Monday, May 23, 2016

Deadly Welcome

"I work long each day, and usually have at least three books in various stages of clumsiness, letting the subconscious mind untie the knots of the ones on the shelf while I work on the one in front of me. I revise by throwing out whole chapters, sections, even whole books, and starting again—a device which seems to enhance freshness.”

By the second half of the 1950’s John D MacDonald had set a pace for writing that was nothing short of astonishing. From 1955 thru 1959 he wrote 17 novels, 34 shorter works of fiction, a novella that became the second half of his first anthology (“Linda”) and, edited a short story anthology for the Mystery Writers of America, a task he claimed that took the time he could have used to write a full novel of his own. Of course, MacDonald was no stranger to producing large quantities of fiction in a short period of time. His output in 1949 was an amazing 72 short stories and novellas, but these were done mainly for the pulps and their quality was not always first rate. His novels, on the other hand, -- outside of a few early titles -- show a steadily increasing mastery of the written word, in plot, dialogue, characterization and story construction. These were not two-cents-a-word quickies written for an ephemeral periodical market, but works that have survived and influenced a generation of other writers because of their quality and originality.

In 1959 MacDonald had two novels published in the same month, both of them excellent works and both of them as different as two books could possibly be. In March Simon and Schuster published MacDonald’s sixth hardcover effort, the comedy-romance Please Write for Details. Also in March Dell published what would be their last JDM novel, a mystery of superior quality titled Deadly Welcome. It was JDM’s return to form in a couple of ways: he once again used the plot device of a (relatively) ordinary man travelling to a unfamiliar place in search of something (See A Bullet for Cinderella and Death Trap). And, for the first time since 1956’s Murder in the Wind -- ten novels back -- he set the action in Florida.

The “something” Tal Howard in A Bullet for Cinderella was searching for was, ostensibly, a hidden treasure, but his real quest was for some meaning and purpose to a life that had been undone by time spent in a brutal prisoner of war camp. Hugh MacReedy in Death Trap seeks to help an old girlfriend to whom he had done dirt to, but the real subtext of his search is atonement. In Deadly Welcome, Alex Doyle is sent to a small town on the west coast of Florida to do a job for the Pentagon, but this particular town forces him to face insecurities he has been running from all his adult life.

Doyle is State Department employee, an investigator of sorts, who is pulled off an assignment in South America and sent over to the Department of Defense for an odd and unique assignment.  A year and a half ago, Colonel Crawford M’Gann, a brilliant Air Force scientist who had been working on an important top secret project for the Pentagon, suffered a heart attack and was nursed back to health by his young wife, a “questionable” woman who had been a nightclub singer prior to their meeting. Jenna M’Gann moved her ailing husband to her hometown, Ramona Beach, Florida, an undeveloped small town on one of the keys south of Sarasota. A few months later Jenna was found murdered and the assailant was never identified. M’Gann’s sister Celia moved in with her brother and she strenuously guards access to him and the remote beach cottage where they live.

The Pentagon needs Colonel M’Gann back working on their project and has sent several of their people down to Florida in an attempt to convince him to return. None of them has gained access, thanks not only to Celia’s strong defenses but to the insular nature of the community, a throwback to a small southern town that was typical before Florida began turning into a statewide resort. Simply put, they don’t like strangers in Ramona Beach. And that’s where Alex Doyle figures into the equation.

Ramona Beach is Doyle’s home town, where he was born, raised and lived until he was eighteen, and he has strong reservations about returning.

"I... I was born there, Colonel. Right at the bottom. Swamp cracker, Colonel. My God, even talking about it, I can hear the accent coming back. Rickets and undernourishment and patched jeans. Side meat and black-eyed peas. A cracker shack on Chaney's Bayou two miles from town. There was me and my brother. Rafe was older. He and my pa drowned when I was ten. Out netting mackerel by moonlight and nobody knew what happened except they'd both drink when they were out netting. Then Ma and I moved into town, and we has a shed room out in back of the Ramona Hotel and she worked there. She died when I was thirteen, Colonel. In her sleep and I found her. She was just over forty and she was an old, old woman. The Ducklins were distant kin and they took me in and I worked in their store for them all the time I wasn't in school. I don't even think of Ramona any more. Sometimes I find myself remembering, and I make myself stop."

And there’s another reason he hasn’t been back in fifteen years. On his eighteenth birthday he celebrated and got drunk for the first time. He woke up later to find that the Ducklin’s store had been robbed, his key used to gain entry and some of the money stuffed in his pockets. He hadn’t committed the crime, but the evidence was clear.

“I knew what they were all saying. That the Ducklins had taken me in and been decent to me, and that was the way I'd paid them back. Like all the rest of the Doyles. Can't trust that trash.”

