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?

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