Thursday, December 30, 2010

JDM's New Year's Reading List

Probably due to our occupation of putting words on paper, we have a tendency to evaluate 1947 on the basis of what happened in the publishing- business.

The other night on the radio we heard someone say that 1947 will be remembered principally because it was the year between 1946 and 1948. We are inclined to go along with the man.

To whom it may concern—following is a list of the books published in 1947 that we enjoyed the most. At risk if being a heretic, we state firmly that we read books not for information, not for education, not for conversation but merely to be amused and entertained.

Command Decision by William Wister Haines (Little,Brown). A war book presenting the top brass as human beings—and very well done.

Dirty Eddie by Ludwig Bemelmans (Viking). Maybe this shouldn't be in here. We would read Bemelmans if he rewrote Henny Penny.

Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Hobson (Simon & Schuster). This is not in the list because of the quality of the prose —which happens to be the slick, glib, objectionable prose of the big magazines—but merely because of an intriguing plot situation.

The Harder They Fall by Budd Schulberg (Random House). Though Schulberg's narrator is so similar to the protagonists of many other recent novels that he has no real identity, the pictures of minor characters are superb.

Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley (Appleton-Century), Very realistic, and, as such, representative of a dying trend in these days of increasing mysticism and symbolic prose. Rough, tough and nasty—but most effective.

Odd Man Out by F. L. Green (Reynal and Hitchcock). Wonderful suspense in a man hunt where the ending is inevitable. Told from the viewpoint of the hunted.

The Saxon Charm by Frederic Wakeman. (Rinehart). Wakeman going a bit deeper into human relationship and emotions than in his two previous novels. Though not as popular as his first two, it may be a step in the direction of a really good novel someday.

Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener (Macmillan). Would call this, along with Shore Leave and Command Decision one of the three best jobs to come out of the war. Michener has something special.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (Reynal & Hitchcock). We have the idea that in the year 2047, this book will be read, and frequently. Of all on this list it most deserves rereading.

And just to be unpleasant, here are a few titles we could have skipped and saved reading time.

Kingsblood Royal, S[inclair] Lewis; East Side, West Side, M[arcia] Davenport; Adversary in the House, I[rving] Stone; Proud Destiny, L[ion] Feuchtwanger.

Other titles which we almost put on the preferred list are The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, The Left Hand is the Dreamer by N[ancy] Wilson [Ross], Hellbox by J[ohn] O'Hara, The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford.

  • • •

1947 was a year in which more books were printed and circulated in this country than at any time in history. And a year in which the publishing business was severely criticized for the low average quality of its offerings. Quantity without quality. Some months back we heard Freeman "Doc" Lewis, Executive Vice-President of Pocket Books, talking about the book clubs. They, of course, were partly responsible for so many millions of volumes being printed. Doc Lewis said that in the depression many book clubs were about to fail. Then some merchandising genius got the idea of making the subscriber send in a blank when he didn't want a book, instead of when he did. In other words, they put inertia to work. Inertia has sold more book club books than any other form of merchandising.

1947 was a year in which two friends of ours had books published. Ed Taylor did a nice job in Richer by Asia. We were overseas with Ed. At that time he was soaking up the background for his book. We thought he was merely preoccupied.

And an editor, a lady named Babette Rosmond, to whom we have sold many pulp stories for inclusion in such newsstand epics as Doc Savage and The Shadow, wrote one called The Dewy Dewey Eyes. We saw her last week in New York, and she requested that around the middle of this month we walk the streets of Clinton wearing a sandwich sign to advertise the publication of her new book, which is to be called, A Party for Grownups.

As yet we have given her no decision.

A very happy and prosperous new year to all you people.

-- John D MacDonald's January 1, 1948 column for the Clinton Courier.

This is an interesting list, not so much for what it says about the author (little, really) but what it says about books, publishing and, in particular, fiction in an era that has long since past. From MacDonald's list of recommended books, nearly every title was adapted for film (Under the Volcano wasn't filmed until 1984), with the exception of Dirty Eddie, which was a story about a screenwriter and which did appear as an episode of the early television anthology series The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. Tales from the South Pacific was first adapted as a Broadway musical, the iconic South Pacific, and was later filmed in that form. 

The "stinkers" were all works by noted authors, some of them hacks (Stone), others whose best years were past them (Lewis). The runners-up include some great titles, the best of which is perhaps The Left Hand is the Dreamer, a hypnotic novel about a failing marriage, written by the author of the better-remembered Westward the Women. (I read this novel over 30 years ago and own a copy -- I'll have to dig it out and reread it, assuming I can find it.) The Mountain Lion is another incredible work of fiction, written by an author who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The Mountain Lion is a title that rightfully belongs on the "best of" list. Hellbox is a terrific collection of short pieces, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, by the author to whom JDM was often compared.

MacDonald, in his later years, often included James Michener among the authors he found lacking, once including him on a list of "big, world-famous solemn hacks." Finding his name on the "best" list was a surprise. And Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano was one of MacDonald's favorite books -- both he and his wife Dorothy read and loved it. JDM biographers Ed Hirshberg and Hugh Merrill both cite it as the inspiration for the MacDonalds' move to Mexico in the fall of 1948.

