Monday, January 22, 2018

The Crossroads

Up until the publication of The Turquoise Lament in 1974 John D MacDonald was thought of primarily as a writer of paperback originals. Of the 61 books he had written and published up to that point, 49 were paperback, meaning that 12 of them were not. What began as a necessity -- it is doubtful a pulp writer could have jumped to the rarefied world of hardcover very easily in 1950 -- eventually became a choice. The reason: money. MacDonald had decided to make a living as a writer, he had a family and lifestyle to support, and softcover was where the money was. Why was this so?

Back in the day, the standard practice in the hardcover publishing world was to pay the author a percentage of actual sales of their book, with advances (if any) repaid from that amount. If the book sold, you were paid, if not, oh well… In addition, if and when the book came out in paperback -- usually about a year later -- fully half of the royalties from the sale of the softcover went directly back to the hardcover publisher. This “exercise in larceny” infuriated MacDonald and, as he recalled in 1986, “My MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration led me to believe that hardcover publishers who claimed they could not survive without tapping into fifty percent of my newsstand royalties, where either liars or incompetents.”

Compare that to the method used by the paperback houses, who paid royalties based on initial and subsequent print runs, and who took no slices from any of an author’s other sources. When one looks at the print runs of some of MacDonald’s paperback originals from the Fifties, it’s easy to understand how he prospered so well financially.

By the time he wrote The Turquoise Lament publishing practices were changing and MacDonald had, at long last, enough clout to negotiate better contracts with hardcover publishers. Beginning with Turquoise he was exclusively a hardcover author, with the only exceptions being his anthology of science fiction pulp stories (Other Times, Other Worlds) and the unauthorized collection Two.

But what about those 12 books MacDonald wrote and decided to bring to the public in hardcover? What was it about those titles that persuaded him that he could afford to take a hit in the wallet? With the exception of his two early science fiction novels (Wine of the Dreamers and Ballroom of the Skies), the novels all seem to be instances where MacDonald felt he had something important to say, or where he was trying to reach a different audience. Also, hardcovers were generally reviewed in most newspapers and magazines, whereas paperbacks were, for the most part, ignored. His first two hardcovers after the science fiction books were his first two mainstream novels of “morals and manners in a specific setting,” Cancel All Our Vows (adultery in suburbia) and Contrary Pleasure (drama inside a family-run business). Please Write for Details was his first comic novel and both The End of the Night and A Flash of Green dealt in weighty subject matter that he wanted to disseminate to a broader audience. The Executioners was supposedly done to win a bet, and The Last One Left was supposed to be a blockbuster bestseller, only it wasn’t. No Deadly Drug and The House Guests were non-fiction.

Let’s not forget vanity. MacDonald admitted this in that same 1986 recollection:

There is a general feeling that publication in hardcover is necessary if a book is to have any cachet of importance. It is the class act, mollifying the snob in every writer. I do not really know why this should be so. Perhaps long ago the artists’ works were chiseled in stone and the hacks had to make do with papyrus. Maybe in the not so distant future the important writings will be distributed on germanium chips and the entertainers will have to make do with silicon. I have always believed that the package does not make that much difference. The idea should be to get the work out to where people can buy it or borrow it and read it. If it is published on Kleenex or forty pound rag bond is not as important as its accessibility.

The one hardcover entry that doesn’t seem to fit in with the other eleven is MacDonald’s July 1959 novel The Crossroads. Published by Simon and Schuster as part of their Inner Sanctum Mystery imprint, it starts out as anything but a mystery. We’re in the world of “manners and mores” as well as the world of business. MacDonald borrows heavily from earlier works here, most notably Contrary Pleasure, which concerns itself with an entrepreneurial family and the business they run. But this setting and introduction gradually gives way to MacDonald the crime writer, and the main plotline of the novel is really about a heist -- its inception, its execution and its aftermath. In this respect MacDonald has mined a different early work, The Neon Jungle, and there are many parallels to that novel as well. Taken together The Crossroads reads like an amalgam of the two previous books: a family drama to justify its publication in hardcover and a crime story to earn the Inner Sanctum imprint.

But at heart it is a John D MacDonald thriller, one that -- despite its prior sources -- reads as a true original, another step in the author’s road to honing his craft. He returns to the multi-character, multi perspective writing form last used in Please Write for Details, and it serves him well as he maps out the lives and motivations of the novel’s various characters. Each is a true original with recognizable MacDonaldean characteristics and moralities, each created with the expert eye of a true observer of the world around him.

The setting for The Crossroads is along a major north-south thoroughfare known simply as Route 71, ten miles south of the fictional city of Walterburg in South Carolina, a major route for vacationers heading to and from Florida. (Although he never mentions the actual state, MacDonald once revealed that this was his “mental location” while writing the novel.) Crossing Route 71 is a new limited-access highway going east-west, connecting Route 71 via a cloverleaf. And on all four segments of this crossroads sits the various enterprises of the Crossroads Corporation, a family business owned by the Drovek family. Begun back in the 1920’s by Polish immigrant Anton “Papa” Drovek, the original business was a simple country story surrounded by ten acres of farmland, now grown to hundreds. On this land in 1959 sits a hotel, a motel, a truck stop, a restaurant and night club, a pantry, two gas stations, a shopping center, a drive-in, a bowladrome and, on a hill behind the hotel, the four houses that are the residences of the four adult Drovek children, all involved in the operation of the family business.

