Monday, February 29, 2016

"The Tin Suitcase" ("She Cannot Die")

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.)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Looking Sideways

A couple of weeks back I wrote a piece on John D MacDonald’s 1959 mainstream, hardcover novel Please Write for Details and mentioned the publicity campaign conducted for the book by the publisher Simon and Schuster. This week I’m posting an example of that effort, a feature in a syndicated column that appeared throughout the country (this particular version was transcribed from the March 16, 1959 edition of the Pampa [Texas] Daily News.) The “Looking Sideways” column was written by Whitney Bolton, a longtime newspaperman who had done work in Hollywood in the 1930’s and 1940’s as both a screenwriter (42nd Street, If I Had a Million) and head of publicity for Warner Brothers.

The interview took place at The Playbill restaurant, a then-new establishment located on 44th Street west of Broadway, and, although it is not mentioned, I’m sure there was drinking involved. The lady Bolton mentions as being “in tow” with MacDonald, one Temple Texas, was a then-thirty-five year old actress/singer of modest fame who had appeared in a movie or two and was doing television work at the time. How she hooked up with MacDonald is anybody’s guess.

Looking Sideways
by Whitney Bolton

New York - You can sit down here and there with 8,207 actors in succession, all as glossy as pigeons, and after all the yakking ended and you total the gain it comes out to about this: it was pleasant. You can sit down with one sensible book writer, just one, and the total gain comes out to a large plus. In a crescendo of candor, this means that actors are amusing for the moment, but authors are a steadily diverting class of human beings who lace large dollops of provocative thinking in with their idle chat.

On March 18, unless Simon B. Schuster can't read calendars, John D MacDonald of a variety of places including Sarasota, Florida, and Cuernavaca, Mexico, will be able to sit back and look upon his new novel, Please Write For Details, with relish. Up to now, it has been work. The book is receiving critical nip-ups from coast to coast; the movies, like a school of shad, are nibbling at the bait and one sagacious Broadway producer thinks highly of it in terms of a future musical comedy. Short of winning the Pulitzer Prize, which it hasn't, John's book has brought him just about all the rewards at hand.

We sat in The Playbill the other afternoon and John had the good taste to have Temple Texas in tow. Maybe she had him in tow, I'm not sure. But the three of us were still there when the dinner crowd began glowering because we were sprawled across a desirable table doing nothing more pertinent than talking. John's book is about a fugitive and slightly demented little art colony of Americans in Cuernavaca, and automatically this made it a Grade A item to me. I love Mexico on any terms and hate art colonies on all terms, so his wise, witty and often touching dissection in print reached me on all counts. But like any good author worth respect and time, John wasn't there to talk about Please Write For Details. He was there just to talk because it pleases him to do so, and he talks with scourging frankness and comic malevolence. When he elected a moment of the silences, Temple was supplying words and soothing tones and it was an afternoon worth remembering.

John had but recently been delivered whole from the clutches of a radio interviewer (female) and was still a little pale about the gills.

"She said: 'Now, tell me, should a girl marry for love or money, Mr. MacDonald?'" he revealed, "and all I said was: 'What kind of girl? How old is she, is this her first marriage, what was her economic background, where does she live and what are her future economic and romantic chances?' She almost fell over. She finally said, 'Well, this girl is about 22, this is her first marriage, she is reasonably attractive and is not the victim of abject poverty,' and I said: 'In that case, she'd be a sucker to marry for anything but love. Later, maybe when she's 30 and has experienced the lovely hurly-burly of young wedded bliss, she can turn practical and chuck her boy Romeo for an older and better-heeled guy.' You'd have thought I put a bomb under Lincoln's Memorial. She was furious at me."

Later, talking about a woman we both know, he idly said: "She's the kind of hostess who still makes fudge for a cocktail party," and in our discussion of an actress of resounding beauty but never great stature in theater and the allied arts, he said: "She's the enlisted man's Ginger Rogers." This, probably, will give you the impression that Mr. MacDonald does not have to tussle with and sweat out a new turn of phrase. You'd be right to suspect that. Nor does he entertain rigidly fixed ethics about lancing human beings who sorely need lancing. This put us on common ground and for an hour we coursed a mighty terrain from loud-mouthed tourists to living-room boors, sometimes generally speaking, and sometimes specifically speaking, with names intact. Temple, a beautifully skilled girl with a lance, often rode side-saddle with us on these excursions.

