Friday, April 29, 2011

"You Got to Have a Good Lip"

The story of John D MacDonald's beginnings as a writer was often told during his lifetime, so much so that it became the stuff of literary legend. While stationed in Asia during the second world war, he wrote a story to entertain his wife, because censorship of his letters home robbed them of anything interesting to say. Without telling him, Dorothy MacDonald typed it into manuscript form and submitted it to Story magazine, a popular pulp of the era, who purchased it for publication and paid the author $25 for the honor of doing so. Dorothy saved the good news until her husband's return home, and MacDonald was so dumbfounded over the news that he quit the army and became an author. The facts of the story are, of course, a simplification but they are basically true. Left out of most tellings of this tale is the fact that Dorothy MacDonald's first attempt at selling "Interlude in India" met with a rejection slip.

It was Esquire magazine who had the first chance to publish the first John D MacDonald story -- then still called "Through a Glass Darkly," JDM's original title -- but they turned it down, reportedly because of its meager length, not due to any lack of quality in the writing. The editors even encouraged Dorothy to submit something longer. But a little over a year after MacDonald returned home Esquire managed to make up for its oversight by becoming part of another bit of JDM history: they were the first slick magazine to publish a John D MacDonald story. "You Got to Have a Good Lip" appeared in their gigantic (382 very large pages!) December 1946 issue and the story is a peek, I think, at the kind of writer MacDonald could have become, had 1,000 rejection slips not separated his first and his second sales.

Once MacDonald decided to try writing for a living, he recalled that "for the first time in my life I really worked. Really. Eighty-hour weeks. I turned out 800,000 unsalable words in four months." Later he said "I must tell you that a lot of those words were really dreadful." What kinds of stories were these early efforts? We'll never know for certain, since the author and his young son later burned all of the manuscripts, however it is important to remember that "Interlude in India" was not a mystery story but straightforward narrative fiction dealing with the subjects of race, culture and boredom. MacDonald once sarcastically characterized his early unsellable work as "wonderful beautiful [stories] about dying blind musicians, but they didn't sell." It wasn't until he "lowered [his] sights a little" and started writing crime fiction that he finally began receiving checks back in the mail.

"You Got to Have a Good Lip" is the story of a musician, but he is neither dying nor blind. His name is Souie Bless and he's "a sarcastic, egotistical jerk" who "can't think and... never smiles." But he can play jazz.

"He had one fine talent that kept him in Packard roadsters and big blonde dollies. He could blow a horn -- or a trumpet if you're one of those people who call them that -- that was high, wild, sweet and true."

Souie's story is told in the first person through the character of Marty Terrace, the man who "discovered" Souie and who brought him up into the big time. Marty tells the tale in a kind of affected Runyonesque prose that is a bit stilted at times and definitely shows an author still learning his craft. Marty recalls how he first became involved with Souie:

"I had heard a few guys mention his name when he was playing out in the tank towns. I listen for things like that. I noticed that they said it with a kind of reverence. That, I didn't get... So when Hoggarty, who is the Ronald West of Ronald West's Band, caught his first horn with his babe, there was a vacant spot in the band. They filled in with a couple of plumbers and I took a trip looking for this Souie  Bless. I found him in a mixed joint in Buffalo..."

When he finally gets to hear him play, Marty is impressed.

"He didn't mess with rough riffs or fancy breaks. Just nice plain round notes that kind of melted out of the bell of that horn."

Souie, "a swarthy guy with little black eyes," is unimpressed with the applause that "tore the roof off the place," puts his horn down and heads for the bar, "a mean look on his nasty little face." When Marty introduces himself Souie responds with bile and the two almost come to blows. But finally Marty is able to communicate his reason for being there and eventually gets Souie's agreement to quit his current combo and join up with Ronald West's Band. When Marty explains how much of a great opportunity this will be, Souie responds, "Opportunity for me... hell! West'll be buying the best horn in the business."

Souie joined the new band, and it should have been the end of Marty's involvement with him, only "somehow, by going out and getting him, I had given everybody who got browned off at him a ticket to cry on my shoulder." Souie headed straight to the top and became the featured soloist in the band, performing on radio and "cutting discs by the bushel." Marty recalls that no matter how famous Souie became, he was still the "little stinker" he had always been, hated by any and everyone who worked with him, an enmity that was reciprocated toward all. He tells a story about a run-in with a trombone player over a solo that results in an "accident" involving the other musician's instrument. Then there was the fight with Big Bronson, one of the best men on drums in town. Despite Souie's smaller size he manages to chop Bronson's face into "hamburger meat" thanks to a deftly-wielded signet ring. And of course there were the girls, "big blonde women who stared at him with  that honest sincere affection with which big blonde women always stare at big bank notes." Souie just "enjoyed blowing that horn and he enjoyed being a big shot."

But this musician is a specialist, and when Souie steps out of his specialty, only for a moment, it all comes crashing down on him...

