Friday, April 30, 2010

"All Our Yesterdays"

"One man sat in his death cell, hoping for the miracle he knew would never come. Another watched him, owl-eyed, across the abyss of time; and neither dreamed that their lives were bound up together—that of these two, who were separated by centuries, one must die for the other!"

"All Our Yesterdays" is a John D MacDonald time travel story, a work of science fiction that originally appeared in the April 1949 issue of Super Science Stories under the house name of John Wade Farrell. The pseudonym was necessary since MacDonald had another story -- "Death Quotient" -- in that same issue under his own name, and pulp editors rarely if ever allowed two stories to appear with the same author's name. In addition, MacDonald had a third story in that same issue, "Delusion Drive," under yet another house name, Peter Reed. And one wonders why the exact number of JDM stories is still a subject for debate...

The subject of time travel was an immensely popular one in the science fiction pulps of the forties and fifties, although MacDonald doesn't seem to have employed it often. His use of it in "All Our Yesterdays" falls more into the category of "time paradox," that subcategory of time travel where careless actions while in the past reshape those of the present and future. Its most notable example is perhaps Ray Bradbury's 1952 story "A Sound of Thunder," where the mere act of killing a butterfly in the Mesozoic Era causes subtle-but-major changes in the present, much to the horror of the perpetrator. And although "All Our Yesterdays" predates Bradbury's tale by three years, the time-paradox trick had been around since at least 1938 with Jack Williamson's The Legion of Time, and I'm sure the s-f expert could cite earlier examples. MacDonald's perhaps-unique approach to the subject involves a futuristic initiate class who are permitted to observe the past, not by travelling themselves, but by sending some sort of unseen camera and microphone back so that they can look but not interfere.

Ghan the younger is a "tenth-level" crime-seeker on future Earth, a relatively high-level initiate whose job it is to observe crimes taking place in the past on a three-dimensional screen in his home. The focus of this effort is to view instances where justice has miscarried and Ghan's favorite era is mid-twentieth century United States. The powers that be are well aware of the dangers of attempting to manipulate the past, which is why only tenth-level mentalities are permitted to use the machines. While the devices they use do not permit a body to actually travel to the past, with the proper nudging of the controls one could bring the camera so close that it would be observed and even felt. Their reasoning is spelled out in the story's brief preface:

"It is more than a problem of focus. It is more than a question of intellectual curiosity. Though the tendency is for divergence to swing back to norm, it is recognized that objective interference in any case may have a long range effect sufficient to cause objective alterations in present society. Thus, the entertainment quotient of Crime-seeking is perforce limited to those tenth-level mentalities where, due to knowledge, thalamic motivations can be recognized as such, and discounted. Any attempt by a tenth-level mentality to indoctrinate any lesser mentality in Crime-seeking procedure will result in social isolation for an indefinite period. The clearest analogy of the danger of objective interference is that of the primitive man who, clinging to a limb, saws it off between his body and the trunk of the tree."

But Ghan the younger has a problem: he's fallen in love with a "lesser mentality," an eighth level hottie named Luria, "of the cobalt eyes, the honey flesh, the rounded warm arms and soft lips." The couple has been enjoying secret assignations in Ghan's home for a while now, and the only thing he worries more about than being discovered is the possibility that Luria is secretly seeing another eighth level, "a hulking brute of a man" named Powell. The trick then is to keep her happy and occupied, but when Ghan refuses to allow her to see the time machine in action, her first reaction is to threaten to return to Powell. Ghan can't allow that and keep his sanity, so he reluctantly agrees to allow her one viewing. He pulls out a book on twentieth century crime and Luria points at random to a particular name: John Homrik. Homrik was a resident of Kingston, New York back in 1948 and was executed for murdering his child bride Anna, and then faking it to make it appear she had hung herself in the kitchen of their apartment. Ghan adjusts the camera to reveal the death row section of the prison where Homrik is held and it follows him down the green mile as he is strapped into the electric chair and executed. 

Luria is transfixed, not only at how realistic the three dimensional images are, but at how different men appeared back in that dim past, "...strong and... like a man. In these days there are no men like that." Luria immediately asks Ghan to allow her to see the actual crime committed, and having agreed once, he agrees again. They witness the couple at home after an incident of infidelity on Anna's part. Anna is deeply guilty and abject, while John does his best to try and convince her that she is forgiven. They make love and afterward, while John is sleeping, Anna is observed sneaking out of bed, walking into the kitchen and hanging herself. It's a miscarriage of justice, just the type of thing Ghan is trained to look for and he makes a mental note to tell his associates about this particular case. But Luria wants more. Luria wants to prevent the suicide, to prevent Homrik's unjust execution. While Ghan attempts to explain why such an action could change everything they know, Luria climbs onto his lap, chews on his ear and begs him to let her see the suicide just one more time...

"All Our Yesterdays" is a neat but predictable tale, an interesting exercise in plotting and character that allows MacDonald to play the Great Moralizer on a grand scale. It's inclusion in the recent eBook anthology Death Quotient and Other Stories allows the modern reader a chance to enjoy this fable for the first time in sixty years, but unfortunately the story suffers from the same sloppy editing that mars the other inclusions in that collection. Here the editors begin the text with the Super Science Stories promotional blurb (included above) as the first paragraph of the story, complete with exclamation mark! Since that is a grammatical immaturity MacDonald never practiced, it's error is obvious. The blurb is immediately followed by the introductory preface quoted earlier, making the lurch into the actual narrative jarring indeed. I was an early purchaser of this eBook, and I bought the Acrobat version, so perhaps these errors are not present in other formats, or they have hopefully since been corrected.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

JDM on Learning Chinese

[I] was amused at people on the ship en route from US taking Chinese lessons in [the] happy delusion they would converse during [the] tour. No way. Not only are there many dialects so unlike that the Chinese need interpreters among themselves, but even if you had the happy accident of trying your pidgin mandarin on a mandarin-speaking Chinese person, there would be no response. The Chinese do not want you to try to speak their language! Why is this? For precisely the same reason that most Frenchmen will, in France, absolutely refuse to comprehend your French, even though they know what you are trying to say. The French and the Chinese, more than other peoples, think of themselves as being the only perfect race on earth, and all other peoples are barbarians. So an attempt to speak the tongue of the perfect is an impertinence. What if your dog spoke up and asked you for a meatloaf? You would refuse to understand because if you did, he would keep asking, and he would become boring. So it was sad and funny to see the language class from the ship going about hooting, honking, cooing -- and getting no response at all from anyone.

