Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Bedside Murder"

For an author who published as many short stories as John D MacDonald did, there is surprising little critical assessment of this body of work. Part of the blame can be attributed to the nature of much of these stories -- mystery and crime tales, published in the lowly pulps -- yet MacDonald, more than any of his crime-writing contemporaries, made numerous forays into the world of mainstream fiction, appearing in such big-circulation periodicals as Collier's, Cosmopolitan, Redbook and The Saturday Evening Post. He won a fairly prestigious prize for one of his mainstream tales (1955's "The Bear Trap") and when it came time to anthologize some of his short stories later in his career, he chose mainstream fiction to fill the pages of End of the Tiger and Other Stories and S*E*V*E*N. He was eventually goaded into publishing collections of his older pulp tales, but even then he couldn't leave well enough alone and "updated" them, fearing the modern reader couldn't handle contemporaneous references and settings from the late 1940's.

The JDM Bibliophile, that journal dedicated to the study and appreciation of MacDonald's work, contained very little analysis of the author's short work. By the time Ed Hirshberg took over the editorial duties in 1978 the journal had become little more than an organ for the Travis McGee Fan Club, and nearly every issue skewed heavily toward all things McGee. But this wasn't always the case. In the early days of the JDMB, there were articles discussing the short stories, most of them penned by author and bibliographer Francis M. Nevins. The focus was purely on the pulp writings rather than the mainstream, and Nevins' descriptions and brief analyses of each story he wrote about created (for me, at least) a mystical aura surrounding these lost and forgotten tales.

If I recall correctly (since I no longer own copies of the early JDMBs), one of Nevins's motives in writing about these stories was the hope that some day they would be collected and republished. That hope came to partial fruition with the publication of the Good Old Stuff volumes in 1982 and 1984, and Nevins himself was one of the editors of those collections. Even with MacDonald's wrongheaded insistence on "updating" most of the stories, reading them for the first time conformed what many JDMB readers had been led to believe: these were indeed excellent examples of early crime fiction.

Yet far from being an uncritical cheerleader for these lost stories, Nevins didn't flinch from pointing out their shortcomings and appraising them in the light of what they really were: pulp fiction, not the lost writings of Fitzgerald. In his paper on MacDonald's early writings -- "The Making of a Tale-Spinner: John D. MacDonald's Early Pulp Mystery Stories," presented as part of the 1978 John D. MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detective Fiction -- Nevins singled out a particular JDM pulp story as being below-average and containing "one of MacDonald's least plausible characters." That story was "Bedside Murder." It originally appeared in the Summer 1949 issue of Mystery Book Magazine, and the editors thought it good enough at the time to give the story a mention on the cover (but not the art).

MacDonald published a total of four pieces in Mystery Book, from 1948 to 1950, and three of these stories were good enough to pass JDM-muster and were included in the Good Old Stuff volumes. Only "Bedside Murder" was omitted. It's a long, fairly ambitious novella where MacDonald attempts several somewhat daringly unique (for him) approaches, but in the end the the story falls apart. One senses that the author's attempts at trying something out of the ordinary gave way to the hokey, obvious plot he saddled it with. As a result, neither succeeded.

What's so different about "Bedside Murder"? It features the first-person narrative of a female. Except for several chapters of MacDonald's 1959 novel The Beach Girls, it is the only story I am aware of with a woman speaking directly to the reader. (Granted, there are a lot of JDM short stories I don't own.) For the regular reader of the author's work -- indeed, for regular readers of most pulp stories of the time -- this creates a challenge when reading the story, to constantly remind oneself of exactly who it is that is speaking. MacDonald makes this task even more difficult by adding a male lead, one who in most instances would have been the story's protagonist. He then takes the further muddying step of giving the female a man's first name (Hank), and the man a woman's name -- Kim. Just exactly what the author was trying to do here is debatable and beyond my own limited abilities at literary analysis. Whatever it was, I think it's safe to say that he didn't pull it off.

The plot is familiar and the ending -- a surprise -- could have come out of any pulp tale from the pre-war, pre-hardboiled era of detective fiction. Henrietta "Hank" Ryan is a successful nightclub singer who goes by the stage name Laura Lynn. Someone is trying to kill Hank. A shot was fired into her Greenwich Village apartment, the bullet grazing her ribcage. A few days before that some unknown person tripped her in front of a speeding cab. And before that someone pulled the old "rock-in-a-box-over-the-transom" trick, nearly crushing her skull. She doesn't want to go to the police because she doesn't want an obvious bodyguard, and she suspects her would-be killer is too clever for that. She decides to seek out the services of an attorney, not to do any legal work but to pretend to be her new boyfriend, a constant companion who won't appear to be a paid protector and alert the person who is trying to kill her. After a few unsuccessful attempts she enters the office of Kimberly Hale -- "Kim" -- a struggling attorney who can't even afford a secretary.