What kind of book does a man like this create? A good book, sound in wind and logic, strong in human estimations, a book of wit and charming invention, one in which acid and compassion, one about equally divided. I think you could read it with satisfaction. And, having read this one, you won't have too long to wait. John is no one-book author. His publishers have five more awaiting print. Books pour from him like waters from a gladed spring.

He is an alert, civilized and totally winning gent and I'm glad to have talked with him. Now, I can go back to yakking with actors with stouter heart.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Businessman Author

When John D MacDonald began his literary career in late 1945, he didn’t set out to be known primarily as a writer of crime fiction. His sights were set high and he imagined himself as a creator of “serious” works to be read by serious people. Eight hundred thousand words and reams of rejection letters later, he lowered his sights and focused on the pulps, where he eventually found a home producing hundreds of short stories and novellas. Some of his early tales are what we would call “mainstream” stories, published in periodicals such as Cosmopolitan, Collier’s and The American Magazine, but when MacDonald started writing novels in 1950, it was crime and science fiction that filled the early bill.

It wasn’t until his ninth novel, Cancel All Our Vows, published in May 1953, that he produced a genuinely mainstream work, and he did it in style, going hardcover. It wasn’t the first time the author had done this, as his two earlier science fiction novels were hardcover, but they were niche novels, and Cancel All Our Vows was the real thing: a book about infidelity in modern American society. It was published by Appleton-Century-Crofts, a now extinct second-tier concern that, nevertheless, gave a good effort at publicizing and promoting the novel. They purchased an ad in the New York Times Book Review and made the author available for interviews by the press of the day.

One such conversation was with Rochelle Gibson and was syndicated in newspapers throughout the country. I found a copy of it printed in the Tucson Daily Citizen and have transcribed it below. This version of the piece seems truncated (did she really begin the first paragraph with the word “actually”?), and it is filled with errors, including the very title of the book (!), but it contains enough JDM thoughts to make it interesting reading. I wonder just how serious he was in his comments about the strata of meaningfulness in fiction?

Cancel All Our Vows never showed up on a best seller list, didn’t get a second printing, and took two years before appearing in paperback, so the all the publicity went for naught, although the novel was certainly worth the effort. A year later when MacDonald was ready to publish his second mainstream hardcover, Contrary Pleasure, he went to 22 other publishers and was rejected by them all, forcing him back into the arms of Appleton-Century-Crofts, who published a single printing of the book and provided no publicity whatsoever.

Anthropological Novel

        Businessman Author

by Rochelle Gibson

Actually, the theme of Cancel All Vows, [sic] an Appleton, Century-Crofts novel, is anthropological, explains John D MacDonald.

"Every society has its own rules," he notes, "and we are living today with a set of specific, pretty well-underlined rules. They are underlined by the church and by just the common ethics, and they are good rules because through them we have a cohesive society.

"It is important that a man and woman live together and raise children, and the home is an important social unit. Where you get social conflict today is where you have somebody violating the social rules under which we are living.

"This book is just an exploration of what happens when two people who have a good relationship[ to each other come into forcible conflict with one of the rules, and it affects their relationship to each other. People don't realize that it isn't in effect a violation of any basic human relationship; it's a violation of the rules. But rules are constantly changing. Compare what is acceptable now to what was acceptable in 1890. And as a matter of fact, the husband-wife relationship is probably healthier now than it was in 1890.

Cancel All Vows is the first hardcover book for MacDonald, who is 38 and makes about $100,000 a year writing magazine stories, soft-cover novels, mysteries and science fiction. The Damned, his 11th paperbound book, sold a million and a quarter copies. One that Dell is publishing was a serial in Collier's last year, and there are a few others coming out soon.

"I want to do more hardcover books," he says, "because it is not only a prestige thing, but you feel you are reaching people you can't otherwise."

As he sees it, "if a story is only meaningful on the top layer, then it is magazine fiction. If it is meaningful on a the secondary layer, with symbolism and so on, then maybe it is softcover fiction. If it is also meaningful on a tertiary level, I would say it is a hardcover book. Then, if it has multiple layers of meaning going way, way down, of course it is a great novel -- and it doesn't matter where it is published. Some of our greatest works were published in cheesy newspapers.

MacDonald's history as an author began during the six wartime years he served overseas with the OSS. Simply because he got tired of writing routine letters home, he sent his wife a short story instead, which she promptly sold to Whit Burnett, of the old Story magazine, for $25.

Back in the States he did about three million words at 1/2 cent and 1 1/2 cents a word for pulps, at the same time selling occasionally to the better magazines. In the first year he had stories accepted by Liberty, Collier's and Cosmopolitan. Then as the slick-magazine sales began to improve, he did less and less pulp writing and has not ceased completely.