Right away the reader of John D MacDonald’s previous novels recognizes the similarities to the two other books cited. From The Neon Jungle we remember the Varaki Quality Market, run by various members of the family of the same name, headed by another immigrant entrepreneur, Gus Varaki, and aided by his sons and daughter. But the Varakis are an unhappy lot: a defeated eldest son married to a shrew, a dead second son and a tramp of a daughter, all struggling to run a store in a blighted, deteriorating section of a large city. The Droveks, on the other hand, are running a successful and growing empire, in an area far from any inner-city. The structures of both novels are also similar, in that both settings are set-ups (as we shall see) for a crime committed by an employee of the business.

From Contrary Pleasure a similarly successful (although barely) family business run by the Delevan family includes all the children of the founding parent, living side by side in houses up on a hill, each holding some responsible position in the corporation. The Delevan children are much more the antecedents for the Droveks, complete with an alpha-male eldest brother who basically runs the business, a sister married to an uninvolved “drone,” and a deadweight brother who is barely tolerated by the eldest son. Both earlier books deal with families trying to survive a world in where their businesses are becoming obsolete, whereas in The Crossroads, business continues to expand at a breakneck pace.

The brains and spirit behind the success of the Crossroads Corporation is eldest son Charles, or Chip, age 41, “a big-boned, driving man, sandy hair on hard skull, strong hard face, bright-blue skeptical eyes, deep chest and wide shoulders. A man of shrewdness and subtleties, of occasional wisdom and infrequent self-doubt and boundless energies.” It was Chip who took his father’s store and restaurant and grew it into the multi-phased enterprise it now is, built primarily on tourist traffic heading to and from Florida. He also runs the show, involving himself in every minute aspect of the business, and rarely from behind his desk. His energies are focused on the business mainly because he has little home life to occupy his time. His wife of 16 years, Clara, is a “hopeless case,” a victim of a strict religious upbringing who has assuaged her guilt and distaste of the duties of marriage by drinking herself into a stupor each and every day. They have one daughter, fifteen-year old Nancy, who is somehow as responsible as her father and older than her years. How someone like Chip became involved with someone like Clara is a bit of interesting MacDonald writing, only barely believable but convenient for the other relationship Chip carries on.

(MacDonald has rarely been kind to religion in general or to people of faith in particular, and Clara is no exception. All of her problems are heaped upon her upbringing, written to be as grim and as stern as possible. I can’t recall a single sympathetic character of faith in the JDM canon until Van Harder in 1978’s The Empty Copper Sea.)

Chip’s emotional outlet, outside of his love for his daughter, is with a divorcee named Jeana Louise Portoni, who runs a small gift shop in one of the Crossroads’ strip malls. Jeana is described lovingly by MacDonald (blonde, tall, slim, with the obligatory blue-gray eyes), who is quick to assure us that she is no tramp and not at all “promiscuous.” They enjoy an intensely physical and emotional relationship, evidenced by Jeana’s response to Chip when he pulls her into his arms (“Darling, Darling, Darling!”). They even speak the four-letter word to each other often, but are in, they acknowledge, “a trap,” for it’s 1959, this is a John D MacDonald novel, and Chip and Jeana are the quintessential JDM ideals for a male and female protagonist. Chip is no more able to abandon his invalid wife than he would be able to kill her, and Jeana’s morals could not permit herself to love a man who did such a thing. So they sneak around, trying to remain a secret, but it’s an affair that has become obvious to one other member of the Drovek family.

Leo, 39, is the second oldest Drovek, lives in the second house up on the hill, and is second in command of the Crossroads Corporation. Similar in build to his older brother Chip, he is otherwise different in every other way. Conservative, cautious and sober, he considers himself a balance to Chip’s constant and reckless expansion. Punctual and punctilious, he is a man of habits, schedules, figures and reports -- reports he takes very seriously, although few others -- least of all Chip -- do. He is married to Betty, an obedient, “small, somewhat scrawny woman with slightly graying hair.” who has given him three children.

Next in line is Joan, the only female in the family, married to Jack Paris and co-owner of Paris Realty, which manages all leases, collects all rentals, arranges for all necessary repairs and maintenance on leased properties and then remits the balance to the Crossroads Corporation. Joan is another MacDonald “type” and is meticulously described by the author in a singular paragraph:

She was, on a scale so majestic as to make the average man uncomfortable in her presence, a truly beautiful woman. She had an oval face with a hint of oriental in its structuring, pale shining hair, a flawless complexion. She was big. Big bones, big shoulders, high firm hips. She stood five-eleven in her stocking feet, only an inch shorter than her two elder brothers. She weighed one sixty, and she was completely firm, gracefully built. She wore tailored clothes. On her, frills and flounces would have been grotesque. She could not make an ungraceful, unwomanly movement. Behind a mask of sleepy and almost sensuous amiability, her mind was as quick and sharp as Charles's. They were the close ones. At ease with each other, aware of the same problems, the same triumphs.

Too bad Joan is not featured more prominently in the novel. She is the polar opposite of Alice Furman, the only Delevan female sibling in Contrary Pleasure.

As adept and as business savvy as Joan is, she is married to a less than admirable man, at least in JDM’s eyes. Jack Paris is “a forty-year-old kid, in love with games, proud of his reflexes,” and as unimportant to the daily operations of Paris Realty as anyone could be. If he’s not away playing in a golf tournament he’s gone playing tennis, or fishing, or playing handball, or hunting, playing bridge or poker, all in the fiction of making valuable contacts for the firm. Chip considers him (privately) to be a lazy bum, but Joan worships him and he in turn adores his wife.

The youngest Drovek, at age 28, is Pete, an un-serious party animal with a good disposition but a low tolerance for boredom or routine. His early years were spent in college and the service, where he met and hung around with others of his temperament, drinking and carousing. When he wakes up in Mexico one morning married to a shallow New York model named Sylvia, he returns to the fold, has his own house built next to his siblings, and begins working for the Corporation. But he can’t focus on routine and is constantly leaving town for long periods of time on "business" trips, looking up old friends and army buddies, while the areas of the business he is responsible for begin to decay. He is endured by Chip, who feels that there is something within his younger brother that will eventually get him serious about life.

