Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Nor Iron Bars"

"Nor Iron Bars" is not John D MacDonald's tribute to an obscure Seventeenth Century English poet. It's not a story about love, nor is it really a story about imprisonment. This early 1947 work, which appeared in the March/April issue of Doc Savage magazine, is a story about fear. To be more precise, it's about controlling "the fear demons of the mind," and in "Nor Iron Bars" that mind belongs to Sheriff Commer, a lone figure guarding a Black prisoner from a would-be lynch mob gathering outside his office. It's an unusual setting and situation for MacDonald, who at the time had not been an author for a full year yet. It's illustrative of the wide variety of subjects he tackled early on and may have echoes to the kinds of stories he attempted in that famous 800,000-word period of apprenticeship.

Sheriff Commer is a big man, "huge, ponderous and powerful," yet the "independent nervelessness" of his body belies a "mad haze of fear" that constantly threatens to undermine him. He is able to mask that fear and go about his duties as the chief law enforcement officer of a small, Southern city.

"He kept safely tucked back on a secret shelf of his mind the thought that one day the body would break, the frenzied mind would have its way; and he would collapse into a quivering hulk, moaning over the imminence of pain and death."
He has a lot to be afraid of at the moment. A murder has been committed and a Black man has been arrested and accused of the crime. This being The South, and this being 1947, it can only mean one thing: a lynch mob is forming outside and it's getting angrier by the minute. Commer is the only officer in the office and the only person between the mob and his prisoner.

"He rose slowly to his feet, walked over to the window, stood and looked out into the park, saw dimly the shifting, growing crowd, heard the increased roar as they saw his bulky silhouette against the office light. He half-sneered as he realized who they must be: The drug-store commandos. The pool room Lotharios. The city's amateur Cagneys."
But with his fear "an ember threatening to ignite the ready tinder of his mind," Commer gets an idea, certainly unusual and probably illegal. He goes to the gun locker and pulls out a submachine gun and two drums of shells. He walks back to the jail cell, where an obviously frightened prisoner cowers against the wall. He too hears the crowd outside, and the sight of the sheriff carrying a gun is not comforting. But Commer reassures him as only a good old boy Southerner can do: "Got a feeling you didn't do it, Burton," he says. "You look like a good boy to me."

Commer gets Burton's promise that he won't escape, then gives him the gun. Commer will leave the cell door open and will head down the street for a cup of coffee. If anyone from the mob outside comes down the hall toward the cell, Burton is to fire a couple of rounds into the ceiling. If they keep coming, then a few into the floor. If that doesn't stop them, he can shoot them in the legs. Then Commer turns and heads outside. Facing the angry, shouting mob, he quiets them down and then says "You can come in after him right now..."

In 1947 lynchings were still a real problem in postwar America and MacDonald may have been inspired to write this tale by a notorious incident that took place in Georgia the year before. There, on a bridge sixty miles east of Atlanta two African American couples were stopped, tied up to a nearby tree and shot over sixty times at close range. One of the victims was a World War II veteran who had fought for five years in the Pacific. The murders sparked a national outrage and was indirectly responsible for President Truman creating the President's Commission on Civil Rights. Despite a six-month FBI investigation no one was ever accused or brought to trial for the crime.

Or, this may simply have been MacDonald's depiction of fear in a man who otherwise appears brave and unflappable. There are very, very few negative portraits of police or other law enforcement personnel in JDM's work, and he typically shows them in a favorable light being the professionals they are. Yet he does acknowledge their humanity and their weaknesses, and with Sheriff Commer he digs deeply into a psyche that is always one step away from tumbling off into the deep end.

Like much of MacDonald's very early work, his style seems a bit "off" as the author was finding his own unique voice. Still, there are lots of recognizable bits of JDM scattered throughout and the story is well done and enjoyable. It was anthologized at least once, in a 2001 collection called A Century of Great Suspense Stories, edited by Jeffrey Deaver. Deaver was himself an author of suspense novels and wrote The Bone Collector, which was later made into a feature film. He writes a nice little preface to "Nor Iron Bars" where he champions JDM's early novels over his more popular Travis McGee series, and refers to MacDonald as "the greatest storyteller of his time." He also misnames MacDonald's novel Murder in the Wind as "Murdering the Wind," but that's forgivable since he did bring this otherwise-obscure little tale to light.

The book is out of print but easy to locate used.


  1. This story was also included in the anthology HARD BOILED, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian. It's an interesting story, as without the sheriff's interior monologue, his actions would proclaim him to be a pretty cool customer. I guess you can't be brave if you're not scared.