The book has the feel of an overextended short story, featuring a well-worn literary device to kick-start the plot and get things rolling (a dead body). Along the way we're treated to a rich patriarch, hints of madness in an old-line family, a sadistic cop, a wanton wench, a private eye and a completely over-the-top bad guy. You Live Once also features what is easily MacDonald's worst and most embarrassing love scene, several pages so clumsily written and placed in the plot that he actually has the female say "Whatever this is, it isn't funny!"
The protagonist is Clint Sewell, a junior executive with Consolidated Pneumatic Products who has recently been transferred to the company's Tube and Cylinder Division in Warren, a fictional town in an unnamed midwestern state. His new boss, who was moved in after him, is Dodd Raymond, a one-time local who is back working in his home town, an unusual move for the company. Dodd springs from one of the old line families of Warren and travels in that elevated circle of country clubs, exclusive sub-divisions and fancy lakeside weekend retreats. He also has an old flame, "an easy loving belle" by the name of Mary Olan, who he immediately begins seeing secretly, something suspected by his wife Nancy. As a ruse and to throw Nancy and everyone else off the scent of his illicit affair, Dodd has convinced Clint to be his decoy, accompanying Mary to public events and to dinner foursomes with Dodd and Nancy. Clint does as he is told, and who can blame him?
"Mary Olan was smallish but sturdy... She is brown and rounded and firm. She has black, black hair and about all she does with it is keep it out of her eyes. She has a thin face, a wide mouth, black caterpillar eyebrows, a go-to-hell expression, limitless energy and several million bucks tied up in various trust funds. She has an air of importance. Waiters and doormen snap, pop and crackle when she lifts one finger, or one millimeter of eyebrow. In a faded bathing suit in the middle of Jones Beach she would still be unmistakably Somebody. She has an electric something that could disorganize the equipment in a research lab. Even the halfhearted kisses she had allowed me would each have melted an acre of perma-frost above Nome."
Mary's money has kept her from being called -- in the vernacular of the day -- "a bum," her behavior "sufficiently lurid" and featuring "one marriage, an annulment, other escapades and scandals." In their moments alone Clint tries to get to second base but is rebuffed repeatedly -- not by anger but usually by derisive laughter. Nancy's suspicions have impelled her to ask Clint to keep trying, to get her away from her husband, but what she doesn't know is that Clint is secretly pining for her (Nancy), but not badly enough to take any action. She is Mary's opposite in every way, a "candybox blonde... small perfect delicate features, silky floating hair... [and] a little-girl voice with overtones of a lisp cured long ago."
The reason behind Mary's wanton behavior is implied to have been caused by an incident in her past. Her mother murdered her father when Mary was two years old, then was institutionalized in a mental asylum. Mary was raised by her uncle Willy Prior, a wealthy, conservative and upright man with a wife and three daughters of his own. The three girls are prim and reasonably proper, but not Mary, who flaunts her disobedience in the face of her uncle. There is talk in the town that the family blood is tainted and that Mary may be just as nuts as her mother--- why else would she behave so?!
All of this background is filled into the early chapters of the book but unknown to the reader when we meet Clint, awakened on a Sunday morning by two policemen looking for Mary. She didn't return home the night before when she was out on a date with Clint. Clint explains that Mary dropped him off at the house at around two and left, with a promised drive up to the town lake the following morning. After the police leave Clint goes to get dressed, only to find the dead body of Mary Olan lying on the floor of his bedroom closet, with one of his belts pulled tightly around her throat.
After considerable shock and panic, Clint decides that there is no way he would not be blamed for this crime, although he is certain he did not commit it. Someone is trying to frame him, someone who probably hated Mary enough to want her dead. This being a whodunit, that means almost everyone in town, with the exception of Clint. He wraps the body in a tarp and throws it into the trunk of his car and drives toward the lake where he and Mary were to have gone that morning. Along the way he pulls into a wooded area and throws the body down a deserted ravine. From there he goes to the lake and tries to pretend that all is well.
As the days go by Clint goes to work as the town's big preoccupation becomes "Where is Mary Olan?" A meeting is held by the police, a sort of inquest where they question anyone who had any contact with Mary. There Clint meets Paul France, a licensed investigator brought in by the police to ask the kinds of tough questions the local cops can't address to town royalty like Willy Prior. The inquiry goes on for some time and is eventually interrupted by a phone call. Mary has been found, by a troop of hiking Brownies, strangled and at the bottom of a ravine. There is apparently nothing to implicate Clint and he returns home after the meeting. After dinner he takes a walk and as he is returning approaching his apartment he sees the place surrounded by cops. Realizing that they've made some connection, he flees.
