Thursday, January 7, 2010

"You'll Never Escape" ("State Police Report That...")

Of all the magazines John D MacDonald published short stories in, Dime Detective holds the record for printing the most. From October 1946 until August 1952, MacDonald's works appeared there 39 times, either under his own name or as one of the "house authors" such as Scott O'Hara. The pulp magazine was one of the earliest to accept his submissions and, beginning with only his second appearance, prominently displayed his name on the covers of nearly every issue his stories appeared in.

Dime Detective began publication in 1931 and ran until August 1953. It was the premier pulp magazine of Popular Publications, who published other "Dime" fiction magazines such as Dime Sports, Dime Western and Dime Adventure. It was, according to anthologist Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, "the one legitimate rival to Black Mask," publishing many "name" mystery writers such as Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Frederick Nebel, and the father of the hard-boiled detective, Caroll John Daly. Chandler appeared there exclusively from 1937 to 1939, and some of his most iconic short fiction was published within its pages, including "Red Wind," "The Lady in the Lake" and "Trouble is My Business." According to Dziemianowicz in the Introduction to Hard-Boiled Detectives, a 1992 anthology of Dime Detective stories, the magazine lured many of these big names away from Black Mask by paying "the princely sum of of four cents per word -- one cent more than Black Mask and quadruple the going pulp fiction rate." Their newsstand price was also a nickel less than Black Mask.

He goes on to point out that the magazine "made only two stipulations to its authors: there were to be no novel serializations and the characters they created could not appear in competing magazines. Beyond that, they were given relatively free rein to write what they chose." (Chandler obviously cheated by changing the name of his detective John Dalmas to Phillip Marlowe when he harvested his Dime Detective stories for his later novels.) And although the focus, as one might imagine, was on detective stories, Dziemianowicz explains that "in its later years, it also published a good many non-detective crime stories written in the grim noir style that would become the trademark of Jim Thompson, David Goodis and other writers of the paperback originals that helped put the pulps out of business."

"You'll Never Escape," which appeared in the May 1949 issue, is one of those stories.

It runs only 2,300 words and is unceasingly grim and frightening. We follow an escaped convict who managed to bust out of prison a few days before he was scheduled to be executed for murder. Armed with a single revolver, he is trapped in a swampy woods near a state police roadblock, with an army of men tromping through the wilderness searching for him. From a high vantage point he sees the roadblock, beyond which is freedom, and behind him a relatively deserted stretch of road going through the woods and up a long, steep hill. He comes up with a plan to wait for a car that might have trouble making the hill at full speed, one slow enough so that he can jump on the running board, hijack the vehicle and bluff his way through the roadblock. After several passing motorists make the long climb with only a little difficulty, along comes "an ancient touring car" chugging its way up the incline. He makes his move successfully, discovering a family with two small children and a baby, all nearly as bad-off as the car they are driving.

The story is expertly told and as gripping as anything in the early JDM oeuvre, although far more realistic and brutal than what we are used to. Inside of the head of the unnamed convict (we only hear him referred to as "Johnny" at the end), we begin to sympathize with his plight and root for his escape, until the hijacking takes place. There he is revealed to be as savage and as unsympathetic as any real murderer.

Of the 27 stories MacDonald authorized for re-publication in the two Good Old Stuff anthologies, six of them were old Dime Detective tales, the most from any single source save Detective Tales, which also numbered six. "You'll Never Escape," reprinted under the author's original title "State Police Report That...," appeared in the second volume of that collection, More Good Old Stuff. It is not included in the aformentioned Hard-Boiled Detectives. That anthology -- edited by Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg and Martin H. Greenberg -- contains the JDM Dime Detective novella, "The Man From Limbo," which I'll get to later.

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