Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Travis McGee meets The Black Panther

- - from the July 1989 issue of Marvel Comics Presents The X-Men's Havok.
The Black Panther story featuring the JDM quote was written by Don McGregor

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dear Mrs. Wilson...

The other day I stumbled upon an interesting posting on a blog I had never read before, called "Revolutionsheep's Journal" on LiveJournal. The author, a college student still living with his parents, writes book reviews and random musings about whatever's on his mind -- the kinds of things that are probably very interesting to his friends and family. He does seem to have a real interest in the written word and is exercising that muscle using a resource (a blog) that would-be writers my age could have only dreamed about when we were in college (and still living with our parents). More power to him.

Last week he printed a transcription of a 1962 letter that John D MacDonald had written to his great grandmother, in response to a letter she had written to MacDonald complaining about his recent novel The End of the Night. She apparently thought it was too salacious. Without the luxury of being able to read the original complaint, one can read MacDonald's response and imagine just the kind of letter it was: taking the author to task over his excessive use of sex and making the assumption that since the novel was about juveniles, the book was written for juveniles. Also, since MacDonald wrote such a reprehensible work, he himself must be a reprehensible human being. JDM responds in great detail, citing his own credentials perhaps a bit too self-reverentially, and ends on a kind note with a referral for the woman's father.

Writing for the paperback trade in the 1950's and 1960's invariably meant that an author had to write about sex. Despite MacDonald being a self-avowed moralist, he participated in the practice as much as any other author did, although the modern reader can sense an underlying unease about him having to do so. He never descended into the the anatomically descriptive type of sex scene that marred a lot of the lesser fiction of the day, even in the Travis McGee series, and he once claimed to take personal offense at books by authors who used "raw sexuality" to attract "the pimpled trade." By the same token, he invariably took greater offense at any suggestion that he himself could be the type of author to attempt to do so -- as this letter strongly attests. Hugh Merrill, in his JDM biography The Red Hot Typewriter, reproduced a characteristic response to such an accusation, from a letter JDM wrote to John Binns in 1969. The author recalls an incident at a cocktail party where he reacted almost violently to such an accusation. And even if the incident as described has an air of unreality about it -- MacDonald himself comes off way too self-assured and ready with all the proper comebacks -- it does expose the writer's raw nerve about the subject.

"A man I have always thought rather pretentious and silly, and who sells mutual funds, greeted me when I walked into a party with the friendly question, 'When is your next smutty book coming out?' Then he turned to the man next to him, a fellow I did not know, and said, 'John makes a nice living writing dirty books.' Maybe he was trying to be cute. I don't know and didn't care then and don't now. So I shook my head sadly and said, 'You are sick. You must have sexual hangups that need professional attention. Incidentally, how many widows and orphans have you screwed lately, churning their accounts, rousting them from one fund into another at that nice eight percent in front?' While he got white as a sheet, I told his buddy that my acquaintance made a good living off innocent and unsuspecting investors. The stranger walked hastily away. I was threatened with suit. I told him to go right ahead and sue, but stay out of dark parking lots or I wouldn't leave him with enough teeth to pronounce 'smutty.'"

The letter to Mrs. Wilson can be read here: For your entertainment...

Update: January 26, 2105

The blog that featured this letter is gone and the link above no longer works. Luckily I made a copy of the letter back in 2010 and saved it as a Google Doc, which you can read here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Final Mission"

"Final Mission" is a John D MacDonald short story that originally appeared in the November 1950 issue of Planet Stories. It was MacDonald's only entry for that science fiction pulp, a magazine that was published for sixteen years and that produced 71 issues. Begun in 1939 as a quarterly, it continued that frequency until the issue MacDonald's story appeared, when it shifted to a bi-monthly. It returned to quarterly publication a year before it ceased publication in 1955. Published by the curiously-named Love Romance Publishing Company, the magazine featured the works of many great science fiction writers, including Leigh Brackett, Poul Anderson, Theodore Sturgeon, Alfred Coppel, Philip K. Dick (his very first published story appeared here) and Ray Bradbury, whose Planet Stories works include the very first Martian Chronicles tale ever written, "The Million-Year Picnic." 

Planet Stories specialized in romantic space opera and its covers, although typical of the period, invariably featured beautiful women in some state of distress or aggression. There was usually some kind of ray gun on each cover as well.

A variety of editors served at the helm of Planet Stories over the years, most notable among them the editor who purchased John D MacDonald's story, Jerome Bixby. Bixby, of course, was an science fiction author in his own right, who in addition to being responsible for a handful of Star Trek teleplays (including the great "Mirror, Mirror") was the author of the iconic 1953 short story "It's a Good Life," which later became an equally-iconic episode of the Twilight Zone under the same name. He also co-wrote (with Otto Klement) the story treatment that became the highly successful s-f film Fantastic Voyage.

"Final Mission" is, surprisingly, anything but a space opera. It is a short tale of aging space soldiers living in a society that no longer needs them, and it relates how that society ultimately deals with them. MacDonald wrote "Final Mission" as an epistolary short story, a form he rarely ever used, and the "source material" he uses are quite varied, pushing the boundaries of what defined that form at the time. It opens abruptly with dialogue from a play, then moves to a newspaper editorial, the minutes of a country club meeting, then several back-and-forth memoranda between several high-ranking government officials ending with the "President of the United States of the Hemisphere Alliance." The story ends with around twenty paragraphs of straight prose.

From the play excerpt we learn that we are in a post-space wars Earth, twenty years after a victory that has made life here safe and peaceful. Someone named Cynthia is having a mild argument with her much-younger husband Roger, bemoaning the boring lot of the men who saved Earth. "What are we to do for them?" she asks Roger, pacing around their bedroom. "They were here when we needed them. Tell me, Roger, have we, the living, nothing but boredom to offer those who made this living possible?" When Roger counters that "the world no longer has need for the heroic impulse," Cynthia lapses into a nostalgic reverie about their return from the wars, victorious, when she was only seventeen. "You should have known me when I was seventeen," she tells her husband, who was four at the time. When it becomes evident that Cynthia is reminiscing about one particular space soldier, Roger jealously asks her to tell him which one. "Can't you tell, you stupid man?" she indignantly asks her husband. "Which one looks most like my son?"