For early JDM, "You Got to Have a Good Lip" isn't bad, and the author's attempts at a kind of stylized idiom full of colorful slang spoken by earthy characters works more often than it doesn't. It was rare for MacDonald to have a first-person narrator tell an entire story using this kind of language, and as his career progressed it was a task that eventually fell to secondary characters. The author usually used it for comic effect, reaching its apogee in his 1949 mainstream story "Looie Follows Me." These kinds of tales featuring musicians, second-rate actors, gangsters and other assorted low-lifes populated the fiction pages of certain magazines in the 1940's, and none of them were mystery pulps. Pulp magazines demanded action, violence and real crime before anything else. Slicks like Esquire preferred a bit of distance from its subject matter, lives to be looked into and marveled at and to feel superior to. These walls eventually broke down in the 1950's as fiction became less important to the slick magazines, but there has always been a dichotomy in the world of fiction between the "serious" writers and the "popular" ones. I think MacDonald longed to be a serious writer despite protestations to the contrary, at least early in his writing career, and he never stopped producing mainstream fiction. His readers can be thankful that the editors of all of the slick magazines to which he submitted work to in late 1945 didn't think he was good enough to join the ranks of the serious boys and girls.

I'm sure MacDonald viewed this first appearance in a slick with some pride, so much so that he notified the local newspaper of its pending publication. The November 17, 1946 edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch ran the following piece on page 2 of their Sunday paper, complete with the author's home address, in case one felt like stopping by to congratulate him:

 MacDonald loved music and he especially loved jazz. He owned a large collection of recordings, enjoyed visiting intimate clubs where jazz was performed, and wrote about it with some frequency. One of his Clinton Courier columns (April 29, 1947) was entirely devoted to a review of a local jazz concert (he panned it). One of his club visits was a celebration of his return from the war, when he and Dorothy headed down to NYC to see Billie Holiday, backed by Big Syd Catlett's combo, perform at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street. (Catlett was a drummer and one naturally wonders if he was the model for Big Bronson in "You Got to Have a Good Lip.") Hugh Merrill in his biography of MacDonald tells the amusing story of that evening, when during an intermission JDM and Dorothy made a trip to the rest rooms. Along the way they encountered three enlisted men in uniform fighting. Holiday pulled Dorothy into her nearby dressing room, where she enjoyed the protection of two boxer dogs. John, who had just quit the service holding the rank of lieutenant colonel, attempted to break up the row. Unfortunately he was not in uniform and one of the soldiers slugged him, knocking him five steps backward. MacDonald recalled, "I will never forget my shock at looking down at my clothes and finding out I was a civilian any damn soldier could clobber at will."

It is interesting to note that, despite the purported objection to the length of "Interlude in India," "You Got to Have a Good Lip" -- at 1,550 words -- is only 50 words longer than the former short story. Esquire didn't even include "Good Lip" in the "Fiction" section of the December issue's table of contents, relegating it to a category titled "Briefs," which included works of both fiction and non-fiction. Would another 50 words have made "Interlude in India" both MacDonald's first story sold and his first mainstream sale?

"You Got to Have a Good Lip" has never been anthologized or republished.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Stephen King on Creative Writing Classes

"I'm often asked if I think the beginning writer of fiction can benefit from writing classes or seminars... I'm doubtful... In all fairness, I must admit to a certain prejudice here: one of the few times I suffered a full-fledged case of writer's block was during my senior year at the University of Maine, when I was taking not one but two creative-writing courses... Most of my fellow students that semester were writing poems about sexual yearnings or stories in which moody young men whose parents did not understand them were preparing to go off to Vietnam...

"I brought poems of my own to class but back in my dorm room was my dirty little secret: the half completed manuscript of a novel about a teenage gang's plan to start a race riot... This novel, Sword in the Darkness, seemed very tawdry to me when compared to what my fellow students were trying to achieve, which is why, I suppose, I never brought any of it to class for a critique. The fact that it was better and somewhat truer than all my poems about sexual yearnings and post-adolescent angst only made things worse. The result was a four-month period in which I could write almost nothing at all. What I did instead was drink beer, smoke Pall Malls, read John D. MacDonald paperbacks, and watch afternoon soap operas."

-- from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000) by Stephen King.

MacDonald, of course, went on to write the Introduction to King's first short story collection Night Shift, and the two eventually became friends.

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Fast Loose Money"

When the United States entered the Second World War in December 1941 John D MacDonald was already a member of the armed forces. He had joined the Army in June of 1940 in an act of near desperation, having failed in several attempts at a career in the financial industry. With a recent Harvard MBA on his resume, he managed to snag a position as an ordinance officer and was stationed in a variety of locations in upstate New York before being sent overseas in 1943 to serve in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater of war. He remained there until the war's end in 1945, having been stationed in both India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). So it is no surprise that once MacDonald began his writing career in 1946 much of the early work he produced drew heavily on his war experiences. And although he never saw any real action -- he worked in procurement and supply-- he had obviously seen enough and remembered enough to use many of the things he has witnessed in his fiction.

