Saturday, August 27, 2011

John D MacDonald Covers

Back when I first started formulating the idea for The Trap of Solid Gold my intention was to use this blog to present the cover art from John D MacDonald's paperback novels as well as the magazines where his short fiction first appeared. Very quickly the words took over, but my love of JDM pulp art has never waned and I feature as much of it as I can when writing about MacDonald's work.

I was recently made aware of a terrific blog focused on presenting the many, many covers of MacDonald's novels in their various and numerous editions. Appropriately titled John D MacDonald Covers, it was created a year ago by Chris Ogle, who obviously owns a fine and very large JDM collection. Chris peppers his postings with a few brief comments, very often humorous and always insightful. Check it out. With over 88 postings so far, it's an addictive and enjoyable way to spend an hour or two. And John D MacDonald Covers is an ongoing endeavor, so be sure to subscribe so you don't miss any future entries.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Price of Murder

The Price of Murder was John D MacDonald’s twentieth novel, published in October 1957, a mere seven years from the point in his career when he switched his focus from short story writing to novels. It was his sixteenth paperback original, his sixth Dell First Edition and the second of four original novels he would write that year. With a total run of 211,000 copies for the first two editions, The Price of Murder was MacDonald's most successful Dell to date, at least where real numbers can be verified. It was the author's first Dell novel since 1955's April Evil to enjoy an almost immediate second printing, a fact due possibly to the success of his previous DFE Death Trap, or due perhaps to the novel's stunning cover art by Victor Kalin, a vast improvement over his earlier cover for Death Trap. Or it could simply have been due to JDM's excellent writing effort, for The Price of Murder is a typical example of the author's work in what I refer to as his "Golden Age," that period from April Evil to the first Travis McGee in 1964. These amazing examples of the mid-century crime and suspense novel, sporting now-forgotten titles such as Deadly Welcome, The Only Girl in the Game, The Empty Trap and One Monday We Killed Them All, represent the very best that period had to offer. Had MacDonald never attempted a series character he would -- thanks to these terrific novels --still be remembered today as one of the major forces in mystery fiction of that era.

With The Price of Murder MacDonald returns to his favorite form of storytelling, the multiple-perspective novel, a deep, intricate and involving tale told from the point-of-view of a handful of the story's major characters. These novels, beginning with 1952's The Damned, include The Neon Jungle, All These Condemned, Contrary Pleasure, Cry Hard Cry Fast, April Evil and Murder in the Wind -- and those are just the ones written before The Price of Murder. It was a form MacDonald was exceptionally adept at and he would continue to explore ways to expand and improve on it throughout his career, even after Travis McGee took over his life. His training in the short story field proved to be perfect for this kind of writing, delving deep into each character without resorting to the first-person point of view. The back stories of each of these people are interesting and involving and could, with some tinkering, stand alone in the short form.

There is some sociology in The Price of Murder, although it goes down much easier than it did in The Neon Jungle and is addressed more through character than by examining overt forces of poverty and lawlessness. Three of the novel's characters all come from the same slum and all three have turned out differently. MacDonald's exploration of this outcome is not as simplistic as "nature versus nurture" but rests more on the free will and willingness to struggle to move past a difficult childhood environment. One of the characters has predictably become a criminal, albeit a low-level enforcer and paid-muscle for a mobster, another (his brother) has become an author and an English professor at a local community college, and the third has become a cop -- a very bad cop, and an ex-cop by the time the story begins. Each character's back-story is told in amazing detail, as colorfully and as well-written as any MacDonald had attempted up to this point, creating an overall "solidity" (Anthony Boucher's term) that characterized the novel. The author's fascination with the environmental forces that shape criminal action could be seen in his early pulp stories but really began to blossom in his mid-period novels, and it reached its apogee -- perhaps -- with his 1960 novel The End of the Night, where MacDonald had learned enough to not attempt to offer any answers or opinions as to why people turn out the way they do. And it reached its purest form in one of the author's last short stories, the amazingly insightful and deeply sad "He Was Always Such a Nice Boy," which is told exclusively through the eyes of a bystander who does not possess the intelligence or insight to understand the implications of what he has witnessed.

