Friday, February 26, 2010

"The Scarred Hand" ("I Accuse Myself")

"The Scarred Hand" was originally published in the November 1946 issue of Doc Savage, making it one of the earliest John D MacDonald stories to see print. The author's first work to hit the newsstands -- "Cash on the Coffin" -- had appeared only six months before and his first story sold appeared in July of that year. And thanks to its inclusion in JDM's second pulp anthology More Good Old Stuff, it is the earliest of his mystery-crime stories I have read.

It's a story that owes much to the style of Cornell Woolrich, as does much of MacDonald's early pulp work, with it's amnesiac protagonist, uncertain reality and the feeling of inevitable doom. JDM was obviously still in a learning phase and was borrowing, sometimes in the development of his own writing style and at other times in writing for a particular market. Yet there are already some of the characteristic markings of the author's own voice in description and dialogue, and the seasoned JDM reader will at once recognize some of the often-used literary devices such as the childhood memory-metaphor, the symbolic dream, and the tiny detail that becomes the story's fulcrum. Oh, and a great surprise ending that is either reality or nightmare.

The setting of "The Scarred Hand" is a hospital room, a place we never leave except in the thoughts and memories of Peter Warlow. He awakens to the random, scattered thoughts and images of a man coming up from a long sleep, unaware of the borderline that separates reality from dream. He hears a constant siren sound in his ears, yet it really sounds like a woman's scream. Unable to remember who or where he is, he concentrates on the random tactile impressions he receives:

"On some days he could see the pain... [It] looked like the edge of a razor held close to the eye. It stretched off for miles toward a Dali horizon, each bitter blur on its edge grating like teeth on crushed glass."
At one point a woman comes to visit him, "...tall, with pale hair and colorless eyes. Her face was wide and white." (See, some things never change!)

Then a man in white, a humorless doctor with a "high sharp voice." Once he determines that Peter can understand what he is saying, he explains what has happened. Peter has undergone a prefrontal lobotomy (!), "the first time it was ever done on a sane man to relieve the internal pressure of a complex skull fracture." It's going to play tricks on his memory for a while, but he will recover rapidly. The doctor and the woman leave. Later on a fat little man smoking a cigar appears. He explains that he is a cop named Kroschik, and he wants to know if Peter can remember anything about what happened at "the office." Suddenly he remembers he worked in an office. Kroschik helps him out:

"All we know is that the four of you were working late on a Friday night about a month ago. Three guys and a girl. She was a little blondie named Clarissa Paine, but everybody called her Sandy. I'd say she was a cute little piece. The other two guys were J. Howard Jones, a fat guy who is your boss, and Trent Welch, a red-headed college kid who does part-time stuff for Jones."
Jones told the police that he heard a big argument and found Peter and Sandy yelling at each other. Then Peter grabbed a gun and shot Sandy in the head. Jones grabbed a heavy desktop tape dispenser and threw it at Peter, hitting him squarely in the forehead and sending him to the hospital. Kroschik wants to know if Peter can remember any of it. Peter "couldn't feel that he had done such a thing," and does not remember any argument. When he asks the cop why he needs Peter to answer when he already has him "hooked," he is told that they need some blanks filled in, since all of Peter's books balance and he has no big stash in the bank. They were unable to lift any prints off of the gun and want to know if he and Sandy were having an affair.

But "the mists of his mind wouldn't clear," and Kroschik leaves without answers. Then, that night, he remembers everything: his hand holding the gun, his scarred finger squeezing the trigger, Sandy falling down behind a desk, her eyes narrowing, the blood matting her hair. "It was too clear -- too vivid. It could have been no one else." He begins to call for Kroschik. 

"Get the police! Get Kroschik! Tell him I can remember!"

The story proceeds predictably, and then it doesn't. In the end MacDonald leaves the reader in Woolrich country, where reality and fantasy are indistinguishable, and where redemption is a gift rarely given.

"The Scarred Hand" is an entertaining and at times frightening tale, and despite heavy borrowings of both style and substance, it is a joy to read. It's fun to encounter MacDonald before he became such a realist, when he toyed with the workings of a damaged or healing mind, when he leaves his stories in a vast uncertainty. It reminds me of his 1950 story "Miranda," whose ending is equally as enigmatic but whose style is far more polished.

It is perhaps unnerving for the modern reader to confront a prefrontal lobotomy used as an accepted medical therapy, but that's just what it was in 1946. While we generally think of works of fiction like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or The Bell Jar in reminding us of the horrors of the procedure, it was an oft-performed means of dealing with then-untreatable psychiatric conditions. I think immediately of Rosemary Kennedy, or Tennessee Williams' sister who he seemed to be haunted by. It was popular in most Western nations, although the Soviet Union banned it, calling the procedure "contrary to the principles of humanity." When you've got the Soviet Union standing on higher moral ground than the rest of the world, it should be a reason for pause. The procedure was at the height of its practice when "The Scarred Hand" was written, so it should not be a surprise that JDM used it as a plot device.

MacDonald "updated" the story for its inclusion in More Good Old Stuff, but those changes don't have any jarring effects. A radio is changed to a television, but that's all I can spot. He obviously didn't change the medical procedure, as lobotomies were rarely, if ever, performed in the United States in 1984. He also used his original story title, "I Accuse Myself," which makes it sound even more like a Cornell Woolrich tale.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

JDM on Television: Sam Elliott meets Travis McGee

I was rummaging through a pile of old magazines recently and came across this March/April 1983 edition of Prevue magazine. For a second I was wondering why I had held on to this particular issue, since it was a magazine I rarely read, when I saw the name "Travis McGee" on the cover. Inside was a fairly interesting background story on the filming of the 1983 TV movie-pilot Travis McGee, which I have written about in a previous post. Since I was not too kind to that production, I thought I would quote a few passages from this article, which primarily consists of an interview with Elliott and executive producer George Eckstein. Since the finished product was so disappointing, it was encouraging to read that at least these two men approached the project with the proper respect.

"I'd never read a Travis McGee book until three years ago," confesses Elliott... "That's when Warner Bros. -- they've offered me pilot situations for almost 15 years -- presented the project. I'd always avoided series work because there weren't many actors making the transition from television to motion picture. That's not the case now... [Travis McGee is] very realistic and likeable, and someone I may have to live with for five years, the extent of my contractual commitment. The ideal situation, of course, is to be myself rather than creating a character who isn't really me every day for years.

"Travis has a sense of humor, certain values and feelings with which I identify. He's cynical, but he has the saving grace of knowing himself well, so he can laugh at his own cynicism. He's an honorable man, but it's his honor that gets him into trouble.

"On a fantasy level, there's a lot of Travis McGee in all of us. He speaks very well for mankind. MacDonald uses McGee and his economist friend Meyer to comment on society and its ills. They're usually right on the button about life today. The opportunity to take those comments -- instead of just talking and saying nothing -- attracted me to the project."