MacDonald produced a glut of war-related stories in the very early years of his writing career, so much so that he had to eventually be dissuaded by one of his pulp magazine editors. Stories with titles such as "Blame Those Who Die," "The Flying Elephants," "Muddy Gun," "Justice in the Sun" and "The Chinese Pit" filled the pages of long forgotten pulp magazines such as Best Stories, Doc Savage and Short Stories. But he never really stopped writing about people who had served in the war, about how the conflict had shaped them, the massive waste on a nearly unimaginable scale, and -- especially -- the bonds of friendship and enmity that were forged when young men were separated by thousands of miles from their homes and living in a strange land. Some died, some merely survived, others were made better for their time overseas, and some made out like bandits.

In the early spring of 1958 MacDonald must have been reliving his war days, for he produced at least two memorable works that drew upon his experiences in the conflict. His novella titled "Taint of the Tiger" appeared in the March issue of Cosmopolitan, and was later expanded and published as a paperback original called Soft Touch. It's the story of two war buddies who are reunited after the war and attempt to pull off a grand heist. They met serving in "Detachment 404" of the OSS, precisely the same unit the author was assigned to, and while these two characters were behind-the-lines combat veterans, their past experiences were clearly drawn from MacDonald's own.

Four months after "Taint of the Tiger" was published, another MacDonald work appeared in the pages of Cosmopolitan. The July issue featured his short story "Fast Loose Money," a tale that again featured two old war buddies who had served in the CBI, but this time their experience drew directly on MacDonald's. Jerry Thompson and Arnie Sloan spent the war serving in C Company of the 8612th Quartermaster Battalion stationed thirty-five miles north of Calcutta, and they used their decidedly non-combat war time to make the most of a bad situation. It is a behavior that has carried over into their post-war lives in the States: as Jerry puts it to the reader, "... if you play by the rules, you're a sucker."

The pair met when Arnie Sloan was transferred to the QM Battalion, where Jerry was already stationed as a sergeant. Life in the railway junction of Deladun was hot, monotonous and ripe for picking.

"We had warehouses there and plenty of six-ton trucks, and it was a soft deal. Go load stuff off the Calcutta docks, check it in, warehouse it, then either ship it north by rail, or run priority items by truck to Dum Dum Airfield for air transportation or turn it over to a QM truck company."

At first Jerry eyes the newcomer Arnie warily, as he "had a lot of things going on the side" and he kept his guard up in case Arnie was an "I.G. plant." But after a while they recognize each other as birds of a feather and become friends and partners in the art of skimming. "We were both hungry, and for hungry guys that station was paradise."

Their enterprises were aided by the fact that C Company was headed by an indifferent leader, a South Carolinian named Lucius Lee Brevard. Captain Brevard "just plain didn't give a damn, and neither did his lieutenants. The officers kept themselves stoned and ran down to Calcutta to the big officers' club almost every night."

Jerry recalls many of the crooked deals he and Arnie undertook in their quest to acquire personal wealth, including everything from PX watches, to stolen liquor, to a complicated scam involving exchanged missionary bonds. When the money got too big for those small-time swindles, they devised a way to melt gold into airplane parts and fly them over the hump to China for exchange. "You could make 10 percent on your money every trip." At first the pair sent their profits home via "those hundred-dollar money orders you could get." But when their earnings became too great they had to devise alternate methods.

After Captain Brevard crashed his jeep on the way back from Calcutta one evening, a new leader is assigned to C Company. Captain Richard E. Driscoll is everything Brevard is not, and it spells immediate trouble for Jerry and Arnie's money machine.

"He was a little blonde guy with long eyelashes, chilly blue eyes and a way of holding himself very erect. He did absolutely nothing for three days. Just when we were beginning to relax, he made his move. He conducted an official inspection without warning. Then he called a company formation. It had been so long since anything like that, the boys felt they were being imposed upon."

Jerry describes Driscoll's first address to the unit as "G.I. chicken, right out of the book."

"All officers and enlisted personnel are restricted to the company area until further notice... No vehicle will leave the motor pool without a proper trip ticket countersigned by me. All personnel will wear the uniform. There will be a complete showdown inspection tomorrow morning at nine. All non-coms in the three top grades will assemble at the orderly room in ten minutes. Dismissed!"

After a week under Driscoll's command Jerry and Arnie's income is severely affected. They get together and, along with a few of Brevard's leftover slacker officers, devise a plan to slowly drive Driscoll out.

"Arnie summarized it. 'Okay, guys. Get the word around. Whatever you do, you do slow. Whatever can be dropped, you drop it. And follow every order right to the letter. The stuff everybody has been doing as routine, you don't do it unless you're ordered to do it.'"

And within two weeks the company "went to hell." Simple tasks never got done, or if they did they were done poorly. Driscoll soon recognized what was happening but couldn't respond with discipline because no one had done anything technically wrong. Instead of relaxing his grip, Driscoll was "too stubborn to quit" and he tried to be everywhere at once. With no one on his staff he could actually trust, the task of running the company "peeled the weight off of him" and the battalion brass "was on his neck every minute." After a mere seven weeks of this Driscoll was relieved of command.

