Thursday, March 31, 2011

JDM on the Role of the Editor

"I require that any editor do me the courtesy of assuming that I know what I am doing when I bend and break and ignore the little puristic conventions of orderly prose. When I use a repetition of 'and' to link several nouns rather than using commas and the terminal 'and' between the last two nouns, it is because I am after a certain alteration in pace and thus in artistic effect -- regardless of whether my attempt is successful in that instance. When I split infinitives, alter tense in midparagraph, use contractions and elisions and, in some instances, words of my own devising, these are the results of carefully considered artistic value judgments, not shale and litter to be swept away by an editor because his artistic values of style are such he feels compelled to alter mine to conform to his...

"There are significant areas to which an editor might do well to direct his fussy attentions: obvious typographical errors, internal contradictions of the blue eyes becoming brown eyes variety, suggestions regarding structure where impact and interest might be thus heightened, and incidents which a particular readership might find tasteless or even objectionable.

"How odd that a firm publishing sheet music would not permit an editor to alter harmonies and discords and experimental tone relations merely because they happen to violate his concepts of the rules of musical composition and, perhaps, his tin ear. Yet in publishing there are scores of little chaps who have the effrontery to consider their own taste and habit more consequential than that of the creative writer, and competent to make value judgments on what is gold and what is debris."

-- JDM, from the June 1966 issue of the British Mystery Writers' bulletin Red Herrings.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sheriff McCaslin on JDM

"McCaslin looked at him mournfully and shook his head. 'You ought to write books with better sense. Like the guy who writes those Travis McGee stories. A man can sink his teeth into one of those.'"

-- from Stephen King's 1975 novel 'Salem's Lot

Monday, March 21, 2011

"Immortality"

"Immortality" was the fourth of eight stories John D MacDonald had published in the science fiction pulp Startling Stories. Appearing in the May 1949 issue of the magazine this brief 2,000-word tale filled a mere three pages, artwork included. It's an interesting, thought-provoking premise that, as many JDM science fiction stories did, "answered" one of several age-old riddles of man with an s-f answer. Not as ambitious as Ballroom of the Skies (or its antecedent novella "Hand From the Void"), which came up with a reason behind the ageless and endless conflicts of mankind, or Wine of the Dreamers, which sought to answer the reason behind insanity and nearly every other irrational act a human could commit, "Immortality," takes on the much smaller and presumably less-important question of "what causes déjà vu?" The answer, revealed early in the story, is not a hopeful one.

Which is interesting to the student of MacDonald in a strictly parochial sense, since the author's previous Startling Stories entry was "Flaw," a rare --for both him and for early science fiction in general -- pessimistic tale, showing a future that holds an empty promise of progress. The May issue in which "Immortality" appeared contains in its letters section dozens of responses to the previous story, and its reception was decidedly mixed. Since MacDonald rarely, if ever, wrote short stories for specific pulps, I doubt if this back-to-back gloom was anything more than serendipity.

"Immortality" begins with a framing device, set in the here and now and somewhat of a red herring in that the reader is given the full names of two characters who are only there to set up the real story taking place behind the scenes. Stephen Brale and Jane Torin are engaged to be married and are house hunting. Stephen has discovered the perfect home, complete with a "deep, native stone fireplace" and a huge window seat. He can't wait to show it to Jane, who arrives and is forced to shut her eyes before entering. After Stephen has led her inside and allows her to take a look at the beautiful living room, Jane's gasp is the result of more than simply "pleased anticipation."

"Oh, Steve! It's beautiful! But just for a moment, when I first looked at it I had the oddest feeling. It was as though you had brought me in here before and I had opened my eyes and seen this same room."

Steve make playful fun of her and they joke about it.

Double carriage return, next paragraph, and the reader in in a different place and time entirely.

In a subterranean room beneath the "tough vitrified skin of Planet Earth Eighty" sit the Seven, the last remnants of the human race. We are in a future so remote that time can scarcely be measured and the Seven are "incredibly aged" leaders with atrophied muscles and huge, hairless skulls. The glories of the human race, its advancements, its conquering of space and the distant stars is so far back in the past as to be beyond remembering. For at mankind's greatest fulfillment the universe began to die, contracting and decreasing, leaving dead, airless planets and tired, dying suns. (A direct parallel to "Flaw.") The last bits of vegetation on the last habitable planets died a million years ago, and now only the Seven remain, discussing (through telepathy, of course) no less important a subject than the "future" of mankind, such as it is.

"We are Man. We have fought through countless millions of years, migrating to green worlds when old ones perished. There are no more green worlds. Our universe fades and dies. Let this then, be the end. Let us, the last Seven of mankind, perish here, considering the deeds of our race, the worlds made and destroyed, the universe plumbed to the outermost edges of eternal darkness. Let this be the end."