If one were to look more deeply into this list for a clue to some bit of biography of the author, I suppose it would be the obvious absence of any mystery or crime novel. In 1947 most of the hardcover mystery books published in America were of a tamer variety than what was subversively gestating in the paperback market of the time. MacDonald himself wouldn't publish his first novel for another two years. And the kinds of novels MacDonald read in 1947 (and throughout his life) were the type that the author would himself attempt only occasionally. But he loved to read, and read he did. He often cited reading as the first prerequisite of a writer. In 1979 he gave interviewer Ed Hirshberg his advice for the beginning writer:

"Most beginners think that writing is a quick ticket to some kind of celebrity status, to broads and talk shows. Those with that shallow motivation can forget it. Here's how it goes. Take a person 25 years old. If that person has not read a minimum of three books a week since he or she was ten years old, or 2,340 books -- comic books not counted -- and if he or she is not still reading at that pace or preferably, at a greater pace, then forget it. If he or she is not willing to commit one million words to paper -- ten medium long novels -- without much hope of ever selling one work, in the process of learning this trade, then forget it. And if he or she can be discouraged by anyone in this world from continuing to write, write, write -- then forget it."

Apart from the ridiculously impossible standards set by JDM in this quote, it is clear that he is describing one successful author in particular: John D MacDonald.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

JDM's True Christmas Story

This is a true Christmas story.
In 1941 we were working in Rochester in the Mercantile Building which is just across the main drag from McCurdy's Department Store. 

In the interests of good clean fun and advertising, McCurdy's had installed that year, in a front window, one of those huge bellowing Santa Clauses, three times life size, which rocks and rolls and slaps his crimson thigh with a hand as big as a ham. 

Those particular monsters were quite a novelty in 1941, and the one at McCurdy's collected crowds of people who stood and laughed along with him, mildly hypnotized by the repetitive motions. There was something mammoth and awe inspiring about him, and if you stood too close to the plate glass, he gave you a vague sense of alarm.

Anyway, we went to work quite early one morning, before the stores were open and before the streets were crowded. Probably by prior arrangement with the orphanage concerned the big mechanical Santa had been activated and there he was, roaring and rocking and slapping his leg as he looked out at the empty street. 

We were about to pass him by when we saw, coming from the opposite direction, about forty moppets in column of twos herded by two Sisters. It was a nice idea, bringing the little people down to see that over-size Santa. Having watched the parents of little children try to hush their horrified screams after one glance at the monster, we had a pretty fair idea of what would happen when those orderly kids arrived in front of the window. 

We stuck around to watch. 

The little people slowed their steps when they came close to the window, alarmed by the bellowing alone. When they got right up to him, all discipline vanished. They were green troops in the presence of the enemy. The wailing of the kids made almost as much noise as the bellowing of the Santa. About thirty of the forty tried to find refuge behind the billowing skirts of the Sisters, and the remaining ten, petrified, stood and watched the horrible giant.

They had been led to expect a mild, fat, jolly little man with a twinkle in his eye, and here was something the size of a small bungalow which made as much noise as a locomotive.

One little man broke from shelter, and with doubled fists and pumping legs, began to make time back in the direction from which he had come. In three running steps, a Sister got hold of him, but in so doing left numerous others exposed. They lost no time getting behind her again. 

It appears that in all humor there must be elements of tragedy. It was sad and funny to think of the gap between anticipation and the actuality. 

At that precise moment, the mechanical Santa broke into flames. 

He couldn't have picked a worse time to acquire a short circuit in his red flannels. The Sisters were equal to the occasion. By superhuman effort, they got their little wards back into a column of twos and led them to the nearest crosswalk and across the street. A man on our side of the street put in the alarm while we were still thinking about it. 

One of the most horrible sights we ever saw was that Santa Claus. If the fire had stopped him cold, it wouldn't have been so bad. But it apparently didn't damage his mechanism. 

While the flames roared up around him, devouring his whiskers, he kept rocking back and forth, slapping himself on the leg with an arm which had turned into skeletal wires, and the sound of his, “Wah! Hah! Hah! Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!” still roared in the empty street. 

The little people clutched each other and their eyes bulged. After much effort, the Sisters got the line moving again and they went back down the street. But every little head was turned and every small mouth sagged open. 

The fire engines came quickly and, as they squirted some kind of foam on Santa, he stopped moving and the sound of his laughter was stilled. 

When the curtains in the Store window were drawn across the scene of horror, we turned away and went up to the office.

--from John D MacDonald's weekly newspaper column, published in the December 18, 1947 issue of The Clinton Courier.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"The Startled Face of Death"

"The Startled Face of Death" was one of three John D MacDonald stories published in the November 1946 issue of Doc Savage. Appearing under the house name "Scott O'Hara," it was joined by the author's "The Little People" (a novella, and credited to JDM) as well as "The Scarred Hand," a story credited to "John Farrell" and one good enough to to pass muster for inclusion in the author's 1984 pulp anthology More Good Old Stuff.

That two volume collection (The Good Old Stuff in 1982 and More Good Old Stuff two years later) was edited by several people, including the ubiquitous Martin H. Greenberg, JDM bibliographers Walter and Jean Shine, and Francis M. Nevins, a St. Louis University School of Law professor who was also a mystery writer and an expert on American mystery fiction. Nevins was a frequent contributor to the early, Moffatt-edited version of the JDM Bibliophile and was virtually the only writer in that journal -- or any other -- who seemed interested in studying MacDonald's early short fiction for purposes other than listing the name, date and location of its publication. He was a noted expert on the works of both Ellery Queen and Cornell Woolrich and was perhaps the first writer to detect the strong similarities between Woolrich and the very early short fiction of John D MacDonald. Nevins had written a work on Queen in 1974 (Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective) and would later co-author (with Ray Stanich) a shorter work on the various appearances of Ellery Queen in dramatic radio, The Sound of Detection: Ellery Queen's Adventures in Radio (1983), a book I purchased and still own. In 1988 he would write the first (and as far as I can tell, still the only) biography of Cornell Woolrich, a massive volume blessed with the wonderful title Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die.