It only took a week to "break in" his replacement, and by then the boys were back in business.

 When they were finally discharged and sent home, Jerry and Arnie came up with alternate methods of getting their loot home. Jerry converted all of his gains to US currency and hid it inside a hollowed-out wood carving from Java. Arnie had his earnings converted to star rubies and sapphires, put them in the bottom of his canteen, poured wax on top of them and filled the canteen with water. (Sound familiar?)

Once back home the boys use their money to go into business, but in separate enterprises. Arnie now owns a fancy restaurant and Jerry operates three downtown parking lots. Both are married, have remained friends and live next door to each other. And both have continued their "off-the-books" way of life, Arnie by cash kickbacks from suppliers and large, undeclared tips, and Jerry by rigging the time stamp machines at his lots. They are careful about spending too much of their illegal profits and keep much of it in cash, hidden in safes inside their homes.

The story opens after an unusual day at the parking lot for Jerry. He's been paid a visit by a special someone, and when he arrives home he is too upset to eat. He ignores his wife's questions and heads over to Arnie's back yard, where he waits until late in the evening for his friend to come home. He has something to tell him...

Stripped of its background and setting, the plot for "Fast Loose Money" is as old as O. Henry. The ending is fairly predictable and is prefigured in the opening of the story. But MacDonald's background, his character construction and the structure he uses to tell the tale are really terrific. From the opening interaction between Jerry and his wife, to his recollections of times past, MacDonald keeps the narrative going a breakneck speed. At only 3,000 words MacDonald creates several real and recognizable worlds, where the reader can almost feel the tropical Indian heat and smell the backyard cigar smoke. It is one of JDM's better short stories, a fact he himself recognized by including it in his first "mainstream" anthology, End of the Tiger and Other Stories.

Just exactly how autobiographical "Fast Loose Money" is cannot be known. Company C is clearly modeled on the unit MacDonald was originally assigned to once he arrived in the CBI, before being reassigned to the O.S.S. in Ceylon. I've always wondered if the character of Captain Richard E. Driscoll was based on the author himself. His rank was the same as MacDonald's when he arrived in India, he was blonde and blue-eyed like MacDonald, but his height and demeanor are polar opposites to the author's. Although he is hardly a sympathetic character, Driscoll was only trying to straighten out a bad situation, much as MacDonald may have tried to do. One can certainly imagine a young captain arriving in a theater of war, heading up his first command and trying his best to run things the right way, even if it really was nothing but "G.I. chicken." And there were people like Jerry and Arnie in every unit of the war, especially in areas where combat was but a faint sound in the distance.

The bit about the hundred dollar money orders was clearly drawn from MacDonald's own experience. He won a large sum of cash in a "very fortunate session at the poker table with some people heavy with flight pay" and sent it home in "a little sheaf of hundred-dollar money orders." The funds were used to purchase the MacDonald's summer camp on Lake Piseco in upstate New York.

And the attentive reader really has to wonder about that bit with the jewels-hidden-in-wax-in-the-canteen bit. How autobiographical was that? It was easily the most oft-used method of secretly moving ill-gotten riches in the JDM oeuvre, appearing in many different places, including the early stories "The Flying Elephants" and "Sepulchre of the Living," the first Travis McGee novel The Deep Blue Good-By, and a couple of other tales I can't recall to mind right now. Did MacDonald bring anything back to the states that way?

Copies of End of the Tiger and Other Stories are relatively easy to find on eBay or Amazon. MacDonald changed the name of the story slightly ("The Fast Loose Money") for the anthology.

A special thanks to Leif Peng of Today's Inspiration for the scans of the original Cosmopolitan story art, illustrated by the great Bob Peak.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

JDM on Dialogue

"I never met [Dashiell] Hammett and never corresponded with him. Here are some small and unimportant ways in which our lives touched. Hammett and I were both discharged from the Army in September of 1945 at Fort Dix, NJ. I was 29 and he was 51.

"His first novel, Red Harvest, was published in 1929 when he was 33. My first novel, The Brass Cupcake, was published in 1950 when I was 34. Both novels are still in print.

"His last short story in the pulp magazine Black Mask was "Death and Company," published in 1930. Seventeen years later, my first story in that magazine was titled "Manhattan Horse Opera," which doubtless shows a smidgen or two of the Hammett influence. He influenced us all: The straight, simple prose style. Everything deleted except what moved the action forward. Characters shown through action and through dialogue -- with a special emphasis on making the dialogue ring true. This is a very chancy area. You cannot have people talking the way people actually talk. Transcribe a tape of any casual conversation, and you will see what I mean. You have to do dialogue that, if spoken exactly as written, would sound just a little bit stilted -- yet on the page, it creates for the reader the imitation of a total reality."

