Friday, March 5, 2010

All These Condemned

Up to this point I've been writing about John D MacDonald's novels in the order they were published. The Neon Jungle, which I wrote about on February 16, came out in September 1953 and was followed by Area of Suspicion, which was published in February of 1954. The later book is an oddball entry, in that it was an enlargement of a magazine novel called "My Brother's Widow" that was serialized in Collier's in early 1952, around the time The Damned was published as a paperback original. The reason I'm skipping Area of Suspicion until later is that I was following Walter Shine's publishing chronology in his Potpourri, and I can see now that he was mistaken. He was unable to determine the exact month Area of Suspicion was published in 1954 and listed it after All These Condemned, but the book reviews of Area of Suspicion began coming out in February, long before the August date he gives All These Condemned. I know, it's hard to believe that Walter was wrong about anything, but the evidence is clear.

That being said, let's get to it.

All These Conde
mned was another paperback original, MacDonald's twelfth published novel and his last Fawcett Gold Medal Book until 1958's Clemmie; Area of Suspicion had been published as a Dell First Edition and after All These Condemned he would spend several years alternating between Dell and Popular Library. The book is unusual in several respects. It's a rare JDM whodunit, something we don't see a lot of in either the author's novels or his shorter work. The author uses an experimental structure in All These Condemned, one he would never attempt again in exactly the same way, and one he subsequently disparaged. Finally, the characters are all of a type -- upper class entertainers, press agents and their hangers-on -- that MacDonald continued to use as secondary or peripheral characters, but never again did he people a novel with such a large concentration of the privileged upper crust.

The singular event of the novel is the death of Wilma Ferris, a wealthy, self-made founder of a successful cosmetics company and a world-class manipulator of everyone in her orbit. The particular moment of her demise is used as the focal point of all of the chapters except the last. Each chapter is told in the first person by separate characters, their names listed as chapter titles, and each character gets two chapters: before the death and then after. The chapters are then arranged in a seemingly random fashion, so we have Chapter One as "Noel Hess - Afterward," then Chapter Two "Paul Dockerty - Before," and so on. Of course there is nothing random in MacDonald's plotting and the events build nicely to a stunning conclusion. The author plays with perspective here, a device he used brilliantly in The Damned, and it's even more amazing in this novel. Unlike The Damned, all of the characters know each other, or are at least somewhat acquainted with the others, and four of the individuals are in fact two separate married couples.

MacDonald's ability to give life to these disparate people is simply amazing. He brings them all together for a weekend stay at Wilma's palatial lake house, and it is here where we stay until the bitter end. The "Before" chapters allow the reader to move around to other settings, but these chapters are told in the past tense, so it seems that all action emanates from the main setting. Each character is drawn with telling detail, their motivations real and recognizable. And Wilma, who gets no "Before" chapter herself, becomes just as real through the recollections of each of her guests. Layer-upon-layer we eventually get to know someone who is far more real than a simple caricature.

The basic plot is simplicity itself: Wilma invites a few friends and business associates to her lake house for the weekend. Everyone arrives by Friday evening. Saturday night, after much drinking, a late night swim in the lake turns into a skinny-dipping party, but only after the spotlights from the house are extinguished. After a while the guests realize that no one knows where Wilma is. The swimsuits go back on, the lights are lit and a frantic search reveals nothing. The police arrive and organize a search party involving a dozen boats owned by other lakefront residents. Wilma is found, her nude body brought to shore, but after the coroner inspects the corpse it is discovered that Wilma didn't drown, she was struck forcefully at the base of the skull with a sharp object. Now it's murder, but whodunit?
Literally every guest in the house has motive. Wilma was a user, one step up from being pure evil, and everyone there depended on her to some extent for their livelihood. They include:

Paul Dockerty, the business manager of Wilma's cosmetics empire. Wilma had lured him away from a consulting company to run Ferris Incorporated, then tried to seduce him. Paul is one of the good guys in the novel, and he resisted her advances. Wilma resents being spurned and responds by working Paul unmercifully -- which Paul doesn't mind -- and by setting her sights on Paul's wife Mavis.

Mavis Dockerty and Wilma are physically similar: "Both tall women, solid in the hip, big breasted, slim in waist, ankle, wrist. Women that look and act alive and have some warm substance to them." But that's where the similarity ends. While Wilma is a force of nature, Mavis is a "formless," vacillating, not-very-intelligent girl who Paul married thinking he could turn her into something else. He couldn't, and now Wilma is succeeding where Paul failed. Mavis is completely under Wilma's spell, to the point that Mavis wears the same types of clothing, the same hair-do, and even unconsciously talks like her. And although the relationship between the two women isn't sexual, it is clearly heading there, not because Wilma swings that way, but because it would put another individual permanently under her thumb. Mavis resents her husband's "bourgeoisie" attitudes, clearly spurred on by Wilma's left-handed remarks about him to her.