In 1978 Nevins contributed a paper to a conference on the works of John D MacDonald sponsored by the University of South Florida in Tampa. Titled "The Making of a Tale-Spinner: John D. MacDonald's Early Pulp Stories," it discussed a variety of those early pulp tales in order to prove the thesis that MacDonald was not "building a private literary world but working within established modes and strengthening his skills in a breathtaking number of directions at the same time." The paper mentions over a dozen specific titles and remains -- again, as far as I know -- the most detailed work on MacDonald's pulp work to date. MacDonald himself attended the conference and commented on each paper as it was read. Those off-the-cuff comments were later reprinted in an issue of the JDM Bibliophile, providing MacDonald fans with some of the most detailed and interesting history of his early days as a pulp writer. In 1980 those same papers were printed in the inaugural issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection and, again, MacDonald provided commentary for each study, this time in writing, after a more careful study of the works in question.

In Nevins' paper he makes mention of "The Startled Face of Death," calling it "a quite decent early MacDonald" containing an atmosphere that was "thick, steamy and authentic." I'm afraid I will have to disagree with Nevins on this one. What begins with a terrifically written scene eventually devolves into a meandering tale of detection that relies on too much happenstance and too little characterization. The story itself contains the skeleton of an interesting mystery story that is unfortunately undone by the brevity in which MacDonald tells the tale, lacking anything resembling the kind of character development that the author would eventually master. The mystery, on its own pulp terms, works, but only barely so, leaving the reader greatly underwhelmed by the solution.

The setting for "The Startled Face of Death" is Delhi, India, a place the author knew well from his war years and one he hated equally well. Sam Carroll is employed in a job that was MacDonald's favorite private eye-substitute, an insurance investigator, and he harbors the same feeling for the country that JDM did. The MacGuffin of the tale is a necklace made up of twenty-two square cut emeralds, a necklace that was paid for six years before the story begins by an import firm by the name of Bartan and Adams. They had wired thirty-three thousand dollars to their agent in India in 1940, a man by the name of Holley, who cashed the draft, purchased the necklace and then disappeared off the face of the earth. Bartan and Adams' insurance company made good on the loss and then sent their own agent to try and find Holley. That agent determined that Holley had died in possession of the necklace in Old Delhi. The agent would head there to follow up on a lead. A month later the insurers received word that the agent was found outside the Red Fort with his throat cut from ear to ear. The company was on the verge of sending Carroll over to follow up when the war intervened and the case grew cold for five years. But now the war is over and the insurance company still wants to find out what happened. Enter Carroll, again.

Sam Carroll reflects much of the author's dislike and disdain for the country, repeatedly referring to the "stinking" city of Delhi and to the constant irritation of the incessant heat. He doesn't think too much of Indians, either. Carroll is none too happy about being there and none too happy about being sent to work on such a cold case. But this is a JDM protagonist, so not doing his job as professionally and as diligently as possible would be out of the question. As the story begins it is four in the morning and Carroll is trying to sleep in his furnace-like hotel room. The only way he can even hope to get any rest is to use "the formula": soaking his bedsheet in water, wrapping himself in it and laying down on the bed directly under the ceiling fan. The only problem comes if you awaken in the middle of the night; then you have to do it all over again.

Carroll has awakened and can't get back to sleep, giving MacDonald the opportunity to write a nice, evocative paragraph setting the scene nicely.

"I couldn't get back to sleep, and I lacked the energy to get up and go into the bath to soak the sheet again. I judged that I had been asleep for some hours, as the sheet was dry on top of me. I listened and heard the gabbling bay of the troops of jacks which wandered into New Delhi each night. I heard the clop clop of the tonga horses on Queensway and wondered who would be riding around in the parching night air. Above me the big fan whirred. I could feel the heat still radiating from the thick plaster walls of the hotel room, heat picked up during the blaze of the sun on the previous day."
While Carroll is lying in bed he detects a vague movement in his room, a "dark blob" too indistinct to make out. Soon he realizes that there is someone else in the room with him.

"It could be a routine hotel robbery or it could be... I seemed to hear once again the voice of old Ben Harfer, the company representative in Calcutta, repeating what he had told me as we has sat sipping gimlets by the pool at the Tollygunge Club. He had said, 'You don't know this country like I do, Mr. Carroll, and even though I've been here thirty years, I don't claim to know these people. They're sly and devious, and if you get close to what you're after, you will be stepping on somebody's toes. Take it very, very easy. The fact that you're American won't keep a knife from slipping into your throat if one of these beggars decides to put one there.'"
Clearly, John D MacDonald did not have fond memories of India.

Waiting for the right moment, Carroll leaps at the figure in the dark, only to have the door slammed in his face. He runs down the hall but the intruder has disappeared. As he returns to his room he notices a dagger lying on the floor of the hall, a knife with a short, bright curved blade, with "a handle of pale green Indian jade, cheap and opaque. It looked Moslem in design..." Back in his room he checks his suitcase, sitting on a stand near the porch doors. He uses the knife to flip open the lid.

