Saturday, February 26, 2011

Peter James Interview

British crime novelist Peter James was interviewed recently and cited The Deep Blue Good-By as one of the "top five crime novels of all time." Read it here. Too bad both the book's title and MacDonald's surname are misspelled...

Dean Koontz on JDM

"He had been a heavy reader of adventure and suspense novels all his life, and he yearned to be a character like one of those he read about, especially a character worthy of being a lead in a John D. MacDonald novel, because John D's lead characters were as rich in insight as they were in courage, every bit as sensitive as they were tough."

-- from Dean Koontz's 1990 novel The Bad Place

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


About a month ago I wrote a piece for this blog on John D MacDonald's 1956 novel Murder in the Wind. I mentioned that an abridged version of the book was published in Redbook magazine the same month (August) that the paperback original hit the stands and that it appeared under what was probably MacDonald's original title "Hurricane." At the time I wrote the posting I didn't own a copy of magazine, so I had no way of knowing anything about the story or the way it was abridged. I have since obtained a copy, featuring a lovely cover illustrated by the amazing Lucia Larner, and thought I would share a few things about it.

The glorious 1950's-style illustrations that were part of most mainstream magazines of the time were, unfortunately, absent in the case of "Hurricane." Redbook, like several other magazines of the era, when including a "Book-Length Novel"  relegated that longer fiction to the back pages of the issue. In Redbook's case, the story is printed on a lower grade pulpy paper, unlike the slick stock enjoyed by the rest of the issue. This also meant that the art for the story was limited to what could be printed on that paper, usually little more than two-tone black-and-white, or a few shades of gray. If one was lucky, they got a block of a single color. As one can see from the "Hurricane" illustration below, all MacDonald got in this case was a fairly unimaginative illustration by Herb McClure of a few seagulls and three palm trees bending to the force of the storm.

Interestingly, the readers of the magazine were provided one thing that Murder in the Wind was lacking: a map. Not as cool as a Dell back cover, but helpful nonetheless, especially since MacDonald had placed the novel in a semi-real location. Route 19 and the bridge over the Waccasassa River were real, the detour road and house were not.

As was typical of the slicks of the time, MacDonald himself got a brief couple of paragraphs in the magazine's "Between the Lines" section, that post-table of contents section where selected contributors to that particular issue are briefly profiled. Nothing unusual is revealed, but it does provide a glimpse of what interested the author in 1956.

"John D. MacDonald, author of "Hurricane," the rip-roaring novel on page 105, is surely the only alumnus of the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration who keeps solvent by writing fiction. He's been doing it for ten years, too. How it came about is hazy, even to him, but this odd switch has netted him a frolicsome life, envied by many of his classmates, and substantial capital gains in the form of stories, novels, movies, monies and prestige. He recently received the 1955 Benjamin Franklin Award for the 'Best Short Story.'

"If a hurricane like the furious "Hilda" of his novel swept away his beguiling home on a spit near Sarasota, Florida, the MacDonalds still could be roofed over by fleeing to their Adirondack retreat where they spend the summertime. John tries to work regular hours (the old business training, doubtless), but he says the world is teeming with things like golf, chess, music, fishing, collecting dueling pistols and striving to make an ever better Martini, which take his mind off the job. Don't you believe it! He is one of our leading merchants in the literary market place."

But the most interesting thing about the "Hurricane" that appeared in this issue of Redbook are the changes the author made, the scope of which are substantial enough to make the abridged version almost read like a different story. Characters are eliminated, their backgrounds changed, and people who died in the novel are spared in the shorter version. And since I don't usually discuss MacDonald's endings on this blog (as one of my hopes is that the reader will discover the work for themselves), I'm going to warn you not to proceed in case you haven't read the novel yet.


