Monday, May 31, 2010

"You've Got to Be Cold" ("The Night is Over")

Lakes. John D MacDonald loved them.

He loved their beauty and their tranquility, and in his fiction he employed them with both of those characteristics in mind, but he also loved the sense of separation they evoked, as well as the terrible frailty one could feel because of that isolation. Bad things can happen at a lake, including murder, infidelity, rape and kidnapping.

MacDonald loved one lake in particular, Piseco Lake in upstate New York, fifty miles northeast of Utica in the Adirondacks. It was there that he and his wife Dorothy owned a large plot of lakefront land, purchased with the winnings from a wartime poker game, which later became the family's summer home for thirty-five years. Every spring from 1951-on, John, Dorothy and son Johnny would escape the crushing heat of Florida and make the long trek by car northward. Their cabin was built on a remote shore of the lake and could only be reached via a long, twisting dirt road that encouraged privacy and allowed the nearby wildlife to flourish. MacDonald wrote a great deal of his published works there, and it was at Piseco that he and Johnny burned 800,000-words of unsold short stories from his earliest days as a writer.

But most important to the reader of MacDonald is the spell Piseco Lake cast over the fiction the author produced. Lakes serve as the setting of numerous short stories and novels, and anyone who has read JDM's "cat biography" The House Guests can recognize Piseco virtually any time a lake is used by the author. Of the works I have already written about in this blog Piseco served as a model for the opening scene in Judge Me Not, the place where Jane Wyant committed adultery in Cancel All Our Vows, the weekend getaway spot in You Live Once, and the setting for the entire plot of All These Condemned. Of the ninety-one short stories I've covered so far in this blog, ten of them feature settings at a lake.

Now I can make that eleven. MacDonald's early novella "You've Got to Be Cold" takes place almost entirely near a remote lake that was certainly modeled after Piseco. Appearing in the April-May 1947 issue of The Shadow, it is a rambling, wildly improbable tale featuring one of JDM's quintessential "damaged veterans" who, returning from World War II finds it difficult to adjust back to normal living. The lake setting emphasizes the hero's detachment from society and its distance from any hint of the modern world allows a primeval menace to permeate the the story.

Walker Post is a mess. He's a man who doesn't give a damn about himself or anyone else, and who is content to drink his life away in run-down bars. While fighting in the Pacific during the war he lost his mother and his wife in an auto accident and he has returned to a home devoid of any family. His former boss offers him his old job back, but after working there several weeks he walks out. "He thought it would give him something familiar to hold on to. It hadn't worked." After putting his furniture into storage and moving into a shabby furnished room, he begins to drink up the two thousand dollars of insurance money left from his wife's death.

"He hadn't tried to find work... He knew he wasn't drinking himself to death. Just enough liquor each day to cloud the pictures in his mind. Just enough to dull the constant irritation with everything around him. He slept in the cheap, sour room between the gray sheets. He ate heavy fried foods. He walked the streets slowly and wondered what there was to care about. In some distant corner of his mind he was uncertain and frightened. Some mornings he would remember and realize that it would have to end sometime. There would be no more money. But that was a long time off... He spoke to no one. He didn't read. He didn't go to movies. He sat and drank and ate and slept and walked, fighting down the mad thing in his heart that wanted to flash out at the people around him. He wanted to strike and crush and batter the faces of those around him."

He's about to get his chance to do just that. As a result of his surliness he manages to get into a bar fight and is nearly demolished before striking back. Not quite sure if he is winning or losing, the battered, nearly unconscious Post is pulled out of the bar and put into a car by an unknown man. His rescuer introduces himself as Dr. Benjamin Drake, who just happened to be passing by when he heard the ruckus. Drake senses Post's unhappiness and offers him a job working for him at a new "combination summer camp and health resort" just constructed on the site of an old, deserted lumber camp on remote Lake Meridin. After initially refusing, Post decides to take him up on the offer. The work will be physical and he can keep to himself if he wants to. Post tells Drake, "What's the difference what I do?"

The following day Drake picks up Post and they head to the camp. The path to the lake is nearly invisible, an old, overgrown dirt road off of an old country lane, protected by low hanging bushes and a fallen tree trunk that turns out to be fake. After another quarter of a mile of dirt road and a four mile walk down a nearly invisible trail, they arrive at the "resort."

"It lay below them, a thousand yards away. It was small, possibly a mile long and a half mile wide. A large patch of the sky had cleared and the still water threw a deeper blue back toward the sky. It ran east and west... Wooded hills rose steeply from the lake on every side except the west. Ahead Post could see the outlines of weathered gray buildings against the evergreens. It was very quiet, strangely quiet. Post felt a momentary uneasiness."

As well he should. Dr. Drake drops the veneer of kindness and begins ordering Post down to one of the buildings. He warns him that there is only one way out of the place, the way they came, and that to attempt to leave will not be tolerated. That's kind of a moot point right now, as Post's long months of drinking have softened him up to the point that he is ready to drop. He meets two other "workers," big tough guys who eventually become Post's prison guards. There are only two "patients" there, both well-to-do businessmen in separate and remote cabins, one accompanied by his wife, the other by his daughter.

When Drake leaves for a few days Post decides he's had enough and tries to leave, only to be stopped by one of his co-workers, who shoves him to the ground and warns him of further violence if he doesn't get with the program. When Drake finally returns and learns of Post's attempt to leave, he pulls out a newspaper clipping from his pocket. It's a story about a barroom brawl and how one Walker Post killed another man in a fight, and how the police in three states were now looking for him. Post is stuck.

To further summarize this sprawling plot would take forever, and I'm not going to attempt it. Suffice it to say that Drake's plan with his patients has nothing to do with curing them and everything to do with getting huge sums of money from them. Walker and the second patient's daughter eventually combine forces to try and escape, but the reader can guess that the minute she's introduced: "tall... slim... high cheekbones... gray eyes..." The JDM female archetype.

Although MacDonald permitted "You've Got to Be Cold" to be included in the second Good Old Stuff anthology (under his original title "The Night is Over") he was not proud of this particular work, calling it "clumsy" and admitting that the characters' motivations were "unreal." Francis M. Nevins, Jr., who was one of the editors of the two Good Old Stuff volumes, had a much better opinion of the story, calling it "smoothly written, sharply paced and impossible to leave unfinished." He also termed it "a fine example" of JDM's early use of the psychologically damaged veteran, his "self-ruination" and eventual redemption. I'll agree that it is a nicely-written pulp yarn with a couple of interesting characters, and that it has a uniquely interesting premise, but it does seem a bit drawn out at times and the structure wobbles every now and then. The knowing reader certainly comes away with a fresh reminder that pulp magazines paid writers by the word.

MacDonald's biographers rarely -- if ever -- discussed or even mentioned individual works of short fiction in their books, but Hugh Merrill gives "You've Got to Be Cold" a sentence in The Red Hot Typewriter. Unfortunately, it's a perfect example of the careless writing and sloppy research that makes that work so suspect. He prefaces his observation by claiming that the pulps were MacDonald's apprenticeship and that "...like any apprenticeship, he learned by imitation.

"His asylum in "You've Got to Be Cold"... bears an astonishing resemblance to the hospital run by Dr. Anthor (sic) in Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely."

Well. First of all, as anyone who has actually read the Chandler novel can attest, the hospital in Farewell, My Lovely was not run by Jules Amthor (or even Jules "Anthor"), and the only thing "astonishing" is the fact that Merrill would compare a rustic and remote group of cabins by a small lake with a mental hospital in Bay City, California. There are no locked rooms in Benjamin Drake's "health resort," and Walker Post is not held there as a patient. It is not an "asylum" in any sense of the word and for Merrill to make this connection leads me to suspect that he has never actually read Chandler's book but has instead relied on one of the movie adaptations for his reference here. In the 1975 film version of Farewell, My Lovely, the location of Marlowe's imprisonment is indeed run by Amthor, but the character was changed from a phony psychic to the madam of a brothel. In the book the hospital was run by a Dr. Sonderborg.

