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 "...an 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.





















4 comments:

  1. Wow. Excellent - phenomenal - review - of one of my favorite JDM books.

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  2. Thank you Jared... it was a hard subject to do justice to.

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  3. Just finished this. Terrific, my favourite non-McGee so far.

    And, as is becoming my custom, I come to this site to read your review of it.

    One day I really hope to see "Steve Scott's JDM Companion" on my Kindle...


    Richard

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  4. Thanks Richard, perhaps some day...

    ReplyDelete