Elliott signed on to the proposed project in 1979 after reading The Empty Copper Sea, and Sterling Silliphant then wrote an adaptation of that novel. The production team wanted a "more colorful" title and hired other writers to work on adaptations of Darker Than Amber and The Green Ripper (which would have made little sense to anyone who hadn't read The Empty Copper Sea). Ultimately George Eckstein became involved, an old hand in Hollywood whose credits included the television series The Fugitive and Banacek, as well as the highly-praised mini-series Masada.

"I was a McGee fan," Eckstein says, "and had read all the books. The studio asked me into the project because they were fighting a deadline in terms of developing a producible script. I accepted because of my fondness for the character, and because Sam Elliott took the part.

"The TV character is different from the book version because of what Sam brings to the role. Travis McGee has a macho attitude tempered by world weariness and a slight streak of cynicism. Left to his own devices, he'd probably be out on his boat or at the beach, but, reluctantly, he gets involved whenever he feels society in general is victimizing people. When he's angry, just like the rest of us, he tries to change things.

"The problem was that the books were very difficult to translate into another media. If and when Travis McGee goes to series, it'll be easier to develop original stories, rather than trying to adapt the novels with their labyrinthine plotting, complexity of characterization and action, and violence and sexual quotient.

"There's more violence in MacDonald's books than you'd think. It happens in a sort of laidback style, but if you count corpses, the numbers get pretty high.

"It was almost impossible to fit all the elements of a novel into a two-hour period, and reducing an entire story to a one-hour episode would definitely not be the most pragmatic or satisfying approach. That's the reason the script took so long to complete."

Eckstein decided to go back to The Empty Copper Sea and had Silliphant do a rewrite of his original adaptation. He hired Gene Evans to play Meyer, Andrew McLaglen to direct, and began shooting on April 1, 1982. (That date should have been a warning!) The setting was changed from Florida to Southern California and the locations included Ventura Marina, Marina Del Rey and Pismo Beach. Although no explanation is offered for this change of scene, it was used as an excuse for dumping The Busted Flush houseboat and replacing it with a sailboat. "A houseboat is alright inside a bay," Elliott explained, "but the open ocean is no place to take one. That's why we used a sailboat instead." Of course the fact that Elliott was an avid sailboat enthusiast is mentioned only obliquely.

According to Elliott, he believed that John D MacDonald was "pleased with the script," and goes on to say "There is a need for action-adventure shows beyond the usual mindless stories and beefcake, especially if they encompass the intelligent values and commentary found in the John D. MacDonald novels. We actually used some passages from his books as voiceovers."

Actually?! Gosh!

I can certainly sympathize with the difficulty of translating McGee, with all his interior monologues and detailed idiosyncrasies to the screen, and perhaps it's something that simply can't be done effectively. But for the creators of this movie to misunderstand the importance of both Florida and The Busted Flush to the character of MacDonald's novels indicates to me a major lapse in comprehending what makes these books work. Just following a plotline and using a few sentences of the author's original words in voiceover is not going to convey the totality of this unique character. McGee in Southern California is no more McGee than Marlowe was Marlowe in London.

I'm glad that so much work went into this attempt and that the creative forces behind the film were JDM fans, but the result has to be viewed as a failure. The author sensed the futility of a TV series back in 1967 when he wrote to his friend Dan Rowan:

"I believe in [television]. One percent of it is very very good. And one percent of all writing, painting, sculpture, dance, acting, comedy, circus, basket-weaving etc is also good. And 99 percent of everything is and always has been schlock. I just don't want Trav to undergo that simplistifying (new word!) change which the series tube requires, nor do I want the angle of approach wrenched this way and that when the ratings don't move and everybody starts to get frightened and they start trying this and trying that."

Rowan, who knew a bit about television, responded:

"TV. Not for Trav. Not now. Maybe in a special or two a year from now with a big budget and tight control, and foreign rights... they -- TV -- must by their nature corrupt good work. The one percent you mentioned gets produced despite TV people, not because of them. The success of Travis McGee is an honest success, and your own integrity and purpose must never be aborted to fit the smaller minds and limited imaginations that run this industry."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Forever Yours"

In early 1953 John D MacDonald had marital infidelity on his mind. Of course I'm not talking about his personal life then (of which I know nothing about) but about his writing. He was either finishing up or had already delivered the final draft of his first "mainstream" novel Cancel All Our Vows, which was all about unfaithfulness among the upper middle class of America, and he probably had some things still left unsaid. That novel ends uncertainly after both husband and wife admit their mutual infidelities and face the necessity of making a decision about their future. In "Forever Yours," MacDonald presents a similar couple who are in the throes of attempting a reconciliation. In was published in the February 1953 issue of McCall's, which makes it likely that it was written at the same time.

In "Forever Yours" we have only one unfaithful partner, husband Mel Dennis. He and his wife Carol live in Utica, New York where Mel is an attorney and Carol stays at home raising their seven-year old son Donny. Mel has been naughty. While working on a case he traveled to nearby Syracuse to meet with a witness who could wreck a case his firm had a lot invested in. His job was to convince her not to get on the witness stand, but he ended up convincing her of something else entirely. As he is meeting with her in her home an ice storm hits, downing power lines and making the roads too treacherous to drive on. With her electricity out and her furnace not working, Mel builds a fire to keep things warm, then... well, things get too warm. What began as accidental togetherness becomes an affair when Mel continues driving out to Syracuse week after week, telling Carol and his boss that the witness (never named) is getting closer and closer to agreeing to a settlement.

Unfortunately, Mel and the woman are spotted together at a Syracuse bar by an old friend of Carol's, when Mel was supposed to be in Albany. Busted! Hurt and bitter, Carol reluctantly accepts Mel's apologies and agrees to an unusual means to try and heal their marriage. They send Donny off to camp and rent a remote lakeside cabin about an hour-and-a-half away from town. Mel had said it was their only hope, to talk it out over a "quiet summer" away from everyone. Carol stays at the lake and Mel drives up after work for weekends; Carol's sister Jeana comes up when she can to keep Carol company.

MacDonald gives us lots of sympathetic, realistic dialogue between Mel and Carol as they try to work things out. Sitting on the cabin porch one Friday night, Mel insists that the affair meant nothing, that he was about to end things right before he was caught, and that love never had anything to do with it:

Mel: "The important thing is to get over it -- somehow.Rebuild trust and confidence."

Carol: "And love."

Mel: "Love is still there. You know that, Carol. A thing like this smashes your pride, but it doesn't kill love."

Carol: "I hope you're right, darling."

Mel: "Do you see how helpless I am? What a stupid thing to say: 'Dear, it won't happen again.' I know it won't, but it sounds so asinine to try to say it."

Carol admits that she has trouble trying to forget it, and gets pictures in her mind of Mel and the woman together. "It's like a madness. I can't turn my mind away from it. I hate you then." The fact that the woman continues to try and get in touch with Mel is not helping. On it goes, through most of July, going over the same ground, saying the same things in different ways.

"They had happy times some weekends. Too happy, it seemed. Gaiety had a thin edge of hysteria, and once, in the middle of laughter, her tears came and he could not comfort her."

