Friday, December 11, 2009

The Lethal Sex

John D MacDonald, writer of hundreds of short stories and scores of novels, was actually a character in a mystery story once. It was written in 1959 by Christianna Brand, and if you are unfamiliar with the work of Ms. Brand, you should educate yourself: she was a terrific writer. Best known for her Inspector Cockrill novels -- of which, Green for Danger is the most famous -- she also penned the Nurse Matilda series of children's books, which Emma Thompson adapted for the 2005 film Nanny McPhee. The short story, titled "Dear Mr. MacDonald," was written in response to a direct request from JDM himself.

In 1959, MacDonald was asked by the Mystery Writer's of America to edit one of their annual collections of short stories. These MWA anthologies were done mainly to raise funds for the Association, and neither the editor or the writers were paid. Urged on by MacDonald's editor Knox Burger (who helped to conceive the idea), this collection was to have a unique focus, in that all of the stories in the anthology would be penned by women. MacDonald sent out over eighty requests to the female members of the MWA, asking for submissions. Some sent in previously published works (like Anthony Gilbert's "You'll Be the Death of Me," later adapted as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), but most were originals, including "Dear Mr. MacDonald."

MacDonald's Introduction to the collection reveals some of the angst he suffered in his first job as editor. His dedication reads:

To all those unsung heroes of modern letters, those harassed, unraveled, ink-stained wretches, the professional editors. At last I understand their problems.
He admits in the Introduction that "This is the first editing chore I have ever done. The way I feel at the moment, it will be the last." It was. He revealed that "the time consumed has probably cost me a book of my own," and went on to humorously describe how he began his "virginal" editorship:

"I wrote imploring letters to eighty-odd female members of the Mystery Writers of America... They responded and, when you have read the book you will know how handsomely. Should any man care to give his life a flavor of vivid unreality I suggest he engage in a simultaneous correspondence with eighty women. Eighty female writers! I will say, without critical intent, that a certain percentage of all women are neurotic. A certain percentage of all writers are flamboyantly neurotic. In those cases where the personal and professional neuroses overlap, you can find yourself opening mail that makes your knees buckle.

Naturally, all the contributors to this collection are splendid, stable types, beautifully adjusted to both their femininity and their talent. All? Read the stories and make your own guesses.
I like women. I am in that male minority which is perfectly willing to concede that they are people, and treat them as such. But I do not understand them. Out of unguessable motivations and indefinable applications of inexplicable instinct, they can always produce the irrational act. And then justify it.

Had I, in my coward heart, ever felt the sneaky yen to emulate the career of Casanova, this boyish dream has been cruelly obliterated. If it takes only an inundation of spirited professional correspondence with women to make me highly nervous, I can not help but wonder how catastrophic would be the results of an equal number of personal associations. I can now see that the modern occupation known as International Playboy requires much more than suavity, money and social charm. It requires, primarily, nerves of tungsten steel.
It is traditional, I am told, for anthologists to explain in an introduction the rules they used for selection. I asked for bite, and violence and atmosphere. I did not want any of those tidy, cozy, hemstitched little formula jobs. If you just adore those comfy little predictable puzzles, you've bought the wrong book...

When, in my original ignorance, I planned this anthology I had intended to write a little introductory note for each story. Some biographical jazz, and an applause bit. Now I know better. Honestly, girls, I'm not really terrified of you, en masse. This nervous twitch comes from weaving baskets. I have not even touched your titles! Even though some of them are not what I would call apt. In fact, it took supernatural courage to correct a few mistakes in spelling.

This is an exotic banquet I set before you. We have called it The Lethal Sex. I would prefer to think of it as The Modern Man's Guide and Handbook for Understanding a Creative Woman. Here they are, with their buttons and bows, their silks and scents... and their savage little minds."
"Dear Mr. MacDonald" is a clever story that goes simply like this: JDM's "imploring" letter, sent to author Christianna Brand, somehow gets delivered to Ms.Brand's next-door neighbor. I should say, Ms. Brand's very crazy next-door neighbor. The story is itself a letter, written by said crazy neighbor back to MacDonald, but sent to him by Brand with the following "cover letter":

"I'm so sorry, but your letter asking me to write something for the MWA Anthology was delivered to the wrong address -- as you'll see by the enclosed; and I've only just found out about it, too late to send you a story, I'm afraid. I thought, however, that you personally might be interested in this document (though I hope you won't blame yourself -- you can see that the poor thing was quite mad). It is only a copy, of course. The original, which the dead woman was clutching, is in handwriting, very illegible and blotchy and what the trick psychs. call "disturbed." The police have it now. This has been very much tidied up and made readable -- as it stood it really was hardly sense. Don't bother to return it.
Yours sincerely,
Christianna Brand"
Needless to say, MacDonald doesn't actually appear, but is referred to throughout, as the "letter" is addressed to him. It's a delicious bit of writing.

JDM actually wrote a "postscript" to his introduction of The Lethal Sex, the only time I've ever seen an editor do that. He apparently felt the need to further explain his story selection:

"To the eleven hundred and three indignant readers whose sense of tidiness is going to be offended by discovering that several of these stories are not mystery stories, I send a message. Save your stamps. Don't write."
He goes on to explain that the writing of some of these authors was so superb that he felt compelled to include their stories, despite the fact that they may not fit into the narrow definition of "a mystery." He ends by writing, "Some of these stories are going to stay with you a long, long time. I am proud of the book."

The Lethal Sex enjoyed only a single printing, in paperback, and remains one of the most elusive JDM titles -- even though we can't really call it a "JDM title." I found my copy right on the shelf in a used book store back in 1977, and I paid less than 50 cents for it. As you can see above, it features a terrific cover by the always-excellent Robert McGinnis.

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