Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Empty Trap

The Empty Trap is one of my all-time favorite John D MacDonald novels. I felt that way the first time I read the novel back in 1975 and have confirmed my opinion every time I have reread it. When tackling it once again for this blog posting I was amazed at how fresh and alive it seemed, and -- re-reading the JDM novels in chronological order -- how sharp a departure it was from the books the author had penned up to this point. Its plot it simplicity itself -- a pulp revenge-morality tale that bears strong resemblance to some of his earlier short stories (see especially his 1953 novella "Death's Eye View") and its protagonist's primary motivation is not redemption but revenge. Yet it's the setting and the secondary characters that bring this tale alive, as well as the interesting, gradual way JDM reveals the past in a series of disjointed flashbacks. And while said protagonist is a MacDonald prototype -- big, athletic, rugged, hardworking, an expert in his field of work -- he is imperfect, in ways that the author had rarely touched on in previous works, with the notable exception of his early novel Weep For Me. Indeed, The Empty Trap reads a lot like a reworking and a kind of penance for Weep for Me, one of only two novels the author didn't ever want reprinted. Gone is the Cainsean sin of fatal impulse, replaced by a nobler imperative, equally mistaken but morally (as MacDonald defines morality) more acceptable.

That's not to say that the book doesn't have problems. The plot itself is rather fantastical, full of all sorts of improbable occurrences, happenstance, near misses and circumstances that beggar belief. The device of using radical plastic surgery to completely fool otherwise intelligent people is laughable at points. And the author's treatment of Mexican Indios as noble creatures, full of ancient wisdoms and without any faults borders on worship, to the point where the reader may begin thinking they are reading some hippie primer from the 1960's. (It brought to mind the old Firesign Theatre bit where the earnest young stoner assures an old Native American: "There's a lot of young people in the country, just like myself, who really know where the Indian's at. And don't worry. Soon we're all gonna be out here on the Reservation, livin' like Indians, 'n' dressin' like Indians and doin' all the simple, Beautiful Things that you Indians do. Hey --  got any peyote?") But these faults are far outweighed by MacDonald's trademark narrative drive, and the novel, once started, really is almost impossible to put down.

And with the exceptions of Weep For Me and Judge Me Not, it's probably as close as MacDonald came to writing noir up to this point in his career, and by that I mean true noir, the form defined by Otto Penzler as "...bleak, existential, alienated, pessimistic tales about losers-people who are so morally challenged that they cannot help but bring about their own ruin." In Weep For Me the protagonist fits the classic mold more so than in The Empty Trap, with Kyle Cameron starting from a place of comfort and, because of one really bad decision, sees his life spiral down into the pits of hell. Technically the same could be said for The Empty Trap, but here the author plays with time in his telling of the tale, and we begin the story where the fruits of his misdeeds are punished, then flip back and forth through flashback to see how he got there. He also uses introspection a lot more here, where the hero examines his past and his motivations, never really understanding them but realizing how he came to be where he is. And Lloyd Wescott, The Empty Trap's hero, is no Kyle Cameron, no listless soul stuck in a low-level job waiting for life to happen. He's a success in his trade, one of the top men in the industry, making his decent into the noir underworld all the more bracing.

The Empty Trap was MacDonald's twenty-first novel, his seventeenth paperback original, his third of four novels written in 1957, and his fifth and last title for Popular Library, a publisher that seemed to have been losing interest in the author. In fact, The Empty Trap suffered from the smallest first run of any JDM paperback ever, with only 72,000 copies printed for a single run. Coming on the heels of Dell's huge printing of The Price of Murder only a few months earlier, one wonders what Popular was thinking. Did they recognize how different this book was from the author's previous efforts? Were they unhappy with the sales of their previous MacDonald effort, Border Town Girl? Or did somebody simply screw up? And since MacDonald was paid not on sales but on the size of the printing runs, he must have received a very modest paycheck for this great book. Perhaps it was MacDonald himself who severed the ties with Popular. The book did not see a second printing until 1967 when Fawcett brought out a new edition, and from that point forward the book went through many printings of over half a million copies.

Another interesting anomaly with this effort is the fact that, for the first time since writing You Live Once, five novels back and two years prior, there was no simultaneous magazine version of the novel published. Cosmopolitan had already printed two JDM titles in 1957, and perhaps wasn't interested in doing another only two months after The Price of Murder. (The Empty Trap was published in December of 1957). Redbook, who had published the condensed version of Murder in the Wind would have likely been put off by the tone and subject matter of the new novel. The only possible market for a book like The Empty Trap would have been a magazine like Argosy, but that didn't happen, and the novel came and went with little notice.

