Thursday, January 21, 2010

"In a Small Motel"

If you ever feel the need for a lesson in the quality of John D MacDonald's early short fiction, go right to "In a Small Motel." Published in the July 1955 issue of a short-lived and utterly forgotten mystery digest called Justice, the longish (9,500 words) short story is a virtual classroom course on writing. The plot is well done, but it is the finely-drawn characters and evocative, realistic location that are the standouts in this tale of happenstance, danger, and hidden motives.

MacDonald's characters here are average, working-class stiffs, people too busy with the grind of their daily lives to spend much time with introspection. They are people who are just getting by, who live with crushing loss, who harbor secret hopes and desires and who nurture indecision as a way of either avoiding finding out something they don't wish to know or to avoid making a decision at all. At the same time, the place these characters live their lives, the locale, is so expertly crafted as to make you almost smell the mildew from the underside of an old motel mattress. MacDonald brings the reader there, and never once is there a false note in the writing that would belie this realism. Finally, the plot is character-driven. These real people in this real place make and act on motivations that are entirely believable, because the author possesses the art to make us believe in them in the first place.

Ginny Mallory owns and operates the Belle View Courts, a roadside motel in southern Georgia on the highway to Florida. Belle View was the dream of Scott, Ginny's husband, who was killed in a traffic accident seven months earlier, leaving Ginny alone to run the place and to wonder why she's still there. She's a strong, capable young woman who is run ragged at the end of a long, busy summer, living under the crushing weight of a mortgage she can barely keep up with. Her first full summer alone has been wearing: "Thick October heat lay heavily over south Georgia. Though she walked briskly, she felt as if all the heat of the long summer just past had turned the marrow of her bones to soft stubborn lead."

Ginny's one permanent client is Johnny Benton, who owns a gas station across the road and who lives in one of the cabins. Johnny -- tall, broad-shouldered and deeply tanned -- has been helping Ginny with small repairs around the motel and feels guilty for the low rent he pays for his living quarters. All his attempts to pay more are abruptly dismissed by Ginny as "charity."

It's the end of a long, hot day and the motel has nearly filled. Between wheeling rollaway beds into rooms and chasing ice for shouting patrons, Ginny checks in a "tall, white-faced man" from Boston who speaks in a "flat and toneless" voice, and who insists on parking his car in the back. Once he's registered, she takes advantage of a lull to enjoy a cigarette with Johnny, which is interrupted by the arrival of Don Ferris, a one-time suitor of Ginny's who has begun courting her again. Don, an attorney from Jacksonville, has driven up unannounced and asks her out to dinner. Since Ginny can't leave the motel unattended, they compromise on carry-out in the back of her office.

Don begins his umpteenth pitch to get Ginny to sell the motel and come back to Jacksonville with him. He goes into all of the monetary and emotional benefits and -- to be "one hundred percent honest" -- admits that the small profit she would realize on the sale could be used by him to make a killing on a much larger deal, one that could provide them with enough money for the rest of their lives. She fights a strong temptation to give in, ultimately telling him that she'll think about it. At that moment they are interrupted by the guest from Boston, who asks a strangely belligerent question: "What are you telling this man about me?"

I won't reveal more, other than to say that this is a crime story and to leave it at that. The suspense the author creates in the second half of the story comes from the individual morality of the four characters, traits MacDonald has painstakingly revealed in the beginning pages. Those different moralities lead to different decisions being made, decisions that are the real drivers in the plot, not some arbitrary happenstance. MacDonald gives clues along the way as to how things will turn out, but clouds them enough so that the reader is left guessing until the end.

The guest from Boston is the deus ex machina that propels the plot, and he is less-finely drawn than the other characters, but that is because he doesn't need to be. Still, he is an individual in MacDonald's world, and it is his decision based on his own sense of morality that has brought him here, not a random event. Ultimately the story comes down to the decisions one makes.

MacDonald's sense of place -- in the words of editor Ed Gorman, his "apt and unforgiving social eye" -- bring this story alive with passages that ring like music. Some examples:

"Out on the highway directly in front if the Belle View Courts the big diesel rigs thundered by. The sun was far enough down to give the world an orange look. There was a hint in the shadows of the blue dusk that would bring the mosquitoes out of the lowland. And this, she thought, was the slack season."

"She went outside and leaned against the front of the office, her hands shoved deep into the wide front pockets of the sun suit. She felt sticky and weary. The sun was entirely gone and the world was blue. Peepers were beginning to chant over in the patch of swamp beyond the gas station. Cars had turned on their lights. The big rigs were aglow like Christmas trees."

"She sat in the metal chair. The night air was getting cooler. For the first time in many days she was completely relaxed, comfortable. It was a strong temptation to let Don go ahead with it. And so much easier to be Don's wife than -- Scott's widow. Don would get them a nice little beach house. Long lazy days in the sun. Just a few rooms to take care of. And sleep, sleep, sleep. Thousands of hours of it. It would be so blessedly simple. And he was nice. Quick and funny and nice. It would be cheating him, in a way."

Or this line, so descriptively vivid as to be transporting:

"The truck roared by, the motor sound changing to a minor key
as it rushed south down the dark road."

"In a Small Motel" might have remained just another obscure MacDonald work from his early period had it not been for its revival by a couple of anthologies. In 1985 Black Mask was revived as a quarterly digest and called The New Black Mask. It ran for only a couple of years before losing the rights to the magazine's name, but published some very good stories while it was around. The editors approached MacDonald and asked him for a contribution, whereupon JDM dug into his voluminous files of not-printed or rejected works and pulled out something called "Night Ride." "I wondered why it had not been published," MacDonald was quoted as saying in an interview in issue #8, where the story appeared. "Night Ride" seemed vaguely familiar to JDM bibliographer Walter Shine after he read it and he began to do some research. Sure enough, MacDonald had mistakenly pulled out the manuscript of "In a Small Motel" and submitted it to The New Black Mask. Whether "Night Ride" was the author's original title or a new one created by The New Black Mask editors is unclear. I'm sure future bibliographers will be forever confused.

Then, in 1997 the editorial team of Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg included the story -- bearing it's proper title -- in their terrific anthology culled from America's mystery digests called American Pulp. It's out of print but easy to find.

Finally, someone in Hollywood read the story when it was originally published and purchased the rights. It was adapted for television as an episode of an obscure syndicated anthology show called Chevron Hall of Stars, which was only broadcast on the west coast. It starred Marilyn Erskine as Ginny and featured Dick Van Dyke's brother Jerry Paris as Don Ferris. Unfortunately, like much of early television, any surviving traces of the episode seem to have vanished into the ether, like a diesel heading "south down a dark road."

Update (4/9/2015):

This terrific story is now available from Amazon as a Kindle eStory for only 99-cents. 


  1. Don't suppose you have a link to that story still? I can't find it on Amazon.


    2. Oh, US-only, that's why. Bloody licensing. Ah well, thanks for your time.