Born in Sharon, Pa., and currently dividing his time between Sarasota, Fla. and the Adirondacks, MacDonald is an alumnus of the Harvard graduate school of business administration, where he went at the instigation of his father, now retired, who was vice president and treasurer of Savage Arms Corp.

"There has been a cult of taking down the businessman," he notes. "It started before Babbitt, and I see no particular basis for it. This will make me sound like a member of the NAM, but why should he be talked down any more than a grocer or a painter or a neurosurgeon for that matter?

"There can be a certain amount of glamour in the way he makes a living, because what can be more glamorous, for example, than just the idea of taking stuff out of the ground, like the Ford Co. -- iron ore -- and in a period of maybe four months from the time it's ore in the ground having it go 75 miles an hour down the New Jersey Turnpike? That's creative. I don't at all see why the businessman should be low man on our particular artistic totem pole."

Monday, February 1, 2016

Please Write for Details

In the early period of John D MacDonald’s writing career, during the time when he was writing short fiction exclusively and primarily for the pulps, the economic realities of trying to support a family on one and two cents a word forced him to make both a financial and cultural decision. Inspired by description of Mexico and the artist community in Cuernavaca in Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, the MacDonald’s packed their bags and drove south, to live more cheaply and to be surrounded by like-minded artists. From November 1948 until September of the following year the family lived on Jacaranda Street, a few miles north of the main city, and lived the bohemian life of American expatriates.

This nearly year-long stay was the beginning of a love affair between MacDonald and the people, geography and culture of Mexico. It began showing up in his writing, first in short stories like “Tank Town Matador,” “Blue Water Fury” and the novella “Five Star Fugitive” (which later saw life as Border Town Girl), then later in novels like The Damned, The Empty Trap and the final scene in A Man of Affairs, where the MacDonald’s home is appropriated for the characters in the book. Nine years later the MacDonalds returned to Cuernavaca for the summer, while son Johnny did missionary work there with the Quakers, this time residing in the hotel Las Mananitas. Throughout their lives they returned again and again, exploring different parts of the country, supplying John with background material for subsequent books such as A Deadly Shade of Gold, Dress Her in Indigo and Cinnamon Skin.

The 1957 visit proved to be the inspiration for the only John D MacDonald novel to take place exclusively in Mexico, and in Cuernavaca no less: his 1959 effort Please Write for Details. Its locale wasn’t the only thing about the novel that was unusual for the author. It was his first attempt at writing a romantic - comic novel, something he would only try one more time with his science fiction story The Girl, The Gold Watch, & Everything. There are no murders, no (real) bad guys, no gunplay, and the few crimes that are committed are strictly of the venial variety. It was also the author’s return to one of his favorite writing forms, the third-person-omniscient, multi-character, multi-point-of-view narrative that he last explored in The Price of Murder, seven novels back.

Once referred to as “a bawdy romp” by the author himself, Please Write for Details is exactly that -- it was certainly MacDonald’s intention -- but develops into something deeper and more complex. There is the author’s amazing ability at character creation and development, his singular talent to reveal deep and intricate lives of ordinary people, their pasts spread before the reader in seemingly minute detail, so that by the time the action for that character begins we know them as well as we can know anyone. There is MacDonald’s nearly perfect plot construction, almost Shakespearean in its complexity in his multi-character novels, that can stand and bear the weight of scores of interactions between different people and still come out interesting and flawless, leaving the reader in complete awe as to how he did it. And, of course, there is the incredible narrative drive, the way of telling a story that, while deep, seems almost conversational, an ability that makes reading a John D MacDonald novel almost a compulsion.

That he can do all of this in a novel without much of a real plot is all the more unbelievable.

Yet when MacDonald refers to the book as “bawdy,” we have to remember who is saying that, and who is writing the book. While Please Write for Details contains individuals coupling up, some engaging in extramarital sex, and even some non-consensual sex, it is at heart another morality tale, where every “good” couple, whether or not they sleep together, has marriage as their ultimate goal (it’s part of what makes them good), while interactions between characters who don’t have that intention are “bad” and usually punished in some way or another. We’ve seen it countless times before in the earlier novels where sexual promiscuity in a man is seen as anything from a moral weakness to a sign of evil, and where that same proclivity in a woman often leads to death (Mary Olan in You Live Once), disfigurement (Barbara Haddon in Judge Me Not) or insanity (Clemmie). I realize that this is not a uniform characteristic covering all of the author’s novels, but it is prevalent in many and an undercurrent in all of them. The beauty of Please Write for Details is that in its comic structure, MacDonald is freed from his occasional compulsion to play Old Testament God with his characters and let them misbehave a bit, if only a bit. Only one character ends up truly “punished,” and for that person it is justifiable comeuppance, as every reader would agree.

