Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Breathe No More, My Lovely" ("Breathe No More")

Long before Travis McGee was even a random thought in the mind of author John D MacDonald, before he had established himself as a first-rate writer of crime fiction, before he had even a full year of life as a published author, MacDonald began experimenting with a "series" character. In two early Doc Savage submissions, "Private War" in December 1946 and "Eight Dozen Agents" in January 1947, he created a hero he called Benton Walters. Having never read either of these stories, I don't know if Walters was a private eye, a secret agent or a super hero. According to Ed Hirshberg, he was a "war veteran... working at a humdrum civilian job somewhere in the northeastern United States..." who was disillusioned with his "unexciting" postwar job. Sounds like a great idea for a series. I do know that MacDonald quickly dropped the idea, writing to Babette Rosmond (the editor of Doc Savage), "Honest to God -- I'm never going to start another series. They are limiting and I hate them."

Sixteen years later Travis McGee was attempting to have a quiet evening a home while Chookie McCall was dancing up a storm in the lounge of The Busted Flush.

But it didn't take MacDonald that long to renounce his promise to Rosmond. As early as 1950 he tried again, creating Park Falkner, a fantastically wealthy playboy who first appeared in a story called "Breathe No More, My Lovely," published in the May 1950 issue of Detective Tales. It's a great bit of pulp writing with a wild, improbable plot, and a bit of business that he would use again in his 1956 novella "Linda" (with a few changes). And a hero that really would have been worth following in a series of stories. As it turned out, Park Falkner appeared only one more time, four months later, before disappearing forever. Too bad.

He's an unlikely hero, closer to Doc Savage than to Travis McGee, although there are a lot of similarities to MacDonald's later hero:

"He was tall and hard and fit, a man in his mid-thirties, his naked body marked with a half dozen violent scars. He was sun-darkened to a mahogany shade. A tropical disease had taken, forever, hair, eyebrows, and lashes, but the bald well-shaped head seemed to accentuate the youthfulness of his face. The lack of eyebrows and lashes gave his face an expressionless look, but there was rapacity in the strong beaked nose, both humor and cruelty in the set of the mouth."

Falkner is a very wealthy bachelor, the owner of a fortune created by his "esteemed ancestors [who] had the golden touch." He lives on Grouper Island -- he also owns Grouper Island -- which is connected to the West Florida mainland by his own private causeway. He has more money than he can ever spend in this lifetime, but the company of other rich people bores him to tears. He has no interest in trying to make himself richer by working, so what does he do? He hires "clever young men" to dig into the "disorderly pasts" of certain people, and when they come up with something Falkner devises a way to ingratiate himself into their lives. He eventually invites them for a short stay at his island estate, then, "...I just mix some human ingredients together and see what happens. A tossed salad of emotions, call it."

Aided by his driver/pilot, an ex-boxer named Lew Cherezack, and his sometimes-girlfriend, a silver-haired fortysomething beauty who goes by the name of Taffy Angus, Park Falkner is ready to play "...amateur cop or ... god of vengeance. Take your choice. Flip a coin..."

In "Breathe No More, My Lovely," Falkner has uncovered a Mississippi land developer who came by his own wealth through a con performed seven years ago under a different identity. This man, now going by the name of Carl Branneck, worked the old badger game with an accomplice named Laura Hale, and once the fleece was completed Branneck ran off with the money, leaving Laura penniless. Laura reported the crime to police and turned herself in, but the authorities were unable to locate Branneck. Falkner, however, has managed to find both of them and masquerades as a potential client in order to lure Branneck to Grouper Island for a long weekend. Separately he has used a different pretext to invite Laura. Neither person knows the other will be there.

The reader doesn't know any of this background at the beginning of the story. For the first four pages we witness a solitary Branneck on the beach near Falkner's palatial estate, watching an equally-solitary Laura Hale asleep on the beach enjoying the sun. Once he has determined that no one is watching him, he quickly covers Laura's face with sand, thrown a towel over her and pins her to the beach as she suffocates. He then drags her body to the Gulf and takes her several hundred yards out, fills her lungs with sea water and leaves her there.

It is only after the body is discovered that Park reveals what he was planning to do. He wanted to bring the two together and watch their reactions. Just as he suspected, Laura saw a fortune and Branneck saw ruin. There are a few unusual aspects to Laura's death that lead Falkner to suspect that Branneck was responsible, and once he deduces how it was done he plans a way to get Branneck to admit to the crime. If you've read "Linda" who have a good idea how, only not with a tape recorder.

The final half of this 8,800-word story is an exciting and suspenseful cat-and-mouse game that leads to a great chase and a tidy ending. It's everything a reader would want in a series character. Unfortunately Park Falkner appeared once more, in a story called "The Lady is a Corpse" before vanishing forever.

I'm not sure why MacDonald stopped. In October of 1950 he published his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, so perhaps he didn't want to get bogged down with a continuing short story hero. According to Hugh Merrill, Fawcett asked him to consider doing yet another series character in 1952, this time for paperback, but MacDonald refused. "I had the uneasy feeling," he said later, "that were I to come up with a successful series, I might be stuck with it, unable to sell work of any other kind. I think my hunch was valid."

Considering the fact that MacDonald is know for little else these days, I think his hunch was valid.

"Breathe No More, My Lovely" was submitted to Doc Savage under the title "Breathe No More," but was changed by editors in an obvious attempt to reference Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. MacDonald restored his original title when he anthologized it in the first volume of The Good Old Stuff.

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