Judy Jonah is the other good guy in the book, a television comedienne who has her own show which is sponsored by Ferris Cosmetics. Judy is always "on" but her interior monologues reveal a woman who, at the age of twenty-nine, is tired of a lifetime of show business and doesn't know how to walk away. That may be made easier for her, since her ratings have been slipping and she believes Wilma invited her up this weekend in order to give her the boot.

Randy Hess is Wilma's financial advisor. Like Paul, Randy was lured away from another business in order to work for Wilma, but unlike Paul, Randy quickly succumbed to Wilma's advances. She uses that power now to treat him like a slave and it has completely unmanned him. He is weak, compliant and completely lost, just as if Wilma had "devour[ed] him with the dainty and absentminded finesse of a mantis." Oh, and he's married to...
Noel Hess, his quiet, withdrawn wife, a defeated woman who has surrendered to sleeping pills and despair. Noel is the only person at the party who is left alone by Wilma, but then why shouldn't she be? Wilma won the war with Randy.

Gilman Hayes is an artist, the latest rage in the New York art world, a morose, self-absorbed Adonis who also happens to be Wilma's current bedmate. Hayes says very little, but his interior monologues are full of loathing and a superior attitude toward everyone at the party... heck, everyone in the world except Wilma, who he obviously worships. Wilma discovered him when he was working as a fashion model, groomed him and gave him the confidence to express his inner soul on canvas.

Wallace Dorn is an advertising account executive, the man in charge of the Ferris account at Fern and Howey. A reserved, circumspect and fastidious man, he is believed by most of the guests to be a proper Englishman, which he is not. He speaks little, does not engage in any of the hi jinx the more wanton guests engage in, and is always on his guard to appear "proper." Except that time Wilma seduced him...

Steve Winsan is a press agent, not only Wilma's, but for Gilman Hayes and Judy Jonah as well. Another man who has had the misfortune of falling under Wilma's spell at one time in his life, he has abandoned his former clients and now works solely for these three.
Wilma's extravagant lifestyle is beginning to catch up with her and Randy has advised her she needs to cut back. Rather than do it in a business-like fashion, Wilma invites her victims up to her lake house for a party in order to give everyone the bad news in her own unique way. One by one her "friends" are told their services will no longer be needed. Dorn's handling of her advertising is mocked and he is told that on Monday his boss will be informed that Ferris is taking its accounts elsewhere. Judy Jonah's show is losing her money, and Wilma -- despite earlier promises -- tells Judy that Ferris will no longer act as sponsor, effectively cancelling it. Steve Winsan will no longer be needed by Wilma, which means he will no longer be needed by Judy or Hayes. And Hayes is given the rudest heave-ho of all. That leaves Paul Dockerty, who she still needs to run her business, who does it very well, and besides, there's his wife Mavis...

As one can see, almost everyone has a motive to do away with Wilma, and in that sense All These Condemned is a classic whodunit. But that device is really only there to allow MacDonald to explore the things he really loves: narrative and character. I would have loved to have seen the flow-chart MacDonald devised to keep track of this story. For as simple as the basic story is, the time-shifting, perspective-shifting device he uses to tell it had to be demanding. With each new monologue we not only become better acquainted with each member of the party, their pasts, their hopes and secrets, but those revelations also help to propel the plot. Wallace Dorn is given one of the last "Before" chapters, and it is like stepping into another world. As I've written before, MacDonald's mastery of the short form early in his career -- years before he ever wrote a single novel -- proved to be the best thing that could have happened to him when he began writing novels. It developed in him the dual skills of economy and detail, and these abilities are nowhere better evidenced than in this early book. Like his earlier multiple-perspective longer works, each chapter reads like a unique story, set in a unique little world, yet always propelling the plot forward.

Some of the passages in this novel are beautiful examples of prose, too many to repeat or transcribe, but perfect little displays of the great author MacDonald was becoming and how well he had developed the ability to establish each character through their own unique voice:

Judy Jonah: "I looked at the back of [Paul's] head. I liked the funny boyish way his uncombed hair grew in a sort of swirly thing on the crown of his head. Poor bear. Great big guy with an integrity you could sense. Maybe his claws and teeth were sharp enough in the world of business, but in a setup like this he was a toddler. Types like Steve and Wallace Dorn and Randy and Wilma and -- go ahead, admit it -- Judy the Jonah could disembowel him with a flick of the wrist. I guess this is the difference: We learn, maybe too early, that the deadlier battlegrounds are the cocktail parties, the quick drink before lunch. For a man like Paul Dockerty such things were supposed to be relaxation. So here he was in the midst of wolves, burdened with that silly wife... Poor bear. Poor decent bear. Nice guy with a rugged face, bewildered by his lady, and more than half disgusted with her. Judy, my girl, it is a luxury you can't afford, but oh, how nice it would be to take off the mask once more and hold the big bear in your arms, hold him safe and sweet, because it's a long, long time between loves."