The story of The Empty Trap begins at what seems like the end but turns out in fact to be the middle of the story. Beaten, tortured and bound Lloyd Wescott is sitting between two mob goons in the front seat of a dark blue Chrysler with Nevada plates, riding along a remote and mountainous road in the wilderness of Mexico, en route to his death. Following closely behind is Lloyd's own car, a Pontiac, which carries the dead body of his girlfriend Sylvia. They are coming from several days of hellish treatment in a Mexican motel at the hands of these three men. Lloyd has been burned, slugged and cut, and seems barely alive, but he's luckier that Sylvia, who endured several days of repeated raping before being put to death. Now it's time to kill Lloyd and dispose of the bodies, in Lloyd's own car, over a steep and high cliff where they will likely be found only by the locals, poor Indios who will be more likely to scavenge the wreckage than to call for the police.

Lloyd himself is no mobster but one of MacDonald's best-of-breed professionals, a hotel manager at the top of the industry. In a flashback midway through the novel we learn how Lloyd, already a success in a variety of different hotels, is approached by a guest named Harry Danton. Danton wants to build his own hotel, a gambling resort in Nevada, and he is so impressed by Lloyd's work that he offers him a job: not just to manage the resort but to design it from the ground up. When warned by Lloyd that such an endeavor could easily fail, Danton responds "I'm in a lot of things. People can go broke in any one of them, Wescott. I don't, on account of I always get top people and give them their head." Lloyd has already been warned by a knowable associate that Danton is a mobster, so despite the offer of a relatively free hand and a huge increase in pay, he refuses. But a year later, after changing jobs for the winter, Danton asks again and Lloyd accepts.

At that point Lloyd has fallen into the "trap" of the novel's title. Thinking of himself as "one of the good guys" in the "script" of life, he can't imagine himself becoming involved with the mob or being sullied by his association with a known gangster. Losing himself in nonstop work helps this conceit, and it's not until he has a conversation with someone long after the Hotel Green Oasis is up and running and a roaring success, that he recognizes the freedom he has forever lost. It begins when Danton decides to move his headquarters from Detroit to the hotel, living in a small bungalow beside the main building. He brings with him three hoodlums, the three who eventually are sent to kill Lloyd, and later he brings a new wife, Sylvia. Unlike most of the brain-dead bimbos that Danton previously had hanging around him, Sylvia is different. When told that she is a lounge singer Lloyd imagines "a brass-haired blonde going to seed, with the gutter voice of the blues shouter," but when he actually meets her she is anything but:

"She was a long-bodied girl, medium tall, narrow of waist, sleek of leg. Her black hair was of a soft texture and it was pulled back into a bun...Her eyes were a deep brown, almost black, her face well-cut and delicate, her smile warm and personal...Her voice was low, well-modulated, her diction precise."

Danton asks Lloyd to show Sylvia around the hotel and the two end up in one of the establishment's many drinking holes. An initial air of courtesy quickly gives way to animosity as Lloyd admits that he and Danton's mobsters were surprised at how classy Sylvia turned out to be. There follows an amazing piece of JDM backstory as Sylvia, in an attempt to shock and anger Lloyd, tells her the background of her life. It's one of those short-story-within-a-novel bits that MacDonald had mastered early in his novel-writing career and did better than almost anyone else. Speaking of herself in the third person, she begins:

"So take Sylvia at fourteen. She looked eighteen. A kid from Hell's Kitchen. A tough bastard of a kid with a whore mother and an unknown father. She was tough through and through and you don't lose that kind of toughness, my friend... She knew every filthy trick in the books and got picked up helping the other kids roll a lush, and got sent to one of those schools and got out by knocking out a matron with a Coke bottle. That was twelve years ago, Lloyd. How am I doing?" 

He was shocked by the whispered vehemence of her words. "You've come a long way." 

"Before I was fifteen I was traveling with a syndicate car thief named Joey Tower. He got hot so they transferred him to the west coast and I went along. My hair was bleached white. I wore sweaters two sizes too small. I talked with a whine and the language would make a truck driver shiver. But Joey's boss saw something in the slut, and cut Joey out, with a little help from the slut, who was a very greedy child, and still is." 

"Sylvia, I--" 

"You started the needle job, and you're going to listen..."

And on it goes for three densely-packed pages as we learn how this tramp became a lady, working her way through one gangster after another, dealing dirty and getting people killed, until she ultimately ended up a singer in a "sour little club," billed as "the ex-darling of mobland," doing a routine that contained "some very blue material." (A sure sign in MacDonald's moral universe that she had indeed hit bottom.) After she goads Lloyd into telling his very dull life story, she is nearly brought to tears.

