Monday, November 9, 2015

Soft Touch

It hadn't been what I had wanted to happen to me. This wasn't the life I had wanted to have. I was supposed to be one of the good guys. Jerry Jamison. I'd been brought up thinking of myself as one of the good guys. If you were the other kind you eventually got shot down, you spun and fell dramatically in the cowtown dust, or they clanged the big doors shut behind you, big doors in a gray wall.

Nineteen fifty-seven through 1959 was an extraordinarily productive period of time in the writing career of John D MacDonald. Each of these years saw the publication of four original novels, all but one of them uniformly very good or excellent. They covered a broad range of subject matter, from crime to comedy, adultery, corporate affairs in big business, the sociology of 1950’s America, sexual obsession, even the amateur art world. MacDonald had hit his stride as a novelist and rarely ever stumbled again. Fully confident in his abilities as a writer, he published two novels back to back in 1958 that had nothing to do with the world of crime, novels of “manners and mores” in the jungle of the American backyard, both of them excellent (The Deceivers and Clemmie) and they sold fairly well. But in August of that year, only a month after the appearance of Clemmie, he returned to the world of crime with the novel Soft Touch.

It was an expansion of a novella he had published in Cosmopolitan in March of that year titled “Taint of the Tiger,” and it represented more than just MacDonald returning to his strengths: it was the first time since 1951’s failed novel Weep for Me that the author featured a protagonist whose own criminal actions lead to his undoing. As such, it is an anomaly in the book-length works of JDM and contains the flavor of another author. Where Weep for Me was a conscious effort to ape the rush-toward-destruction fatalism of James M Cain, Soft Touch, with its growing sense of fear and hopelessness, reads like nothing less than a Jim Thompson novel. Yet it is singularly MacDonald in both style and characterization and comes, I think, as close to noir as the author ever got in a novel.

Of course noir can be a lot of things to a lot of different people and the term has been watered down over the years. My favorite definition comes from Otto Penzler, who defined it as "...bleak, existential, alienated, pessimistic tales about losers-people who are so morally challenged that they cannot help but bring about their own ruin." By that definition MacDonald never wrote noir, at least not in his novels. He he was unwilling and seemingly incapable of having a “loser” as a protagonist. He once told Ed Gorman “most of us have a greater liking for strong and solid people than we have for the wimps of the world.  With strong people you can tell where you stand.” The closest he came was the character of Kyle Cameron in Weep for Me, and MacDonald hated the results so much he arranged with his publishers to prohibit the novel’s republication. He made amends of a kind with The Empty Trap, yet Lloyd Wescott is anything but a loser and his only “crime” is to fall in love with the wrong woman, and the revenge he seeks seems entirely justified to the reader. The ending, however, is redemptive -- even the ending of Weep for Me is redemptive -- but in Soft Touch he offers no such solace. It is a descent into hell that is as dark and as bleak as anything he ever wrote.

Even the prose MacDonald uses in Soft Touch seems different -- spare and precise, with nothing extraneous or wasted. I know, this can describe most of the author’s output, but here it is especially evident. Coming in at a mere 160 pages, it was his shortest novel since The Empty Trap.

The story is told in the first person, and Jerry Jamison “voice” reminds the reader of another JDM protagonist in a similar situation: Paul Cowley in “Linda”. Both are gainfully employed suburbanites, married to restless, unhappy women, stuck in childless marriages they are haplessly trying to save. And while Linda Cowley had other things on her mind, Jerry’s wife Lorraine is content to drink, carouse and cheat on her husband. They’ve been married for eight years the night Jerry comes home from work with big news.

Like in most of JDM’s male characters in his novels of the 1950’s, the protagonist is a veteran of World War II, and MacDonald uses some direct background from his own biography for Jerry: he fought in the China-Burma-India theater and was assigned to the OAS. But unlike the author, who had a desk job there, Jerry was in operations and fought behind the lines in very dangerous situations. When he returned home he drifted around and got into minor trouble before ending up back in his midwestern hometown of Vernon and getting into the homebuilding trade. He did well for himself, on a minor scale, and one day at a contractor's picnic, he meets his future wife.

