Monday, July 20, 2015

Travis McGee Reads Bluebook

An especially heavy work schedule these past few months has limited my writing time and caused me to exhaust my “backstock” of essays for The Trap of Solid Gold. Things may be a bit sporadic here for the next couple of months as I try and meet my own personal deadline of a weekly Monday morning posting. In the meantime, I offer this brief “discovery.”

I’m currently going through the McGee canon for the umpteenth time, and for the first time in this most enjoyable of endeavors, I’m not reading the books one after the other, but reading other things between the novels. I always enjoy all of the McGee titles, but mixing them up with other works by other authors seems to make each subsequent McGee fresher and more original. As many times as I’ve gone through the titles from Blue to Silver in one gulp, I doubt if I’ll ever tackle the works that way again.

Anyway… I’m currently rereading A Deadly Shade of Gold and came upon a passage which was made a lot more interesting to me after reading and writing about a short story published years earlier.

As I drove back to Bahia Mar I wanted to hold fast to all the small speculations about her, the forlorn erotic fancies, because I knew that as she slipped out of my mind, Sam Taggart would take her place.

And he did, before I was home. I found a slot and then I shoved my hands into my pockets and walked across to the public beach. I walked slowly where the outgoing tide had left the sand damp and hard. The sea and the night sky can make death a small thing. Waves can wash away the most stubborn stains, and the stars do not care one way or the other.

It was a cheap and dirty little death, a dingy way to die. When dawn came, there would be a hundred thousand more souls alive in the world than on the previous day, three quarters of a million more every week. This is the virus theory of mankind. The pretentious virus, never knowing that it is a disease.

Imagine the great ship from a far galaxy which inspects a thousand green planets and then comes to ours and, from on high, looks down at all the scabs, the buzzings, the electronic jabberings, the poisoned air and water, the fetid night glow. A little cave-dwelling virus mutated, slew the things which balanced the ecology, and turned the fair planet sick. An overnight disease, racing and explosive compared with geological time. I think they would be concerned. They would be glad to have caught it in time. By the time of their next inspection, a hundred thousand years hence, this scabrous growth might have infected this whole region of an unimportant galaxy. They would push the button. Too bad. This happens every once in a while. Make a note to re-seed it the next time around, after it has cooled down.

Lofty McGee, shoulders hunched against the cold of the small hours, trying to diminish
the impact of the death of a friend.

This is a remarkably similar thought behind a short story Travis must have read when he was in college, titled “Virus H,” published in the June 1955 issue of Bluebook, and written by a guy named John D MacDonald.

Monday, July 13, 2015

“When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?”

John D MacDonald’s 1977 blockbuster novel Condominium is fiction that works on many different levels. If we are to believe MacDonald’s biographer Hugh Merrill, the book was conceived as a revenge piece against a local developer who was attempting to build an eight-story condominium next door to the MacDonalds' dream home, into which they had moved only two years earlier. The couple fought this development tooth and nail, eventually launching a lawsuit, but it was all to no avail. The condo was built and the MacDonald’s had to live with it.

But the 447 pages of Condominium covers many other related subjects, such as building codes, zoning ordinances, hurricane formation, the venal business practices of amoral businessmen, and the great social plight of America’s retirees who have left the places they once called home to live out their lives in this retirement paradise called Florida. This is where the novel works best, in MacDonald’s detailed, insightful and mostly compassionate portrayal of old people starting the final phase of their lives in a place that is not quite what it was advertised to be.

Condominium was not MacDonald’s first take on the subject. Way back in 1953 he wrote an article for This Week magazine with the extremely clunky title of “When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” Advertised by the magazine as a cautionary tale exposing a problem America’s leaders needed to deal with, it was strongly implied that this was a work of nonfiction. The reader is led to believe that MacDonald went out, tape recorder in hand, and interviewed a typical Florida retired couple, then wrote an article about them. With no other information besides having read the piece, I’m pretty sure that was not the case, that this is fiction, an  early precursor to the kind of thing MacDonald was trying to do in his Travis McGee short story “Terminal Cases” and in the more well-known final JDM “book” Reading for Survival, where important issues are presented and argued by fictional characters.

Appearing in the March 8 issue, “When You Retire…” is told in the first person by the interviewer. This setup is a device to allow the retired couple to do most of the talking, which they do with little interjection by “MacDonald.” They are the Talmadges, Bert and Pearl, who moved down to St. Petersburg from Michigan several years ago, moving into the first home they ever owned, albeit with a mortgage. Bert was a lineman for the power company and Pearl a homemaker. Their two children are mentioned only briefly, in a typical MacDonaldian aside that speaks volumes: the son died and the daughter, after a bad marriage, is estranged and living in Canada. They have agreed to be interviewed as a typical retired couple, ones who are slowly getting squeezed between a fixed income, rising prices and unexpected expenses.

