Tuesday, November 30, 2010

JDM on the Writer as "Not-I"

"There are people who have eyes and cannot see. I have driven friends through country they have never seen before and have had them pay only the most cursory attention to the look of the world. Trees are trees, houses are houses, hills are hills -- to them. Their inputs are all turned inward, the receptors concerned only with Self. Self is to them the only reality, the only uniqueness. Jung defines these people in terms of the "I" and the "Not I." The "I" person conceives of the world as being a stage setting for Self, to the point where he cannot believe other people are truly alive and active when they are not sharing that stage with Self. Thus nothing is real unless it has a direct and specific bearing in Self.
"The writer must be the Not-I, a person who can see the independence of all realities and know that the validity of object or person can be appraised and used by different people in different ways. The writer must be the observer, the questioner. And that is why the writer should be wary of adopting planned eccentricities of appearance and behavior, since by making himself the observed rather than the observer, he dwarfs the volume of input he must have to keep his work fresh."
--- from "Creative Trust," John D MacDonald's entry in the 1984 edition of The Writer's Handbook.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Message - 1947

This year, Thanksgiving has given us an oddly uncomfortable feeling. It is a time when, nationally, we shake hands with ourselves in the pugilistic fashion, and consider our multitudinous blessings, with emphasis on the food department.

This year, Thanksgiving is a time when two young American girls lost to their father a forfeit of twenty-five dollars each because they could not stand the official German food rationing system for two weeks.

It is a time when American magazines will go overseas, and they will contain pictures of our healthy families gathered around the well-set table. Remember that Norman Rockwell picture of a family at dinner? It was drawn as a part of that series of four to illustrate the four freedoms. Reproductions of that picture go overseas.

In many prisons where the convicts are permitted to read newspapers, someone goes over the papers first and cuts out any reference to crime. Maybe the United States periodicals that go over seas should have all reference to food removed.

Did you ever open a magazine and look at a color photograph of a great big steak, butter melting on top? We wonder how those advertisements strike such persona as Bill Mauldin's French philosopher— the man who said that a pessimist cuts off the loose end of his belt, while the optimist merely punches new holes.

Our ancestors gave thanks because they fought a wild and alien country with their hands and made the soil give them food. We give thanks because in this strange year of 1947, a blind throw of Fate's dice left us as an island in the midst of war, left us untouched by the hunger, cold and disease that afflict the rest of the world.

We must be thankful, but not complacent We are in the midst of the second armistice in the war that began in 1914. Somehow, during these years of uncertain peace, we must find the strength with which to protect this way of life which makes our Thanksgiving possible.

-- from John D MacDonald's weekly Clinton (New York) Courier column in the November 27, 1947 issue. Twenty-six years later the author would expand upon this sentiment in a more apocalyptic vein when Meyer frets about conspicuous consumption in The Scarlet Ruse.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"The Miniature"

Before he became a writer, John D MacDonald attended the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and, later, the University of Syracuse, where he graduated with an undergraduate degree in Business Administration. He went on to earn an MBA at Harvard Business School, earning his postgraduate degree in only eighteen months. Although MacDonald's heart was never really in it, he made a few attempts at a career in the world of finance before joining the Army in 1940. Yet it is clear from reading the author's fiction that his failures were not due to a weak grasp of the subject, for the works of John D MacDonald are peppered with an interesting and informed knowledge of economics on both a micro and a macro level. This insight could appear as an aside in a long-forgotten short story or as the plot for a full length novel (see Pale Gray for Guilt). Indeed, this preoccupation and fascination with economics eventually gained full form in the recurring character of Meyer, the brilliant and renowned economist who also happens to be Travis McGee's sidekick. It was Meyer, not McGee, who was really MacDonald's alter ego, an admission hinted at by the author and stated flatly by his wife.

In one of MacDonald's early short stories, "The Miniature," the protagonist is actually an economist -- a professor of economics, to be precise -- and MacDonald uses the tale to explore the possibilities of the value of money in a world where gold has lost its value. It originally appeared in the September 1949 issue of Super Science Stories under the house name of Peter Reed, a necessity owing to the fact that this particular issue of the science fiction pulp contained another JDM tale. Given the current political arguments over the Federal Reserve's plan to purchase $600 billion of federal debt and the worldwide condemnation it has ignited, "The Miniature" proves to be an interesting history lesson as well as a reminder of the fact that the money in our wallets was once actually backed by something tangible.

It's certainly not the plot of "The Miniature" that makes it worth re-reading after sixty years, employing a derivative and overused device that must have been old even in 1949. It's a time travel story, the kind where the protagonist is suddenly thrust into either the future or the past, he or she witnesses amazing things, and is then sent back, disbelieving the entire experience until an artifact -- either brought back or left behind -- causes them to accept the veracity of the event. Think the sand-in-the-shoes at the end of The Twilight Zone episode "King Nine Will Not Return." Luckily MacDonald tells the story with a breezy, semi-humorous voice that partly takes the reader's mind off of the obviousness of the plot.

Professor Jedediah Amberson is walking through the front door of his local bank, on his way to cash a check, when he feels a faint movement.

