The subject of John D MacDonald’s practice of updating many of the stories in his two pulp collections -- The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff -- has been discussed often here on this blog when writing about the various stories that made up those two anthologies. But to belabor the point, I’m going to rehash the issue as a preface to this particular posting as context for anyone not familiar with the issue.
In 1981 John D MacDonald, at the time one of the bestselling novelists in the United States and famous worldwide for his series character Travis McGee, was contacted by Francis M Nevins and Martin H Greenberg about putting together an anthology of MacDonald’s early short stories that had appeared in the pulp magazines of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Nevins was (and is) a mystery writer, a biographer and expert on the works of Cornell Woolrich, and was a student of MacDonald’s pulp work, having written several articles on the subject in the pages of the early JDM Bibliophile. The late Martin H Greenberg was, without doubt, the greatest anthologist and academic expert on popular American fiction of the last century. According to his Wikipedia entry, he edited or co-edited 1,298 unique anthologies in his lifetime.
MacDonald was, in his own words, “not transfixed with delight” about the idea, worrying about the “overall quality of such a collection.” He agreed to have the two men present him their ideas for such a collection and he put them in touch with his own bibliographic experts, Walter and Jean Shine, who had both a working relationship with the author and a practical knowledge of the holdings of the John D MacDonald Collection housed at the University of Florida. Together the four editors collected and read all of MacDonald’s pulp work (excluding science fiction, which had already been anthologized by Greenberg a few years earlier in Other Times, Other Worlds) and winnowed the pile to thirty stories. MacDonald wanted to review them in manuscript form, so all of the stories had to be typed up from the original tearsheets. He took the stories to his summer home on Piseco Lake in upstate New York and chose 27 of the thirty stories for the now two separate anthologies.
MacDonald wrote that he was astonished that these stories merited republication, but only up to a point. He felt it would “jar” the reader to come across a passage wherein a character paid twenty cents for a quart of milk, or put a mere nickel into a pay phone, so he updated certain aspects of the stories, but only in the ones that didn’t depend on the specific time and place in postwar America. Still, the wholesale changes that he did make were far more jarring to most readers than any reference to a penny candy or to a now-forgotten celebrity. In “A Time for Dying," which was titled “Tune Into Station Homicide” when originally published in New Detective in 1948 (MacDonald also restored all of his original titles to the stories, as many were changed by pulp editors, but at least the original titles were provided in the table of contents), a radio show is updated to a television show, even though someone as savvy as MacDonald had to know that the production of a live radio show in 1948 bore almost no resemblance to a television show in the early 1980’s. In “Trap for a Tigress” (“Noose for a Tigress”) he changed a recent war from Korea to Vietnam but retained the setting of a cross country train ride (updated to Amtrak) even though almost no one of any means was traveling this way in 1981. And in “The Scarred Hand” (“I Accuse Myself”) he updated references from radio to television but retained the threat of lobotomy, even though that particularly horrific medical procedure had long since fallen out of favor by the early eighties.
MacDonald must have been surprised at the animosity from many readers over the changes he made in many of these stories. After all, he had been updating his novels for years. When Fawcett got the reprint rights to his books in the early sixties he went through all of them in order to excise period references. In All These Condemned he changed a reference to Marilyn Monroe from present to past tense. He frequently changed references to then-popular sports celebrities to more current ones. In Contrary Pleasure a reference to then up-and-coming female tennis star Maureen (“Little Mo”) Connelly was changed to Billie Jean King. And let’s not forget Area of Suspicion, which underwent so many changes that its first Fawcett edition featured the blurb on the cover “Specially revised by the author”. So he probably thought nothing of the updating of the pulp stories and was likely frustrated with the ones he couldn’t change.
These changes have a different effect than the ones in the novels, however. As Nevins observed in his Introduction to the first collection, “... MacDonald portrayed more vividly and knowledgeably than any other crime writer the readjustment of American society in general and American business in particular from a war footing to a consumer-oriented peacetime economy, and the redemption and return to the real world of all sorts of war-haunted people on the verge of self-ruination by drink and detachment… perhaps enough remains of the ambiance of the late forties and early fifties to demonstrate how the best crime fiction of any period bears witness to later generations about the way we lived then.” That “perhaps” was overly optimistic, and some of the stories are quite nearly ruined by MacDonald’s changes.
Take “The Tin Suitcase”. Originally published in the May-June 1948 issue of Doc Savage (under house name Peter Reed), all references to the protagonist’s war experiences were removed, completely altering the mood and motivations of the original story. In addition, there were literally dozens of other changes made that had nothing to do with the period, disproving MacDonald’s assertion that he did so only in cases that “might confuse the reader”. I know this from having read the two versions of the story side by side, an exercise I hadn’t tried before, and it got to the point where I decided to document all of the changes made to the original. Two pages of a notebook were filled before I gave up. If “The Tin Suitcase” is any indication, the changes MacDonald made to these stories were far more sweeping than I originally believed.