The editorial from the "Tampa Times" is titled "Ode to the Maladjusted." From here we learn that society has developed a method to keep the peace, a treatment called "psyching.":

"The other day we wondered what we might be doing were it not for the psyching which has made us such a complacent scribbler of these immortal words... For a moment we thought, with horror, of a neurotic, maladjusted little man, full of sighs and dreams and imagery. And then it struck us that many of the men who have come forward in times of stress have been drawn from just such groups. During the space wars which ended a bare twenty years ago we would have lost, it is certain, were it not for men so maladjusted that violence was their creed, brutality their way of life, danger a necessary drug. Their very lustiness was our margin of victory."
With everyone now psyched, the writer wonders, "who will there be to save the scalp of this scribbler next time?"

The minutes of the annual meeting of the Tamarack Club reveal that the numbers of these old warriors is few, a handful, but they are trouble indeed. They brawl and argue and cause fights on a regular basis, behavior that simply doesn't exist in polite -- or any -- society nowadays. It is voted that the soldiers' honorary memberships be revoked, but there is just one problem: no one is willing to be the one to give them the news.

With everyone in the world "psyched," how is it that these ex-soldiers are still behaving so twentieth century? From the memo we see next, written by the Section Chief of the Psyching Section to her boss, the "Chief, Psyching Subsection, Federal Bureau of Adult Adjustment, Department of the Interior, Septagon Building, New Washington, Nevada, Easthemi," there are "receptivity ranges" for the treatment and thirteen of the old warriors are out of that range. They can't be psyched, their full pay and benefits are a drain on the government's budget, their attitude is "scornful, facetious and uncooperative," so something must be done. The Subsection Chief has a suggestion, which we see by reproductions of subsequent memos, going all the way up to the President...

The epistolary form is not an easy one to pull off, although it is probably more manageable in a simple short story like "Final Mission" than it is in a novel. The most successful examples in novel form are genre pieces, works such as Stephen King's Carrie, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein or, especially, Bram Stoker's Dracula, although Alice Walker managed to pull it off nicely in her novel The Color Purple. MacDonald used it sparingly, peppering short stories of otherwise straight prose with the occasional official report or newspaper story. His one notable use of the device for an entire story was for a work he penned late in his career and had published in Playboy and, subsequently S*E*V*E*N: the excellent "Dear Old Friend."

"Final Mission" has never been anthologized.

Friday, September 24, 2010

From the Top of the Hill

In addition to the hundreds of short works of fiction John D MacDonald wrote in his lifetime, in addition to the scores of novels, the handful of biographical and fact-based books, a monograph, an anthology of mystery stories written by women and a movie novelization.... in addition to all of that, MacDonald wrote many non-fiction articles that appeared in the magazines and newspapers of his day. A well-educated man with an MBA from Harvard, he could -- and did -- pontificate of a wide variety of subjects over the years, the scope of which is pretty amazing. Not surprisingly, he wrote about the craft of writing, nearly forty articles that began as early as 1950 for the Writer's Yearbook. He wrote about the environment, a singular passion of his, in periodicals as disparate as Holiday, Life and The Conservationist (an organ of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation). And he covered lots of other topics, including sports, boating, travel, race riots, world population and even retirement planning. He was also a newspaper columnist -- twice.

Readers of the two most readily accessible MacDonald biographies, Edgar Hirshberg's critical study for Twain's Authors Series and Hugh Merrill's cut-and-paste bio The Red Hot Typewriter, can be forgiven for not knowing this fact. MacDonald's authorship of either series of columns is mentioned nowhere in those books. David Geherin discusses one of the stints briefly and even quotes from a column, but that's it. Of course, Walter and Jean Shine knew of these works and owned copies of every column. They wrote about both of them in their JDM Bibliophile column and occasionally reprinted excerpts. MacDonald himself never talked about these obscure works and even attempted to hide his authorship of the second series -- it is one of the few cases in his career where he deliberately used a pseudonym.

That second column ran between 1959 and 1961, when under the somewhat preposterous byline of "T. Carrington Burns" (it has the ring of an old W.C. Fields pseudonym) he wrote a series of twelve columns for a couple of obscure regional Florida monthlies, The Lookout and Newsmonth. Bearing the title "Off the Beat," he covered a wide rage of topics, as described by Shine: "The destruction of trees on State roads, the poverty of local television fare, the unnecessarily deep dredging of the [Intracoastal] Waterway, the lack of support by the business community for Sarasota's cultural pursuits, the predatory activities of local fishermen, the selling off of Bay Bottom lands by the State for private development, the absurdity of debating the merits of abstract versus representational art, and... the planning needs and vital assets of the Sarasota area." It is likely that the real authorship of these columns would not have been revealed until after MacDonald's death had it not been for the indefatigable desire of the Shines to own and document every single bit of JDM writing ever published. They spent two full years tracking down these writings and never did locate them in their original published form. It took a personal encounter with the author himself, who after recovering from the shock of his secret identity being revealed, willingly sent the couple copies of all twelve columns, plus seven that were rejected for exceeding the publisher's "acerbic factor." The Shines went on to publish two excerpts from the series in subsequent Bibliophile issues, then dropped the idea and moved on to other things.