If MacDonald was copying another writer in "You've Got to Be Cold" it certainly wasn't Raymond Chandler.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Hit and Run" (1961)


"Hit and Run" is the only short story title John D MacDonald ever used twice. Back in 1952 it was the title of his first contribution to Good Housekeeping, a better-than-average police drama about a state trooper's long, lonely search for the killer of a pedestrian that was really a subliminal means to impress and woo the victim's widow. When the title graced JDM's entry in the September 16, 1961 issue of The Saturday Evening Post it used the same basic plot but jettisoned the love angle and focused on the dogged determination of the cop hunting the killer. It's probably a better-written tale and equally satisfying, yet on a completely different level. Gone is the attempt to create a character with a troubled past, replaced by one of MacDonald's quintessential ultimate professionals, whose long hours on the job are tolerated and understood by a supportive spouse.

Both tales center around a cop who is investigating a pedestrian fatality, but unlike Trooper Del Carney in the original story, Walter Post is a specialist, a special investigator for the Traffic Division of an unnamed Utica-sized city in an unnamed state. The case he's working on is the hit-and-run death of Mary Berris, a wife and young mother of two and which took place in front of her home on Harding Place.

"It was an old street of big elms and frame houses. It ran north and south. Residents in the new suburban areas south of the city used Harding Avenue in preference to Wright Boulevard when they drove to the center of the city. Harding Avenue had been resurfaced a year ago. There were few traffic lights. The people who lived on Harding Avenue had complained about fast traffic before Mary Berris was killed."

It was a rainy morning and Mrs. Berris was crossing the street, apparently to see a neighbor. The road was momentarily free of traffic when she attempted to cross. A car traveling at a high rate of speed heading into the city came up on her as she entered the road, startling her. She made an attempt to return to the curb, an action Post believes caused the driver to brake and skid, hitting her with a glancing blow with the car's right-front fender, throwing her twenty feet into the air before landing back down onto the curb. The driver corrected the skid and accelerated, leaving the scene to only one living witness, a thirteen-year-old girl.

Mary Berris lived for nearly seventy hours with "serious brain injuries, ugly contusions and abrasions, and a fractured hip." She developed a significant bruise that confirmed the way she had been hit and the doctors removed from her shattered headlamp glass that was later narrowed down to only three possible makes of automobiles. The young witness was able to remember that the car was "pale" and that the last two numbers on the license plate were "fat numbers... like sixes and eights and nines." Mary Berris never regained consciousness before dying.

During the first two weeks of the investigation Post enjoyed the full manpower of the police force in checking all the repair shops in the city, and the local press cooperated in keeping the public on the lookout for the death car.

"But as in so many other instances, the car seemed to disappear without a trace. Walter Post was finally left alone to continue the investigation, in addition to his other duties."

Like Del Carney in the previous story, the investigation becomes a one-man affair, a personal challenge where the work is done in the off hours and during rare spare time. Del did it for the beautiful widow Linda Fairliss and Post's motivations are somewhat similar but not specifically voiced:

"This time he devoted more time to it than he had planned. It seemed more personal. This was not a case of one walking drunk lurching into the night path of a driving drunk. This was a case of a young, pretty housewife -- very pretty, according to the picture of her he had seen -- mortally injured on a rainy Tuesday by somebody who had been in a hurry, somebody too callous to stop and clever enough to hide... the broken husband... the small, puzzled kids... the child witness [who said], 'It made a terrible noise...' This was his work, and he knew the cost of it and realized his own emotional involvement made him better at what he did... He knew there would be no joy in solving the case because he would find at the end of his search not some monster, some symbol of evil, but merely another victim, a trembling human animal."

He narrows down the section of the city he believes the car came from, then compiles a "discouragingly long list of all medium and low-priced sedans" with the license plates ending in "fat numbers." It was twenty-eight days after Mary Berris died when he hit pay dirt. At the home of Mr. Wade Adams he knocked on the door and spoke with Mrs. Adams. Pretending to be doing a survey for the "automotive industry," Post asks about the cars the family owns. The family has two and the second, smaller car matches the description the young witness gave. Mrs. Adams, a "pleasant and confident" woman, volunteers that it's hard to keep a car in the garage, what with a working husband and a newly-licensed teenager, not to mention a daughter who is nearly ready to drive. When Post asks where the smaller car is that day, she tells him that her husband, a VP with an insurance company, drove it to work.

Relying on a strong hunch, Post heads for the insurance company headquarters. His training tells him that Mrs. Adams couldn't have been responsible -- "He had seen too many of the guilty ones react. They had been living in terror. When questioned, they broke quickly and completely" -- but the car, the family, the location of the home all added up to something he could feel in his gut. When he arrives at Adams' workplace, the first thing he does is locate the car in question. To the naked eye the fender looks fine, but upon closer inspection Post spies the telltale signs of new bodywork: slight paint smears on the chrome, a too-new look to the headlight lens, a hammered-out feel to the undercoating.

It was time to head in and pay a visit to Wade Adams.

Only that's not then end of the story, it's only about halfway done. The tale takes an abrupt turn with a moving scene in a high school, and in the end Walter Post has found his driver, but it is someone only the most astute reader would ever even think of. Yet if one takes the time to go back and re-read the story, the clues are there, hiding in plain sight. MacDonald has said that with a mystery story, he as a reader always wanted some chance, no matter how small, of "beating the hero to the punch line." He wrote his own mysteries that way and it was one of the reasons he disliked what he called the British "puzzle mysteries," where the means to solve a mystery are so esoteric that they are beyond the knowledge of 99% of the readership. And while acknowledging that there were many readers who were perfectly happy to be dazzled by the incredible genius of a protagonist -- see Sherlock Holmes, who MacDonald wasn't fond of -- he was not one of them and he didn't write his own stories that way. What he did like was spelled out in a 1980 piece in Clues: A Journal of Detection, where he wrote, "I am more strongly attracted by the why-done-it and the how-done-it than by the who-done-it, by a gritty realism than by formal gardens... "


Unlike the first "Hit and Run," the 1961 story bearing that title has been anthologized since its original publication in several collections, many of which are readily available from used book sources. These include A Treasury of Modern Mysteries (1973) edited by Marie R. Reno, Rogues' Gallery: A Variety of Mystery Stories (1969) edited by Walter Gibson, and 52 Miles to Terror (1966) edited by Ruth C. and G. Robert Carlsen. There are at least four other early collections and perhaps a few more modern ones I don't know about.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

"What Are the Symptoms, Dear?"

John D MacDonald's fourth short story to appear in the weekly Sunday newspaper supplement This Week was a typically-brief 1,800-word vignette called "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" Like the three stories that preceded it and two of the three that would immediately follow, "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" follows a shape and format that became template: inserting a seemingly innocent incident or observation into the lives of a "typical" 1950's suburban household. A basic misunderstanding occurs, tension follows, and everything is eventually resolved in a wry and humorous manner. Although the names are different in each story, the characters are basically the same: Breadwinner Dad, loving and good-natured but clueless to the nature of whatever incident is being presented; Stay-at-Home Mom, smart, intuitive, understanding of her husband's shortcomings but easily hurt emotionally; Child One, male or female; Child Two, opposite gender of Child One. It's always the Dad who is the central character and it's always the Dad who is on the receiving end of whatever mess he has caused.

