Monday, April 12, 2010

"Killers' Nest" ("Neighborly Interest")

"Killers' Nest" is a terrific John D MacDonald short story that originally appeared in the February 1949 issue of Detective Tales. It's a gritty little drama full of murder, kidnapping, infanticide, greed, suspicion and hoodlums talking wise, served up with a surprise twist at the end. It's about as rough as a MacDonald crime piece ever got in the early days and reads like it was written yesterday. It's a rare JDM work that features no good guys, only people in varying degrees of bad.

Three kidnappers are holed up in a small house out in the middle of nowhere, next to a highway eight miles outside of town. Things have gone very, very bad. Their plan to kidnap the infant child of a wealthy couple worked fine, up to a point. The couple agreed to keep the authorities unaware and gathered a large sum of ransom money to exchange for the child. But at the drop point Howie Jadisko panicked when the kid began to cry and, in an attempt to quiet him, smothered him instead. The trio's leader Art Marka ordered Stan Ryan -- the junior member of the gang -- to bury the body at a crossroads (nice imagery) in "a hole in the leaf mold." The three of them have been hiding out in the house -- with the money -- for nearly three months now, and only Stan is allowed to leave.

That's because of the ruse Art has established. Two weeks before the kidnapping Stan moved into the house and pretended to be living there with a wife and infant child. There's a car in the driveway, a baby stroller on the front porch and laundry on the clothesline. Only the roof of the nearest neighbor's house can be seen, off in the distance and behind a rise of pastureland. Of course there's no wife or child, but a little movement each day, taking the stroller inside and changing the laundry on the line, will create the illusion of family life should anyone be looking. Stan goes out for groceries once every now and then, while Art and Howie are stuck inside playing gin rummy. With another month and a half before Art will allow them to split the money and leave, cabin fever has settled in and nerves are fraying.

The story opens with a visit from the neighbors, Mrs. Clarey from the other side of the pasture. She's there to make friends and to see how "Mrs. Ryan" is doing. Stan does his best to be disagreeable and tells the woman that his wife is not feeling well.

Mrs. Clarey: "I guess I'd better go and come back when Mrs. -- when your wife is feeling better."

Stan: "You do that."

She went awkwardly down the steps, picking her way across the mud toward the strip of pasture that separated the two houses. The back of her neck under the tightly curled hair looked flushed. She turned and glanced back quickly and went on, moving as though she wanted to run from him.

Stan goes back inside and heads for bed, where he will do what he does every night while trying to fall asleep: dream of his cut of the ransom money and how he will spend it down in Guatemala, the women there, the freedom... all the while trying to push down the memory of the "dead kid in his hands." When he awakens he is surprised to hear the voices of Art and Howie down in the kitchen, up long after they should be in bed. He sneaks to the head of the stairs and overhears them plotting to kill him once they're ready to leave, to "stuff him in the furnace" where he won't be found until winter. Stan sneaks back into his bedroom and lays awake in a "cold wrath." He feels "a deep, excited thrill" run up his back as he plots to take care of them before they have a chance to fulfill their plan.

There's a certain grim reality to "Killer's Nest" that is not always present in MacDonald's short work. It's as if the lack of any sympathetic character has set him free to explore the truly darker sides of people, the ugliness, the bitterness and the unrelenting paranoia of the criminal mind. Stan Ryan's occasional attack of guilt over the death of an infant easily gives way to his reveries of Central American women, but it never really goes away. It's like the degree of difference between kidnapping and murder gradually fading to a pale unreality. But this is John D MacDonald, so there is only one way for people like this to end: badly. The fate of these three killers is satisfying indeed.

"Killer's Nest" is available to the modern reader as a selection in JDM's More Good Old Stuff, published under the author's original title "Neighborly Interest." To confuse matters even further, in 1985 Redbook published the story as part of the promotional campaign for More Good Old Stuff, under yet another title, "The Fatal Flaw." There is no explanation as to why the magazine's fiction editor Kathyrne V Sagan disliked either of the other two titles.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry Steve, I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one. This is one of ... no, it is JDM's poorest short story I have read. Admittedly, there are many I haven't read, but this story fails because it's surprise twist is a) obsolete, b) not adequately explained, and c) requires a character to severely overreact. I won't get too excited about a) because I understand that any story (e.g. Area of Suspicion) should be understood in the context of its time. I can still enjoy David Copperfield (if I could ever get through it) even if Dickensian England is long gone. But b) bothers me. Without spoiling anything, I can say there are at least two alternate explanations for the plot element that the twist depends on, one weakly explained away and the other ignored. Still, c) makes me shake my head. Even if I lived in those times and ignored the alternate explanations, I would never overreact in the way that the character did.

    Just my $0.02. I do like your point about there being no good characters. I guess that includes the overreactor!