Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"The Startled Face of Death"

"The Startled Face of Death" was one of three John D MacDonald stories published in the November 1946 issue of Doc Savage. Appearing under the house name "Scott O'Hara," it was joined by the author's "The Little People" (a novella, and credited to JDM) as well as "The Scarred Hand," a story credited to "John Farrell" and one good enough to to pass muster for inclusion in the author's 1984 pulp anthology More Good Old Stuff.

That two volume collection (The Good Old Stuff in 1982 and More Good Old Stuff two years later) was edited by several people, including the ubiquitous Martin H. Greenberg, JDM bibliographers Walter and Jean Shine, and Francis M. Nevins, a St. Louis University School of Law professor who was also a mystery writer and an expert on American mystery fiction. Nevins was a frequent contributor to the early, Moffatt-edited version of the JDM Bibliophile and was virtually the only writer in that journal -- or any other -- who seemed interested in studying MacDonald's early short fiction for purposes other than listing the name, date and location of its publication. He was a noted expert on the works of both Ellery Queen and Cornell Woolrich and was perhaps the first writer to detect the strong similarities between Woolrich and the very early short fiction of John D MacDonald. Nevins had written a work on Queen in 1974 (Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective) and would later co-author (with Ray Stanich) a shorter work on the various appearances of Ellery Queen in dramatic radio, The Sound of Detection: Ellery Queen's Adventures in Radio (1983), a book I purchased and still own. In 1988 he would write the first (and as far as I can tell, still the only) biography of Cornell Woolrich, a massive volume blessed with the wonderful title Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die.

In 1978 Nevins contributed a paper to a conference on the works of John D MacDonald sponsored by the University of South Florida in Tampa. Titled "The Making of a Tale-Spinner: John D. MacDonald's Early Pulp Stories," it discussed a variety of those early pulp tales in order to prove the thesis that MacDonald was not "building a private literary world but working within established modes and strengthening his skills in a breathtaking number of directions at the same time." The paper mentions over a dozen specific titles and remains -- again, as far as I know -- the most detailed work on MacDonald's pulp work to date. MacDonald himself attended the conference and commented on each paper as it was read. Those off-the-cuff comments were later reprinted in an issue of the JDM Bibliophile, providing MacDonald fans with some of the most detailed and interesting history of his early days as a pulp writer. In 1980 those same papers were printed in the inaugural issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection and, again, MacDonald provided commentary for each study, this time in writing, after a more careful study of the works in question.

In Nevins' paper he makes mention of "The Startled Face of Death," calling it "a quite decent early MacDonald" containing an atmosphere that was "thick, steamy and authentic." I'm afraid I will have to disagree with Nevins on this one. What begins with a terrifically written scene eventually devolves into a meandering tale of detection that relies on too much happenstance and too little characterization. The story itself contains the skeleton of an interesting mystery story that is unfortunately undone by the brevity in which MacDonald tells the tale, lacking anything resembling the kind of character development that the author would eventually master. The mystery, on its own pulp terms, works, but only barely so, leaving the reader greatly underwhelmed by the solution.

The setting for "The Startled Face of Death" is Delhi, India, a place the author knew well from his war years and one he hated equally well. Sam Carroll is employed in a job that was MacDonald's favorite private eye-substitute, an insurance investigator, and he harbors the same feeling for the country that JDM did. The MacGuffin of the tale is a necklace made up of twenty-two square cut emeralds, a necklace that was paid for six years before the story begins by an import firm by the name of Bartan and Adams. They had wired thirty-three thousand dollars to their agent in India in 1940, a man by the name of Holley, who cashed the draft, purchased the necklace and then disappeared off the face of the earth. Bartan and Adams' insurance company made good on the loss and then sent their own agent to try and find Holley. That agent determined that Holley had died in possession of the necklace in Old Delhi. The agent would head there to follow up on a lead. A month later the insurers received word that the agent was found outside the Red Fort with his throat cut from ear to ear. The company was on the verge of sending Carroll over to follow up when the war intervened and the case grew cold for five years. But now the war is over and the insurance company still wants to find out what happened. Enter Carroll, again.

Sam Carroll reflects much of the author's dislike and disdain for the country, repeatedly referring to the "stinking" city of Delhi and to the constant irritation of the incessant heat. He doesn't think too much of Indians, either. Carroll is none too happy about being there and none too happy about being sent to work on such a cold case. But this is a JDM protagonist, so not doing his job as professionally and as diligently as possible would be out of the question. As the story begins it is four in the morning and Carroll is trying to sleep in his furnace-like hotel room. The only way he can even hope to get any rest is to use "the formula": soaking his bedsheet in water, wrapping himself in it and laying down on the bed directly under the ceiling fan. The only problem comes if you awaken in the middle of the night; then you have to do it all over again.

Carroll has awakened and can't get back to sleep, giving MacDonald the opportunity to write a nice, evocative paragraph setting the scene nicely.

