Friday, September 10, 2010

"Five-Star Fugitive" ("Border Town Girl")

The July 1950 issue of Dime Detective appeared on the newsstands that summer sporting a typically-nifty pulp cover featuring a bound, blonde damsel-in-distress wearing a vivid red dress and flashing a nicely-shaped nylon-stockinged calf. The names of three authors whose works appeared in that issue were superimposed onto the illustration, and one of them was John D MacDonald. In a separate blue banner splashed across the bottom of the cover, highlighted by a large yellow "PLUS" badge, the editors added an all-caps come-on announcing that the issue also contained "A COMPLETE BOOK-LENGTH NOVEL" titled "Five-Star Fugitive" by one Scott O'Hara. At the time the issue was published you could have counted on the fingers of one hand the number of readers who were aware that Scott O'Hara and John D MacDonald were the same author. Since there were two JDM stories in that particular issue of Dime Detective, one of them had to appear under a house name to avoid what editors feared might be an oversaturation by a single source.


I wrote about house names a few months ago and noted that MacDonald had a total of 40 of his short works originally appear under another name, a practice that began at the very beginning of his career and which continued up until 1951 when he shifted his efforts from short stories to novels. With the exception of two 1951 issues of Super Science Stories, the July 1950 issue of Dime Detective would be the last time JDM would have a house name used for one of his stories. (Super Science Stories used a house name for one of JDM's stories that same month. Also, I'm not including a 1952 reprint of "Five-Star Fugitive" in the British edition of Black Mask, which retained the Scott O'Hara credit.) But what seems odd to me is the fact that it was the longer, higher-profile piece by MacDonald which was chosen to appear under a secret identity rather than the shorter, 10,000-word "Dead Men Don't Scare." I've never read the latter story but have no doubt that it is inferior to "Five-Star Fugitive" for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that "Dead Men Don't Scare" has never been anthologized, by either MacDonald himself or by another editor. (It did, however, appear in the same 1952 British issue of Black Mask.) Had it been of singular quality it no doubt would have been chosen for one of the Good Old Stuff collections or anthologized in one of the dozens of volumes that have appeared with JDM works in them over the years. The other reason I'd vote for the superiority of "Five-Star Fugitive" over it's companion without having read both is the fact that "Five-Star Fugitive" is, quite simply, one of the finest John D MacDonald pulp pieces ever written.

In the introduction to their excellent 1997 collection of mystery digest stories titled American Pulp, the editors (Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg) make the seemingly sacrilegious observation that most of what appeared in the pulp magazines of the first half of the last century was really little more than junk. "Before we get too choked up about the demise of the pulps," they wrote, "one must consider a sobering reality: most pulp fiction was cliché-filled and godawful... to be sure, the pulps did produce giants... And [they] wrote some great stories. But looked at objectively today, a good deal of pulp fare was laughable and forgettable." As someone who has read more than a few old pulp magazines from cover-to-cover, I can attest to this observation. Great, original writing in the pulps was the exception, not the rule, which is why the herculean work of editors like Greenberg is so important: when you see an anthology bearing his name you can be assured that he has already separated the wheat from the chaff. Even some of the early work of John D MacDonald, while interesting to me as a student of his output and, especially, his progress, is not always something I would classify as great writing. Which is why I scratch my head over the fact that "Five-Star Fugitive" was published under a house name. Perhaps the decision was made without MacDonald's consent. Who knows? What is an established fact it that MacDonald thought highly of this work, enough so that in 1956 he renamed and featured it in his first-ever anthology, the eponymous Border Town Girl.

All of the great features we now associate with classic pulp fiction is on display in "Five-Star Fugitive." It is a sprawling, vital, multi-character drama that features murder, sex, drugs, gunplay, a redemption-seeking protagonist and a larger-than-life (literally!) bad guy named Christy. It is filled with exciting adventure, evocative scene-setting and the kind of deep, insightful characterization one doesn't usually associate with pulp writing. In fact, one of the most attractive aspects of this work is the central character of Lane Sanson, a burned-out writer who, unlike many previous JDM hard-luck heroes, has no outside force to blame for his dissolution. His own one-time success and the way he dealt with it is the only reason he is now living on the wrong side of the US-Mexico border, standing at a bar drinking cheap muscatel in a dingy dive. If you want to a read great mystery pulp, this is a great place to start.