By August Carol has made a personal decision that she is somehow going to get through this and get things right again. With Mel's birthday coming up she decides to surprise him with a week-long vacation in Bermuda. She has Jeana make the arrangements in Utica and asks that the travel agent mail the confirmation to the local post office so she can surprise Mel with the letter. But as she picks up the mail from the small village post office, there is a square envelope in her bundle, postmarked in Syracuse and handwritten in a woman's hand. "It was another evidence of treachery," she thought, for Mel to have told that woman his birthday and to have given her the address of the cabin. "Sick at heart," she returns to the cabin to await Mel's arrival.

In this era of cretins like Elliott Spitzer, John Edwards and Mark Sanford, the modern reader can be forgiven for laughing out loud at the sentiments of "Forever Yours." It was written 56 years ago in what now seems like another world, but one where men and women were really not so different. MacDonald is at pains to make clear that Mel Dennis is basically a good man who temporarily "went off the beam." Yet in addition to addressing the essential qualities of forgiveness, JDM is really exploring and expressing the essential sadness that an affair brings into a relationship, the permanent scars it leaves and the real struggle there is to try and move on. As Carol tells Mel, "Mostly it's a feeling of something very special having been lost." Still, "loss" for a moralist like MacDonald does not necessarily rule out redemption, as imperfect as it may be. Despite some obvious and perhaps heavy-handed symbolism near the end, this is a sympathetic and well-written story.

In virtually every John D MacDonald story or novel I've discussed so far in this blog, one can point to a setting based on a real-life location where the MacDonalds once lived or where JDM served in the military. The Northeastern city locations are almost always a stand-in for Utica or Syracuse, so it was a great surprise to see both cities named specifically for once. And the lakeside cabin was, of course, Lake Piseco, although that particular location was not named.

"Forever Yours," which MacDonald submitted to McCall's under the title "Don't Look Too Closely," has yet to be anthologized.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"The Man from Limbo"

"The Man from Limbo, " a 15,000-word John D MacDonald novella, was originally published in the April 1952 issue of Dime Detective. This was not a good time to be a fiction pulp magazine, as the paperback market was quickly overtaking the cheap fiction magazines in popularity. In 1952 the once venerable Dime Detective had already been forced into a bi-monthly publication schedule and had only nine more issues to go before folding completely. "The Man from Limbo" would prove to be MacDonald's next-to-last story for the publication that had done so much for him -- 39 stories published! -- and shows him to be still quite able writing the kind of wild yarns he had produced in his very early years.

The title was not his. "The Man from Limbo" was the change the editors of Dime Detective made to JDM's original, lackluster "Terror in the Town," proving once again that MacDonald was not always the master of the short story title. But the story itself is a good one, a wild, suspenseful and at-times enigmatic story of a WW II veteran who unwittingly gets caught up in a crooked small town election and nearly dies as a result. It's a tale that harkens back to the kind of story and -- more specifically -- the kind of hero he used frequently when he first began writing fiction for a living, and it quite possibly tapped into some of the author's own shortcomings in the world of business.

Dolph Regan is our hero, a veteran from the European Theater of war who returned home in seemingly good shape, but who soon began having bouts of paralyzing fear that would overtake him completely. When asked what he was afraid of, he couldn't say: "Nothing. And everything... Fear of people, with overtones of claustrophobia. Fear of failure." The bouts would last for several days and he would hide in his room, completely useless. He is unable to continue his job as an architect and his doctor diagnoses him with "fear psychosis," giving him a choice. He can "hide in hospitals" for the rest of his life, or he can take a job the doctor has lined up for him as a travelling jewelry salesman. "You have to make yourself do it," the doctor tells him. "Do it for three months, Dolph, and this will never come back again."

For six weeks Dolph forces himself to do the job, but it isn't easy:

"Sometimes it was a full hour before he could force himself to enter a store. If the owner was too busy to talk, it was like a reprieve. He gave his sales talks woodenly, his body bathed in a cool sweat. But he forced himself to do it. He forced himself to believe that it was becoming easier. He made sales -- not many. But those he made were precious to him."

Dolph has come to the next stop on his route, the upstate New York town of Brasher -- an obvious stand-in for Utica -- and in the middle of a sales pitch he suffers another panic attack. He stumbles out of the store and manages to get back to his hotel, where he is looked at by a doctor who questions him closely. "There wasn't much he could tell the doctor. Just that the name of the city had a tantalizing familiarity... tinged with dread." He is awakened the following morning by the sounds of a parade going by on the street below.

Brasher is holding an election for Mayor in a couple of days and the parade features one of the candidates riding on the top of a convertible. After a moment or two Dolph recognizes the candidate as Wally Block, his former sergeant from the war, and he immediately realizes why the name of the town was vaguely familiar. Wally sees Dolph, who points at the door of the hotel to let him know where to meet him. He is elated at the thought of seeing an old war buddy and no longer feels the effects of his panic. Assuming that Wally will come to the hotel to meet him, he waits in the grill room and is met instead by a young campaign aide, Jan Holland. The seasoned MacDonald fan can tell that sparks will ensue:

"He decided that she was an extraordinarily pretty girl, very nearly a beautiful girl. Her hair was the shade of butter toffee under the pert hat with its tiny veil... Her face was broad through the cheekbones, her eyes set wide and gray, her mouth cool and fresh."

Jan is cool to him and reveals that Wally has sent her to find out if Dolph was in town to help him or to hurt him. Dolph is aghast and assures Jan that he thought the world of Wally during the war. He offers to write a testimony for him to be presented at a pre-election-night rally and the two head over to campaign headquarters. When Dolph finally does meet Wally, the candidate's manner is cool and his questions strange. When Wally offers him a post-election position in the new government, Dolph is curious enough to go visit Dilly Shenck, the real power in town, to try and get some answers. He ends up at the end of a gun and locked in a coffin-like box. It's a situation that now seems strangely familiar...

The rest of the tale is a wild ride featuring corrupt city politics, ruthless villains and a dangerous six-foot redheaded moll called Redtop. There are improbable chases, a hideout that is MacDonald's usual Lake Piseco stand-in lake-house, and a sex scene so brief and vaguely-written I didn't realize it had taken place until the end of the story. The novella is divided into three chapters, each with a title, and we get -- of course -- a happy ending. It's a good example of MacDonald's growing maturity, while at the same time retaining a lot of the melodrama and improbability of a typical pulp story.

I've written before about MacDonald's frequent use of the "damaged" war veteran in his early work, a man returning home and finding it difficult to fit back into the society he had once been part of. Dolph immediately reminded me of Ben Lawton, a similar veteran in need of mending from his 1949 novella "Killing All Men." It is surprising, however, to find that character type in a story written so late in his career, at a time when he had just finished The Damned and was on the cusp of becoming a major paperback novelist. What is even more interesting to me about this tale is the hero's particular neurosis, which characterizes itself as a fear of people and, specifically, of selling. The reader eventually learns that the cause of Dolph's problem has nothing to do with the way his subsequent illness cripples him, which makes it all the more curious as to why MacDonald spent so many words on it. The author's own inability to fit into a "normal" kind of work environment had evidenced itself not after the war but after he graduated with his Harvard MBA. He failed and was fired from most of his attempts in the business world, stints which included selling insurance and collecting bad debts. The description above of Dolph's fear of selling is recognizable to anyone who has ever had to make a cold call, and MacDonald was no doubt writing from experience.