"I need to stop feeling so damn sorry for myself all the time. I've felt that way for years. I wanted to shock you. I wanted you to come up with a lot of asinine questions. But you put me very neatly in my place. I thought I was being dramatic. I guess I was being silly." 

"Just a little bit silly. Not enough to count." 

"All I ever really wanted was a guy with one drug store who could maybe build it up to three. You're going to be good for me, Lloyd. You have...balance."

The new marriage quickly sours and Lloyd finds that he can't get Sylvia out of his mind. When he sees her a week after their initial meeting, she is morose and withdrawn. They talk for a while and the subject turns to Lloyd's relationship with Danton.

Lloyd: "He's left me alone." 

Sylvia: "Try to leave and see." 

He stared at her. "I could give notice and leave. Why not?" 

"You could be desk clerk in a flea bag. You'll never get a good job managing a good hotel. Not for long. Not in this country. And I know just how he'd fix you. Through the unions. Hiring you would be a guarantee of a walkout on some other pretext. Harry never lets people go. He likes them to try it, though, because he likes to have them crawl back." 

"He's no monster!" 

"Of course not. In his business there are certain rules. He's carried those rules over from the rackets to the legit enterprises. Nobody leaves. No top people. You're in for life. But don't kick about it. You have it good."

Lloyd is astounded (he's apparently never read anything about the mob before!) and he tests Sylvia's assertion by going to Danton, who, in a fairly nice way (for a mobster) confirms the claim.

Lloyd: "What you're saying is, I work for you from here on in." 

Harry stood up. "Is that so bad? Am I some clown? Isn't the pay right? Listen, I'll tell you something. In every business they got key personnel, right? Okay, you're key personnel. In a lot of businesses they got a turnover problem with key personnel. G.E. has it. General Motors has it. Even the Air Force has it. But you know what ratio of turnover I run on key personnel? None. No ratio at all. I don't want you trying to spoil my record, kid. If right now you got an itch, that's okay. It's letdown. You've worked like a dog. Tell you what you do. Draw a thousand and take off for a week. The house won't fall down. Go away someplace. Go get laid." 

"Thanks, Harry. I'm not that restless. I was just thinking." 

"Don't think too much."

It is at this point that the novel begins to borrow heavily from the plot of Weep For Me, as Lloyd and Sylvia fall in love and decide to run away together. They plan a massive theft from the hotel's casino, and it comes off without a hitch. They jump into Lloyd's Pontiac and head to Mexico, making it to Juarez in three days. Their plan, right out of Weep For Me, is to use a portion of their stolen loot to purchase citizenship in an unnamed South American country, far enough away from Harry Danton to finally feel safe. But Sylvia will never feel safe.

The increasing distance had not given her peace of mind. Rather she had seemed to grow more frightened, day by day, pale, nervous, irritable.

"We're safe now," he told her. 

"We'll never be safe. We shouldn't have done it. We shouldn't have tried to do it, Lloyd. We were crazy to try it. We were insane to even think of it. You don't know what they're capable of. You don't know how he'll feel about this. He can't let a thing like this go. We'll never be safe." 

"Don't worry about it. Let me take care of things." 

"You can't take care of things. You don't understand them. You don't know how they are."

Her fear is real enough for Lloyd to take one precaution, a move that will further the plot along later in the novel when it's time for revenge. He takes a portion of the loot, forty thousand dollars, stuffs it in a peanut brittle jar and hides it under the floorboard of the motel room.

Of course they are caught -- Danton's three mobsters have located them fairly easily -- and they suffer at their hands for several days in a locked motel room. It is at this point that "boy scout" Lloyd Wescott realizes the truth of the world, that there is no good or bad, no cosmic justice, no moral compass, only strength and survival and the white-hot emotion of hatred.

"Lloyd sat with his chin on his chest, the tears running out of his eyes, breathing hard, sobbing against the gag. He could smell the rich stink of his burned chest and belly, his burned feet. He knew he could never be the same person again. He knew he could not go back to what he had been before. He had learned, abruptly, a special kind of hatred. He thought he could not hate any more violently than he did in those moments. Yet an hour later the hatred was stronger. The next hour tempered it, like a cherry red blade thrust into the quenching oil...