"It was, he thought, almost a tremor. Once he had been in Tepoztlan, Mexico, on a Guggenheim grant, doing research on primitive barter systems, and during the night a small earthquake had awakened him. This was much the same feeling. But he stood inside the bank and heard the unruffled hum of activity, heard no shouts of surprise. And, even through the heavy door he could hear the conversation of passers-by on the sidewalk. He shrugged, beginning to wonder if it was something within himself, some tiny constriction of blood in the brain. It had been a trifle like that feeling which comes just before fainting. Jedediah Amberson had fainted once."

Of course, Professor Amberson has just traveled through time, although he doesn't realize it yet. "Not a man to take much note of his surroundings," he writes out a check on the counter and gets in line to see a teller. The scornful young man in the teller window looks intently at the check and then tells Amberson to go play his games elsewhere. It is only then that the good professor notices the strange way the man is dressed, in brightly-colored clothing that look like pajamas. When the teller refuses, Amberson makes enough of a scene that the guard walks over and confronts him, a guard who is dressed even more strangely.

"The man wore a salmon-pink uniform with enormously padded shoulders. He had a thumb hooked in his belt, his hand close to the plastic bowl of what seemed to be a child's bubble pipe."

There is an altercation which leads to the professor being shot with some kind of ray gun that prevents him from moving. Only then does the bank manager emerge from his office, a "fussy little bald-headed man" wearing "pastel blue pajamas with a gold medallion over the heart," who wants to know what all the commotion is about. Once he opens Amberson's change purse and sees a 1949 quarter, he has the professor brought back to his office. It's all now perfectly clear to the manager, but not to Amberson. This is not 1949 but "year eighty-three under Gradzinger calendar." The manager opens the windows to his office and reveals a strange cityscape, unrecognizable to Amberson, who now realizes he's not in Kansas any more.

But this is not really a problem, for the manager need only call the "Department of Temporal Technics" at Columbia University to send over a few technicians who will send the professor back. It is while they are awaiting the arrival of the time boys that Amberson takes the opportunity to ask about the economics of the future world. The currency is now small plastic pellets, although the monetary decimal system has been retained, and when Amberson makes the presumption that the currency is still backed by gold, he gets a dismissive answer.

"Greenbush gasped and then laughed. 'What ludicrous idea! Any fool with public-school education has learned enough about transmutation of elements to make five tons of gold in afternoon, or of platinum or zinc or any other metal or alloy of metal you desire.'"

The professor suggests other possibilities, such as units of energy, precious stones, even rare national resources, only to be laughed at by the manager. Perplexed, Amberson asks a question that must sound strange to anyone who was not an adult before 1970:

"But currency, to have value must be backed by something!"

It is backed by "something," something that is still rare in a future where there is an abundance of everything else that once had value, something that can not be duplicated with speed or mass-production, something that the manager just happens to have stored in his "refrigerated" bank vault: an "HUC."

To find out what that acronym stands for, you'll have to read the story.

It's hard today to recall that once our money was backed by precious metals, and that one could actually walk down to the Treasury Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC and exchange bills for silver or gold. Historically this was always the case, with a few periods of national crisis (World War II, the Great Depression) when that standard was relaxed. When MacDonald wrote "The Miniature," the United States had returned to the gold standard only three years before as a result of the Bretton Woods agreement that set a system of fixed exchange rates and pegged the value of gold at $35 per ounce. That system was followed until 1970, when Richard Nixon closed the gold window and began a system of fiat money, where the currency of the nation was backed by nothing more than "the full faith and credit" of the United States Government. The world followed suit (the dollar being the world's primary currency) and the gold standard has never been used since. 

Interestingly, a few days before I re-read "The Miniature," former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told the Council on Foreign Relations that "fiat money has no place to go but gold," and the continuing troubles of the world economy bring almost daily calls for a return to some sort of "sound money" policy.

It makes me wonder what MacDonald would have thought of our current economic mess. A Keynesian most of his life (recall the name of Meyer's boat at Bahia Mar), MacDonald had a change of heart after the economic troubles of the Nixon, Ford and Carter eras, and he told George Vassallo in his last-ever interview that he believed the world economy was doomed, "unless we dump Keynesian theory and embrace Schumpeter's vision of the reward to the innovator." He even blew up the John Maynard Keynes at the beginning of Cinnamon Skin!

"The Miniature" was included in MacDonald's 1978 science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds -- which can be found on used book sites -- and it is currently available in eBook form (marred by several typographical errors) as an entry in Wonder Audio Books' Death Quotient and Other Stories.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


In 1956 the book-reading world enjoyed "The Summer of John D. MacDonald."

After the December 1955 release of the terrific novel April Evil, the following spring and summer saw no fewer than three MacDonald books released. In late March the troubled You Live Once hit the stands, a work that the author had begun more than a year beforehand and which had already been published in Cosmopolitan in April 1955. In August his great Murder in the Wind appeared, a riveting multi-character suspense novel, possibly MacDonald's best effort to date in that particular form. Between those two novels appeared one of the most unusual JDM books ever to be produced, an anthology containing two novellas: one, a six-year old pulp tale that had originally appeared in Dime Detective called "Five-Star Fugitive," and the other, an original piece titled simply "Linda."