Paul Dockerty: "We went to bed. [Mavis] was very ready, with swollen and eager readiness that completely ignored our increasing coolness toward each other. There was nothing flattering about it. Gilman Hayes had readied her, and the alcohol had primed her, and the music had quickened her. I was merely a convenience... There were no words of love. It was all very sudden and very tumultuous and very meaningless... Afterward I heard her breathing deepen and change into the breathing of sleep... She had managed to kill something. I did not know precisely how it was done... I searched my heart and could find no love for her... I looked for fondness and found none. I looked for respect and found none... She was just a big, moist, nubile, healthy, sycophantic young woman, too damn selfish to start bearing the children I wanted, big in the vanity department, small in the soul department, a seeker of sensation, an expert in meaninglessness, a laboratory example of Mr. Veblen's theories. I wanted to be rid of her, and I wanted to cry."

Steve Winsan: "I laughed out loud. I felt a little bit better. Not much though. I got the glooms again when I rejoined the group and tried to figure out some way to work on Wilma. She has all the vulnerability of a meat ax. And I very well knew that she was waiting for me to start begging. That would be the end. That would be when she would start to smile and go to work with the knife, enjoying her work... I was trying to think of some pry bar to use on Wilma. Like attacking the Washington Monument with a wooden spoon."

Wallace Dorn: "I wondered what Wilma had been thinking as the water closed over her. Knowing her, I would judge that it had been a feeling of vast impatience, of plans interrupted. Not fear, I believe, because I feel that she, like a child, would be utterly incapable of objectively contemplating her own demise. She had a nice knack of making others die a little. Now she had died a lot. Thoroughly. And I found it quite pleasant to think about, actually. For me it was an extraordinarily convenient death. We had had our little chat. Death made her decision meaningless, as I had intended that, somehow, that decision should be made meaningless."

Randy Hess: "And there was no escape, as there never was... As though I needed vileness. As though I sought degradation. As though I had to go on punishing myself for inconceivable crimes, for a guilt that had not yet been explained to me. And I wondered if I would ever kill her. It was the only possible release. She did not tire of the little humilities. The emptying of her ash trays. Sorting her clothes for the cleaners. Taking care of her shoes. Picking up after her. She was a robust animal and she casually littered the rooms in which she lived. She liked to have me tell her about how important I used to think I would become. Sometimes she made me tell her those old dreams while I was making up her bed while she sat at the dressing table, watching me in the mirror."

Gilman Hayes: "There is still a weakness in me... I had to go to [Wilma] again because she could make me feel strong and whole again. But I am going to get over that. So nothing can disturb me. I am, as she has explained, a mutation. What the race of men will one day become. She is a little bit that way, but not so much. The ones who are that way, they are big and strong and quick. I have always been bigger and stronger and quicker than the others. I can walk down any street and look at men and know I can knock them down. And look at women and know I can have them. That is the way I look at them. So that they know it. They have always hated me anyway. They have always rejected me. So it makes no difference if I give them more cause, does it?"

Noel Hess: "I was given a present once. The woman next door brought it over. I had been sick. I was sitting up in bed. My mother was there. I took off the paper. There was a wooden box, just a bit smaller. And another. And another. My breath came faster. The last box would contain something tiny and exquisite. It had to. It had to be something very small and delicate and lovely and precious to merit all the boxes, one within the other. The final box was empty. I looked into it for a long time and felt as if somebody had been there before me and stolen whatever it was. I cried. My mother was ashamed of me. The woman smiled and said it was perfectly all right, but her eyes did not smile."

Mavis Dockerty: "I nearly made a terrible booboo when a man came hurrying out. He was kind of foreign-looking and I thought he was one of [Wilma's] guests and then I remembered Wilma talking about the Mexican servants and I realized, just when I was about to stick my hand out and smile, that it was José. I would have been mortified to death if I'd done anything as terrible as that, shaking hands with a servant. It would be nice to have a little Mexican maid, to live in."

The final chapter is given to one character who is not a member of Wilma's party, a local policeman who arrived on the scene after Wilma disappeared. It comes straight out of left field and is written with such insight and tenderness, and is told with such directness that it positively resonates and transcends. Perhaps it is what David Geherin might call a "heavy dose" of sentimentality, but for me it always reads like music and puts the preceding events into the only objective perspective the reader is given in the novel.