The author's ambitions are clear from the beginning, as he introduces two seemingly-separate characters and plots. First encountered is Diana Saybree, a tall, good-looking gangster's moll who is waiting in a cheap hotel room in Baker, Texas for a scheduled drug buy. The action begins quickly as she is interrupted while taking a bath, rendered unconscious and robbed of her money roll. A quick call to her boyfriend-boss George results in him promising to send down his "muscle" to check things out. Said muscle is a former carnival strongman named Christy, a dimly-aware sociopath with a penchant for imaginative torture. Diana's first instinct is to run, but she realizes that doing so would imply guilt, and besides, with George there would be nowhere she could hide long enough before he found her.

On the other side of the border in Piedras Chicas, Mexico we meet Lane Sanson, a once-famous reporter and writer whose war novel Battalion Front became a huge bestseller and was sold to Hollywood for some serious change. The disruption of his former life was sudden and jolting: "One day you're a member of the working press. A day later you're a cocktail party lion." But that was five years ago and now the money was gone and so was his wife Sandy. In a page-and-a-half of expertly-written prose, MacDonald tells us everything we need to know about Sanson, his background, his strengths, talent and the great weakness that has held him captive for so long.

"Where did it go, that integrity they yakked about? Diluted over a thousand bar tops, spread in sweet-talk to half a hundred wenches... And sooner or later you hit bottom. The inevitable bottom."
 
For the past two years he has lived in Mexico City, drinking and whoring and attempting to write the next great novel. But all he had to show for it was "fifty pages of manuscript so foul that on the last cool night he'd used it to get the fire burning in the apartment out Chapultepec way." With his money nearly gone he started writing letters to newspapers in the States, looking for a job. Most of them responded with a "Sorry, pal," but one in Houston responded with a tentative, "Come on up for a try. Leg man. Guild rates." And so he piled his few belongings into his once-proud Buick and headed north. But here in Piedras Chicas, with the United States visible across the river, he couldn't make it. "On this side of the river a man could drift along. On the other side he had to produce. And Lane Sanson was grievously afraid that, at thirty-four, his producing days were over for keeps." He wonders how long a man could get away with "alienating his friends, forgetting his skills and fouling up his marriage." His regret over the treatment of his wife is the greatest:

"The loss of Sandy was a pain that rattled around in his heart. Sandy of the gamin smile, the quick young body, the eyes that could go solemn on you. Sunday mornings with Sandy. Sandy whom he had struck, hearing her emit a low soft note of pain that stung his drunken heart because it was the same soft sound she made when ecstasy was too much to bear silently."
 
It is during this self-pitying remorse that MacDonald begins to gently weave the two plot lines together. A barefoot, obsidian-eyed Indio girl with "high, bold breasts" named Felicia sidles up to him at the bar and asks Lane to buy her a drink. She clumsily suggests that the two of them head on over to her place for some "luff." Lane is drunk enough to toy with her, mocking her gently by calling her "a daughter of kings," but just uncaring enough to agree when she leads him out of the bar and into an alley, where two Mexican men await and begin asking about "the package." After much arguing and threats, it is obvious that this is a case of mistaken identity and Lane is slugged and his car stolen.

He awakens in the small, barely-habitable casita of Felicia, who cares for him for several days as he recovers from his beating. MacDonald shows a great respect for this character, as he did for most of the Mexicans he wrote about. Felicia, who lives alone, tells Lane that two men paid her to meet him in the bar and to bring him to that alley, but she had no idea they would do violence to him. "It is a thing I never did before," she tells him in Spanish, "as I do not wish to be in trouble with the policia. I am not a good girl, but neither am I ever taken by the policia and with me that is a matter of pride." Lane comes to appreciate Felicia's unselfish care for him and develops an affection for her. One night, after he is well enough, they make love (or "luff.") Eventually the man Felicia was supposed to have met in the bar -- and who was unavoidably detained -- arrives after encountering Felicia in town. He apologizes to Lane for causing him to be "the man in the middle," but tells him that he now has to carry out a few dubious instructions or he will be implicated in the murder of a Mexican citizen. "You won't get any help from the American consul on a deal like that," he tells Lane. " You'll rot in the prison in Monterrey for twenty years. Beans and tortillas, my friend." He is ordered to take his car --which is now in police impound -- to a garage, leave it there for a day, then drive it across the border and later meet up with someone named Diane Saybree. He has no choice but to comply.

Meanwhile, Christy has arrived, and what a character he is! An early MacDonald pure-evil prototype, he is nearly comic in some of his characteristics. As viewed from the eyes of the pilot of the plane he flew down on, Christy seems like a monster from a horror story and the reader has to wonder if MacDonald wasn't writing with his tongue in his cheek.

