Thursday, April 1, 2010

"College-Cut Kill"

Becoming conversant with John D MacDonald's biography is a useful endeavor for those interested in studying his works of fiction. Like many authors, MacDonald was most comfortable setting his stories in locations he had some familiarity with, feeling it was one less thing to have to worry about and giving him more time and energy to concentrate on things like plot and character. I've lost track of the number of stories and novels that feature remote lakeside cabins, upstate New York towns in the Mohawk Valley, or west Florida locales. These are all places MacDonald lived and spent a lot of time in, and their models are his summer house on Lake Piseco, multiple residences in Utica and Syracuse, and of course, the state he lived in for 37 years. It's rare to come across a JDM story set in a place he was personally unfamiliar with, but it happened. For example, there is no evidence in any of the author's biographies that he ever spent time in New Orleans, yet his second novel Murder for the Bride is set there. He never actually lived in Fort Lauderdale, but he knew it well enough to confidently make it the home of Travis McGee. And of course there are his numerous science fiction stories that take place in completely imagined worlds.

Although he attended both the University of Pennsylvania and Syracuse University, there is no evidence that MacDonald was ever a member of a fraternity at either institution, yet his 1950 novella "College-Cut Kill" is set in just such a frat house and relies on a detailed knowledge of that peculiar institution in order to make the story work. Published in the June issue of Dime Detective, it rings with a characteristic authenticity of place. Yet it would appear to be a locale, like Brownie's Club on Venus, the author spent time in only vicariously.

Joe Arlin is a twenty-eight year old hot-shot investigative reporter, a freelance writer who digs up dirt and then writes lengthy exposes for the press. He's finishing up a series on New York real estate swindles when the editor of the paper asks him to come to his office. He's there with another man, a fifty-something executive type with "a bloodhound sadness about his eyes." He's Mr. Flynn and he wants Arlin to do a job for him, not writing but undercover investigating. Because of his youth, his youthful appearance and his former membership in the Gamma U Fraternity, Flynn explains why he is there:

"My son is dead. He died last June at the age of nineteen. Everyone says he hung himself. I went down there. He was at West Coast University in Florida. I cannot believe he hung himself. He was a Gamma U. Other boys in that house died last year. In different ways. Automobiles. One drowned. Too many died. I cannot get help from the police. A private investigation firm would be too heavy-handed... I want to pay you to go down and register for this fall term which starts very soon. I have certain influence... It can be arranged. We have a friend at [your old college]. The first three years of your credits will be transferred so you can enter as a senior. I know the secretary of the national chapter of Gamma U. There will be no trouble from that end... Teddy did not kill himself. I know that. I must have it proven. I have two other boys, younger boys. I don't want this thing hanging over them."

Arlin is hesitant, but when Flynn tells him he'll pay him $1,000 a month, all expenses, and a $5,000 bonus, he agrees, but adds, "I hate Florida."

He arrives in Sandson (a fictional place somewhere north of Clearwater), registers for classes and heads to the frat house. He immediately detects two different "camps" vying for political supremacy, one led by house president and former war veteran Arthur Marris and the other by young Brad Carroll. Marris is a laconic, tweedy pipe smoker, while Brad is energetic and decisive. His interview with Marris leaves him with a "tangible feeling of evil," as the meeting is conducted in the room where Teddy hung himself. Marris admits that all the deaths that have occurred at the fraternity have left him shaken and he hope nothing will happen this semester. Arlin meets several of the "brothers" and ultimately decides not to live in the house. He's going to find a nice beach cottage instead.

In his Creative Writing class Arlin meets Tilly: Mathilda Owen, Teddy's grieving girlfriend. The way she is described clues the reader that sparks are going to fly:

"... a tallish, dark-haired girl, almost plain. Her face showed nothing and I was disappointed in her...But when she walked out, I did a quick revision. The tall body had an independent life of its own. Her face showed a clear and unspectacular intelligence, an aloofness -- but the body was devious and complicated and intensely feminine, continually betraying the level eyes..."

Arlin reveals his identity and mission in an effort to get Tilly's help. They go back to his beach house for a swim and before you know it... they're a team. Arlin begins interviewing past frat members in an effort to uncover any possible motive or link to the various deaths. At one point he thinks they may have been caused by an unsuccessful rush who is harboring a bitterness toward the fraternity, but that doesn't pan out. Then, when things seem to be heading to a dead end, another brother is found dead, leading the pair to suspect one member in particular. They set a trap for him but it doesn't spring exactly the way they had intended.

At 24,500 words, "College-Cut Kill" is an overly-long piece that rambles and loses focus a few times before ending in a typically exciting and suspenseful manner. It really feels padded in places and it seems like MacDonald lost his way at one point. There are way too many characters in this novella, and they quickly become confused in the readers mind, requiring much page-turning to get one's bearings. Still, there is a lot to recommend, as this was written around the time the author was publishing his first novel and his style was fairly confident. There are some very neat descriptive passages that are first-rate JDM, like this visit to a run-down trailer park:

"The layout had been pasted together with spit and optimism. Neither ingredient had worked very well. Dirty pastel walls, a litter of papers and orange peels, a glare of sun off the few aluminum trailers, some harsh red flowers struggling up a broken trellis. I watched the doorway. The sign on it said Manager. A half hour later a blonde unlocked the door and went in. I walked over and knocked. She came to the door, barefoot. In another year the disintegration would have removed the last traces of what must have once been a very lush and astonishing beauty. That is a sad thing to happen to a woman under thirty."

The novella is divided into eight chapters, all featuring pulpy-sounding titles such as "Sweating Bullets" and "Setting Up the Kill;" it's uncertain if these are MacDonald's or the work of an editor. 

Readers looking for a copy of the novella should have a fairly easy time in doing so. It was anthologized in a 2001 collection titled Pulp Masters, edited by the Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg. Gorman, whose love for the early works of MacDonald is well documented, writes an insightful preface to "College-Cut Kill" where he attempts to understand why the author made such an impression on him when reading his works as a teenager:

"He was able to bring the working-class and the lower middle-class into the crime novel. As much as I love the paperback boys of that era -- Day Keene, for example -- their characters never exhibited much reality. Not that I could recognize anyway... [MacDonald] spoke for the middle-class and for his time. His people weren't all drifters and ex-cons and hoods, as they were in most crime novels. They were engineers and car salesmen and lawyers and housewives and high school students and doctors.... He was writing about your dad and mom and sister and neighbors. People you wanted to emulate, people you loved, people you hated, people who scared you... But always people you knew..."

This wonderful collection -- featuring works by Mickey Spillane, Donald Westlake, Harry Whittington and an incredible James M. Cain novella called "The Embezzler" -- is out of print but easily obtainable on Amazon and eBay.

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