. We can even break down the books by category, albeit imperfectly:

66 Novels
7 Short Story Anthologies
5 Non-Fiction Books

Some of the books are difficult to classify. Border Town Girl (1956) is really an anthology of two novellas, but is typically counted as a novel (I have not done so above). Reading for Survival, a posthumously published essay issued as part of a program sponsored by the Library of Congress Center For The Book, is sometimes listed as a novel because MacDonald expresses his ideas in the form of a conversation between Travis McGee and Meyer. It properly belongs among the non-fiction works. Some lists include The Lethal Sex as the author's work, when he simply served as the anthology's editor, and Two is usually omitted, although it does contain a previously-uncollected story.

Still, that total is correct and easy to prove.

The short stories are another matter entirely. The claim of "over 500" is invariably cited when discussing MacDonald both generally and specifically, and even people who should know better have used that number. Including me, but I'm in good company. Hugh Merrill uses it in the very first paragraph of his "definitive" biography, The Red Hot Typewriter. The late Ed Hirshberg, editor of the JDM Bibliophile, used it in a 1979 interview with JDM. Laurent Auguste claims over 500 on his JDM web page, although he lists only 300+, and, most recently, the figure is repeated in the HBS article I posted the link to yesterday. Must be right. Right?

I certainly thought so, until I decided to sit down and count. Not surprisingly, I came up with a much lower number, and unless my math is suspect, or there exists a huge cache of stories that have yet to be documented, it's a new number I'm fairly confident with.

It helps to define what we're talking about here. When I use the term "short story" I am including novellas and anything shorter. I am not including non-fiction, which appeared often, and I am not including either serialized novels or works that went on to become published books. I'm also not including the ten "missing" stories, works that were sold but where no evidence of publication can be found. I'm using the Shines' Bibliography as my primary reference. It is the best piece of research out there and nearly everything they listed was verified by someone actually looking for and finding the published result.

Here are some examples of what I am talking about. MacDonald's works appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine 36 times, from 1947 to 1975, so immediately one adds 36 to the short story total. However, when looking at exactly what was published there, we find that 16 of those submissions were later published as novels, and usually under different titles. Two were condensations of published novels, leaving 18 short stories, or half of what was originally counted. The Cosmopolitan example is extreme, but when going through all of the magazines where MacDonald published stories, the numbers add up.

The point of all this is really being made for the reader seeking to locate and read as much original JDM as they can. It would be extremely frustrating to find an old issue of Dime Detective containing a story titled "Five-Star Fugitive," pay top dollar, take it home and read it, only to realize that the story later appeared re-titled as Border Town Girl in a readily available paperback. Or paying for an old issue of Cosmopolitan with his "The Tug of Evil," only to find out it was later published in book form as Slam the Big Door. As a self-confessed maker of lists, I like to know how many original works of the author I have read and how many are still out there waiting to be located.

It is highly doubtful that there is a huge number of published-but-unlocated JDM stories out there. The author was a meticulous record-keeper who ran his writing career like a small business. Copies of all his original manuscripts (excepting the early, unpublished ones he burned) were kept, filed and later submitted to the University of Florida, where they are currently housed and catalogued. Anyone can view the lists of their holdings online, and I don't see much out there that hasn't already been documented. Walter and Jean Shine were very good at what they did.

So, what is the revised number? As I said, it's a lot lower than 500. I came up with a figure of 390 works of short fiction. The number is probably off by a few here or there, but I believe it is reasonably accurate, and a lot less than 500. Twenty percent less.

Admitting I'm fallible, I'd welcome any corrections or additions. Truthfully, this may seem like calculating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but some of us enjoy such calculations in the pursuit of accuracy.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"The Loveliest Girl in the World"

One more This Week story and then I'll move on to other things.

In 1964 John D MacDonald published seven stories in the Sunday supplement, the most of any single year. Throughout the 1950's the author wrote at least one submission-- usually more -- each year in This Week up until 1958, when "Man in a Trap" appeared. That effort -- at 4,750 words,his longest This Week story of all -- was the last that would be published for five years. In October of 1963, "End of the Tiger" appeared, then, the following year, he made up for lost time. I'm not sure if there was an editorial change behind this gap, or if JDM was simply busy doing other things (and wasn't he always!), but beginning with "Tiger" his This Week writing became deeper and more nuanced.

"The Loveliest Girl in the World" appeared in the March 15, 1964 issue and ran 3,000 words, his second-longest TW tale. The blurb that ran along the top of the story's page describes the plot succinctly: "A young girl and an older man who fell deeply, almost irrevocably, in love."

The story begins beautifully: "She was a chrysanthemum girl, slender by all sane standards, yet not gaunted to the thinness of a high-fashion model." She is Jean Anne Burch, from Canton, Ohio, and she is an ad-agency model in New York, now going by the stage name of Lya Shawnessy. Jean Anne has been doing a lot of work for successful photographer Joe Kardell, and not always because she was the best choice for the job. "[He] had started using her in the winter, using her for things exactly right for her, and he wondered at what subtle and self-deceiving point he had begun using her for jobs not exactly right, jobs where another face would have been better, jobs where he could overcome that small discrepancy through his total mastery of his tools." Joe is middle-aged, married and with two teen-aged children, but he has fallen in love with Jean Anne, and she with him. This is obvious to Joe's two studio assistants, although what they don't know is that the "affair" has never been consummated. Joe and Jean Anne have never even met outside of his studio. It's simply a realization between the two of them that something has happened.

