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?

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