But far more interesting than Pete is his his young wife Sylvia. Similar in many respects to Sally Leon in April Evil, Sylvia is a pretty girl with limited smarts or self-awareness, who comes from humble beginnings. Things went sour after her brief success in fashion modeling and she devolved into working for a photographer of true crime magazines, the soft porn of its day, where she was forced to posed in the nude. After a relationship with the photographer ended she attended a party where she met Pete, who, along with another couple, whisked her off to Mexico, where days of heaving drinking led to marriage and a new Drovek family. But Sylvia is soon left alone by Pete as he traipses all over the country, and her boredom and idleness don’t fit in well with the other members of the hard working Drovek family. The opening of Chapter Three, where MacDonald introduces the reader to Sylvia, is absolutely masterful as he recounts her childhood and slide into a seedy underworld.

She had been born and brought up -- to the age of sixteen -- in Lowell, Massachusetts, the middle child of five children of a little, wiry, sour, savage, sallow tool-and-die-maker, and a fat, dim defeated woman who always looked as if she had just finished weeping or was just about to begin. Her childhood was marked by the hard little unpredictable hands of [her father], by squalls of rage and pain and terror.

The relationship with the photographer is equally well done, vividly painting a hopeless world in a single perfectly worded paragraph.

[After her first job with him] Clyde wanted to use her again. Five days later. After the second session, she quit her regular job. And a month later she was living in a Village apartment with Clyde Denglert. His physical demands on her were slight and infrequent. He was not a well man. He wanted to do art photography. He submitted pictures to exhibitions, and sometimes received an honorable mention. Through him she found other modelling jobs of the same caliber. Her money and his went for survival, plus the expensive equipment he felt he needed in his art photography work. It was a living arrangement, not emotional. A few times, out of frustration and irritability and hopelessness, he beat her. But he was always contrite. He was forty-two years old and nothing had come true for him. One day, when she was twenty, walking with Clyde through a slushy dusk to the corner bar, his heart stumbled. He went down onto his hands and knees. As she tried to help him up, his heart stopped, and he folded onto his face in the dirty March slush.

Few authors can write a paragraph as vivid and with such expressive economy as MacDonald.

Later in the novel Joan ruminates on Sylvia’s character, her lack of friends and inability at social intercourse. Here MacDonald could be describing any number of his wayward women.

Eventually [Joan] came to the unhappy conclusion that the young girl actually had little to contribute or communicate. Hers was an utterly circumscribed mind, concerned with the trivia of clothes, hairdos, television and hit tunes. In time she had also come to detect in Sylvia that little unavoidable coarseness of outlook, that hardening of the texture of the emotions which is the inescapable fate of every woman who has known too many men, too intimately and too casually.

Sylvia, mostly alone and bored, is bound to get into trouble one day, and that day has already arrived, although the reader doesn’t know it yet.

The last member of the Drovek family to play a part in the plot of The Crossroads is the patriarch of the clan, Papa, still alive but no longer active in the daily activities of the corporation. Like his children, he lives on land owned by by the company, but off by himself on the other side of Route 71 and up on a high hill, where he can take in a vista that includes the entire Crossroads Corporation empire. Widowed since Charles was 17, he lives alone, tending his garden, visiting with his children and grandchildren, and collecting his share of the corporate profits. It is this final activity that provides The Crossroads with its macguffin.

The profits from the Crossroads Corporation are distributed monthly, and Papa’s portion is remitted in the form of a check. There is a ritual involved with his distribution: Chip picks up his check from Leo and drives up to the house on the hill to hand it over to Papa. They agree on a time when Chip will drive Papa to the bank to deposit the proceeds, but Papa’s idea of “deposit” is a more archaic.

[Chip] knew what the old man would do. Dress up in his good dark suit with the shiny seat and elbows, place his hat squarely on top of his head and ride into the city with him. There he would cash the check, put far too small an amount of money into his pocket, and take the balance into the safety deposit vaults and put it in his box.

He’s been doing this forever, and no one -- except Papa himself -- has any idea as to the amount of cash that has accumulated in that metal box. (It is later revealed to be over $270,000 -- quite a bit of change in 1959.) And in the insular community of the corporation, over time almost everyone is aware of this practice and have gossiped and speculated about how much money is collected there. It’s only a matter of time before that speculation would gestate in the mind of a less-than-honest member of the staff, who would then wonder about how to get his hands on it. That person turns out to be the head bartender of the Starlight Club, Mark Brodey.

Brody had been behind the bar since the Starlight Club opened five years ago, and for the past two years he ruled as the head bartender. But when the novel opens he is out of work, fired for “cheating the register,” using faked bills to charge customers too much and pocketing the difference. It’s an ingenious plan that MacDonald details, as only he can, in a meticulous fashion. But he’s eventually caught and fired personally by Chip. Unable to get another bar tending job locally, he’s forced to work at a greasy spoon several miles south of the crossroads and takes up residence in a nearby dilapidated motel. It gives him plenty of time to stew in his own resentment and plot a way to get his revenge on the Droveks.