[She was] fresh out of college, in July of 1950. She was with her father, E.J. I had met him a few times and thought him tiresome, self-important, and not very bright. But I had never seen anything more delightful than Lorrie. Glossy black hair and eyes of a wonderful clear blue. She wore white sharkskin shorts that day and a yellow blouse, and her legs were a longness of honey and velvet. When she moved it was like dancing, her narrow waist emphasizing the dainty abundancies that kept her constantly encircled by all the unattached men at the picnic. She had a cute squinty grin and no time for me at all.


I guess I was ready to be married. I campaigned hard. Perhaps if I hadn't been so eager I might have been able to see her more clearly, see the petulance and the greediness and the drinking. She had been brought up to believe she was the most important person in the world. And the verve that all pretty young girls possess kept her basic character from showing itself too clearly.

They married a month later and Jerry’s small business was acquired by the much larger home building operation owned by his new father-in-law. The couple’s wedding gift from her parents was a brand new home, only a block away. So, chained by marriage and employment, a very unhappy Jerry arrives home one evening to tell Lorraine that he is going to quit working for her father and go back out on his own. A major housing project has been taken away from him and given to Lorraine’s equally-spoiled brother, who naturally works for daddy. When Jerry begins discussing the matter, Lorraine’s dismissive remarks are interrupted by the door bell. Jerry answers it and is surprised to see his old war buddy Vince Biskay standing on the doorstep.

The last time I had seen Vince was in Calcutta in August of 1945, thirteen long years ago. As my air transportation home had lifted off the runway I had looked down and seen him for the last time, He was standing beside the borrowed jeep between the two White Russian girls with whom we had spent the past two weeks, and he was drinking from a bottle and waving at the same time.


I could see at once that he had weathered the years a little better than I had He was deeply tanned and his grip was hard and firm. He is a big man, and something about his cat-lazy way of moving, his air of potential recklessness, has always reminded me of that Mitchum in the movies. Vince has a square jaw, high hard round cheekbones, an odd slanting flatness about his eyes, There was a subtly foreign flavour about the cut of his suit, the trim of his hair, the large red stone in the gold ring on the little finger of his right hand.


Vince Biskay and I had achieved a special closeness during the war. We met when we were both assigned to Operations behind Lord Louis's headquarters. Operations behind Jap lines had required a special kind of go-to-hell talent, and I suspect we were prime examples. We worked well together.

Vince is greeted warmly by Jerry and, taking his suitcase and welcoming him in, they drink and talk. Despite the long years apart Jerry can sense a kind of watchfulness and reticence in Vince, who has told Jerry that he is in town for only one purpose: to visit him. Then Lorraine comes downstairs.

I saw her react to him. I had seen a lot of women react to Vince. I felt a little twist of jealousy as I saw the heightened color, a shine in the eyes, a flirtatiousness in the smile, a barely perceptible arching of the back.

Lorraine is suddenly all smiles and the perfect hostess, and Jerry plays along as they do “the happy marriage bit.” Then after dinner, a completely sloshed Lorraine, carrying her “bedside jolt of raw brandy,” heads upstairs and Jerry and Vince talk.

Vince briefly recounts what he did immediately after the war, leading up to a point where he began working for a general in a South American country Jerry calls Valencia, "for reasons which will become obvious." Valencia is run by a dictator and the general is secretly plotting a coup. Vince, who long ago adopted citizenship in the small country, is in the United States carrying a forged passport. Also, the general doesn't know he is here, thinking him to be on a hunting trip in Brazil. Vince believes the coup will fail and that he will go down with his general, but has figured a way out, and he needs the help of his old OSS partner.

In order to fund the coup the general is purchasing a large cache of arms, to be paid for in US dollars. The payment is to be made in Tampa by two of the general’s couriers. Vince’s plan is to take the money from the couriers on their way from the airport and disappear with a Latin girlfriend who is helping on the other end. Jerry is understandably hesitant and Vince tries some convincing.