Then something does happen. Joe becomes overcome with emotion during a shoot, dismisses everyone and then waits for Jean Anne outside in the hall. They get into his car and drive, ending up at a motel, but after three abrupt and awkward kisses in the car, they decide to go to the motel's restaurant and talk.

MacDonald has been referred to as a "moralist," a characterization he often used himself. It is a trait that becomes quickly obvious to the readers of his early works, and the 1950's featured a series of what writer Garry Emmons refers to as "morality books." These include such titles as Cancel All Our Vows, Contrary Pleasure and, perhaps the best example, Clemmie. In each case, the heroes, like characters in a classic tragedy, carry the seeds of their own demise, and are either undone by their transgressions or survive, battered but stronger and more self-aware. Joe Kardell is a member of this club, and in this story we are allowed to observe the thought process that goes on while he rationalizes, briefly succumbs, then makes a fateful decision. In "The Loveliest Girl in the World" we are also blessed with a female character equally as articulate, aware and as strong as Joe. And, as much in love as he is, but she allows Joe to make the ultimate decision about their relationship.

MacDonald thought well of this story, and he included it in his first collection, End of the Tiger and Other Stories. It's a nicely-written tale from a seemingly bygone era, but really just as relevant today as it was in 1964. It holds up very well.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"The Man Without a Home"

Last week I wrote about one of John D MacDonald's baseball stories, "A Young Man's Game," and I mentioned that it was one of three stories JDM had written using that particular sport. That number was gleaned from Walter Shine, who declared it in an old issue of the JDM Bibliophile. Other than "A Young Man's Game," he didn't mention the names of the stories, so I don't know if "The Man Without a Home" is one of them, but it should be. It's a tale about a baseball player and, even though no baseball is actually played in the story, it does center on the demands the sport makes on the men who have chosen to make it a career.

The story originally appeared, not in a sports fiction pulp, but in the August 22, 1954 issue of This Week, and MacDonald submitted it under the title "Sure, I Know Lew." Thankfully, the editors changed it to the much more evocative and descriptive title it bore when published.

"Lew" is Lew Sikas, a successful slugger and outfielder for an unnamed major league team. In the middle of his twelfth season, he's still at the top of his game, currently batting .313, with 27 home runs and 94 RBI. Sitting in a restaurant with his wife Joanne in yet another major league city, Lew is "relaxed and fit." Joanne, however, wants to broach a subject she knows will upset him. Like most successful ballplayers, Lew knows his time in the sun is brief, so he is cramming as much baseball as he can into his few playing years. Once the season is over he will depart for an off-season tour, featuring exhibition games in Tokyo, Manila and Havana (this is pre-Castro, of course). But after twelve years, Joanne is tired of it all and wants to talk to Lew about skipping the off-season tour and spending the time at home with her and their children. She works up the courage and reveals her feelings, but Lew isn't buying it: "That's right , I've got a big head. I play a game and hit a ball a country mile and cover left field like a tent, and I've forgotten it's a game. Is that what you mean? ... I want us to be secure. I've got to make all I can. We'll have time for [family]." Joanne argues, but eventually realizes "there was nothing more to be said."

They are interrupted by a young man who has been sitting at a nearby table. He approaches hesitantly, and awkwardly explains to Lew that the two of them once played together, years ago, when the man spent four days in camp as a tryout. He now works in a factory and is dining with his wife and young son. He begs Lew to pretend like they are old friends and to come over to greet his family. Lew quickly understands and accommodates the man. He goes over and sits with them, staying longer than Joanne would have expected. When he finally returns, he seems thoughtful. "Your good deed for the day?" Joanne asks almost sarcastically, but something about the family has obviously touched Lew.

"The Man Without a Home" bears a similarity to "A Young Man's Game" in more than just the sport the characters play: they are both about ballplayers facing turning points in their careers. Wally Prows is looking at a different sort of dilemma, where his skills are in decline, but both Wally and Lew make a decision about the proper balance of family and sport, and both have supportive wives who will go along with whatever their husbands decide. In Lew's case, it's a chance encounter in a restaurant that gets him thinking about what is really important in his life.

The story is typically brief at 1,900 words, as were all of MacDonald's This Week submissions, and is one of only nine works of short fiction he published in 1954. By that time he was devoting most of his energy toward his novels, and in that same year he produced three. To be accurate, two of those short stories were actually novellas, so it's not like JDM was a complete goof-off that year!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"The Bullets Lied"

In keeping with the This Week theme this week, we jump to January 6, 1957 and the publication of John D MacDonald's "The Bullets Lied." I've talked about how This Week was one of the primary outlets for MacDonald's "mainstream" fiction, but it should be noted that along side stories with titles like "She Tried To Make Her Man Behave" and "The Giant Who Came To Our House," a few real mystery and crime stories appeared there. "The Bullets Lied" is one of those stories.