Sylvia is a regular patron of the Starlight Club, frequenting it nightly on those occasions when Pete is out of town (which is often) and she’d struck up an acquaintance with Brody. Nothing serious or even provocative -- she’s usually pretending to herself that she’s “a woman of mystery on a long trip” -- but with enough casual conversation for Brody to size up the lonely, idle young housewife for who she is and who she used to be. And once he starts fantasizing about getting his hands on the contents of Papa Drovek’s safe deposit box, he realizes that tricking Sylvia into helping him is the perfect way to accomplish that goal. He blackmails her into agreeing to help with the plan, with the promise of running away together and living the good life on all that money as the bait. But Brody has other things in mind for Sylvia after the caper is complete, things that he dare not tell her. The plan is put into place and it propels the balance of the novel into a world of thrilling violence as expertly written as anything MacDonald had executed to date.

The Crossroads succeeds on nearly every level it aspires to (with the possible exception of Clara Drovek, whose ultimate fate is MacDonald-convenient and nearly over the top) and his melding of character, business detail, background and crime has now become a trademark of the author, who here pulls off something that seems effortless and natural. The writing is routinely engaging and expertly done, with the first chapter a standout. It is almost fugue-like in it complexity, bouncing from character to character -- some who are part of the plot, others who are not -- as the author introduces the reader to the world of the Crossroads Corporation. Another favorable comparison might be to the opening scene of Orson Welles’ 1958 film Touch of Evil: a single lengthy shot that takes in the whole world of the movie while providing its main plotpoint. How MacDonald does this is a mystery to a reader like me. And it is singular: just read the works of any of his contemporaries. They may write with more grace, with more literary sensibility, with more glancing observations, but I’ve never encountered one who can do what MacDonald does so well and so entertainingly.

Simon and Schuster printed only one edition of The Crossroads and the size of the print run is unknown. It was not a best seller. It appeared only four months after the publication of two other novels (Please Write for Details and Deadly Welcome) and only two months before his next paperback original, The Beach Girls. The dust jacket features a design by H Lawrence Hoffman, the artist who did the hardcover art for The Executioners the year before. It would be his last JDM effort. His design has caused much confusion in the book collection world over the years, due to his inclusion of the word MOTEL under the title, leading some less-than-careful catalogers to list the book as The Crossroads Motel. It features a simple cloverleaf imposed upon the scattered few lit windows of said motel. Due to the cheapness of the printing -- thin paper for the dust jacket, pages printed on highly acidic paper -- it is hard to find a collectable copy of this title any more. The publishers did fill the back of the jacket with a full-page biography of the author along with the headshot they used for their edition of The Executioners. It tells the standard story and is full of inaccuracies and exaggerations:


A graduate of the Harvard School of Business Administration, a lieutenant colonel in World War II who was in service with the OSS in Ceylon, John MacDonald's first piece of fiction was a letter written from overseas to his wife. This is not as scandalous as it sounds. "The only kind of letters that would pass through censorship in those days made pretty dull reading, so instead of a letter, I wrote my wife a short story. She promptly sold it to a magazine for $25. I decided that this looked like an easy way to earn a comfortable living. I was wrong on both counts -- at first. In my four months of terminal leave I worked seven days a week and wrote 800,000 words, sometimes having as many as fifty manuscripts in the mail at once. Sales: 0. I also lost twenty pounds. Most of this work was pretty bad, but it taught me my trade. Then, of course, as soon as I went out and got a job, the stories I wrote at night began to sell. I quit the job in 1945 and have been writing full time ever since."

These figures will be out of date by the time you read this, but as we go to press, Mac's published novels total 38, his short stories, novelettes and serials more than 500. And the censors wouldn't pass one of them, since they are anything but dull. His readers can testify to that: more than 14,000,000 copies of his books have been sold, and he is probably the world's only "daily author" -- he once had four paperback novels published on four successive days.

MacDonald's name on a book doesn't mean that you get the same mixture as before. One story will be a zany and uproarious farce like the recent best-selling Please Write for Details, which is now being made into a musical comedy, the next a taut story of suspense like The Executioners or The Crossroads.

MacDonald was decidedly unhappy with this write-up, despite the inclusion of his own words (which also contain an inaccuracy). A month after the book was published he wrote a correspondent:

I think it fairly handsome for a cheap book. I am quietly offended, however, by that portion of the blurb on the back which refers to me as Mac. I consider that a gratuitous familiarity, a jolly-boy backslap more suitable to the sales convention than the back of a book.

The first paperback edition of The Crossroads appeared in September of the following year under the Fawcett-Crest imprint (Crest being the non-paperback original line of Fawcett). It featured the artwork of Ron Lesser, his first for a John D MacDonald title, but not his last. He would go on to famously illustrate the original covers of the first ten Travis McGee novels, and The Crossroads is his only other JDM effort. It features a man in a suit firing a pistol pulled from a shoulder holster, with the head of a brunette (Sylvia) looming over him There’s no such scene in the novel. There was only one printing under this original full-cover version.

It would be 1968, eight years later before Fawcett reprinted the book. The Lesser artwork was retained, but shrunken and boxed within the larger cover. This version went through four separate printings. Then, in late 1974 Robert McGinnis was commissioned to do his own cover. It is a great improvement, illustrating a woman running through a grassy wooded area with a man standing by a car in the background. This is a scene from late in the novel, so I won’t describe its characters further. It was featured on five separate printings, from December 1974 to December 1983, with only a change in the lettering font appearing in the last edition.

Finally, in July 1986 William Schmidt, who did later-day covers for nearly all of John D MacDonald’s work, illustrated the covers of the last two printings of the era, Like all of his other JDM work, he depicts a scene from the novel, but this one also occurs late in the story and it would give too much away to discuss it here.