The structure MacDonald uses to tell the story of The Price of Murder is also one of the novel's strong points, taking a straightforward plot and shifting time and perspective in order to expand the scope of the narrative. Each chapter is titled after the character from whose perspective the reader is experiencing the story, and each chapter follows its predecessor in chronological order, yet there is enough flashback and introspection to give the story a kind of unmoored feeling, of everything happening at once. And of the seven main characters MacDonald uses to tell the story through, only three are connected at the beginning of the novel. By the end the author has masterfully woven them all together in such a way as to create both a complex mystery and a solvable crime.

The basic plot of the novel is centered around a mcguffin: nearly half a million dollars in hot cash that originated as ransom for two young children who were kidnapped, never returned and who were later found murdered. The offspring of a Houston millionaire, the young boys' kidnapping became a newspaper sensation once their bodies were found and it was revealed that all of the ransom cash -- small denomination bills -- had been recorded and was traceable, making it virtually un-spendable. This fact was unknown to the kidnappers before the boys bodies were found, and they were quickly located in a small farmhouse near Orangeville, Pennsylvania (where JDM's parents owned a summer home when John was a young boy). After a gun battle that left the three kidnappers dead, a portion of the ransom loot -- one-hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars -- was recovered, leaving the location of the remaining $327,000 a mystery. In the chaos of the gun battle a county cop grabbed one of two suitcases containing the money and hid it, afraid to try and spend or move it for over a year. Eventually he sold it to an underworld contact for $10,000, who then sold it to a Cleveland speculator who eventually became uncomfortable with it and unloaded it to a Detroit mobster for $15,000. But like all of the previous owners, the Detroit man is too scared to try and pass what has now become viewed as cursed money, and a widespread superstition among the underworld about the cash is making it difficult for him to get rid of it.

But one of his underlings knows of a respectable businessman in the city of Hancock (reading like a stand-in for Toledo, Ohio) who might be interested, a former college roommate who is experiencing a financial setback that could well ruin him. Roger Varney is an attorney who, along with a real estate developer partner, has gotten in and out of any number of Hancock deals over the years, always staying just inside the law. The pair's most recent dealings, however, may be their last unless they come up with a sizable amount of cash -- cash that they don't have. For a mere $65,000 Varney "purchases" the ransom money and plans on laundering it in chunks overseas, where the serial numbers will take longer to be noticed. But then trouble calls.

Varney's partner, Burt Catton, was once a vibrant man full of life, "a heavy, brown, bearlike man, loud, virile, friendly, full of lusty appetites, a man of prominence and position in Hancock."  At the age of 58 he was widowed and quietly re-married, to a girl half his age, Drusilla Downey, a twice-wed firebrand who was more than Catton's match. But two years later Catton suffered a heart attack, and it left him a shell of his former self, "forty pounds lighter, gray rather than brown, withered, trembly, too scared to bend over to pick up his hat if he dropped it." And it doesn't take Drusilla long to stray, into the arms of one Danny Bronson, a small-time crook who has spent most of his criminal career as muscle to a local Hancock mobster. Danny has been in and out of jail several times and is currently out on parole. Although it was expected that he would return to working for the local mobster, Danny has been forced to get a job at a local machine shop as a condition of his parole. But he still has ties to his former life, and it was at a party for a local politico that he met Drusilla, who he quickly and expertly sized up and bedded that very night.

Danny doesn't hide his past from Drusilla, who seems eager and excited by his criminal background, and it is not long before he disappears from the machine shop and his parole officer and starts hiding out at a remote cabin by a small lake, built by Burt Catton in his wilder days but now all but abandoned (and yet another stand-in for MacDonald's summer home on Lake Piesco.) Drusilla buys Danny a new car, a new wardrobe, supplies him with ample food and liquor, and makes frequent visits to the cabin, where the couple can engage in their violent brand of sex. It also affords Danny a place to plan his next big job, one he hopes will be the last and bring him the cash to live for a long time before he has to plan another. But the plan, as it turns out, comes to him.