"It would not be theft, Jerry. Keep that in mind. It would be just a little job of hijacking the war funds of a greedy joker who is trying to overturn the stable and U.S. recognized government in what promises to be a very bloody-type revolution. Hundreds of innocents killed. From the moral viewpoint we'd be doing the world a favor."

After Vince heads to bed, Jerry thinks it over but comes to no decision His cut would come to at least a million dollars and he begins thinking how it would allow him to free himself from both Lorraine and her father, and then he thinks of a secretary at the office with whom he has a kind of flirting relationship, and the first pangs of interest begin to stir. If Jerry can’t recognize it the devoted reader of MacDonald certainly can, as she is the polar opposite of Lorraine and, physically, the paragon of JDM womanhood.

A tall, grey-eyed gal with pale, lustrous, creamy hair and a very direct manner. No coy feminine antics, and a good sense of humor.

So it’s really no surprise when Jerry eventually ties in with Vince. But it takes a bit of time. He quits his job with the intention of getting back into business himself, but in order to do that he will need Lorraine’s cooperation, and that doesn’t happen. She threatens to fleece him in a divorce action if he tries. His banker offers him no hope of helping and he is faced with the humiliation of having to ask for his job back. But it isn’t until he drives Vince to the airport that he tells him of his decision to join up. When he returns home the author writes a wonderful point-of-no-return passage, brilliant not only for its prose but for its biting social eye.

On Sunday night a pack of Lorraine's special friends trooped in to drink my liquor. I had endured them for years, even tried to like them. Brittle, nervous, flirtatious women with laughter like the breaking of glass. And their dominated husbands, brown, drunk, noisy -- masters of the crude double meaning, Don Juans of the locker room.


Now, by reason of the decision I had made, I was through with them. They were strangers.

That night before I went to bed I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. And saw another stranger with a closed and wary face, coarse ginger hair going gray. I snapped the light out. The house was still. They had taken Lorraine off with them to the club, for drinking and groping and fumbling, for funny jokes and laughing, for wide slack kisses, and a fat tab added to the monthly statement.


I woke up when she came in. She turned all the bedroom lights on. I pretended sleep. I heard her leg thud into a chair, and heard her slurred and mumbled, "Son vabish." When she began to snore I got up and turned out the lights she had forgotten, In the darkness there was an odor of her in the room, stale perfume, smoke, liquor, and an acid trace of perspiration.


No place for Lorraine in my new world to be.

This begin’s the “caper” section of the novel, and it is thoughtfully laid out and brilliantly executed by MacDonald. It’s as suspenseful as one would expect from the author, especially when, after grabbing the loot Vince is shot in the arm and leg and has to be cared for by Jerry. They abandon their plans to split in Clearwater and head back to the only place that seems logical: Jerry’s house in Vernon, where it will be just Jerry, Lorraine and a recuperating Vince living together in the happy home.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess what happens next (especially after viewing the cover of the first edition) but the regular JDM reader is not prepared for the depths to which MacDonald takes his protagonist. As I intimated earlier, we head to Jim Thompson country, both outside and inside the head of Jerry Jamison. And I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that Soft Touch doesn’t contain a typically glib MacDonald ending, not even one as semi-redemptive as the one in Weep For Me. The author went to the dark side for this novel and, if you want to read noir, this is noir, brilliantly executed.

But it’s John D MacDonald noir, which means it doesn’t take place in a gritty urban setting, peopled by lowlifes and perpetual losers, but in bright, clean suburbia, with its new, treeless horizons of tract housing, its young professionals and its alcohol and sin. MacDonald had a special eye for this unique 1950’s sociology, something he’s never really been given credit for. I’ve discussed this in my essays on some of his other novels, notably The Deceivers, The Executioners and Clemmie, and although he doesn’t dwell on it as closely as he did in those books, that lifestyle is an undercurrent to everything that happens in Soft Touch. The parties, the casual sex, and the booze, the endless river of booze that fuels everything. They are all symptoms of a bankrupt system of values that leads Lorraine to sink into its excesses and for Jerry to succumb to the temptations of easy money and escape.