If MacDonald’s point it publishing The Crossroads in hardcover was to get it noticed, he certainly got his way. The book was widely reviewed in papers throughout the country, including in the New York Times, the New York Herald-Tribune, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New Orleans Picayune and Saturday Review. Anthony Boucher in the Times called it “one of MacDonald’s suspense-that-approaches-straight novels,” and he liked it. James Sandoe of the Herald-Tribune also liked it, recognizing the similarities between it and MacDonald’s previous work, calling it “a retranslation of a formula he has used a half dozen times before, managed with the freshness of the first time. Taut, absorbing stuff.” The uncredited reviewer for the Boston Globe claimed it was “the best MacDonald for my taste, a smashing good novel by any standard.”

There were a few who had reservations, such as the reviewer for the Philadelphia Bulletin, who claimed that the book had “too many actors on the stage.” The Providence Journal called it “contrived,” and said “there’s a little too much coincidence” in the book. The one really bad review appeared in the New Orleans Picayune, where the reviewer -- identified only by the initials B.B.S. -- wrote the that the novel contains “an unsavory story about a large collection of unpleasant and oversexed people… There is a plot to murder grandpa (sic)... but by this time you don’t care.”

None of the later critical assessments of MacDonald’s work has much to say about The Crossroads. It is mentioned in passing in David Geherin’s John D MacDonald (1982), Edgar Hirshberg’s John D MacDonald (1985) and Lewis D Moore’s Meditations on America: John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee Series and Other Fiction (1994), each doing little more than describing the work as a “business novel.” Hugh Merrill ignores it completely in The Red Hot Typewriter (2000).

Gherin does write about the particular attraction of MacDonald’s prose in a general assessment of “the early novels,” and his insights are penetrating, illuminating many of the reasons this author’s works are so engaging. I find his insights true of all of MacDonald’s works in general and of The Crossroads in particular.

Each of the early novels is distinguished by MacDonald’s clear, clean prose. Recognizing the primacy of story and character, he conscientiously avoids a prose that is too ornate or too self-conscious. But eschewing an overly mannered style does not as a consequence result in a bland, lifeless prose. Far from being merely serviceable, MacDonald’s prose is colorful, his language expressive, his rhythms graceful. One would not expect a writer who turned out three or four books a year to be as exacting as, say, Flaubert. Nevertheless, MacDonald is a consummate craftsman and his descriptions, observations, and dialogue are the result of care, attention to telling detail, affection for the language, and control over its power to generate emotional responses in the reader.

Like many of MacDonald’s novels of this period in his writing career, a magazine version of The Crossroads appeared in one of the major slicks of the period, a month before the book was published. That it was published in Cosmopolitan (June 1959) was no surprise, since that particular periodical had printed shorter versions of six of his previous works and would go on to hold the record for magazines publishing JDM novels. Advertised as “The Crossroads” on the cover, the novel’s title somehow lost the opening article in both the table of contents and the cover page and became simply “Crossroads.” It features a couple of nice illustrations, typical of this glorious era, by Sarasota neighbor Al Buell, who had done the artwork for three of MacDonald’s previous Cosmopolitan novels (“April Evil”, “The Heat of Money” (The Price of Murder), and “Ultimate Surprise” (Deadly Welcome).

Most of the magazine versions of MacDonald’s novels are straight rewrites, reading as if the author typed up a new, shorter version while reading the original, excising what he considered extraneous material to bring the work in at an acceptable word count. Occasionally he added scenes that were nowhere hinted at in the novel (see The Deceivers) and on one occasion he rewrote the entire work, shifting the focus of the book entirely (Murder in the Wind’s appearance as “Hurricane” in Redbook). In “Crossroads” he has completely thrown out the character of Jeana Louise Portoni, and, of necessity, the adulterous love affair between her and Chip. With that gone, he was able to free Chip’s wife Clara from being an alcoholic automaton, turning her into a distracted housewife who fills her empty marriage with countless “clubs and drives and committees until they had become the most important part of her life.” While this is a definite improvement on the novel’s version of the character (Chip is now complicit in the marriage’s atrophy), I personally miss Jeana and the love affair. It was well done, despite the “darlings,” and generated more than an average amount of heat for a MadDonald coupling. It also made Chip less than perfect in carrying on behind his poor wife’s back, not that she -- as drawn in the novel -- would have cared. Otherwise, little else has changed and the crime is carried out exactly as in the book.

The January 2, 1967 issue of Publisher's Weekly reported that a "television project" based on the novel was "in the works," but nothing seems to have come of it and I can find no other reference to it.

The Crossroads was the third JDM hardcover published by Simon and Schuster, following The Executioners in 1958 and Please Write for Details earlier in 1959. They would go on to publish two more, both “important” novels where MacDonald felt he had something important to say (The End of the Night in 1960 and A Flash of Green in 1962). By 1965 he had left them for Doubleday, no doubt for a better deal, but he didn’t stop putting out paperback originals -- his primary source of income -- until 1973 with the arrival of the fifteenth installment of the McGee saga. From that point forward he was a hardcover author who once slummed around in the paperback world.

Monday, January 15, 2018

"Eyewitness" (1964 and 1979)

Argosy holds the historical distinction of being the very first pulp magazine ever, the creator of the mold that everyone else followed. Begun as a children’s weekly called The Golden Argosy by Frank Munsey in 1882, it went on -- in a variety of formats -- for nearly 100 years before finally folding. It was Munsey’s idea to convert the weekly to an all-fiction magazine, his idea to print it on the cheapest paper available (pulpwood) and his idea to load it with as many stories as the binding could hold. Its nearly 200 pages -- no illustrations -- held stories of infinite variety, especially after he merged Argosy with another creation of his, All-Story, and gradually the stories took on the various elements of what we now call pulp fiction: strong, identifiable lead characters with an inner, personal morality, often working in exotic locales, in tales written in bright, clear prose, strong plots and, of course with a bit of violence and romance. Argosy plied this format until 1943, when it was converted to a slick and began printing non-fiction articles. As the 1940’s moved into the 1950’s non-fiction took a greater and greater portion of the magazine’s contents, and it eventually morphed into a “men’s magazine,” with articles about hunting and guns, and featuring “true” stories about dangerous safaris in Africa, sports, real police procedurals, and war stories. Fiction took a definite back seat to the articles.