And I will issue one warning to any potential reader who suffers from claustrophobia. The five paragraphs that begin Chapter Two describing Dolph's attempts to free himself from the coffin-like prison are some of the most realistically-written and uncomfortable I've ever read. In fact, I basically had to skim over most of them.

"The Man from Limbo" was anthologized in 1992 as part of the indispensable Dime Detective collection titled Hard-Boiled Detectives. Edited by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg and Martin H, Greenberg, it's currently out of print but easy to find.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"A Condition of Beauty"

"A Condition of Beauty" was the first John D MacDonald science fiction story I ever read. I found a copy of it in a used book store back around 1975 when I was buying up and reading all of the JDM novels. It was included in an odd kind of digest-sized anthology called Great Science Fiction Stories, a 1966 collection that was neither magazine nor paperback but some sort of combination of the two. It was edited by Jim Hendryx, Jr., carried the designation "Number 3" on the cover, so it was obviously part of a series, and was notable for the fact that it included the original magazine pulp art with the stories. I was only dimly aware at the time that MacDonald had written science fiction, so it was a kind of surprise, and after I finished reading it I recall thinking, "So that's where Rod Serling stole the idea for "Eye of the Beholder!"

Of course Serling could have been inspired by any number of similar science fiction tales for his iconic 1960 Twilight Zone episode, but I didn't know any better at the time, and I seriously doubt if JDM himself came up with the idea of monsters-turn-out-to-be-human as a surprise ending. Besides, given his title it isn't really much of a surprise, and even if the title didn't clue the reader, the artwork that was featured at the beginning in the September 1949 issue of Startling Stories would have told the reader exactly what was going on.

The story opens in a dark, dank prison cell far away on some unnamed planet. Inside the unlighted cell are Pol and an elderly man simply known as "the old one." In an adjoining cell sits Lae, a female. These three are monsters, deformed beings shut away from the normal creatures of this civilization. When Pol was born his mother hid him in the woods, where he lived for many years until he was finally caught and imprisoned. While he was free he visited "the temple" and saw pictures of other monsters such as he. He knows what he is but has trouble coming to grips with it. "In darkness it is hard to accept. I feel like a man. I think as a man does. It is odd to be monstrous. It is something one wished to forget." Pol has managed to make a small opening in the wall between the two cells and is able to speak with Lae without seeing her. She has grown despondent and has stopped eating. Pol tells her, "I hear your voice and in my mind I see you as a woman, a normal woman. A woman such as my mother... It is easy to forget that you are [a monster] in this eternal darkness." She makes him put his hand through the opening to feel her arm. "He did so, felt the horror within him as his fingers told him that her arm was strong, solid, thick."

Cut to a spaceship, Patrol Eleven of Planet Census Group Fifty-One, out among the planets counting humans. They are on their way home and have only one distant, uninhabited planet to go. But a cursory inspection of their scan reveals something unusual, and despite their desire to return to their families, they move in closer to investigate. There they see a "vast ship sprawled against a gentle wooded slope," it's metal sides "still bright and untarnished." Since nothing was supposed to be here, they run the image through their historical reference books and discover that it is the remains of the Victrix, the tenth ship to leave Earth one hundred and ten generations ago. They land to investigate but have to don suits to go outside, as the oxygen is too thin and the gravity too weak. What they see makes two members of the landing party literally throw up...

You can see where this is going, but the real fun of the story is learning how things got the way they are, then going back and re-reading the brief 3,000 words to see all the clues the author left in the opening paragraphs.

MacDonald did not include this story in his science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds, which tells me he probably didn't think much of it after almost thirty years. It's certainly not deep or profound, but it is enjoyable and well written. As far as I can tell it was only anthologized that once in 1966, and while copies of this book/magazine aren't always easy to find, one does show up for sale now and then.

Update (2/4/2015)

As you can read in the comments below, I was wrong in implying that the Virgil Finlay illustration used in the anthology was the artwork from the story's original publication. Eric was kind enough to scan and send me a copy of that illustration. While it doesn't come close to the quality of any of Finlay's work, it is just as much of a spoiler as is the radient female from the anthology.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"I Always Get the Cuties"

Any fan of hard-boiled mystery writing has to sit up and take notice at a title like "I Always Get the Cuties." The wonderful wise guy sound of it rings in the ear and jumps off of the page. I remember how disappointed I was back in 1981 when I learned that it was not John D MacDonald's original title for this 1954 short story. He wanted to call it "Confront," and since I hadn't read it at the time I assumed this was another case of an editor screwing with the author's intent. When I did finally find a copy and read it, I was pleased to see that the phrase was MacDonald's and that he used it repeatedly throughout the story. And, it was a good choice, better than the author's, since nearly the entire text consists of a cop regaling a listener with the story of how he caught a murderer. The story originally appeared in the November 1954 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and comes in at tight 5,000 words.

MacDonald uses an interesting narrative method here. It is told in the first person, but by the protagonist's listener, so even though we are given his point of view, nearly every paragraph consists of another character's words. At the end, the reader understands why...

Our first person is someone addressed as "Doc," and we assume he is a medical doctor, although it soon becomes unimportant. The setting is Omaha and the first sentence reads beautifully and sets the stage:

"Keegan came into my apartment, frosted with winter, topcoat open, hat jammed on the back of his hard skull, bringing a noisy smell of the dark city night."

Keegan is a police detective and "Doc" is an acquaintance. Keegan has solved a case, a tough one, and he wants to brag. With a house full of teenage daughters at home, Doc has become Keegan's "sounding board" whenever he wants to talk about a case. So Doc breaks out the brandy and they sit together by the fire as Keegan begins talking:

"Ever try to haggle with a car dealer, Doc? ... I tried once. Know what he told me? He said, 'Lieutenant, you try to make a car deal maybe once every two years. I make ten a day. So what chance have you got?' ... It's the same with the cuties, Doc -- the amateurs who think they can bring off one nice clean safe murder. Give me a cutie every time. I eat 'em alive. The pros are trouble. The cuties leave holes you can drive diesels through."

He asks if Doc recalls a recent murder, one that happened months ago out at a lake house. Doc vaguely remembers it. A woman was found strangled, discovered by her husband who had been away on a lengthy business trip in California. She had been dead for weeks, and the house was secluded, so there were no witnesses. The marriage was a bit unusual, in that the wife was several years older than the husband, she had money and he was a medical school dropout. Also, there were reports from the neighbors near their house in town that they had been fighting recently. None of this is enough to cause suspicion of the husband, until he is brought in for questioning. Since he was in California he has an alibi. Then he puts his foot in it, although he doesn't know it. Keegan relates:

"I tell him he is a nice suspect. He already knows that. He says he didn't kill her. Then he adds one thing too many. He says he couldn't have killed her. That's all he will say. Playing it cute. You understand. I eat cuties alive."

Keegan investigates, travels to California to check out the husband's alibi, finds another woman there and a few interesting holes in the story. Once he has an idea of how the crime was committed he works backward, checking for evidence and eventually tripping up the husband. Case closed.