-- from "Reflections on China"
JDM Bibliophile # 24 (July 1979)

Monday, April 26, 2010

House Names

In the early short story-years of John D MacDonald's writing career he was such an amazingly prolific author that his works occasionally appeared along side each other in the same issue of a magazine. It was not uncommon in his pulp years to have two, three, once even four stories appear in the same fiction monthly, and when that happened, pseudonyms were employed. It was the editor's belief that variety sold better than name recognition, and for every fan who would jump at the chance of purchasing a magazine with more than one JDM story, there were probably two who would pass it up because they didn't want to read two stories by the same author. The reasoning, I suppose, was that the fan of MacDonald (or any other prolific author) would likely buy the magazine anyway, so why take a chance.

According to MacDonald's bibliographer Walter Shine, this practice "was done with MacDonald's acquiescence but not at his request," and the names used were not unique to the author. Shine cites one example of a story called "The Tiger" which appeared in the December 1946 issue of Doc Savage under the byline "Peter Reed." This pseudonym was the one most frequently used by JDM in a variety of different magazines, but "The Tiger" is not a John D MacDonald story.

The only known case of MacDonald intentionally utilizing a pseudonym was when he wrote a monthly column for a couple of regional west coast Florida magazines back in the early 1960's. "Off the Beat" was a feature of both The Lookout and Newsmonth from November 1959 until June 1961 and was published under the name "T. Carrington Burns." MacDonald's authorship of this column was a well kept secret until Shine discovered it 1978, much to JDM's surprise.

There were 31 issues of pulp magazines where John D MacDonald stories appear under a pseudonym, yet the number of different names is remarkably few. That's because editors used what were known as "house names," designations that were created by the magazines and designed so that they would not be confused with any real author. There were six different house names used for JDM works over the years:

House Name Number of times used
Peter Reed 15
Scott O'Hara 13
John (Wade) Farrell 6
John Lane 2
Robert Henry 2
Henry Reiser 2

The magazines where this practice was common were invariably fiction pulps; JDM never used a pseudonym in a mainstream slick.

Magazine Number of issues featuring JDM under pseudonym
Black Mask 1
Detective Tales 3
Dime Detective 4
Doc Savage 6
Fifteen Sports Stories 1
New Detective Magazine 1
The Shadow Magazine 4
Shock 2
Sports Novels 1
Super Science Stories 8

I am aware of at least five cases of the use of a house name where a JDM story appeared by itself, without another credited entry in the same issue. One wonders what the rationale for this practice was, other than to possibly give a magazine's readers a rest from an overly-prolific author. Still, that does not explain the most curious use of a house name, for MacDonald's "A Handful of Death." Published in the June 1946 issue of Doc Savage, it appeared without another John D MacDonald story alongside it in the table of contents, it was MacDonald's first-ever story published in that particular pulp, and it was only the second JDM story ever to be published in a newsstand-available publication. I'm sure there's a story behind this odd substitution of names, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it could be. Imagine poor MacDonald, pounding out product for over six months, finally getting some sales and his second appearance in print doesn't even have his name on it!

The most notable JDM stories published under a pseudonym? There are two of them. In the famous July 1949 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories where MacDonald had four stories published, his "Blue Water Fury" was printed under the Scott O'Hara pseudonym. It was one of the author's favorite works and, although he had originally titled it "Freedom by Violence," he eventually republished it as "The Big Blue" and included it in his 1966 short story anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories. The other was a novella he sold to Dime Detective in 1950. Appearing in the July issue of that magazine as "Five-Star Fugitive" (again, under the Scott O'Hara house name), he re-titled it "Border Town Girl" and included it the eponymous 1956 collection that also featured the original publication of "Linda."

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Bullet for Cinderella

Depending on one's opinion of A Bullet for Cinderella it was either John D MacDonald's return to form or a run for cover. Perhaps it was both. Published in the summer of 1955, the novel was MacDonald's fourteenth, his tenth paperback original and his second Dell First Edition. It followed on the heels of his second attempt at a mainstream work (Contrary Pleasure) and it reads like the work of a man jumping back into the arms of a jilted lover. It's pulpy, violent, sexy, suspenseful and even rueful, a return to many of the types of characters and situations that filled the author's early short fiction. There's even a buried treasure and a first person narrator, the first since Dead Low Tide in 1953. It has all the elements that make up a great work of pulp fiction; therefore, it's a shame it couldn't have been better.

When one reads MacDonald's novels in the order they were published, the reader is able to witness and chart the growing maturity of an artist who cherished craft over everything else. With a few exceptions -- Weep for Me and Area of Suspicion -- each novel seems an improvement over the last, and one usually come away with the sense that MacDonald was always learning something new about his chosen profession and was never satisfied with simply standing still. A novel like A Bullet for Cinderella, while a welcome return to the genre the author would become known for, doesn't seem like a better novel than the ones that preceded it. MacDonald used a lot of the lessons he'd learned and created a well-plotted mystery novel, but the characters don't seem any different or deeper than the people we've read in previous novels. It's very much a "formula" novel with a detached, somewhat aimless hero, a good girl, a tramp, and a very, very scary villain. And did I mention the buried treasure?

Of course, one of the benefits of not reading MacDonald's novels in order is that you can pick up a book like A Bullet for Cinderella and flat out enjoy the hell out of it. Taken for what it is there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. The novel is thoroughly delightful and a quick joy to read. Anyone looking for a fairly representative example of a 1950's hardboiled paperback mystery need look no further.

