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.

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