Monday, May 4, 2015

"The Gentle Killer"

Back in 1981 when I was still in my twenties, John D MacDonald was still alive and writing, the JDM Bibliophile was being published twice a year, and Walter and Jean Shine had just published the most comprehensive bibliography of MacDonald’s writings to date. It was a major achievement, unmatched in its scholarship and abundance of new information. It is still the most important bibliographic work ever done on the work of JDM.

But The Bibliography wasn’t a perfect work, nor was it complete. There were omissions, mis-identified stories, a few typos, and works that could not be located. The latter problem was addressed on page 108 in an addendum listing ten stories that, according to MacDonald’s own records, had been sold but whose publication could not be verified. The majority of these titles were written and sold when the MacDonald family was living in Mexico in 1948 and 1949, and nearly all of them ended up in the pulps. The list included the story’s title, the publisher who paid for it and the beginning of the story’s first sentence.

Several months later Walter Shine issued a call for help in his JDM Bibliophile column. He needed someone within close proximity to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC to head down there and spend several days going through the library’s vast collection of pulp magazines in an effort to try and find any or all of these missing stories. I had a letter in the mail to Walter before the end of the day.

Walter had arranged for the library to have close to 40 boxes of specific pulp magazines transferred from their annex in Landover, Maryland to the Periodical Reading Room in the Adams Building in DC. Once they were there I showed up in my barely-running 1965 VW Beetle and began systematically going through the table of contents of every single pulp they had supplied. It took me several long days to complete the project and in the end I was not able to locate any of the missing stories. I wrote a long, dissapointed letter to Walter outlining all of my efforts, detailing everything I had canvassed and offering my services for anything else he needed me to do. It began an epistolary friendship between us which lasted for many years. Walter even forwarded a copy of my letter to JDM himself, who responded favorably, calling my letter “extraordinary” and writing “As I read it I kept hoping he would come up with something that is still missing.”

Fast forward to 2015, almost 35 years later, and another one of the stories has finally been located.

I say “another one” because, of that list of ten missing stories, several were located by others in subsequent years. One, which had been sold to Bluebook, ended up appearing in the magazine’s bastard step-child Bluebook for Men. One which was sold to Argosy somehow ended up being published in an early issue of Cavalier. But in the end there were six stories that were still missing in action. Until now.

A few weeks back I was looking around on eBay and came across an offering that at first made no sense to me. Some seller was trying to unload an issue of All Sports, an obscure (to me) pulp that was published by Columbia Publications. It was the November 1948 issue and was advertised as containing “The Gentile Killer” by John D MacDonald.

Well. After I finished laughing out loud I began searching my memory for any JDM story about David and Goliath, or perhaps a modern day spy story featuring a Mossad assassin. But the state of Israel had only just been founded by November 1948 and I didn’t recall MacDonald ever dabbling in biblical fiction. No, I soon realized that this must be one of the missing stories, correctly titled “The Gentle Killer.” I could scarcely believe my luck, and despite having an opening bid far in excess of one I would usually entertain, I bit the bullet and placed my offer. I won it, I now own it and I have read it. Walter Shine, wherever he is, is surely smiling.

The opening sentence, which was supplied to me during my long-ago search, has stuck in my memory all these years, its ringing vernacular singing like urban poetry.

We had hacked up the Cleveland purse, the short end of it, and a week later, after bailing out the convertible and paying the back alimony to Myrna, the leech, and catching up on my rent and adding a few necessary numbers to the wardrobe, I was down to a slim fifty bucks; the next bout for the Tailor was set up for three weeks ahead, and there was my other bum, Jo Zamatchi, eating off me while his busted hand knitted.

The first person narrator is one Danny Watson, a boxing manager and “the Tailor” is Tailor Rowe, one of Danny’s boxers. His next two sentences are as equally evocative of the boxing world’s milieu.

As a direct consequence, I was giving the Beach the jaunty ‘hello’ and making like I had an in on the sweepstakes which is standard procedure when you feel the wolf fangs, but usually fools nobody at all, at all. Every time I thought of the fifty bucks it seemed smaller and it seemed like every time I turned around there was fat Barney Gowdy clinging to my lapels and breathing in my face, indirectly advising me of what he had had for lunch.