-- from John D MacDonald's book review of Shadow Man (a Hammett biography) published in the August 2, 1981 edition of the Washington Star.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Raymond Chandler, when the problem was reversed. From a letter to James M. Cain dated March 20, 1944:

"A curious matter I'd like to call to your attention -- although you have probably been all through it with yourself -- is your dialogue. Nothing could be more natural and easy and to the point on paper, and yet it doesn't quite play. We tried it out [while writing the screenplay for Double Indemnity] by having a couple of actors do a scene right out of the book. It had a sort of remote effect that I was at a loss to understand. It came to me then that the effect of your written dialogue is only partly sound and sense. The rest of the effect is the appearance on the page. These unevenly shaped hunks of quick-moving speech hit the eye with a sort of explosive effect. You read the stuff in batches, not in individual speech and counterspeech. On the screen this is all lost, and the essential mildness of the phrasing shows up as lacking in sharpness. They tell me that is the difference between photographic dialogue and written dialogue. For the screen everything has to be sharpened and pointed and wherever possible elided."

Monday, April 11, 2011

JDM on His Florida Neighbors

"'Look --' [MacDonald] pointed out through the mosquito screen across his own front yard. 'The neighbors. Now the guy over there, beyond those trees, he's a minister of the church. Right now he's under indictment for selling eight million dollars' worth of phony tax havens. Then there's another guy, just there; he's a qualified physician. He's never practiced, so far as I know. He keeps a Rolls-Royce in his driveway -- never cleans it. I don't know what he does. But every two weeks or so I hear his power boat going our to sea at three in the morning. Maybe an hour later, it comes back. That's what he does. I don't think I exaggerate too  much in the books.'"

Jonathan Raban, describing his visit with John D MacDonald in his 1987 collection of essays For Love & Money: A Writing Life.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Death Trap

For the sake of simplicity I tend to compartmentalize John D MacDonald's writing into four identifiable periods of time. The first block covers the early years, between 1946 - 1950 when he was writing short fiction and learning his craft. The second period consists of his early attempts at the long form, novels that were hit or miss in their quality and was another learning period for the author. The final block of time begins in 1964 with the publication of the first three Travis McGee novels, which became MacDonald's primary focus for the rest of his life. That leaves the third period, covering the years 1956 to 1963, when the author hit his stride and wrote one confidently excellent novel after another. I mark the beginning of this golden age with his December 1955 release April Evil, followed by Murder in the Wind, which seemed to be another attempt at mainstream acceptance. But when I think of this period -- this amazing run of now-forgotten or dimly-recalled titles such as The Drowner, Where is Janice Gantry?, The Only Girl in the Game or On the Run -- I tend to ignore both April Evil and Murder in the Wind and go right to Death Trap.

Death Trap was published in February 1957 and it represents -- to me, at least -- not so much a great leap forward in the writing skills of John D MacDonald but the settling in of a writer who had at last understood his own talents and who had a clear idea of what it was he was capable of. It's as if after a period of sporadic jumps and halts, the gears were now smoothly engaged and the writing machine is heading down the road in a known direction. Death Trap is not exactly a great novel and it suffers from major shortcomings that may derail some readers' enjoyment of the piece, yet taken on its own terms it is as good a mystery as MacDonald ever came up with and its evocation of time and place, the post-war milieu of 1950's America is haunting and memorable.

Part of the reason Death Trap resonates so forcefully is the author's handling of the lead character, Hugh MacReedy. In most respects he's a typical JDM protagonist: tall, strong, tanned, attractive to women, a professional man doing man's work (he's a construction engineer). Yet he is different in one important respect. In John D MacDonald's moral world, Hugh has committed an almost unpardonable sin: he has wooed, bedded and abandoned a former girlfriend, a virgin (!), not because of any perceived affection, or temptation, or existential ennui, but simply because he enjoyed it. It represented nothing more than the accomplishment of "rack[ing] up a score, add[ing] a pelt to the trophy shelf." I know, this sounds like a trivial, quaint, almost laughable character flaw, but if you don't understand its importance in the JDM universe, you don't understand JDM the moralist. In prior books this kind of action would only be undertaken by a morally-backward secondary character or even the villain, but never the hero. It would have been an unthinkable deed to Andy McClintock in Dead Low Tide, Gevan Dean in Area of Suspicion or even Teed Morrow in the relatively primitive Judge Me Not. Hugh MacReedy is flawed in ways those previous protagonists were not, but not to the extent that he doesn't feel guilt for what he has done (indeed, if he lacked even that characteristic, MacDonald could not have written him). It is that guilt and Hugh's hunt for redemption that drive the plot of Death Trap. Luckily for the reader, there's a murder mystery to serve as the means for this atonement.

There is another kind of redemption at work in Death Trap, one that would play out in more than one of MacDonald's pre-McGee Golden Age novels: the author's own attempt to take some of his previous, less-than-perfect books and improve them, tightening plotlines, strengthening structures and correcting motivation. These attempts are not straight re-writes but a second attempt at basic premises and themes. There are at least three of these attempts that I can identify off the top of my head. Death Trap is clearly another attempt at the basic storyline of A Bullet for Cinderella, written only two years earlier: ordinary citizen arrives in a small town and becomes involved in unraveling an old crime. Two books later MacDonald would attempt (successfully) to atone for the sin of Weep For Me in The Empty Trap, and two books after that The Deceivers would take the basic premise of 1953's Cancel All Our Vows and improve upon it in a tighter, more focused novel.