The title of "Five-Star Fugitive" was changed to "Border Town Girl" and the title of the anthology was called that as well. A reader in 1956, without closer inspection, could have picked up a copy of the new book off the paperback stands fully believing that he or she was taking home a new John D MacDonald novel, for nowhere on the cover of the first edition (which was the only edition until 1969) is it revealed that this is an anthology and that there are two shorter-than-novel-length works contained therein. Any reservations the reader may have had over the fact that this wasn't a novel were almost certainly assuaged after reading the contents of Border Town Girl. The newly-titled pulp novella was one of the best things MacDonald had ever written for that market, and the new entry... well, "Linda" was -- and remains -- one of the best things the author ever wrote.

The strength of "Linda" lies not in its clever and original plotting -- which is great even by MacDonald's standards -- but in the voice of the narrator, a lonesome, socially hapless man whose digressions and lack of self-awareness make him almost unique in the MacDonald universe. What begins as a simple reminiscence ("Looking back, I think it was right after the first of the year that Linda...") eventually reveals a solitary figure, a man with only "two or three close friends," a protagonist with social skills so limited that he is unable to see his own wife for what she really is. This, of course, drives the plot of "Linda," for as we gradually are told the protagonist's story, the reader immediately recognizes all of the warning signals missed by the husband. Even the fact that the story is told as flashback does not diminish the power of a lost quality in Paul Cowley. He is a literary creation that borrows much from MacDonald's earliest pulp stories, when the author was still struggling to find his own voice and borrowing heavily from the hopeless fatalism of Cornell Woolrich.

This aspect of the novella's power is easily lost on a lot of readers, at least consciously, because MacDonald devised such an interesting and unique plot, a murder scheme so outrageous as to be almost believable. If you have never read "Linda" before I urge you to stop right now and do so before proceeding with this post, for there is a plot twist in the middle of the tale that drives the rest of the story, and to reveal it beforehand to a new reader would be... well, cruel, but there's no other way to discuss this work. I remember the first time I read "Linda" and I recall how utterly surprised I was, kind of the same feeling I had when watching Psycho for the first time, or reading Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying. You know something bad is going to happen -- that's clearly inferred by the first person narrative -- but nothing prepares you for it when it actually does. Then, after a disoriented few paragraphs, the intent all becomes clear and the story takes a turn the reader never expected.

Paul Cowley certainly has enough self-awareness to realize how lucky he is. He describes himself about a third of the way through the story in a way he might not have before the events that changed his life took place:

"I was merely Paul Cowley, a mild man who grubbed away at the crab grass -- a man of average height with a narrow introspective face, sloping shoulders, no-color hair that in the past year had thinned so much on top that under the fluorescent bathroom light I could see the gleam of my scalp under the sparse hair. I knew what I was. I was a worker, with a dogged analytical mind, and hands that were clever with both tools and figures. I had outgrown my boyhood dreams of triumph. I knew my place in the world, with my work and my home and my restless and beautiful wife."

His wife -- Linda -- is indeed beautiful, a striking brunette with a face that resembles Paulette Goddard and a figure that would stop traffic. So how, might you ask, did average Paul end up married to someone like Linda?

They are the same age, grew up in the same town (another Utica stand-in) and went to school together. But Paul was basically the same person he described him self as later ("I was even quieter then than I am now"), and Linda was one of the beautiful people, a member of the "in crowd" who was always palling around with "the big shots in the student body" and was typically seen by a pining Paul "... hurrying out to get into a car with a whole bunch of kids... driving off somewhere, laughing and having a good time." After graduating Paul joined the army and returned to town after his hitch was up, alone, unmarried and still a virgin, still carrying a torch for the girl who didn't even know he existed. "I had thought deeply and forlornly that this special mystery would never be for me -- that I would never content myself with lesser flesh and thus would go through life tragically alone."

So imagine his surprise when he sees Linda on a city street. He bravely greets her and reminds her that the two of them went to school together, something that Linda obviously didn't know, although she feigns recognition. They have coffee together and Paul gradually sees the changes that have taken place in her.

"... she didn't look good at all. She looked as if she had been sick. Her clothing was shabby. All the life she had had in high school seemed to have faded."

 She begins to tell him her sad story. Her "people" were dead. (MacDonald's consistent use of the word "people" when he means "family" or "parents" -- not only here but in all of his work -- obviously must mean something, but that's a subject for another day.) She had married a marine who was killed and "his people, Kentucky people" wanted nothing to do with their son's widow. She worked in California and married an Air Force warrant officer, who "got in some kind of jam and had been given a dishonorable discharge." She later found that he already had a wife and two kids back in Maine. He left and she got sick. After spending some time in a hospital as a "charity case," Linda returned to her hometown, broke and broken, with "the heart taken out of her." It was only under circumstances such as these that a man like Paul would have a chance with a woman like Linda.