Coming only four months after the publication of The Executioners and its widespread and favorable reviews, one would have thought that Soft Touch would have received some coverage, but it didn’t.  In 1958 paperbacks were still the poor stepchild of the hard cover. The only review it received was in Anthony Boucher’s column in the New York Times Book Review, where he wrote. “Soft Touch, which was serialized (sic) most appositely as "Taint of the Tiger," is at least the sixth novel this year (sic) by John D MacDonald -- and has anyone maintained such quality with such volume since Simenon in the early Nineteen Thirties? This one's a sharp, cruel story of temptation and disintegration, as a young business man succumbs to the lure of millions in Latin-American gun-running money -- a not unfamiliar plot, but an acute and relentless treatment.”

Compared to MacDonald’s other books of this period, Soft Touch enjoyed a relatively large first and second printing by Dell: 289,000 copies. Compare that with only 195,000 for The Deceivers, 217,000 for 1957’s A Man of Affairs, and the subsequent Deadly Welcome (176,000), which would be the last JDM paperback original Dell would publish. The first edition featured a cover illustrated by Victor Kalin, depicting a grim faced Jerry opening the bedroom door onto… well, it’s a giveaway for a scene that takes place in the second half of the novel, but given what preceded it, it’s not really a surprise. Kalin had illustrated three other JDM paperback originals, and Soft Touch would be his last.

Dell published a second edition in January 1962 and they commissioned a new cover by Robert McGinnis, who began his long association with the works of JDM in 1959 with the cover of Deadly Welcome. McGinnis would go on to illustrate the covers of scores of MacDonald originals and reissues, and his work on Soft Touch is breathtaking. Unfortunately, with a brown haired Lorraine leaning against a tree, it is both inaccurate and doesn’t seem to illustrate any scene in the novel. Still, it’s great artwork.

When Fawcett began reissuing the MacDonald canon in the mid-sixties, Soft Touch was included and again featured new artwork. It’s a scene of the botched heist and done by an artist who has not been identified. This cover was used on five editions up to 1974. Then, beginning in 1976 two more editions came out with yet another cover, this time done by Don Daily. It’s a nice composition featuring the heist (with an upside down limo) and Lorraine lording over the entire scene. This cover was altered slightly for the last two Fawcett reissues, with the artwork cropped within a circle.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Soft Touch originally appeared in the March 1958 issue of Cosmopolitan as its featured “Complete Mystery Novel,” under the title“Taint of the Tiger.” (MacDonald’s own, for once.) It hews very closely to what the author eventually produced for the novel version, but was understandably shorter. There are no missing scenes of any importance, but several contain interesting variations on what would come out in book form several months later. Much of the backstory of Jerry and Vince in southeast Asia during the second world war contains different specifics as to what they actually did for the OAS, and the magazine version bears a much closer resemblance to what Hugh Merrill in his JDM biography speculates was JDM’s own job there during the war. The relationship between Jerry and the secretary is handled a bit differently, and Jerry’s history of how he got involved in the building trade is fleshed out more completely. But the big changes, while not altering the plot much, take place much too late in the novel for me to discuss with would-be readers. There is some late inning background on Vince that is not even hinted at in the novel and which completely changes his motivations. Also, MacDonald added a final few paragraphs to “Taint of the Tiger” that really should have been left in the book version and that reveal an author who was still in the thrall of James M Cain.

The story art for “Taint of the Tiger” was done by Bob Patterson, and for this assignment he produced three illustrations. I usually like to include scans of all of them here, but, again, two of them depict scenes so late in the tale as to ruin any surprise. Even the one I am willing to include is a scene that occurs after my synopsis ends. The only reason I include it is that it was obviously a model for the Dell first edition cover. I wonder what Patterson thought when he saw Victor Kalin’s artwork on the paperback racks later in 1958?

