Monday, October 26, 2015

"Night Watch" ("Check Out at Dawn")

When John D MacDonald’s later day pulp fiction collection The Good Old Stuff was published in 1982 it was met with generally good reviews in the press of the day. Most of them were hedging, warning the reader that although this was very good MacDonald, it was early MacDonald and not up to the literary standard he had achieved by the time the collection was published. And although we JDM fanatics of the era had been clamoring for just such a collection for years and would have purchased it even with universally bad reviews, the more occasional readers of the author were more circumspect. Book critic Patricia Holt, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle enunciated a fairly typical opinion when she wrote:

Most of these stories really are dated… [but] reading the young MacDonald is a fascinating experience… There is MacDonald’s absolute clarity of detail, his obeisance to realism and his attempt to convey what this life represents… The problem (or perhaps the joy) is that in this early work we get both the best and the worst of MacDonald’s first glimmerings of style… If you know MacDonald’s stuff and have an interest in how it all came to be, this “Old Stuff” is pretty good.

“Pretty good” seemed like an insult to me at the time, but as I have aged and read much more of MacDonald’s early output, I think this a fair assessment, at least for someone who doesn’t live and breath the author’s work, no matter when it was produced. But there are exceptions, and if we take the notion that The Good Old Stuff represents the best of the lot, then surely there must be a few transcendent works included with the otherwise excellent stories. I would argue that one such example is the 1950 short story published as “Night Watch" in the May issue of Detective Tales, and included in the anthology under the author’s original title “Check Out at Dawn.” It is a relatively simple tale that is told with such a masterful confidence in the creation of character and atmosphere that it reads more like something that could have appeared in one of the mystery digests in the later part of that decade. The “clarity of detail,” and “obeisance to realism” that Holt wrote about in her review are the strengths of this story, not to mention MacDonald’s conveyance of “what this life represents.” He creates utterly believable characters in an utterly believable situation with utterly believable motivations and flaws, and he does so with writing that is both atmospheric and direct, creating his small little world with both economy and style. And he does it all in 3,000 words.

Note how the opening paragraphs set both the scene and the mood, descriptive yet almost impressionistic:

At five minutes of five the disc jockey topped off his program with a recording by the All Stars. Barney Bigard’s clarinet was sweet and strong, to the counterpoint noodling of Earl “Fatha” Hines. He kept the car radio tuned so low that the rhythm was a whisper, the tune like a memory in the mind. As the piece ended he turned off the radio, cupped his hands around the lighter from the dashboard as he lit another cigarette.

When it was finished he eased the car door open and stood out in the crisp, pre-dawn air, the wet spring-smell of the woods. Four months of waiting and watching. The tiredness was deep in him, and the boredom. A leaden-muscled, sag-nerved tiredness.

Behind the house three hundred feet away, the roosters screamed brawsy defiance at distant hen runs, and lonesome through the dregs of night came the far-off sigh and pant of a train.

The man stepping out of the car is Barry Raymes, an FBI agent (although this is only implied) with two years experience in the bureau. He is on the night shift of a round-the-clock surveillance of a small house in the Georgia woods with a single occupant, a young woman named Marra Allen. She is the girlfriend of one Craik Lopat, a criminal fugitive wanted for robbing a payroll and murdering a guard, and Lopat is expected to return to the house and claim his girl. These are backwoods people and their contrast with Raymes is established beautifully by that introductory paragraph featuring him listening to jazz. But after four months of observing and interacting with Marra (she knows the agents are out in the woods) he begins fighting something he instinctively knows to be wrong.

