Monday, March 8, 2010

"Jukebox Jungle"

John D MacDonald wrote seven stories for the great detective pulp magazine Black Mask, beginning in September 1947 with "Manhattan Horse Opera" and ending in July 1950 with "Jukebox Jungle." The fiction magazine, generally regarded as the finest of the mystery/crime pulps, would last only one more year after that last story appeared, ceasing publication with the July 1951 issue. "Jukebox Jungle" is a fitting ending to MacDonald's work for Black Mask. It is tough, gritty and just about the most hardboiled piece of short fiction he ever wrote.

Structured like a mini-novella (if such a form can be said to exist) the 9,100-word story is divided into three chapters, all with colorful titles ("Margaret Street Blues," "Die, Die Again" and "Dizzy Mary") that serve no purpose other than to make the tale seem longer than it really is. Perhaps the chapters were inserted by an editor. "Jukebox Jungle" is a work that is somewhat reminiscent of a 1948 story called "Homicidal Hiccup," and it's setting in a blighted urban wasteland would be explored in deeper detail two years later in his novel The Neon Jungle. But the story is strong enough to stand on its own and it's a real surprise that it wasn't included in one of JDM's Good Old Stuff anthologies.

The story opens as Paul Cate, a mysterious and enigmatic former resident of Margaret Street returns after the absence of a year. The neighborhood is run down and crime-ridden, a typical 1950's urban slum, described beautifully by the author in a few breathtaking paragraphs:

"He stood with the hot airlessness against his face. A small girl roller-skated solemnly by, the skate clacking over the sidewalk cracks. The cars lined up abreast and panted patiently, then roared off as the light changed. Cate smelled spilled beer, the lidless garbage cans behind the Russell Café next door, a distant trace of a woman's musky perfume... The street was the same. Margaret Street never changed. In the daytime the old women, as shapeless as their market bags, possessed it, along with five thousand smudged children, with the number peddlers, the horse players, the broken-down fighters, the cokeys, the bums, the sneak thieves squinting at the sunshine.

"But when the neon buzzed Margaret Street awoke with the thump-stomp of the jukes as shrill and endless as a cry of pain, an arm locked around a throat and heels drumming the alley asphalt as a quick hand rifles the pocket. Then most of the children slept, some of them on broken leather couches in the back rooms of the beer joints. The old women talked and laughed toothlessly across the high air shafts. At night, on Margaret Street, you felt the cool of the gun steel where you had it tucked under your belt. Your palms sweated. You moved carefully and you kept your mouth shut, and if you were alone you stayed out of the shadows. Because this was the new jungle. And beasts walk in the jungle."

Cate has returned to the neighborhood where he was born, where he grew up and once worked respectably as an accountant. But he became involved with the local crime lord Hank Olaf, at first a little, then a lot. When Cate changed his mind and tried to back out, his office was smashed, his apartment wrecked and his car was rolled into the reservoir. After a good beating or two, Cate left town, hiding out in the shadows until he realized that he had to make a decision: come back and face down Olaf or live in fear for the rest of his miserable life. He knows that Olaf has most of the police department in his pocket, so returning for another beating won't scare Olaf, but there's one section of the police force he doesn't have the fix in: the Homicide boys.

So Cate, fearful but determined, walks into the Golden Slipper Bar and confronts Olaf. The crime boss is there with Cate's old girlfriend Gina, a trampy little minx with a "compact figure and a sallow complexion." Olaf is not impressed:

"Take a look at him, Gina. Runover heels and worn out cuffs and a dirty shirt and a two-day beard. Look at the bum, Gina. He used to look pretty sharp when he run around with you, eh?"

Cate sits and orders a beer while Olaf ducks into the back room. Gina begs Cate to leave, but he doesn't move, responding, "There's only one answer to running. If you've run once, you'll run the rest of your life unless you come back and face what you ran away from." Moments later two of Olaf's goons show up and escort Cate out to the side alley and work him over good, sending him to the hospital charity ward. A detective eventually shows up to take a statement and is told everything, including names, but is surprised when Cate won't press charges. When Cate tells the cop he's going right back to the Golden Slipper as soon as he's released, the cop responds, "You poor damn fool! The next time might kill you!"
Cate lays out his plan of revenge to the cop:

"That's just the point. Hank's fix is strong enough so that he can laugh off a thing like this. But he can't laugh off murder. That brings Captain Moley and his homicide boys in, and the fix doesn't cover Moley. I know that much."

That's exactly what Cate does, but his plan goes awry when Olaf figures it out. Things look bad, but help eventually arrives from an unlikely place...

MacDonald employs a stylized prose in "Jukebox Jungle" that is noticeably different from much of his other work, a prose that has the sound of Chandler and Hammett. It's fun to read, rings in the ear and jumps off of the page. His description of a secondary character, Dizzy Mary, is a good example:

"No one on Margaret Street knew her last name. It was doubtful as to whether Dizzy Mary remembered it. Her IQ was probably somewhere in the sixties or low seventies. She was blonde and she was impossibly beautiful with a soft wholesomeness about her that always made Cate think of milk maids and sleepy summer mornings. Her eyes were wide and empty and her voice was little and thin and high. Each night of her life she drank herself into meaningless, sodden helplessness, awakening the next morning with no memories, no regrets, no hangovers, no flaw in her beauty."

Hank Olaf is also described in a kind of an arch voice that might seem out of place in any other setting:

"Big Olaf with the corn-tassel hair and the face like a clenched fist and the tiny blue eyes through which you would look into an emptiness where once there might have been a soul."

As Cate's presence in the neighborhood becomes known, old friends and customers are brought into the story, giving MacDonald an excuse to create some colorful urban ethnics, as well as to show off his business background. A clothing merchant named Mert Steen, a poolroom owner named Sam Aigo, and a haberdasher named Rufe Tomasoni are all former clients who sorely miss Cate's services, and who help him by giving him clothing, a place to stay and food to eat. Steen speaks for them all when he tells Cate:

"These boys I got handling my books now, a big outfit. Who is Mert Steen to them? Poo! A nothing. I ask them. I say do you think I should maybe cut down the size of the storeroom to give me more sales space? With you, I could get advice. With them I get the cold eye."

And of course, there's a girl... no, not Gina, but little Fran Fergesson, all grown up from "knobbly bones and joints and snarly hair" into one of MacDonald's archetypal good girls:

"The eyes, he saw, were the same. Wide and blue under a bold arch of brow. The mouth was soft, vulnerable. But the greatest change was in the maturity of her figure. She seemed to wear the surprisingly ripe femininity like a costume but recently donned so that the wearer was not yet accustomed to it."

The story ends nicely, but not before some serious violence, described by MacDonald with a lyrical pulpy poetry, almost like he knew this was his last appearance in this singular magazine. It is a fitting farewell, and JDM was perhaps the last great writer to appear within its pages.

MacDonald may not have thought it worthy of inclusion in either of the Good Old Stuff collections (if it was even considered), but thankfully the modern reader can hunt down the story without paying $100 for an old issue of Black Mask. In 1991 Maxim Jakubowski included it the mystery anthology New Crimes 3, part of an annual series of collections meant to showcase "the sheer variety, versatility and excitement of modern American and English mystery fiction." Most of the volume is reserved for contemporary mystery stories, and "Jukebox Jungle" was featured at the end in something called "Vintage Corner" along with a Robert B. Parker story and a John Dickson Carr Sherlock Holmes oddity. Used copies of the anthology aren't that hard to find and are usually not very expensive.

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