The plot of Please Write for Details is simplicity itself, yet within that structure dozens of little stories unwind. Gloria Garvey, a wealthy yet bohemian American expatriate living in Cuernavaca, decides, out of boredom, to come up with a “project” for another expat and acquaintance, Miles Drummond. Miles, a nervous little man in his fifties who has lived a single life in Cuernavaca for years, would be the last person on earth with the imagination or energy to come up with the idea of creating the Cuernavaca Summer Workshop, a two month art school for vacationing Americans. It was Gloria’s inspiration, she who came up with the name and location -- a shuttered hotel several miles north of town (not-so-coincidentally where the MacDonald’s lived during their first stay), she who wrote the advertising and she who hired the two art teachers who are due to arrive as the novel begins. Some of the students will arrive by plane and need to be picked up at the Mexico City airport, others will come by car. Thirteen students in all, none of whom know each other before arriving, with the exception of two widows in their sixties who drive down together from Ohio. The teachers are as different as any two people -- or artists -- could be, and there is friction between the two even before they meet. Both are artistic “types,” frequently portrayed and lampooned by MacDonald, who was himself the spouse of an artist.

Agnes Partridge Keely arrives in a gray Cadillac and is wonderfully described so that no further details are needed:

A billowing, pillowy woman of fifty, all pastels and jangle of junk jewelry, full of soft cooings and velvety exclamations. She had a face like a pudding, small, bitter blue eyes, and coarse, tightly curled hair bleached a poisonous yellow-green. She had her studio in Pasadena, and her little group of disciples. When she had been a miserably shy and thoroughly unattractive child, it was thought she had a pretty talent for drawing. In the past thirty years Agnes Partridge Keeley, hefty virgin, had painted and sold some 8,000 seascapes, landscapes and portraits of children and animals in the $15 to $60 price range. A shrewd and avid businesswoman, she saw to it that there were Agnes Partridge Keeleys in every retail outlet in the Pasadena area where an Indiana tourist might be tempted to buy a genuine original painting by a California artist.

Her counterpart is one Gambel Torrigan, whose type was the more frequent butt of MacDonald’s ire, an artiste whose focus on the abstract masks an inability to actually draw. (This character flaw would be used again in the person of Heidi Geis Trumbill in One Fearful Yellow Eye.) We meet him before we meet Agnes, when Gloria and Miles pick him up at the airport.

[He was] a very big man who strolled along with the manner of a man who owns the airline and is making a check flight to study passenger service. But in that manner there was an undercurrent of the con man, hunting a victim to whom he can sell the airline. He was big -- thick through the chest, heavy in the arms and legs. He combined a bristling black brush cut with a bushy beard, tinged with gray. Nestling in the beard was a wide and petulant red-lipped mouth, a nose pink with tiny broken veins. His cheekbones were high and brown and solid, the pale eyes set in Mongol tilt. He wore an obviously ancient, rust-colored corduroy shirt, the collar open, a yellow silk ascot at his throat, faded baggy khaki pants, and the kind of black pseudo-cowboy boots that A.T.C. personnel used to by in Brazil in the early forties. He wore a bulging and ratty musette bag slung over his shoulder, and carried a large painter's portfolio.

These are the two paragons who will lead the unknowing and unprepared thirteen, not that it matters, for almost from the first lesson things begin to fall apart and, one by one, students become disinterested and are happier hooking up with other students, partying all night, or going off to paint they way they want to. The plot of this novel is, basically: the students arrive, they interact, they go home. It is the interactions that lead the reader on to the next page, so the real plot is many different plots happening independently and in concert with one another.

The students are as varied and as intricately drawn as they have been in any other JDM multi-character novel, with many antecedents called to mind by the author’s faithful readership. The interesting ones -- the ones the reader is led to care about -- all have problems going on in their lives and are here more as an escape than to learn art. They are:

John Kemp, 33, divorced after a “very young and childless” marriage and wary of marrying again. He is an architect, the partner in a New Orleans firm that had been somewhat successful.  But his partner’s wife, without any provocation from John, has fallen deeply in love with him and has admitted such to both John and her husband. With no intentions of reciprocating these feelings, John is taking a sabbatical from work in order to determine the future of the firm, which is -- needless to say -- not a very comfortable place to be right now.