Drusilla has learned of the money laundering plan of Varney and her husband through Burt, who in a moment of weakness told her everything, and she tells Danny, who immediately comes up with the idea to go directly to Varney and blackmail him into forking over much of the cursed loot. But realizing the danger of his position -- a parole-violating ex-con attempting to blackmail a respected attorney -- he creates himself some insurance, in the form of a confession, detailing his attempt to get himself some of the money and, of course, Varney and Catton's ownership of the hottest money in the country. He plans to leave it with a trusted ally, to be turned over to the police in the event of Danny's demise or disappearance. Danny has a younger brother, Lee, an ex-college football star and now an English professor at a local community college, but Lee is too honest to agree to hold a sealed envelope and await his brother's possible death. But Lee's wife Lucille would be the perfect candidate....

Little of this background is revealed until around the halfway point in the novel, and what makes this a brilliant work of crime fiction is the circuitous, piecemeal route that MacDonald takes to get us there.

MacDonald begins with the plot's most peripheral character, college professor Lee Bronson, "twenty-nine, a big man with wide, hard shoulders, sculptured chest, wide bands of muscle linking neck and shoulders -- narrow through waist and flank." A familiar image for a prototypical JDM hero, yet Lee will not be the story's protagonist in any conventional sense of the word. It will take the reader 75 pages to learn all of the plot detailed above, and naturally enough one assumes that Lee is the novel's protagonist. We learn about his tough background growing up in Hancock’s slum, known as The Sink, of his success at writing a modest, moderate-selling first novel and of his creative inability to get started on a second. But mostly we learn about his wife, the spoiled, petulant and very beautiful Lucille. Raised by a family who denied her nothing, Lucille has little patience in waiting for all the beautiful things that her husband's modest salary won't buy, and she feels she was duped into marrying a handsome author who can't even crank out a second book. Possessing a striking beauty and a "third-class mind," there is little the couple have in common, as Lee ruminates:

".. it was only during his rare moods of complete depression that he was willing to admit to himself that without this joy in his work [teaching], his life would be unendurable. During those times he could clearly see the dimensions of the trap into which he had so blindly wandered. A perfumed trap. A silky and membranous and pneumatic trap. A trap named Lucille."

And quite a tender trap, as MacDonald spends nearly two pages in a descriptive reverie, as Lee recalls her physical assets:

"Her hair was the coppery dark of old pennies, and coiled tightly, the coils no larger than coins, hair fitting her head closely with a look of spirit and bravery like a Roman youth. She was, Lee thought, almost unchanged by three years of marriage. Her perfect face had babyish blandness, large blue eyes set very wide, elfin snub of a nose, lips wide and heavy, teeth a bit too small and of a perfect white. She was now, as she had been three years before, one of the most provocative looking women he had ever seen. The life of her seemed so very close to the sensitive and unflawed satin of her skin. It was visibly warm in the pulse of her throat, in the lucent blue of veins at temple, wrist and ankle. Her long legs seemed to have extra curvatures, tender hollows, velvety paddings which, in other women, were but the hints of what here, in her, was almost too graphically expressed.

"Now she had her perfect summer tan, a honeyed luminescence that seemed more a glow of gold from beneath the skin than a deepening of color of the skin itself. The whites of her eyes were blued with her perfect health. There had been little change. Her waist did not nip above the sweet abundance of hips with quite such startling contrast; there was a tiny roll of fat around her middle. There was a fullness under her chin, a small pad that unfortunately made it slightly apparent that there was not a great deal of chin in the first place. Her round high breasts were larger, the tissues less firm. And there were two tiny brackets of discontent around her mouth..."

But Lucille was "the perfect delusion," as Lee realizes her true character, a type that MacDonald comes back to again and again in his work, the self-centered sociopath:

"He knew that, as a person, he did not exist for her. Nor did anyone else in the world really exist. She lived entirely for herself, and anyone who entered her life in any way existed only as a part of the frame around her. Should they fit her preconceived notion of herself, they were acceptable. If they did not fit, they were ignored."

As Lee is sitting on the screen porch of his rented house in the middle of a hot Indian Summer, grading his students' homework, he is paid a visit by one Johnny Keefler, a parole officer looking for Lee's brother Danny. Since the first chapter belongs to Lee, we first see Keefler, as we saw Lucille, through Lee's eyes. His description lets the reader know that it is likely trouble knocking at the door.

