Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"The Killer"

John D MacDonald wrote over 400 published short stories and novellas for the magazines of his day, for the pulps, the slicks, women's magazines, men's magazines, newspaper supplements and even inspirational monthlies. He probably wrote just as many that were never published, either as part of his early learning process (the infamous 800,000 words that were subsequently burned) or stories that were rejected, false starts, early drafts, or pieces that, in his estimation, simply didn't work and were eventually mothballed. He kept a meticulous filing system so that he would know the fate of every one of his works, where it was published, how much he was paid, the status of his literary rights, and he stored them with the tear sheets he received from the publishers after a periodical hit the stands. Yet even that kind of oversight and attention broke down occasionally and stories went astray or were purchased then never published. Once in a while MacDonald simply misfiled something.

He erroneously submitted a story called "Night Ride" to The New Black Mask magazine in 1985, only to discover after publication that it appeared 30 years earlier as "In a Small Hotel" in the mystery digest Justice. Later in September 1986, a week before he left for the heart surgery that would eventually kill him, he passed along an old manuscript to editor Ed Hirshberg for publication in the JDM Bibliophile. According to Hirshberg JDM told him "Here's one that was never accepted, but it isn't too bad and you might as well use in in The Thing [MacDonald's pet name for the journal]. There are more in my files, and I will let you have them as time goes on, when the need for copy arises." Alas, he died that December, but "The Killer" was published a year later in the December 1987 issue (#40) of the Bib. Sure enough, it turned out to be a story that had been accepted and published in the January 1955 issue of Manhunt, and appeared under that very title. It was even anthologized earlier in 1987 by Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg as part of their Prime Suspects collection. Perhaps MacDonald had pulled it out for the anthology and mistakenly gave a copy to Hirshberg. It didn't really matter to the subscribers of the Bib: we were just happy to be able to read another then-obscure John D MacDonald story.

And what a story it is. It's not about crime, or murder or anything else the title may imply; it's the story of a supremely obnoxious man who makes an open advance toward the beautiful wife of a friend. Most of the story takes place in a boat off the Gulf coast of Florida, and you can practically feel the sun and smell the surf. The characters are sharply drawn and utterly believable, and the simple situation that forms the plot is the sort of thing that only John D MacDonald could bring to life as a memorable tale. I read it for the first time over 22 years ago and I've never forgotten it.

The first person narrator is observer and only peripherally important to the plot, a garage mechanic named Dobey. He's a member of The Deep Six, an informal skin diving club made up of other mostly blue collar types. There's Dusty, who runs a bait and boat rental shop, Lew, who manages a motel, and other assorted "guys who get along... Guys who like to slant down through that green country, kicking yourself along with your fins, hunting those big fish right down in their own backyard." They started out with just six members but eventually grew to around fifteen. Once a week they pile into Dusty's "old tub" and head out to the remote fishing spots on the coast, some bringing their wives, everyone bringing food and beer, in order to enjoy "some excitement, some danger, and a lot of fish." One of the members is a guy by the name of Croy Danton, a "little guy with big shoulders who didn't have much to say." Croy makes a living by managing a few rental units he built in Marathon, and he usually kept to himself. He always brings his wife Betty along on the outings.

"Betty is what I would call a beautiful girl. She's a blonde and almost the same height as Croy, and you could look at her all day without finding anything wrong with her."

But things have soured a bit lately, all because of a new member named John Lash. In three or four beautifully composed paragraphs, MacDonald brings to life a unique yet all too recognizable character, and you immediately hate him:

"Lash had seemed like a nice guy... the first time [he] joined us he seemed okay. He was new to the keys. He said he was looking around, and he had a temporary job tending bar... he was certainly built. One of those guys who looks as if he was fat when you see him in clothes, but in his swimming trunks he looked like one of those advertisements. He has a sort of smallish round head and a round face and not much neck. He was blonde and beginning to go a little bald. The head didn't seem to fit the rest of him, all that tough brown bulge of muscle. He looked as if a meat ax would bounce right off him. He'd come over from California and he had belonged to a couple of clubs out there... He certainly knew his way around the water.