He marries her. Paul describes his first year of marriage in a few beautifully descriptive paragraphs that set the tone of the relationship and gives movement to the occurrences that happen later. They are great examples of an unreliable narrator, but subtly so, showing a person still somewhat self-delusional even after the events of the story have taken place.

"At first Linda seemed tired all the way through, but as the months went by she began to come alive more and more. She was fond of me and grateful to me. I did not demand that she love me. I hoped it would come later, but when it didn't seem to, I didn't mind too much. It was enough to have her around, and know that wherever we went, people looked at her.

"... Maybe no marriage is entirely good or bad. I only know that after the first year there was a strain between us. Linda wanted a life that I didn't want. I told her her values were superficial; she told me that life was more than waiting for death. There were no blazing quarrels. My temper is not of that breed. And in the last few years things became easier between us. We worked out a sort of compromise. She lived my way, and when we could afford it, she would take a trip, usually to Chicago. That seemed to ease her nervous tension.

"I had hoped, of course, that we would have children. But that was denied us. The doctor she went to said that it had something to do with how sick she had been in California. It would have done much to end her restlessness, I thought, but since it could not be, we managed to work out a life with a minimum of strain. Sometimes, out of irritation, she would say cruel things to me, calling me a nonentity, a zero, a statistic. But I understood, or I thought I did.She was an earthy, hot-blooded woman, and our life was pretty quiet."

Even when describing his sex life, Paul never seems to fully comprehend the kind of person he has married.

"I'd never been with a woman until we were married. I kind of resented her knowing more about it than I did, but in some ways I was glad she did because it made things a lot easier at first. She was always moody about it. By that I mean that sometimes she'd seem to want to and a lot of time she wouldn't. It was generally pretty quick the times she's want to, and the times she didn't she acted like she was bored and just wished it would be over."

So, into this wonderful relationship come the Jeffries, a neighborhood couple whose husband is a hot-shot salesman at the company Paul works for. They become friendly and start spending time together, mostly bridge and canasta nights at one of their houses. Brandon Jeffries -- known to one and all as Jeff -- is described by Paul as "tall and good looking in a sort of rugged way," and his wife Stella is a quiet, petite blonde, "not a pretty woman," who happens to be the beneficiary of a large family trust fund. Looking back on this the somewhat-wiser Paul claims he saw nothing out of the ordinary in all of this, no hint of a deeper relationship between his beautiful, bored wife and their handsome neighbor friend. He even looked for it early in their friendship, "because if anyone had a chance of making out, that Jeff Jeffries certainly would," but outside of a few "burlesque" passes made in jest, Jeff seemed like an upstanding guy who was remarkably attentive to his quiet wife. Paul does understand now why Linda suddenly "began to take an almost frantic interest in her appearance" after the Jeffries came into their lives, "spending a lot of money on creams and lotions, taking strange diets, working hard on grotesque exercises..." But at the time, he was clueless.

He is equally clueless -- as is Stella -- when Jeff suddenly suggests a joint vacation, on a remote west Florida key in the middle of October, before the expensive season begins but late enough to miss the early snow of the north. Another neighborhood couple had vacationed there the past fall and raved about the solitude, the fishing, swimming and warm sun. There were two cabins, built close together but remotely located eight miles from the nearest town. Jeff suggests that they rent the cabins together, an idea that Linda quickly picks up on and becomes enthusiastic about. Stella is lukewarm to the idea but Paul is steadfastly against it. He wants to go up to a nearby lake. But Jeff and Linda continue to harp on the idea, eventually convincing a now-willing Stella, and it's three against one a few weeks later when Paul definitively puts his foot down against the idea. The Jeffries go home early that evening and Paul awaits the wrath of his wife, which never comes. She has another way to convince him.

"... we went up to bed... She fooled around [in the bathroom] and I was in bed first. Finally she came out... and stood in the doorway with the light from the bathroom shining right through some sort of flimsy thing I'd never seen on her before... She
stood there for a long time. As I said, I've never seen a better figure on a woman in my life. She turned the light off, finally, and I could hear the rustling of her as she came toward me in the darkness, hear the rustling, and then smell a new kind of heavy perfume she had put on, and then feel her strong arms around me as she brought her lips down on mine there in our dark bedroom."

When their lovemaking is over, Linda tells Paul "now you know why I want to go to Florida. I want a new start for our marriage." Paul needs no more convincing. "I knew I wanted it to happen again just that way, and if I had to go to Florida to guarantee it, then I would go to Florida."

The couples travel separately, with the Cowley's arriving first. Once the Jeffries appear, things turn strange. While the four of them are out sunning on the beach the first day they are together, Linda abruptly gets up and barks out an order: "Come on, Jeff." Without a word, Jeff got up and the two of them walked down the beach together until they were far away and out of sight.