MacDonald never returned to this specific format, of combining multiple perspective with the alternating shifting of time, but he came close. His 1957 novel The Price of Murder features character names heading each chapter, but the story is told in the third person. The Beach Girls in 1959 does the same thing, is told in first person, but the story is linear. The technique used in All These Condemned was an experiment, and one that the author apparently felt was a failed one. In 1968 he called it a "show-off smartassy structure," an opinion I definitely do not concur with.

The few reviews the book received when it was released were generally favorable. Anthony Boucher in the New York Times called a "probing, if somewhat too patently schematized, study... told in a tricky and effective technique," and James Sandoe in the New York Herald Tribune said "Mr. MacDonald has gimmicked a simple murder with a dizzying narrative technique and it might all be a rather silly muddle if his fancy weren't so keen." A couple of Florida newspapers praised it, and Frances Crane writing in the Evansville Press called it "brilliant writing." And an uncredited critic writing in the Big Spring Herald in Texas said, "Splendid characterization is probably the greatest asset of this book. The author cloaks his characters in a realistic shroud of human shortcomings and virtues, which encourages a feeling of believability on the part of the reader...The book rates with most any hard back novel of recent vintage for holding interest, writing ability, and style."

Of the four biographies/critical works on MacDonald, only Ed Hirshberg gives it more than a passing mention, discussing it in a single paragraph as an early example of the author's use of multiple perspective.

All These Condemned has gone through multiple printings since 1954 and has featured a variety of different covers. The original artwork was done by James Meese and was featured on the first two printings. The third through the sixth printings (1959 - 1970) featured a rare photographic illustration, a woman sitting in a sheer negligee. The most famous cover of all was the 1972 seventh printing, illustrated by the great Robert McGinnis and featuring his "strawberry blonde in white bikini." It is perhaps the most recognizable of all of JDM's non-McGee covers. Finally, for the 1981 printing, we were treated to an illustration of Wilma Ferris' croquette set, created by William Schmidt.

Incidentally, the first two editions of the book were the last to feature any mention of Mickey Spillane's oft-quoted praise of The Damned, and it was relegated to a secondary position on the back cover underneath a quote calling MacDonald "... the most talked about new writer in America."

Finally, All These Condemned is noted by JDM fans for a unique conceit. Editors -- be they magazine editors or book editors -- frequently felt the need to "improve" MacDonald's titles, and probably half of the short works he submitted ended up being published under ones invented by them. "I like cover titles that have solidity, stature and what I guess you could call poetic dignity," said the author in 1959. "Such titles are often considered to be difficult to market." Several of his early novels appeared with altered names, such as The Damned (The Dead and the Damned), Judge Me Not (Dead and Damned) and Murder for the Bride (Dirge for a Damsel).

The title to 1953's Cancel All Our Vows was taken from a 1619 Michael Drayton sonnet which MacDonald used as the novel's epigraph, effectively preventing the publishers from making a title change without rendering the epigraph meaningless. He wanted to do the same thing for All These Condemned, but he had a problem: no such weighty source existed. MacDonald had come up with the title on his own. In order to ensure his original choice remained, JDM invented a classical source for the phrase, Juvenal's Satire Number Twelve:

"They recon death a blessing,
Yet make of life an anxious joy,
A villa thin with gilded laughter,
All these condemned."

This trick slipped by the editors and remained MacDonald's secret for many years until a Canadian Classics professor wrote him, "joyously exclaiming his shared glee in the knowledge that there were only ten Satires by Juvenal..." (Shine). From that point forward MacDonald never missed an opportunity to brag about his deception.


  1. I enjoyed this novel until about 2/3rds through. Then the chapters starting feeling redundant. Replaying the events over again but from a different character's point of view only works well when the new point of view provides some new information that carries the plot forward, but here it seemed like just an exercise to write the same scene with a different voice. The later chapters just seemed to redundant. I did like the last chapter, too. It seemed to say that even if these Yuppies lives were empty at least the gave the working class cop a new perspective (and appreciation) of his life (and girlfriend).

  2. I actually happen to own the original cover painting, and the artist is James Meese, not John McDermott. The name is clearly visible on the lower left. Moreover, here's this:

    1. Thank you for pointing that out Jeremy. I've made the correction in the text. My reference source (A MACDONALD POTPOURRI by Walter and Jean Shine) uses the artists initials to identify covers, with John McDermott as "JM" and James Meese as "JMs." They've got ALL THESE CONDEMNED as JM, which is obviously wrong. I suppose that if I had a better grasp of individual artists' styles I would have been able to tell myself.

      Lucky you, owning that original painting!

  3. I am reading the 1981 paperback which must have been edited since it refers to Marilyn Monroe in the past tense. She died in 1962. It is a very enjoyable read.