"The script was wrong. There were always the good guys and the bad guys. And the beautiful woman. Lloyd had known all his life that he was one of the good guys. That made it simple, because then you always knew how it came out. The good guy and the beautiful girl would always get into one hell of a mess, but something always happened just at the very last minute, just when they both seemed doomed. Something happened. The bonds were worked loose, and you felled the bad guys with a chair. Or the cops came. Or the cavalry. It usually happened just when they were getting set to torture you. But something was wrong with this script and they went right ahead and did it. It didn't happen in the nick of time. The nick of time went right on by while you screamed and screamed on to a bloody towel. And always the beautiful girl was threatened by a fate worse than death. And they never quite got to her. They made some error in timing, or they left a gun around loose. But this nick of time went right on by too."

And soon thereafter we arrive at... the beginning of the novel. Lloyd's push off of the Mexican cliff nearly kills him but of course it doesn't. He is thrown from the car and lands on a convenient tree sticking out the side of the cliff. His efforts to get his already-tortured and now broken body off the tree and safely down to the bottom where there is a small river are painstakingly detailed, as MacDonald ventures into Jack London literary country. And this is how much of the beginning of the novel is told, with the backstory haltingly revealed in sporadic flashback. Lloyd is eventually rescued by a Mexican Indio, a member of a small and remote village, whose people are victims of some sort of tribal warfare that has left them outcasts. This allows MacDonald the time and the solitude to have Lloyd slowly heal without any news of his survival getting back to Danton. It also gives the author a chance to revel in his knowledge of Mexico, a country he took his family to live when he was a struggling pulp writer, and more importantly, to express his singular love of the people of this country.

As we are shifted back and forth in time, from the "present" of Lloyd's reoperation to the past of the events that brought him here, we slowly learn about the people of this village, their nobility, their simplicity, their open caring for a stranger in distress. And naturally there's a girl, just as there was a girl in Weep for Me (Adela) and a girl in "Border Town Girl" (Felicia). Here she is named Isabella, but she might as well have been either of the other two named characters, for she serves the same purpose and is essentially the same character. Not as strikingly beautiful as Adela, Isabella is described as a simple girl, one Lloyd wouldn't have looked twice at in his former life, but here she is pretty enough to strike a chord within him.

Usually it was the girl who took care of him. Her name was Isabella, and often they called her 'Bella or 'Bellita. She seemed to be seventeen or eighteen, a sturdy girl with a broad brown face in which he saw a family resemblance to the three boys, with black thick brows, black braided hair coarse and shiny as the tail hair of a black horse. She came to feed him and care for his needs during the day when the others worked, came to him smelling of sun and the fields and of sweat, impersonally gentle, sometimes crooning to him with the reassuring sounds you make to a small child. He knew she was not directly of this family, yet somehow related.

It is Isabella, young, unmarried Isabella who nurses Lloyd back to life over the many months it takes for him to recuperate, and eventually they couple and produce a child. But Lloyd cannot stay here in this bucolic setting, a place where he has been accepted and where hard work in the fields under a blazing sun has helped bring him back to life. He explains it to the villagers one evening, and they understand completely.

"I feel it is necessary [to tell you all]." He found himself looking at Isabella. She was looking down at her clasped hands. "The money and the woman. They were not mine. I took them. I was followed." He looked around at impassive faces. "But a thing cannot be black or white. I was a thief when I took the money, but that money had been stolen from others. I was a thief when I took the woman, but she was gentle and unhappy and often beaten. She asked me to take her away, and I wished to give her happiness. The men found us. My actions were not honorable, perhaps. But their actions were the actions of animals. With me and with the woman. Most of all with the woman, before one of them killed her. That is why it is necessary to kill them. 

I will not be a man again until that is done." 

It was not something he could have said in his own land in his own tongue without feeling ridiculously melodramatic. And he wondered whether the need to kill would have been as understandable even to himself in another place and time. Yet here it was perfectly clear, and he could see that [they] accepted it. 

Here there was no talk of the futility of revenge. This was a mission of honor.

And so Lloyd leaves, first to reclaim the hidden stash of loot in the motel room, then to a plastic surgeon in Mexico City to repair his horribly damaged face. Then it's on to the Hotel Green Oasis...

I wish I could better explain why it is that I love this novel so much. It's certainly not the simplistic revenge plot, or the naive and romantic portrait of a more primitive people, or even the redemptive love experienced between Lloyd and Isabella. I think it has more to do with MacDonald's telling of the tale, his experiments with time, revealing two sections of Lloyd's experience in alternating chronological order. And the revenge part is pretty satisfying, I have to admit, even if it is tempered to an extent in the end (read it yourself to find out what I mean). But what I think I really like about this book is JDM's attempt to improve on a failure, or at least what he perceived to be a failure. He obviously loved the idea of escaping to Mexico with a beautiful babe and a stash of stolen cash, and he does tell it much better here than he did in Weep For Me. And I love the idea of redemption, of taking what even MacDonald must have realized was becoming a kind of archetypal hero in his own fiction and making him more flawed than perhaps even he as the author was comfortable with. The background of Sylvia, for example, would have consigned her to an early and deserved death in one of his earlier short stories or novels, but here -- even though she does pay the ultimate price -- is dealt with compassionately and with some degree of understanding. MacDonald was indeed growing as an artist.