In Murder in the Wind, as with all of MacDonald's multi-character/perspective novels, one or two of those characters gradually through the course of the narrative evolve into the leading characters. They are usually one male and one female who eventually get together at the end (or are in the obvious process of doing so). These people are typically widowed, divorced or currently stuck in an impossible relationship. Murder in the Wind featured Steve Malden, a domestic counter-espionage agent presumably employed by the FBI, and Ginny Sherrel, a recently widowed New Yorker. Both are in their thirties, attractive (especially Ginny) and typical MacDonald protagonists. And while these characters are retained for "Hurricane," their roles are secondary to that of the Dorns, Hal and Jean, the young parents of two who are leaving Florida after two years following Hal's unsuccessful attempt at establishing an accounting practice in Tampa. In the novel, Hal is struck in the head by a falling tree limb and eventually dies as a result.

In "Hurricane" it is Charlie Himbermark who suffers death-by-tree and as a result he isn't around to get shot by Frank Stratter, which is a good thing since Frank and his two criminal cohorts, Billy Torris and Hope Morrissey are nowhere to be found in the abridgement. Their absence makes "Hurricane" completely devoid of any crime element altogether.

Steve Malden's occupation is different here as well. Although still involved in law enforcement, he has gone from being a federal agent to ex-cop, working as an investigator for a scary-sounding outfit called The Florida Protection Committee. The description MacDonald provides dredges up all sorts of images of 1950's citizen vigilantism, answerable to no one:

"The Florida Protection Committee, even though financed and operated by private citizens, carried considerable weight in Tallahassee, and with the city governments of large cities in the state. It was formed by hotel owners, real estate operators and the owners and operators of legitimate tourist attractions. These men knew that too often the criminal element made deals with local enforcement agencies. Should that situation get out of control, Florida would be overrun by an element which could readily destroy the reputation the state was trying to establish and drive away the sound and respectable people who were contemplating retirement in Florida. Gambling, prostitution, dope peddling and the resultant theft and violence would never be completely eliminated. But, with proper investigative procedures and pressure applied at the right places, it could be held to a reasonable minimum.

"Steve Malden's job was to establish sources of information, pay for information, protect informants, shadow suspects, observe illegal operations whenever possible and turn over thoroughly documented reports to the Committee for action on the state or municipal level."

And Steve Malden is supposed to be the good guy!

The entirely new sections of the story are reserved for the no-longer-dead Hal Dorn and his bitter, seething self-pity over the circumstances of his failure eventually give way to a new determinism, forged of necessity and out of crisis. Basically, the hurricane makes a man out of him. It is Hal, not Steve, who surveys the raging river and leads the small group to the shelter of the ramshackle house, and it is Hal, not Johnny Flagan, who takes charge once inside the place and begins assigning tasks to the people. Flagan, as a result, takes on the role of selfish coward. He pulls Ginny out of her car and makes an attempt to flee on the road they came in on, only to have the bridge crash under the weight of the vehicle. He is rescued from the river (by Hal) and brought to the house, where he is angrily confronted by Ginny. When he slaps her, Hal intervenes, only to be socked by Flagan, which in turn brings in the powerful Steve who leaves Flagan "whimpering."

The final paragraphs are reserved for the Dorns, as Hal informs Jean that he thinks the family should stay in Florida and live in a trailer if necessary. Surmising that there will be "a lot of work down here" as a result of the hurricane, he goes on and on in an attempt to convince Jean, who eventually answers with, "Please, darling. It will be a lovely trailer."

In the 1950's Redbook was advertising itself as "The Magazine for YOUNG ADULTS," and MacDonald certainly seems to have altered his novel to fit his audience. The focus on the young family instead of the older Steve Malden would have had greater resonance with the readership of this particular periodical, much more so that the slightly older audience of, say, Cosmopolitan. In any event, "Hurricane" is an interesting study of MacDonald's craft, how he developed narrative through character and how he could alter narrative by shifting focus. Going forward I will try and devote space to the condensed versions of the author's novels, assuming I own copies of them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Delusion Drive"

"Delusion Drive" was one of three John D MacDonald stories published in the April 1949 issue of the science fiction pulp Super Science Stories. This was MacDonald's first appearance in the magazine that would eventually publish eighteen of his tales, and he started with a bang, penning more entries in this issue than any other other author. Still, as one can see from the cover, he wasn't an established name in the s-f community as yet and only received a name blurb: no cover art, no title copy. His novella titled "Death Quotient" was the only story to bear his real name, as the other two were assigned house names: "All Our Yesterdays" was credited to "John Wade Farrell" and "Delusion Drive" was supposedly written by Peter Reed.