MacDonald was not so secretive about his first column. Undertaken in the very early years of his writing career, it began in October 1947 and continued until the spring of the following year, 32 weekly pieces that represent the first known JDM works of non-fiction published. The column, called "From the Top of the Hill," was published in The Clinton Courier, the weekly newspaper of Clinton, New York, an upstate college town where the MacDonalds lived for about a year before heading to Mexico. The columns are fascinating reading today, not only for their examples of early JDM writing, but for the many biographical insights they drop: mentions of the two MacDonald cats who would later star in his The House Guests, discussions of the books he was reading, his progress as an author, and even a childhood recollection that would show up 20 years later as a part of a short story, "Woodchuck." He worries about things all young parents worry about, from local hot-rodders speeding past his house to the Communist Menace of postwar America. He has several very interesting reminiscences of his wartime service (including tales of a few Hollywood stars he met in India), and a piece on Merrill's Marauders where he explains why no real history of that Unit can ever be written (it involves a mule and a bomb).

I own copies of all 32 columns and will be posting excerpts from them now and then. There is a nice Thanksgiving piece which I will post this November, and a hysterically funny Christmas recollection that should have been mined for one of his works of fiction (perhaps it was), plus lots of little bits here and there that make for interesting reading. He writes (as he did for the second column) using the editorial "we," a somewhat antiquated nosism that takes the modern ear a bit of getting used to, but one quickly adapts.

The MacDonald family's relatively brief stay in Clinton deserves a little background. Despite being a native New Yorker, MacDonald's wife Dorothy hated cold weather and invariably spent most of each winter sick or feeling poorly. When John returned home from the war in 1945 the family lived in a second-story apartment in an old frame house on State Street in Utica. Although they remained in New York for most of the winter his first season back (1945-46) as John pounded out some 800,000 words that garnered 1,000 rejection slips, they did manage to briefly get away to Florida in February. The following winter, with no "day job" to hold them down, the family temporarily pulled up stakes, had Dorothy's mother Rita stay in their apartment to watch the cats, and headed south for Taos, New Mexico. They never made it. They got as far as Ingram, Texas, located in the hill country northwest of San Antonio, fell in love with the surroundings and rented a cheap, off-season cabin on a hillside. Upon their return next spring they discovered that they had lost the lease to their apartment and began looking for another place to live. MacDonald recalled that period in The House Guests:

"After dreary rounds of overpriced and depressingly gloomy apartments, we decided to buy a house. Believing in our innocence that a small college town might provide a pleasant atmosphere for the writer, we looked extensively around Clinton, New York, near Utica, where Hamilton College is located, and at last found a large and very pleasant house up on the Hill, almost surrounded by college property."

The family moved in and John eventually snagged the columnist gig for the local weekly, an eight page tabloid that is still published today. At the same time he continued to produce an amazing amount of product, including fiction for slicks such as Liberty and Esquire, as well as for a large number of pulp magazines. The MacDonalds didn't head south the winter they lived in Clinton, mainly for two reasons: John's column and Dorothy's mother, who was ill and who would die in June of 1948. MacDonald ended the column with the May 27, 1948 issue and, quickly after Rita passed away the family packed and headed south again, this time for Cuernavaca, Mexico. They rented their home to a young couple but they had no intention of ever returning to live in Clinton. The academic and intellectual environment they had hoped to find in the town proved to be little more than constant gossip and bickering about faculty politics, and John himself felt as if he was viewed as some sort of quaint freak. Again, from The House Guests:

"... it had been a bad choice of environment for us. We had found there many good and pleasant people, but instead of the intellectual stimulation we had anticipated from a college community, we had found a carefully established pecking order, with status often achieved and maintained through the elegancies of entertaining rather than any quality of wit or insight. As far as other outsiders resident down in the village were concerned, Dorothy treasures a ghoulish memory of a Save The Children meeting she attended whereat it was decided that those collage women who wanted to work at this charity but were not quite socially acceptable could be put in some sort of affiliated setup whereby they could work but would not be entitled to attend the teas. She attended no further meetings. We also discovered that we were the unwelcome targets of an avid and undisciplined curiosity. It is a mistake, unless you have an actor's flair and a poseur's inclinations, to be The Writer in a small community. No matter how limpid your normal behavior, how rotarian your tastes and habits, your every move will be examined and so interpreted that it fits the myths the townspeople choose to believe."

When the MacDonald's returned from Mexico late in the Summer of 1949, they came back to Clinton only to sell the house and tie up a few loose ends of Rita's estate. When they left that fall they once more headed south, this time to Florida, where they would live for the rest of their lives. John returned to Clinton only vicariously, in 1956 when he set his novel Death Trap in a small town with a college up on a hill, an obvious stand-in for the place he once called home. I've always wondered if the title of that novel had a double meaning for the author.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Merry Christmas

I've added the original magazine artwork for MacDonald's short story "Dead on Christmas Street" to the piece I wrote on it last December. The illustration is by Tran Mawicke.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sam McCain on JDM

"I picked up a John D. MacDonald novel called Dead Low Tide. I'd read it a couple of times before. I always came back to it. It made me feel better in the way saying a prayer made me feel better. The ritual of repetition. There are no heroes in John D. novels, and that's probably why I like them. Every once in a while his man will behave heroically, but that still doesn't make him a hero. He has a lot of faults and he always realizes, at some point in every book, that he's flawed and less than he wants to be. I think that's why John D.'s books are so popular. Because we all know deep down we're sort of jerks. Not all the time. But every once in a while we're jerks and we have to face it and it's never fun. You see how deeply you've hurt somebody, or how you were wrong about somebody, or how you let somebody down. But facing it makes you a better person. Because maybe next time you won't be quite as petty or arrogant or cold. Good books are always moral, contrasting how we are with how we should be. And the good writer knows how to do this without ever letting on. All this according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, as taught in lively and deft style by Dr. Harold Gelbman at the University of Iowa."
- - Sam McCain's late night reverie from Ed Gorman's 2000 novel Wake Up Little Susie

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

More New JDM Stuff

There's another new John D MacDonald re-print out that I neglected to mention in my earlier post.