And I really, really love the ending of this book, which according to my own rules of this blog I can't discuss. It's a descent into a noir world that eventually leads to.... no, I can't. You have to read this book.

As far as I can tell, and as best as bibliographer Walter Shine could research, there was only one contemporary book review for The Empty Trap when it was published in December 1957. Not surprisingly it was by MacDonald champion Anthony Boucher, who wrote in his New York Times column Criminals at Large:

"In John D Macdonald's The Empty Trap, a man left for dead by gangster assassins is nursed back to life by an isolated Mexican community in the mountains of Queretaro. Recovered, he is pulled in various directions by the kingdom concept of revenge-killing, by the local code of manly honor, and by his own upbringing which makes killing impossible. MacDonald has taken some familiar elements of the gangster novel, developed them brutally and even shockingly -- and looked behind them to write a book that is a novel rather than a shocker."

When Fawcett reprinted the novel in 1967 the book got a lot more press, much of it very favorable. The Toledo Blade said "Like all MacDonald novels of recent years, this is absolutely top-notch and eminently readable. In our opinion, the man can do no wrong." (I'm guessing the reviewer didn't bother to look at the original copyright date.) The Springfield Journal and Register wrote "Let's face it, there just isn't anybody around today turning out suspense-sex-adventure stories like MacDonald... [He] has been increasingly prolific and amazingly consistently good for the size of his literary output. This brisk, crisp and often downright brutal tale is one of the better ones, even for him." And the Montclair-Piedmont Spectator out of Oakland, California went completely overboard, stating that "MacDonald may be the very best story teller in American history." (OK, I won't argue with that one.)

The first edition cover features two scenes that give the would-be reader a clue about the dichotomy of worlds featured in the story. To the right and largely filling the frame is a sultry blonde with a trio of grinning thugs behind her. If this is supposed to be the motel scene it has some curious features, including a blonde Sylvia (she was brunette) looking very unlike anyone who is about to undergo what she is about to. Below that the smaller figures of an injured Lloyd being nursed by Earth Mother Isabella. Above the art is a quote from Real Magazine which may or may not be "real," as Walter Shine was never able to uncover a copy of the  review it came from. The artwork, which has an almost seedy, unfinished quality to it, was uncredited.

And the cover for the first Fawcett version of the novel, published in April 1967, was also uncredited. It's a somewhat unremarkable illustration of a woman carrying a hat bag and an overcoat walking away from the viewer down a very wide hotel lobby. The green carpet looks almost alive.This cover was retained for Fawcett's second printing in 1969, but by 1971 it had been dispensed with and replaced with a Robert McGinnis lovely wearing a bikini and standing in front of a large Aztec sun. This version was retained for a total of five printings, through 1980. Finally, in 1982 William Schmidt created one of his best paintings for the final four printings, featuring a large vulture sitting on the makeshift grave of poor Sylvia, her arm sticking out between the stones.

Just as John D MacDonald wasn't through with the themes and plot devices he had begun to explore in Weep For Me, so too was he not finished with the doors he had opened with The Empty Trap. Three years later he came back to the world of hotel management in the darker, more mature The Only Girl in the Game. It's an amazing job of plot reconstruction, taking a similar tale with similar characters (the mob is again involved) and leading it down a completely different path. It will be quite some time before I get around to dealing with that wonderful novel (there are ten JDM books between these two) but Jared Shurin, who helps write the great Pornokitch blog, has recently published an insightful piece at Tor.com comparing the two novels. It's highly recommending reading, which you can find here.

The Empty Trap, long out of print, is is readily available from all the usual used booksellers on the web.


  1. Thank you for reviewing this underappreciated novel. I liked it as a revenge story when I was a teenager, learned to appreciate the redemption theme as I grew older, and lately enjoy picking out the scenes and characters that appear in slightly different forms in his other books. The torture scene, though never described in much detail, has remained etched into my brain for decades. This book is one of my favorites.

  2. Some writers might shy away from torture, but JDM used it in several of his books. It didn't have to be detailed to be scary.