Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Jail Bait"


In 1983, a new John D MacDonald book appeared on the stands. Bearing the title Two, it was a complete surprise to fans of the author, who had no warning of a new publication from their favorite author. An inspection of this thin paperback revealed it to be an anthology of sorts: two previously published works, re-printed in large type and filling all of 92 pages. The first of the entries was "Long Shot," a story from 1955 that had been included in MacDonald's first short story collection End of the Tiger and Other Stories. Big deal. The second, however, was something called "Jail Bait," which turned out to be a novella. It had originally appeared in the January 1956 issue of Argosy and had never since seen the light of day. Until then.

Curiously, the book contained no detailed copyright page, the place in most anthologies were the date and identification of the stories' original appearance is to be found. After the table of contents, it's always the first place I look to find the history of what I am about to read. All it said in Two was:

Copyright © 1955 by Popular Publications, Inc
First Carroll & Graff Edition 1983

The back cover stated that "Two contains vintage John D. MacDonald stories that have never before been available together in book form." Well, most MacDonald fans knew "Long Shot" from End of the Tiger, so what exactly was this? A check of the Shine's Bibliography confirmed "Jail Bait's" Argosy origins. What I did, as I assume most other MacDonald fans did, was to purchase it immediately, take it home and read it, despite it's relatively high price tag of $2.50. I was thankful I had a new JDM story in my collection.

I later learned (through the JDM Bibliophile) that the book was issued without the authorization of the author, and that MacDonald was livid and threatened to sue. He didn't, but managed to restrain the publisher from issuing any further editions. As such, it's become a bit of a collector's item among JDM aficionados. A check on Amazon today shows ten used copies for sale, with prices ranging from $15.49 to $150.00! Suddenly $2.50 doesn't seem so expensive.

It a shame, because "Jail Bait" is a ripping, suspenseful yarn. Jane Bayliss, a young single, lives in an unnamed, medium-sized city somewhere between Cleveland and New York. As the story opens, she is sitting at a table in a nightclub with her boyfriend Howard, who has just proposed to her. The look on Howard's face reveals Jane's response. "There was a notice in the paper when I was born," Jane tells him. "There'll be one there when I get married, if I do. And a final one when I die ... Howard, there's got to be more than that. Life has to have some glamour and excitement and danger. I just get up and plow through the day and go to bed. You say let's get married now. Sure. It takes me out of one trap and puts me in another - home, babies and all that. There hasn't been enough happen to me, Howard. I haven't lived at all!"
As you might guess, Jane is about to get her wish.

Howard notices two men acting strangely at a nearby table, and sees one of them pull a knife and lead the other man out of the club. They report this to the somewhat indifferent club owner, who takes their names and calls the police. The next morning Jane is awakened by a visit from two plainclothes policemen. A body was discovered overnight, matching the description of the second man they saw at the club, and Jane is brought in to identify him. It's the man. A newspaper reporter looking into the story is present and, before being shooed away by the cops, manages to take Jane's picture. The next day her face is in the paper, complete with a sensational headline. When she returns home from work that evening, she finds an unconscious Howard in her rifled apartment. Someone is looking for Jane, or something Jane has, and the fun begins.

The second half of the novella is a suspenseful chase done with MacDonald's spellbinding flair. I won't say more, but readers of The Deep Blue Good-By, written eight years later, will recognize a unique aspect of the story the author also uses in that novel. It was originally employed in one of MacDonald's earliest works, "The Flying Elephants," published in the July 10, 1946 issue of Short Stories.

The female lead character makes this seem like a curious inclusion for an issue of Argosy, a "men's magazine" if there ever was one. It would have seemed more at home in a woman's magazine of the time, like Cosmopolitan or Redbook, where MacDonald's work was often
published and appreciated.










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