Appearing in the February 22, 1953 issue of This Week, "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" follows the formula well. Michael Rigsby is asleep in bed, dreaming of food. He's on some sort of midway, eying baked potatoes on sticks, like candied apples. He grabs one and takes a bite, but the potato had "no more substance than spun sugar candy." Awakening in frustration, Mike can't get back to sleep and his dream has caused a great gnawing in his stomach. He raids the refrigerator but can find noting to satisfy his hunger and returns to bed, careful not to awaken his wife Annabelle.

"Back in bed he began to worry about himself. Could a man who liked his work and had a relaxed approach toward life get ulcers? It seemed as if, of late, hunger pangs were always with him."

He awakens a second time that morning to the smell of coffee, "but it gave him no lift." He's worried about himself now.

"He felt dull, frail and ancient. In the bathroom mirror his cheeks looked a bit gaunt, he thought, his eyes slightly sunken."

He puts on a pair of pants that were slated to be taken out by his tailor, only to find that they fit perfectly once again. Then he panics and he remembers that a sudden loss of weight was "one of the bad signs." Not wanting to frighten Annabelle and their two small children, he goes down to breakfast wearing a brave face.

Later that day at the office he leaves briefly and heads across the street to a coin-operated scale in front of the five and dime. (I realize that nothing in that previous sentence will mean anything to anyone under the age of thirty.) He puts a penny in and reads the bad news: one ninety-three, down from over two hundred the last time he checked a year ago. This confirms his worst fears and he lets the realization sink in.

"Sudden and inexplicable loss of weight. He stood in the dismal sunshine. The will and the bonds were in the safe deposit box, along with the insurance policies. Hospitalization was paid up. As he crossed the street again he realized he was walking with a faint stoop. He straightened his shoulders carefully."

Mike calls his doctor and is told that they can't see him for nearly two weeks. He makes the appointment anyway.

"Twelve days to bear the weight of fear, the uncertainty. [He] clamped his jaw and decided he could do it."

That weekend he is moping around the house, sighing deeply and looking out of every window. Annabelle can't take it anymore and asks him what is wrong. He tells her "I'm a sick man. A very sick man." After a heartfelt gasp and an "Oh, darling!" Annabelle takes his hands in hers and listens as Mike explains that he isn't exactly sure what it is that he has, but it has been "very slow and insidious. When Annabelle asks "What are the symptoms, dear?" Mike tells her "The usual, I suppose. A feeling of depression. Constant hunger. Weight dropping dangerously." When he tells her what his current weight is, she closes her eyes, then opens them and beams "a wide, bright, disgustingly cheerful" smile.

"I see," she replied, and then laughed merrily...

The circumstances surrounding MacDonald's stories in This Week are either buried in the boxes of the JDM Collection at the University of Florida or lost to the mists of time. Whether he was "writing to market" or simply following the dictates of a This Week editor is less important than the fact that when "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" was published, JDM's second science fiction novel had just hit the stands, his first great mystery novel Dead Low Tide was about to appear, and he was working on the gritty urban novel The Neon Jungle. The sheer range of the author's talent never ceases to amaze me, no matter how deeply I delve into his more obscure works. "What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" is basically an inconsequential family piece that, like most short fiction, came and went in the twinkling of an eye, but it's a professionally done and well-constructed work of short fiction that, despite the banality of its subject, is further proof of the man's ability to excel in almost any market he chose.

"What Are the Symptoms, Dear?" has never been anthologized but can be purchased from the archives of several major newspapers that carried This Week, including The Los Angeles Times and The Baltimore Sun.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

JDM on Evil

"[I believe] that there exists in the world a kind of evil which defies the Freudian explanations of the psychologists, and the environmental explanations of the sociologists. It is an evil existing for the sake of itself, for the sake of the satisfactions of its own exercise. In our real world we have, for example, a two hundred and thirty pound teenager who roams the streets, mugging children for the pleasure of gouging out their eyes. For me it is less satisfying to say that this is the action of a sad, limited, tormented, unbalanced child than it is to see that this is a primordial blackness reaching up again through a dark and vulnerable soul, showing us all the horror that has always been with mankind, frustrating all rational analyses.

"I admit to the primitive and superstitious aspects of my belief. But it does make it easier for me to depict a villainy that is without mercy or scruple, that grows strong through its own pursuit of evil, that is as heartstopping as the sudden breaking of the glass of the bedroom window a little before dawn. Blackness for its own sake is ever more difficult to deal with than quirks and neuroses."

-- from Clues: A Journal of Detection
Vol 1, Issue 1 (1980)



Monday, May 24, 2010

"But Not to Dream"

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on one of John D MacDonald's rare attempts at writing a fantasy/horror story, the 1949 Weird Tales monster shocker "The Great Stone Death." It was definitely one of MacDonald's misfires and I offered the opinion that "we can be thankful that [horror] was not a field the author pursued afterward." I had completely forgotten that the other JDM Weird Tales entry "But Not to Dream" was an excellent bit of writing and had even been included in JDM's science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds. It pays to do a little research. And although I can still be thankful MacDonald chose mystery as his primary interest in writing, "But Not to Dream" proves that he could do horror as well as he did anything else. Appearing only four months after "Stone Death" in the May 1949 issue, the 3,400-word tale contains many of the elements of classic horror but succeeds primarily because of its humor and a kind of wry unseriousness that MacDonald would develop more and more as his career progressed.


The blurb on the back cover of Other Times, Other Worlds advertises "But Not to Dream" as "The startling tale of a scientist who prefers the strange and elusive world of insects to his own family," and why not? Considering the family of Professor Morgan Nestor, you would too. He a milquetoast of a man and an entomologist to boot, a scientist who prefers the world of bug academia to other forms of social intercourse and who, for twenty-four years has taught the subject at Lavery College in Willowville, Ohio. As the story begins he is sitting on his front porch attempting to read an interesting research paper but is distracted by the sound of his wife Sara, rocking intently on the opposite side. He's waiting for her inevitable attempt at starting a conversation, one he knows from experience will not be pleasant.

"He tried to associate Sara with the deliciously helpless and winsome little female who had occupied the second seat in the third row in the first classroom of his teaching career, twenty-three years before... He remembered wide, gray eyes, fragile bones, cobweb hair and hands that fluttered. He gave Sara a sideways glance. The wide gray eyes had narrowed. The fragile bones were buried in all too solid flesh. The cobweb hair had acquired the consistency of fine copper wire, and had turned steel gray. The hands no longer fluttered."

Sure enough and as if on cue, Sara speaks, with a voice that had "the thin sharpness of a fractured flute." She demands to know who wrote the paper her husband is reading. When he tells her, she responds with an abrupt "Ha!"

"The explosive little sound blasted across the porch and seemed to whip down the quiet, shady street, disturbing the leaves of the silent maples."

Right away, from the locale, the situation, and the insect-like characteristics used to describe the young Sara, the reader begins to feel like they are in Bradbury Country, with MacDonald channeling that great writer.

Sara gets right to the point. She wants to know what her husband is going to do about getting their son Robert a teaching job with the college. After all, he's a "delicate and sensitive" boy and would probably do a whole lot better in twenty-four years of it than Morgan has. When Morgan tries to explain that it would be most difficult, considering that Robert flunked out of three colleges -- including Lavery -- before they found an institution willing to graduate him, Sara threatens to go to the dean herself. At that moment, Robert comes around the corner of the house, swinging a golf club and littering the lawn with divots. He greets his parents with a "Hello, soaks."

"A psychologist would label Robert as socially immature, with a low attention factor. He was blonde, with a stubble of beard on his ripe jaw, a band of fat around his middle."

When his mother triumphantly informs him that his father "has promised to speak to the dean" about getting him a teaching job, Robert's response is "Coeds, here comes Robert!" As Morgan looks at his son and wonders how it could be genetically possible for him to have sired such a loser, he hears the sound of clinking glass from within the house. Soon his married daughter Alice emerges and joins her family on the porch.