Doyle was arrested and a deal was struck: plead guilty, agree to enlist in the army and the sentence would be suspended. He did so and left for good, fighting in the world war, going to college, back to war in Korea, then on to the State Department. He has buried those first eighteen years deep into his psyche and does not want to revisit it.

"I can't go back. Maybe it's... too important in my mind, more important than it should be. But I was... proud of myself, I guess. I'd made a good record in Ramona High School. Scholarship and athletics. I was popular with... the better class of kids. And then... It all went wrong for me. What will they say to me if I go back?"

Eventually Doyle decides to face his demons and agrees to the assignment. There’s one thing he didn’t tell the Pentagon boys, a bit of his past that links him even more to this particular affair. Colonel M’Gann’s murdered wife, Jenna, was Jenna Larkin, a popular and notorious wild child, whose body turned “to perfection at thirteen,” and used it to her advantage. She was the eldest and favorite child of Spence Larkin, a “mean and stingy bastard” who all but ignored Jenna’s younger sister and brother, and it’s hinted that father and daughter’s relationship was not exactly a healthy one, although MacDonald never quite goes there. Alex lost his virginity to Jenna in an once-only tryst on a deserted island, weeks before she left Ramona Beach to seek her fortune.

Doyle’s cover story has him as a construction worker who has just returned from South America, where he earned enough money to start a little business of his own, and what better place than in his old hometown? He is greeted with the expected disdain from the townsfolk who remember him, and finds that Jenna’s siblings are still living in Ramona Beach, running their father’s old marina. The sister, Betty, is described in terms so familiar to the frequent reader of MacDonald that her place in the story is self-evident.

She was a girl of good size and considerable prettiness, and she came swinging toward him, moving well in her blue-jean shorts and a sleeveless red blouse with narrow white vertical stripes and battered blue canvas top-siders. She had been endowed with a hefty wilderness of coarse blonde-red hair, now sun-streaked. She was magnificently tanned, but it was the tan of unthinking habitual exposure rather than a pool-side contrivance of oils and careful estimates of basting time... a big, strong, vital-looking woman, and when she was on his level he knew that if she were to wear high heels, she would stand eye to eye with him.

She and Alex have a typically MacDonaldean meet-cute, and over a beer they discuss old times. Alex has no memory of Betty, but she, several years younger than he, nursed a strong crush on Alex when she was young and even kept a scrapbook of clippings of his high school sports exploits. Alex confesses his innocence of the burglary, and, in a later scene, Betty reveals the reason she’s in her late twenties and still unmarried: she’s frigid, a fact that the whole town is aware of. Her malady is not one of simple disinterest, but of atavistic repulsion, a state that was brought about by several factors including her father’s lack of love for her and an attempted rape back when she was in college. “She became actively, physically ill if any [man] attempted the most innocuous caress.”

Alex rents a beach cottage, away from town and fairly remote, but close enough to the M’Gann cottage for him to begin his work. It’s also very close to where the body of Jenna was discovered, and, as Alex eventually wheedles his way into the good graces of Celia M’Gann, he starts to question the circumstances of Jenna's murder, wondering why she brought her husband down to a small town she had abandoned years ago, her recent activities here, and the behavior of her father many years ago.

And then the inevitable: a visit from the Sheriff’s office in the person of Deputy Donnie Capp, a JDM bad-cop whose personality borders on the sociopathic. He awakens Alex from a nap and enters the cottage oozing menace.

He brought into the [cottage] the slow creak and jingle of petty authority, and a thinly acid edge of sweat, a back-swamp accent and an air of mocking silence. Doyle felt irritated by his own feeling of intense wariness. It was a legacy from the faraway years when there would be trouble and men like this one would come to the bayou and go to Bucket Bay. You let them swagger through the house and poke around as they pleased. You never told them anything. And you never made a fuss because they would put knots on your head. Yet on another level he sensed his kinship to this man. That light-eyed cracker sallowness, the generations of bad diet and inbreeding behind both of them that had resulted, curiously, in a dogged and enduring toughness, a fibrous talent for survival.  

This initial scene between Alex and Capp is uncomfortable in the extreme, and mirrors a similar encounter between protagonist and bad cop in an earlier JDM novel, The Price of Murder. In that book the violence between the two was verbal and psychological, but in Deadly Welcome a third element is added: physical, in the form of an expert, merciless beating by Capp with his black nightstick.

Capp is the law in remote Ramona Beach, fifteen miles from the county seat, and his introduction into the scene both complicates matters for Alex and brings new aspects of Jenna’s murder to light. It is Doyle’s “criminal” background that has aroused Capp’s interest and ire, and the deputy’s new presence proves to be both hindrance and opportunity.