If your first exposure to the story came from the pages of The Good Old Stuff -- mine was -- then the plot of the story you read goes like this. Protagonist Jud Brock is employed as a low-level worker at the Brasher Scrap Metal Company in the city of Louisavale. As he is working out in the yard one day, a secretary comes out of the office with the intention of handing Jud his daily work orders. Stella Galloway is also a friend of Jud’s and they have gone out together on several dates. Suddenly a shot rings out and Stella falls to the ground, a bullet in her back. She is alive, but barely, and is taken to the hospital to hopefully recover. When the cops arrive we learn that Jud himself used to be a cop, but was thrown off the force after a breakdown following the murder of his young wife. He has taken the job at Brasher Scrap Metal as a means of recovery, and had mended well by the time the story begins, but it doesn’t stop the cops from needling him mercilessly when they discover him on the scene. Jud’s cop instincts take over and he gets the owner of the business to agree to let him investigate what happened, and even the cops grudgingly agree, as long as he stays out of their way. It is determined that the shot must have been fired by someone at the business, as no one from the outside could have gained entry to the yard when the attempted murder took place. MacDonald begins rolling out the various suspects, including the business owner, a normally mild mannered chap who fires Jud after the shooting for a relatively minor act of insubordination, and a scrap purchaser who had worked with Stella at a previous employer. There’s also the possibility that the bullet had been meant for Jud himself, and that Stella had gotten in the way.
After the cops see what a changed man Jud is they become more agreeable to him using his considerable investigative skills to help them solve the mystery, and they begin gathering, then eliminating all of the possible suspects until there are only a few, and some things simply don’t add up. All the while, Stella lies in a hospital bed fighting for her life…
The most interesting part of “The Tin Suitcase” -- the best written and most engaging part -- is a lengthy account of how Jud lost himself and hit bottom. Even The Good Old Stuff version of it retains some of its original power:
They all knew the story of Jud Brock. He had put in six years with the Louisavale police, going on the force directly from college. He had advanced rapidly, had been transferred to Homicide, where he worked under Captain Davis. He was looked on as one of the bright young men in the department. Since Louisavale was a city of two hundred thousand, he could plan on merit promotions to the point where he would make a good living and have a responsible position. He was popular and he liked his work and he was good at it.
During his sixth year on the force he became engaged to Caree Ames. She was a slender, enchanting blonde, the only daughter of the city manager.
They were engaged for just two months before they were married. She seemed pleasantly but curiously anxious to be married, as though it would be some sort of haven for her.
Five weeks after the wedding and three weeks after they had returned from their Bermuda honeymoon, he came home to their new suburban house to find that a man with whom Caree had been intimate before he had ever met her had broken into the house, shot her twice in the skull, and then shot himself. She was dead. The man was still breathing. She had died almost within reach of the telephone. The man lived in a coma for five days before he too died.
He could not get that kitchen scene out of his mind, the two of them on the vinyl pattern he and Caree had selected, both face down in the pattern of a grotesque T, the still-breathing man lying across her dead legs.
Later he found out that quite a few people had known of her affair with the man who killed her. Her father had been anxious for her to be married. The man was demonstrably unstable, potentially dangerous.
For two months after the funeral he had continued his duties, walking through each day like a mechanical man. He had found he could not forget that scene; it was inextricably mixed somehow with some of the bloodier episodes which had happened during his years of police duty before he had met Caree.
During those two months, all the reality of the world around him took place dimly behind the shining screen of memory, and at last he had discovered that alcohol would dim the memories. At first he had been suspended for a month and had managed to get himself in shape to go back to duty at the end of the month. The second suspension was for six months.
After a long period of forgetfulness, he had walked into headquarters, his broken shoes flapping on his feet, his gray face dirty and whiskered, and found out that his suspension had been up for over three weeks and that he had been suspended indefinitely.
Compare that with the original passage as it appeared in 1948:
They all knew the story of Jud Brock. Before the war he had put in two years on the Louisavale police force, going on the force directly from college. He had advanced rapidly, had been transferred to Homicide where he worked under Captain Davis. He was looked on as one of the bright young men in the department. Since Louisavale was a city of two hundred thousand, he could plan on eventually getting a very good position on the force. He was popular and fond of his job. He was engaged to Caree Ames, the sleek blonde daughter of the City Treasurer.
He was drafted in the fall of '40, went into the Infantry, earned a field commission in the Marshalls, was wounded in Saipan, placed on limited duty and transferred as a Captain to Air Corps Intelligence. In a Burma flight with the 10th Air Force, they were forced down and he spent two years as a Jap prisoner working in the rice fields near Rangoon. He was liberated in early '45, after a stay in the General Hospital in Calcutta, was shipped home and discharged at Dix with the rank of Major.