Tal Howard is the protagonist, a war-haunted veteran of the Korean War who spent his last year of service in a prisoner of war camp. The treatment there was brutal and few survived. Tal managed to make it, but was forced to spend months in a stateside hospital recovering. He eventually returns home, to the girl who had waited for him, back to his old job selling insurance. But life seems "tasteless" now:

"I'd used up a lot of emotional energy in order to stay alive and come back to this, back to my job and back to Charlotte, the girl I had planned to marry. Now that I was back neither job nor girl seemed enough."

And there's something gnawing at him, something "hidden down underneath" the surface of his mind. There had been another prisoner in the camp, a fellow named Timmy Warden, and he and Tal had become friends. The two would pass the time telling each other about their lives back home and Tal learned a lot about Timmy. He had come from a small town called Hillston, located in upstate New York (never stated, but obvious to any regular reader of JDM), where he had worked with his brother George who owned a lumber yard. Timmy had always been sharp with numbers and he did the books for George. At some point he figured out ways to skim money from the profits and take it home with him, a little at a time, where he hid it in vacuum jars. He also began having a secret affair with his brother's wife, Eloise, a "lush, petulant, amoral, discontented" young woman who George worshiped. As Timmy's health worsens his guilt grows, and he now fights to stay alive in order to return home and make things right: to break off the affair and return the money to his brother.
He's hidden the jars in a place no one will find, buried in a secret location, and he never does reveal it to Tal. At one point, when he is close to death, Tal asks him point blank about the location of the jars. Disoriented and with "weak, crazy laughter," Timmy tells him, "Cindy would know..." Later that evening it is Tal who is ordered to dig Timmy's grave.

Back home in California, Tal is eventually fired from his job and his feelings toward girlfriend Charlotte have disappeared. He decides to convert all his money into traveler's checks, pack his bags and head for Hillston.

"Charlotte had wept, and it hadn't touched me. I had accepted being fired without any special interest. Ever since repatriation, since the hospital, I had felt like half a man. It was as though the other half of me had been buried and I was coming to look for it -- here in Hillston, a small city I had never seen. Somehow I had to begin to live again. I had stopped living in a prison camp. And never come completely to life again."

Once he arrives in town he learns that Eloise has run off with another man and has never returned. George is distraught and is drinking heavily, his lumber business falling apart. And there's someone else who is new in town, yet another inmate from the POW camp, a man by the name of Earl Fitzmartin who is now working for George at the yard.

"[Fitzmartin] was a lean man with tremendously powerful hands and arms. He had pale colorless hair, eyes the elusive shade of wood smoke... One cold night six of us has solemnly pledged that if we were ever liberated we would one day hunt him down and kill him... [He was] huskier and quicker and craftier than anyone else in camp... a loner. He had an animal instinct for survival. He prowled by himself and treated us with icy contempt and amusement. He was no closer to us than to his captors."

When Tal meets Fitzmartin at the yard, the big man knows exactly why he is there. Ever the nocturnal animal, Fitzmartin had overheard Timmy tell Tal of the buried loot. As soon as the prisoners were released from the camp, he made his way to Hillston and has spent a year looking around while Tal was recovering and trying to return to his old life in California. But he did not hear Timmy's final words referencing Cindy, and Fitzmartin's predator instincts tell him that Tal has a piece of evidence unknown to him. He offers to split to money -- 75/25 -- if Tal will go in with him, and when Tal refuses Fitzmartin warns him that he will be watching his every move.

As Tal moves around town talking to people he realizes that he needs a better cover story for being there and invents a ruse that he is writing a book about some of his fellow inmates in the camp. At one point he's picked up by the police and his story helps to get them off his scent, but in fact they have picked him up because they believe he is an investigator hired by the wife of the man Eloise ran off with. This woman believes her husband and Eloise are dead. Tal continues looking for anyone named Cindy, but everyone he interviews draws a blank. He eventually speaks with Ruth Stamm, the daughter of a local veterinarian and one of Timmy's former girlfriends. Tal is instantly smitten and begins to realize that there may be more meaning behind his trek east... but not enough to stop him treasure hunting. Ruth feels something toward Tal and it seems like things will get serious between them, but Tal's subterfuge eventually leads to recrimination. Tal eventually finds and falls into the arms of the elusive Cindy, who turns out to be a very different kind of girl...

There's all sorts of rip-roaring action in A Bullet for Cinderella and the reader is not likely to be bored or distracted at any point in the narrative. MacDonald covers a lot of ground -- probably too much -- as we deal with murder, suicide, rape, bodies in cars, kidnapping, gangsters, prostitutes and a prototypical JDM villain, the kind of cold, soulless and almost supernatural bad guy who came to fruition in the person of Max Cady. All of this takes place as a kind of process, as Tal sorts out his life and tries to get back on an even keel. That, unfortunately, is the weakest part of the book and we never really do get to understand our leading character as he tries to "finds himself." It's not like MacDonald didn't have a lot of experience writing about these kinds of war-damaged veterans -- much of his early short fiction is peopled with them -- but it seems artificial here, as if he tried to write two different kinds of books and couldn't figure out which one he liked best. There are long interior monologues placed at various points in the narrative as Tal tries to figure things out, yet these don't ever seem quite real compared to the violent action that is taking place in the world of Hillston. Thankfully, the plot MacDonald concocted has enough twists and turns, enough action and violence to allow the reader to pretty much ignore all the psychological overtones that don't seem to fit.

I certainly don't mean to denigrate MacDonald when I imply that this novel may have been a "run for cover." The author wrote for a living and needed to make a living, something he could only continue to do as a writer if people purchased his books. As I noted in previous postings, Contrary Pleasure came and went with little more than a ripple in hardcover, and it's first paperback edition would not be published until October of that year. Area of Suspicion did not enjoy a second printing until 1961. It seems reasonable to assume that MacDonald wrote A Bullet for Cinderella as not only a return to a familiar type of novel, but as a return to a type that would probably sell more copies.