"Thirteen hundred dollars a year seemed like enough, back then," [Pearl] said ruefully.

"It was, Pearl. It was"

"But now,” she says, "it's little things like haircuts for Bert. Since I got the arthritis in my hand this year, I can't cut his hair... There's only  nine years left on the mortgage, but this year the homestead taxes went up again.

"And his teeth. And the man said it would be nearly two hundred dollars to get rid of the termites. I guess we're just going to have to live with them. It's all those little things that make me so nervous when I get to thinking about them."

As the interview progresses we see just how close to the edge their life in retirement is. In order to bring in some extra cash Bert bought a moped and started a delivery service. But the heat and several near-collisions dissuaded him of that endeavor. This is followed by a wonderfully concise exchange that reveals the extremes to which they have gone in order to make ends meet.

Bert: I sold the bike for forty dollars after I painted it fancy, and put the money in the plants I showed you out back. I think we'll do better with those."

Pearl (darkly): "Better than selling those greeting cards, I hope."

Bert: "There were just too many doing that. Just like with the animals you make out of shells, and like delivering those circulars. I used to deliver every one, too, not stuff 'em under a hedge like some did. If I was better with my hands I could make out better. But I always did heavy work."

Pearl: "You did too much heavy work, Bert. You worked too hard all your life."

During the conversation the Talmadges mention some other couples they know who are under similar pressure. There’s the retired postman and his wife, who after he got ill, was unable to keep up with the mortgage payments and lived on a diet of rice in order to try and save money. And “Old Ralph,” a retired school teacher who catches fish and sells them to local restaurants.

"[He's] over seventy. Goes to the same place on the bridge every day. Fishes for his dinner first, and gets that usually, and then fishes for something extra [for] the fish house... Used to like it, Now he plain hates the sight of fish and the taste and being out there every day, but he can't figure how he can quit."

All of these points of quiet desperation don’t support the Talmadges’ constant reassurances of “we’re getting along” and “others are worse off.” The cumulative effect of all of this, especially to anyone who is close to retirement themselves, must be unnerving to say the least, especially since this was written over sixty years ago and little has seemingly changed. Well, actually, lots has changed, and potentially for the worse. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the mass conversion of corporate pension plans into 401k’s, fixed benefit plans into fixed contribution plans, with the responsibility for managing those investments placed into the hands of the employee. The fact that most employees didn't have a clue as to how to invest for the long term didn't seem to matter to the businesses that switched plans or to the government that allowed it. The result was predictable: given a choice whether or not to save for retirement, most didn't, and those who did invested in the most conservative way possible, guaranteeing a nest egg that would not even come close to providing a decent middle class lifestyle upon retirement. At least the Talmadges' meager pension plan provided something, and it was good for life. Could any reader imagine Bert Talmadge managing a 401k?

“When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” is an interesting curio, a JDM short story that has never been included in MacDonald's list of fiction writings, except by me. (It's on my list of JDM short works in the Trap of Solid Gold Resources.) It's not going to win any awards or be something the reader would ever go back to for re-reading, but it does contain some good JDM characterization, developed mainly through the words of the characters themselves. And it does describe a particular American social problem in an era long past, one that has not really corrected itself in over sixty years of trying.

The story has never been anthologized, which is no surprise. But as with all of the work MacDonald had published in This Week over the years, “When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” is available to anyone with access to a newspaper database, provided the newspapers available were ones that provided This Week in their Sunday editions. If you don't have such access, perhaps your local library does.

Monday, July 6, 2015

"Finding Anne Farley" ("Ring My Love With Diamonds")

In 1977 John D MacDonald went from being a fairly well known writer of crime and suspense novels to a Big Deal. In March of that year his massive novel Condominium was published in hardcover by Lippincott to fairly universal acclaim and major sales. Only the year before the author’s sixteenth volume in the very successful Travis McGee series had been published and accounted for JDM’s first ever appearance on the New York Times Best Seller List, peaking at Number 3. With Condominium he again made it to that then-sacrosanct listing, where it sat for a full 27 weeks, peaking (again) at number 3.