He married the blonde Caree Ames. She had acted odd about his return, and had seemed very anxious to be married. Three weeks later, during his first week back on the force, the man with whom she had been intimate during Brock's years overseas had broken into Brock's new house, had shot Caree and then himself. Caree had died immediately and the man had lived in a coma for five days before he too died. It was only then that Brock learned what had existed between the two of them while he had been away.
Brock had come home and found the two of them on the kitchen floor, the man still breathing, lying across Caree's dead legs.
For two months he had continued his duties, walking through each day like a mechanical man. He found that he could not forget the way the two of them had looked on the kitchen floor and it was inextricably mixed with memories of some of the unbearable days of captivity, and somehow through it all he recaptured that moment of intense surprise when the Jap mortar shell had dropped into the soft sand beside the shallow hole he had scooped and had tossed him a dozen feet in the air...
During those two months all the reality of the world around him took place dimly behind the shining screen of memory and at last he had discovered that alcohol would dim the memories. At first he had been suspended for a month and had managed to get himself in shape to go back to duty at the end of the month. The second suspension was for six months.
After a long period of forgetfulness, he had walked into headquarters, his broken shoes flapping on his feet, his grey face dirty and whiskered and had found out that his suspension had been up for over three weeks and that he had been suspended indefinitely.
Notice how when MacDonald changes one thing it forces him to make other changes he wouldn’t have made otherwise simply for the sake of “updating”. By eliminating the war years he eliminates the affair Jud’s fiance had while he was overseas, requiring the author to have Caree now be killed by a former boyfriend. One could argue that it was Caree’s unfaithfulness more than her murder that caused Jud’s breakdown, a subtle bit of business that adds a deeper layer to the reader’s understand of the character, now missing altogether from the altered piece. The horrible memories of the POW camp are replaced by MacDonald’s odd addition of the dead couple “on the vinyl pattern he and Caree had selected, both face down in the pattern of a grotesque T, the still-breathing man lying across her dead legs.” It’s clear in the original that Jud’s war memories are a large part of his breakdown, especially with the added bit about the mortar shell. It’s as if MacDonald had removed a vital support in a building, only to have to shore up the weakness elsewhere by other means, thereby weakening and changing the finished product entirely.
Some of the other changes MacDonald made throughout the entire story are in keeping with his intention of updating: increasing the cost of something from forty-four dollars to eighty-eight; changing a reference from boxer Primo Carnera to Superman; changing the phrase “gay as a lark” to “happy as a lark”; and, in the one war reference he couldn’t eliminate, changing “war surplus” to “Viet Nam surplus”.
Others make no sense and belie the author’s assertion in the Foreword that he “was horribly tempted to make other changes, to edit patches of florid prose, substitute the right words for the almost right words,” but didn’t because “that would have been cheating, because it would have made me look as if I were a better writer at that time than I was.” How else to explain some of the following alterations?
Original: Two men with a detector were left back…
Update: Two men with a metal detector were left back…
Original: "I'm sorry. I'll pay you the hundred and twenty-one bucks. I'm sorry."
Update: “I’m sorry. I’ll pay back that money. I’ve got it in savings. I’m sorry.”
Original: "... the gal who turned him down getting palsy with... well, with a common laborer."
Update: “... the woman who turned him down getting chummy with… well, with unskilled labor.”
Original: "She's had two more plasma transfusions, but she's losing moisture so fast that
she'll be due for another one soon."
Update: “She’s had two more plasma transfusions, but she’s losing fluids so fast that she’ll be due for another one soon.”
Original: “... a few times we went to the coke bar at the Pentagon…she was a nice neat girl and very quiet.”
Update: “... a few times we went to the cola bar at the Pentagon… she was very nice in a quiet way, very tidy and polite.”
I could go on with lots more, but you get the point. Cleaning things up? Yes, probably. Trying to make it seem he was a better writer at the time than he was? You be the judge.
So now I’m left with the gnawing feeling that I should go back and reread all of the Good Old Stuff stories in their original pulp form, where I have that opportunity. Unfortunately I don’t own a lot of the stories in the original magazines, so I’ll have to guess. But what I once thought was minor tinkering, where I could read an updated story and make substitutions in my mind with what was written for what had probably been written, no longer seems the case. Certainly not with “The Tin Suitcase.” The only real improvement I can see in MacDonald’s update is his restoration of the original title, “She Cannot Die.” Unfortunately, the better title is attached to the inferior story.
(A special thanks to Trap of Solid Gold reader Eric Gimlin for supplying me with a copy of the original story.)