The only place he can think to hide out is the nearby apartment of his secretary Toni MacRae. Toni has been introduced in passing earlier in the book as someone Clint had tried to date but who rebuffed him with a standing rule never to date men she worked for. Still, MacDonald's description of her, as it typically does, gives away her future importance in the plot and in the life of the hero.
"She is a slim and pleasant morsel, and satisfyingly bright. She decorates and implements an office adequately. Italian and Scots combine to make an intriguing woman. Her mother gave her her coloring, her suggestively rounded figure with its promise of languor and lazy Sundays in bed. But from Papa she inherited a cool, canny eye, a lot of skepticism, and a brain that goes click like an I.B.M. machine... It makes for a peculiar relationship to share an office with a girl who is lovely and desirable, as well as efficient."
Unsure as to why Clint is throwing pebbles against the window of her rooming house apartment, Toni sneaks him in with a warning to keep his voice down in order to keep the landlady from hearing. Clint tells her the whole story and asks her to help him. When she agrees he suddenly realizes that he is in love with her, that it has always been her and, like some smitten high school kid, he tries to tell her.
"One minute she was a handsome gal with a good mind, good taste, and far better equipment than average. All that one minute -- and then she was suddenly Toni MacRae. Not a pastime, not a hobby, not a target for tonight. Toni. Part of my life. Most of my life. All of my life."
One has to go pretty early into the writing career of John D MacDonald to find anything as embarrassingly written as that -- and it's only a small part of the "love scene."
Toni comes around, admits that she's always loved and wanted Clint, cries, they make wonderful love and then start calling each other "darling." But Paul France is a good snoop and the following day, while Toni is at work, France convinces the landlady to let him into Toni's room. He discovers Clint, who manages to briefly escape before giving himself up. Then he's at the mercy of the local police, and the word "mercy" is not in their vocabulary.
This being a whodunit I won't reveal any more of the plot, but I think that any reader of mystery stories can pick out the killer early on in the narrative without too much trouble. There is a particular physical characteristic of a certain person described in a nearly gratuitous way that makes one instantly suspicious. I spotted it 35 years ago when I first read the book and it leapt out again when I recently re-read it. It's bad writing and is illustrative as to why this kind of mystery was not MacDonald's strong point. Yet there is a good reason to read this undemanding work, and it's not the plot or the characterizations or the sex or the dialogue. You Live Once is one of MacDonald's earliest attempts at illustrating and exploring the life of the corporate executive, specifically the new kind of gypsy exec who was becoming the norm in postwar industrial America. One of the reasons for Clint Sewell's insecurity and his quick assumption that he will not be believed is precisely because of his outsider status in the town of Warren. He is a man who is shifted about by the whim and the immediate need of a faceless corporate entity, a company that uses their policy of musical chairs as a winnowing process, promoting the superior, dumping the inadequate and using up the merely-efficient. It's one of the recurring themes in MacDonald's work and emerges frequently in later novels such as A Man of Affairs, The Deceivers and Clemmie, and it would reach its apogee in MacDonald's masterful short story "The Trap of Solid Gold."
There are a few passages that bring this lifestyle to light, revealing both its rewards as well as its hazards, with much subtext and style.
"Warren is a tight community. I was part of the new influx of postwar population, and a professional transient at that. The old part of town drew its skirts tightly around itself, talked about the dreadful habits of the 'new element,' and quietly raised its standard of living with the money we were bringing in. So I had battered myself into apathy with workouts at the Y, with sheaves of work I brought home from the office, with library books that I had never gotten around to reading before. When restlessness got its sharp fangs into me, I'd roam the Saturday bars. That is a forlorn pursuit, eying the tight-skirt little drabs in the neighborhood joints, or the enameled Vogue-like birds of prey in the dollar-a-cocktail lounges, nursing their pale poison during the five o'clock ritual of appraisal and rejection. The jukes hammer your head and your need is a sickness to be assuaged only by predictable shame."