In the night watch you could think of taking this Marra Allen, with her ignorance and her superstitions and her unlettered tongue, and becoming Pygmalion, because there was no denying that her slip loveliness was more than just an attribute of youth. The bone structure was good, and she would take beauty to her grave… In the long night, you could think of her breathing softly in sleep on her bed and think of how her warm breath would come from lips parted just a bit, probably, and the golden hair spread over the pillow…

The routine has been the same since the surveillance began: relieving another agent at midnight and spending the long night behind a screen of trees. Then, at dawn, once the kitchen light comes on, Raymes knocks on the door and Marra lets him in so he can search the small house to make sure Lopat isn’t hiding there. Then, she cooks a breakfast and Raymes joins her before being relieved by the day-shift agent. After every morning meal Raymes puts a fifty-cent piece under his plate, an unspoken payment that Marra doesn’t remove until after he has left.

She seems amused by the four-month watch and the daily search of the house, but is generous and hospitable to Raymes and willingly serves and eats with him. She calls him “mister” and Raymes calls her Marra. But they share a table and nothing else, although wisps of Raymes’ growing fondness are revealed obliquely.

They ate in silence, and as on every morning, she lowered her face almost to the plate for each forkful. In another woman it would have amused and partially revolted him. In Marra it seemed oddly pathetic. It seemed as though a girl of breeding sat there, intent, for some strange reason, on playing this part that had been given her. And in the depths of her gray-blue eyes he saw the deadness, a nothingness, as though a part of her had been dead -- for four months.

But Raymes, on this particular morning, takes things a step too far and reacts in a way that breaks the unspoken truce between them. And on his next visit everything changes…

The ending of “Night Watch” is a surprise, almost right out of left field, but when one rereads the story it is obvious that the pattern is established in nearly every seemingly random description of the characters. That MacDonald did not broadcast this climax earlier in the tale is a testimony to his growing skills and his mastery of understatement and economy. It reminds me a lot of his later short story masterpiece of atmosphere and character, “In a Small Motel,” and recalls to mind Geoffrey O’Brien’s observation of the author’s singular talents:

MacDonald proved himself from the start the kind of storyteller who makes other aesthetic considerations irrelevant. To read him is to hear a spoken voice -- pausing, digressing, joking, all the while drawing you into the yarn. It’s not that the story is so remarkable; you've heard something like it before, you may even recognize chunks of it from another of his [stories], and after a while, it will blend into all the others. The anecdote may be utterly banal. It’s the voice that grabs you, the sure rhythms with which it measures out the story.

Reading “Night Watch” also recalls to mind another contemporary review of The Good Old Stuff, by Henry Kisor in the Chicago Sun-Times, where he wrote, “[These stories] show us not only that [MacDonald] has come a long way, but also that his enormous talent was always there.”

The May 1950 issue of Detective Tales not only contained “Night Watch” but two other MacDonald stories, one of which was “Breathe No More, My Lovely,” the introduction of the author’s third series character, Park Faulkner. That story also made the cut for inclusion in The Good Old Stuff, making that particular issue especially collectable. “Night Watch” appeared under one of MacDonald’s house names, Scott O’Hara, while the third, “The Long, Red Night” was “written” by John Lane.

One final note on “Night Watch.” As most JDM readers know, MacDonald updated the settings for several of the stories collected in both of The Good Old Stuff anthologies, ripping the time and place out of postwar America and placing it into the 1980s. This unfortunate practice, which all but ruined a couple of the stories, is mercifully absent from “Night Watch,” even retaining that opening paragraph with the protagonist listening to Earl “Fatha” Hines on his car radio. (On AM, since I doubt if there would have been many radio stations in rural Georgia playing jazz in 1950.) And even though MacDonald asserted that he made changes in all of the stories in The Good Old Stuff, I’ll be darned if I can locate a single one.

The Good Old Stuff is readily available as a used book, and the eBook version is currently “in print.”


  1. I guess all admirers of JDM have THE GOOD OLD STUFF and the sequel collection, MORE GOOD OLD STUFF. If you collect or like to read pulp fiction these two books are of interest also. But I have to admit that I no longer try and read any of the stories in the two collections because of the updating that JDM did. I still read them but only in the original version in the pulp magazines.

    1. I'd do the same if I owned the original pulps, Walker. Mercifully he didn't update ALL of the stories in those two collections, although he claimed that he made minor changes to all of them.