Yeah, but...

When I first started re-reading "I Always Get the Cuties" I thought I had found an early version of MacDonald's 1957 short story "The Bullets Lied." There we have a similar setup, with a police detective and a professorial friend discussing and working on a case, with the friend providing direction to the detective's case. That turns out not to be the case here, as Doc does nothing but sit back, listen attentively and refill the brandy glasses. There is a twist at the end, one I never see coming, but there are a few very well-hidden clues given in the early text that won't exactly make you slap your head at your own stupidity, but will cause you to admire the author's skill.

The setting is unusual for MacDonald, although Omaha has nothing to do with the story and it could have taken place anywhere. The lake house is a familiar one, used many, many times by the author and obviously modeled after his summer home on Lake Piseco in upstate New York.

But the setting did provide an excuse for later editors to include it in a 1998 mystery anthology titled The Fifth Grave and Other Terrifying Tales of Homicide in the Heartland. Edited by Billie Sue Mosiman and Martin H. Greenberg, it is a nice collection of stories that all take place in the American Midwest, and includes authors such as Ed Gorman, Jack Ritchie and Edward D, Hoch. Before that it was part of a 1989 collection edited by David Willis McCullough called City Sleuths and Tough Guys: Crime Stories from Poe to the Present, and before that it was included in Joe Gores and Bill Pronzini's Tricks and Treats: An Anthology of Mystery Stories by the Mystery Writers of America, published in 1976. There are also three earlier anthologies where the tale appeared, but that should give the curious reader plenty of opportunity to find and read this fine short story.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"He Was Always a Nice Boy"

By 1971 John D MacDonald was a master of his craft, a writer of hundreds of published short stories, scores of novels and the creator of a soon-to-be iconic series character. His publisher at the time, Fawcett, called him the "best selling author in America." And although he had long since abandoned the short form in favor of novels, he still wrote a few every year, usually when a magazine's fiction editor begged for one. In 1967 he had only one story published, in 1968 two, and the following year not a single piece of JDM short fiction was published in any magazine in the country. In 1971 he released S*E*V*E*N, a collection of short pieces that was a combination of tales sold to Playboy alongside three new ones. The only other story published that year was the ruefully-titled "He Was Always a Nice Boy," which appeared in the March 1971 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Told in first person and in the form of an interview, "He Was Always a Nice Boy" pretty much gives up its ending in the title. Anyone who has ever read a news account of a seemingly "nice" kid going postal, or anyone who actually knew someone like this (like I did) can guess how this story turns out. MacDonald knows that, and his effort here is not to spring a surprise ending, but to create character in the form of background and back-story. That it reads like any newspaper interview is the author's intention.

The narrator is never named. He a middle-aged parent living in suburbia, with a wife Martha and several children. The opening sentences set the tone nicely:

"I just cannot understand how such a thing could happen. It is a nightmare and I guess we have to live with it. Or try to forget it, or something... Why, Martha and I have known that boy ever since he was a little bit of a tyke..."
Jimmy Bell was three when his family moved into the neighborhood, the only child of Joe and Connie Bell. Joe worked at "the heater company" then and Connie stayed home. "They seemed like nice enough people," we are told, "but they never did get what you call real friendly with anybody on the block." A lot of people who knew them from before were friends, though, a fact made obvious by the "whooping and hollering" parties they threw. "You'd wonder how the kid got any sleep, but I suppose he was used to it."

In the early years Connie entertained herself by having bridge parties during the day, where the stakes were "pretty good." Jimmy was kept in a harness outside in the yard, able to run up and down but not out.

"Now don't get the idea from that that Jimmy was abused. There wasn't anything they wouldn't do for that kid. They kept him dressed up fine, and they fed him well, and he was a healthy kid. You could see that..."
A few years later Joe Bell got a better job at an aircraft factory, and he managed to get Connie a job there as well. That's when they "really began to haul in the money." Jimmy was sent to a "day-nursery," and Connie -- "a good-looking woman right from the start" -- bought her own car and dressed in the best of clothes. "And they got Jimmy a mess of expensive toys."

Jimmy played with the narrator's children, and accompanied them frequently on family picnics, usually on Sundays when his parents were sleeping it off. He was self-reliant and got along well with his peers, with "no scraps or fusses." He didn't do too well in school, though, where he was "dreamy." He worked on building model planes but never finished one, and spent ten weeks each summer away at the best of summer camps, one where "the price would curl your hair."

Connie eventually got laid off and spent her afternoons "out a lot... and not getting back until pretty late." Then "the trouble" that nearly broke up their marriage, when she was caught with some guy she used to work with. She and Joe "settled their differences and things were all right between them again."

And so it goes...

In the end we are never specifically told what happened with Jimmy, but it is implied that it is terrible. Reporters hanging around the house and the parents refusing to answer the door. The narrator tries to explain things to his interviewer the best way he can:

"What Martha and I said, we said it seems as if there is kind of... of an evil thing loose in the world these days. something terrible and full of hate. Like maybe it lands here from those UFO's. And then it takes over somebody, some ordinary person like Jimmy Bell."
MacDonald has obviously done his research here, and he puts the story into the mouth of a narrator who hasn't. It's one of the author's characteristic techniques for employing something taught to him in his earliest days as a writer: describe by showing. He spoke about it back in 1978 at the John D MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detective Fiction when responding to a Francis M. Nevins, Jr. paper on his earliest writings:

"What Mike Tilden [an early pulp magazine editor] always insisted upon was that I shouldn't step into the story and describe the internal machinery of somebody. I shouldn't say 'She was a clumsy girl.' I should have her stumble coming into the room and drop something. So the reader says, 'Oh gee, here's a clumsy girl.' If you try to point it out -- I know this sounds like baby talk, but I get annoyed with many of my peer group in large, highly lauded novels, who commit the sin of telling us what the character is instead of showing us what the guy is or the lady is..."
"He Was Always a Nice Boy" is the quintessential textbook example of that lesson.
The story has been anthologized only once, in a 1976 collection titled Ellery Queen's Giants of Mystery, out of print but easily obtainable used.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"He Knew a Broadway Star"

Any writer who has produced over 400 published short stories, 66 novels, and hundreds of unpublished works is bound to repeat himself now and then. There are all sorts of bits of business the dedicated John D MacDonald reader can find reused over the years, favorite plotlines, methods of escape, unusual ways to rob, cheat or steal, even physical characteristics (gray eyes, anyone?) It is rare, however, to discover an out-and-out copy of a previous work, with the same plot, same triggering device, same characters (albeit with different names), and published in the same periodical. But that's exactly what happened on December 14, 1952, when This Week published MacDonald's short story "He Knew a Broadway Star." It is virtually the same story This Week had published exactly two years earlier, a tale I've already discussed called "I Love You (Occasionally)."

Both stories begin on a commuter train, with a man who works in the financial services industry returning home to his family in the suburbs. Both men pick up a discarded magazine and begin reading it. Both find an article that piques their interest, leading them to make a decision involving their wives. And in both cases, their ham-fisted attempt to bring up the subject at home leads to suspicion and conflict. Both stories end with a chastened husband.