"I jumped back a good six feet, and that didn't seem far enough... On top of my folded clothes were two huge scorpions, sand colored and evil. The larger of the two was at least three and a half inches long, the smaller was only a fraction of an inch shorter.They both climbed over the edge of the suitcase and dropped onto the floor, their horny skins clattering on the stone. One scuttled toward the porch and the smaller one came toward my bare feet, its long segmented tail folded back with the stinger just over its head. It came nearer and I turned and ran into the bath."
Carroll manages to kill the terrifying insects and comes to realize that the scorpions were placed in his room not to kill him -- scorpions couldn't do that -- but to scare him off. Of course, that meant that he was getting close to something or someone, but who or what? He redoubles his investigative efforts and is eventually is told by a hotel manager that when Holley's body was found five years ago, he noticed that the corpse's face wore an odd expression, "... a look of surprise as well as fear, as though it was the last thing he expected."

The remainder of "The Startled Face of Death" is little more that Carroll hunting down clues, until he comes upon the man he suspects, a character the reader hasn't been introduced to until that very moment, confronts him, fights him, and... well, there's very little surprise at this point, and the whole tale seems like a big letdown after that great scorpion scene.
MacDonald's early tales are full of stories set in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the places where the author was stationed during the war. "The Startled Face of Death" is structurally identical to another early JDM story, "They Let Me Live," a far superior work that also appeared in Doc Savage, concerning an American returning to the far east in order to solve a cold-case mystery. It was included in the first Good Old Stuff collection, while "The Startled Face of Death" has never been anthologized. In his Introduction to the first volume of the anthology, MacDonald relates that the editors had originally presented him with thirty stories for re-publication and that he approved all but three. I've always wondered what those three stories were. Based on Nevins' specific praise for "The Startled Face of Death" and the fact that it appears in neither collection, it's a good guess that this story was one of the three rejects.

Nevins has recently published a collection of some of his writings, redone as something he calls Cornucopia of Crime: Memories and Summations. It's a fascinating and addictive collection of remembrances about his life as a writer, editor and collector of mystery fiction. His chapter on JDM is basically a rewrite of "The Making of a Tale-Spinner," but he includes a brief biography and an interesting final paragraph recalling his stint as co-editor of The Good Old Stuff anthologies. He addresses the baffling decision by MacDonald to "update" some of the stories and relates that this practice was done over "howls of protest from all four editors," and rightly points out that this effort eliminated "precisely the immediate postwar ambience that made the stories so attractive." Nevins ends his piece with a sentiment that can surely be echoed by all JDM fanatics:

"I still hope that someday [these stories will be] reprinted, using the texts as MacDonald originally wrote them"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Len Moffatt (1923 - 2010)

I realize that I am late coming to this news, but I would be remiss if I didn't note the recent passing of Len Moffatt. He died on November 30 at the age of 87 in Southern California from complications following a recent operation to repair a herniated colon.

Len and his wife June were the founders and original editors of the JDM Bibliophile, the fanzine and journal dedicated to the study and discussion of the works of John D MacDonald. The Bibliophile was published on a more or less regular schedule from 1965 to 2004, surviving the death of its subject but not of its second editor, Ed Hirshberg. Len and June edited 22 issues of the journal before turning over the reins to Hirshberg in 1978 but they continued on as regular columnists in the new version, which was sponsored by the University of South Florida in Tampa. Titled after one of their favorite JDM books, the column "... & Everything" was a freewheeling discussion penned mainly by Len -- June's contributions seemed to be limited to occasional italicized parenthetical entries that commented or corrected Len's text, although the Moffatts were of such like minds when it came to their passion for popular fiction that one must assume her contributions were more involved that just that. Most columns began with Len's brief discussion of one of the various MacDonald novels (all of the McGee's and many of the early stand-alone mysteries) then wandered off into whatever else he felt like writing about. The column also included information on the various Bouchercons held throughout the years, the annual mystery fiction convention that the Moffatts were instrumental in beginning back in the late Sixties.

Len was first and foremost a science fiction fan, and the Moffatts also published a s-f fanzine titled Moonshine. It was through science fiction pulps that the Moffatts were introduced to the writing of John D MacDonald. June recalled that the first JDM she remembered reading was 1948's "Ring Around the Redhead" in Startling Stories, while Len remembers his first encounter in 1946, reading "The Dry Mouth of Danger" in Doc Savage, a mystery pulp with s-f elements. They began following MacDonald's work, first in the s-f pulps like Astounding Science Fiction, Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, then in some of the mystery pulps, and on into his novels. The first book-length JDM they read was Wine of the Dreamers, which they had both seen earlier in a 1950 issue of Startling Stories.

Interestingly, the JDM Bibliophile began not as a fanzine but as a means to an end: to accumulate information for something they called The JDM Master Checklist, a project that would list every piece of fiction MacDonald had ever had published, in book form or in magazines. It was a daunting task back in the pre-internet days, made especially difficult because of the sheer volume of product the author had published, either under his own name or using a pen name. How that project began was recalled back in 1987, then more fully in 1990 in the "... & Everything" column.

"Early in 1965 a young friend of ours, Tony Ellik, wrote to [MacDonald] and received a nice reply. John enclosed a list of his books to date including The Blood Game which was unfinished at the time (and was never finished). Ron, who was living back East at the time, sent the list to me [in California], knowing that I shared his interest in JDM stories. As a matter of fact, I knew of a goodly number of JDM readers among the local s-f fan and writer community as well as in other parts of the country. So I roughed out the first two-page issue of The JDM Bibliophile and June typed it onto ditto masters. Took it to work and ran off a hundred or so copies. Some were distributed locally and others through the Fantasy Amateur Press Association. More or less as a joke, we called it Number One. All it contained was the list that John had sent; we didn't bother sending a copy to him... that was in March 1965.