The physical descriptions of the two characters are straight out of the John D MacDonald stylebook. Kim is tall, strong, "with that nice flat, rangy build" that happens to be favorite of Hank's. Hank herself is tall, "a big, big girl," who has no modesty about her good looks.

"In my business I'm forced to be spectacular. Nature helped by giving me soft silver hair and smoke-gray eyes -- and a figure that I have inadvertently overheard described in words no lady would repeat. I further the illusion with the right clothes and a sunlamp that gives me a tan the color of warm honey."

Hank's deep, husky voice -- which is what makes her such a successful chanteuse -- is explained away in this odd exchange:

Hank: "[My voice] isn't natural. When I was thirteen I was playing football with the kids on the block and got kicked in the throat."

Kim: "All women ought to be kicked in the throat," he said warmly, then caught himself.

At first Kim refuses to take the case, but when Hank breaks into tears from the cumulative pressure of it all, he listens to her story and eventually relents.

The pair concoct a cover story whereby Hank met Kim at a club in California five years earlier and recently became reacquainted. Kim is supposedly an old friend of Hank's now-dead boyfriend. From this point on the reader is introduced to a variety of secondary characters, all friends or business acquaintances of Hank's and all possible suspects. There's Sonny Rice, Hank's bandleader, and Johnny France, the male singer for the band. Sam Lescott owns the club where Hank performs and Carl Hopper is Hank's agent. There's Donald Frees, a rich would-be playboy who is smitten with Hank and who attends all of her performances, and Betty Lafferty, Hank's friend and roommate who also serves as her paid secretary. Betty's description provides an immediate announcement that she will not serve as a romantic distraction for Kim.

"Betty is the size of a pint of cream. Rusty red hair, a pert little face and smiling blue eyes. She's just a wee shade too plump and she laughs a lot."

The "couple" make their debut together at Hank's club, several hours before she's about to go on. When Hank spies famous gossip columnist Wallace Wint in the place, she orders Kim to kiss her, hoping that Wint will see and write it up in his column. With Wint's "beady little eyes" on them, Kim takes his cue from Hank and obliges.

"He leaned across the small table. He was very adequate.He was even deft. It took me a good four seconds after it was over to remember why it had happened. I loosened up on the fingernails that were about to punch holes in his hand."

So... the reader can easily see where this "relationship" is going (as if there was any doubt), even if the first-person narrator can not.

This initial visit to the club provides MacDonald the opportunity to introduce all of the characters/suspects, with some so blatantly hateful that you know they can't be the guilty. The story proceeds like an old Philo Vance or Charlie Chan tale, with some exciting action scenes where Hank is nearly knocked off, suspects acting like suspects and everyone involved providing at least a slight reason for wanting the protagonist dead. In the end it is, of course, one of the least likely characters who is guilty, and that character's reason for wanting Hank dead is every bit as preposterous as the plot itself.

Still, "Bedside Murder" doesn't really seem any less believable than a lot of other early JDM yarns, with titles like "You've Got to Be Cold" or "Killing All Men!" springing to mind. But despite MacDonald's somewhat artless attempt at writing a story from a first-person female perspective, there is an obvious plotting point inserted in the tale that, while eventually providing a rationale for the attacker's motive, immediately renders the motivations of Hank herself unbelievable. The author clearly recognized this lame necessity by attempting to have Hank explain it away, unconvincingly. Sorry, but to go into it any further would give away too much of the story.

One gets the feeling that MacDonald, when apologizing and attempting to explain away his early pulp stories, had "Bedside Murder" in mind, with its hokey, unwieldy plot, its obvious romantic angle, some unbelievably motivated characters and, ultimately, its "glib ending." But JDM wrote many far better pulp tales than "Bedside Murder," and it does stand as proof that MacDonald's storytelling skills could fail him every once in a while.

The 15,000-word novella has yet to be reprinted or anthologized.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this interesting article on JDM in MYSTERY BOOK. For more about this magazine and Fredric Brown, go to google.com and type in "Fredric Brown Deadly Weekend". You will get a hit on BARE*BONES E-ZINE with an interesting piece about MYSTERY BOOK.

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  2. Thanks Walker. I've been following Bare*Bones since September... it's a great blog.

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