It sounds as if they have a choice in the matter, and indeed they do. With science beyond imagining, they have seen the future and know there is nothing but death. They have also looked into the past and found that it "cannot be changed or altered in the slightest degree." But they have the power, through a huge machine built thousands of years earlier, to reboot time, but in the only way it can be rebooted: repeating history exactly as it has been played out before.

"It is known that we cannot step backward in time as independent entities. To do so would be to disturb the probability stream, leading to the mistaken concept of tangential worlds. On this same basis, an entire planet, or even an entire section of the universe can -- must be returned as a unit, because the whole is the smallest fraction that can be shifted in the time stream without altering in any way the probabilities involved."

Got that?

The conflict in the story (what little conflict there is) is between different factions of the Seven, those who want to press the button (literally) and those who don't. At that point one of them asks (telepathically, of course) the inevitable question:

"My brothers, have you  thought that possibly this is not the first time we have been here? Have you thought that possibly we are already in the closed circle and that our decision is inevitable? Have you thought that we have passed this way before?"

Of course they have, for that is the whole point of the story, and when the framing story returns to end the tale, it is as predictable as if we had all lived it before. Perhaps we have! One certainly gets that feeling reading lots of old pulp fiction.

Reading "Immortality" immediately brought to mind MacDonald's 1948 Clinton Courier newspaper column on science fiction, which he ended thusly:

"Maybe science fiction is like the comforting words of a wise parent: "Don't worry, little man. When you bust up this planet, I'll buy you a new one. A nice new green one. Two hundred light years away."

The story, as far as I know, has never been anthologized.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

DUKE on JDM

"MacDonald, himself, has managed to escape some of the pressures of society that he so dislikes by becoming a highly-successful free-lance writer. His fictional character, Travis McGee has certainly chosen a more hazardous way to make a living. Besides being beaten and shot at by assorted thugs and criminals, he's been fed LSD by a group of unscrupulous scientists and kidnapped by Neo-Nazis in a Florida retirement colony. He is also pursued by over-sexed heiresses, career girls and movie stars whose advances he may very well turn down, unless he feels the necessary rapport with them. McGee is equally immune to bribery in the bedroom and to offers of fabulous sums of money. He is an idealist of the old school, reminding the reader of Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Phillip [sic] Marlowe. The popularity of the series may be a reaction on the part of readers against the Mike Hammer type hero, who never was troubled by ethics, and who never turned down anything in a skirt. It may also show that the reader is growing a little tired of the larger-than-life hero such as James Bond, with whom it is almost impossible to identify."

--from "Author of the Issue: John D. MacDonald," an uncredited two-page piece on JDM found among the pictorials, articles ("Men Who Offer Their Wives") and barely-readable fiction of the June 1967 issue of Duke. The article contains little of value and more than a few errors (the Mike Hammer claim above is factually incorrect) but is worth bringing to your attention, if for no other reason than an excuse to display the magazine's cover.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

O.G. Benson on JDM

"My chief influences, and I mean I studied them, were Chandler, John D. MacDonald and the man I admire most of the three... Charles Williams. No need to go into Chandler -- he had his faults but just a great, great writer, a writer's writer in many ways and more for unforgettable scenes that all over plotting.

"John D. for narrative drive, for sheer storytelling, for mastery of the craft of the unstoppable, can't-put-it-down novel. And Williams because of the clean, pure, wonderfully honest and undemonstrarive piece of work he turned out again and again. Of the three he has never had his due to my mind though I guess he's done well enough and probably is not complaining.

"I'm not a Travis McGee fan particularly, [I] prefer the early stuff, but John D. has probably taught more writers how to write than anybody. For me he was a revelation. He was studyable. You could read his stuff and learn craft from it. And of course I was influenced by any good writer I liked, it goes without saying. I hardly sprang full blown from Zeus' ear. 

"But more than someone to study only, I had met John D. through some mutual friends and it was he who sent me to Knox Burger. This after he had first recommended me to his agent, Max Wilkinson, who wasn't interested, stating as his reason that he felt the private eye genre was a vein that had been thoroughly mined. 'Okay,' says John. 'Max isn't the last word. Send it to Knox Burger at Dell and I'll ask him to look at it.' Knox did and bought it. And mind you, John did this for a relative stranger. Decent, kind wonderful guy. I've heard other stories of his helpfulness too."

-- O.G. Benson, whose only published work is his 1960 hardboiled novel Cain's Woman. From his correspondence with William H. Lyles as published in Paperback Forum, Number 1 (1984).

Two excellent blog pieces on Cain's Woman can be found at Vintage Hardboiled Reads and Killer Covers.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Bedside Murder"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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