"Then we began to get feedback. Friends wrote or asked in person, 'When are you going to publish Number Two?' We didn't have any good answers until Ed Cox, another old friend, sent us an article on stories by JDM in the pulps. So we issued Number Two, which turned out to be nine pages, what with Ed's article and my editorial ramblings. Oh yes, we reprinted the book list. We expressed the regret that finding those old magazine stories to re-read or read for the first time would be hard to do. This time we sent a copy to John.

"He replied that he was 'non-founded and dumb-plussed' that anyone would publish a magazine about his work, and he asked if it would be kosher for the author to help in the hunt. We allowed as how it would, and thus began our work on The JDM Master Checklist."

Len goes on to recall that they continued publishing the JDMB "as a vehicle to gather all the information we could," and that MacDonald assisted by sending information from his vast and well-maintained records, detailing story titles (his original titles, which were usually changed by pulp editors), the publisher who bought it, the story's first paragraph and a synopsis. The fact that a publisher like Street and Smith published dozens of different pulp titles only made this information slightly more useful than nothing at all, but it helped, especially once a JDMB reader named William J. Clark entered the scene.

"[Clark] was a bibliophilic detective who didn't take anybody's word for anything. He had to personally eyeball the item in question to be sure it was the right story by the right author in the right issue, etc. He consulted others with collections as well as the Library of Congress, paying personal visits to verify the information. It has been said that when he visited the Library of Congress he sometimes had to tell them what they had and where it was located."

Each subsequent issue of the JDMB was larger than its predecessor, as the 'zine "began to take on a life of its own as being the focal point for bibliographic information." Letters started coming in, then unsolicited articles, and soon the Moffatts had "some regular contributors and commentators." Occasionally they printed articles on other mystery writers, which eventually led to a realization.

"We discovered that there was a mystery story fandom interested in corresponding, reviewing, writing essays, etc., all quite similar to the way science fiction fandom had started so many years before. Other fanzines or 'amateur journals' were to follow: The Armchair Detective, Mystery Readers Newsletter, Ellery Queen Bibliophile, etc."

By the end of the decade the couple had published twelve issues of the magazine, as well as a first edition of The JDM Master Checklist, "a fat, mimeographed book that contained our brief biography of JDM and all the bibliographical information we had been able to obtain." Thanks to a mention in Anthony Boucher's New York Times column, the JDMB's circulation tripled overnight. The JDM Master Checklist never did get a second printing, despite the fact that addenda and corrections were published in each issue of the JDMB. By 1976 the Moffatts were ready to be done with their creation, a decision arrived at due primarily to their other obligations, including Moonshine, the early Bouchercons and various s-f conventions, as well as the two of them holding down full-time jobs. They began replacing the JDMB with something called the JDMB Bulletin, which was a much smaller publication limited to news about all things John D MacDonald. When the announcement was made in issue 22 of the JDMB that it would be the last, the couple received a letter from Ed Hirshberg, a professor of English at the University of South Florida and a friend of MacDonald's. If the Moffatts would agree, he would make inquiries at the University about sponsoring the fanzine -- now referred to as a journal -- and himself taking over the reins of editor. The Moffatts agreed, USF sponsored and the magazine continued -- fairly regularly -- for another 25 years.

Among the early readers of the JDMB was another couple, a retired government attorney and his wife who were living in North Palm Beach, Florida. Their letters to the original Moffatt-edited JDMB were so long and detailed and full of amazing bits of bibliographic information that they were given their own column in the final Moffatt issue. Walter and Jean Shine would move over to the new version of the journal with their long, interesting "The Shine Section," and they also took over the duties of maintaining the changes in The JDM Master Checklist. This effort led to a completely new edition of the bibliography, published in 1980 under the title A Bibliography of the Published Works of John D MacDonald with Selected Biographical Materials and Critical Essays. It was a huge leap forward from the original Master Checklist, containing information on all of the known books, short stories, non-fiction articles, television adaptations and even the speeches that were written by MacDonald. It was over 200 pages, was published by the University of Florida in Gainesville, and remains the single most important reference source for MacDonald's writings.

The Moffatts' final column for the JDMB appeared in the last issue of the journal they founded, a tribute issue to the recently deceased Ed Hirshberg. The couple was still active in the things they had loved all of their lives: the conventions, the clubs, writing and, especially, reading. I learned from the various blog postings noting Len's death that their tireless activities continued up to the end of his life.

The fans of the works of John D MacDonald owe Len Moffatt a great debt.

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Finders Killers!"

Detective Story Magazine was the very first fiction pulp to be devoted to crime stories. Begun way back in 1915 by Street and Smith, the magazine lasted until 1949 and produced an incredible 1,057 issues. For fifteen of its 34 years of publication (from 1917 to 1932) it was produced as a weekly! I know this was the era before television when people still read regularly, but really, how could anyone keep up? The kinds of detective fiction published in Detective Story was of the decidedly pre-hardboiled variety, consisting of Philo Vance-types and a long list of colorful series characters. This makes sense when one considers that the magazine itself was a reincarnation and continuation of the Nick Carter dime novels, and while the Carter character eventually faded away, it was brought back to life again in 1933 thanks to the popularity of another Detective Story character, The Shadow.