John D MacDonald never wrote for Argosy the pulp magazine -- it converted to a slick three years before he began writing -- but he was well represented in its men’s magazine form, publishing ten original short stories there and one excerpt from a novel (The Last One Left in the July 1967 issue). His work for Argosy was uniformly excellent, with top-of-the-line entries like “A Young Man’s Game,” “Jail Bait,” “Cop Probe,” “Long Shot” (chosen for inclusion in the author’s 1966 anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories), and the unheralded gem of the pack, “Built for Speed,” published in the magazine’s June 1954 issue. His story “Eyewitness” appeared in the September 1964 issue and it is also a quality entry, revolving around an investigation of a hit and run accident. In fact, it was so good that MacDonald used it again 14 years later, in another format and with another protagonist.

Of course MacDonald had used hit and run accidents before, in two different but identically titled stories written nine years apart (“Hit and Run” in 1952 and “Hit and Run” in 1961), but both of those tales featured policemen as the seekers of the identities of the drivers. In “Eyewitness” MacDonald goes back to the Cliff Bartells model he used in his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, and uses an insurance claims adjuster as the protagonist. Carl Beldon is a man-with-a-past, although the author never explains exactly what has happened to him, hinting at it only at the beginning and the very ending of the story. He arrives in the beach town of Stoney Cove, somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean shore (probably Florida, but never explicitly identified), has a cup of coffee at a local diner, and is observed by the young, “burly and cheerful” waitress:

He had an ironic objectivity about what she was seeing, a young-old man, with a chronic tiredness around the eyes, with that look of having been savaged a few times by life and then released, free to assemble a new set of adjustments and compromises.

Beldon works for Guarantee Mutual Liability, an insurance company that holds the auto-fleet policy for a company called Swain Electronics, headquartered in Charles City, a much larger community located about 20 miles north of Stoney Cove. One of those cars was driven by Swain Electronics co-owner Mercer Swain, who was down in Stoney Cove having dinner with a Swain secretary named Joanne Treiber. After a long afternoon of drinking and dinner, Swain rents a room at the local Tahiti Motor Inn and suggests that he and Joanne shack up for the night. She is having none of that and takes the car to drive back to Charles City, leaving the inebriated Mercer to take a cab home the next morning. On the way home, while still in Stoney Cove, she takes a notorious curve way too fast and hits a young girl on her way home from a babysitting job. The car was traveling at full speed and the victim was killed instantly. The car made no effort to stop and Joanne drove on home to her apartment, where she fell asleep as if nothing had happened.

But Joanne claims she never hit anyone. An anonymous caller got in touch with the police stating that he witnessed the accident and described the driver right down to the color of Joanne's hair, her dress and her purse. He also gave the license plate number, which led to Mercer, which eventually led to Joanne, who was roused from sleep by the police the next morning. Joanne’s story is different and, after talking with the local police and inspecting the car, Beldon heads up to Charles City to interview the accused.

John D MacDonald fans will surely smile at the introduction of Joanne Treiber. From the author’s description we know instantly that she is not only not guilty, but that romantic sparks are soon to fly. She’s “tall,” “blonde,” “slender,” and “red-bronze from recent exposure to the sun.” She is, understandably, in bad shape, facing felony manslaughter charges, but she is adamant that she did not hit anyone. When Beldon reminds her that she was drinking the whole afternoon, she responds by making one of the “drinks” for him: a wine spritzer -- only an ounce of Rhine wine mixed with soda. She relates her own side of the story: after refusing Mercer Swain’s advances, she took the keys to the company car and headed home. Before she made it out of the area she pulled over onto a deserted stretch of beach and walked about a mile down the shore to clear her mind. She got back in the car afterword and drove home, “very carefully,” as she was unused to the size and weight of the car. She didn’t realize anything was amiss until the next morning when she was awakened by the police.

Beldon reminds her that that was the car that hit the babysitter -- spectrometer analysis of the paint proves it. Joanne acknowledges that she is in “a horrible mess” but sticks to her story. Then time stops:

Looking at her, he knew the rare thing had happened. He could conduct fifty investigations and aside from a feeling of pity or distaste, feel no involvement with the people concerned. They were factors in a violent human equation. He could imitate empathy when it seemed the only way to open someone up, but he always felt shabby about doing it. In the fifty-first case, he would find someone who suddenly involved him in a personal way, tapping a hidden well of genuine concern. He did not want it to happen, ever. Because these things often came out very badly. And there were enough old scars to live with. Here it was again, where he had least expected it, and least wanted it -- with this doomed girl.

As Beldon compares Joanne’s timeline with that of the police, and once he decides to believe her protestations of innocence, he comes to the only conclusion he can: someone else took the car when Joanne was walking on the beach, hit the babysitter and returned the vehicle to where they found it. Thus it was probably the person who made the anonymous call to the police with the detailed description of the driver. Now it’s a case of trying to smoke the person out, and Beldon has an idea…

“Eyewitness” is an engaging, entertaining story, even with some of its obvious plot points and inevitable romance, and it is certainly worthy company to his other Argosy stories. So it’s no surprise to learn that when MacDonald wrote three serialized stories about an insurance claims adjuster in the late 1970’s, he borrowed “Eyewitness” for the third and final entry in that series. Indeed, this story seems to have been the template for the idea. Duke Rhoades, the protagonist of all three stories, began life in May 1977 with the five-part “Finding Anne Farley,” published by the Chicago Sun-Times’ Field Newspaper Syndicate in scores of newspapers around the country, both large and small. There was a gimmick involved with these stories, one that would hopefully inspire readers to study the plots and characters more closely: the final installment of each tale was withheld for a week so that readers could write their own endings, pick their own perpetrators from the cast of suspects, submit that ending to the local paper and possibly win a prize for best submission. Their ending would be printed alongside MacDonald’s own.