"I don't think I can explain exactly why it created such an awkward situation. Certainly Linda and Jeff could walk together, as could Stella and I, should we want to. The four of us were, I thought, friends. But it was the manner in which they left us. Linda's tone had been peremptory, autocratic. Jeff had obeyed immediately. It spoke of a relationship I had not suspected. Had it been done in a normal way, they would have said something about walking down the beach, and coming back soon, and don't get too much sun -- like that. They just left... Now this is hard to explain. Their action made me revert to the way I had felt about Linda many years ago. She had walked off, out of reach. She was back with the beautiful people. I was again the Paul Cowley who worked after school and knew so few people in our class."

Thus begins a continuous series of similar incidents, with Linda and Jeff disappearing together for long periods of time and with no attempt at explanation or subterfuge. Paul confronts his wife and she responds with sarcasm. "Why don't you run along and catch some nice fish again?" she suggests. Later he talks to Jeff, who acts innocent but whose condescension leads to a brief exchange of blows, where Paul is -- of course -- bested.

Stella, unburdened by Paul's deep insecurities, immediately understands what is
happening. The long periods she and Paul are forced to spend together while their respective spouses are gone brings them closer than they ever were as friendly neighbors, and they spend time going into town to shop and take long walks on the beach together. Paul has never thought of Stella as anything other than a "nice" woman who wasn't very attractive, but their closeness begins to change that. Interestingly, MacDonald saves his most descriptive prose for Stella, perhaps because she is the only "good" female in the story, or perhaps to serve as a red herring.

"I was behind her. Her small firm hips were round under the ruffled suit. I saw the long delicacy of her legs, and the blue tracks of veins in the backs of her knees. Her waist was slender, her back was straight. The lines of her shoulders and throat were clear and clean... I walked beside her again [and] looked almost furtively at her high, small breasts, the flex and lift of her thighs as she walked. I had taken her for granted, never quite looking at her, believing her body to be gaunt, bony... I made inevitable comparisons [with Linda.] Stella was subtle in the way that a Japanese print is subtle... Linda was a portrait in heavy oils."

It is also here where MacDonald's dated depiction of (some) women is at its worst and most embarrassing.

"... if Linda chose to hurt me, an action I could halfway understand through critical appraisal of myself, Jeff, in denying this woman, was doing something less understandable and more brutal. Perhaps there is always a deeper and more bitter significance when a woman is hurt. Traditionally. a man can turn to other arms, salving his ego. A woman can only wonder why the gift of herself is found not to be enough."

After nearly three weeks of enduring Linda and Jeff's strange behavior, Stella tells Paul that when they get home she is going to divorce Jeff. The "bushels" of money in her trust fund will allow her to live on her own, and she even half-jokingly suggests to Paul that the two of them leave together. "God, how they'd writhe!" Paul responds like someone out of a bad Victorian novel: "But we can't, of course." They go off to their spot on the beach to spend this last day in the sun, while Jeff is off in the distance shooting beer cans with a .22 rifle he brought with him. Linda, who is still up in the cottage, comes down and Paul closes his eyes. A short time later he opens them and sees Jeff squatting next to Stella, his jaw clenched. A shadow falls over Paul and he turns to see Linda, holding the rifle and aiming it down toward the three of them on the blanket. She fires and kills Stella with a single bullet to the brain. She then turns the gun on Jeff, who cries out in panic and takes off running toward the water. Linda's aim follows him as she shoots him twice and Jeff topples into the waves of the Gulf. A stupefied Paul wrenches the gun out of his wife's hands and tries to drag her back to the cottage, but she goes limp. "Her eyes were like frosted glass. The lower half of her face was slack. Her underlip had fallen away from her teeth." Paul gets in the car and drives to the nearby town alone.

He's just had the shock of a lifetime, but it's nothing like what awaits him when he returns to the scene with the police.

From this point on the novella completely shifts gears and becomes a different kind of tale. We're only 30 pages into a 72 page story, so there is a lot still to tell, and even though we've left the Woolrichian prelude behind us, it has prepared an excellent groundwork for what is still to come. MacDonald obviously had two great stories to tell in this wonderfully organic tale and combined them expertly to tell a perfectly self-contained narrative.

The reason "Linda" appeared in book form rather than in a magazine is likely due to its length, as it is much longer than a typical novella and too short to be a novel. Perhaps it was intended as a novel but MacDonald belatedly realized that he would have to pad an already perfect tale in order to sell it as a book, and MacDonald hated padding. He once told Ed Gorman, "I hate puffing things. Cutting is fine. Everything can use cutting. But puffing creates fat."

The Border Town Girl anthology was originally published by Popular Library, their third MacDonald paperback original and fourth JDM novel. (Popular released the paperback version of the author's hardcover novel Contrary Pleasure in October 1955.) It seems to have been reviewed by only one publication, The New York Times and the steadfast JDM supporter Anthony Boucher. He wrote that "['Linda'] presents one of the most ingenious and inescapable frame-ups for murder that I've ever encountered," which is high praise indeed from someone who read mystery novels for a living. The original printing featured the most sedate JDM cover to date, illustrated by an unknown artist, depicting a smoking, bare-shouldered Linda Cowley staring back at the reader with a "don't-mess-with-me" expression. (I'm guessing it's Linda -- it doesn't fit the description of anyone in "Border Town Girl.") Popular issued a modest run of only 200,000 copies and the book was quickly forgotten.