The plot the author uses in Death Trap is a fairly simple one. Hugh MacReedy has just returned to the States from Europe where he has spent two and a half years working on the construction of a couple of military airfields. He is ready to take a nice two-month vacation consisting of fishing, drinking and screwing when he spots an article in the local Chicago newspaper. The brother of an old girlfriend has been convicted of the rape and murder of a young woman and is sentenced to be executed. Hugh calls off his vacation and returns to the small town, re-establishes his relationship with the girlfriend and begins investigating the circumstances of the crime.

MacDonald's growing maturity as a writer is evident in the remarkable first chapter of this novel. Except for the crime committed by his ex's brother, there is no initial hint that this is going to be a crime novel (except for all the obvious reasons, such as the cover , the author, everything else...). Hugh's motivation for cancelling his vacation is to comfort someone he has wronged, to assuage the growing guilt he has been feeling and to make a long-overdue apology to a woman for whom he finally acknowledges deep feelings. His recollections of how he seduced and bedded Vicky Landy are recalled bitterly and with unflinching detail.

"Because she was unlike any girl I had ever known, I was not at ease with her. I moved cautiously. There was a challenge in the quality of her mind, and to meet it I did not drink heavily when we went out together. I felt no need to, and suspected that had I done so she would have shown not contempt but boredom...

"It didn't take long to ruin it.

"Not when my basic and instinctive reaction to the female was to attempt to rack up a score, add a pelt to the trophy shelf. I sensed it wouldn't be easy. So I went at it carefully. And without conscience. Why should I have felt any twinge of conscience? She was of age. She was willing to go out with me, so she was taking her own chances. Plenty of others had taken their chances too, and, to the gratification of my male ego, most of them had lost the game. I didn't want to have to classify Vicky as one of the ones who got away..."

The town of Dalton, where Vicky lives, where the action of the novel takes place, and where Hugh met Vicky when he was there working on a road project, is easily identifiable to the student of John D MacDonald's biography. A quaint, insular village located nine miles south of the larger county seat, the home to a small college that sits separately up on a hill is obviously Clinton, New York, where the MacDonald family lived from June 1947 to October 1948. The family moved there in the hopes that, in MacDonald's words, "it might provide a pleasant atmosphere for the writer," but that hope proved ephemeral as they found "the college community" more interested in its own social pecking order than in intellectual stimulation. MacDonald's Dalton is a town in decay, featuring parents who are either thuggish, psychotic or simply indifferent, teenagers whose juvenile delinquency has reached a nearly barbaric state, and a law enforcement system run by a crooked sheriff aided by a deputy straight out of the stone age. It's not clear if MacDonald was describing actual situations he witnessed during his time in Clinton -- there's certainly nothing to indicate such depravities in his recollections or in the newspaper column he wrote while there -- but the geography of the place is unmistakable.

(The only actual in-joke that I can detect takes place when Hugh returns to Dalton after several years absence. He notes that there is now a new traffic light "where College Street came out on the square." When living in Clinton MacDonald lobbied hard for a change in the traffic pattern around the town square, precisely where an actual "College Street" intersects there.)

Hugh finds Vicky living in a rooming house, and arrives to find her in the process of moving out. The second chapter of the novel is a long and interesting one, featuring Hugh's forthright and abject apology, Vicky's rejection of it, Hugh's second attempt and Vicky's ultimate -- but conditional -- acceptance. Vicky's wrongfully convicted brother Alister is an unusual character to say the least, a brilliant but socially backward loner who elicits absolutely no sympathy from Hugh, the reader or anyone else in the town save his older sister. If we can't feel compassion for this hard-to-like victim (who barely appears in the novel except in the conversations of the book's other characters), and if the tension between the two love interests is resolved before the second chapter is over, what is left in the way of suspense? Why should we care if he is executed of not? The redeemed Hugh has promised Vicky to try and help Alister, who according to his sister is innocent of the crime, but if he fails... well, Hugh is doing this for Vicky, not Alister.

MacDonald obviously realized he had written himself into a corner very early on, so he devised a plot point to help establish what little suspense there is left after Vicky has forgiven Hugh. If brother Alister is executed, there won't be any Vicky & Hugh because there won't be any real Vicky! As she tells Hugh:

"I don't want to say this to you, but I have to. Maybe I am too emotionally involved with Al. Maybe we were too close, closer than a brother and sister should be. I want -- everything for us, Hugh. But I'm not going to be any good. I can feel that. When they -- kill him, part of me is going to die and never be any good to you. If he lived, I think I could in time transfer that part to you... I'm very earnest about this. Maybe the part that will die will be -- how to be gay. How to laugh. You see... if this is a true thing between us, Hugh, and you help me, it will be helping us... No matter what I feel or what you feel, I won't inflict on you the woman I will be after they -- do that to him. And I mean that with all my heart. Nothing can change my mind."