Although the author had pretty much given up on writing short stories at this point in his career, this particular year saw the publication of three such works, all of them unusual to some extent. In the spring his “Wedding Present” appeared in the literary journal Antaeus, his first and only work for that title. It’s an ingenious and fairly typical JDM crime story centered around a particular method for committing that crime. It reads, however, like a much older work, and I’m betting that it was something the author had done years before and perhaps had it rejected by his first choice of publishers. In October New York magazine published the first Travis McGee “short story,” a monograph really, titled “Terminal Cases.” It’s basically McGee and Meyer conversing about a particular societal problem and is a precursor to the posthumously published Reading for Survival, a work we typically classify as a book rather than a short story.

But in May of ‘77, a month after the publication of Condominium, one of MacDonald’s more unusual efforts appeared, not just in one periodical but in many dozen across the country. The Field Newspaper Syndicate, an organization owned by the Chicago Sun-Times, contracted with MacDonald to publish a JDM novella he called “Finding Anne Farley,” to be serialized in five parts, with installments published weekly. The serial would appear in the syndicate’s flagship publication (in the paper’s Sunday magazine supplement) and be offered to the scores of regional papers that were members of the syndicate. To make things interesting, the editors at Field came up with the idea of delaying the story’s final installment so that readers could write and submit their own conclusion to the tale. A winner would be chosen by each member newspaper and a prize of $100 awarded. In addition, the Field editors offered its members the option of publishing the story under an alternate title, “Ring My Love With Diamonds,” and nearly all of the papers that picked up the serial did so using the second title.

For a protagonist, MacDonald went back to the beginning of his paperback career in creating a subject remarkably similar to Cliff Bartells, the hero of JDM’s first book, The Brass Cupcake. Oliver “Duke” Rhoades is an insurance investigator, especially adept at recovering stolen goods. Rhoades’ nickname is derived from his facial similarity to John Wayne, but he is not especially tall, and any other similarities to MacDonald’s other famous protagonist ends there. Rhodes, once employed by Equity Protection Insurance, is now a private “consultant” and hires out to whoever is paying. In “Finding Anne Farley” Equity is grudgingly using him as an independent for the first time.

The company has paid a huge settlement after a large amount of diamonds were stolen from an Atlanta jewelry story. Thirty-two items worth $600,000 was taken over a weekend from Westcott and Sons and replaced with professionally made but worthless copies. The initial investigation resulted in the conclusion that a long-time, trusted employee named Anne Farley was the thief. Using the opportunity of a weekend when the store’s manager was out of town at an auction, Farley apparently made her way into the store’s vault on a Friday and took the items, all of them worth in excess of $300, and replaced them with the phonies. After a pre-arranged weekend vacation, Monday rolled around and Farley didn’t come in to work. She hasn’t been seen since.

Duke’s first stop in his investigation is to a diamond broker in New York City named Wally Marks. Looking over the store’s reference photographs of the stolen items, Marks concludes that the pieces in question were selected not only for their value but for their anonymity: diamonds that could be sold with little effort and funneled back onto the market.

“Somebody had a channel to feed this stuff right back into the industry. Somebody had a lot of time in the vault to select these items and leave the fancy cuts behind. There’s no junk here. All these stones are salable, and probably already sold.”

The conclusion is that Anne Farley sneaked the photos of the items out over time and used them to have the phonies made, then waited until the Friday the manager was away to switch them and take off.

Duke then makes his way to Atlanta and Wescott and Sons. He interviews the store’s manager, one J. Trevor Laneer, who he finds is less than interested in reviving the case.

“Five different people -- two of them from Equity Protection -- questioned me at great length over a period of many weeks, you know. They extracted every scrap of information from me. Surely all that material is on record, and if you have a legitimate purpose in all this, surely it will be available to you. Frankly, I am sick unto death of it. I was deceived by a person I trusted. It took far too long to get the insurance settlement. I feel I was treated badly.”

But Duke hangs around the store afterward and meets one of the saleswomen, Libby Franklin, the only member of the sales staff who doesn’t appear “demure and bloodless.” Libby agrees to meet at a local bar after work to answer Duke’s questions. They eventually end up back at Libby’s apartment and order Chinese carryout. Duke learns that Anne Farley was a dedicated and severe assistant to a severe and authoritarian Laneer. The two of them were the only members of the staff with access to the vault. Farley, referred to by Libby as the “head vestal virgin” of the all-female staff, had no real personal life, had lived with her mother until she passed away, and had resided in a residential hotel until a week before the theft, when she moved to a motel near the Atlanta airport.

A romantic relationship eventually develops between Duke and Libby, but it is never directly referenced and doesn’t becomes part of the main plot.

Duke manages to track down a travel agency where Anne paid for a trip to CancĂșn, presumably to disappear. It is a plot development that bears remarkable resemblance to MacDonald’s Travis McGee novel The Empty Copper Sea, which he was presumably in the process of writing when “Finding Anne Farley” was published. But unlike McGee in Copper, Duke actually makes the trip to CancĂșn and to the hotel where Farley had reservations. Eventually he deduces that although Anne had a reservation and had paid for her room, she never actually arrived there.