Barney is a bookie and opportunist, a character who “had been pitching pennies at the cracks in the boxfighting profession ever since the days of John L.” He’s been trying to corner Danny for weeks in order to present a proposition to him. A fellow manager named Whitey Burd lost the rights to a boxer he owned to Barney in a poker game. Barney isn’t a manager and has no interest in owning this or any other fighter. He can’t sell the contract outright without attracting the unwanted attention of the IRS, and since this boxer is an “up-and-comer” his value in the black market is limited. His proposition: He and Danny trade fighters. Danny gets a younger contender with good chances and a longer career while Barney gets rights he can more readily sell. Danny asks for 24 hours to think it over.

He first visits the Tailor, who is home and indulging in his off-ring hobby, magic tricks. When he presents the idea Tailor says “Okay by me, Danny.” When Danny asks if he is sore at him Tailor looks at him blankly.

“Should I be? All I care is I got somebody who gets me fights. I figure I got maybe two more years, maybe three, before I get out. I’ll see you around, won’t I. Hey, watch this one. See here? I got a coin. A quarter. I hold it tight in my fist and I pass the other hand over it like this…”

He then goes to the other fighter, a young man named Spencer Leslie. He immediately likes the looks of the man, noticing his “thick, square hands with strong bones… He was one of those boys with a small head set close against his shoulders, a big chest, no hips at all and a springy way of walking… He had a snub nose, a nice grin, and cold grey eyes.” (One of these days I’m going to catalog every JDM character who has gray -- or grey -- eyes. It will be a very long list.) Danny notices that the table in the center of the room is covered with books and there’s a slide rule on one of them. When Danny asks what all of the books are for, Spencer replies that he is studying mechanical engineering, and that he had gone to college after the war to study it but was unable to concentrate and got tossed out. Now he studies on his own.

When Danny broaches the subject of the tradeoff, Spencer is fine with it, and when Danny asks if he really likes boxing, we get the following exchange:

Spencer: “That’s a toughie, Mr. Watson. I hate it until I get into the ring and get a glove in my face. The the only thing I want to do it drop the other guy; I hate him until I hear that ten count and then he’s just another guy.”

Danny: “That’s a good way to be, Spencer. If you haven’t got that, you never make much of a fighter. The press boys call it the killer instinct.”

Spencer: (Grinning) “That’s a harsh word.”

The deal is accepted and the fights begin. The duo travels from Toledo to Detroit to Chicago to Memphis, with Spencer winning every match. By the time they return to New York the press is “screaming about the boy,” and Spencer has earned so much money that Danny “nearly needed a suitcase to carry the dough in.” He gets out from under his alimony obligation by making a lump sum settlement with ex-wife Myrna, buys “eight or nine” new suits, pays the IRS and is still able to put several hundred into his checking account. “All was well with the world.”

Then he runs into Whitey, the manager who previously owned Spencer. When Danny commiserates that it “sure was tough losing that boy,” Whitey grins at him “in a nasty way” and tells Danny that he has been lucky. He reveals that the poker game loss was fabricated and that he paid Barney “five bills” to set up the smokescreen and broker the trade. Whitey now owns the Tailor. Danny asks Whitey what is wrong with Spencer and is told, “Why don’t you ask him, sucker? Or maybe you could try to fix him up to train at Stayman’s Gym.”

Whitey says no more, and when Danny asks Ike Stayman if he could arrange for Spencer to train at his gym, he is rebuffed. “You keep that crazy man away from here.” Danny is left to ask Spencer himself about this mysterious problem…

 “The Gentle Killer” is a solid, representative example of MacDonald’s work of the period, a seven and a half page story told with crisp, direct prose and a realistic first person narration that practically rings in the ear. Its evocation of the period and, especially, the marginal world of boxing, boxers, their managers and other hangers-on, is expertly done by a writer who had evidently studied this world well. Unfortunately the tale is marred by a glib ending that practically comes out of left field (if I may mix metaphors -- and sports) and was also representative of a lot of the author’s pulp work. Still, the overall work is commendable and well worth reading.

