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.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review.

    I really enjoy your deconstruction of the plots, the comparisons with other JDM works, the analysis of how JDM re-uses plot devices, and his evolution over the years.

    Keep it up.

    Best regards,

    Hugh Pickens