"Alice had followed her usual schedule of arising at ten, eating lunch at noon and going back to bed at four-thirty... Ever since she had reached the age of fourteen Morgan had seen her become more and more like the Sadie Thompson in a low-budget production of Rain. No power on earth seemed to be able to keep Alice out of shiny black dresses, dangling earrings and a mouth painted to resemble a smashed strawberry... He had long since decided that her faintly unclean look came from putting makeup on top of makeup ad infinitum."

The glass Alice is carrying supposedly contains water, but Morgan knows it is really straight gin. She dips into her secret stash after arising for the second time each day, and by dinnertime each evening she is the life of the party: "gay, flushed and jovial." Sara, who is apparently ignorant of this problem, often remarks, "Alice has such spirit!"

At five the final member of the family arrives home from work, Alice's husband Charlie, a loud, brash, self-important lout who manages a chain of local grocery stores. He's just been promoted again and is happy to make the announcement, to Sara's delight and Alice's indifference. When Sara points out that in five short years Charlie makes more money than Morgan does after twenty-four, Charlie slaps him on the shoulder and consoles him: "You tell her, old boy, that the business I'm in would kill you in a year. It's a high pressure deal, is what I mean."

After Charlie tricks Morgan with a book of gag matches, sending a large chemical snake writhing from the end of the matchstick, the entire family laughs uproariously at Morgan before heading in to dinner. Morgan is stoic about the abuse he has received because he knows that once dinner is finished he can retreat to his own fortress of solitude, his study, the one room in the house where he can go, close the door and lock out the rest of his family, leaving him alone with his books, his papers and his display trays of mounted insects, their wings glowing with "rare and delicate beauty."

But this is a horror story, so even that solace is denied him. At dinner Charlie mentions that as the result of his recent promotion he will need an office, and what better location would there be than that old study of Morgan's. "Hell, you don't seem to use it for anything that I can see." Now this is too much, even for Morgan, and shouts a definitive "No!" He looks to his wife for support and sees only scorn:

"'Look at him!' Sara said with a savage smile. 'A little boy losing his candy cane. For heaven's sake, Morgan. Grow up! Where are all the papers you were going to write in that study of yours? Where is the wonderful fame you were going to have? You might as well face things. The best thing you can do is try to hold your job until they're willing to retire you. Now stop acting like a child and march into that study and start packing those silly trays of bugs.'"

I said this was a horror story, didn't I? I can't imagine a worse fate than losing my den! Well, since this is a horror story, things do get worse, and supernatural things begin to happen, or at least it seems that way. Yet it is the wonderfully comic prose of the first two-thirds of this tale that make it a standout, the over-the-top awfulness of Morgan's family, especially his wife Sara. As editor Martin H. Greenberg wrote in his brief introduction to the story in Other Times, Other Worlds, "But Not to Dream" contains "one of the bitchiest women in science fiction."

The basic plot featuring an eccentric, socially-clumsy loner with a unique specialization and a spouse who just doesn't get it is as old as Fantasy itself. It was especially popular in the literature of the pulps and possibly mirrored the lives of the authors who used it so much. Its version in mystery stories usually evolved into plots to kill the offending spouse, typically with a twist of an ending. The science fiction-fantasy-horror versions always ended with some horrible, impossible yet deeply satisfying conclusion that sometimes involved death but always turned out to be some form of escape.

I mean, how could you take a man's study away from him?


Friday, May 21, 2010

"Long Shot"


Readers of John D MacDonald in the 1970's will no doubt recall a frequent quote used to promote and sell his various books in print at the time. It was from friend and author Kurt Vonnegut and proclaimed "...[to future generations] the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen..." Being mentioned alongside one of the ancient pharaohs of Egypt was praise enough for me and it was years before I bothered to try and understand exactly what Vonnegut was referring to. It was, of course, MacDonald's seeming expertise in every subject he ever wrote about. Whether it was the world of stamp collecting or hotel management, motorcycle gangs or hot air ballooning, the inner-workings of a televangelist empire or the daily details in the life of a bank teller, the man seemed to have had a real background in every one of these areas. And while MacDonald admitted to doing prodigious research for each of his novels and stories, he also claimed to have "a dustbin mind." In 1981 he told interviewer Dick Lupoff:

"... everything that I pick up from any source seems to stay available [in my memory] -- not readily available in conversation, not readily available when I try to remember something specific and can't, but it seems to pop up when I'm working. Then I have two methods of dealing with the ugly facts when I get to them, if my memory has failed. I either go look them up or I drop it and write around it so I don't have to. Writing around it is a case of trying to do it deftly enough so that nobody will know I'm cheating."

The finely detailed inner workings of remote and sometime-obscure areas and interests in life was a large part of MacDonald's ability to impart a unique sense of realism in even the smallest details of his writing, depicting in his characters a believability in their very commonness. Stephen King called it MacDonald's "feel of the real," and it is evident throughout the man's work, even in the earliest stories and novels. The Vonnegut quote comes from a piece he did for the Chicago Tribune's Book World supplement in 1973, and a more complete reading of it (from Shine's Rave or Rage) reveals a deep understanding of how background develops character, particularly in the way MacDonald did it:

"... his collected works constitute a delightful, un-indexed encyclopedia, an encyclopedia jazzed up by fictional characters who care desperately about the information therein... [to future archeologists] the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen... John comes to us one-by-one with his keen and owlish curiosity, asks us what the rules are. Then he builds a crime and punishment story around those rules, and our livelihoods are immortalized..."

"Long Shot" is a JDM story that originally appeared in the October 1955 issue of Argosy and it is an excellent example of a "livelihood immortalized." The story takes place in the world of the Florida dog tracks, specifically the gambling aspect of that world, and the protagonist -- a first-person narrator -- is an ordinary working-class stiff named Johnny who works behind the five-dollar win-place-show window. Johnny is a hardworking, honest young man who has worked his way up from the two dollar window and aspires to be promoted back to the money room. But the two co-workers on either side of him are of a different make. To his right is Stan Garner, a "stocky, smiling little guy... crooked all the way through," who likes "roughing the customers." This practice consists of shorting someone on their change, typically careless drunks who don't check anyway, counting off change for a five with a missing dollar. It's bad but Johnny knows that it's pretty much the extent of Stan's dishonesty. As Stan tells Johnny, "Get it while you can, Johnny. The customers will rough you if they get a chance. You have to use the angles to stay even."

On his left is Dave Truelow, another type entirely. Dave "has the fever in him," bitten by the gambling bug and he practices the prohibited and dangerous art of "playing out of the box." Johnny explains:

"Here is the way it works. When you report in, you're given a money box. If you're just selling, there may be only fifty or seventy-five dollars in it. As you sell your tickets you put the money in the box. Every once in a while a man from the money room will stop around and take out a few hundred and give you a receipt to put in the box. After the last race you have to be able to total out. The money you started with, plus total ticket sales off the machine, less cash and receipts on hand. The management has no objection to our buying a ticket for ourselves now and then. Those tickets are supposed to be purchased with money out of your pants, not out of the box. Sometimes when an owner steps up and makes a good bet just before race time, the information will go all the way down the line and nearly everybody will buy a ticket... There's no harm in that, if the gambling bug doesn't bite you. But when it bites you and you start playing out of the box, hoping to make out before checkup, then you can be in real trouble."

Dave and Johnny are also competing for the same girl, a little button-sized blonde name Joanne, the daughter of a dog owner. Joanne can be "content with a hamburger and a drive-in if that's all you can swing," but she prefers better things, things Dave seems to be able to afford and Johnny can not. The line manager has secretly asked Johnny to keep an eye on Stan and to report any improper activities he sees, but Johnny senses that it's really Dave he's after, although he can't figure out why he doesn't ask directly. Johnny knows that all he would have to do is tell the manager that Dave is playing out of the box and he would be fired, giving him free reign to woo little Joanne, but that is something he just can't do.