There is little worth remembering from this pulp, unless you're a student of the oddball series character in mystery fiction. The long list of now-forgotten names include Black Star, The Spider, Thubway Tham, The Thunderbolt, The Man in Purple, The Avenging Twins, and my favorite, the Crimson Clown. (I've know a few crimson clowns in my day.) There were lots of gentlemen detectives, manor house settings, well-behaved criminals and very few mean streets. This was the type of mystery fiction that Black Mask put a stake through, and by the end of its run -- from 1942-on -- newly-ensconced editor Daisy Bacon did her best to toughen up the magazine. Its most notable publication was probably Raymond Chandler's one story to appear in Detective Story, 1941's "No Crime in the Mountains," which later was used by the author to form the plot of his novel Lady in the Lake.

An excellent history of this pulp can be found on the blog Mystery*File.

When Detective Story Magazine folded after its Summer 1949 issue (it had slowed to a quarterly by then) the rights to the title were sold to Popular Publications, who waited three years before launching their own version of the magazine, a decidedly tougher version of the pulp. Sadly, the new version -- which was published as a bi-monthly -- lasted only six issues before ending for good in September 1953.

John D MacDonald contributed to both version of this magazine. In January 1948 his "Even Up the Odds" represented his only contribution to the original Detective Story, but his work managed to find its way into three of the six issues of the Popular reboot. "Finder's Killers!" (complete with the exclamation mark) appeared in the July 1953 issue and it is unusual JDM in several respects. It features a rare appearance of a licensed private investigator, a character type MacDonald usually avoided for the more creative kinds of investigators like insurance claims adjusters, "salvage experts," and ordinary citizens looking for the truth. It's also a rare case of of a JDM pulp story that contains no love interest -- no tall, beautiful blonde with slim legs and gray eyes for the hero to fall for at the end of the tale. Which is probably a good thing, for the protagonist of "Finder's Killers!" is a uniquely solitary figure in the MacDonald canon, a driven, focused and relentless investigator who has little time for anything but the case he is working on.

When we first meet Russ Gandy he's not a private eye but an FBI agent, although the agency is never specifically named. He's at the tail end of a long investigation and has located a fugitive criminal he's been hunting for for seven months, a thief named Torran who made off with "two hundred and forty thousand dollars in brand new treasury notes in five-hundred dollar denominations -- all in serial sequence, most of it still in the mint wrappers." Torran is hiding out in a cheap apartment in Chicago, secretly observed by Gandy and his agents, who are awaiting his move so they can run him to ground. MacDonald's opening paragraph is a beautiful example of the spare, expert first-person narrative he had developed into an art form after only seven years of writing. It describes the setting, sets the scene and the plot of the story, and reveals the kind of hard-ass protagonist who will lead us through the novella.

"We waited for him to run, because that was the final proof of guilt that we needed. We had him bottled up in a Chicago apartment. Our boys drove the cabs, delivered the milk, cleaned the street in front and in general covered him like a big tent. I don't know exactly how we gave it away. But we did. We threw it to him.... You could say we were careless. That's in the same league with Monday morning quarterbacking..."

When Gandy eventually faces his boss and gets the expected chewing out, he also receives the inevitable third-person character summation, allowing the reader to see the hero from a different perspective, while at the same time setting the story's real plot into motion.

"'I've watched you carefully, Gandy. You've got a lot of presence. You speak well and you think clearly. But you're too ambitious. You expect too much, to fast... I could butter you up to keep you aboard. During your four years with us, you've done well. But now you're marked. You saw what the papers did to us. That was unfortunate. Now you're not Agent Gandy any more in Washington. You're Russ Gandy, the one who lost Torran.'"

When Gandy is told he's being reassigned to teach at "the School," he angrily resigns. When he returns home he has a brief moment of clarity that represents the only introspection the character allows us to witness.

"I went back to the crummy room I'd rented and in which I'd spent only sleeping time. On four years of salary and expenses, when all you think about night and day is a job of work, you save dough... I'd left the little badge and the Bureau weapon and the identification card with [my boss]. I sat on the bed and cried without making a sound. Like a kid. He'd been too right. I was ambitious. And they'd taken away my toys."

After a long night and the obligatory downing of a bottle of booze ("... I brought it home and killed it. It came close to killing me.") he resolves to hunt down Torran on his own. He obtains a private investigator's license and a permit to carry a gun, then heads to Boston, where the owner of the stolen loot lives, a young woman who, thanks to MacDonald's description, we know will definitely not turn out to be a love interest.

"She was a blonde with a skin like milk in a blue glass -- a trembly, uncertain mouth, and eyes so close together they threatened to overlap."

She's eighteen year old May Marie Sispol and she lives in a big house with her aunt. Gandy tells her what has happened to him and offers to find the money on his own, for "a percentage on recovery." May is not impressed.

The scene that follows reads straight out of Raymond Chandler, a near pastiche so obvious that the author is forced to comment on it through his character in a rare bit of JDM literary humor.

"We were alone in a room with antique Italian furniture. It smelled like dust. When I realized that she meant what she said, I took her by the shoulders and shook her until her eyes didn't focus. Her aunt came in and bellowed at me. I pushed the aunt out of the room and locked the door. May Marie whimpered. I shook her again and she wanted to kiss me. Her breath was bad.

"Pretty soon she decided that this was a 'great love" and that I was a very dramatic type and it was all pretty much like out of a Raymond Chandler movie. By the time the cops the aunt had called started beating on the door, I had our little contract all signed and tucked into the back of my wallet...

"She gave the cops and her aunt undiluted hell. She raged like an anemic tigress. I held my breath and kissed her again and left with my contract."