"He was a thickset man, heavy around the middle, with a lean hollow-cheeked face that did not match his puffy build. A tan felt hat with a sweat-stained band was pushed back off his forehead. His nose was bulbous at the tip, and patterned with small broken red veins, prominent against the uniform pallid gray of his face. His eyes were small and blue and the flesh around them was dark-stained and puffy. He carried his gray suit coat over his left arm. The left hand, in a soiled white glove that fit too tightly, was obviously artificial. His hard black shoes were dusty and he walked toward Lee as though his feet were tender."

In an expertly-written conversation that spans most of the first chapter, Keefler immediately establishes his dominance, even as a visitor in Lee's own home, and he soon has Lee cowed and obedient. Keefler has done his homework and knows all about Lee's background and current occupation. He uses the threat of exposure, of informing the college of Lee's criminal brother, his own long-ago brush with the law, and of smearing him by inference. It's not long before Lee, hands shaking, answers Keefler's questions.

"All I can tell you is I honestly don't know where he is, Keefler."

"Mister Keefler."

"Mister Keefler"

"Try it again, with a little more snap, professor."

"Mister Keefler."

"That's better. You saw him last on the twenty-fifth of July?"

"That's right."

"Try it again, with a sir."

"That's right, sir."

"You're coming along nice, professor. You're certain you haven't seen him since?"

"I'm positive... sir."

Lucille arrives from the local swimming pool, looking stunning in her blue swimsuit, and is questioned by Keefler as well. Neither has seen Danny since he came by a few months ago to deliver a birthday present to Lee.

The second chapter belongs to Keefler, and in the first few pages the reader learns what was behind the imposing figure on Lee Bronson's porch: a man filled with hate, vindictive, revengeful, and who has a clear-cut vision of right and wrong.

"Two kinds of people. The ones with a record and the ones without. Traffic arrests were the only kind you couldn't count. The rest of them all had larceny in their hearts."

Another product of The Sink, Keller’s background is horrific and he nearly becomes a sympathetic character before the revenge phase of his life begins. Orphaned at a young age, he spent three years in a squalid children's home before his uncle Mose took him out to live with him and his family -- a wife, two daughters "and the monster son they kept in the room in the back" -- in an apartment above a small grocery store he ran in The Sink. Keefler was nine and adored his uncle, but one day while chasing after some local boys who has stolen fruit from the store, he was knifed by one of them and died on the spot. Johnny Keefler knew them as classmates and identified them to the police. Then, after they were convicted and out awaiting sentencing, they took their revenge.

"[They] took him into [an] alley, around the corner where no windows could see. They did not kill him. Had they known it, their lives would have been easier to bear had they done so. They tied him to the iron stanchion of a fire-escape, gagged him and stripped him and worked on him for over three hours. After he was found hanging there unconscious, the interns who worked on him were sickened by what they had done to him, and marveled that he had been tough enough to survive it. They unwound the wires, and probed for the fragments of glass and the small rusty nails, and sewed ripped tissues and soothed the carefully burned initials and extracted the stumps of the broken teeth...

"A very special transformation took place in that alley on that dreary day thirty-two years before. It was not iron that entered his soul. It was a corrosive acid, and the walls of the soul were impervious to it."

Keefler became a cop, was "excessively honest," did not take orders well and was frequently censured for excessive brutality. He continued to live in The Sink, in a cheap apartment, never married, and "never had time for the casual formalities of friendship." He spent his off hours prowling The Sink, "the implacable hunter, armed and alert." And looking for his former attackers. It is with a guilty pleasure that the reader learns of the fate of the four young thugs who tortured Keefler, all adults now in various occupations, as Johnny hunts them down and manages to come up with a fairly reasonable excuse for how they died, "resisting arrest," usually, or simply disappearing. But the act of revenge doesn't bring any closure to Keefler, it only makes him harder, as he lives in his black-and-white world of good and rotten.

"'I'll get them all, Mose,' he said to himself. 'I'll get them all for you.'"

