Monday, April 5, 2010

"The Lady is a Corpse!" ("From Some Hidden Grave")

"The Lady is a Corpse" was the second and final Park Falkner story, written by John D MacDonald and published in the September 1950 issue of Detective Tales. Falkner was MacDonald's second attempt at a series character and, like the first, made it through only two short stories before vanishing. The author resisted all subsequent entreaties to create a running character until 1963, when his editor Knox Burger finally got him to bring Travis McGee to life. Falkner shows a lot of similarities to the owner of The Busted Flush, but his fortune and lavish surroundings gave him a kind of unhealthy need to control that McGee was never guilty of. Travis went to work when he needed money, a means to fund his "retirement in chunks." That need is clearly not present in the life of Falkner, whose method to ward off the "sickening boredom" of his life is to play the part of "amateur cop or god of vengeance... take your pick."

It was clearly a self-limiting formula and one that could not have been sustained over many more efforts without a lot of adjustments. Falkner's methods involve learning about an unsolved crime or disappearance, having his investigators dig up as much background as possible -- far more that the usually-disinterested police are able to -- and inviting the suspects under false pretenses to his fortress-like beach estate on the west coast of Florida. Then, "I just mix some human ingredients together and see what happens. A tossed salad of emotion, call it." In his first adventure "Breathe No More, My Lovely" things go badly when one of the suspects murders another, so in "The Lady is a Corpse" Falkner is extra careful to avoid mistakes. But that may not be enough, for in the first case he already knew who the bad guy was. Now, he's out to reveal which of four friends murdered a young woman.

The four suspects are Bill Hewett, a "tall, frail, gangly" copywriter for TV commercials, Prine Smith, a "dark, stocky, muscular" newspaper reporter, Guy Darana, a hulky, prettyboy stage actor, and Stacy Brian, a "jittery, hyperthyroid" redhead who works in radio (dramatic radio... this was written in 1950, after all). It happened nine months ago in New York City, and Falkner lays his cards face up on the table when the four men arrive:

"The four of you lived in a big apartment in the Village, two blocks from Sheridan Square. You've split up now, but that was the status quo. Hewett had a girlfriend, lovely from all reports, named Lisa Mann. On a hot afternoon, June fourth to be exact, Lisa Mann, using a key that Hewett had given her, let herself into the apartment. A girl named Alicia French happened to see her. Alicia lived in the next apartment down the hall. All four of you were able to prove that you were out that afternoon. The first one to get back to the apartment was Guy Darana. He returned a little after eleven that night. No one has seen Lisa Mann since. Apparently she never returned to her own apartment. There was an investigation. Her parents are well-to-do. I asked you four down here because things like that intrigue me. I hope that during your stay here one of you will, directly and indirectly, admit to his guilt in the death of Miss Mann."

Prine Smith responds by asking, "Are you crazy?"

What Falkner hasn't told them is that he has hired two young beach bunnies to pretend to be his nieces. Their jobs are to cozy up to to the men, to play them off against each other in an attempt to cause some interesting friction. Once the men settle in, the games begin.
As in the previous tale, Falkner is assisted by his retune of Doc Savage-like friends: his girlfriend, the silver-haired Taffy Angus, his right-hand-man Lew Cherezack -- an ex-boxer and driver/pilot/boat captain, Lew's wife (the cook) and Francie the maid. Taffy, as before, is constantly at Falkner, begging him to stop these games and to just relax and spend his fortune. All the action takes place on Grouper Key, Park's private island connected to the mainland by a causeway, and he gets around on either his amphib, one of his many boats, or his fleet of automobiles. The house features all the amenities of a Club Med, including tennis, swimming (pool or Gulf), badminton and oceans of booze.

All but Hewett, who is clearly disturbed by the the reminder of Lisa's murder, settle in and begin enjoying themselves. Taffy is uneasy but the four men quickly begin acting as Falkner intended. "They're drinking too much and laughing too loudly, and they're all wound up like a three-dollar watch. We just wait and see."

Throughout the narrative MacDonald utilizes a unique (for him) device of inserting the murderer's thoughts at various points along the way. The sentences are italicized, the paragraph is formatted with double-indentation and the words are coming from the head of one of the four men. That man is clearly a prototype for MacDonald's Soulless Evil Villain, the kind of bad guy the author used throughout his career, a character who is a manifestation of "blackness for it's own sake." We got a hint of him in The Brass Cupcake and met him fully formed in Dead Low Tide. There is a version of him in All These Condemned and we'll meet him again along the way in April Evil, several Travis McGee adventures and, most memorably, in The Executioners. "The Lady is a Corpse" was published only a month before The Brass Cupcake in 1950 and this device of a bad guy with "no redeeming features in their commitment to wrong-doing" (Hirshberg) was probably an idea whose genesis came around the time he began writing novels.

The character of Taffy Angus takes an interesting turn in this particular story, perhaps mirroring MacDonald's exhaustion with the Park Falkner formula. She asks, then pleads with her lover to quit "playing God" and to turn everything over to the police, but Falkner is clearly having too much fun. He's obviously got a social gene missing somewhere in his need to control and manipulate, despite his protestations that he's working for the greater good. At one particularly ugly point in the story Taffy tells Falkner she's through with him and will be leaving the next morning. Perhaps she -- like the author -- ultimately realized that Park Falkner is really not a very nice guy.

"The Lady is a Corpse" was anthologized in the first volume of The Good Old Stuff and appears under the author's original title, "From Some Hidden Grave."


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