From this point forward the real story begins, and it is as engaging, as sprawling and as well written as MacDonald was capable of in 1952. Gandy uses a few clues to make assumptions, one of which pays off, leaving the reader to wonder how the hapless FBI could ever get along without him. Excepting that, "Finder's Killers!" is a terrific piece of JDM short fiction, with echoes of "The Homesick Buick," "They Let Me Live," and other early JDM works. It is riveting, flawless pulp fiction that seemingly flowed effortlessly from the pen of the author and is nearly impossible to put down. And except (perhaps) for that one Chandleresque scene (which was obviously inserted on purpose... or perhaps the author couldn't believe what he had written and simply had to comment on it) it doesn't have a miscue in it anywhere.

Happily for the modern reader, "Finder's Killers!" (which MacDonald submitted as "All the Money in the World") has been anthologized. It was included in Maxim Jakubowski's terrific The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, a 1996 publication that is out of print but easily available from any online used bookseller. This collection also contains short works by Hammett, Cain, Thompson, Spillane, Goodis, Day Keene, Charles Williams and Ross Macdonald, to name but a few. Jim Thompson's entry, "Forever After," is worth the the price of the (used) book, especially for anyone who is a fan of Lou Ford's particular brand of torture.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

More Artwork Added

For those of you who admire artwork from the pulps, I've added the interior pages to a few of my earlier postings on John D MacDonald's science fiction stories. They are:

"The Mechanical Answer"

"Trojan Horse Laugh"

"Dance of a New World"

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

JDM on the Writer as "Not-I"

"There are people who have eyes and cannot see. I have driven friends through country they have never seen before and have had them pay only the most cursory attention to the look of the world. Trees are trees, houses are houses, hills are hills -- to them. Their inputs are all turned inward, the receptors concerned only with Self. Self is to them the only reality, the only uniqueness. Jung defines these people in terms of the "I" and the "Not I." The "I" person conceives of the world as being a stage setting for Self, to the point where he cannot believe other people are truly alive and active when they are not sharing that stage with Self. Thus nothing is real unless it has a direct and specific bearing in Self.
"The writer must be the Not-I, a person who can see the independence of all realities and know that the validity of object or person can be appraised and used by different people in different ways. The writer must be the observer, the questioner. And that is why the writer should be wary of adopting planned eccentricities of appearance and behavior, since by making himself the observed rather than the observer, he dwarfs the volume of input he must have to keep his work fresh."
--- from "Creative Trust," John D MacDonald's entry in the 1984 edition of The Writer's Handbook.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Message - 1947

This year, Thanksgiving has given us an oddly uncomfortable feeling. It is a time when, nationally, we shake hands with ourselves in the pugilistic fashion, and consider our multitudinous blessings, with emphasis on the food department.

This year, Thanksgiving is a time when two young American girls lost to their father a forfeit of twenty-five dollars each because they could not stand the official German food rationing system for two weeks.

It is a time when American magazines will go overseas, and they will contain pictures of our healthy families gathered around the well-set table. Remember that Norman Rockwell picture of a family at dinner? It was drawn as a part of that series of four to illustrate the four freedoms. Reproductions of that picture go overseas.

In many prisons where the convicts are permitted to read newspapers, someone goes over the papers first and cuts out any reference to crime. Maybe the United States periodicals that go over seas should have all reference to food removed.

Did you ever open a magazine and look at a color photograph of a great big steak, butter melting on top? We wonder how those advertisements strike such persona as Bill Mauldin's French philosopher— the man who said that a pessimist cuts off the loose end of his belt, while the optimist merely punches new holes.

Our ancestors gave thanks because they fought a wild and alien country with their hands and made the soil give them food. We give thanks because in this strange year of 1947, a blind throw of Fate's dice left us as an island in the midst of war, left us untouched by the hunger, cold and disease that afflict the rest of the world.

We must be thankful, but not complacent We are in the midst of the second armistice in the war that began in 1914. Somehow, during these years of uncertain peace, we must find the strength with which to protect this way of life which makes our Thanksgiving possible.

-- from John D MacDonald's weekly Clinton (New York) Courier column in the November 27, 1947 issue. Twenty-six years later the author would expand upon this sentiment in a more apocalyptic vein when Meyer frets about conspicuous consumption in The Scarlet Ruse.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"The Miniature"

Before he became a writer, John D MacDonald attended the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and, later, the University of Syracuse, where he graduated with an undergraduate degree in Business Administration. He went on to earn an MBA at Harvard Business School, earning his postgraduate degree in only eighteen months. Although MacDonald's heart was never really in it, he made a few attempts at a career in the world of finance before joining the Army in 1940. Yet it is clear from reading the author's fiction that his failures were not due to a weak grasp of the subject, for the works of John D MacDonald are peppered with an interesting and informed knowledge of economics on both a micro and a macro level. This insight could appear as an aside in a long-forgotten short story or as the plot for a full length novel (see Pale Gray for Guilt). Indeed, this preoccupation and fascination with economics eventually gained full form in the recurring character of Meyer, the brilliant and renowned economist who also happens to be Travis McGee's sidekick. It was Meyer, not McGee, who was really MacDonald's alter ego, an admission hinted at by the author and stated flatly by his wife.

In one of MacDonald's early short stories, "The Miniature," the protagonist is actually an economist -- a professor of economics, to be precise -- and MacDonald uses the tale to explore the possibilities of the value of money in a world where gold has lost its value. It originally appeared in the September 1949 issue of Super Science Stories under the house name of Peter Reed, a necessity owing to the fact that this particular issue of the science fiction pulp contained another JDM tale. Given the current political arguments over the Federal Reserve's plan to purchase $600 billion of federal debt and the worldwide condemnation it has ignited, "The Miniature" proves to be an interesting history lesson as well as a reminder of the fact that the money in our wallets was once actually backed by something tangible.

