Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Oh, Give Me a Hearse!" ("A Place to Live")

One of the certainties when writing for the pulp magazines of the Thirties, Forties or Fifties was the unhappy fact that the author's original title rarely survived. A review of the stories John D MacDonald sold to pulps such as Dime Detective, Detective Tales or Doc Savage reveals that nearly every single submission was published under a new title. MacDonald's weighty, sometimes overly-serious appellations such as "A Stage for Dying," "All the Dead Brothers" or "Never in This World" gave way to more marketable titles like "Hot-Seat on the Aisle," "College-Cut Kill" and "Worse Than Murder." It was the magazine editors' job to sell issues, after all, not to try and please the authors -- who were usually pleased enough with a sale and could have cared less what their stories were called.

A favorite title-type was the punning variation on a popular phrase, song title or book, and some of these were singularly inventive and amusing. A few of the better ones printed over JDM's name are "Finders Killers," "Cash on the Coffin," "The Lady is a Corpse," "I'll Drown You in My Dreams," and my favorite, "Yes, Sir, That's My Slay-Babe!"

When MacDonald submitted a 5,400-word crime story he called "A Place to Live," to Dime Detective in 1947, he had to have known that the title was far too tame to survive, and sure enough when the story was published in the October issue it was called "Oh, Give Me a Hearse!" There is no hearse in the story, but hey, why throw away a good title? No matter what you call it, it's still one of JDM's better efforts from the very early period of his writing career. He liked it enough to have it included in his 1984 pulp anthology, More Good Old Stuff, and he almost certainly felt a strong sense of satisfaction when he restored his original title.

The setting is a town called Amberton, most likely a stand-in for one of the many cities in the Mohawk Valley where the MacDonalds lived. It's a town that is slowly dying, stuck in the grip of crooked politicians, uncaring citizens, and an ex-brewer political boss who has everyone in his pocket.

"A taxi roared by, the springs and shocks smacking hard against the holes in the road. Holes in all the roads. Amberton was a stupid city. A fat, complacent, poorly run little city, full of bland, greedy politicians. The tax rate had climbed above fifty-five dollars a thousand, and factories stood idle along the river. New industry wouldn't come in... And still the politicians smiled, the citizens paid their taxes, the slum sections widened. The death of America...Right here in Amberton. And in the heart of every other fat little city where nobody cares -- but the politicians."

Bill Davo cares and he's going to do something about it. He's a junior city engineer who, after working in Amberton for two years has discovered a major pocket of corruption within the local government. A road contract has been awarded to a crooked firm and, thanks to a survey Davo has done, he has figured out how it's going to work. Every attempt to blow the whistle on it through his own boss and other higher-ups has been met with either silence or warnings for him to mind his own business. When Davo threatens to take the story to the public, he is framed, fired and beaten. His apartment is ransacked and he spends six days in bed recovering.

Through his girlfriend Jane Fay -- who also works for the city -- he has managed to get a copy of his original survey and takes it to the local newspaper. The editor, Johnson Vincens, is sympathetic but since the newspaper is owned by the town's political boss, he won't print it. He advises Davo to contact authorities at the state capital and spill the beans to them. As the story opens, Davo meets and tells everything to a man from the capital named Berman, but when Berman says something odd Davo becomes suspicious. Sure enough, someone in the state government alerted the city that Davo wanted to talk, and Berman is an imposter. He pulls a gun on Davo, they fight and Davo manages to tie up Berman and stick him in a hotel room closet.

Realizing he has a limited amount of time before Berman frees himself, he races over to Jane's apartment and tells her everything. It's late night by now, but they decide to ride over to editor Vincens' house and try and convince him once again. He relents and the three of them rush to the newspaper, write up a big exposé and manage to get it ready for that morning's edition. But Berman has freed himself and "the boys" arrive in time to stop any of the newspapers from being distributed. When Vincens attempts to interfere he is shot, Davo is arrested and Jane manages to sneak upstairs to Vincens office. While sitting in a jail cell Davo's only hope is that Jane made it to safety. Hours later, however, he sees Jane marching down the hall to the women's cell. All seems lost...

The background of corrupt city politics was an area where MacDonald had a bit of personal experience. In the Spring of 1946, after spending four months writing 800,000 rejected words, MacDonald had sold only one story. The $40 he received as payment was barely enough to repay some debt the family had incurred, let alone enough to support a family. He reluctantly went back to work, taking a job with the Utica Taxpayers' Research Bureau. He didn't last long there -- his stories soon began selling at a fairly rapid pace -- but he learned enough about the mechanics of city government to supply him with plenty of material. He used it in this story, in his 1952 tale "The Man from Limbo," and probably in other stories I haven't read yet. Its most notable use was as background for his third novel Judge Me Not, where the hero has turned down a job for a similar taxpayer bureau in order to work as an assistant city manager.

"Oh, Give Me a Hearse!" is a better-than-average story from MacDonald's early period. Even though it contains what he called a "glib" ending, the writing is taut, the suspense well paced, and the details -- especially in the city jail -- are wonderfully realized. The problems he essayed have certainly not gone away in 60-plus years since the story was written, and his ruminations about the disintegration of rust belt industrial towns turned out to be quite perceptive and prescient.


  1. Thanks for all the posting.
    There is no doubt that MacDonald's titles are better. Those editors were eating too much junk food.

  2. Ah, but they sold a lot of magazines, junk food notwithstanding.

    Thanks for commenting Rich.