A Bullet for Cinderella is not -- alas! -- the original title for this JDM work. It was submitted as On the Make and was probably changed by MacDonald's Dell editors, a frequent occurrence for both short story and paperback authors back in the day. And although the book will forever be known by this colorful, superior title, Dell actually agreed to change it back when they printed a second edition in 1960. To the publisher's credit, they made it quite clear on the cover of that subsequent edition that the book had originally appeared under the prior title. This is one of only two instances where a second edition of a JDM novel reverted to the author's original title, the other being 1956's You Live Once, which became You Kill Me. When Fawcett acquired the rights to all of MacDonald's works in the early sixties, they wisely went back to the original titles, making the second editions of both books curios and collector's items.

The wonderful cover that adorns the first edition was illustrated by George Gross, a artist who was responsible for only one other JDM paperback illustration. It features a beautiful backwater babe sitting under a tree with a shack and a screaming harridan in the background. The girl is framed by the crosshairs of a rifle scope, and although there is no such scene in the novel, once you read it the artist's idea will make sense.

The cover for the second edition -- On the Make -- was done by Mike Hooks, who was also responsible for the cover to the first edition of The Deceivers. Fawcett's first edition -- the novel's third -- is probably the one most recognized by readers of my generation. It a rare photographic illustration featuring a bullet standing beside a open tube of lipstick.
The most recent editions, from 1979 on, feature artwork by Robert McGinnis, and unfortunately I do not own a copy of any of these.

Anyone looking for further critical assessment of this novel is going to be disappointed. Although it was reviewed by Anthony Boucher in the New York Times when it was originally released, the critic panned it, stating that the promise of an unmoored Tal Howard finding himself "...sets up a promising, serious suspense novel" that "disappoints... It slips off too soon into an over-simple shocker. Good storytelling, of course, but Mr. MacDonald has had better stories to tell." David Geherin, Lewis D. Moore and Hugh Merrill all mention the novel only in passing in their books on JDM, and Ed Hirshberg ignores it completely.

Therefore it's a bit of a surprise to learn that A Bullet for Cinderella is one of only two non-Travis McGee JDM novels that are still in print. That's because it was published an an eBook by Wonder Audiobooks, the same company that recently released the JDM science fiction anthology Death Quotient and Other Stories. It features the original Dell First Edition cover, is very inexpensive and is available through Amazon or wherever eBooks are sold. Hopefully Wonder Audiobooks did a better job of proofreading it than they did with Death Quotient.

If eBooks aren't your thing, there are used copies all over the place, usually with the third edition cover.

And finally, in a crazy bit of post-modern unreality that MacDonald would have been amazed at, the novel's title was borrowed by a Virginia heavy metal band called Mindset in 1999, and it graces the cover of the group's second album. A review of the lyrics from that album reveal no obvious references to JDM's book, but with verses like "What do you say? /When they call you out, call you out / The enemy is claimin' / To be what he is not!" ...who can ever really know?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Funny Man" ("Afternoon of the Hero")

"Welcome to televisionland -- where famous faces wear other faces, where girls are pussycats, bikinis are business suits, and kings run scared."

"Funny Man" appeared in the May 21, 1966 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, only two months before it showed up as the final entry in John D MacDonald's first short story anthology, End of the Tiger and Other Stories. Included under a different title -- "Afternoon of the Hero" -- it seems to be one of the two stories in that collection that were written especially for the book. "Triangle" appeared two months after the book hit the stands in July -- in the men's magazine Cavalier -- while "Funny Man" was published before Tiger, yet the magazine's table of contents makes reference to the collection's forthcoming publication. The story's change of title shouldn't seem odd, as probably over half of MacDonald's published stories had their titles changed by magazine editors over the years, yet for it to happen so late in his career is a bit curious, especially since it seemed timed to help promote the book. "Funny Man" was one of the last short stories JDM would ever write and it reflects the writer's maturity and craftsmanship as an author of short fiction, as well as representing a turn toward more adult themes and subject matter.

It's a character study with little resembling an actual plot, focusing on a popular television comedian named King Noonan. We join him as he awakens in his "half-acre of bed" in the "shadowy expanse of bedroom," part of his large estate located we-know-not-where. He's hung over and it's already late morning, but as he crawls to the bathroom he clowns to himself, a comedian always "on," audience or no. As the curtains open and the blinding light floods the bedroom, he covers his eyes and pleads in a mock-Balkan accent, "No, Andreyev, not the torture of the lights, comrade, I beg you." He pushes a few buttons to bring up music, enters his vast six-head shower, then rings for his personal assistant Robbie. Clearly King Noonan is someone who has made it.

Or not... MacDonald uses the device of a recent magazine article within the story to instantly give not only King's background, but to also establish the character's motivation and hint at how the story will be resolved. He reads it to himself after he has dried off from his shower:

"It would be too trite to say that King Noonan, one of the most fabulously successful comics of our time, is underneath his exuberant exterior, a lonely and complex fellow. And perhaps it is no longer fashionable to look for the basic motivating force. But, if backed into a corner, I would say that the King's engine is fear. He is not lonely -- not with that permanent retinue. Nor is he complex in the ordinary meaning of the word.

"King Noonan runs scared, and thus he runs very hard indeed. He is afraid of the effects of the abuse he inflicts on his big, durable body. He is terrified of death. He is afraid to think of the probable reasons for the failures of his marriages, the failures in friendship. Failure is indeed his demon. Failure professionally, personally, socially, emotionally. And so he drives himself in the pursuit of a perfection which will make failure unthinkable, and we are the ones who gain thereby.

"One day one of the demons will catch him. But, in the meantime, we are privileged to watch the chase and enjoy the by-product of his fear: that great comic art -- sometimes vulgar, sometimes as sensitive and delicate as great theater, always competent. Fear is the engine, and laughter is the long, bright road."
Noonan makes no comment, interior or otherwise, on the article but tosses the magazine across the room, then goes to pick it up and put it back on a desk. He looks outside and sees some of his "permanent retinue" out by the pool, along with a couple of bikini-clad young women he doesn't recognize. His assistant Robbie enters and they immediately begin going over his schedule for the day. Robbie seems a bit reserved, but that's only because King fired him several times the night before, acts the King can not remember. He also doesn't recall calling up the author of that magazine article and giving him holy hell. It's clear from the brief actions and descriptions we are given that King Noonan is not a nice fellow. He a brash, demanding and ruthless performer who treats his staff like serfs and masks his insecurities with gallons of alcohol. He gets a rubdown from his private masseuse, then meets with his television agent to discuss the next season of his television show.