Super Science Stories has a rather fractured publishing history, and it probably should be considered two separate pulp magazines. It began in 1940 (six years before MacDonald started writing) as a fairly standard science fiction adventure pulp with writer Frederik Pohl serving as the initial editor. Pohl used his position to publish much of his own work, but also was responsible for publishing early stories by Isaac Asimov, James Blish (his first), Ray Bradbury (his first paid piece) and L. Sprague De Camp, whose collaboration with P. Schuyler Miller -- Genus Homo -- has been routinely considered the magazine's finest moment. This first incarnation of the magazine lasted only 16 issues and ended with the May 1943 issue. (To further confuse matters, three of the 16 issues were titled Super Science Novels.) 

In January 1949 the publisher (Popular Publications' subsidiary Fictioneers, Inc.) launched a second version of the magazine, continuing the same numbering system for volumes and issues. Now edited by Ejler Jakobsson (with author Damon Knight serving as assistant editor), the pulp published 15 more issues before expiring for good with the August 1951 issue. And although the second incarnation of Super Science Stories began in January, its second issue wasn't published until April, the issue featuring these three JDM stories. Another gap followed until the third issue was published in July, when it settled down to a bi-monthly schedule. Then again, in 1951, there was a gap between January and April before sputtering off with its final two issues.

MacDonald's contributions to Super Science Stories seem more impressive when taking into account this sporadic publishing history. Of the second version's 15 issues, MacDonald stories appeared in ten of them, and of those ten, seven featured more than one JDM story. Pretty impressive for an author who was only dabbling in the world of science fiction.

"Delusion Drive" is easily the weakest of the the three MacDonald stories appearing in the April issue, although it isn't a bad effort. It takes a fairly standard plot that had been used in countless seafaring stories and puts it into space. What makes "Delusion Drive" interesting -- and what obviously made it interesting for the author -- is how the issue of long-distance space travel is dealt with, that ageless problem for both author and scientist alike, faster-than-light travel (FTL). Here MacDonald calls it "Space Rip."

The protagonist of "Delusion Drive" is named Bill Torrance, an eighteen-year-old would-be "space rat" whose outer space travels have been limited to the "VEM run." (I assume that's Venus-Earth-Mars.) He's signed on to the Leandor, "one of the middle-sized freighters of the Troy Line" as a cook's helper. Torrance walks with an affected swagger, a ruse he hopes will convince his fellow crewmates that he is a "hardened space rat," not a novice.

"I wanted them to think I'd been outside the [solar] system and knew all about Space Rip, which was the way the Leandor traveled."

But as he is unpacking his bags near his bunk, he carelessly asks his roommate Jameson about "the Rip," and Jameson immediately tags him as a "greeny." "You'll know it when it starts, Greeny," he tells him contemptuously. 

"He had a nasty, superior way about him and I didn't answer. But I saw that he kept licking his lips and that he was afraid."

As the two await the jump to FTL, Torrance lies in his bunk, wishing he hadn't said anything.

"My remark had been stupid. I'd read enough about Space Rip to know that nobody has been able to explain the feeling... I grabbed the bunk stanchion to brace myself, but it wasn't that kind of a jar, the sort that you can brace yourself against. It felt as if I had been swatted by a huge club, and yet instead of a club it was made of sharp knives set close together. The knives were 'so sharp that my body offered no resistance and so the big club passed right through me, leaving me ... sort of misty and vague. Apart at the seams. I noticed the greyness then. All colors gone. Everything was a shade of grey and everything had a slight, almost noticeable flicker about it, like the old movies in the museum. All feeling of movement was gone."