Although Keefer comes closer to caricature than any other person in the novel, MacDonald's use of sociological background does much to bring the character alive. His amazing ability to paint pictures with just a handful of words brings to life an urban poverty of violence and want, of barely surviving, one with little hope of escape. The line about the "monster son," a throwaway really, depicts a despair that is almost too hopeless to convey. And the endless grind of running a grocery store in The Sink is written with a brutal indifference like something straight out of Charles Dickens' days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse:

"The store was open from seven in the morning until eleven at night six days a week, noon to nine on Sundays. Mose drove himself, his wife, his daughters and Johnny hard. He scouted the farmers' market for half-spoiled merchandise that could be salvaged. Johnny could still remember the slime and the stink of rotten potatoes, remember squatting in the shed behind the store, sorting good from bad. The store made just enough to support the six of them. For Johnny it was school and work and exhausted sleep on the army cot in the shed. He was a small, spindly boy, subject to head colds, and with the tight, pinched, gray face of a slum diet."

Chapter Three belongs to Lucille, and we immediately learn that she lied to Keefler, a fact that her husband Lee sensed but that Keefler apparently did not. She's seen Danny as recently as a few days ago and again a week before that. It is here that we learn of the "insurance" letter, and we learn a bit more as revealed by the dutiful wife of Lee:

"It had only happened twice. But if Lee found out, it wasn't going to make him feel any better to know that it had only happened twice, and the first time it was really sort of like an accident. One of those things that can happen and it's really nobody's fault... It was one of those things that just happened. It hadn't been meant to happen either time, but maybe [Danny] meant for it to happen..."

MacDonald's ability to change third-person voice abruptly, one of his great gifts, is done here seamlessly. In Lucille we read a spoiled, self-centered, dimly aware young woman for whom self-gratification is the driving force in her life and whose disappointment with her less-than-opulent life as a college professor's wife has terminally soured her marriage. Her literary antecedent is Mavis Dockerty, the "formless," self-absorbed wife of Paul Dockerty in MacDonald's 1954 novel All These Condemned. The Dockerty relationship is similar in several other respects, in that Lee Bronson, like Paul, Dockerty knew going into the courtship that he was dealing with an intellectually inferior partner, but rationalized the conceit that he could change her, could "develop" what was obviously a fine intelligence that had never been exercised. Both these men imagined themselves delighting in that growth. Like Paul, Lee has long since realized that this was a fool's errand, that no amount of nurturing could convert a superficial intelligence without the desire of a lazy mind. And finally, like Paul, Lee is a faithful partner married to an unfaithful wife, although in this respect, Mavis -- thanks to the encouragement of her role model Wilma Ferris -- has had much more experience with other men (and women) than has Lucille.

Both visits from Danny ended with sex with his brother's wife. The first -- when Danny brought the insurance letter -- was initiated by Danny, who afterword feels guilt which he verbalizes as he's getting dressed. "He cursed her and he cursed himself. He labeled their foulness with words she had never heard before." The second visit culminates with a desperately needy Lucille jumping at Danny and locking her arms around his neck. After a brief resistance, Danny gives in. That second visit was Danny bringing $1,000 for Lucille to hide for him in case he needed to get out of town quickly if his plans backfired.

When Lee confronts Lucille with his suspicion of her mendacity, she quickly decides what to tell him and what to keep secret. As she calculates this admission her third-person interior monologue does much to reveal the personality of the character.

"[She had to tell him] enough detail to make it sound right. She felt, for the first time, a really sharp stab of guilt for what she had done with Danny. It was really a terrible thing. It was his own brother. You couldn't twist it all around like in a movie and make it seem better. It was something she hadn't done before, and hadn't planned to do... It a way it was Lee's fault it happened. He seemed to think that he could stick her in this crummy little house on Arcadia Street and keep her on a silly budget and have her be happy forever. When you were used to a lot of things going on, a lot of laughs and so on, you couldn't be expected to adjust to a life where a faculty tea was a big deal."

Lucille tells Lee only of the first encounter, and wisely leaves out the sex. But instead of revealing the letter as the reason for the visit she tells Lee about the money.