Wonder Audiobook, the publisher that previously released eBook versions of A Bullet for Cinderella and the science fiction anthology Death Quotient and Other Stories, has just come out with a new mystery anthology titled Masters of Noir: Volume Three. Among the stories included in the collection is a MacDonald beauty, "The Killer," a work that originally appeared in the January 1955 issue of the mystery digest Manhunt. The story has been previously anthologized twice, once in Bill Pronzini's 1987 collection Prime Suspects, once in the JDM Bibliophile, and I wrote a piece on it back in April which you can read here. It's a great little tale about an especially detestable lout who sets his sights on the wife of a friend. Highly recommended.

Unfortunately, one look at the title of the story in the collection would seem to indicate that Wonder Audiobook's attention to detail is no better now than it was when they published Death Quotient. That collection, a great assembly of previously-unavailable JDM's sf novellas and short stories, is marred throughout by numerous formatting problems and typographical errors. Here they've listed the story as "The Killers," which is either sloppy editing or a blatant attempt to confuse the work with Ernest Hemmingway's 1927 Nick Adams tale of the same name. That story was the source of two great crime films (and several obscure ones), both wonderful examples of film noir. Which MacDonald's story is not -- "noir," that is. It doesn't even come close to anything that loosely resembles noir, even today's expansive definition of the genre. What it is doing in an anthology called Masters of Noir is anybody's guess. Still, it's a great opportunity for anyone who hasn't read it yet to obtain a copy. And with a list price of only $4.99, it should hardly put a dent in anyone's budget... no matter what they are calling it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Black Cat in the Snow"

"Black Cat in the Snow" is the nifty little title to a nifty little John D MacDonald story originally published in the mystery digest Manhunt. Appearing in the February 1958 issue of that great periodical, it was the last of four MacDonald tales he had published there. Manhunt would continue publication for another nine years and in retrospect it seems a bit odd that the author didn't have more product appearing in this great mystery digest. Granted, JDM's short story output had waned considerably by this time and what short fiction he did write tended toward the mainstream, but Manhunt was such a natural venue for his particular type of genre writing.

The story falls into the "howdunit" category, that particularly unique subset of mystery stories that MacDonald enjoyed writing so much. The reader can usually spot the gears turning in these tales, where it becomes obvious that the author has come up with a unique way of committing a crime and then builds his story around it, but in the hands of someone like MacDonald it doesn't matter, as the expert writing and characterization take over and completely overshadow any seams that may be visible in the storytelling. With "Black Cat in the Snow," he uses setting and -- especially -- character, to make an obvious plot into a really engaging work of fiction.

The setting is standard MacDonald, here a remote town "in the wildest part of the Adirondacks" in upstate New York, a place obviously modeled after Speculator, NY and his summer home on Lake Piseco. Here he calls it Pattenberg and it is winter, after all the summer campers have left and only the nine hundred permanent residents remain. Told in the first person by an unnamed town doctor, the story opens in his office on a typical day of seeing patients. He is interrupted by a call from State Trooper Jerry Jackson, informing him that a local resident has been shot and that he will be coming by shortly to pick the doctor up to head out to the remote farm where the shooting took place. When the doctor tells his office manager that she needs to inform the waiting patients to either leave or plan on a long wait, she asks why. When he tells her that Martin Wadaslaw has been shot, he detects "a little gleam of satisfaction in [her] eyes." Wadaslaw, it seems, was not a nice guy.

"I am as charitable toward my fellow man as anybody, but I'd never been able to find a trace of good in Martin Wadaslaw. He was born mean and he lived mean. He had been a lumberjack, and when a chain broke about twelve years ago, he lost a leg and got a pension from the lumber company. At that time he had a bunch of halfgrown kids and a wornout wife. Before his accident he drank heavy enough to keep his family in short rations, and so the kids old enough to work were doing what they could. Good kids. Bright and hardy and energetic. The accident should have killed Martin -- would have killed a normal man -- but he was too mean to die. There's some say that the men who had to work with him had something to do with that chain breaking, but maybe that's just gossip. After Martin began to spend all his time home, his wife lasted about two years before she died, and the kids began to scatter."
Now all that were left living on the Wadaslaw place were Martin's unmarried daughter Rose, his son Stanley and Stanley's wife and two kids. Stanley, it seems, it the polar opposite of his father, a good-natured, charitable family man who runs a lodge up on a nearby lake in the summer, but who returns home with his family every winter to live with his disagreeable father.

When the doctor and the police arrive, they find that Martin is "dead and gone," shot by his own son Stanley, only Stanley claims it was an accident. He had been in the kitchen when he saw a large flock of crows out in the side lot. He grabbed a Winchester .22 bolt action and headed out to scare them away, but by the time he got out there the birds were out of range so he turned to go back inside. Just then the family's black cat ran from the barn to the nearby shed, treading over a well-worn path it seemed used to using.

"'For no reason at all,' Stanley said, 'I decided to fire close behind her. You know. Startle her a little. I was aiming toward the house of course, but into the snow. I'm a good shot. The cat jumped in the air and ran twice as fast. The old man gave a funny kind of grunt and sat down in the snow and rolled over on his side. I didn't know what happened. I thought maybe he had a heart attack. After we got him in the kitchen, then I saw the hole in his shirt and a little blood. So I phoned right away.'"
According to Stanley, his bullet ricocheted off of the snow, hit the side of the barn, and came back toward the house, hitting his father as he watched from the porch. Trooper Jackson is skeptical and takes the gun outside and fires several shots right where Stanley claims to have aimed. Sure enough, the slugs hit the barn and ricochet exactly as Stanley had claimed they did. The doctor takes the body back into town and does an autopsy, revealing nothing that would contradict Stanley's story. There is no investigation and Martin is buried beside his wife and "two kids who hadn't lived long enough to grow up."

But it is a long winter and the good doctor has plenty of time on his hands. "I guess one of the penalties of a country practice is that you get too much time to think, and you get too curious about people and the way their minds work." So he begins to do a bit of his own off-hours investigating...