Barbara Kilmer, a 25 year old widow, still unable to get over the sudden death of her husband a year earlier. (She’s still wearing her wedding ring.) She is coming in from Akron, where she lives with her parents, to whom she returned after the accident, and they have purchased this trip as a birthday present for Barbara in the hopes that it will help her recover. She is tall, blonde and, after ho-hum first impressions, “exceptionally lovely.” In other words, the MacDonald ideal, and a widow to boot! (One of these days I’m going to count up all of the widows in MacDonald’s work. It’s going to be a long list.)

Parker Barnum, 33, art director at a New York City ad agency, formerly of Larchmont, now living in the city. After a brief fling with a 19 year old television actress, Parker came home to find his wife and two children gone and a note left behind. After discovering his dalliance, Parker’s wife found comfort in the arms of an older and very wealthy man, who plans to marry the wife and raise the kids. And that is what happens, with amazing speed, leaving Parker dazed and, after a time, mentally unwell. He has a breakdown, spends time in a rest home, and is given a six month break from work by management in order to get himself sorted out. As he drives the entire way from New York to Cuernavaca his grip on reality at times seems tenuous.

Elizabeth Babcock, aka Bitsy, 19, of Fort Worth, "leggy and brown and arrogant and derisive of everything in the world," she is driving down with her friend Mary Jane Elmore, who is a year older. “They were the girls from Fort Worth, and from the moment they had learned to talk they had begun to ask for things, and they had gotten everything they had asked for, and it had been paid for out of the almost limitless funds that came from fat herds and deep wells. They were slim and they were beautifully constructed," and have been in and out of several schools, have had multiple physical relationships (Mary Jane has had an abortion) and are attending the workshop under the pretext that it is a University of Mexico summer program (that’s what they tell their parents). They are really here to party.

Monica Kildeering, 29, a schoolteacher from Kansas, unmarried and unattached.

The gods had endowed Miss Monica with one body in ten million... She was five foot seven inches tall and weighed one hundred and twenty-eight pounds. Her measurements were a barely credible 38-24-35. The texture of her body was flawless, creamy, incredibly smooth, without sag or wrinkle or unaesthetic bulge. It was a goddess body, pure as marble from the high proud globe of breast to arched and dainty instep... But having progressed this far toward perfection, the gods, in sudden irony, had given Miss Monica the startling and unmistakable face of a sheep. Slope of brow, wide and fleshy nose, long and convex upper lip, square heavy teeth of the ruminant, brown nervous eyes -- all were a deadly pattern.

And to top things off, "she [is] an intense, explosive, almost hysterical bore." Monica's working life is augmented by summer vacations to various spots, and this summer it is the Cuernavaca Summer Workshop.

Harvey Ardos, 24, pimpled, oily, with "spaniel eyes" behind glasses with thick lenses and black frames, Harvey is a stock clerk in a Philadelphia department store. He's an amatur painter, "of the James Penney school," and he has saved his money for the Cuernavaca Summer Workshop, his "big adventure." Like Monica, he is a non-stop talker and an insufferable bore to most everyone, but not (as we shall see) to Monica. (The James Penney reference was a MacDonald in-joke. Penney taught art at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where the MacDonalds lived from 1947 to 1948. It is highly probable that Penney and the MacDonalds knew each other.)

Paul Klauss, 34, but can pass for 26, is also from Philadelphia and has the bad luck of flying down on the same flight with Harvey. Klauss is the bad guy of the novel, and MacDonald does everything but call him a homosexual.

A trim-bodied man, five feet eight... elevator shoes... pale eyelashes longer than they needed to be, a look of weakness around the mouth. His life was orderly, exceedingly well organized. He was a bachelor, and owned and operated a small men's clothing store near the University of Pennsylvania. He lived in a small and tasteful apartment ten blocks from the store. He did not drink or smoke. He took splendid care of himself, and purchased many medicines and devices which promised to prolong the appearance of youth indefinitely. He had no close friends. All other potential interests in his life were subordinated to his single, intense, almost psychotic compulsion -- the hunting of women.

This being a comic novel, Klauss hunts women to bed them, not to kill them. He leaves in his wake a trail of emotionally damaged ladies and keeps a very detailed journal of his conquests. His interest in the Cuernavaca Summer Workshop is as a hunting ground for his compulsive sport.