After a few telephone calls he heads down to the pool and clowns around on the diving board. The new young women there are actresses brought over to audition for a bit in his Chicago show, the "stewardess act," and after he's done in the pool he meets with them individually. The first is Adele Bowen, "a blonde, young, wise-eyed, with a lot of facial business, conversational extravagance, the choppy gestures of the industry." Still poolside, he forces her into a lightning round of expressions, reactions and emotions, all done quickly, professionally and without a moment's hesitation. Then he asks her about her competition, the other young lady there, Priscilla Wendell. Adele speaks honestly when she says that, despite Priscilla's knockout of a figure, she cannot think of her as a pro. King tells her to wait around while he auditions Priscilla, only this audition is going to take place indoors, in his bedroom study. Priscilla tries to play it cool, "but her eyes swiveled too much, and her hands were damp, chilly and trembling..." He tosses her a script from his desk, already knowing that Adele will play the part...

"Funny Man" takes place in a world of talented yet insecure people, where friends and business associates are addressed as "baby," "sweetie" or "rat fink," and where verbal abuse is the expected norm. MacDonald visited this world at least once before, in his 1954 novel All These Condemned, where the character Judy Jonah is a similar yet far more sympathetic comic. She's the star of her own television series and a celebrity who has already reached the apogee of her fame. Judy lives with the same fears and insecurities, yet she is all-too ready to leave it behind for a more traditional role. In "Funny Man" King Donavan is riding high, loving every minute of power and glory, yet afraid to look down for even a second. When he eventually does, even for the briefest of moments, he turns it into a joke and reverts to form, back into his own comfort zone. The story is somewhat atypical for MacDonald up to that point in his career, yet it prefigures the kinds of more mature tales he would begin penning for Playboy the following year, those adult short stories that would make up his second anthology S*E*V*E*N.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

JDM on The Mind of a Writer

Intensive writing over a long period of time is exhausting in ways I find difficult to describe without sounding somewhat precious about it. You feel disenfranchised by reality, a half step behind and off to one side of your own skin, your view oblique, with most possibilities of genuine reaction cooled by being filtered through the habitual appraisal mechanics of your trade. You find an off-hours world crammed with the enticing stimulations of good books, good art, good conversation, but that creative effort necessary to these appreciations is too much akin to the process that uses you up in your work, and so, too often, aware of sloth and guilt, you surrender to the undemanding unvarying flatulence of network television, to magazine fare styled for the lip readers, to social contact with people so curiously predictable in their attitudes you know their lines before they say them.

-- from The House Guests (1965)
Chapter Twelve

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Death's Eye View"

New Detective Magazine was a mid-tier crime pulp that began publication in March 1941. It originated with a focus on police detection but quickly morphed into a typical mystery fiction magazine featuring stories by authors such as Day Keene, W.T. Ballard, Bruno Fischer and other names remembered by only the most devoted pulp scholars. It published 73 issues before merging with Detective Tales in August 1953 to become Fifteen Detective Stories, which lasted only until June 1955 when it folded for good. It was later reincarnated into a men's magazine called True Adventures, one of those crazy 1950's types that usually featured covers of shirtless heroes battling commie-rat Ruskies while rescuing at least three or four unclad, breasty young women. True Adventures published no fiction -- at least that was the claim -- but the "true adventures" that appeared within its pages were obviously fanciful.

Twenty stories by John D. MacDonald appeared in New Detective Magazine, beginning with "Come Die With Me!" in the January 1948 issue and ending with the excellent "Death's Eye View" in February 1953. "Death's Eye View," which was originally titled "Death on the Ebb Tide" by the author, is a 16,000-word novella and was the featured work in that particular issue, complete with wonderfully pulpy cover art. The story -- which is basically a retread of his 1948 western tale "The Corpse Rides at Dawn," -- is an interesting and finely-detailed piece featuring a power-hungry tycoon, a do-gooder heroine, a rich, lonely widow and a handsome, itinerate boat captain named Kelsy McKewn. It allowed MacDonald to show off his vast knowledge of business dealings, boat mechanics and stock trading, and he used an extra female character to engage in some narrative misdirection that is relatively uncommon in early JDM. It's well-paced, suspenseful and doesn't seem to have a wasted word anywhere in the text. Of course, by 1953 MacDonald had written seven novels, six of them very good and one of them (The Damned) quite excellent, so it should come as no surprise that "Death's Eye View" is superior JDM.

The story begins quite dramatically as we are introduced to the two leading characters, swimming in their underwear somewhere off the east coast of Florida. Captain Kelsey McKewn had been hired by a twenty-three year old philanthropist Dale Lamson to pilot her forty-foot cabin cruiser from Miami to Ft. Augustine, but somewhere off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale, about six miles offshore, Kelsy discovered a time bomb aboard and quickly managed to get Dale and himself over the side and far enough away before the boat exploded. Dale's bodyguard, the only other passenger, wasn't so lucky. Using the stars to guide them, Kelsy and Dale strip down to their skivvies and start swimming to shore. They have been out an hour and a half when we join them and the sun is beginning to rise. Dale is exhausted and wants to give up several times, but Kelsy urges her on, first using encouragement, later barking orders. Once they near the shore and feel the tug of the surf pulling them in, the utterly spent Kelsy stands up and then collapses back into the surf.
They've landed north of Lauderdale at Deerfield Beach and onto the private coastline of Mildred Coe, a 30-year old wealthy widow who happens to be out walking when the couple wash up on shore. She dives in to rescue Kelsy, drags him up on the beach and proceeds to spend twenty minutes administering artificial respiration. He comes around, throws up, sits back and smokes a cigarette (!) She invites the two of them up to her house to rest and change.

MacDonald introduces Mildred with an extended back story, the first character here to enjoy one, so the reader knows she is important. Her husband was killed in North Africa and she has retreated from the world, becoming withdrawn and lonely.