"Black Cat in the Snow" was one of only six short stories MacDonald had published in 1958, a far cry from the early years when he produced multiple scores of works for the pulps and slicks of the day. He did, however, have four novels published that year -- one of which was the milestone work The Executioners -- as well as magazine versions of three of those books printed in Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Ladies Home Journal. Although his focus had switched to the longer form, "Black Cat in the Snow" is good evidence that he could still knock off a little gem of a tale whenever he wanted to.

The story has been anthologized at least twice that I know of. In 1987 Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg included it in their mystery collection titled Suspicious Characters, and in 1997 it was included in the anthology titled Purr-fect Crimes, a collection of cat-centered mystery stories edited by Carol-Lynn Rossel Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg and Isaac Asimov. Both are out of print but are easy to find used, for very reasonable prices.

Friday, September 17, 2010

April Evil

April Evil was the first non-Travis McGee John D MacDonald novel I ever read. It was way back in 1974 and I had just finished reading The Dreadful Lemon Sky, the most recent McGee then published, and I knew it was time to tackle the rest of the MacDonald canon. I usually like to read the works of an author in the order he or she wrote them, but a friend of mine -- the same pal who had introduced me to Travis-- owned a copy of April Evil and recommended it enthusiastically. At the time I had no idea where the work fell in the order of writing, and even after I finished it I really couldn't tell that it had been written eight years before the first McGee. I thoroughly enjoyed it and, despite a few shortcomings, felt it could stand with the best of what I had read so far.

Reading it again was pure joy and it's nice to report that the novel holds up well. MacDonald returns to his third-person, multi-perspective template after stumbling slightly with You Live Once, and here he writes a much tighter plot, with a focused narrative that moves along quickly. It's a bit of a preview of his 1958 novel The Executioners, in that he begins with a peaceful, unsuspecting and unprepared setting and introduces evil into it. He also presages that novel with one of the characters, a bad guy named Ronnie Crown, who is one of a long line of soulless MacDonald villains that would reach its apogee with Max Cady. But what makes April Evil really interesting is MacDonald's attempt to write a novel with no real hero in it. The author uses attorney Ben Piersall as a kind of narrative anchor, but Ben does nothing heroic and seems more of an observer in the plot. And out of all of the main characters featured in the book he probably gets the least amount of face time.

Ben is also at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to capturing the reader's interest, because April Evil is peopled with some of the most fascinating MacDonald characters to date. And once one gets over a somewhat fanciful premise -- millions of dollars locked away in an old house -- April Evil reads with a realism and attention to detail that had already become a MacDonald hallmark.

The setting for the novel is a barely-disguised Sarasota in the Florida of 1956, still a relatively small, insular and undeveloped town on the west coast of the state. He calls it Flamingo, a town of twelve thousand, and it is peopled with the kinds of characters one would expect in a JDM novel: attorneys, real estate agents, car dealers and retired doctors. If evil exists in Flamingo it is a venal evil, limited to cheating wives, unscrupulous businessmen and ham fisted attempts to get at an inheritance a bit early. Into this setting comes real evil, driving into town in a gray Buick with Illinois plates. Surely it was April Evil that Geoffrey O'Brien had in mind when discussing MacDonald in his great Hardboiled America, describing "...a hundred tiny dramas of loyalty and betrayal, small lusts, quiet madness, interior dramas of regeneration, all set spinning about each other, meeting and meshing..." That description could apply to any number of JDM's third-person narratives, but O'Brien's inclusion of " unfamiliar Cadillac gliding menacingly through the streets of a small town..." makes one immediately think of April Evil.

The novel appeared as a paperback original, a Dell First Edition, MacDonald's third novel for that publisher. Hitting the stands in December 1955, it's publication coincided with a condensed version of the book that appeared in the January 1956 issue of Cosmopolitan, featured as the magazine's monthly "Complete Mystery Novel." I count April Evil as MacDonald's seventeenth novel, although there has been some confusion about the exact dating of the book which I will deal with in more detail at the end of this piece.

The plot of the novel is relatively simple: Paul Tomlin is an elderly recluse, a retired doctor who, after years of practice in Flamingo, lives two miles inland in a large estate home he calls Rocklands. Distrustful of banks after losing money in the Depression, he had a large vault built in the house while it was under construction, and in it he stores all of his liquid assets. No one knows exactly how much Dr. Tomlin has there, but the best guess is somewhere between one and one-and-a-half million dollars. The only other person who lives with Tomlin is an elderly Negro driver and manservant named Arnold.

One would think that with all that money there for so long, someone by now (1955) would have gone after it. Apparently not, but now two separate plots are hatched to try and separate Tomlin from his money. Widowed and childless since the turn of the century, the only living blood relative he has is one Dil Parks, a Flamingo car dealer who is his grand nephew. But a distant relative he didn't even know about, a small-time punk named Joe Preston, lives out on the west coast and has heard rumors of Tomlin's hidden wealth. He tells a criminal acquaintance who, while in jail, tells a hardened criminal named Harry Mullin. Mullin escapes and, along with a dim-witted ex-showgirl named Sally Leon, heads for Flamingo. Through a crime syndicate he arranges for a couple of accomplices to aid him in the removal of Dr. Tomlin's cash, a safecracker named Ace and a cold-eyed killer named Ronnie Crown. Before Ace and Crown arrive Harry and Sal manage to rent a bayside home, a nice house on a large lot, with a dock and plenty privacy.

Meanwhile, Joe Preston and his young wife Laurie have moved east and are staying with Dr. Tomlin. They would likely have been shown the door the minute they arrived had Dr. Tomlin not taken an immediate interest in Laurie, in whom he sees reminders of his long-dead wife. Laurie becomes his constant companion, reading to the doctor every morning and helping Arnold around the house, while Joe spends most of his days in local Flamingo bars. It is this new relationship that launches the second plot to get Dr. Tomlin's money, when Dil Parks' wife Lenora begins to fret that she and her husband may now be frozen out of Dr. Tomlin's will. That is something they cannot afford.