"This part is hard to explain. Maybe you have had it happen to you. Like at a party. You're having a good time, a lot of laughs, and then somebody joins the party and it changes everything. You still laugh, but it isn't the same kind of laugh. Everything is different. Like one of those days when the sun is out and then before you know it there is a little haze across the sun and everything looks sort of funny. The water looks oily and the colors are different. That is what John Lash did to The Deep Six. It makes you wonder what happened to a guy like that when he was a kid. It isn't exactly a competitive instinct. They seem to be able to guess just how to rub everybody the wrong way. But you can't put your finger on it. ..

"When he kidded you he rubbed you raw. When he talked about himself he wasn't bragging because he could always follow it up. He liked horseplay. He was always roughing somebody around, laughing to show it was all in fun, but you had the feeling he was right on the edge of going crazy mad and trying to kill you. We had been a close group, but after he joined we started to give each other a bad time, too. There were arguments and quarrels that John Lash wasn't even in. But they happened because he was there.

"For John Lash there wasn't anything that wasn't worth shooting. He had to come up with a fish. I've seen him down there, waving the shiny barb slowly back and forth. The fish come up to take a look at it... Then John Lash would pull the trigger... He'd come up grinning and pull it off and toss it over the side and say, 'Let's try another spot, children.'"

Because of Lash some of the more recent members start to drop out, and eventually the club is down to the original six again. One day the group was out and Betty was along. Lash had never paid much attention to Croy's wife, but this time she decided to take a dip in the Gulf to cool off. Dobey observes Lash as he watches Betty come back on board from her swim, "sleek and wet," and Lash is transfixed:

"I saw all that and it gave me a funny feeling in my stomach. It made me think of the way he would lure the [fish] close to the gently moving barb, and it made me think of the way blood spreads in the water.

"After that, John Lash began to move in on Betty with all the grace and tact of a bulldozer. He tried to dab at her with a towel when she came out of the water. If she brought anything up, he had to bustle over to take it off her spear. He found reasons to touch her. Imaginary bugs. Helping her in and out of the boat. things like that. All the time his eyes burning in his head."

At first it's obvious to Dobey that Croy and Betty are mildly amused at the attention, but after it continues and becomes more aggressive, Croy started leaving Betty home. After two weeks of that, Lash himself doesn't show up, leaving Croy silent and strained. The following day Croy shows up at Dobey's garage and tells him that, sure enough, a drunken John Lash showed up at their house and scared Betty. She was able to get over to the neighbors and eventually get rid of him, but it clearly upset her. Croy wants Dobey to give Lash a message: "If he makes one more little bit of a move toward [Betty} at any time, I'll sure kill him stone dead."

When Lash is told this, it only emboldens him:

"Kill me? With all the come-on that blonde of his has been giving me? Why don't he come here and tell me that? You know damn well why he didn't come here. By God, I'd have thrown him halfway out to the road!"

The next time the club heads out both Lash and the Dantons are on board. Nothing much happens until Croy takes his turn to go diving. Once he's underwater, Lash marches up to Betty, grabs her by the hair and roughly kisses her. When Croy surfaces Lash calls out to him, "I just kissed your woman, Danton. I understand you got ideas of making something out of it." Whereupon Croy raises the harpoon gun he was diving with, aims it directly at Lash and fires...

"The Killer" reminds me a lot of another JDM story, the 1954 Argosy tale "Built for Speed." Both stories are set on the Florida west coast and center around boats and the water. Both stories feature anti-social, obnoxious tough guys, both have a mechanic narrator and both feature strikingly beautiful blonde wives. Oh, and both are among MacDonald's most enjoyable short works.

According to Hirshberg, MacDonald informed him that "The Killer" was written in 1952, which is the same year the similarly-titled "Mr. Killer" was published in Today's Woman. It led no less an authority than Walter Shine to report in the following issue of the JDM Bib that the story was actually "Mr. Killer," and that Hirshberg should have known that. Shine was in error and he never corrected himself, but it led many a collector into assuming the story published in the Bib was indeed "Mr. Killer." Shine and Hirshberg were barely getting along at the time, and that may have led to Shine leaping at Hirshberg's throat so quickly.

The modern reader can easily find cheap used copies of Prime Suspects on Amazon and other online sources. Attempting to track down an old copy of the JDM Bibliophile is probably harder than locating the original publication in Manhunt.

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