The second story, “Friend of the Family,” was published the following year, although fewer papers picked it up, and by the time MacDonald submitted the third and final story, the whole idea seems to have run out of gas. The contest idea was thrown out the window and the story presented as a simple four-part serialization. MacDonald himself didn’t even bother writing an original story: he rewrote “Eyewitness,” with the new protagonist and hewed to the original plot as closely as he possibly could. In fact, a comparison of the two stories reveals that he did almost no rewriting at all. Most of the characters names are the same and every detail from the original story is included, save the paragraph about the protagonist being “savaged by life.” Duke Rhoades is a much less complicated character. The final paragraph of the original story (which I won’t reveal here) is a wonderful ending, beautifully and concisely written, but it is ruined in the rewrite, replaced by a few banal sentences. One tends to think of writers getting better as they age, learning their craft as they go along, and MacDonald certainly thought that of himself, but when he tried to re-do his older material he almost always ended up destroying the pace, grace and sense of magic in the prose. Think The Good Old Stuff. In fact, if you ever want a perfect example of what I am talking about, read my piece on his Crack Detective Stories tale “You Remember Jeanie” and its rewrite in More Good Old Stuff.

“Eyewitness” was the end of the line for Duke Rhoades. So unenthusiastic were the members of the Field Newspaper Syndicate over the story that few picked it up, with only one major metropolitan daily (the San Diego Union-Tribune) doing so. I managed to find my copy of it in the September 30, October 7, 14 and 21st editions of Florida Today, a Gannett publication. A rather ignominious ending for a character who is part of a special and unique group of fictional protagonists, including Benton Walters, Shane Brent, Park Falkner and Travis McGee.

Monday, January 8, 2018

"Friend of the Family"

Serious students of the works of John D MacDonald, along with readers of his short fiction and followers of this blog, are no doubt aware of the fact that Travis McGee was not the author’s first attempt at creating a series character. That particular effort began all the way back at the beginning of his writing career when Doc Savage editor and early mentor Babette Rosemond implored him to give it a try for that pulp magazine. MacDonald created one Benton Walters, a war vet who quits his dull bank job and takes on an improbable career as a cold war spy. He debuted in the December 1946 issue with a story titled “Private War,” and again the following month in “Eight Dozen Agents,” before MacDonald tired of him and put him to rest, famously writing Rosemond, "Honest to God -- I'm never going to start another series. They are limiting and I hate them."

But he did just that four years later for Detective Tales magazine when he created Parker Falkner, a fabulously wealthy playboy and resident of his own island off the coast of west Florida. MacDonald’s formula for this particular series was to have Falkner relieving his constant boredom by digging into the pasts of people he believes have done some great wrong and have gotten away with it, then devises a clever and complicated ruse to smoke them out. Yet again, it took only two stories (“Breathe No More, My Lovely” and “The Lady is a Corpse,” both reprinted in JDM’s 1982 pulp anthology The Good Old Stuff under the author’s original titles) before MacDonald put Falkner to rest.

And in between those two early efforts was the almost-series character of Shane Brent, the protagonist of the 1948 science fiction short story “Dance of a New World” which appeared in the September issue of Astounding Science Fiction. He showed up again in “School for the Stars,” also in Astounding, before disappearing altogether. As I wrote in my piece on “School for the Stars,” this particular character seems to have been intended for a closed-end series of stories rather than one that would have been ongoing.

Fast forward to 1964 and the birth of Travis McGee. So, no, he wasn’t MacDonald’s first attempt at a series character. But here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know: he wasn’t the last.

I didn’t know this either, until I recently expanded my JDM story collection to include two works I’d heretofore been unable to locate. Back in July of 2015 I wrote a piece on “Finding Anne Farley,” also known as “Ring My Love With Diamonds” a unique 1977 newspaper serialization MacDonald did for the Field Newspaper Syndicate, owned by the Chicago Sun-Times and which included scores of smaller and regional newspapers. The lengthy story was serialized over five weekly installments (more in some of the smaller papers), with the final installment delayed a week so that readers could write and submit their own versions of the ending, revealing who done it. A winning entry would be selected, printed along with JDM’s actual ending, and the submitter awarded a prize of $100. For a protagonist, MacDonald went back to the beginning of his paperback career and created a subject remarkably similar to Cliff Bartells, the hero of JDM’s first book, The Brass Cupcake. Oliver “Duke” Rhoades is an insurance investigator, especially adept at recovering stolen goods. Rhoades’ nickname is derived from his facial similarity to John Wayne, but he is not especially tall, and any other similarities to MacDonald’s other famous protagonist end there.

MacDonald went on to produce two other serialized stories for the Field Syndicate, one published the following year (“Friend of the Family”) and the final effort in 1979, a reworking of a 1964 story with the same name, “Eyewitness.” I speculated in my piece on “Finding Anne Farley” that Rhoades may have been the star of these two other stories, and now that I own copies of them I can report that this is indeed the case. Duke Rhoades is series-character number five in the John D MacDonald canon.