Then, on a busy Friday night, "the kind of evening the Chamber of Commerce likes to think Florida has all the time," a huge crowd keeps the betting windows continually busy, but not enough for word to spread down the line: "Davey is ailing." Playing out of the box, he went heavy on Dancing Ann and lost big. He's trying to get back even but makes bad choices on every subsequent race.

"It was vicarious disaster. It was a little like watching a man cut his own throat, slowly"

When they finally get a break Johnny asks Dave how deep he is in. "Eleven hundred," Dave tells him, his eyes tired and expressionless. Johnny knows that "management can be very, very difficult" if you check out short, and there's only one more race that evening. Dave bets big and the result is... a photo finish.

"Long Shot" was one of MacDonald's favorite short stories and he included it in his 1966 anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories. All the little details of the track, the smells, the heat, the sound of the infield brass band are etched beautifully by the author in his spare, direct prose. But the real picture of the place is the overpowering lure of money and the big win, the lines at the window, the sound of the bell every time a ticket is sold, the constant flow of greenbacks in pursuit of the ticket you don't have to tear up.

"... money is the pulse of the track. Gambling is the only reason for the existence of the track. Money beats in the air like a drum you can't quite hear."

It's just another world MacDonald allows us to live in, to experience briefly and memorably, departing a little better educated and somehow enriched by it. It is the great gift of fiction and MacDonald could pull it off as well as anyone.

Incidentally, "Long Shot" appeared in another JDM anthology, the notorious Two, an unauthorized collection of -- yes -- two short stories from Argosy that surprised everyone (MacDonald included) when it appeared in bookstores in 1983. MacDonald's attorneys prevented subsequent printings and it has become one of the rarest of JDM titles. It's worth looking for as the only place the second entry - the novella titled "Jail Bait" -- was ever reprinted.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

JDM on Hammett

Some might say, heresy...

From a 1981 interview with with Dick Lupoff, published in the JDM Tribute issue of Mystery Scene Reader.

Q: Were you a great admirer of Hammett?

A: Not awfully. I think that Hammett and Chandler and Kane [sic] and Horace McCoy, who wrote They Shoot Horses, Don't They and No Pockets in a Shroud, they cleared the way for the well-written pulp story in that they did characters through action and dialogue rather than saying, "He was a very stubborn man," which is bad writing. They would show him being stubborn. The prose style of Hammett is certainly a more solid and a more artful style than that of Chandler. But he was an idiot as far as plots are concerned. If you want to drive some high school or college kid nuts, make him do an outline of the plot of The Maltese Falcon. It's incredibly mixed up and nothing ever happens the way it's supposed to. But the flow of the narrative is such that you're caught up in it and you believe it. But you can't believe it if you try to dissect it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thriller on DVD

The old television horror series Thriller is about to be released on DVD, every episode remastered along with the obligatory "special features" that have become de rigueur for DVD boxed sets. The rights to the series, which aired on NBC from 1960 to 1962 and featured Boris Karloff as host, were acquired by Image Entertainment, Inc. last year and the announcement of their pending release was made on October 30. Early this month the actual release date of August 31, 2010 was announced.

Although it is primarily remembered as a horror show, Thriller actually presented a mix of both horror and suspense and featured adaptations of works by such well-known mystery authors as Cornell Woolrich, Charlotte Armstrong, Margaret Millar and Fredric Brown. The eleventh episode of the first season featured an adaptation of John D MacDonald's 1955 novella "The Impulse," retitled "The Fatal Impulse," and starred Robert Lansing, Whitney Blake, Steve Brodie and a 23-year old Mary Tyler Moore, a year before she became Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. I have never read the "The Impulse" and don't own a copy of the magazine it originally appeared in, so I have to rely on the one-sentence synopsis from the IMDb to get an idea of its plot.

"A man fleeing from an attempt to assassinate a political candidate puts a small bomb in the bag of a woman in an elevator. The police spend the evening looking for the mystery girl and the bomb."

The list price for this 14-disc set is $149.98, although I assume it will be made available on Netflix should all one wish to do is view the JDM episode.

Here's the most recent Press Release.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"First Offense"

One of the great things about exploring the forgotten short stories of John D MacDonald is discovering little gems in places you would never expect. Take, for example, "First Offense," a revenge tale that originally appeared in the August 1954 issue of Cosmopolitan. With an alluring photo of Esther Williams gracing the cover and articles with titles like "So You Want to Stay Single?" and "Shoe Romance," the modern reader simply doesn't expect to find stories about robbery and unjust imprisonment within its pages. But as I've written before, Cosmopolitan was a much different magazine before Helen Gurley Brown took over as editor in the early Sixties. The writings of John D MacDonald appeared in the magazine 36 times during his career and it includes some of his very best work in the short form. "First Offense" is an excellent story that begins one way and ends in another, a seemingly predictable story of a man seeking revenge for a crime he claims he didn't commit that resolves itself in a way completely surprising to the reader.

Since it is not my intention to give away story endings on this blog, I can't explore that aspect of the tale, but I can try and give you a hint of its gritty realism, its tight, economic prose and its interesting premise. It's the type of thing MacDonald was putting out month in and month out in the 1950's, even as his career as a novelist was taking precedence. He published "only" nine short stories in 1954 (two of them were novellas!) and every one I've read is excellent, not a clunker in the lot. Oh, and he also wrote three novels that year as well.

"Malcolm Rainey was released from prison on a morning in May when thick clouds drifted low and slow and there was a humid smell of earth and growth in the prison town."

How's that for a prefiguring first sentence?

Rainey is indeed getting out of prison today after serving a five year sentence for an armed robbery he didn't commit. He had been walking home late from the gas station he owned and passed by a pawn shop where he saw movement inside. Thinking the place was being robbed, he impulsively entered through the open door and surprised a man with a gun and an armload of valuables. Rainey struggled with the robber but was kicked in the stomach and the man fled, but not before dropping the loot and the gun. Rainey picked up the pistol and looked for a phone to call the police but stopped when he saw someone enter the door. It was a cop, and before he could say "somebody broke in here and --" the cop, seeing the gun in Rainey's hand, shot him. With only his story and a defense lawyer who was "barely able to conceal his bored skepticism," Rainey was convicted and the cop received a citation. He lost his business, his house and five years of his life, but not his wife Mary, who has faithfully awaited his release.

Despite the injustice of it all, Rainey has been a model prisoner and is seemingly ready to put it all behind him, as evidenced by the warden's words as he bids the prisoner farewell:

"I'm glad you adjusted the way you did, Rainey. What I said five years ago still goes. Don't work up a sweat. Let the ball bounce. Canelli was doing his job. I damn near believe your story. Suppose it's true. Should Canelli believe it? The jolt for armed robbery, even on a first offense, is stiff. It has to be. Don't go out with a con psychology. Canelli was a rookie. He was nervous. You had a gun in your hand, and he shot you."

Mary is there to pick him up and she immediately reaches to embrace him as he enters the car, but he stops her, not wanting to give the guards a show. He drives silently through town and finally pulls over and takes her in his arms. The author begins to reveal the bitterness that is smoldering beneath the surface.

"Five years had changed her. He had been aware of it on her visits. She had been twenty-seven when he went in. Five years showed in the texture of the skin under her eyes, in a deepening of lines that had been faint near the corners of her mouth. They had taken five of his years. He could resent that bitterly. but five years of her. That was the unforgivable part. Five years of the security he could have given her. All the little abrasions of uncertainty and loneliness. It would always be there, that sense of loss."