When Fawcett began reprinting the novels of MacDonald in the sixties, following the success of the Travis McGee series, Border Town Girl was one of the last to see daylight. It reappeared in July of 1969 and featured its most recognizable cover, a Robert McGinnis original featuring Linda in a purple shirt (and nothing else) holding a scope rifle next to her. Also depicted is one of the females from "Border Town Girl" with a large sombrero draped over her back, probably Diana Saybree. The re-publication was heavily reviewed by the press of the time, with the Chicago Tribune's Clarence Petersen (another longtime JDM fan and supporter) calling "Linda" "... one of MacDonald's best tales... [it] is as chilling as it is gratifying." Reviews appeared in Publisher's Weekly, the St. Petersburg Times, the Springfield Journal-Register, the Boca Raton News and the Buffalo Evening News. It was even reviewed in several British newspapers as well as in the Dublin Herald. Most were favorable and nearly all singled out "Linda" as the superior of the two novellas.

Fawcett published four printings of the book featuring variations on McGinnis' illustration before changing it completely for their February 1977 run. That version -- which enjoyed three more printings -- featured a cover by Don Daily, who had earlier illustrated a reprint of MacDonald's Soft Touch. It featured a montage depicting a swimming Linda and a the city skyline of Piedras Chicas from "Border Town Girl." The final four Fawcett printings sported a new cover by William Schmidt, who did illustrations for most of the final printings of the JDM canon. It depicts Felicia from "Border Town Girl," shown only from the waist down, wearing a very short dress and a wicked-looking knife tucked into her garter.

If "Linda" is remembered at all today it is probably because of one of the two film versions of the novella. Both efforts were Made-for-Television movies and both fell short of depicting the feel of the story, yet both were relatively faithful to the source material and have aspects to recommend. The first version was made in 1973 and aired as an entry of the ABC Saturday Suspense Movie of the Week. The wonderful Stella Stevens portrayed Linda, with Ed Nelson playing Paul and John McIntire as Jeff. The film opens with the murder scene, certainly an attention-grabber, but by doing so discards most of the wonderful background story, which is relegated to one flashback scene. It also robs the character Paul of much of its sympathy, and poor Ed Nelson is made to look like a bad dinner theater actor in the early, post-shooting scenes. Still, Stevens is very good (despite having the wrong hair color for the role) and the Technicolor photography gives an especially lush and beautiful look to the exterior scenes. But a made-for-TV movie is a made-for-TV movie -- especially in 1973 -- and this one invariably looks like one, from its bad acting in secondary roles to the cheap lighting of location shooting and the crappy dialogue written by screenwriter Merwin Gerard.

Twenty years later the USA Network produced its own adaptation, again as a made-for television movie (technically made-for-cable, I guess). It is a far more faithful version that maintains the novella's timeline without resorting to flashback and that retains much of MacDonald's original dialogue. Virginia Madson (another blonde!) plays the title role and Richard Thomas turns in a great performance as Paul, an actor whose physical appearance and demeanor has far more fidelity to the character that did Ed Nelson. But, as hard as the screenwriter and director tried, the feel of the characters never really comes across. Linda seems more of a venal, selfish woman-child than the evil character of the novella, and there are too many badly acted scenes to make this film worth recommending. There are several gratuitous scenes that were added by the filmmakers, including a near-tryst in a motel between Paul and Stella, that serve no real purpose. Still, Thomas comes across as closer to MacDonald's character than anyone, and it is for his performance that the film is worth watching. There's also a really neat touch in one of the beach scenes, showing Paul lying on a blanket with a paperback book spread open over his face. The book? Border Town Girl.

Incidentally, "Linda" is one of only three John D MacDonald works that had been produced twice for either film or television. The other two are the versions of The Executioners (both filmed as Cape Fear) and two very early television versions of his science fiction short story, "A Child is Crying." That work appeared as episodes of both Lights Out in 1950 and Tales of Tomorrow in 1951.

Finally, "Linda" holds one other distinction in the JDM canon, one I don't believe was ever repeated. Most of the author's works, when they appeared in both book and magazine form, typically showed up in a magazine first, then later in a book, usually a short story anthology. "Linda" did the opposite. Three years after being published as the back end of Border Town Girl, "Linda" was featured in the March 1959 issue of Climax, a now-forgotten men's adventure magazine that ran from 1957 to 1963. Climax featured the usual fare of tough-guy action stories, somewhat fanciful non-fiction usually about war exploits, gangsters or safaris, and tame black-and-white cheesecake spreads featuring young women in various states of near-undress. (There's a really great blog dedicated to men's adventure magazines, titled -- appropriately enough -- Men's Adventure Magazines.) "Linda" was JDM's only appearance in Climax and it was featured without any mention of its prior publication. It was advertised as a "book-length feature" but was heavily edited to a shorter length. It did sport some nice artwork, that semi-primitive variety that was a hallmark of these kinds of second-tier periodicals, and the magazine's editors certainly knew their audience. There are only two brief scenes in "Linda" featuring sex or nudity, and the artist (not credited) was kind enough to illustrate both of them.