"She knew that she was thinking of herself too often lately, and that such intensity and self-interest was morbid... Old friends had lost their charm. Their worries seemed petty, their lack of emotional security almost frightening. Loneliness had done something to her, had made her think, had turned her into an entirely new person, slow to smile, a woman with quiet eyes... she had retreated once more to the loneliness, knowing that it was not enough, realizing for the first time that grief was no longer poignancy, was merely an old dance card, a pressed flower, something to take out and look at sadly in idle moments..."

The student of John D MacDonald knows instantly she is a character to be reckoned with once her oh-so-familiar physical description is given, characteristics that could fit many dozens of JDM heroines:

"She was a tall woman of thirty, with slightly gaunt cheeks, tiny weather wrinkles around her gray eyes, blonde hair bleached almost white by the sun. Her body was brown and trim and slim, and had changed in no measurement since she was twenty... she walked with a free, swing stride..."

After sleeping and eating a big dinner prepared by Mildred -- steaks (of course), which they "eat like wolves" (of course) -- Kelsy and Dale are offered a ride into town to make a phone call and report the accident. Dale hesitates and then asks Kelsey to take a walk with her on the beach. She believes the the bomb was meant specifically for her and that it was the act of a man named Jubal Tabor, a wealthy Alabama industrialist who also happens to be her dead mother's first husband. Since the two obviously should have died in the explosion, and since no one but Mildred knows that they survived, Dale wants to maintain that illusion so that Tabor doesn't continue to come after her. It will give her time to think of a proper response. Kelsy agrees, they embrace and kiss and , whoa, how did that happen so quickly?

Jubal Tabor sits in his office in Birmingham, alone, high atop a building downtown. He's a seventy-year old self-made man, an unsentimental, ruthless millionaire who "did it the hard way." His physical description is almost Dickensian:

"With patience and care, a perfect replica of Jubal Tabor's face could be made. The only materials needed would be match sticks glued together for the delicate framework, grey paper glued over the framework, moistened so that it would draw tight, then allowed to dry. The naked skull was angular. The man was seventy years old. The face was seventy years old. The eyes had no age. The iris was the color of wet sand. The pupils were the shining black of the eyes of insects..."

His business empire is made up of large interests in dozens of international concerns, industries that include timber, coal, oil, steel, tin, rubber, plastics and electronics. All of these ownership positions are held by Robat Enterprises Incorporated, whose one thousand shares were originally split thusly: 300 to Jubal, 300 to his eldest son Powell, 300 to his other son Nick, and 100 shares to Dale's mother, to whom he was married briefly after his first wife died. He gave her the shares as a divorce settlement, "like a sentimental fool," and when she remarried and had a daughter, the shares were inherited by Dale when her mother died. Through happenstance too complicated to go into here (MacDonald spends nine pages on Tabor's background), the current ownership now has Jubal with 451 shares, his grandson Tony with 449, and Dale with the swing share of 100.

Jubal's grandson Tony was dragged unwillingly into the business at a young age. A quiet and obedient young man, he had wanted to go into ornithology, but Jubal quickly "put an end to that nonsense." For several years Tony "learned to trace his way through the corporate jungle with light-footed ease," and was quietly polite and compliant with his grandfather. But a year ago Tony went away for a week and came back a different person. He had met with Dale, and she had convinced him that the world would be a better place if Tabor liquidated it's holdings and used the money for better things: to "make some contributions to human knowledge." Money means little to Jubal at this point in his life, but the thought of losing power is unthinkable. He must do something, but Tony's stock, together with Dale's hold controlling interest and there is nothing he can do legally. The thought of harming his own flesh and blood is equally unthinkable, but Dale is another matter...

Meanwhile, Kelsy and Dale have taken Mildred into their confidence and secretly meet with Tony. They must expose Jubal and his attempted murder of Dale, but since he worked with intermediaries (who, we learn in a neat little parallel plot, are no longer around), they can think of nothing. They hire an investigator to confirm their suspicions and are convinced it was Jubal, yet there is no evidence a court could use to convict him. Then Mildred comes up with an idea: since Jubal still thinks Dale is dead, what if...

Well, one look at the cover of the February issue and you can probably guess the stunt they eventually pull. Although it's an old saw of a device and was used by MacDonald somewhat ineffectually at least once before, it comes across well and is almost believable.

Yet despite the pulpy and outlandish plot elements in "Death's Eye View," the story never seems anything but believable and is engaging throughout. That's due to the author's meticulous background detail as well as the well-drawn main characters. As much of a "type" as Jubal turns out to be, he is recognizable and his background and motivations are deeply interesting. Mildred's partial withdrawal from life proves to be the most interesting characterization and her gradual change as the result of her involvement eventually proves to be the novella's centerpiece. Kelsy, who begins as the strong, independent MacDonald hero is eventually revealed to be a man for whom restlessness has become "a disease," a man who has failed in his own business and whose wisecracks turn out to be a defense mechanism. Even Dale, a beautiful, young woman intent on using her wealth to better the world, is shown to be someone who has compulsions she doesn't understand and who has "fallen into the habit of playing the part of a girl with too much money, too much time and too little direction." These are all people we usually don't meet in a detective pulp, but this was 1953 and MacDonald had already written The Damned and The Neon Jungle, both novels that featured multiple characters with deeply-detailed backgrounds. He was working on Dead Low Tide and his first "serious" novel, Cancel All Our Vows, and I'm sure writing stories with stock characters no longer interested him -- not that he was ever really guilty of that, but "Death's Eye View definitely reads like a mature work by a maturing writer.

The novella has been anthologized at least twice, originally in Best Detective Stories of the Year: 1953, edited by David C. Cooke, and later in 1984's Baker's Dozen: Thirteen Short Mystery Novels, edited by Bill Pronzini and, yes, Martin H, Greenberg. Used copies of the later are not too hard to find.

Monday, April 19, 2010

"Sing a Song of Terror"

"To stay alive he had to outwit a madman."