A reader would have to go back to MacDonald's earliest pulp fiction to find a plotting device so obvious or so transparently employed. Still, it represents the end of the exposition in the novel and the real story can begin. Hugh now has a motivation to try and prove Alistar's innocence, amateur though he is, while Vicky will... do nothing, actually. Her characterization in the book could be seen as another problem with MacDonald's handling of the novel, but as the story becomes more involved, her character really needs no expansion. She's said all she needs to say (above) and has clearly set Hugh's task before him. She shifts to a secondary character in the novel as Hugh finds her a place to stay in nearby Warrentown (a thinly disguised Utica), placing her outside the action of the story for much of the novel.

Hugh's realization of the difficulty of his task is expressed in an interesting paragraph at the beginning of Chapter Three, sentiments that could have been echoed by many other JDM ordinary-citizen-investigators:

"And I knew my own limitations. I was no experienced investigator. I did not know this town well, or these people. And Alister had certainly inspired no trust or affection in me. Also I anticipated that there would be a lot of feeling against anyone who tried to help him. On the other side of the ledger, I had hired and fired and managed a lot of human beings. You learn how to improve your snap judgment. You learn how you have to lean on this one and tease that one. I knew that I wasn't in any sense what could be called a timid man. And I had some money -- at least enough to finance my own investigation."

And there are a couple of sympathetic people in town. The landlord of the hotel where Hugh is staying is an old acquaintance from his original days in Dalton. And Alister's defense attorney in Warrenton provides all of the information Hugh needs to begin his own investigation. Gradually Hugh peels back the various layers of the case, revealing both a victim and a town that are not as they outwardly appear.

Jane Ann Paulson, the victim, was the sister of Alister's girlfriend Nancy. Nancy is every bit as socially odd as Alister and the complete opposite of Jane Ann, who was depicted in saintly terms at both the trial and in the press coverage. Jane Ann was in fact a "tramp," that wonderfully descriptive term of the fifties that says so much about "bad" women. She was willful, sexually promiscuous and openly rebellious to her stern father. She even spent several days in a frat house, the only female during an academic break! MacDonald doesn't dwell on the details of that event, and indeed he doesn't have to. But Alister's attorney had done a good and through job of investigating the crime and is convinced that it was committed by someone else who subsequently framed Alister. Hugh's investigation begins...

The novel contains some wonderfully written set pieces, scenes that surprise and ring true. A private visit with Nancy is written as a long, expository conversation where the real, warped nature of the girl is slowly revealed. A visit to the home of Jane Ann's best friend is a terrific scene, realistically descriptive and full of menace, eventually erupting into violence. It could have come from any one of the early Travis McGee novels. And the best section of the book, a memorable and frightening evening that puts the hero in real danger, takes place at The Big Time Burger, a drive-in eatery frequented by those most terrifying villains of the 1950's, juvenile delinquents. MacDonald's writing goes into high gear as he sets the nighttime scene featuring "a huge replica of a hamburger... that revolved slowly on a pedestal on the roof with the poisonous yellow of mustard, a sick red of tomato."  Hugh is still looking for the best friend and approaches a section of the parking lot filled with loud, raucous and seemingly drunken teenagers.

"The noise had apparently driven the other trade from the area. Their closely parked cars formed an island. Constant carhopping was going on. One young girl was doing a clumsily suggestive dance to the strains of rock and roll. She was barefooted and she danced on the roof of a sedan. A group of four boys clapped hands in time to the music. The rest of them were ignoring the girl."

When he asks a question the responses are sarcastic and dismissive, packed together on the printed page with telling effect. Hugh is referred to as "a suntan job" who is looking for "a hack at the young stuff," and he's directed to a car off by itself where it is inferred that a sexual act is taking place. It leads to a wonderfully characteristic MacDonald mini-jeremiad that jumps off the page and which could have come -- again -- from the mouth of Travis McGee.

"I realized they were all half drunk. Long, golden girl-legs hung out in the chill October night. A half seen hand cupped a breast. They were half drunk and playful in the way that half grown lions can be playful. Rub them just a little bit the wrong way and they would have to find out if you had any chicken glands. They would cheerfully and efficiently cut you a little, or open the side of your face with a sharpened edge of a belt buckle. Or crush your groin with mail-order air force boots. While their women squealed because it was exciting. They were capable of forming a line-up on one of their own girls, or, with the callousness of the hen yard, pecking a weakened contemporary to death. They were revolt. They sheared off power poles and were found thirty feet from a tanned right arm with a homemade tattoo on the biceps. They died in flaming skids. There was nothing chicken about them. They had been informed about the world. They saw in the papers that everybody grabbed all they could. And there were slander-sheet magazines to tell them the inside dope on how their crooner heroes bounced from bed to bed. They knew the draft would catch them, that both parents and teachers had given up any last weak hope of discipline. Work was for the cubes-- the quintessence of a square. The women were easy. There were always angles. They had it made."