When Torrance is called to the galley to begin work, he engages in a long, somewhat philosophical conversation with the cook about the mechanics -- as they understand it -- of Space Rip. In its most basic terms, the Rip changes the ship into "something that isn't physical and then it reassembles it on the other end." When the cook tells him that what they have been changed into is "a concept," things get deep, and MacDonald veers off into ideas and theories that stop the narrative dead in its tracks. It's not as bad as the mind-numbing "science" in his "Escape to Chaos," but it's pretty close.

Then, as the journey is about to end, the story resumes and we get guns, knives and all sorts of unexpected excitement. And an ending that could have come out of any adventure pulp of the day.

As MacDonald famously wrote in his afterword to Other Times, Other Worlds, "One must be able to sustain one's own belief in order to write believable fiction." He was referring specifically to how "the merciless mathematics of Einstein and Fitzgerald" kept FTL technology from ever being feasible. He claimed that even the simple act of writing about it was "cruel" and "counterproductive to the races of man."(!) Well... MacDonald could certainly be a superior-sounding prig when he wanted to, but it is clear from "Delusion Drive" that he thought something like Space Rip somewhat possible, even back in 1949. Besides, the world of science fiction would be nothing without some means to travel to the stars relatively quickly, and writers have given us many different variations on the idea, from Star Trek's warp drive, to Star Wars' Hyper Space, to the neatest of all (at least from a fictional point of view), Battlestar Galactica's instant FTL "jumps." All of these methods originated in science fiction pulp writing and became especially prevalent in the post-atomic age. From more and more powerful rocket fuels, to atomic motors, to warp drives, hyperspace, wormholes and stargates, s-f authors continually came up with new, sometimes novel ways to transverse the impossibly huge distances of outer space. MacDonald's Space Rip seems to have been inspired by the "space warp" school of thought, one seen sporadically in fiction before 1949 and which gained household name recognition with the creation of Star Trek. MacDonald even gave his Space Rip theory an algebraic equation, calling it "Dakeon's Formula" (For all you would-be inventors, here it is: The square root of the distance in light years equals the cube of the trip time in weeks. Please get back to me if the thing really works.)

"Delusion Drive" is currently available in eBook format, included in the Wonder Audiobooks JDM anthology Death Quotient and Other Stories, which you can find on Amazon or any similar online book store for under five bucks.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"The Man Who Almost Blew His Top"

John D MacDonald didn't invent the title for "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top," a short story of his that appeared in the May 30, 1954 issue of the newspaper supplement This Week. That dubious honor is due the magazine's editors, who didn't like the author's own title, "We Love You Anyway." Yet despite the clunky designation, "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" is a simple but above average story about the pressures of modern society and how they gradually grind away at a man's temperament. It's a nifty little microcosm of 1950's America and the man in the gray flannel suit, that suburban commuter with a wife and two children who drives into "the city" five times a week to toil away at a job he doesn't really like, for a boss he hates, only to return home each evening to a family who is increasingly getting on his nerves. It takes an dose of road rage -- 1954-style -- to make him see himself for what he has become. 

"The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" was the seventh John D MacDonald story to appear in This Week, and the six that had been published before this were all lighthearted, semi-comic set pieces built around that typical suburban family of the two-child variety dealing with some kind of situation resulting from a well-meaning misunderstanding. In the end it is (usually) the husband -- typically the cause of the trouble -- who is chastened but wiser. Beginning with "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" MacDonald's This Week stories take on a more serious tone, albeit one still fit for a Sunday morning newspaper supplement. 

The basic situation for "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" is taken directly from MacDonald's novel of the previous year, Cancel All Our Vows, and there are several direct parallels to the opening chapter of that book: a broken air conditioner at the office making work unbearably hot; opening up a sun-baked car and trying to air it out; references to reduced traffic as a result of leaving work at a different time; and a trip to a suburban home up in "the hills." But while Fletcher Wyant (in the novel) is experiencing only the faint hints of middle class ennui, Daniel D. Hunter in "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" seems ready to blow apart. 

