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.
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.
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.
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:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
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.
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.