Colonel Thomas C Hildebrandt, US Army, retired, age 72, possessed of a roaring, braying voice and stiff demeanor. Hildebrandt is a painter of landscapes, specifically battlefield landscapes, sans soldiers. "My pictures show why battles were won or lost,” he tells everyone. “When I die, my paintings will be willed to The Point." Quickly tiring of the classroom settings, he is the first to go off and do his own thing.

Gil and Jeanie Wahl, newlyweds, they are young college professors who decided on the Cuernavaca Summer Workshop as a “practical” way to spend their honeymoon. Not that they spend much time painting or attending classes. Their interests are elsewhere, as this snatch of dialogue gives testament.

Once they were in [their] room... and the door to the corridor closed, Gil said, "Gosh, this isn't much of a room."

But Jeanie was holding him tightly around the waist, her mouth an inch below and an inch away from his... "It's a gorgeous room, darling."

"Uh... yeah, it's a fine room, Jeanie."

"Just gorgeous, darling," she whispered.

"Sure, darling," he said and fastened his mouth on hers...

"Darling, darling, darling, darling, darling, darling, darling," whispered Jeanie Wahl, the happiest girl in the world.

(Perhaps MacDonald was poking fun at his own penchant for overusing this particular term of endearment.)

Mrs. Hildabeth McCaffrey and Mrs. Dorothy Winkler (aka Dotsy), both in their mid sixties, both widowed, both of Elmira, Ohio, they are old friends who drive down together

Add to this mix a half dozen or so Mexican staff of the hotel, each with their own unique JDM backstory.

The first six students listed above are the eventual couples the author is most interested in writing about, and all are fairly typical JDM pairings, with the possible exception of the second. The first are John and Barbara, who fly down together unaware that they are both headed to the same place. Their story is the MacDonald ideal: a divorced male and a widowed female, he who prizes love above all else and who falls for Barbara at first sight, and she who is at first completely self-absorbed in her own unending grief -- masked as loyalty to the dead husband -- but who gradually opens up to the wooing from her eventual partner. Their union is unmarred by any premarital sex and even contains a nearly Victorian cooling off period to prove that their love is true. Barbara has a clear antecedent in the character of Virginia Sherrel in Murder in the Wind, another widow-still-grieving who eventually breaks down her barriers for the love of a good man.  Virginia was the weakest character in that earlier book, and Barbara is only slightly more interesting. The reader knows these two will hook up by the end of the novel, but Barbara’s resistance is way overdone.

The third couple, Monica and Harvey, is almost purely comic, until the final third of the book when the author begins to treat these people with more respect. Both are single and have never been married, but both have had prior sexual experiences, he of the “cheap and furtive” kind, she of the shameful, uncontrollable surrender to smoldering physical desires. Once the author gets them attracted to each other they segregate themselves -- for the most part -- from the others who find them insufferable. Harvey, who has little education and has worked in every imaginable entry-level job -- dishwasher, waiter, short-order cook, store clerk, bus driver -- is attracted to Monica’s superior intellect, and she to Harvey’s innate intelligence and lack of guile. Their sexual coupling is saved for late in the novel and is very nicely done for these “two chronically lonely people.” MacDonald writes a wonderfully evocative paragraph as the couple drive home from their “perfect communion” in the mountains, one that could never have worked for any other characters in the novel more self aware than these two.

They moved slowly down toward the bowl of Cuernavaca, the round of her hip and the length of her thigh warm against him. The fringe of rain rebounding from the road was silver in the headlights.He wore golden armor from head to toe, and there was a silken riband in her colors fixed to his lance. Her midnight hair, when braided, would reach from tower window to the edge of the castle moat. On either side the road were strewn the stiffening bodies of dragons bravely slain, and the gentile knight dwelt upon the sweet memories of his perfumed rewards.

The most interesting couple is that of Parker Barnum and Bitsy Babcock, an unlikely pair in a John D MacDonald novel, comic or otherwise. Bitsy is a worldly wise young woman who has slept around and lived the hedonistic life that only big money can afford. MacDonald doesn’t usually have much sympathy for women like these: they have sex outside of love and marriage because they “don’t value themselves”. And that’s partly true of Bitsy, but eventually the author comes to terms with this “shortcoming” and forgives her, something he would be hesitant to do earlier in his writing. The means of her surrender to love is in his construction of the character of Parker, another JDM “type” who would usually not receive much respect from the author. He is a weak man, and Bitsy comes to realize that she is the stronger of the two and that his need for her trumps any desire on her part for an idealized man. As uncomfortable as it may be for most modern readers, her surrender to Parker is a noble act, and her love for him is a response to his need. She has no illusions about the character of her future husband.