Lenora Parks is a quintessential MacDonald character, a wanton, amoral, restless housewife who seems incapable of being faithful to her husband. Spoiled by a taste of the finer things in life, the couple has gotten deeply into debt and Dil's income from his car dealership is nowhere near enough to support their lifestyle. Lenora manages a "chance" golf course meeting with an old flame, local attorney Ben Piersall, who dumped her years ago and is now happily married and the father of two children. Lenora wants to have Tomlin declared incompetent and asks Ben to help her with the legal details. Ben, of course, refuses and warns Lenora that if she attempts it and is unsuccessful, Tomlin will write them out of his will forever. She realizes that she will need to come up with a different way to get the job done.

When Ben returns home that evening he tell his wife Joan about the meeting with Lenora, but is interrupted by his twelve-year-old son Toby. He wants to tell his dad about what happened to him when we tried to go fishing on the dock of the empty house next door. A man came out of the house and yelled at him to "get the hell off the property." Startled and frightened, Toby ran home. "He looked like some kind of gangster," he tells his father.

Of course, Harry and company have moved in next door to the Piersalls. The plot begins to move when Toby, who happens to be a reader of true crime magazines, thinks that the man who chased him off the dock looks like one of the gangsters he read about recently. He is determined to find out for sure and one evening sneaks up to the house to look in the window. He is caught and tied up, kept prisoner in the house until the gang leaves to carry out their attempted robbery of the Tomlin stash.

The plot of April Evil, as interesting and as wonderfully interconnected as it is, is not the main strength of this novel. What makes this a great read is the author's ability to flesh out character through the use of background and his amazing ability to digress while maintaining narrative focus. It's the short story master's ability to tell the "hundreds of tiny dramas" of his characters while at the same time spinning a single, riveting plot. He began this device with The Damned in 1952 and continued using it, on and off, up until his final published work, Barrier Island. By the end of April Evil the reader feels like they know the characters as well as they can know anyone. A few of them stand out:

Sally Leon, who could have been a peripheral character in this plot, is given six pages of background around midway through the book. We see her from the beginning, the fifth child of a Michigan factory worker, "moving dimly through life," focused on only one thing: The Dream.

"The Dream was the only important thing. It always had the same ending -- a black limousine pulling up to the marquee, police holding the crowd back, searchlight beams cutting across the dark blue velvet of the California sky. "Hey, it's Sally Leon!' they would yell and the police would strain to hold them back... Regal in sables, smiling brilliantly and nodding to her fans, walking between the packed throngs into the movie, sitting there with people who adored her, to watch the first showing of the film that would win the Oscar."

At fifteen she moved to Hollywood and registered with Central Casting, but the calls never came. She was fired from a couple of car hop jobs because she could not remember the orders. Later she got a job in a department store but was fired from there as well, for simply being too absent-minded. She managed to get a job as a waitress in a Los Angeles tavern, where she met an man who claimed to be an assistant producer with one of the movie studios. She moved in with him once he "made it quite clear that this is the way you get into the movies." When she learned that the man was, in fact, a studio electrician, she moved out and got her old job back. The next man in her life was actually a real agent, and he got her three days work as an extra in a college picture, playing one of several dozen cheering students sitting in the stands of a football stadium. When the agent tired of her he passed her along to a young screenwriter, who briefly paid for voice lessons before dumping her.
 She winds up working in a club, where she is "discovered" by another movie man, and he hires her to be in his next film. But these are not the kinds of films that Sally ever imagined she would star in.

 "There were no introductions. The cameraman looked at Sally carefully. "This is better stuff that those last pigs. You sure you want to do this, kid?" Then she was told what she would have to do. She did not want to do it. But they all acted so matter-of-fact about it. And... the man who brought her told her the makeup would be pretty heavy, and she could fix her hair a little different. She was still reluctant and [the man] said he would make it a hundred and a half instead of a hundred. She had never done anything like it before. She was scared and awkward. Finally they felt they had enough, and the sun was out when [the man] drove her home."

 Sally went on to make seven of these pictures before she actually sat down and watched one.

"She paid no attention to what she was doing in the short sound [film]. She was only interested in how she looked, how her voice sounded, how she walked and held herself. She knew at once that she was looking at a stranger, not at the creature in The Dream. She looked at a girl with a ripe, heavy body and a blank face and a thin squeaky voice and dull eyes. The Dream died there."

From there Sally descends into strip clubs, where she meets up with the gangsters who eventually pass her off, one last time, to a recently escaped convict, Harry Mullin.

Dil Parks is another character who could have been hastily sketched, as his part in the plot is secondary, yet MacDonald gives him a chapter that is wonderfully detailed, revealing a man who has wasted all of the opportunities given to him in life and who, at the point where the reader gets to know him, is sinking into an almost Cainsian despair. Described by Ben Piersall as "ninety-five percent slob," Dil is the kind of man MacDonald truly dislikes, devoid of morality and any kind of work ethic. He has let his once-athletic body go to seed, and in a single paragraph early in the novel we learn -- again, through the eyes of Ben -- all we need to know about what kind of man he is.

"Dil had turned into a big-bellied, hard-drinking loudmouth. It was not a role that suited him with precision. There was something plaintive and uneasy in his eyes, even as he told his bawdiest stories. He owned and operated a marginal automobile agency. He was difficult to work for. People did not stay with him long. Dil and [Lenora] were childless."

There's also an early throwaway that clearly paints the amorality of both Dil and Lenora, as Ben recalls rumors of Lenora's infidelity.

"There had never been any actual proof of her inconsistency. The closest thing to proof was the garbled stories which came back from New Orleans the time three couples had gone over to Mardi Gras. But some of that could be blamed on inadequate reservations, three couples going when there were only reservations for two. Other comment was mostly locker room talk."