Danny Bronson's chapter reveals him to be a cold-eyed, ruthless criminal, one who has served a certain master for many years and who has done time for that man, but who now feels the need to get away on his own. It is here the reader learns how Danny met Drusilla, how she set him up in her husband's lake house, how she coyly revealed her husband's big-money plan, and how he ultimately extracted the details from her.

"It did not take him very long. Nerve centers and pressure points are much the same for a woman as for a man. With the flood of genuine agonizing pain came a fear that oiled her face and turned it gray. He had her in a corner and he made the words tumble out of her, a gasping torrent. Then, holding her arm, he walked her gently to the big bed. She walked with the feeble fragility of a very old woman."

Danny's character is fairly straightforward and serves more as a device, the person whose actions set the plot in motion. His background is interesting and his dialogue is predictably terse and tough, and MacDonald brings him to life nicely, but his purpose in the novel is structural. When he finally makes the move that begins the real plot, it introduces the reader to the true evil of the book, Paul Verney.

Where Lucille's self-absorption is almost childlike, Verney is one of MacDonald's archetypal sociopaths, a man for whom self is everything and everyone else a means to the end of satisfying self. As a respected attorney and businessman in the community, he's not the deep-end kind of villain like Dead Low Tide's Roy Kenney or Ronnie Crown in April Evil, but more akin to You Live Once's bad guy, a name I won't reveal in case you haven't read the novel. His chapter contains his recollections of a meeting with an old friend, his college roommate, who is now a disbarred attorney and the person who comes to him with the offer to purchase the poisonous ransom money. This character serves a structural purpose, but is also the author's device for revealing to the reader the dead soul that is the anima of Paul Verney.

"You don't care and never have cared what happened to anybody else in the world... Maybe nobody else ever got behind that facade, but I did. I don't know what it was that twisted you. It must have happened real early. Because by the time we met, you were solidified... emotions were left out of you. I watched you go after everything you wanted. Cold as a machine. No mercy, no scruples, and no ethics... When anybody got in your way, you bulldozed the obstacle aside. I've never seen such cold-hearted, cold-blooded, frightening ambition. You didn't make one friend. I was the poor, warm, stupid slob who tried to be your friend. I even tried to understand you and find out what made you what you were and what you are... I should have caught on quicker. Absolute greed plus perfect selfishness plus a ruthless and methodical intelligence. I should have caught on and stayed away from you..."

Based on such an assessment Danny would have been wise to rethink his blackmail plan, but he didn't know anything about Verney when he hatched it. In his initial meeting with Verney Danny uses his threat of the insurance letter as a bargaining chip. When Verney manages to stall Danny for a few days, his computer-like mind begins thinking of possible options and after a few phone calls he realizes his best bet. A call to Danny's parole officer, Johnny Keefler, and, ultimately, a realization of who the most probable recipient of that letter was...

Based on the title of the novel, I don't think I am giving away too much of the plot to say that a murder is committed. This brings in the police, and the bulk of the remainder of the story is put into the hands -- and narrative voice -- of Ben Wixler, one of MacDonald's "good cops," a hardworking family man who struggles with the demands of both his job and his young family. The "whodunit" becomes a "howdunit" as Ben takes over the narrative flow of the last third of the book. It's interesting and well-written, but without the brilliant revelations of the plot points, it would have been standard pulp fare.

The Price of Murder received a respectably adulatory reception, at least in the relatively small world of paperback originals of the time. Number-One cheerleader Anthony Boucher wrote in his New York Times column:

"If there are any readers left who read only hard-cover mystery novels, they are urged to break the habit with John D. MacDonald's The Price of Murder and then go back to all the rest of MacDonald's original paperbacks. For here is one of the first-rate craftsmen of crime, whose skill and ingenuity are particularly marked in this latest. For the first part of the book he details the background to a murder in a series of narratives from different viewpoints, building gradually and convincingly to a situation in which killer and victim have no previous connection.

"Then he shifts to a procedural story of police detection starring Sergeant Ben Wixler (who deserves further acquaintance, despite the author's aversion to series characters) and tidily demonstrates that competence plus hunches can rapidly penetrate even such a formidable problem. Strong motivation and character give this the solidity that characterizes MacDonald's work."