Like the story written before it, “Friend of the Family” is a short work built around an elaborate crime, a rare whodunit for JDM, who usually avoided such stories. But that was the whole point of the contest, to have readers not only guess who did it but to explain how they did it. The author introduces various unusual characters, plants clues along the way (both real and red herrings), then springs the trap at the end. The tales are short on characterization and background, yet as with everything MacDonald, the writer’s singular skills at creating whole worlds from a few well-chosen words help to fill out all the background the reader needs.

Unlike Cliff Bartells in The Brass Cupcake, insurance investigator Rhoades does not actually work for an insurance company but instead is employed as a consultant. He’s the guy brought in when the company’s own man fails to find anything suspicious with an unusual or expensive claim. As such, when he arrives on the scene all the important people have already been grilled, investigated and exonerated, and the claimant is usually impatiently awaiting the insurance money. Rhoades is so good that once he gives the claimant a pass the insurance company complies without further investigation.

“Friend of the Family” sends Rhoades to MacDonald country, specifically Sarasota, where a couple of years earlier two Fortune 500 retirees had grown restless fishing and playing golf all day and decide to start a small business together, making white camera cases designed to keep film unspoiled in the hot Florida sun. The idea sounded better than it really was and the enterprise never took off, leading the company to go slowly downhill until the pair eventually decide to liquidate its holdings, laying off the workforce and selling its inventory. In the process of doing so, one of the partners, Tyde Dunning, decided to go into work one late evening to do some paperwork and never returned home. He was discovered the next morning by the one remaining employee who comes to the building, located on the grounds of the Sarasota Airport, to finish up some work. She finds Tyde in a most unusual state:

[He] sat in a wooden armchair ... slumped to the right, his head tilted forward and to the right. He wore a short-sleeved sport shirt, pale shorts and leather sandals. His legs were tanned and hairy. He had a pot belly. His arms were bound from wrist to elbow to the arms of the chair. There were some wide strands of the same white tape around his chest and around the back of the chair, holding him upright. His head was totally wrapped in the white tape, around and around, covered from the crown of his head to his adam's apple. He was a contemporary mummy, semi-processed.

Tyde was a nice guy and everyone who knew him liked him, so there are no obvious suspects. The widow was playing in a bridge tournament in Miami at the time, and all of the ex-employees have been cleared. But there was a $700,000 key-man life insurance policy for the business with a $300,000 accidental death rider. The beneficiary, now that the business is shuttered, is Tyde’s partner Ralph Sharn. But Ralph has terminal cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, which has made him frail and in need of continual care from his second wife, Betty. His adult daughter, Laura, has even come down from her home up north to help with her dad.

Or course all of this has been investigated before by the insurance company's own investigator, so it is Duke’s job to go over everything again, interview all of the people who were involved with the victim and try to either find a killer or authorize the payment of the insurance to Ralph. Here we get to see MacDonald firing on all cylinders as Duke meets with them, and the author gets to show off his amazing ability of drawing characters with a minimum of words, a line here, a movement there, a description that says all the reader needs to know to understand who that particular character is. We meet the local agent who sold the pair the insurance policy, we meet the deputy who investigated the case, we meet the widow, the partner and his wife and daughter, the lawyer who handled the business’s affairs, and even Ralph Sharn’s doctor. MacDonald’s painting of Duke’s first meeting with Ralph is a perfect example of his ability with character:

Ralph Sharn was tall, very tanned and quite thin. His posture was bad. He walked as though he were on the parapet of the tallest building in town, braced against unexpected gusts of wind, trying not to look down. He had frail, scattered remnants of gray hair, pale-blue eyes framed in flesh so dark it looked bruised, and a smile of welcome so exceptionally warm and sweet that I became an instant friend.

“Friend of the Family” hearkens back to many of the stories MacDonald did for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Manhunt and Justice back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, before Travis McGee took over his writing life. There is an emphasis on procedure and the characterization of the protagonist is necessarily thin, certainly nothing even close to that of McGee or any other main character in one of his novels. But it’s an enjoyable story that will keep the reader guessing -- up to a certain point, when it becomes pretty obvious (at least it was for me, but I’ve read too much JDM to be surprised very often.)

So longtime readers won’t be surprised when Duke meets Ralph’s daughter Laura and she is described as “ash blond almost as tall as I am,” it leads to a relationship. (Apparently Duke’s girlfriend from “Finding Anne Farley” has gone by the wayside.) And readers of MacDonald’s own biography will certainly recognize the neighborhood where the Dunnings and the Sharns live two houses apart. It’s on a spit of land that juts out into Sarasota Bay from Siesta Key, just off of Midnight Pass on a road called Blind Cove Road. As Duke approaches, “I drove between old, live oaks, catching glimpses of expensive-looking houses beyond tropical shrubbery. The Dunning house was off the turnaround at the end of Blind Cove Lane, the wide blue bay glinting beyond it.”

This is, of course, the neighborhood where the MacDonalds lived from 1952 to 1969 on Point Crisp Road and the house described is that of his next door neighbors.

The Field Newspaper Syndicate offered the series to its member newspapers along with supporting story art and author background, but it seems that fewer papers picked up the option than before with “Finding Anne Farley.” Of course Field’s main newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times carried it, as did the Miami Herald and the Sarasota Journal, but it does not appear that as many of the smaller presses ran it. One that did was the Daily Record of Morristown, New Jersey, which is where I located my copy. Unlike “Finding Anne Farley,” the story was never anthologized in book form. The winning entry for the ending was submitted by one Lorraine Biear, a resident of Rockaway Township and an unpublished mystery writer herself. She got the bad guy right but her ending is, of course, much different.

It would be another year before Duke Rhoades’ final appearance in print took place. I’ll write about that next time.