John D MacDonald the Moralist at work...

There are portions of the book -- especially near the ending -- that are extremely dated and would be laughable in lesser hands, but MacDonald's utter belief in the methods used to "solve" the mystery go a long way toward making them believable. One gets the feeling that the author's narrative is in danger of becoming undone by plotting mechanics. But the book as a whole is rewarding, both as a mystery and -- especially -- as a time capsule of a place and time in a small town past.

Death Trap was met with nearly universal praise by the reviewers who bothered to take note of it in 1957. MacDonald's most visible and important champion in the 1950's was the New York Times book critic Anthony Boucher, who reviewed (favorably) nearly every one of JDM's novels. He went out of his way to heap hosannas on Death Trap in his March 10 review, taking time out to focus on MacDonald the writer rather than simply talking about the book (unusual in a weekly column that invariably reviewed five or six mystery novels):

"This department has long contended that readers who confine themselves to hardcover books are missing a large number of today's best suspense novels. And no author's work documents the contention more convincingly than that of John D. MacDonald...

"Though MacDonald succeeds in these mass media rather than among the (in theory) more cultivated coterie of bookstore patrons, his work is free alike of violent vulgarity or slick unreality. Hardly a suspense writer can surpass him in honest and intimate examination of character, or in the integration of a crime with its milieu -- novelistic objectives which he attains without any sacrifice of story-telling vigor. Death Trap is accomplished with power, excitement and insight..."

James Sandoe in the New York Herald Tribune -- another MacDonald fan -- was equally as effusive in his review of the novel:

"John D. MacDonald brings a remarkable alertness and discipline to his thrillers, sets himself excruciating challenges and masters them with ease... This could be material for crude proceeding, but Mr. MacDonald, without seeming hurried (or sluggish) explores it freshly, finds time for all sorts of incidental information and keeps one reading with fierce interest. He is prolific and at times irritating, but this tale is... brisk and alert... and a more active reason for picking up a book than a lot of hardbound brethren."

MacDonald's hometown newspaper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune called Death Trap "well written" with "an excellent plot." The Pensacola News-Journal called it "violent, tense and as deeply shocking as first-class writing can make it, as dark and as fatefully designed as terror itself." And no less a luminary than Dorothy Hughes, writing in the Los Angeles Mirror-News, assured her readers that "... they don't come any better than this."

Death Trap was MacDonald's nineteenth published novel, his fifth "Dell First Edition" and his sixteenth paperback original. Despite the praise heaped upon the book by the noted critics above, Dell limited their run to a single relatively modest (200,000 copies) printing. The book's second printing didn't appear until November 1965 after Fawcett purchased the rights to all of MacDonald's old titles, and the novel went on to enjoy another 648,000 copies under twelve separate Fawcett editions.

The cover of the Dell First was done by Victor Kalin, the first of four JDM covers he would do for the publisher. Kalin did some incredible paperback art in the 1950's, most notably for authors Frank Kane and Hal Masur, but his cover for Death Trap was not, in my opinion, one of his better efforts. It's a somewhat impressionistic depiction of the dead Jane Ann Paulson, wearing a red dress that has been torn from her top and lying in what appears to be a dark field of grass. The black cover is fairly uninteresting and the female figure presages the kind of art that would become more prevalent in the subsequent decade. Kalin did much better work on his next JDM cover, The Price of Murder.

Fawcett's first printing in 1965 features a cover illustrated by Bill Johnson, the second of three JDM titles he would be responsible for. Again its focal point in a dead Jane Ann, this time wearing a white dress, with a dark male figure hovering over her body. The background is a dark, fog-like blue and the effect is unsettling. This illustration, in one form or another, would be used for the next three printings, until 1974 when a new cover was commissioned, illustrated by the great Robert McGinnis. A very-much-alive Jane Ann, wearing a red overcoat, is in the woods being chased by a lone male figure. The sense of danger is heightened by the two large nearly human-looking trees near the figures. This cover would be featured on three separate printings, until 1981 when the eighth Fawcett printing broke ground by not depicting the novel's victim, instead opting to use a more enigmatic approach by showing an abandoned doll lying face up in a shallow swamp. This cover was illustrated by William Schmidt, who did covers for the last editions of nearly every one of MacDonald's titles. It would be used for five separate printings.

Death Trap was the fourth John D MacDonald novel to enjoy a simultaneous publication in a major magazine, albeit in a condensed form. Cosmopolitan, as they had with You Live Once and April Evil, featured the novel under MacDonald's original title in their January 1957 issue. "The End of Her Life" (advertised on the cover as "a lusty suspense novel") was a straight rewrite of the novel, unlike the major retelling he undertook with his condensation of Murder in the Wind. There are some interesting uses of flashback and abbreviation to tell the story, yet like most magazine versions of longer works, it does not hold up against the original. Still, for the reader who never enjoyed the full novel, it was probably a terrific read.

Death Trap is out of print but used copies are easy to find.