With no house to return to, the couple arrive at the tiny apartment where Mary has been living, complete with a Murphy bed and "a matchstick screen to hide the kitchen." They share a celebration homecoming dinner of turkey and champagne and a night of lovemaking that was "queerly shy and stilted." As the days go by Rainey becomes more comfortable in his new surroundings but it cannot mask the emotional distance he is keeping from Mary. When she finally broaches the subject he nearly explodes with resentment, slamming his fist down on the kitchen table and responding, "He lied! He made a mistake and he lied, and they took five years out of my life. Just because he was a green cop. He was nervous. He didn't want to make a mistake. So he lied and got a medal!"

And he can never forget what his attorney told him after he was convicted. "Patrolman Canelli's testimony is what made the difference... I think he actually believes you pointed the [pistol] at him... when you carry a gun, you're licked." He turns his back to his wife and tells her, "I want him to know what he did to me."

Rainey gets a job with an old friend who runs a trucking line and begins the outward readjustment, but "coming back to life was a painful thing, like blood flowing into a leg that had been asleep too long." He has his plan in place and knows he can keep it from everyone except Mary. "She knew. And it was something they did not talk about. It was a wall between them."

He waits a few months but eventually tracks down where Canelli lives. On a hot July day he drives there alone, into a new Levittown-like development and spies the cop -- older, heavier and now balding -- installing a patio in his backyard. He approaches, introduces himself as "Jones," and it is clear that Canelli does not recognize him...

The story doesn't end as one would expect, but that should come as no surprise. I doubt if MacDonald would ever write a straightforward revenge tale, certainly not by 1954. The story is less about what Rainey does than about how he is forced to either accept reality or go down in flames of hate. The third person interior monologue paints the picture of a man who feels he has to do something to rectify the injustice perpetrated on him, but other than confronting the man he believes caused it, he really isn't sure exactly what to do. If this were a Jim Thompson character he'd probably shoot the guy -- by accident, of course -- and go into hiding. With MacDonald, it is a far deeper and ultimately more realistic result.

As far as I can tell, "First Offense" has never been reprinted or anthologized.





Friday, May 14, 2010

Cry Hard, Cry Fast

Chicago Tribune book critic and John D MacDonald champion Clarence Petersen once wrote that Cry Hard, Cry Fast, MacDonald's fifteenth book, "... may be the only novel ever written around an auto accident." Since Petersen read a lot more books than I ever have, I'll have to take him at his word, but if the central incident of the plot is unique the structure the author used in the novel was not. Cry Hard, Cry Fast was MacDonald's very first Popular Library publication and he was anxious for it to be successful, so he returned to the narrative technique that had served him so will in his most popular novel to date. His 1952 book The Damned featured a collection of different and unconnected people gathered together at a damaged ferry crossing, and the author developed each character through both background and interaction with the others at the landing. Cry Hard, Cry Fast, published in 1955, does the same thing, only it uses a multi-car accident as its gathering-point. And although MacDonald certainly didn't invent this kind of plot structure -- it goes back to at least 1927 with Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Bridge at San Luis Rey -- he excelled with it and returned to it multiple times over his career, culminating in the lengthy and dense Condominium in 1977.


A crime novel in only the broadest of terms (one of the characters is an escaped bank robber), Cry Hard, Cry Fast shows MacDonald as a growing artist, a writer who was learning and using past mistakes as stepping-stones. It's certainly better-written than its predecessor A Bullet for Cinderella and it's a better book than its inspiration, The Damned. MacDonald has pared down the number of characters, from eight to seven (more or less) and he does away with the framing device used in that earlier book, replacing it with a seventh chapter that is a complete digression from plot and character where he discusses the physics of moving and stopping automobiles in a mock-classroom setting. And like The Damned, one of the central stories focuses on a married couple who are on the verge of estrangement, as well as a single criminal escaping his crime, but everyone else is different. All but one of them are on the road at this particular instance in their lives in an effort to seek change, to run from something or to some vague, unknown something ill-defined to even them. Tellingly, the one person who was there at that moment as a matter of course is the one main character who does not survive.

Using a multiple-car accident as the "gathering point," MacDonald gives each of his characters an introductory chapter leading up to the crash. They all begin similarly, like this: "Two hours before the accident occurred, Devlin Jamison drove over the crest of a hill..." or "A half-hour before the worst multiple-car crash in the three-year history of the new hundred-mile stretch of six-lane divided highway..." or (my favorite), "An hour before a huge young state trooper left the scene of the accident to be profoundly sick in the roadside ditch..." Then, following the "intermission chapter" where MacDonald goes into the science of car crashes, we watch how the wreck affects the survivors in life-changing ways. New secondary characters are introduced, including the town doctor, a tow truck operator, a cafe waitress and later, a couple of FBI agents.

We are on Route 56 in Blanchard, probably somewhere in either Pennsylvania or New York, on one of the new super-highways, those marvels of modern travel that were just beginning to become commonplace in 1955 preceding the creation of the Interstate Highway system. The town itself is a small one, an old village thirty minutes from "the city," once autonomous and now a bedroom community (and which could be a virtual stand-in for Hillston, the setting of A Bullet for Cinderella.) The novel begins as The Damned did, with one of the characters riding down the road in a blue Cadillac, only unlike Darby Garon, Devlin Jamison is alone. A recently widowed architect, Dev is still fighting the grieving process that all too often rears its ugly head in brief moments of forgetfulness:

"He tightened his hands on the wheel as the grief and loss threatened to overwhelm him again. He cursed the trickery of grief. It would back off from you a little way, crouched and waiting, tail tip twitching restlessly. It would wait. It would wait until you were so far off guard that you started to think of Gina in the old way, fondly, amused at the eccentricities of her driving, aware of your love for her. It would wait for that moment and then pounce and shake you and say in your ear, "There is no more Gina. She's gone.'"
 
At the insistence of his business partners he has been sent on an extended vacation. Dev's guilt over the death of his wife -- she was hit by a bus as she was picking up Dev's dry cleaning -- has turned him into a brooding, silent man, and even though he is aware that his guilt is irrational, it never leaves him. With plenty of money in the bank and no children to burden him, Dev drives along Route 56 with a suitcase and his golf clubs, hoping to make it to a service station before the bumping sound near his right front tire becomes worse. In heavy traffic and traveling over 50 miles per hour, the tire blows, and in an attempt to correct his skid into the right lane he overcompensates and hits a curb, sending the blue Cad hurtling like a slow-moving javelin into the path of oncoming traffic on the opposite side of the road.

Suzie Scholl is the one member of the Scholl family who does not want to be on Route 56 that afternoon. Along with her bitter, eternally-angry father, her overweight, defeated mother and her noisy younger sister, the family is heading out of Blanchard and toward vacation. Father Bert, a short, powerful factory worker, has the trip itinerary planned down to the half-hour mark and Suzie has already made them late. Before hitting the road we are given a glimpse of the Scholls through the third person eyes of mother Alice, with some remarkably lean and precise descriptive prose. Of her husband Bert:

"She knew how he would look, his face pink and bright with anger. Bert Scholl was a smallish sandy-haired man with a vivid temper. His face had not changed much with the years. It was possible to look at him and see at once how he had looked as a very young man... His face had not changed, but he had changed on the inside. Frequently, of late, Alice had shocked herself by realizing that she didn't even like him anymore. Long ago there had been a certain sensitivity, a tenderness even. He had tried to help her. He had become, in his home, a complete autocrat, either shrill with anger, or boisterously cheerful. His frequent use of her weary body was as quick and impatient and selfish as his anger. He had lost the words of love."
 
As Alice tries to roust her eldest daughter from an overly long morning bath, she looks at Suzie's ripe, naked adult body and wonders what has become of her little girl:

"She had been a merry child, thin, active, laughing. But in the last two years the body had slowed and ripened, and she had become sulky, distant, difficult. There was no way to reach her. Alice had heard hints about her in the neighborhood. The girl had been out very late last night. It had been a warm evening. Alice saw the way it had been, the car blanket and the faceless man, and the ripeness of her daughter. She felt her face grow hot and she was aware of the sagging tiredness of her own used body."
 