The typically brief tale -- as were all of MacDonald's submissions to this magazine -- falls into the "forensics" category of JDM's mystery fiction, the kind which "The Homesick Buick" is the best example. A crime is committed, the police are stumped, but eventually through a unique and unorthodox method of deduction, the mystery is solved. Police Lieutenant John Darmondy is the stumped cop here, and it's not for want of evidence, motive, or even a prime suspect. A wealthy business owner has been found shot dead in his office, and his daughter's boyfriend is the killer. He's got to be: he had motive because the daughter was set to inherit the business, and he is implicated by the evidence because the two bullets found in the victim were shot from a gun he owned. Since the suspect had no alibi (he was home alone) it should be an open-and-shut case, but Darmondy doesn't think so:

"He's a bright kid. He's been around. He reacts all right. He didn't believe what I was telling him. I took him to the lab and let him take a look for himself. Ever since then he's been acting as if somebody hit him on the head. He said he has the only key to the gun case. It's a good lock. He says he didn't go to bed until midnight. Nobody could have taken the gun. He says he didn't use it."

Darmondy goes to his friend, the unnamed narrator of the tale, who happens to be a middle aged logician. The two are friends, have solved cases together before, and Darmondy is hoping for a fresh perspective. The narrator listens patiently and, being the logician he is, comes up with a "rough symbolic equation. The bullets had come from the gun and the gun had not been used in the murder."

Unlike many of MacDonald's forensic stories, this one is obviously drawn from the solution, in that the author came up with a method, then wrote his story around it. That's not to say he didn't use this writing method before -- I'm sure it was also how he wrote "The Homesick Buick" -- but here it's really obvious. It must have been made more so by anyone who bothered to read the two-sentence author bio on the story's first page, where the solution to the tale is revealed! It's an interesting bit of trivia about MacDonald, but really, what was the editor thinking?

This is an average effort by MacDonald. The plot is clever, but no attempt is made at characterization and, as I said above, it's all so obvious. David C. Cook, however, didn't think so. He included the story in his anthology Best Detective Stories of the Year (13th Edition). Shows how much I know.

At the end of the story there are references to other cases that have been solved by this improbable duo, complete with "macabre souvenirs" from the crimes, kept by the narrator on a shelf in his study. It makes me wonder if there are other tales out there featuring this pair. If I come across any I will report them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"I Love You (Occasionally)"

Yesterday's posting discussed the works of John D MacDonald that were published in the long-gone weekly newspaper supplement This Week. As I mentioned, the very first story to be published there was something called "I Love You (Occasionally)," which appeared in the December 31, 1950 issue. One of the earliest works of "mainstream fiction" to be sold by MacDonald, it was printed in the magazine without an author credit. It's a brief little lesson of what happens when a husband suddenly tries to be a better partner. As the story's subtitle says, "It almost broke up his marriage!"

Harrison Coombs is a middle class stockbroker with a wife and two kids. He works in "the city" and lives in the suburbs, commuting back and forth via train like so many of the "gray flannel" men of the 50's. Riding home one evening he reads a quiz in a magazine titled "How Good a Husband Are You?" and, convinced he is a super spouse, proceeds to take it. The first question "jolted him a bit": "You take home flowers (often) (seldom) (only on anniversaries). The next question is "You tell her she looks lovely (once a day) (once a week) (once a month) (once a year) (never).

"'Hmmm,' said Harrison Coombs."

He does so poorly that he resolves to make amends that evening. When he gets into the waiting car at the train station, he gives his wife Laura an unexpectedly long kiss, much to the amusement of their two children in the back seat. "Your father was just trying to get warm," explains the startled Laura. The evening is filled with attempts by Harrison to do better and to be more attentive. As MacDonald writes, "Harrison Coombs was filled to the brim with the warm self-regard that comes of having decided to be a better husband."
As the night wears on, Laura becomes increasingly more unnerved, until he actually says the words: "I love you, darling." Then all hell breaks loose.

MacDonald's description of Laura, spoken through Harrison, is amusing, in that it is so typically MacDonald:

"Yes, it was about time he gave some serious thought to his relationship with Laura. Damn lucky in that department. Lovely girl. Figure was better than the day he married her. Whistle-bait, and that's the truth. Always get a tight feeling in the back of the neck when some joe starts paying her too much attention at a party. Time to give the girl a break. Make her feel wanted and appreciated."

Even without a byline, you can recognize the author's voice.

"I Love You (Occasionally)" was published in the New Year's Eve edition of This Week, but only a cursory mention of the date is made in the story. It runs a brief 2,400 words and was reprinted three years later in the Toronto Star's Saturday supplement, the Star Weekly. MacDonald wrote five original stories for the Star Weekly over the years, and six of his This Week stories were reprinted there.

It's a fairly inconsequential tale, nothing special, but recognizably MacDonald and fun to read.