Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"My Mission is Murder" ("Death for Sale")

More than one observer of John D MacDonald's short story output has made note of a recurrent theme in his very early work. Many of those now-obscure and hard-to-find efforts revolve around a recently-discharged World War II veteran who is having difficulty fitting back into society and resuming a normal life. As Francis M. Nevins, Jr. pointed out in a piece submitted to the John D MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detective Fiction in 1978, "Although in a general sense MacDonald was no doubt influenced by Hammett and Chandler, the strongest debt in these early stories is owed to that haunted man, Cornell Woolrich, echoes of whose tales of loneliness and despair are heard here again and again."

"My Mission is Murder" certainly reads like a Woolrich piece, and is unusual in the MacDonald oeuvre in that the protagonist and the villain are both French nationals; the only thing American in the story is the location and the girl. Published in the November 1947 issue of Dime Detective, it remained unread again until 1984 when it was included in the Pulp anthology More Good Old Stuff.

"On the way to the hotel he sat in the back of the taxi, a broad, sullen-looking man, searching inside of himself for the sense of satisfaction that should be his. There was nothing there but weariness -- a dejection compounded of the solid year of search." Thus begins the tale of Jan Dalquist, a paid assassin who is hunting for Jean Charlebois, a Frenchman responsible for the deaths of a large band of French Underground immediately after the Allied invasion in World War II. One of the murdered Maquis was the son of a wealthy industrialist, and it was he who hired Dalquist to find and kill Charlebois and his two accomplices. Those accomplices have already been taken care of, leaving only Charlebois, who is now hiding out in New Orleans.

Lest one think MacDonald has given us an amoral protagonist, that thought is addressed and put to rest early in the story: "Had they asked him a bit earlier, or a bit later, he would have refused -- for he recognized that he was a man with a profound distaste for taking the tools of justice in his own hands, for acting as judge, jury and executioner." But his memories of "the basement room in Gestapo headquarters" still burned bright, and he was in the process of having reconstructive surgery done on his hands and feet, the handiwork of the German torturers, when he said yes. His hands were repaired but remained ugly and scarred, and only somewhat useful.

He tracks Charlebois to a restaurant in the French Quarter, where the fugitive has been working as a waiter. At the bar he meets a young woman, "a pretty girl ... [with] a wide face [and] with something secretive and sensitive about the mouth." It occurs to him that a couple would cause less suspicion than a single male, so he strikes up a conversation and manages to get her to agree to have dinner with him. He is seated at a table served by Charlebois, and gets the waiter to agree to show Dalquist and "his girl" around the city after work. They will come back after closing, when Dalquist will complete his plan and eliminate his prey. But things don't work out that easily...

"My Mission is Murder" is ultimately redemptive, but getting there is a dark ride. This is no typical JDM story of the nuts-and-bolts of how a man is hunted down and murdered. He constantly delves into the thoughts of his protagonist, revealing a regretful loner with an exhausted spirit. His damaged hands and feet are symbolic of his broken soul, and he frequently lapses into a pining revere of a better, simpler life:

"This was the last case. After it was over, he would have to find himself again. There would always be men who would pay him to hunt other men. But that wasn't the answer. He knew that the two and a half years of constant search, of sudden violence, had deadened him, soured him. No, that wasn't the answer. He began to think of himself working with moist earth and growing things, with placid acres on which the sun beat and the rains fell. He could almost smell the rich loam."

Jerry Ellis, the girl at the bar, wasn't part of that dream, at least not until he met her...
It's always enlightening to re-read MacDonald's work from his very early period. What many of the stories may lack in polish and originality, they make up for with the small bits of wonderfully-written prose and insightful, descriptive narrative. And although JDM confesses (in the anthology's Introduction) that he would have changed the "gimmick" and the ending to this story, he still felt it strong enough to be included and read again. MacDonald's "voice" never changed, it simply improved.

JDM's original title for "My Mission is Murder" was "Death for Sale" and, as he did with all of the stories reprinted in the Good Old Stuff anthologies, it was restored for re-publication.

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