"For Daniel D. Hunter it had been such an incredible beast of a Thursday that he wondered why he hadn't broken into tears of pure frustration... One of the bigger clients had gone elsewhere, his secretary had been weepy all day, old Gunnison had given him an entirely unwarranted chewing-out, the new assistant was definitely not working out, the carbon of an important letter could not be located, and he felt stale, old, tired and fumbling."

Add to that, the air conditioning has been out since mid-morning and it can't be fixed until Monday. It's late in the evening and Dan locks the office and heads for the elevator. He pushes the button and... no elevator.

"The blind fury came so quickly that it frightened him. He wanted to kick the wall, smash things, stomp on his hat. The sudden flood of adrenalin made his heart pound, made his hands shaky, his knees weak. These fits of rage seemed to be coming more frequently lately."

Indeed they had, and Dan enumerates all of the petty problems that have made his life so miserable lately: the job, the commute, his co-workers who "filled your back with knives," and always "some kind of mess at home." It would be either trouble between his wife Ruthie and one of their children, or a party he had forgotten that they had to attend that evening (another direct steal from Cancel All Our Vows), or a damned bicycle sitting in the driveway. Dan was getting "old too fast, get[ting] nerves that jingled like broken doorbells."

After he airs out the furnace-like interior of his car, he has trouble starting it, "and again he thought he would break into tears," but the engine eventually turns over and he heads for the hills of home. Outside of the city he looks in his rear view mirror and sees a black sedan speeding up and hovering about a foot away from his back bumper. The sedan then swings out to pass him on the single lane road. Dan reacts -- predictably -- with anger and steps on the gas in an attempt to prevent the other car from getting ahead. As the sedan comes alongside Dan's car he sees the "red apoplectic face" of the other driver, equally consumed by anger, yelling at Dan. Dan vaguely recognizes the man as someone who he met at a Rotary function, "a man who worked in the city and lived up here in the hills too, with perhaps an equal burden of mortgage and the dreadful monotony of daily commuting."

The sedan eventually passes Dan, narrowly avoiding an oncoming truck in the other lane, but the effort to pass has caused the car to lurch out of control. Dan watches as the sedan veers back and forth, then jumps a steep bank, hanging "ludicrously in the air, silhouetted against the cobalt sky." The sight is followed by the "drawn-out jangle and crash and roar of impact." Dan stops his car and runs to help the other man.

The other driver had been thrown out of his car and was lying "face down in a ditch, his legs up the slope at an awkward angle." Other drivers stop and together they manage to send for the police and move the victim, still breathing, into a more comfortable position. Later, as the man is on a stretcher and being placed in the back of an ambulance, Dan notices the socks the man is wearing.

"[Dan] had a pair of socks just like that. Same color and clocks and weave. The man's wife and Ruthie had probably bought them at the same store. There was something terribly meaningful about the socks. Meaningful and pathetic."

Still trembling, Dan heads for home again and turns into his driveway, only to find daughter Jill's bike in the way. 

This is where the story gets really interesting, not because of what happens, but because of MacDonald's beautifully spare descriptions of the other family members, their brief, instinctive reactions to the head of their family that reveal a man to be feared. The wreck and seeing those socks has changed and humbled Dan, but the other members of his family don't know it yet. Dan calmly moves the bike, only to be greeted by a nearly frantic Jill, running out to apologize for not moving it herself. 

"He looked at her for a moment and saw how tautly she stood there, as though ready to flinch or duck. He saw himself in her eyes, and it was not at all pretty. Not a good thing to see, to come home to."

When he rumples her hair and tells her it is okay, she looks at him "puzzled." As they enter the house together, wife Ruthie looks at the two of them "with a taut quickness, with a tension around the mouth." Seeing that Dan is not in one of his moods, Ruthie's mouth relaxes into a smile with "considerable relief."