Things get more complicated when Duke learns some additional facts about Laneer. The store manager’s older wife comes from big Atlanta money and the store is owned by a trust set up by her father. She suffered a paralyzing stroke several years ago and is completely incapacitated, able only to sit in a chair and look out the window onto an expansive rock garden that Laneer has lovingly built for her with his own hands.

“Finding Anne Farley” is a straightforward tale of investigation, clues and the solving of a meticulously planned crime. It has little characterization outside of MacDonald’s trademark economic descriptions and does not contain a single wasted word. The author didn’t write a lot of what could be classified as whodunits, but this story definitely fits that bill. It seems to have been fairly successful, with a number of papers around the country picking up the option to run it, from big city dailies such as The San Francisco Examiner and the Miami Herald to smaller publications like the Van Nuys Valley News and the Oil City (Pennsylvania) Derrick. It was successful enough for the Field syndicate to do it again the following year, with a serial titled “Friend of the Family.” The year after they published a third and final serial called “Eyewitness.”

I’m unsure if Duke Rhoades repeated his role as protagonist in the subsequent serials, as I don’t own copies and have never read them. If that was the case, and it seems likely, then we can add Rhoades to the list of JDM series characters that began with Benton Walters back in 1946. I can say that the third series, “Eyewitness,” was an adaption and expansion of an early JDM short story of the same name that was published in the September 1964 issue of Argosy. Although the protagonist of that earlier tale isn’t named Duke Rhoades, he is an insurance investigator, so it seems likely to me that these three serials all feature that particular character. “Eyewitness” (the serial version) appeared in very few newspapers -- in fact, according to Walter Shine, it didn’t even make it to the Sun Times -- so it has been hard for me to find out exactly who is in the new tale.

“Finding Anne Farley” was reprinted once, in the Best Detective Stories of the Year anthology for 1978, edited by Edward D Hoch. There one can read it as a unified piece without the installment interruptions. Used copies of this book occasionally turn up online. If you have access to a newspaper database, either at home or at your local library, you may be able to find it in its five parts, including perhaps the winning entries in the reader contest for the ending. If you can get into the archives of the San Antonio Express-News, you will find not only MacDonald’s own ending, but the winning reader’s ending and a handful of runner-up entries. One of them, written by Phillip D. Tritchler, has got to be one of the funniest and most outrageous bits of reader participation ever. Believe me, I’m giving nothing away from MacDonald’s own ending by printing Tritchler’s wacko conclusion below.

After his return to Atlanta from Mexico, Duke Rhoades talks again with each of the key figures in the case, looking for some unusual occurrence in the jewelry store's routine over the past year or in Anne Farley's woefully sterile life.

One of Anne's fellow sales clerks mentions the name of Travis McGee as the only man she's known Anne to show an interest in.

Duke finds that McGee was a highly successful salvage operator of sorts, recovering lost, stolen or swindled valuables for friends, usually for a fee of half the sum recovered.

It was on just such a case, involving precious gems, that McGee visited Atlanta and met Anne Farley.

What serves to whet Rhodes' curiosity even more is that McGee, in his last "salvage" operation, departed from his usual pattern and, weighing friendship and honesty in balance with greed, kept the entire bundle for himself.

Could he have done it again?

Following this trail, Rhodes goes to Florida to talk with McGee. But McGee's houseboat, "The Busted Flush," departed its usual moorings one day after Laneer's diamonds disappeared in Atlanta.

There was also, McGee's neighbors reveal, an attractive blonde on the houseboat. Anne Farley?

After weeks of searching the Caribbean, Rhoades finds the “Flush” anchored in an isolated bay near Bimini in the Bahamas and confronts both McGee and Farley.

After a brief but violent confrontation, McGee collapses with a fatal coronary. Turning to Anne, Rhoades notices that all those months of leisure in the sun have had their effect on her as well.

The mousy, shy clerk has blossomed into a woman worth second and third glances. Farley confesses the plot including the false Mexico leads was McGee's idea [sic] and produces the diamonds.

The catch in the caper, she said, came when her love for McGee turned to hate during the months of isolation.

Rhodes, staring at the beautiful blue-white diamonds and glancing at Anne, thinks of the return to Atlanta and comes to a decision.

With a smile and a gesture toward the houseboat controls, he asks her, "Can this thing get us to Brazil?"

It’s been a long time since I’ve wiped tears of laughter from my eyes after reading something.