Alice's fears are well founded, for Suzie is indeed sexually active, but only with Barney, her steady boyfriend. Suzie would rather be anywhere than stuck for a week with her family and away from Barney and she is sullen and sarcastic as they head out onto the highway. Bert tries to make up for lost time and when a truck cuts in front of him on the highway he takes it as a personal challenge:

"He put the pedal down to the floor and took off after the truck, arms tense, jaw jutted forward, pale eyes narrow...

"'Please be careful,' Alice said.

"'I'm driving,' he growled...

"When he looked at the road ahead he saw the pale blue car..."
 
Tall, blonde, twenty-eight year old Kathryn Aller is also on Route 56, leaving a past behind that has consumed eight years of her life, now heading back to Philadelphia and a "future [that] was a grayness ... she could not penetrate." Nine years ago she was a stenographer with the Allied Chemical Company and had been promoted to be the personal secretary of up-and-coming corporate hotshot Walter Houde. When Houde was transferred to the San Francisco office he wrote Kathryn after a few months and begged her to come work for him again. "I have tried to make do with spooks out here, but I am weary of dandruffy girls to whom work hours are a desert between dates." With no boyfriend or family to tie her down -- save an elderly aunt -- Kathryn makes the move. Weeks of close and intense work lead to the inevitable kiss and on to a lengthy affair, despite the fact that Walter is married with children. MacDonald's skills as a short story writer are put to excellent use in the chapter introducing Kathryn, as we read of their gradual descent into adultery that takes up multiple pages. Kathryn is described in the same language MacDonald used to illustrate Joan Perrit, another corporate secretary, in his 1954 novel Area of Suspicion, and the relationship between Kathryn and Walter would be used to a much different effect in his 1971 short story "Woodchuck."

In Walter, Kathryn had found a fulfillment and sense of purpose absent in the other parts of her life, until it becomes the only purpose of her life:

"She sensed that she was more nearly married to him than was his wife. She cared for him -- professionally, physically, emotionally -- learning all of him. It seemed that life would go on that way. What could stop it? Though he had many outside interests, he was her only interest. Life began when she went into the office and opened her desk in the morning. And began again when she heard his footsteps climbing toward the apartment he had found for her."
 
Do you detect a problem here, dear reader?

Sure enough, the inevitable happens. Walter begins drifting away, slowly at first, then more definitively as the affection waned and the relationship grew colder. The final scene was "nasty and vicious and unforgettable." She quits and returns east, along with a glowing letter of recommendation and a very generous check from Walter. Outside of Blanchard and right before the fateful accident, Kathryn ruminates on her life in a remarkable paragraph, leading the reader to feel that becoming involved in a life-threatening wreck might just be the best thing that can happen to her:

"I am twenty-eight, she thought. A competent secretary, an adequate cook, a practiced mistress. I have an air of coolness that repels people, discourages friendly advances. I have a good healthy body that will last a long time. Life is, perhaps, a third of the way finished. But everything that was to have happened has happened. All the other chapters are written, I shall inhabit an office, stiff and correct and unyieldingly efficient. In the slow wheeling of the years the memories will grow dim until at last it will seem as if all those nights belonged to someone else. Someone else held close the male flesh and made the small, soft cry of love. I shall sit sterile and erect and terrorize the young girls in the office and, behind my back, they will say the usual guessable things. I return now from whence I came, used up by the years, too dry to cry, too cold to be warmed again, assured of my own inadequacy, cleanly, solvent, clad -- and quite, quite dead."
 
Paul and Joyce Conklin are the married couple, out on vacation in an attempt to revive a dying marriage.Joyce is twenty-six, a thin woman with a face "like that of a sensitive boy of seventeen," a dark, firm, quick-gestured lady whose physical beauty is not evident in repose (another JDM female "type" --see Tilly Owen in "College-Cut Kill," among others).

"She elicited love because of what she was. She made friends as automatically as most people breathe because she was inevitably, deeply interested and concerned. Grocer, dentist, bus driver, meter reader -- they liked seeing her and felt better that day for having seen her... She had grown up in a home where there was love and faith and warmth and discipline. Her energy was without bounds, her optimism contagious."
 
Clearly Joyce is not the problem. It must be Paul, and after we are introduced to him that suspicion is indeed correct. In a beautifully-written couple of chilling sentences, we understand him completely:

“His childhood had been served, as a sentence is served, in that emotional wasteland of a home which should have been broken and was not – a home where hate is a voice beyond a closed door, where contempt is a long intercepted look, where violence is a palpable thing in the silent rooms... After reaching in every direction for security he had reached within himself and found it in the exercise of a brilliant though erratic mind. Only through intellectual arrogance could his mind -- that place of safety -- be made known to others."
 
Joyce was responsible for something coming to life within Paul, "and he came forth, reluctantly at first, from the blue icy caverns of his mind and found himself warmed, and then loved. He had not been loved before." The couple produced two children and life seemed good, but three years into the marriage "...it had started to come back. All of it. The black moodiness. The compulsion toward rejection. The walls of ice." Their trip through Blanchard is a route that follows their honeymoon, revisiting all of the old places in an attempt to rekindle a love that has apparently died at the hands of Paul. Yet everything Joyce says is twisted by Paul and things do not seem to be improving at all, when they see a blue Cadillac up ahead begin to suddenly weave dangerously.

Our bad guy in the novel is the curiously laconic Jim Frazier, one of MacDonald's archetypal soulless villain, but exhibiting a decidedly lowercase evil. (In fact, regular readers of JDM are more likely to tag Paul Conklin as the soulless one.) One half of a pair of bank robbers, he seems to be Perry Smith to partner Charlie's Dick Hickock. They are on the lam with the booty from a recent Florida bank robbery, hidden in a spare tire in the trunk, and along the way Charlie has picked up a blonde goodtime girl by the name of Lou. All we ever need to know about Lou (and all we are really given) is written into one spare, simple paragraph. When critic Anthony Boucher wrote that Cry Hard, Cry Fast was written with "both depth and economy," he may have had these few sentences in mind:

"'Me? Oh, I was born in a place called Farrel. That's near [JDM's birthplace] Sharon, Pennsylvania. But we left there when I was real little.' She sighed dramatically. 'I guess I've lived a lot of places since then. I guess you could say I've had a tragical life. I had a little girl once. She died after two weeks. She had water on the brain. I was married then. I still am, because he just took off, but I make like I'm not. Gee, why am I telling you all this stuff.'"
 
Frazier drives as Charlie and Lou do their thing in the back seat, and at one point at night Charlie looks in the rear view mirror and sees the car behind them "bisected by [Lou's] slim leg." After he's had enough, Charlie climbs up front and falls into a deep sleep that lasts until the following day. This leaves Lou bored and she constantly attempts to make conversation with Frazier. As Lou is revealed to be a beautiful dim bulb, Frazier's story in more interesting and MacDonald is parsimonious with the details. He's an ex-con with a superior intelligence, education and background, a war vet who prefers the excitement of crime to anything else. He recalls his answer to a prison doctor who speculated that for Frazier, the mere act of acquiring something seems to answer some deeply held need:

"Could that be it, Doc? So you think a fellow would get so he'd look forward to those minutes just before it happens, to the sweat and tension, and everything honed keen and fine and close? Right up to the thin, hot tip of one minute of being alive? Could that get to be a thing with him?"
 
With Charlie still asleep and Lou talking incessantly, Frazier is looking for a place to stop and switch driving duties with Charlie when he slams into the back of a slowed car and pulls off onto the center strip of the highway, only to see a big blue Cadillac flying right toward them.