Here we have Ellis Morgan, trust officer for some big city bank, and the magazine he picks up is one covering arts and theater. He reads a profile of Vania Derrold, a famous Broadway actress who is about to open a new Kinglsey Loomis play. Her "remarkably unremarkable" childhood included attending public school upstate. Just like Ellis. He looks at her picture closely and "certain unused cogs in the back pastures of [his] mind disengaged and began to whir." He covers her hair with his thumb and examines her face intently.

"'Well,' he said aloud. 'Well!' And after a little thought he said, 'What do you know!'"

The train stops, he disembarks and begins walking the few short blocks to his home, thinking to himself how he can deliver this "entrancing morsel" to his wife Janet with maximum effect. He has recognized Vania Derrold as Mary Jane Derrold, a former childhood classmate and one on whom he had a major crush. He ponders how different life would have been had he hooked up with her. He decides to casually mention it at dinner, in front of his two school-age children, inserting it innocently into the conversation. At the table the opening presents itself and he begins pondering about how "funny" life is, how people from one's past slip away and are forgotten." This is evidently not Ellis' typical dinnertime behavior, for "three sets of blue eyes focused on him," along with three sets of puzzled frowns. When Janet doesn't bite, he recalls how she had many suitors in college, including someone named Paul.

"'Paul Blakely,' Janet said, narrowing her eyes, 'and you remember darn well what happened to him. Mickey wrote me last year that she saw him driving a coal truck.'"

Ellis keeps trying, asking about another boyfriend named Steve:

"'I don't know what you're trying to prove, Ellis Morgan. Maybe you just want to humiliate me in front of the children. Steve has been in an institution for years... Maybe you're anxious to have me see what a lucky person I am... Terribly fortunate you condescended to marry me... Why don't you continue the list. Ellis? How about Bob? There's a good prize for you. He went to jail. He's out now, I guess.'"

This was not how Ellis planned his bombshell and he needs to fix things quickly. Ultimately he concludes that discretion is the better part of valor.

Running only 1,500 words, "He Knew a Broadway Star" is over with quickly and probably made more than a few readers smile on a Sunday morning many decades ago. It's enjoyable and well done, and was probably something MacDonald knocked off before lunch one day. Its similarity to his previous This Week entry makes me wonder: did the magazine's editors request a parallel story? Did JDM not realize what he was writing, and the editors not pick up on it? Or, did the fact that "I Love You (Occasionally)" omitted a byline credit have anything to do with it? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere buried within The Collection. Or perhaps not...

It's interesting for latter-day MacDonald fans to see the story as originally presented in This Week. Up in the right hand corner of the first page is a little box with the covers of four of MacDonald's novels and a blurb reading: "BIG SELLER. The author's hard-hitting novels have run up more than 2,500,000 sales." The novels shown are four of his five then-published paperback originals. This one missing? Weep For Me, the one original work JDM always claimed to hate and the one he refused to have re-published. Coincidence, or did the author have a say in his story's layout?

It's obvious MacDonald didn't have complete control, however. He submitted "He Knew a Broadway Star" under a different title: "I Knew Her When." The editors of This Week didn't like it and came up with their own title.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Neon Jungle

The Neon Jungle was John D MacDonald's third and final novel published in 1953. It was his tenth novel overall and his seventh paperback original. It was the first to deal with the major societal problems of urban blight, organized crime, prostitution and teenage drug addiction, all wrapped around the story of a disintegrating immigrant family. If that doesn't sound like typical JDM, you're right. These are themes and problems the author would incorporate into later novels, however never as directly as he did with this work. It does show its age in places, but on the whole it is an excellent MacDonald thriller, filled with suspense, love, sex, cops-and-robbers, and a brutally blooding ending.

It owes a lot to the "juvenile delinquency" novels that were popular in the early fifties, specifically Irving Shulman's The Amboy Dukes, that wildly popular book from 1950 that lifted the lid on inner-city youth gangs, their manners and morality, sex and drug use, their criminal behavior and the overall hopelessness of their lives. The Neon Jungle ends bleakly, but there is hope and promise for some of the characters, unlike in the Shulman book where... well, I won't ruin it for anyone who hasn't read it yet. Depending on who you believe, the postwar era either gave birth to this subculture of wayward youth, or allowed it to be finally uncovered for all to see. A look back at the paperbacks published prior to 1953 include dozens that deal luridly with the problem, including Hal Ellison's Duke, R. C. Cooper's Teen-Age Vice, and the non-fiction "expose" Hooked (Narcotics: America's Peril) by Will Oursler and Laurence Dwight Smith. For an author who was to become noted for his sociological asides, and who had already begun using that unique device in earlier novels, The Neon Jungle was MacDonald's chance to join these ranks, but his effort is characteristically more studied and deeply researched. And even if the reader doesn't care about such things, it's still an action-packed, nuanced novel, one that really owes more to the author's ability at characterization than anything else.

This is where MacDonald really shines. The people he creates here are as real and as detailed as anyone you might know or meet on the street. He goes back to his device of multiple perspective, first developed in The Damned and, to a lesser extent in Cancel All Our Vows, whereby the reader gets to spend long periods of time inside the heads of different characters, learning their makeup, their personalities and, most illuminating, their back-stories. And like The Damned, where many disparate people are joined together briefly around a specific event, The Neon Jungle revolves around a single family and a brief but unforgettable period in their lives. Anthony Boucher described it well as a "detailed study of the disintegration of a closely knit family group, each member going to hell in his own tragic but understandable way..."

The setting is "The Neighborhood," the poor, industrial, mill-town section of a fictional Midwestern city called Johnston. The author sets the scene in a brief preface to the main story:

"Down the narrow streets marches the neon. A fizzing and sputter and crackle of BAR GRILL LOUNGE INN and ROOMS APTS HOTEL and POOL BILLIARDS BOWLING and TRIPLE FEATURE GIRLS BALLROOM CLUB FLOOR SHOW... But here the feathers hang tired on the rumps of the floor-show ponies, and there is no self-conscious reading of Proust in satined dressing rooms. These are the weary bitter-mouthed dollies, who take a percentage on the drinks you buy them... This is a separate country... There are gaunt, bleak-faced textile mills, rumbling, clattering in the hot summer days... There are empty mills with broken windows, like eyes that accuse... Children grow up quickly in the neighborhood... At night the lace-eared toms yell of love and passion in the narrow alleys, and the wagons picks up the broken-down bums from their newspaper nests... A brave and wheelless Pierce Arrow sits window-deep in weeds in a vacant lot, the rat-gnawed back seat is a place of juvenile assignation when dusk comes blue down the street... It is said that you can buy anything in the neighborhood. If you know where to look. Whom to see. When to see him..."