As noted, Deadly Welcome’s structure and form is not new to MacDonald, nor are many of the character types and plot points, and anyone who is familiar with his previous novels will instantly recognize aspects of his style and the situations he creates. But outside of the neat story hooks  -- government agent on assignment, innocent man returning to the scene of the “crime,” an impossible romance between a man operating under false pretenses and a woman who cannot express love physically -- the real joys of this novel are the things that set MacDonald apart from his contemporaries: his characterizations, his dialogue, and the author’s ability to create scene, mood and atmosphere with only a handful of words. Alex Doyle’s journey from confident State Department agent to insecure cracker-returning-home, then to a man at peace with himself is not, of course, a unique one, and some might argue that this would have been a more interesting book had Alex actually committed the burglary he had been accused of and had to return home to face the music, but that would have been impossible in MacDonald’s moral universe, at least in 1959. Still, the character development here is done very nicely and Doyle is flawed in ways JDM was either unable or unwilling to experiment with in earlier protagonists.

For their last JDM novel, Dell produced a single printing of 176,000 copies, their lowest ever for a MacDonald novel and completely dwarfed by the 771,000 copies of their first book by the author, Area of Suspicion (another JDM tale of a man returning home). According to Hugh Merrill in his 2000 biography The Red Hot Typewriter, MacDonald had left Fawcett in 1954 over his unhappiness with his editor Dick Carroll and moved to Dell, where old friend Knox Burger was now working. In 1958 Burger left Dell and went to Fawcett, and MacDonald again followed him, returning to the publishing house where he began and would now forever stay. Dell was likely smarting over this defection and probably chafed over having to pay MacDonald for a second printing. It was the last book in his contract and the only other time his name appeared on a Dell First Edition was in December of 1959 when the Mystery Writers of America anthology The Lethal Sex was published, a project Burger had developed when he was still with Dell and one he had convinced MacDonald to edit.

When Fawcett purchased the rights to the MacDonald back catalogue in the early sixties, they didn’t get around to reprinting Deadly Welcome until May 1966. It eventually went through twelve printings, to May 1987, for a total of 596,000 copies.

The cover for that single Dell First Edition was an auspicious one, for they commissioned a young artist by the name of Robert McGinniss to produce the illustration. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful professional relationship between author and artist that would last throughout MacDonald’s remaining career. As I pointed out in my posting on the JDM short story “Kitten on a Trampoline” a few months back, McGinnis holds the record for illustrating the covers of more editions of MacDonald paperbacks than any other artist. And it all began here, with his depiction of Alex and Betty, in the beach cottage right after Alex’s beating at the hands of Donnie Capp. His depiction of Betty is quite accurate, even if her makeup is a bit heavy.

McGinnis was again chosen to illustrate the first Fawcett edition, an interesting composition that highlights the title and author’s name in favor of the rendering of the characters, this time a prone Betty at the feet of Donnie Capp. This cover went through four separate printings. Then, in October 1973, Fawcett issued a fifth edition with a new cover, again by McGinniss, this time depicting what must be a seated Jenna Karp M’Gann, feet propped up on a barrel and wearing a dress that covers very little. Here we have a very recognizable McGinnis female: thin, buxom and long-legged. This illustration was used for the last eight editions of the book.

In fact, if my records are correct, Deadly Welcome is the only JDM paperback where Robert McGinnis illustrated the covers for every edition printed in the United States. There was no William Schmidt version of this title.

Deadly Welcome and Please Write for Details were published for two completely different worlds back in that long ago March of 1959. While the hardcover Please Write for Details garnered much coverage, many reviews and its own publicity campaign (of sorts), Deadly Welcome pretty much received a deadly welcome in the press. Outside of Anthony Boucher’s brief comments in his New York Times column, MacDonald’s clipping service could find no other reviews of the novel at the time. I managed to find one in the Galveston Daily News, written by reporter Stanley E Babb, but it is little more than a plot synopsis, calling the book “worthy of more than just a casual glance,” and ending the plot summary -- and the piece -- with “"A lot of things happened to Alexander Doyle at Ramona Beach and they are recounted in a dramatic manner in Deadly Welcome.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Boucher was not exactly overwhelmed either, writing, “Deadly Welcome disappoints just a little, possibly because its calculations are too obtrusive. Certainly the story -- of an agent who can carry out his assignment only by returning to the small town he left in disgrace as a boy, and achieve his objective only by facing up to his own life -- is a strong and effective one; and my disappointment is probably only because I've come to expect so much of MacDonald.”