She knew in her native wisdom that this was not very much man. He was clever rather than wise, querulous instead of strong. He could never be cured of his self-doubts, his anxieties. He would always fuss at fate, and meet disaster only with indignation. But he would always need her. And there was a sweetness in him, With something that was almost amusement, she saw the exact dimensions of the trap into which she had willingly walked. Gone now the hope of that one-day, some-day man who would be larger than life... This man was on a smaller scale. A boy-man, who would resent deeply the slight loss of love when she had to spread it among their children, because he would have a greedy need of all of it.

They are married almost immediately after sleeping together and return to the Workshop, where they are feted with a ceremonial party attended by all the characters, an event where the relationships of the two other couples are resolved and set in stone. It’s a beautifully done chapter in the best tradition of all romances.

Of all the other students at the Workshop, the one that interests MacDonald the most is Paul Klauss, perhaps because, even in a comic setting MacDonald can not resist the tug of evil. He couldn’t have Klauss killing off his conquests and have written the same kind of novel, so he brings it one step down and has him killing them emotionally. The character, as solitary as a hunter,  is the antithesis of the varying shades of love represented by the three couples. (Four, if one includes the newlyweds.) But after setting him up as a steel-eyed predator with a near conquest of Barbara Kilmer early in the novel, MacDonald treats him so badly that the reader feels almost sorry for him. Here is Klauss appraising his hotel room for the first time:

It did not take Paul long to unpack... He sat on the narrow bed. It was made up with clean gray sheets, a blanket with two holes in it. The narrow window was open, He looked through the patched screening and between the bars and saw a stretch of baked earth between his window and the high stone wall... He turned and looked at the cane chair with a broken seat, the huge bureau that looked as if at one time it had rolled down a rocky mountain. He looked at the single bulb that stuck out of the wall, a big bulb made of clear glass so that he could see the filaments inside. He went over and turned it on by pulling the chain. He could look directly at the light without blinking. He could imagine how dismal the high-ceilinged room would be at night. The center of the narrow bed was a good five inches lower than the corners. And the mattress was stuffed with discarded truck springs and milk bottles. A cockroach strolled out from under the bed, paused and looked at Klauss with insolent appraisal, and went back under the bed. For the first time since childhood Paul Klauss felt like breaking into tears.

When one of the hotel maids, a pretty, young and highly sexed Mexicana named Margarita mentions to her male supervisor that Klauss made advances toward her, only to chase her out once she willingly began removing her dress, (Klauss likes the chase and the conquest, and this would have been too easy, with no destructive aftermath possible.) he devises a wicked scheme to shame Paul (who Margarita calls “Ball”) whereby Margarita will sneak into Klauss’ room before he turns in, lie naked under the sheets, and make love to him whether he wants it or not. Afterword, Margarita is to exclaim loudly, “Geef me ten dollars!” The plan works perfectly, several times, much to the horror of Paul Klauss, who is essentially raped each time. He grows more nervous and disconcerted as the novel progresses, and his ultimate fate is completely over the top, way too harsh for a comic novel and something MacDonald certainly did with his tongue in his cheek.

Klauss’ villainy seems curiously akin to any number of Shakespeare’s comic antagonists -- Don John, Lucio (in Measure for Measure) and Parolles come to mind -- in temperament if not in action, and it seems to me that Please Write for Details can be taken as MacDonald’s modern take on Love’s Labor’s Lost, a work of similar mood and plot. The early play features a “Workshop” (the Navarre Academe), multiple sets of unattached males and females who end up together, a wonderful set piece which serves as the romantic focal point of the work (masques and dances in the play, a wedding celebration in the novel), and even a bombastic military officer (Don Armado). The novel is divided into three “books,” each with its own archaic-sounding introduction complete with arch language and antiquated punctuation. I will concede that there is no villain in Love’s Labor’s Lost, and I’m not claiming this was an inspiration for the novel, only that mood, structure and subject matter are similar enough to make one wonder.

MacDonald was happy with novel and said at the time, “I had a hell of a lot of fun doing the book despite the fact I did the second half three times, all different, and am still not convinced it holds up as well as the first half now.” He would have liked to have had the book get picked up as a book club selection, but conceded that, because of the subject matter, it would be unlikely. He was right, and a hoped for magazine version didn’t happen either, perhaps for the same reason. Published by Simon and Schuster in March of 1959 the novel saw only a single printing of 3,000 copies -- half that of his previous hardcover, The Executioners -- before coming out in paperback in March 1960 as a Fawcett-Crest edition. Given that half of the earnings of the paperback were earned by Simon and Schuster, it is doubtful that MacDonald saw much income from Please Write for Details. Once it was republished by Fawcett in 1966 along with the rest of the author’s early stand alones, it did well and sold over 850,000 copies through 1988, which is fairly consistent with most of MacDonald’s titles.