Border Town Girl is, of course, currently out of print but easy to find on any used book website.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Gutter Books is On the Make

Gutter Press has finally published its reprint of John D MacDonald's early thriller A Bullet for Cinderella, using the author's original title On the Make. Originally scheduled to appear last July, a series of delays caused the publication date to be pushed back to September, when production problems (water damage) necessitated yet another delay. My copy, ordered last May, appeared in my mailbox this afternoon with a cover different from the originally advertised version.

It's a handsome volume, a well done trade paperback with nice typesetting on good paper, and it includes two brief essays. The first is titled "The Two Sides of John D." written by Martin L. Kohler and the other is called "John D. MacDonald in Context," by Matthew Lewis. Kohler's piece, which appears as preface to the novel, discusses the dichotomy of the heroes of MacDonald's early novels and the later person of Travis McGee, and how those early protagonists, despite whatever travails are visited upon them, are always "on their way to becoming a family man," while McGee -- "essentially the same man" -- has eschewed most of the conventions of modern society. It's an interesting essay -- despite a few factual errors in discussing the author's biography -- and is the only place in the book where the novel's original title is revealed.

Matthew's Lewis' entry appears as an afterword and discusses the history of the paperback original and JDM's place in that narrative. Lewis, the editor and founder of Gutter Press and the pulp magazine Out of the Gutter, knows the subject matter and has produced a nice, succinct and instructive piece on how MacDonald became one of the early celebrities of the paperback novel. He also nails the appeal of JDM's writing style, calling it "strangely addictive prose that [he] evidentially produced at will."

As far as I can tell, On the Make is -- with the exception of The Executioners (Cape Fear) -- the only non-Travis McGee John D MacDonald novel currently in print. It is also currently available as an eBook (bearing its original title) from another publisher, leading me to wonder if there is some kind of copyright issue with this particular novel that would cause this good-but-not-great early JDM it be reintroduced to a reading public while other, superior works by this author languish in out-of-print obscurity. Still, it's always nice to get a new printing of an old JDM book, especially one redone with such lavish care.

The book can be purchased directly from the publisher here.

My own discussion of the original novel can be found here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Trap for a Tigress" ("Noose for a Tigress")

"Trap for a Tigress" was the last John D MacDonald short story ever published in Dime Detective, the venerable pulp magazine that showcased more of the author's short fiction than any other publication. It appeared in the August 1952 issue, only a year before the magazine would end its 22-year run, and was the only story featured on the cover. "Trap for a Tigress" has a lot going for it as a quintessential JDM thriller, including an ex-Marine hero, a beautiful-but-evil female, a slimy lawyer, drug-running gangsters and a pretty cornflower blonde who also happens to be a federal agent. There's intrigue, suspense, murder, double-dealing and a fistfight or two, all plot elements that typically make up a good MacDonald early pulp tale. It's too bad that this story couldn't have been better.

MacDonald's tight, workmanlike story construction is evident in the early pages of this tale, as we are introduced to a protagonist in an intriguing closed-room kind of setting: a long-distance passenger train complete with dining and sleeping cars. And ex-Marine Simon Pell ("Sim" to his friends) sports an unusual war wound, a foot missing all of its toes and requiring a special shoe containing a steel spring. Neat stuff. The problem with "Trap for a Tigress" is that these plot devices, once introduced, are never followed through and the plot itself, after proceeding nicely for a dozen or so pages, abruptly shifts gears and meanders off into what can only be described as an unsatisfactory ending. The story's tone shifts as well, into a kind of hardboiled humor that falls flat and doesn't really suit the voice of MacDonald. The work reads like a great idea that the author didn't know how to finish. Coming, as it did, so late in MacDonald's short-story career, it is surprising indeed and makes me wonder if this wasn't something he dragged out of the reject pile from 1946. Either that or an offhanded attempt at humor.

The story does indeed read like many of the early MacDonald efforts, where a returning WWII vet struggles to reenter civilian society while still haunted by the horrors of war. Anyone who has read these early tales would certainly recognize the tone of the opening paragraphs in "Trap for a Tigress."

"The Gooks were coming through the rice. I could see it moving, and there was no wind. I cursed Beldan, out at point, and I couldn't move. A heavy automatic weapon started a slow cadence. Chaw-pah, chaw-pah, chaw-pah!"

"I did the only thing I could do: I woke up. Slick with sweat. Panting. The automatic weapon was the beat of steel wheels on the rail joints. Beldan was long dead. Maybe I was dead too. A bedroom, they called it. A moving coffin in wheels. Aluminum and stainless steel, boring a roaring hole in the afternoon."