Deadly Welcome’s reputation -- where you can find evidence of a reputation -- is certainly a mixed one. Jared Shurin in his “Underground Reading” series on the Pornokitch blog, is quite hard on the novel, calling it “lifeless” and “uninteresting,” and dismisses the protagonist Alex Doyle as “so bland as to be invisible.” Author Ed Gorman, on the other hand, considers Deadly Welcome to be one of the ten best JDM stand alone novels, calling it a “violent and melancholy trip back in time.” I can certainly understand both opinions, and without revealing too much of the later portion of the plot, MacDonald does borrow heavily from earlier books, as well as presaging a major part of one of the early McGee novels. And the plot’s “calculations,” as Boucher terms them, are certainly there, perhaps more so than in some of MacDonald’s superior efforts, but as I have argued, it is Alex Doyle’s journey  toward redemption that makes this book come alive, and the book’s atmosphere, reflecting all of Doyle’s fears and insecurities, really does add up to an underlying sense of melancholia.

Two months before Deadly Welcome was published it was featured in condensed form under MacDonald’s original title “Ultimate Surprise” in the January 1959 issue of Cosmopolitan. As with all of JDM’s longer works that appeared in magazines, this was not simply the novel edited down to size, but an original rewrite by the author. There were no major changes, as in Murder in the Wind ("Hurricane"), or additional material like he added to The Deceivers, just a shorter, quicker version of the tale that is nowhere near as satisfying as the book. The ending, however, is written differently, changing the perspective of a scene from first person to third. It’s an interesting idea, and I think it's superior to the one in the novel. To reveal more would be to spoil the plot. If anyone is really interested in reading it just email me and I’ll send you a scan of the final page.

Cosmopolitan art editor Robert Atherton commissioned JDM’s Sarasota neighbor Al Buell to handle the illustrations, of which there were two. I won’t show you the second one because it is a depiction of the novel’s climax.

Deadly Welcome enjoyed a total of thirteen printings between its Dell and Fawcett editions, the final one in May 1987, and that is -- needless to say -- long out of print. Used copies, as with most of MacDonald’s novels, are very easy to find at reasonable prices. A digital version, struck from the Hale (UK) edition, was published in 2014 and is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever eBooks are available. It’s a clean edition with no obvious typos and costs only $5.99.

Finally, a glancing reference to the novel from Whitney Bolton’s syndicated Glancing Sideways column back in March of 1959:

Later, [I] get [myself] dressed and drive to New York and meet Randy MacDougall and John MacDonald, novelists and writers, introduce them to each other and mention to John that someone you know recently has bought a paperback edition of one of his novels but you can't think of its title.

"Deadly Welcome, probably," says John.

"Obviously an ardent love story," says Randy.

Whereupon John shakes hands with Randy and says: "I think I'm going to like you."

Later, you three fall into discussions of the sadistic novelist you mentioned in this column recently, though not by name, and Randy says:

"There is another one. He recently has published what is ostensibly a novel but pretty certainly is an autobiography. What is astonishing is that throughout the book he has, unwittingly, laced page after page with frightening evidence of his character, his depravities, his perilous nature.

"He doesn't even realize himself how he has betrayed himself, yet it is all there for anyone of discernment to see and recognize. Like puma-paw marks in the snow. When you finish his novel, you have an accurate, horrifying portrait of the author."

John laughs and says: "I know a novelist I see all the time, an outwardly amiable, blameless person, yet I think he must be harboring tensions and ambitions of a felonious nature. He so obviously adores his villains and so carefully makes it seem that he does not.

"He goes out of his way to say to you: 'This is a foul fellow I'm writing about,' and shouts it so long and often that you know in your heart that he secretly admires the lout and, probably, is much like him.

"I always think of something Diogenes once said and all novelists should learn it, lest they betray their true natures without knowing it. It goes something like this - that every man should treat his superiors as he treats his fire: never getting close enough to be burned nor so far away that he gets cold. No author should treat his characters as anything else but a superior or a fire."


  1. Glad to see lots of fresh content since my last visit. Gotta catch up! I just wanted to let you know that there is a short article on JDM / McGee in the latest Esquire ( I believe it's the July 2016 issue - Viggo Mortensen cover ). Nothing new or interesting really (natch), but I thought I'd let you know. Oh, the writer mentions the Thorstein Veblen, but not its predecessor. Struck me as wrong somehow. Glad to see you're still at it. You are most definitely a gentleman and scholar, Steve.

  2. Anyone interested in viewing that second Al Buell illustration for "Ultimate Surprise" can do so by visiting my Flickr page here:

  3. Just finished "Deadly Welcome," and then turned to your blog post, as I usually do following completion of the stand-alones. First thing I noticed was the McGinniss illustration of the beat-up Alex Doyle in the Dell first edition. Well, he looks remarkably like John McDermott's long-standing image that graced many a cover of the Travis McGee series. And, it does match pretty closely the description of McGee as provided in your May 2, 2016 post, "The Look of Travis McGee." Overall, I'm approximately in the middle between Boucher and Shurin as to where this novel stands in the JDM canon, but enjoyed it, as always!