The artwork for the cover of the Simon and Schuster first edition was done by William Plummer, a journeyman illustrator who mainly did covers for young adult novels (mainly the Kathy Martin series by Josephine James). Done with some striking primary colors it does a fairly nice job of selling the book, and that may even be Gambel Torrigan depicted in the background.

The Crest paperback edition was illustrated by Mitchell Hooks, the artist who did the iconic cover to MacDonald’s A Bullet for Cinderella back in 1955, and who later did The Deceivers. It features an artist’s model wearing only a hat and a towel (and looking very much like a young Stella Stevens) glancing back at the reader while three male art students study her in different perspectives. It’s the cover most familiar to members of my generation and was used, with slight variations, for the first four Fawcett paperback editions.

In 1973 Fawcett commissioned new artwork, this time hiring the great Robert McGuinness, who responded with one of his least representational covers ever: a guy in a business suit holding an artist’s palette and  paintbrush while a tall, slim young lady with a bare midriff clings to him. In the background a nude model reclines on a bed. Just for the record, there are no models in Please Write for Details, and just which characters these people are supposed to be is a mystery. The illustration captures none of the spirit or comedy of the novel, and it lasted for only two editions.

Fawcett came back to McGuinness again in 1976 for a new cover and this time the artist came up with something closer to the story and characters of the novel, but again failed to sell the true tone of the novel. Against the background of a male character McGuinniss gives us an easel, a very Gringo-looking Mexicano, a brunette (Bitsy?) and a woman standing next to a sports car, which must be Gloria Garvey. This artwork was used for three editions.

Finally, in 1981, William Schmidt, the artist who did covers for almost all of the final editions of JDM’s stand alone novels, produced a nice illustration in his trademark “circle” motif. We see an artist’s palette with character faces on top of the various dabs of oil paint. I don’t own a copy of this edition, and trying to locate a decent scan of it on the internet seems impossible, so you’ll have to use your imagination and settle for the one Chris Ogle found for his JDM Covers blog.

Simon and Schuster must have done a terrible job of promoting this book, for its critical reception was nearly invisible. It received no review in the New York Times, usually a dependable place to find mention of MacDonald’s paperback originals, and what little promotion that seems to have been done was built around MacDonald himself (coining him “the least known best selling writer in the U.S.”) while mentioning the book only in passing. The scheme failed, as is evidenced by the single hardcover printing. Both of the author’s hometown papers gave the novel a real review, however, with the Utica Daily Press writing, “... MacDonald paints an intricate landscape… The author’s own art lies in complete mastery of plot and pen. The book is, in turns, humorous, witty, slightly sexy, gentle and, in the end, quite satisfying…”

Lawrence Dame, however, in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, gave the book a fairly scathing review, and from the tone of the piece it almost seems that the reviewer’s complaint is with MacDonald personally. Perhaps the two men knew each other and were fellow Liar’s Club members. For an author who was rarely reviewed seriously, this must have hurt MacDonald to read it.

… hardly satisfying from the artistic, the comical or the aesthetic point-of-view… the violence is mostly that of slapstick,,, this is writing of the slick MacDonald kind, no psychological depth but plenty of surface show, recognizable and expertly handled dialogue, carefully planned though improbable situations, a liberal sprinkling of… sex… in short, most of the elements which, while falling short of literature, make for large sales… Also… a venomous quality of characterization… MacDonald has a flashy talent and much popular appeal, as well as an inherent ability to do better than this… If he had the truly comic ability… he would have a chance of reaching a much greater eminence… than he can with pot-boilers like this… However, it might then be necessary to limit output to one carefully written book a year…

Dame, who would go on to write his own book set in Mexico -- a non-fiction work about Christian missionaries -- seems to have an ax to grind here, going completely overboard in his scorn over a lighthearted book that wasn’t written to preach, instruct or even edify, only to entertain and tell an interesting story, which it does masterfully. If you are a fan of any of MacDonald’s multi-character, multi-point-of-view novels I’m fairly certain you’ll like Please Write for Details. It was meant to be a fun “romp” and, while dated in its morality and its treatment of the native population of Mexico, is well worth reading. Used copies of the various paperback editions are easy to find, and an eBook version is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.