But instead of beginning the tale of a haunted veteran, these sentences open the curtain on a character who is happy, adjusted and in need of a cool bourbon. He has just been released from the military and is traveling back to New York by train, from San Francisco, after returning from Korea. His wife Marj has come to meet him and travel back on the same train. Actually, it's his ex-wife, who divorced him before Sim went overseas, and she's travelling with her attorney. She's here on the train attempting to come to some mutually-agreeable settlement with her former husband, who has figured out a way to get out from under an onerous divorce settlement. Instead of taking a lump-sum property settlement, Marj fought for and received fifty-percent of all of Sim's future earnings, believing it would set her up for life. But she neglected to get the judge to set a minimum. Immediately after the divorce Sim joined the Marines, going from well-paid ad agency Mad Man to grunt overnight, with the corresponding drop in pay. And because he was injured in the war he is now collecting a lifetime disability benefit, an income that can't be touched by the settlement. He plans to "build a shack in the tropics and lie on [his] back for the rest of [his] life." His counter-offer is to get Marj to agree to drop the fifty-percent agreement for a cool $10,000.

Once the reader is introduced to Marj it becomes apparent why Sim is going to such lengths to prevent her from enjoying the fruits of his labor. As they meet in the dining car of the train, Marj and her lawyer (with whom she is apparently sleeping), greet Sim with icy contempt and Marj's first words to Sim are "You dirty stinking welcher." Sim returns the greeting with sarcasm and when the lawyer objects to the insinuation that the two are having sex, Sim responds with a blistering denunciation of his former bride that provides all the background on Marj the reader needs.

"... you, sir, should smarten up. Missy, here, is a playmate for men, not boys. She walks around in an aura of dangling scalps. She's a gun-notcher. She's a pelt-stretcher. Why don't you trot home to the wife and kiddies, Mr. Hanneman? Your wife probably senses the phoniness of your excuse for this trip anyway."

This, of course, leads to a fist fight and Hanneman is quickly bested. The couple leaves the dining car in a huff, with Marj giving "a flaunt and twitch of her hips that melted ice in the drinks all down the line." Sim finds an empty seat in a booth occupied by a "cornflower blonde," with "petaled eyes," the kind of pretty girl who looks "like [she] wants to talk baby talk and is smart enough not to." (I'll confess that I don't really understand what that means.) They banter back and forth in the wise-cracking language of the day and when Sim tells her he is just back from the war and "hacking at attractive females," she responds,

"'Hack away, McDuff. You'll just dull your little hatchet. The girl is armor-plated. I'll angle you for a free dinner and then pat you on the head. I never get tight and I'm not impulsive, and I've got four brothers, every one of them over six feet."

(When a woman refers to herself in the third person, you know she can handle herself, especially in a John D MacDonald story!)

When she tells him her name is Skipper Moran, the reader knows instantly that she is "the one."

After dinner and the forewarned pat on the head, Sim returns to his sleeping car (a room, actually) only to find an apologetic Marj waiting for him outside his door. When MacDonald writes that "her underlip was out like a candy shelf and her eyes looked like a stoked furnace," the reader -- at that point -- doesn't know if he is being put on or not. She tries the reasonable approach, fails, lashes out at Sim with her "claws" and, after being "hammered" with the heel of Sim's hands, sits down and begins to cry. She reveals that she has gotten herself into major trouble by aiding a drug smuggler, who is now blackmailing her by threatening to expose her unless she comes up with thirty thousand dollars. And while Sim feels pity for Marj he tells her he has no intention of forking over a dime. She leaves and he goes to sleep.

But in the middle of the night he is awakened by the sound of pounding on his door. It's Marj, in a panic and holding a bloody knife. Hanneman has been killed in her sleeping car, while she stepped out for a moment. She gives the knife to Sim, who stupidly takes it. Marj orders him to help her or she'll implicate him in the murder. Since he was seen fighting the lawyer earlier that evening, Sim is forced to agree and helps Marj move the body back to Hanneman's car. When Sim goes through the dead man's wallet he finds something strange. Business cards. All sorts of business cards, one advertising Hanneman as a lawyer, another as a physician, yet another as a broker. Then, back in his own car, he finds the knife where Marj had hidden it: under Sim's bed.

The plot seems destined to end where it began, on the train, but it doesn't. There is a wild hunt for the killer involving several dozen agents, then an epilogue of sorts, happening long after the initial 24 hours, and it all feels a bit unfocused, like the author didn't really know where he was going or how to end the thing. The climax of the story is so preposterous that MacDonald had to be joking. When one looks at the quality of the other fiction the author was writing at the time -- The Damned had been published only two months earlier -- there can be no other conclusion, unless you buy my mothballed reject theory.

"Trap for a Tigress" was republished three month later in the British edition of Black Mask, then sat mouldering for nearly thirty years before it was included in MacDonald's first pulp anthology, The Good Old Stuff. Since the author makes no specific mention of the story in his introduction, one can only conjecture his original intention. I suppose it can be read either way, but seeing it alongside other really good, serious works of pulp fiction like "Miranda" or "They Let Me Live" makes the reader wonder. And like all the other stories anthologized in the two Good Old Stuff collections, MacDonald restored his original title ("Noose for a Tigress") and updated the setting, changing the war setting from Korea to Viet Nam and placing the action on an Amtrak train. Which was a stupid mistake, like all of his updating in those stories. Who was riding a cross-country train, complete with dining cars, in the mid-1970's?