The Varaki Quality Market sits inside the neighborhood, a "boxlike cinder-block structure," attached to a "big, shabby frame house." The market is owned by Gus Varaki, an elderly immigrant, who runs the place with his extended family and who all live together in the attached house. There is the eldest son Walter, a "meek, submissive hag-ridden man... working dutifully at a job he did not care for in order to help his father." Walter is married to Doris, a miserable, shrewish Italian who is eight months pregnant and not very happy about it. Gus' second child is Henry, a big, simple and lovable fellow who, unfortunately, has died in the Korean War, but not before sending his new wife home to live in the house, an ex-prostitute from San Francisco named Bonny. Then there's Teena, his daughter, the youngest, pretty and promising, but unhinged by her brother's death and now hanging around with the wrong crowd.

Gus's wife died several years before, and Gus remarried. Not to just anyone, mind you, but to a sturdy blonde farm girl half his age named Jana, who had been sent to the city to work by her parents. Jana is a cipher, a quiet, submissive, yet sexually needy woman with probably not a lot of brainpower.

Gus is a good man and tries to help the less-fortunate when he can. Years ago he and his first wife took a teenager out of an orphanage and put him to work in the market. Rick Stussen, now a fat, sexless 40-year old, is the store's butcher and leads a life of quiet desperation. Gus has also tried to help the occasional wayward youth, and has given a job to a young parolee named Vern Lockter. Vern is a seemingly polite and agreeable young man who drives the store delivery truck and who also lives in the adjacent house. Finally, there is Anna, a matronly older woman who cooks, cleans house and says little.

Two outside forces of society are represented in Paul Darmond, a young idealistic parole officer who has placed Vern at the Varaki Market, and Detective Andrew Rowell, a brutal, hardened, clown-faced cop who polices the neighborhood. Paul, who is widowed, believes in hope and reform, that humanity can be improved given the right choices, whereas Rowell's world is black-and-white: you're a good guy or a bad guy, and once a bad guy, always a bad guy.

In each of these characters, with the exception of Anna and, for the most part, Gus, we are given the opportunity to get inside their heads, to get to know them and learn their background, sometimes in long, involving recollections. It is Bonny we meet first, a college-educated chippy, a girl who made a bad decision years ago and whose inability to forgive herself has locked her into a life of "A tramp. A semi-alcoholic. A girl who works the bars and works the men she finds in the bars. A girl who ... can't even remember all their faces." Bonny was rescued from an alley beating by Henry, who was on a 30-day leave from the Army before shipping overseas. He rescues the deathly-ill Bonny and, like a kid with a sick bird, spends his entire leave nursing her back to health. After she recovers he marries her and sends her to Johnston to live with his family. Bonny grudgingly agrees and heads east, while Henry goes to Korea, where he is soon killed. The first two chapters of the novel are the story of Bonny. They are deeply fascinating and presage the kind of rehabilitation Travis McGee would one day be famous for. But once in Johnston Bonny keeps to herself, working the register of the store then returning to her room to sit by herself playing records, feeling sorry for herself.

Henry's sister Teena is also a mess. An excellent and promising student in high school, her brother's death has hardened her and driven her into a self-destructive lifestyle. She has become friendly with classmates who use drugs, first introducing her to "tea," then to "horse," and she is now mildly addicted. She nearly prostitutes herself in order to get a fix, but then runs in fear back to her room and locks herself in, painfully in need. Her father Gus is blind to this, as he has sunk into his own lethargy over Henry's death, one that leaves him looking old and now ignoring his sexually-needy young wife.

The moving force of the novel, the plot device that carries the story, revolves around Vern Lockter, young parolee. He is one of MacDonald's quintessential soulless villains, a manipulator of other people, a self-aware and self-centered opportunist who has the ability to mask his intentions and make everyone else think he is what he is not. Vern came up with a plan to distribute drugs, worked it out and approached the local crime boss. Using his powers of manipulation, he has managed to trick the gullible butcher Rick into playing a high-stakes poker game, losing big and forcing him to agree to run a distribution center for heroin. Rick hides vials of the stuff inside cuts of meat, which are delivered innocently to the various pushers around town. Rick, a wuss if there ever was one, timidly goes along with the plan, since he really has no other choice. He is slowly getting rich by the payments the mob is making to him, as is Vern, who secretly hides his loot in jars buried in the cellar.

Vern spots Teena and recognizes her drug problem immediately. Fearing that the eventual uncovering of her habit will endanger his drug distribution set-up, he agrees to supply her with a fix. But this was a dumb idea, one of the few Vern has ever had, and his bosses don't like it. If Teena ever tells where she obtained the drugs, it would lead to Vern and to the possible collapse of the crime ring. Vern is given one choice: get rid of weak-link Rick, who would certainly spill the beans if the lid blew off. Vern agrees and plots the murder, using his skills to get someone else to do the deed. It all ends badly, for nearly everyone.

The other plot, the one MacDonald is obviously more interested in, is Bonny and her redemption. Parole Officer Darmond spots Bonny while bringing over a new parolee to work in the store. He is immediately smitten and begins to woo her, knowing full well her background. Bonny fights it every step of the way, her guilt controlling her desire for a better life, until Paul has a good talking to her, admonishing her to get out of her self-absorbed shell and to engage with those around her. It is when Bonny follows this advice that she begins to recognize all of the problems in the house, including suspicions that involve Vern's murder plot. But the struggle to accept and forgive herself is the development MacDonald focuses on, and his moralist tendencies are given a good workout. For someone who believed that sex-without-love was emotionally barren, the author's willingness to allow for redemption in his fallen characters is notable. He covered this ground earlier in Judge Me Not, with call-girl Barbara Heddon going through much the same kind of metamorphosis and struggle with guilt, and he would continue to visit the issue repeatedly throughout his writing career.

Likewise, he deals realistically with his male redemptor, one who has his own struggles to deal with. Paul genuinely loves Bonny, and is intellectually willing to forgive her past, yet he often suffers from "jealousy that was like a rusty iron being pulled through his body." He realizes that "the weight of the past" could destroy their future happiness unless there was a strong physical relationship, and in this respect he shows more maturity and sense than Teed Morrow does in Judge Me Not. And when we leave the characters for the last time there is genuine uncertainty as to whether or not the relationship will work. Still, the novel ends with one of MacDonald's most memorable and lyrical sentences.

The social aspects of the novel are realistic and well-depicted, yet are never allowed to become the blame for the actions of the characters. There are no outside forces strong enough to turn a person who wasn't already willing to be turned, either through their own self-pity or their willful behavior. MacDonald believes it is the choices one makes that determine destiny, not a random, uncaring destiny itself. In this respect, the setting for the novel is almost peripheral. Even in the case of the easily-duped Rick, or Teena and her decent into drugs, it is the choice these characters make that define them, not the ugliness or brutality of the neighborhood. The nearest the author comes to explaining away anyone's choices is when he has Rowell talk about the kids who got Teena hooked on heroin, taking particular aim at their parents and their parents' situation:

"The Delaney girl's old lady is a dipso. The Fitzgerald kid's people both work a night shift, sleep all day, live in a crummy apartment. Derrain's people got dough and no sense. The woman isn't his mother. There was a divorce in the picture. You know how it goes. All three families. The same yak. Not my baby. Not my sweet Ginny. Not my darling, my Bucky. There must be some mistake, Officer. My baby would never do such terrible things. I get it through their heads finally that there's no mistake. Then they want a break for their precious babies. Take it easy on them, Officer.They didn't realize what they were doing. It always follows the same pattern..."

