Friday, December 4, 2009

"All That Blood Money Can Buy" ("Murder for Money")

There was a lot of excitement in the JDM fan community back in 1981, when it was learned that MacDonald had agreed to allow thirty of his early mystery stories to be republished. These were to be works from the earliest and most obscure mystery pulps such as Dime Detective, Doc Savage and 15 Mystery Stories, stories that had never been anthologized and had been read by almost no one since their original publication. Handsome, well-received collections of other writers' early short fiction had been published a few years earlier, such as The Stories of John Cheever, and Irwin Shaw's Short Stories: Five Decades, and there was a hopeful anticipation among many of JDM's readers that most -- if not all - of his work would be republished.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Of those thirty stories, compiled by editors Francis M. Nevins, Jr, Martin H. Greenberg and Walter and Jean Shine, MacDonald immediately rejected the re-publication of three of them. Collectively, the editors and the author decided to release the stories in two separate volumes, issued a year apart, calling them The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff. Finally, MacDonald renamed all of the stories that had not been published under his original titles (editors often changed titles back then, especially in the pulps) and even updated some of them. That final change was inexplicable to many of us JDM readers, and it remains so today.

Despite MacDonald's protestations to the contrary, he really did care about how his work was received in the literary community, especially after he began receiving notice and a degree of respect. I sensed his fear of someone reading something he had once written and denigrating it with something like "so this is the great John D MacDonald?" One could see it in his refusal to have an early novel Weep for Me republished, and one could sense it in the afterward to his two science fiction novels, reprinted after 18 years. He wanted to assure the reader that "this is not my best stuff, it's old, but some readers really wanted it republished." Like any good writer who works over a long period of time, he improved with age and his skills were honed to a large degree in those early stories. That some of them may have sounded stilted at times, or that a character may have used a now-unfamiliar word or phrase, seemed curiously unacceptable to the author.

He received quite a few complaints about those changes after the first Good Old Stuff volume was released, including one from me. In his introduction to the second volume, he acknowledged this and dug in his heels. "I want my stories to entertain," he wrote. "If a story captures and entertains a reader, one certain way of breaking the spell is to make him conscious of the fact that he is reading a story. If the hero rushes into a candy store and puts a nickel in a pay phone, it jars. If he buys a quart of milk for twenty cents, the spell is broken."

The problem with this assumption, I believe, is that it puts the setting of the story into a kind of uncertain twilight zone, and the reader becomes disoriented. This is especially true when reading these stories over 25 years after the anthologies were published: you don't know where you really are in time. Reading a story about beachfront land speculation in Clearwater, Florida written in 1952, republished in a book called The Good Old Stuff, and seeing a reference to a land sale taking place in 1980... now that's jarring! It's tempting to think that MacDonald didn't care about posterity, or believed that these volumes would not be around for long, but that speculation is belied by his declaration in that second forward, that "there will be no additional versions of More Good Old Stuff.

The 1952 Clearwater referenced above is the setting for the first story in the first Good Old Stuff, "All That Blood Money Can Buy," published here under the author's original title "Murder for Money". It appeared in the April 1952 issue of Detective Tales and runs 15,000 words. The hero of the story is Gil Darrigan, a claims adjustor for a Hartford, Connecticut life insurance company. (MacDonald often used this profession as a more legitimate substitute for the standard private eye, most notably in his first novel The Brass Cupcake.) He's arrived in Clearwater to investigate the disappearance -- and possible death -- of local real estate speculator Temple Davisson, who carries nearly $900,000 in life insurance with Gil's company. His widow is the former paid companion to Davisson's first wife and is thirty years his junior. Davisson married her when his first wife died, much to the objection of his two adult children. Right away Gil is looking at Dinah Davisson as a prime suspect.

Temple Davisson was last seen at the bar of a beachfront resort, downing a few solitary drinks before leaving and walking on down the road. While questioning the bartender, Gil learns that Davisson was making eyes at one of the resort's guests, the striking Kathy Marrick, who is staying at the resort awaiting the outcome of her divorce proceedings. Improbably, Kathy joins Gil in his investigation, convincing him that she knows Clearwater and its citizens better than he does. Besides, she's utterly bored. The two of them make the rounds, eventually discovering that Davisson was seen that day meeting with the owner of another local resort, Myron Drynfells, and his new, young, beautiful-but-dangerous-looking Cuban bride.

It's an interesting tale that shows its age in places, most notably in the epilogue-like ending that comes straight out of nowhere, but it's an enjoyable read and nothing to be ashamed of. There are at least three or four references to dates that definitely do become jarring, as the reader has to stop and think, "OK, written in the Fifties, but updated in 1982, so 1973 would be nine years ago, right?" Thankfully MacDonald refrained from updating all of the stories, leaving alone the ones he deemed "period pieces" .

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