Friday, February 5, 2010


By 1956 John D MacDonald's short story output had slowed considerably. With ten years of writing under his belt, his energies were now focused on novels, and in 1956 he produced three of them (plus the novella "Linda"). The market that published 700-to-800 stories a year in pulp and slick magazines was largely gone, as paperbacks took over and slicks pared back. MacDonald published 11 short stories in 1956: three in Cosmopolitan, two in This Week and one each in Argosy, Bluebook, Collier's, Woman's Home Companion and the Toronto Star Weekly. Only one of those 11 -- "Squealer" -- was published in anything resembling the pulps of his early days, a digest-sized monthly called Manhunt.

Beginning in 1953 and running until 1967, Manhunt once boasted the largest circulation of any post-pulp crime magazine. Over its lifetime it featured stories by nearly every major mystery author in America, including Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain, Ross Macdonald and Brett Halliday. Initially subtitled "Detective Story Monthly" the digest was a primary outlet for the great post-war wave of crime fiction, specializing in a more hardboiled style than Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg wrote in their Introduction to American Pulp that "Manhunt alone, at its peak, published two or three minor masterpieces per issue, month in and month out." That fine anthology included seven Manhunt reprints, including the jaw-dropping "That Stranger, My Son" by C.B. Gifford, as well as MacDonald's masterpiece "In a Small Motel" from Justice. JDM appeared only four times within the pages of Manhunt, beginning in January 1955 with his short story "The Killer." "Squealer," originally titled "Let's Go Get Them" by the author, was printed in the May 1956 issue.

It's not a particularly hardboiled story -- although it does feature a lover's lane rape and a reference to abortion -- but the subject matter is pretty grim. Police Sergeant Ed Browden is on his way to the hospital to visit the victims of a late night attack, two kids parked in a popular teenage petting park who were attacked by three unknown assailants. The boy, Dick Reilly, was smashed in the face with a tire iron and has lost his front teeth as well as suffering from a concussion. His girlfriend Betty Lee Nichols was raped. Browden first encounters Betty Lee's father, whose anger is focused on Dick for taking his daughter to a dangerous place at night. Browden does his best to calm him down: "Maybe it wasn't smart. But they're kids. They go to a place to park. That's normal. They go to the place where other high school kids go. You don't get anywhere blaming the Reilly kid." When Nichols' anger subsides he becomes incredulous when told that the attackers could possibly be some of Betty Lee's fellow high school students. Browden has to explain the facts of life to the grieving father:

"Maybe, Mr. Nichols, you've got a pretty glamorous idea of what high-school kids are. There are all kinds. There are over six thousand in that high school. This is an industrial town. We get the kids of a lot of transient families. The law say they have to go to school. There's no law that says they have to be like the Boy Scout's oath. The vast majority are good kids, but there are some rough monkeys in that place. We get knifings and we get a little dope peddling, and we get sex offenses. I'm a big husky guy, Mr. Nichols, and I know how to take care of myself, but believe me, there are some kids in that school I wouldn't want to meet in any dark alleys."

When Nichols broaches the possibility that his daughter may have been impregnated, it's done in typical Fifties fashion:

Nichols: "But suppose she's..."

Browden: "Don't ask for trouble. If she is, it can be fixed. It can be legally fixed."
The investigation begins when Browden learns there was another couple in a car nearby, and that Dick Reilly knows who they are. Fellow high schoolers Jerry Traybor and Ann Hawks raced away like bats out of hell the minute the trouble began, not offering to help or even calling the police. Along with partner Mose Lieberman, Browden drives out to Jerry's house to see if the kid recognized any of the attackers. MacDonald's description of young Jerry lets the reader know immediately that he will be of no help:

"Jerry Traybor was a tall, gangly boy in khakis and a T-shirt, a dark-haired boy with restless eyes and a high, unpleasant nasal tone of voice."

Jerry insists that he didn't see anyone well enough to recognize them. When asked why he didn't stay and help, he belligerently replies, "I figured it was a private fight... I don't know him so good... How do I know he maybe didn't start it?" Although it is obvious to the police that the boy is lying, they are unable to get him to admit he recognized anyone. They leave and Lieberman says ruefully, "A code they've got. Fine. Don't tell the cops the right time. Comic book ethics." They hope that Jerry's girlfriend will be more forthcoming. Ann Hawks is working class, lives in a trailer park and her father is a construction worker. But Ann is just as tight-lipped, even when they call Jerry "a punk who runs like a rabbit." Admitting defeat, they leave. Browden senses a decency in Ann, but she doesn't want to be labeled a squealer. It gives Lieberman an idea...

Although the plot here is fairly predictable, MacDonald essays the story with a gritty realism. It echoes the world he wrote about three years earlier in his novel The Neon Jungle, peopled by a hopeless urban generation of wayward youth whose values are reflected by the crimes they commit, the dope they use and the casual sex they engage in. Yet MacDonald has great respect for the Dick Reilly's and the Betty Lee Nichols' of this era, and his inherent optimism revolves around the hope these good ones represent. His realistic and compassionate handling of teenage rape and the effect it has, particularly on the parents of the victim, is touchingly written, and Browden's hospital interview with Betty Lee's father reads like an overheard conversation.

Manhunt, of course, is no longer around, but happily "Squealer" can be read today. It was included in a 1987 mystery anthology titled Uncollected Crimes: Never-Before-Anthologized Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg. It is a great collection -- out of print but easily obtainable -- that includes works by Ed McBain, Dorothy B. Hughes, Helen Nielsen and James M. Cain, to name a few. Who would have believed that the great James M. Cain could have written anything un-anthologized by 1987? Like American Pulp -- which it preceded by ten years -- it focused not on stories from the pulps, but from the mystery digests. Highly recommended.

Finally, an excellent history of Manhunt magazine was written by British writer Mike Ashley and can be read here.

No comments:

Post a Comment