The final third of "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" consists of nothing more than dinner and a quiet aftermath with Dan and Ruthie sitting under the stars on their patio. Yet it is Dan's confrontation with his own behavior and personality that makes this story interesting, certainly compared to the author's previous This Week entries, and while this is not timeless fiction in the accepted sense, it is an excellent example of how MacDonald was honing his craft, sharpening his observations and providing more mature material to an outlet more used to tales of stopped clocks, comic misunderstandings and aging family pets. A very nice step forward for the author, who would go on to provide twenty more stories to This Week over the next twelve years.
"The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" has never been anthologized but can be purchased from many of the newspapers that once carried This Week, including The Baltimore Sun and The Los Angeles Times.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

JDM on Other Writers

"[Dashiell Hammett's] strengths, and they were so considerable as to elevate his work from hack to art, were in persuasive characterizations, deft, understated, graceful transitions, remarkable dialogue and such little touches of reality in description that he could bring a walk-on completely alive in about two sentences."

-- JDM's 1981 review of Shadow Man by Richard Layman, in the Washington Star

"Some of the people I like to read nowadays are Thomas Williams -- some of his titles are Town Burning, The Night of Trees and The Hair of Harold Roux. I like Charles Williams -- Charley's good, particularly his books Scorpion Reef and Aground. And Nabokov -- splendid, except when he gets too fanciful; when he gets too far away from his story line into erudition, he begins to intrude, he begins to spoil his own narrative effect, almost mischievously. I like John Cheever, very much, and Peter DeVries. Let me see now... that fellow who wrote The Spy Who Came in From the Cold -- John LeCarré. And Eric Ambler I like, and John Updike. And James Jones -- he was a plodder, and was predictable, but he has such a vivid and marvelous control of his own ability. He could create a scene that becomes as unforgettable as if you'd seen it yourself.

"Q: How about the writers you don't like so well?

"A: They're the big, world-famous solemn hacks, such as Leon Uris, Allen Drury, James Michener sometimes, and Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins and Arthur Hailey. These people have a great sense of story, which keeps them going, but at the same time they have very little humor, and of course almost none about themselves. There's no wryness or wit in their writing, and there's no magic and poetry, no sense of exactly the right word... You can perform a little exercise in Uris. You can open a book of his that you have never read before, anywhere. Cover the bottom half of the page, and read the top half, and you will pretty much be able to predict exactly what the lines are going to be and what the people are going to say to each other on the half that's covered."

-- Interview with Ed Hirshberg, published in the 1979 Writer's Digest Yearbook

"I think Ross Thomas is a very good writer, I like his books very much."

-- Interview (1981) with Dick Lupoff, published in the first issue of Mystery Scene Reader, 1987.

"Stephen King is a far, far better writer at thirty than I was at thirty, or at forty."

--Introduction to King's short story anthology Night Shift

"[Norman] Mailer is one of my literary heroes not only because of the restless flood of his talent -- at times he has reminded me of a one-man band, snare drum, bass drum, banjo and a harmonica around his neck on a wire brace -- but also because, along with Saul Bellow and John Updike, he keeps on charging ahead just as if the novel were at the center of the contemporary cultural experience instead of that weeny little thing out there at the far edge of literacy."

-- JDM's USA Today review of Mailer's 1983 novel Tough Guys Don't Dance

"If I were in this business for the purpose of making big money, I would probably be Harold Robbins or Irving Wallace, and I envy them not, financially or professionally... I am just a plain, stubborn eccentric who constantly goes around making the mistake of saying just what he believes."

-- Letter to Harry Ackerman, 1970

"Shute, yes. Charles Williams, yes. Peter De Vries, yes. Cheever, yes. [Vance] Bourjaily and [John] Hersey, yes.
"Michener, Robbins, Wallace, Drury, Uris and friends -- no no no no no."

-- Letter to Dan Rowan, June 12, 1967