It's certainly not the plot of "The Miniature" that makes it worth re-reading after sixty years, employing a derivative and overused device that must have been old even in 1949. It's a time travel story, the kind where the protagonist is suddenly thrust into either the future or the past, he or she witnesses amazing things, and is then sent back, disbelieving the entire experience until an artifact -- either brought back or left behind -- causes them to accept the veracity of the event. Think the sand-in-the-shoes at the end of The Twilight Zone episode "King Nine Will Not Return." Luckily MacDonald tells the story with a breezy, semi-humorous voice that partly takes the reader's mind off of the obviousness of the plot.

Professor Jedediah Amberson is walking through the front door of his local bank, on his way to cash a check, when he feels a faint movement.

"It was, he thought, almost a tremor. Once he had been in Tepoztlan, Mexico, on a Guggenheim grant, doing research on primitive barter systems, and during the night a small earthquake had awakened him. This was much the same feeling. But he stood inside the bank and heard the unruffled hum of activity, heard no shouts of surprise. And, even through the heavy door he could hear the conversation of passers-by on the sidewalk. He shrugged, beginning to wonder if it was something within himself, some tiny constriction of blood in the brain. It had been a trifle like that feeling which comes just before fainting. Jedediah Amberson had fainted once."

Of course, Professor Amberson has just traveled through time, although he doesn't realize it yet. "Not a man to take much note of his surroundings," he writes out a check on the counter and gets in line to see a teller. The scornful young man in the teller window looks intently at the check and then tells Amberson to go play his games elsewhere. It is only then that the good professor notices the strange way the man is dressed, in brightly-colored clothing that look like pajamas. When the teller refuses, Amberson makes enough of a scene that the guard walks over and confronts him, a guard who is dressed even more strangely.

"The man wore a salmon-pink uniform with enormously padded shoulders. He had a thumb hooked in his belt, his hand close to the plastic bowl of what seemed to be a child's bubble pipe."

There is an altercation which leads to the professor being shot with some kind of ray gun that prevents him from moving. Only then does the bank manager emerge from his office, a "fussy little bald-headed man" wearing "pastel blue pajamas with a gold medallion over the heart," who wants to know what all the commotion is about. Once he opens Amberson's change purse and sees a 1949 quarter, he has the professor brought back to his office. It's all now perfectly clear to the manager, but not to Amberson. This is not 1949 but "year eighty-three under Gradzinger calendar." The manager opens the windows to his office and reveals a strange cityscape, unrecognizable to Amberson, who now realizes he's not in Kansas any more.

But this is not really a problem, for the manager need only call the "Department of Temporal Technics" at Columbia University to send over a few technicians who will send the professor back. It is while they are awaiting the arrival of the time boys that Amberson takes the opportunity to ask about the economics of the future world. The currency is now small plastic pellets, although the monetary decimal system has been retained, and when Amberson makes the presumption that the currency is still backed by gold, he gets a dismissive answer.

"Greenbush gasped and then laughed. 'What ludicrous idea! Any fool with public-school education has learned enough about transmutation of elements to make five tons of gold in afternoon, or of platinum or zinc or any other metal or alloy of metal you desire.'"

The professor suggests other possibilities, such as units of energy, precious stones, even rare national resources, only to be laughed at by the manager. Perplexed, Amberson asks a question that must sound strange to anyone who was not an adult before 1970:

"But currency, to have value must be backed by something!"

It is backed by "something," something that is still rare in a future where there is an abundance of everything else that once had value, something that can not be duplicated with speed or mass-production, something that the manager just happens to have stored in his "refrigerated" bank vault: an "HUC."

To find out what that acronym stands for, you'll have to read the story.

It's hard today to recall that once our money was backed by precious metals, and that one could actually walk down to the Treasury Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC and exchange bills for silver or gold. Historically this was always the case, with a few periods of national crisis (World War II, the Great Depression) when that standard was relaxed. When MacDonald wrote "The Miniature," the United States had returned to the gold standard only three years before as a result of the Bretton Woods agreement that set a system of fixed exchange rates and pegged the value of gold at $35 per ounce. That system was followed until 1970, when Richard Nixon closed the gold window and began a system of fiat money, where the currency of the nation was backed by nothing more than "the full faith and credit" of the United States Government. The world followed suit (the dollar being the world's primary currency) and the gold standard has never been used since. 

Interestingly, a few days before I re-read "The Miniature," former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told the Council on Foreign Relations that "fiat money has no place to go but gold," and the continuing troubles of the world economy bring almost daily calls for a return to some sort of "sound money" policy.

It makes me wonder what MacDonald would have thought of our current economic mess. A Keynesian most of his life (recall the name of Meyer's boat at Bahia Mar), MacDonald had a change of heart after the economic troubles of the Nixon, Ford and Carter eras, and he told George Vassallo in his last-ever interview that he believed the world economy was doomed, "unless we dump Keynesian theory and embrace Schumpeter's vision of the reward to the innovator." He even blew up the John Maynard Keynes at the beginning of Cinnamon Skin!

"The Miniature" was included in MacDonald's 1978 science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds -- which can be found on used book sites -- and it is currently available in eBook form (marred by several typographical errors) as an entry in Wonder Audio Books' Death Quotient and Other Stories.