Finally, there's Stanley Cherrik, a veteran driver of the big rigs, on the road for too many years to count, with a wife and four kids at home, one in the Army, the youngest a surprise toddler. Stanley is a good driver and a good man, careful behind the wheel and respected by his co-workers. For years now his boss has been begging him to get off the road and come inside to work in the office, but Stanley's reply is always, "One more year, I think. One more year." He's driven his whole career without an accident but he realizes it has to end as he is getting older and his reflexes are slowing. Then there's the thought of safety and the long string of luck he's been blessed with:

"Twenty-one years and a lot of them had gone quietly and a lot of them had gone violently, but the violent separations were small in number, very small compared to the ones killed in the cars, the small, fragile, bug-quick cars that sped by his big rig, taking insane chances."
 
Cherrik is driving his regular run through Blanchard when the traffic thickens and he sees a quick, dangerous movement out of the corner of his eye. He looks up and sees the Cad "leap and roll like a fish... [he] had a box seat for disaster."

The wreck is awful and it closes the road for half a day. Killed instantly are the three members of Suzie Scholl's family and Lou, while Charlie burns to death in the getaway car and Cherrik dies while waiting to be rescued from his crippled cab. Bystanders note that Cherrik crashed on the side of the road while heroically avoiding smashing into the car driven by the Conklins. Sent to the hospital are Dev (with relatively minor injuries), Suzie, who has a broken arm and other non-life threatening injuries, and Kathryn Aller, who seems unscathed but is catatonic. The Conklins are treated and released, while Frazier disappears into town, refusing treatment.

The balance of the novel concerns three interwoven storylines: Dev's guilt over what he has caused and his attempts to expiate that guilt, the remarkable transformation of the Conklin's relationship, and Frazier's attempts to skulk around town long enough to get into the lot where the burned wreckage of his car is being stored in order to grab his robbery loot. Of these, Paul Conklin's Damascus moment as a result of his near death experience is the least convincing or interesting, although there is a nod toward realism when MacDonald has Joyce conclude that their reclaimed happiness is only temporary. Dev's attempts to try and make up for what he believes he has caused has him setting up a trust fund for Suzie's education and him becoming a daily companion to Kathryn Aller, as he helps her to break through her zombie-like state. Suzie thinks Dev is secretly in love with her and will be waiting for her on the other side of college with open, loving arms, while Dev realizes that he is falling for Kathryn, a woman who has never even spoken to him.

In what is easily the novel's clumsiest line, Dev concludes that "Of the two, Kathryn Aller was by far the more likely Galatea."

The real fun happens on Frazier's pages, as he elicits the aid of a hapless, overweight cafe waitress by seducing her and making her think the two of them will run off together to Las Vegas. The inner workings of this expertly manipulative sociopath are on full display in these final chapters, and they are at the same time both sad and funny, and lead to the novel's explosive conclusion.

Cry Hard, Cry Fast has maintained a good reputation among JDM readers over the years. It's a novel that works on several different levels and the peculiar structure MacDonald utilizes allows him to explore many different types of people within the pages of a single work. Plot takes a back seat here, as it did in The Damned and All These Condemned, and will in Murder in the Wind and Condominium. The author is more interested in exploring the motivations of the characters than he is in talking about the great external force that has brought them all together. He first needs to explain why it is that they are here in the first place, then he begins digging deeper into their pasts in an attempt to better understand their reactions to the central moving action of the novel. Some are changed forever, some are not, and some are even killed. Still, it's who these people really are that maintains the reader's interest. I've written this often enough but it bears repeating: JDM's skill in writing fiction in the short form is what allowed him to excel in this type of multi-character novel, unified works where each character's background chapter reads like its own little short story. MacDonald's talent in this particular art form is simply mind-blowing.

MacDonald liked this book and was reasonably proud of it, yet he didn't like the title. It was forced on him by the editors at Popular Library and he hated it, saying in 1965, "A terrible title, they made it up, not me." Interestingly, there is no record in the Shines' Potpourri of what JDM's working title was.

The book received only one contemporaneous review, from MacDonald's biggest literary fan of the time Anthony Boucher. Writing in his "Criminals At Large" column in the New York Times, Boucher called Cry Hard, Cry Fast "a novel of "solid hard authenticity," and concluded that "the many plots [are] told incisively, credibly, even illuminatingly." 

Subsequent reviews of the novel's various later editions were mixed, with Publishers Weekly liking it and the Bakersfield News Bulletin calling it's plot structure "hackneyed." The novel is generally ignored in three of the four MacDonald biographies with the exception of Ed Hirshberg, who gave it a few interesting paragraphs. He asserts just the opposite of what I have written:

"The real focus of the novel is on what actually occurred and why, and what the effects were, rather than on the characters themselves, making it in some instances a series of almost clinical descriptions of what happens to human bodies when they're in auto accidents."
 
It make me wonder if he even bothered rereading the novel for his book, as this is clearly not the case. Still, he admires the book and calls it "a masterful series of sketches."

Unlike Dell, who ran off a huge number of copies of their first JDM book Area of Suspicion, Popular Library printed a relative small run of the Cry Hard, Cry Fast first edition. They published a second edition in 1958 and the novel remained out of print until 1966 when Fawcett began re-publishing the JDM catalog. The total number of copies printed in the two Popular Library runs was only 189,000, while Fawcett produced 569,000 copies over 15 separate printings.

The cover art for the first edition was illustrated by Ray Johnson, his only JDM assignment. That same picture was reused for the second edition, cropped and reformatted. I'm not sure who is depicted there, perhaps Charlie and Lou. The first Fawcett edition was done by the talented Robert McGinnis, featuring a lone couple consoling each other. The sixth and seventh Fawcett editions features a different McGinnis illustration, showing a barely-clad female standing in front of a pile of smoking automobiles. I don't own a copy with this cover and have been unable to locate an image. The final cover -- yet another McGinnis image -- depicts a pile of cars and flying bodies being viewed by a seemingly disinterested blonde in a background cameo.

The film rights to Cry Hard, Cry Fast were sold at publication and as early as January of the following year an announcement was made that Universal would film it as part of "the safe-driving campaign," whatever that was. Selected to produce was Albert Zugsmith, a legendary exploitation filmmaker who was actually responsible for some very good and notable films. The press release noted that Zugsmith would begin working on Cry Hard, Cry Fast after he was finished with the two films he was currently producing, The [Incredible] Shrinking Man and The Tattered Dress. I suppose that by the time he got around to Cry Hard, Cry Fast, Universal had lost interest in "the safe driving campaign," for the property sat on the shelf for years. Then, in 1967 it emerged in an unlikely place as a two-part episode of the popular Ben Gazzara television anthology series Run For Your Life. Broadcast on November 22 and 29, the novel was adapted by Luther Davis and Robert Hamner. The character of Stanley Cherrik was omitted and Gazzara's character replaced Dev Jamison. I've never seen it but a review of the credits on the IMDb reveal only two recognizable characters: Kathryn Aller, played by Susan Clark and Suzie Scholl (renamed "Schell") played by Robyn Millan. Charles Aidman, Jack Albertson, Joan Van Ark and the luminescent Diana Muldaur also had parts, with Muldaur playing the town physician, under a different name and a different gender than in the book.

After viewing a rerun on television in 1990, JDM bibliographer Walter Shine reported that "on the whole, the spirit of the novel is maintained," He also quoted MacDonald's feelings about the show:

"I never visited the set for this one, never had anything to do with it once I signed the contract. But I was satisfied with the results. Much of my dialogue remained intact, and the material made a successful transition from the story form to television. And the character and the action seemed well suited to Gazzara, so all in all I was happy with it."
 
Like most of MacDonald's non-Travis McGee novels, Cry Hard, Cry Fast is out of print, but used copies are very easy to find on Amazon, eBay and other similar sites.