By the time Dil gets his own chapter, we have already learned that the rumors about his wife are more than true, but they are the least of Dil's problems. In a desperate attempt to get some quick cash in order to pay several late bills, Dill (two weeks before the novel opens) had arranged to play in a high stakes poker game. Of course he lost big time and covered his bets with checks that would most certainly bounce when presented. The winner of the hand was an elderly local businessman named Jim Staunch, who agreed to let Dil post-date the checks. But time was now running out and Dil was no closer to being able to cover the checks than he was when he wrote them. MacDonald's depiction of the poker game itself is beautifully pulled off, complete with the moments where the room "grows still" each time Dil makes some awkward attempt to ask for forbearance. Dil asks for several extensions, which Staunch readily agrees to, but Dil knows he is putting off the inevitable and begins thinking of things he never though about before.

"Maybe it was time to go away. Just get in the car and go. He sat at his desk and he could hear his heart thump. Too much weight. Too much drinking. Things weren't supposed to end this way. Not a fat man of almost forty sitting at a desk and listening to his own heart. He wished he could stop thinking that it was some kind of end, some sort of finish."

When Staunch finally stops agreeing to extensions, he gets Dil to admit that he has no way of covering the checks and presents him with an alternative: sell his gulf front house. Dil is horrified at the suggestion, especially since he has never told Lenora about the debt, and finally gets Staunch to agree to two more weeks, at the end of which he will either honor the check or sell his home. After Staunch leaves the meeting, Dil sits and ruminates about his wasted life, and in a couple of expertly-written paragraphs MacDonald reveals the hopelessness of the character in a way that recalls the writing of James M. Cain or even Jim Thompson.

"Two weeks. What could he do in two weeks? He thought of the old man and the money the old man kept in the big safe. It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair at all. What good was that money to the old man? But there wasn't any way to get the money.

"There had been a chance, once. Long ago. That time Uncle Paul had sent him up to New York with cash and with a long list of things to buy. He had met the woman on the train. She had just acquired a Florida divorce. She was going to New York to look for work, she said.

"Four days later he had awakened at noon in a third rate hotel room, with a monstrous clattering crashing hangover, soiled, wrinkled clothing, no luggage, and sixty-five cents in his pocket. The fourteen hundred dollars was gone, and the woman was gone, and there was an inch of bourbon left in a bottle. Uncle Paul had wired the money to come home on. But that was the end of it. The end of meager trust.

"He remembered the black despair of that hotel room. But he had bounced back. He had forgotten it. The golden years were coming... but somehow things had not worked out. Too many years had gone by... He was heavy, and his head ached, and his heart pounded, and the lunch eaten hours before was an indigestible heaviness in his stomach. For the first time in his life he wondered what it would be like to die by your own hand."

Chapter Six is reserved for Ronnie Crown, the real evil in April Evil. He's a paid assassin who the syndicate has selected to send down to assist Harry Mullin, a curious choice for someone who is supposed to simply serve as a hired gun for a robbery, but there is an ulterior motive in sending him. It seems that Ace, the safecracker, has been secretly giving information to a local DA, and the powers that be have decided that he needs to be silenced. Ronnie, who has already killed twelve men and two woman, will be paid handsomely to knock off the Ace, either before, after or during the heist, it doesn't matter. But whether or not Ronnie gets paid is really immaterial, for as we learn more about this character we discover that he really likes his job. Too much.

As mentioned above, Ronnie is one of MacDonald's soulless villains, a pure evil masquerading as a man, an embodiment of "darkness for its own sake." In his novels, MacDonald first experimented with this character type in Dead Low Tide with the person of Roy Kenny, and he appears in different embodiments throughout the author's career, most notably in the aforementioned Max Cady, as well as Travis McGee-enemies Boo Waxwell and Junior Allen. Ronnie bears a closer resemblance to Kenny than he does with Waxwell. He a tall, slim fastidiously-dressed man in his late twenties who wears a friendly expression and an open gaze. He goes about his job just as any businessman would theirs, and for him Flamingo is just another in a long list of cities he has traveled to and Ace is simply another soon-to-be victim. But it's when MacDonald begins describing him from within that things get interesting.

"[Payment for his services] was always in cash, in used bills. Sometimes when the amount seemed too small, he was annoyed. Other times it would be larger, more satisfying. But only Ronnie knew that he would have performed the assigned tasks with no pay at all. Once, between assignments, he had gone to a strange city. He had selected a name at random, taking it from a phone book. It had been very simple because, in this case, the man had had no presentiment of danger. But Ronnie had made the stalk as carefully as with the others.

"But he resolved he would not do that again. It had been pleasurable, but it had meant a step across a thin line. He was aware that he was not as other men. He had read enough to know that other men, if they could see inside him, would call him psychopathic. So long as he kept his wish to kill within the channel of those cases assigned to him, he could pose as a man of business and the difference would not show on the outside. But he was superstitiously afraid that were he to continue to kill without cause, he would become marked, and other men would begin to read the difference when they looked in his face."

Virtually every character in April Evil has an interesting background story that MacDonald explores at length, everyone but the ostensible protagonist of the novel Ben Piersall. He serves primarily as the moral anchor of the tale and takes very few actions that drive the plot. Again, harking to the later novel The Executioners, we get to see how an average everyman reacts to crisis, although with Ben there is little he can do but watch and wait as the authorities search for his missing son. But he is not really a character that needs much fleshing out, especially with such a rich cast of broken human beings. In addition to the three discussed above, we are treated to characters like Mooney, the itinerant car salesman who, while employed by Dil, becomes Lenora lover and accomplice in a strange and far-fetched attempt to have Dr. Tomlin committed. There's Joe Preston, Tomlin's far-distant relative who has lived a wasted life on the periphery of the criminal world, and his blank-slate wife Laurie, a quiet, submissive woman who is, in fact, a highly sensitive creature and who blossoms under the tutelage of Dr. Preston. And then there's Lenora Parks, the venal, grasping tramp-wife of Dil, a thirty-four year old woman in an eighteen year old body, a body she freely uses to her advantage, whether it be for monetary gain or simply for pleasure. She, too, is a MacDonald "type," a character we've seen before and will see again many times. She has a moment toward the end of the book that is as frightening as it is brilliantly written, as she sits in front of a mirror in her bedroom. To say any more would be revealing too much of the plot.