"I couldn't get back to sleep, and I lacked the energy to get up and go into the bath to soak the sheet again. I judged that I had been asleep for some hours, as the sheet was dry on top of me. I listened and heard the gabbling bay of the troops of jacks which wandered into New Delhi each night. I heard the clop clop of the tonga horses on Queensway and wondered who would be riding around in the parching night air. Above me the big fan whirred. I could feel the heat still radiating from the thick plaster walls of the hotel room, heat picked up during the blaze of the sun on the previous day."

While Carroll is lying in bed he detects a vague movement in his room, a "dark blob" too indistinct to make out. Soon he realizes that there is someone else in the room with him.

"It could be a routine hotel robbery or it could be... I seemed to hear once again the voice of old Ben Harfer, the company representative in Calcutta, repeating what he had told me as we has sat sipping gimlets by the pool at the Tollygunge Club. He had said, 'You don't know this country like I do, Mr. Carroll, and even though I've been here thirty years, I don't claim to know these people. They're sly and devious, and if you get close to what you're after, you will be stepping on somebody's toes. Take it very, very easy. The fact that you're American won't keep a knife from slipping into your throat if one of these beggars decides to put one there.'"

Clearly, John D MacDonald did not have fond memories of India.

Waiting for the right moment, Carroll leaps at the figure in the dark, only to have the door slammed in his face. He runs down the hall but the intruder has disappeared. As he returns to his room he notices a dagger lying on the floor of the hall, a knife with a short, bright curved blade, with "a handle of pale green Indian jade, cheap and opaque. It looked Moslem in design..." Back in his room he checks his suitcase, sitting on a stand near the porch doors. He uses the knife to flip open the lid.

"I jumped back a good six feet, and that didn't seem far enough... On top of my folded clothes were two huge scorpions, sand colored and evil. The larger of the two was at least three and a half inches long, the smaller was only a fraction of an inch shorter.They both climbed over the edge of the suitcase and dropped onto the floor, their horny skins clattering on the stone. One scuttled toward the porch and the smaller one came toward my bare feet, its long segmented tail folded back with the stinger just over its head. It came nearer and I turned and ran into the bath."

Carroll manages to kill the terrifying insects and comes to realize that the scorpions were placed in his room not to kill him -- scorpions couldn't do that -- but to scare him off. Of course, that meant that he was getting close to something or someone, but who or what? He redoubles his investigative efforts and is eventually is told by a hotel manager that when Holley's body was found five years ago, he noticed that the corpse's face wore an odd expression, "... a look of surprise as well as fear, as though it was the last thing he expected."

The remainder of "The Startled Face of Death" is little more that Carroll hunting down clues, until he comes upon the man he suspects, a character the reader hasn't been introduced to until that very moment, confronts him, fights him, and... well, there's very little surprise at this point, and the whole tale seems like a big letdown after that great scorpion scene.

MacDonald's early tales are full of stories set in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the places where the author was stationed during the war. "The Startled Face of Death" is structurally identical to another early JDM story, "They Let Me Live," a far superior work that also appeared in Doc Savage, concerning an American returning to the far east in order to solve a cold-case mystery. It was included in the first Good Old Stuff collection, while "The Startled Face of Death" has never been anthologized. In his Introduction to the first volume of the anthology, MacDonald relates that the editors had originally presented him with thirty stories for re-publication and that he approved all but three. I've always wondered what those three stories were. Based on Nevins' specific praise for "The Startled Face of Death" and the fact that it appears in neither collection, it's a good guess that this story was one of the three rejects.

Nevins has recently published a collection of some of his writings, redone as something he calls Cornucopia of Crime: Memories and Summations. It's a fascinating and addictive collection of remembrances about his life as a writer, editor and collector of mystery fiction. His chapter on JDM is basically a rewrite of "The Making of a Tale-Spinner," but he includes a brief biography and an interesting final paragraph recalling his stint as co-editor of The Good Old Stuff anthologies. He addresses the baffling decision by MacDonald to "update" some of the stories and relates that this practice was done over "howls of protest from all four editors," and rightly points out that this effort eliminated "precisely the immediate postwar ambience that made the stories so attractive." Nevins ends his piece with a sentiment that can surely be echoed by all JDM fanatics:

"I still hope that someday [these stories will be] reprinted, using the texts as MacDonald originally wrote them"



2 comments:

  1. It's ironic that the two collections are called THE GOOD OLD STUFF and JDM tried to update them and make the stories THE GOOD NEW STUFF. I guess JDM was just blind to how good some of his pulp work was; it certainly did not need to be updated. I'm reminded of how Erle Stanley Gardner and Fred Nebel refused to let Joe Shaw include their pulp fiction in his excellent anthology, THE HARD-BOILED OMNIBUS. They thought their pulp work was dated and not worth reprinting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I could understand MacDonald wanting to change stilted language or a glib ending here and there, but all he did was change the time period. He said he did it to prevent confusion, but it only confused things more. Possibly the dumbest thing he ever did in his career.

    Ultimately I think MacDonald was a deeply insecure writer, who dealt with his insecurities by forcing on himself a grueling work ethic and by producing mountains of product. He once burned (supposedly) a million words of unsold stories (although many survived)and would probably have burned all of his early pulp work if he had had the chance.

    ReplyDelete