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.

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