Still, the setting does allow MacDonald the room for his customary rants, his sad, sometimes mournful raging against the machine of society. The best example is that of a high school principal midway through the story:

"It isn't enough that the classes are jammed, teachers are hard to get. Five thousand and more students now. Just enough funds to handle bare maintenance. That charming time of life, adolescence. We want to give them outside activities. Teachers willing to supervise are damn rare. They don't get paid for it. My God, it's a hideous time of life when they run loose. Stuff that would sicken you. We found them using the auditorium, a bunch of them, as a big bedroom when they cut classes. That knifing two weeks ago. Running off pornography on the school mimeograph machine. They come from decent homes and get thrown into this millrace, and they think they have to conform. If they don't, they're labeled chicken. My God... it would strain you to the last inch to keep this place in line even without the drugs... What's happened to kids? What's going wrong with the world?"

As Len Moffat wrote in 1993 (BIB # 51), "If John were alive today he could write the same suspenseful story with little or no updating. It's a shame we haven't progressed more in four decades..." Or, I could add, in nearly six.

But like most of MacDonald's best writing, I keep returning to The Neon Jungle for its characters, the beautifully realized histories, like little short stories that captivate and amaze. Each time we get to deeply know a different person here, we disappear into their world and are transported. Rick Stussen is little more than a peripheral character until Chapter Six, when we visit him in his room and learn his story: his lonely childhood, his sadness, regret and near despair. It's like reading a different book as we lurch from a familiar setting to the memory of the character's past. The same thing happens in the next chapter with Vern Lockter. Gus's wife Jana, who is barely noticed in the first half of the book, becomes a pivotal one as things race to a climax, and we are allowed then to witness her recollection of a heartbreaking past, told so movingly and so poignantly that the reader immediately understands her motivations.

The Neon Jungle received only three contemporaneous reviews, not surprising since it was published in paperback. Boucher in the New York Times praised MacDonald's "technically admirable handling of multiple viewpoints," and said "the novel culminates in one of the most explosive murder scenes in recent fiction. Quietly powerful realism makes a 'suspense novel' bordering on the 'serious fiction' category." James Sandoe in the New York Herald Tribune called The Neon Jungle "...a very lively show indeed... [it's] like reading Dostoevsky on a roller coaster, mixing virtue and fun rather hectically." And in a piece for Fairfield County Publications, Brett Halliday and his then-wife Helen McCloy wrote glowingly:

"[MacDonald] writes with true compassion and insight of little people caught inextricably in a mesh of sordid surroundings... His people are so real, their struggles for survival so sharply delineated that there is a growing queasiness in the pit of one's stomach as one reads on, finding it almost impossible to put the book down while one is at the same time appalled and frightened by the grip it has on one's emotions."

They ended with this quip:

"We predict that one of these days MacDonald will take a few months off from this hack-work and write a truly fine novel of our times."

More recent critical appraisals are few, limited primarily to the various JDM biographies and literary examinations. Ed Hirshberg gave it a paragraph in his 1985 Twayne biography, claiming that it was characterized by a "black-and-white treatment of moral issues." David Geherin mentions it a bit more in his 1982 bio, but only when discussing certain themes such as America's youth problem or limiting a novel to a single setting, and only in passing. Lewis D. Moore gives it a sentence or two in his Meditations on America: John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee Series and Other Fiction, but never directly discusses the novel. Hugh Merrill ignores it completely.

The publication history of The Neon Jungle is interesting. The first edition, a Fawcett Gold Medal Book (of course) had an unusual wraparound laminate cover featuring an illustration of the Varaki Quality Market, with a bar & grill next door that wasn't mentioned in the novel. Splashed across the top of the front is the bold assertion "JOHN D. MacDONALD'S GREATEST NOVEL," and on the back is another version of Mickey Spillane's remark about The Damned: "Said MICKEY SPILLANE: 'I WISH I HAD WRITTEN THIS BOOK' Mickey was talking about John D, MacDonald's THE DAMNED. Well... here is an even greater novel THE NEON JUNGLE by the same author." And Fawcett still wasn't done: Readers would be reminded of Spillane's remark on the cover of MacDonald's next paperback novel, All These Condemned. There was only a single printing with this cover.

Then, in 1958 there was a second edition, with a cover featuring two teenage toughs standing under a streetlamp, the male holding a switchblade, illustrated by James Meese. The lettering was altered slightly for the third printing, then replaced completely for its mid-Sixties reissue, an impressionistic illustration of a street scene. It's final edition in the mid Eighties featured a montage illustration of various bits of inner-city street life. There has never been a hardcover edition printed in the United States.

The term "neon jungle" is a part of the lexicon now. Movies have used it, songwriters have used it, even online stores are called "the neon jungle." It was long assumed -- at least by JDM fans -- that MacDonald coined the term, but that now appears not to be true. Thanks to modern search engines, the researcher can see that the term goes back as far as 1950, when it was used in an syndicated article published in newspaper magazine supplements throughout the country, titled "Sinister Blackout for the American Paris." Appearing in the June 4 edition of various newspapers, this brief article by James Aswell is a fascinating and well-written report of how New Orleans' French District's tourist trade ground to a halt as the result of a Mickey Fin given to a Tennessee football player, inadvertently causing his death. Its style reads much like the back-story of a JDM character, and I have to wonder -- this is pure conjecture on my part -- if MacDonald read this when he was researching his novel Murder For the Bride, published in May of 1951. Here's the sentence:

"Thousands like him walked past the shrilling barkers in front of the innumerable mean night clubs of 'the Quarter'; strolled through the Neon jungle of signs promising limitless gayety, heard the taxi-drivers' chant of 'Girls? Want to meet some nice girls?'"

A more likely source may be an article that appeared in The All Florida Weekly Magazine, a supplement to the St. Petersburg Independent (and other Florida newspapers). In an article titled "King Arthur and Sir Lancelot of Porgy Key," reporter H. B. Stowers writes about two bonefish and tarpon guides who live near Miami and who are ruing the proposed construction of a causeway connecting Miami Beach to Elliott Key, spanning Porgy Key. It's the kind of Florida-development-run-amok JDM would have reveled in and it contains this quote from the fisherman nicknamed King Arthur:

"Our life here is simple. There are no trains to catch. We don't own a clock. One of our boats can take us to the mainland in an hour if we ever want to go. Both of us hate to see the causeway built and this island turned into a neon jungle."

If MacDonald didn't invent the term himself and borrowed it from another source, my money is on the second article. And while JDM may not have coined the term, it's general usage in the language certainly took off after his novel was published, especially after the second edition came out in 1958.

Incidentally, The Neon Jungle has absolutely nothing to do with the 1988 made-for-TV movie titled Alone in the Neon Jungle. This notoriously awful film, starring Suzanne Pleshette as an inner-city cop, is virtually unwatchable and was panned unmercifully when it was first aired. Tom Shales in The Washington Post famously called it "a stupefyingly preposterous bungle, but only in its better moments."

The book is -- of course -- currently out of print, but easy to find used.