Sunday, November 14, 2010

"Linda"

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 of 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.



2 comments:

  1. Really great review and some nice art work I had never seen before. Later Slap

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you "Slap," I appreciate it.

    ReplyDelete