Wow. A paragraph like that is worth the cover price of the book. Clint continues,
"During my five transient years I had come to learn that the more complex the civilization grows, the more violent are the effects of loneliness. I has learned why CPP, GE, DuPont, Alcoa, Ford, General Motors, Kodak and all the rest of them wanted us safely married. Still, there were a lot of us still single, minds honed keen by Sheffield, Towne, Stanford, Harvard Business School, MIT, and by day we made things run and move and grow. But by night we paced the neon sidewalks where nylon whispers on hips and ankles, and lipstick shows black when the light overhead is red... A few times I had reached the point where the act of marriage became a goal in itself, apart from any specific woman. Marriage to a faceless being who was nevertheless all too vivid from the neck down, who by warmth and closeness would still the gnaw of the blood."
No wonder Clint jumps at the chance to date Mary Olan: It opened a door to "a world previously denied [him]."
What little reception You Live Once was accorded when it was released in 1956 was lukewarm. The only contemporaneous review of the novel came from the reliable Anthony Boucher in The New York Times, who complained that JDM's foray into the world of whodunit was "none too fresh or surprising." When the book was republished in 1961 a reviewer for the Hamilton Ontario Spectator complained that the book was "poorly plotted and the characters... wooden enough to worry the reader as they make their appearance." He also rued MacDonald's "decision" to allow the book to be republished, sparking a rare response from JDM, who wrote that "no publisher's contract in existence gives the author the power to veto further printings of work under contract."
MacDonald's original title for this work was You Kill Me, and like a previous novel that Popular Library had re-titled (A Bullet for Cinderella), it was allowed to appear under its original name when the book was reprinted in the early Sixties. And, like A Bullet for Cinderella -- which had become On the Make -- the originally-assigned title was restored to all subsequent printings when Fawcett obtained the rights to the JDM catalog in the mid Sixties. You Kill Me featured a slightly altered version of the original's cover -- again, just like On the Make. That cover, featuring a wild-and-crazy Mary Olan lifting her skirt in front of a background shot of Clint Sewell carrying her dead body, was illustrated by a now-unknown artist (unknown, at least, to me and to MacDonald bibliographer Walter Shine). The subsequent Fawcett reprints depicted a dead Mary being carried into the woods and was done by the always-superb Robert McGinnis. It was used -- in one form or another -- on every future edition.
For book collectors, identifying a true first edition isn't that hard -- it bears the Popular Library number 737 -- but the book was unique in the MacDonald world in that there were two versions of that "first" published. One contained a green tint on the inside of both the front and back covers, the other was white. I'm not sure of the reasoning behind this idea and I don't think that one is more valuable than the other. A second printing was run a mere eight months after the first (in November 1956), possibly indicating the popularity of the title. The total number of books printed under the Popular Library label (including the 1961 You Kill Me) was 314,000, a huge increase over their run of Cry Hard, Cry Fast (189,000 copies) and the paperback version of Contrary Pleasure (225,000).
I mentioned above that You Live Once had a troubled history. According to Walter Shine, the original manuscript for You Live Once was written in early 1955. It was submitted to Popular Library, who approved it and paid MacDonald his advance, but they requested extensive rewrites. This was not unusual at the time -- or probably now -- but the fact that this was mentioned indicates that the extent of this request may have exceeded that which MacDonald was accustomed to. While working on the revisions requested, JDM's agent showed the original manuscript to Cosmopolitan magazine, who liked it and wanted to publish it, but in a shorter version. In fact, the length they were willing to print was about one third of the original length of the novel. So MacDonald first began working on the Cosmopolitan version -- it was his first novel to be "previewed" in a magazine, and under the title "Deadly Victim" -- which eventually appeared in their April 1955 issue. After he was done with that he then began working on the Popular Library rewrites. He told an audience in a speech in November 1955 that "...I am getting very tired of the characters in this book."
It was, however, a good thing for the author, as Cosmopolitan went on to "preview" seventeen more of his novels over the years, including many of his finest works of the 1950's and five Travis McGee novels.
Incidentally, You Live Once was the third of only four John D MacDonald books published by Popular Library and the last of his novels printed by them. The final PL JDM paperback published was the July 1956 anthology Border Town Girl. Consisting of only two novellas -- the original "Linda" and the reprint of an old Dime Detective novella originally titled "Five Star Final" -- it was, perhaps, a last contractual obligation in a troubled professional relationship.