There were two printings of the first edition of April Evil, one in December 1955 and a second in May 1956. Both runs, however, were printed with a 1956 date on the copyright page and there is no way to distinguish between the two. As such, both are considered official First Editions for collecting purposes. Dell reprinted the novel in 1960, but the total number of copies printed in their three runs was significantly lower (326,000) than the previous two Dell MacDonalds. The terrific cover illustration for the First Edition was done by Robert Maguire -- his only JDM cover -- and features a bare-shouldered Lenora Parks standing in front of a close-up of Harry Mullin and Ronnie Crown. The artwork for the second Dell edition is a characteristically wonderful Robert McGinnis illustration of Lenora striking a wanton pose in the front seat of a car.

When Fawcett acquired the JDM catalog in the mid-sixties, they republished nearly all of the author's works, and they all came with new covers. To members of my generation who discovered MacDonald in the early seventies, the first Fawcett edition of April Evil is graced with its most recognizable cover, created by Bill Johnson, featuring four trench coat-wearing men (cops? crooks?) standing around an obviously uncomfortable woman tied up to a chair. This illustration was used in one form or another for the next four printings, through September 1974. What is interesting about this artwork is that it depicts a scene that can be found nowhere in the novel. It's not even clear who these people are supposed to be.

Fawcett's November 1976 printing (their sixth) featured another McGinnis creation, a montage depicting Dr. Tomlin and a sunbathing Lenora, all overshadowed by a plaintive Laurie collecting flowers. The final Fawcett edition to see print was illustrated by William Schmidt and features the arresting sight of a gorilla mask in an open suitcase full of money. In case you're wondering, gorilla masks do appear in the novel.

The novel was well received by the book critics who reviewed it, with the reliably-supportive Anthony Boucher of the New York Times using his review to write one of the most oft-quoted praises of MacDonald ever published:

"When John D. MacDonald is at his best, his economy, his ear for speech, and his characterization of all levels of a community and their interplay suggest that he might be termed the John O'Hara of the crime-suspense story. He's at that not infrequent best in April Evil..."

Boucher was joined in his praise by syndicated columnist Paul Little ("... one of the best suspense-mystery novels we have read in a long time..."), James Sandoe in the New York Herald Tribune, Avis DeVoto in the Boston Globe ("Tops in realism... original and first-rate... Vivid characterizations, outstanding construction [with] simultaneous story lines and some pointed social observations.") and two unaccredited writers in both the London Morning Telegraph and the Toronto Globe and Mail. Edgar Hirshberg analyzed it briefly in his 1985 biography of MacDonald, and it was mentioned in passing both Geherin's and Moore's studies of JDM.

The condensed version of the novel as published in Cosmopolitan is -- not surprisingly -- inferior to its complete version. It is little more than the basic plot, eliminating much of the character background that makes the novel really come to life. Many passages are rewritten and changed, resulting in a version that loses much of its unique quality. A good example is the background of Sally, which I transcribed in detail above. That entire story, one that took up several pages in the book, is reduced to two very small paragraphs. The story is, however, accompanied by some nice, typically Fifties artwork by MacDonald's Sarasota neighbor Al Buell.

As I mentioned above, the early publishing history of April Evil is a bit clouded. When Walter and Jean Shine wrote their second bibliography of MacDonald's novels and anthologies in 1988 (A MacDonald Potpourri), they listed You Live Once before April Evil in the order of publication. It wasn't until the printing of their subsequent book containing JDM criticism in 1993 (Rave or Rage) that they switched the order of the two books. April Evil came out in December of 1955, while You Live Once hit the bookstands in March of the following year. Yet despite this correction I still consider You Live Once as the earlier work, for reasons I discussed in detail in my piece on that novel. It was a work that was begun as far back as early 1955 and had a troubled publishing history. The condensed magazine version of You Live Once -- published as "Deadly Victim" in Cosmopolitan -- did, in fact, predate both the book and magazine versions of April Evil. Besides, April Evil reads like a later novel: its writing is assured and far more accomplished than that of the other novel. A quibble fit for bibliophiles only, to be sure, but one that needs explaining.

April Evil is out of print and has been so since the mid 1990's. Used copies, however, are plentiful and easy to find at reasonable prices.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hunting Mister Heartbreak

I stared at the girl. She had a voice out of Gone with the Wind. I set to wondering stupidly if it was her own voice or if she was putting it on.

"Sir? Do you want a drink?"

"Sorry. A vodka martini, very dry, straight up with a twist. Please."

This was not to do with any great desire for a vodka martini (I would actually have preferred Scotch); it was a small salute to a dead man. For I had once lunched with John D. MacDonald, the creator of Travis McGee -- the Trav whom I had spent some time earlier in the day trying to be. MacDonald himself had been surprisingly gentle and homely, with clumsy hands, not at all like his intrepid, know-it-all hero. There had been just one flash of McGee in MacDonald, when we were ordering our drinks before the meal. Without looking up from the menu, he's growled, "Vodka martini, very dry, straight up with a twist." It was a fine line. I couldn't match MacDonald's delivery of it, but it was nice to say, and to think of him, and Travis McGee, in this timbered bar somewhere in northern Virginia.

Sipping at John D's martini, I followed I-81 through pages of the Rand McNally atlas, trying to work out exactly where I was.
-- from Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990) by Jonathan Raban (one of the most entertaining travel books ever written.)