MacDonald was well represented in the sports pulps of the postwar period, and if we add up all of them their totals are only eclipsed by his mystery and science fiction efforts, at least if we go by the type of pulp magazine they appeared in. His work appeared 26 times in various sports pulps from 1947 to 1952, and the fact that they are obscure, even in the world of obscure JDM short fiction, owes less to the quality of those stories than to the nearly ephemeral quality of the sports pulp magazine. With the possible exception of the love pulps, the sports pulps are one of the most ignored and least collected of pulp fiction magazines. John Dinan, in his excellent 1998 study Sports in the Pulp Magazines, points out that virtually none of the fiction historians -- pulp or sports -- have given any attention to this category of work. In his preface he notes that Ron Goulart in his Cheap Thrills “devotes a paragraph to the subject,” Andy McCue in his Baseball by the Books: A History and Complete Bibliography of Baseball Fiction “devotes not a word to pulp sports fiction in spite of the claim of ‘completeness,’” and Michael Oriard’s American Sports Fiction, 1868-1980 provided only “a few pages” to the sports pulps. He goes on to say,

If all this is not enough to demonstrate the absence of research into the sports pulps, one has only to look into the world of current-day collectors or researchers and their interests. What are their interests? The hero pulps, the rare titles (like Strange Suicide Stories or Civil War Stories), the outrĂ© weird menace or horror pulps, detective pulps with some of the big-name writers (Chandler, Woolrich, Hammett, MacDonald, et al.), or the early works of writers who later would earn a larger reputation than could be provided by writing for the pulps (like Louis L’Amour). Certainly not the sports pulps.

If All Sports magazine seems like an obscure pulp -- and it certainly did to me -- note that, according to Dinan, Columbia Publications produced an estimated 130 issues of the title from May 1940 to February 1951. The Adventure House Guide to the Pulps, published two years after Dinan’s work, expands that range from October 1939 to September 1951 but admit that they don’t really know when the magazine began or ended. For a magazine to be popular enough to have lasted for over 130 issues and to have become completely forgotten by all but a handful of collectors, well… that’s the history of sports pulp magazines in a nutshell.

When I discovered this title I was understandably elated. I had plans, after posting this essay, to contact both the University of Florida, where the John D MacDonald collection is housed (and where “The Gentle Killer” is still listed as appearing in an “unknown publication”), as well as the online database Fiction Mags Index, one of the most comprehensive collections of magazine contents anywhere, put together by volunteers who have indexed most of their magazine collections for posterity. I was astounded to find that this issue of All Sports had already been documented, by one Monte Herridge, who had listed the “missing” story in his entry of the issue. My chance at celebrity had been thwarted! Well, at least it’s out there. And thanks to my tech buddy J.J. Walters, it is now included in my now completely comprehensive JDM short story list, which you can access under the Trap of Solid Gold Resources in the right hand column of this blog.


  1. You are right about the sport pulps being largely ignored by collectors. But there are a couple, including Michelle Nolan who plans to publish a book on the sport pulps hopefully in 2016(McFarland). She has almost all issues of the sport pulps except for Street & Smith's SPORT STORY which she doesn't particularly care about. She presently has well over a thousand issues of the various titles.

    1. Thanks Walker. I'll definitely be on the lookout for Michelle's book when it is published. Not that I have any particular interest in sports pulps per se, but a new history of this dimly-remembered past is always welcome.

    2. I've only read a couple articles on pulps by Michelle Nolan, but she's one of the absolute best comic book historians in the world. So I have no doubt the book will be extraordinary.

      Steve: What an awesome find! The fact that somebody else had mentioned it at one location doesn't diminish the fact that you're the one who located it and brought it to the attention of the JDM fans. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  2. Steve: You had me running to the book I'm reading now "The Black Mask Boys" because I just read JDM's name yesterday. However, I couldn't remember if there was a short story of his in the book. But woe is me, no.

    A few early writers (not complete list) such as Carroll John Daly, S. Dashiell Hammett and Erle Stanley Gardner but nothing by JDM.

    Enjoyed your blog today mostly because it was all new information. It never occurred to me that sport pulps even existed.

    I can understand your excitement on finding that lot on eBay. How cool is that? Congratulations and great find!

    Here's a tip for what it's worth; Grey and Gray, American English use the "a" version and in, of, about Great Britain use the other spelling. (That does not hold true with "50 Shades of Grey" but I'm holding back on making any comment on that book.)

    1. Cathy, check out The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. It has a JDM novella titled "Murder in One Syllable." It's a first time reprint.

  3. Cool! As usual, thank you so much for your posts. Much, much appreciated.

  4. Wow, a "lost" JDM story has been found after all these years! Amazing! What a great story Steve! I wonder if there are any others out there?