Soft Touch was the very first John D MacDonald novel to be filmed for the big screen (his work had appeared several times on television), and it arrived in theaters in 1961 under the title Man Trap. I wrote a paragraph on the movie here back in 2010, where I said:

Producer Stanley Frazen purchased the film rights after reading the novella [“Taint of the Tiger”] in the Cosmopolitan. He still recalls the film fondly, stating in 2009 "It was a great heist caper with a terrific performance by [David] Janssen." He is in a definite minority, as I have never heard of anyone else feeling warmly about this hash of an adaptation. The New York Times Guide to Movies on TV called it a "a second-rate melodrama, derived from a typical, brass-knuckled John D. MacDonald crime yarn that read better and certainly moved faster." In 1984 MacDonald told Ed Gorman "I think I would have a warmer feeling about Soft Touch had it not been made into a pretty sorry motion picture called MAN TRAP." That remark implies he actually saw the film, which is belied by a 1986 TV Guide article he wrote titled "The Movies of My Books? Listless, Dumb, Inept." "A friend advised me not to see it," he wrote of the film, "but I would have, had it been shown anywhere handy. Another friend saw it listed on a billboard in Kentucky as the third feature in a midnight drive-in fiesta."

I hadn’t seen Man Trap in many years when I wrote that but it has since come out on DVD and I purchased a copy from Amazon. It’s a fairly straightforward adaptation, with some major changes, some of which I can reveal, others I won’t because they come too late in the plot. The film opens with Vince and Jerry when they are in the Army, although now they are fighting in the Korean War. Vince is wounded (a couple of fingers shot off) and stranded, and is rescued by Jerry. While retreating and carrying Vince, Jerry is shot in the head but survives with a metal plate in his head. This preposterous addition is justification for a scene that happens very late in the story, and which came from the novella, yet JDM didn’t need the excuse of a metal plate. There is no hint of the duo’s involvement with the OAS.

The other changes, which happen late, are significant in that they make Jerry innocent of two crimes that he commits and which lead to his downfall. Hollywood obviously didn’t want to have the protagonist depicted in such dark tones and the ending of the movie reminds one of the ending of Weep for Me.

The film was well cast, with Jeffrey Hunter as Jerry, Janssen as Vince, and Stella Stevens as Lorraine. Stevens, a blonde, was playing the part of a brunette, which she did again a few years later in the title role of MacDonald’s Linda. She’s a bit over-the-top as Lorraine but manages to pull off the character’s shrewish nature. Man Trap was helmed by first-time director and actor Edmond O’Brien, and many of the film’s problems were probably due to his lack of experience. The film’s pace is leaden compared with the novel, and the lightening of Jerry’s character makes the story feel less compelling in the long run. It’s worth watching once to see after reading the book, but MacDonald’s feelings toward the film are entirely justified.

Soft Touch has long been out of print in book form, but used copies of the novel are easy to find. There is an eBook version available from Amazon (and probably others) for $11.99. Based on the spelling  of certain words (“colour,” “neighbourhood”) it was apparently struck from the UK Robert Hale edition of 1960. Otherwise is seems to be a faithful version of MacDonald’s original novel.


7 comments:

  1. My note in the paperback shows that I read SOFT TOUCH back in 1987 and liked it a lot. I saw MAN TRAP recently and liked it also. I consider it film noir but some reference books don't even mention it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Walker, I feel like the the book is definitely noir, but the changes they made in the film make it watered down noir at best.

      Delete
  2. Thanks for another great review, Steve. I look forward to reading this book. I remember seeing the movie on TV when I was a kid, probably in the late 60's on one of the network movie nights. I don't remember much about it but I always liked Jansen and Hunter and that's why it sticks in my mind. I suppose I'll have to track the DVD down now too!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Chris. I recommend reading the book before watching the film. I got the DVD from Amazon for $16. They also let you rent a streaming version for $2.99.

      Delete
  3. Excellent post, Steve. As always, you provide some excellent insights on the writing and characters in the context of his other works. I read this on the heels of Clemmie, and must say while neither protagonist is in the mold that JDM usually creates to carry the action forward, I found Jerry Jamison more sympathetic and interesting than Craig Fitz, in spite of the warning signs indicating where the story was headed. I thought the conclusion was almost more Twilight-Zone-esque than noire, and just about perfect. Back to Clemmie: I think the only JDM novel I had a hard time finishing. Thanks again for this great analysis.

    ReplyDelete