Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"They Let Me Live"

"They Let Me Live" is a 30,000-word novella that was originally published in the July/August 1947 issue of Doc Savage Magazine.This widely-read fiction periodical was one of the most popular "hero pulps" of the era, a unique subset that began with The Shadow Magazine. These particular pulps were built around a series character, and each month's issue featured a new novel, novella or short story starring that character. The remainder of the magazine was filled with straight crime or adventure fiction. Doc Savage ran from 1933 to 1949 and published 20 John D MacDonald stories, all of them under the editorship of Babette Rosmond, one of the few -- perhaps the only -- female editor of a pulp fiction magazine.

Doc Savage was a kind of a super hero, albeit one without any extra-normal powers. He was trained from birth to fight evil and excelled in every field he put his mind to. He worked with a group of five associates, each an expert in a respective discipline, such as chemistry, law, civil and electrical engineering, or archeology. Oh, and of course all of them were good fighters. There were 181 issues of the magazine published, with a Doc Savage story in each of them. Virtually every Savage story was written by pulp author Lester Dent, writing under the pen name of Kenneth Robeson. In the Sixties Bantam Books began re-publishing the stories in paperback, a series that was to prove wildly successful. Every story -- plus a few new ones -- was reprinted.

"They Let Me Live" is not a Doc Savage story, but it is one uniquely crafted to be included within the pages of this magazine. It is a wild, sprawling, and at times improbable adventure of a soldier in World War II Asia who crash lands in the Himalayan Mountains and disappears for a year. He re-emerges with no memory of his time away and is in perilous health: some of his fingers have been lost to frostbite and he has nearly lost a foot. As he convalesces he recalls bits and pieces of his year away, of the crash, the bitter cold, falling and being rescued by "bulky people with wide heavy faces [who] grunted in strange tongues." He remembers that he is Captain Howard Garry, a former civil engineer who enlisted with his best friend Dan Christoff, and that they were stationed together doing boring staff work in India. After months of complaining they were eventually reassigned, with Dan heading to Mountbatten's staff in Ceylon and Garry sent to Chengdu to begin work on the Trans-Iranian Highway. On the way to his assignment Garry's plane crashed. It is now a year later, the war is over and the Far East has been emptied of the thousands of Western troops that fought the war.

With no family of his own, Garry plans to surprise his old pal Dan. Once back in the States he calls Dan's home in Ohio, only to be told that Dan is "not available" and his wife doesn't want to speak to him. Confused and angry, Garry drives several hundred miles to the house, only to be met by a gaunt, forlorn Dorothy Christoff, who informs Garry that Dan is dead.

It happened during the war and it is obviously something she doesn't want to talk about, not just for the obvious reasons. It seems Dan died in Ceylon while talking a couple of civilians out on a midnight drinking cruise in a military Crash Boat. His death is rated NLD (Not Line of Duty) and Dorothy was informed that had Dan not died he would have been court marshaled. She doesn't even get a widow's pension. With her loss compounded by the shame of his actions, all she wants to do if fade into the woodwork. But to Garry it doesn't add up.

After going back to work briefly, his need to know gets the better of him and he decides to try and investigate the incident on his own, in the faint hope that he can clear his friend's name. He begins by getting a list of all of the military personnel who were on the boat that night and begins driving around the country and speaking with them. It's a colorful recreation of postwar America and the kind of sense-of-place that MacDonald so excels at. Garry eventually learns enough to have strong doubts about the circumstances of Dan's death and jumps on a boat and heads back to Ceylon.

And the novella's not even half finished yet.

The rest of the story revolves around Garry's adventures in Ceylon, where things get rough, people start dying and a lot of shootings and knifings take place. We meet odd-looking British intelligence officers, mysterious and beautiful ex-patriot dames, dangerous-looking locals, and a typically-MacDonaldesque police detective who may be the only trustworthy man on the island. Just the sort of stuff that would appeal to the readers of Doc Savage.

As I have pointed out before, many of MacDonald's earliest stories revolved around war veterans returning home and finding it difficult to fit into the society they were once part of. Another reoccurring characteristic of many of these tales is the locale of the Far East during or after the war, and specifically the China-Burma-India Theater, where MacDonald himself was stationed, and where he drew on much background and setting. From his earliest beginnings JDM has always believed in the "write-what-you-know" rule of fiction, which is why his city stories usually take place in a Utica-like town, or why so much of his post-1949 work takes place in Florida, and why many of his very earliest works feature this CBI locale. 

MacDonald himself was stationed in Delhi and Ceylon, and, like Howard Gerry, endured a lengthy stay in a Far East hospital recovering from dengue fever before being shipped back to the States. As a young and still-learning writer JDM relied perhaps a bit too much on this familiar setting, to the point that editor Rosmond eventually had to tell him bluntly, "John, it's time to take off your pith helmet."

Always one to recognize good advice when it was given, MacDonald effectively dropped that focus and wrote about people in America, with only a few scattered returns to the East over the years, such as 1958's Soft Touch.

"They Let Me Live" nicely combines the disaffected veteran with the CBI locale, adding mystery, adventure, violence and much intrigue to create a terrifically enjoyable read. It is very reminiscent of Cornell Woolrich, especially in the opening pages, but eventually settles into a characteristically compelling MacDonald tale of person and place. It was included in the first Good Old Stuff anthology and, as such, is readily available for reading and enjoying.
Finally, two bits of trivia. First, one of the characters in "They Let Me Live" carries with him a secret weapon, a sword hidden inside a cane. The author's inspiration for this device may have come from one of two places. Ham Brooks, Doc Savage's fictional attorney side-kick, used just such a weapon, but more likely, MacDonald's literary agent, the fabled Cap Shaw, reportedly owned one and possessed a license to carry a concealed weapon issued by New York City.

Second, readers of MacDonald's ninth Travis McGee novel Pale Gray for Guilt will certainly recognize a method of escape used by the protagonist, involving a belt and a shoe. Travis used the same method -- with different devices -- to escape from his own tight spot.


  1. "Babette Rosmond, one of the few -- perhaps the only -- female editor of a pulp fiction magazine" - many of the pulp magazines specialized in love stories for women - one suspects that at least some of them were edited by women (and even male editors might have hidden behind a female alias). Weird Tales (which had a sizeable female readership) was edited by Dorothy McIlwraith after the end of Farnsworth Wright's helmsmanship in 1939 until its demise in 1954.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Ulrich. When I wrote this last February I was unaware of how many female pulp editors there actually were.