That's pretty much the plot for "Sing a Song of Terror," John D MacDonald's second of five stories published in The Saturday Evening Post. Appearing in the September 9, 1961 issue, it runs 6,250 words and is a nifty and suspenseful little set-piece that MacDonald liked so much he used it again several years later. This late-period work of short fiction shows the confident author in complete control of his ability to plot narrative, create suspense and draw a finely-detailed and completely believable character.

Dillon Pritchard is driving alone at night down a secondary road somewhere in South Carolina. He's a vice president and sales manager of the Atlantic Industrial Pump Corporation and he is doing what he does for most of the year: heading to yet another branch office to meet with yet more salesmen. Married and the father of two daughters, his family sees him only sporadically throughout the year and that fact is wearing on his wife Martha. But Dil is a dedicated and hardworking man and he always promises that "next year" he will be home more often. Somehow, it never happens.

He's doing sixty-five and has been on the road for six straight hours when suddenly something appears in front of the car.

"At that moment the running girl burst into the white cone of headlights, running pale and fleet from right to left, so sickeningly close to the front of the car that his instinctive swerve to the right came after he had missed her flying heels. His mind retained an image of her like a still picture, her motion frozen, with wild fair hair, face half-turned in an endless grimace of terror."

The "big swift rental sedan" begins to swerve and Dil ends up in a ditch, the engine dead. He silently curses the girl for the time she will cause him to miss, and he recalls that the last town he passed was fifteen minutes behind him. Wet and muddy, he attempts to climb out of the ditch and onto the road, the moonless night illuminated by the beams of the car's headlights.

"When he was a few feet in front of his headlights, he heard a sound as if two flat, dry boards had been slapped together. There was a simultaneous tug at the sleeve of his lightweight jacket, a clang behind him and the unmistakable treble howl of a ricochet."

"Without an instant of hesitation," Dil whirls and scrambles up the opposite bank of the ditch and into the cover of some nearby trees. All his old instincts and "unthinking patterns" instantly return to him from his days in North Africa, Sicily and up the Italian boot, when Pfc. Dillon Pritchard served his one hundred and sixty-one days of combat duty during World War II. But there is a difference between the "stringy, tireless, battle-tough" Army private and the "executive weight and softness" of the man today. He gradually acquires his night vision and does some thinking. The running girl was obviously fleeing from someone intent on killing her, and this person was now planning the same fate for Dillon. Remaining hidden he calls out "Why did you shoot at me?" only to be answered by three quickly spaced shots, all in his general vicinity. A truck drives by, the driver sees the wrecked car in the ditch and stops. He is quickly shot down as he approaches the car on foot. When another car screams by, Dil uses the opportunity to take off into the vast field behind him.

"Suddenly there was a thin, quavering cry that prickled the flesh on the backs of his hands and the nape of his neck. 'Gone kill yah!' the man yelled into the whispery, fragrant night. 'Gone kill yah!'"

He eventually stumbles upon the girl, a terrified teenager who moans, "He's kilt about ever' body." She points to her nearby house and weeps, "They're all kilt in there. There's no telephone along here. There's my pa's gun. I'm scared to go in there." She tells Dil that the gunman is Bert Tallis, a loner who lives off in a shack and who has not been "real right in the head since they sent him back from Korea long ago." When Dil is finally able to sneak into the girl's house to get her father's gun, he discovers that Bert has been a busy, busy man...

If this plot sounds familiar -- and it certainly should for anyone reading a blog on John D MacDonald -- it's because the author reused it nine years later as the first chapter of the twelfth Travis McGee novel The Long Lavender Look. The location is different and Dil, unlike Travis, is alone, but the other elements are the same: the car speeding through a hot southern summer night, the girl running in front of the car and nearly getting clipped, the swerving car eventually ending up in a roadside ditch full of water, and a killer on the loose, looking for the girl and now after the occupant of the wrecked car. There have been other precursors of scenes, events and methods that were later used in Travis McGee stories -- the appearance of the Muñequita in The Last One Left, the story of the cruise ship to Nassau from "A Touch of Miss Mint," later used in Darker Than Amber, the melting of wax over hidden valuables in The Deep Blue Good-By, found in at least two early stories -- but this is the only instance I'm aware of where the author used nearly an entire short story as the basis for a chapter in a novel. As anyone who has read Lavender can attest, it's a great way to begin a novel and it works equally well as a self-contained story.

"Sing a Song of Terror" -- originally titled "To Stay Alive" by MacDonald -- has yet to be anthologized.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Weep for Me no longer

After thirty-five years of looking through countless used bookstores and online sources, I finally found, purchased and have read an affordable copy of John D MacDonald's elusive fourth novel Weep for Me. Thanks to a post mortem limited-edition reprinting by British publisher Robert Hale, there are hardcover copies floating around the world of cyberspace that are selling for prices far below that of either of the two paperback printings. Granted, the prices are not dirt cheap, but the mere fact that one can obtain a copy of this rare novel for under $100 is remarkable. I paid about $35 -- not much more than one would expect to spend for a newly printed hardcover -- for an ex-library copy, complete with a plastic-covered dust jacket, once owned by the Port Glasgow Library. I found it on Amazon UK from a merchant who was willing to ship overseas and it took about two weeks to arrive. Needless to say, I dropped everything I was working on to read it when it finally did show up. For a MacDonald enthusiast, this was indeed a big moment.

Back in November I wrote a piece on the book, which you can read here. The reason the book is so hard to find is that the author hated it and refused to have it reissued after its second printing in 1959. There is even some evidence that he didn't want the second printing but somehow it slipped through anyway (more on that later). He was quoted once as stating "It should die quietly in the back of used paperback book nooks," and later explained that he thought it "really quite a bad book... imitation James M. Cain ... with some gratuitous and unmotivated scenes." The three modern-day reappraisals of the book I discussed previously all basically come to the same conclusion: John D MacDonald was too harsh in his criticism of the book and that Weep for Me can stand proudly with the author's less-than-topnotch works. After reading the novel myself I'm forced to say that I agree with MacDonald, that this book is a noble failure, an attempt to write the kind of book he was not well suited to.