"... he wasn't the sort you'd want to strike up any casual acquaintance with. Brute shoulders on him. Stocky bowed legs. Long arms. Damned if he wasn't built like one of them apes. But it wasn't an ape's face. First you might think it was a face like a college professor's. Those rimless glasses and that half-bald head. Some crackpot, probably. The zany little blue eyes beamed around at the world and the mouth was wide and wet-lipped, set in the kind of smile that made you think of the time the psychology class went over to the state farm and got a look at the real funny ones."
 
Christy, it seems, has plans of his own. Sent to Texas to get rid of Diana and to purchase the drugs with new money, he has secretly orchestrated the original theft in an attempt to get rid of George and take over the operation. That includes getting George's girl, whether she likes it or not. The more we know about Christy, the more evident it seems that Diana would prefer death to being Christy's plaything. He checks into the same hotel where she is staying and quickly pays her a visit. He reveals that George wants her out of the picture, but not just because she lost his bankroll. It seems he has a new "protégé," a cute little nineteen-year-old, and now Christy wants Diana for himself.

"I've always had a real yen for you, sweetness. I'd take it bad if you tried to run out. If you ran out, I'd have to go up to that jerk town you come from and see how those kid sisters of yours look."
 
While all this is happening, Lane has crossed the border in his newly-repaired car, now with thousands of dollars of heroin hidden within it somewhere, and he is resigned to fulfill the duties assigned to him. But Lane has other things on his mind. His liaison with Felicia has awakened something within him and he is ready to write again. He checks into a hotel, cleans himself up and has a typewriter delivered to his room. Once it arrives he begins writing nonstop, working on his new creation, "A Daughter of Many Kings." After years of writer's block, "the words came, and they were the right words. After six years, the right words." The next morning he inspects his manuscript and ruminates on its quality. The observations MacDonald has Sanson make could be his own, describing any of his own writing on the country he loved.

"There were crudities in it, he knew, but there were also places that had the deep tones of a great bell. In it was something of the flavor of Mexico. The preoccupation with death, the sun and the dust and the ancient faces. The patience and the hopelessness."
 
But after feeling pleased with himself and feeling regret because Sandy will never read it, he realizes that it is time to go pay a call on Diana Saybree. Her room just happens to be right down the hall...

At this point -- not even halfway through the text -- the plot goes into overdrive and the reader is led on a crazy, violent ride through the wilds of Texas and back to Mexico, bringing in new characters and relationships, and focusing on the partnership-of-necessity between Lane and Diana, with a very angry Christy not far behind. It's a remarkably detailed plot for a pulp story and it is certainly no wonder that MacDonald eventually wanted to seek a wider audience for it. Whether it was he himself or an editor who suggested anthologizing it, his readers were thankful for turning a once obscure and hard to find story into a readily available paperback original. You couldn't find a better example of pulp writing at its best and if you are one who enjoys this kind of thing, I can say with near certainty that you will flat out love this tale.

I'll go into greater detail on the background of the Border Town Girl anthology when I discuss the second story in that collection, an original titled "Linda," one of MacDonald's absolute masterworks.

4 comments:

  1. Cannot wait until I see your piece about "Linda", which is one of my all time favorites.

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  2. Mine too... I hope I can do it justice.

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  3. I have a copy of the July 1950 DIME DETECTIVE and I decided to read the two stories by JDM to see if your theory about the relative quality of the two stories is correct. First of all "Five Star Fugitive" is as you make clear in your review a good story. At about 25,000 words it develops the plot and characters. The only major fault is the silly, unbelievable ending with our hero getting his ex-wife back.

    But the 10,000 word "Dead Men Don't Scare" was one of the worst stories by JDM that I've ever read. The hero has an enormous chip on his shoulder and proceeds to beat up or angrily confront every character he meets in the story. He even slugs the pretty girl. Sort of like an early version of an insane Travis McGee. Not a believable story at all. So it is a puzzle as to why the far better story was given the O'Hara name and put in the back of the magazine, while the far inferior story was the lead story with the JDM byline.

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  4. Thanks for undertaking that research, Walker. Since I don't like to reveal endings, I didn't go into the very bad one in "Five Star Fugitive," as glib as any MacDonald ever wrote. Still, the rest of the story is first rate.

    Your description of "Dead Men Don't Scare" is certainly intriguing...

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