Boucher was not alone in his praise of the novel. Saturday Review published a brief opinion of the book, stating that "the see-all technique [is] well handled; some characters overdone but not disastrously; pace accelerates sharply in wow climax."

When Fawcett republished the book as part of their purchase of MacDonald's back catalogue in the mid-sixties, several more favorable reviews appeared, including one in the Springfield State Journal-Register ("... head and shoulders above the general nondescript crowd of current fiction...") and in at least three British papers. The London Observer called The Price of Murder a "powerful triple-murder story. The characters, far from paperback cut-outs, are introduced with clarity and understanding. A brutal mixture of murder and blackmail,"). The Northern Dispatch ("...the best of American crime fiction...") and The Weekly Scotsman ("... a neatly drawn tale... the characters are cleverly presented and the tale never lags...") liked it as well.

The cover for the first edition of The Price of Murder was illustrated by the great Victor Kalin, whose relatively lackluster art for MacDonald's previous publication Death Trap gave no hint to the raw talent of this artist. The somewhat generic female character depicted (who can't be said to resemble any particular character in the novel) is both arresting and memorable. It is one of my favorite JDM covers of all time, with the dark green background contrasting nicely with the blue dress and the dark skin tones to create a feast for the eye. This amazing illustration appeared on both of Dell's two printings of the novel.

Fawcett's first reprint appeared in December 1965 and featured a cover by an unknown artist, depicting a desperate woman in the clutches of a man whose face is not visible and who is about to smother her in his large, bare hand. This memorable art, with its broad, blue background strokes, was featured on Fawcett's first five editions, through 1973. The great Robert McGinnis was commissioned to illustrate the subsequent Fawcett reprints, editions six through 13, with an imagining of... well, take a look at it. It reveals a bit too much of the plot. The book's final two printings, in 1984 and 1985, featured a design by William Schmidt, who re-did nearly all of MacDonald's mid-eighties re-releases under the Ballantine imprint. It depicts what can only be the murder of Johnny Keefler’s uncle Mose.

Six month prior to the first edition release of The Price of Murder the story appeared in a
condensed form as the featured "Complete Novel" in the April 1957 issue of Cosmopolitan, under the author's original title "The Heat of Money." It was part of the issue's focus on "Fabulous Florida," containing fifteen different articles and photo essays on the Sunshine State, including one titled "Sarasota Genius Belt." It documented the artist community of that town and included photos of some of its members, including authors MacKinlay Kantor and Joseph Hayes, Budd Schulberg's lovely wife Victoria, and a couple of magazine illustrators who worked on several of JDM's stories over the years: Thornton Utz and Al Buell. Mrs. Buell is shown arriving by boat for a party at artist Syd Solomon's house, and yes, John D MacDonald is pictured, showing off two items from his gun collection to Utz and Buell. If you look closely at the photo you can see Buell leaning over the original artwork for "The Heat of Money," an illustration that would likely be worth thousands of dollars today. It was probably discarded by Cosmopolitan after it was used.

"The Heat of Money" is a straightforward condensation of The Price of Murder, with none of the dramatic focus-shifting MacDonald used in "Hurricane," his magazine version of Murder in the Wind. There are a few minor changes, all to the story's detriment, including a curious coda to the novel's ending, an alternate method of death for Keefler’s Uncle Mose (heart attack, not stabbing) and the complete omission of any sexual acts between Danny Bronson and Lucille. The first time Danny arrives with the insurance letter Lucille throws herself at him and he kisses her violently before shoving her aside and calling her a slut. The second visit doesn't even contain any heavy breathing. Could anyone imagine Cosmopolitan in its current incarnation excising these scenes?!

Like most of MacDonald's work The Price of Murder is long out of print, and like most of MacDonald's work it is more than easy to locate in used form for relatively little cash. Well worth it, at any price.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

More Art

I'm working on the next blog posting, a piece on the 1957 novel The Price of Murder, that -- for a variety of reasons -- is taking much longer than it should. In the meantime, please enjoy some great old story art I've added to some of my older posts, art I either didn't own at the time I wrote the pieces or wasn't able to digitize. 

The artwork for "Betrayed" was done by the great Thornton Utz, a JDM Sarasota neighbor and friend.