Its debt to James M. Cain is painfully obvious, but MacDonald lacked the skill at this point in his career to successfully portray the kind of existential separation Cain's characters suffer from. MacDonald's protagonists are invariably men who are successes in their chosen professions, experts who understand their work and do it well despite outward appearances, whether it's engineering, social work, claims adjusting, construction or serving in the upper management of industry. Weep for Me's Kyle Cameron is a lowly bank teller, a drifting, unfocused, unmotivated hero who seems to be aimlessly moving through life like a leaf in the wind. His strange attraction to Emily Rudolph -- portrayed as a modern-day succubus -- turns into obsession after a ridiculously brief exchange of words and his life changes course forever. The only protagonist who comes remotely close to Kyle in terms of moral ambiguity is Teed Morrow from Judge Me Not, but unlike Kyle, Morrow makes a morally positive decision early in the novel that ultimately propels the plot. Kyle Cameron is in a class by himself.

Told in first person, much of the writing in Weep for Me is overly florid and far too artificially colorful to be either believable or acceptable on its own pulp terms. Again, MacDonald seems to be aspiring to Cain when he writes sentences like these:

"...I couldn't tell her that in some funny way I had stopped wanting her, that all the wanting had somehow been diverted all at once, as though an earthquake had changed the course of a mighty river."

"She thrust her hips against me and leaned backward from the waist, as though she were trying to hold herself aloof and apart from the the body, which had now taken over volition, had now begun its unthinking act."
Some of it seems uncharacteristically clumsy, like this line:

"I was holding her, caressing her, murmuring to her, trying to make her fears smaller and her wants greater..."
Or some of it is downright embarrassing, like this almost comical exchange following Kyle and Emily's first sexual act together:

Emily: "This wasn't going to happen, I wasn't going to let it happen."

Kyle: "What did I do that made it happen?"

Emily: "I won't tell you that."

Kyle: "Because I'll use it again?"
Emily: "Yes"

[Kyle figures 'it' out.]

Emily: "Damn you. Damn you for learning how!"
The plotting of the novel is well done, even if it feels looser than the typical JDM novel of his early period, and the last quarter of the book -- which takes place in Mexico -- is very good indeed and was later mined by the author for his 1957 effort The Empty Trap. The character of Manuel Flores is chillingly drawn and seems a model of other latter-day JDM bad guys who happen to be masters of psychology. There are some well-written passages, not surprisingly, like this remorseful paragraph that follows a loud argument that takes place between Kyle and another teller at the bank. A stern, "influential" vice president stands up and "glares" at Kyle:

"'Watch that sort of thing, Cameron,' he said coldly.

"That's the hell of working in a bank. You can knock off six years of hard work in ten seconds. [Twenty years later] they'd still be remembering the morning I raised my voice at Sam Grinter. And I could see, just as plain as day, that I would remain a teller until the day they retired me. It wouldn't matter how many I.C.S. and night-school courses I took. Can't have a man yelling in a bank. No respect. Better keep an eye on him."
(Perhaps it's because I spent 30 years in the banking industry that I find that scene so funny and realistic.)

The mechanics of the couple's bank embezzlement, which takes place over the period of six weeks, is imaginative and well thought out, and by the time the pair hit the road with their swag, the book comes alive and it's hard to put down. There's suspense, betrayal and even murder: everything that MacDonald excels at, yet the book as a whole is deeply unsatisfying and "off" in a way that will be obvious to readers of MacDonald familiar with his other works of this period. And Emily's blatantly symbolic comeuppance and the appearance of a female character that eventually becomes Kyle's moral and physical salvation remind one more of comic books than JDM.This type of "descent into hell" plot would be revisited in the author's later forays into sexual obsession such as The Deceivers and Clemmie, but the motivations of the characters in those later novels ring much truer than the weird tale of Kyle and Emily. MacDonald's comment about "unmotivated scenes" is telling, as the motivation of either of the characters never seems close to realistic and the novel is ultimately unrewarding.

The only time MacDonald ever discussed Weep for Me in any detail that I am aware of (and it wasn't much) was in a letter he wrote to the JDM Bibliophile back in 1967 when the journal was still being edited by its founders Len and June Moffat. He had this to say:

"... there is such a thing as a learning curve, or better objectivity, or sharper skills as time goes by. For example, there is one novel, Weep for Me, which could have been reprinted many times by Fawcett over the years, and even though they could have gone ahead and done so without my permission, they were kind enough to respect my wishes and shelve it. I do not want it out because it was a kind of bad imitation of James M. Cain, and it does not come off. It is a clumsy book."
It was a position he never wavered from, even to the point of asking Ed Hirshberg not to discuss it in his 1985 Twain biography, which certainly says something about how much the author wanted to forget about this book. I know nothing of the circumstances surrounding the 2003 British hardcover edition, other than it must have been authorized by JDM's son Maynard, and that it was printed with a relatively small and single run. I, for one, am glad of it or I probably never would have been able to read it.

There seems to be some questions surrounding MacDonald's authorization of a second printing of the book in 1959. I read once (I don't remember where) that MacDonald asked that it not be reprinted, but somehow it was, either as an error or something Fawcett did willfully against the author's wishes. Most of the other early JDM novels were reprinted around the same time, probably in an effort to cash in on the success of The Executioners, and they all were "updated" to a small degree in order to appear as if their settings were contemporaneous.These were little things, like changing names of famous celebrities referenced in passing, changing the tense on a public figure who had since passed away, and changing dates. Weep for Me was no exception, as the Robert Hale hardcover was obviously based on the updated manuscript. Kyle remembers being drafted in 1950 when he was 20, and he is now 29. Although there is no mention of war, the locations of his military stations -- England and Brussels -- clearly denote a World War II setting, as these were not typical base assignments for draftees in 1959. So, if the second printing was updated, one must assume that MacDonald either made the changes himself, or he was aware they were being done. If he knew about the ones in Weep for Me, why didn't he stop its publication?

The old aphorism that says "trust the art and not the artist" is generally a wise one to follow, but as is evident from Weep for Me, sometimes you have to trust both the art and the artist.