Monday, May 28, 2018

"A Corpse on Me!"

Any writer who produced as much fiction as John D MacDonald did in his 40 year career was bound to repeat himself now and then. When you write nearly 470 short stories, novellas and novels it surely couldn’t be helped. Many bits of business that originated in long-forgotten and mostly neglected pulp magazine tales later showed up as pivotal plot points in later stories and novels, especially in the Travis McGee series. I’ve written before about some of these, including the oft-used jewels-hidden-in wax smuggling trick that first appeared in “The Flying Elephants” and was eventually the mcguffin of The Deep Blue Good-By. The gaslighting via pharmaceuticals that was so important to the plot of The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper was first invented back in 1948 for the novella “No Grave Has My Love.” The singular way to defend oneself against an attacking, leaping dog that McGee used in A Deadly Shade of Gold originated in a Doc Savage story called “The Chinese Pit,” published in 1947. And on occasion MacDonald didn’t even need to go back to the pulps for help: the entire first chapter of The Long Lavender Look was a rewrite of his 1961 Saturday Evening Post story “Sing a Song of Terror.”

So it’s no surprise when digging out an old story one hasn’t read in years, like “A Corpse on Me!” from the March 1950 issue of Dime Detective, to discover yet another antecedent to yet another Travis McGee adventure.

“A Corpse on Me!” begins with the story’s protagonist -- named Brendan Mahar -- observing a young woman walking down a city street. The prose is terse and wonderfully descriptive:

At four o'clock on that long-awaited October afternoon, Brendan Mahar saw her walking down the sidewalk on the other side of the street, the suitcase dragging her shoulder down. Rain was a perpetual dreary mist, fattening to ripe drops on the dying leaves, darkening the gray stone wall that bordered the sidewalk, turning the litter of papers and leaves in the gutter to paste. There was an automaton quality about her walk and, even at a hundred feet, he sensed the expressionlessness of her face. She was hatless, her pale hair drawn tightly back.

The woman is Eileen Kraft and she has just been released from prison after spending four years there, jailed for being an accessory in a jewel heist. But instead of acting like the typical hardened female ex-con, Mahar observes Eileen’s complacent, disinterested attitude and, especially, her dead eyes. She must have been pretty once, but now her hands are puffy and bloated and her skin has an unhealthy pallor. Most noticeable is the ugly scar on the side of her mouth, the result of an attack by another inmate which was repaired haphazardly by prison doctors.

Mahar blocks her path and tells her he is going to help her, mentioning the name of a fellow inmate with whom Eileen was friendly. She is naturally hesitant, but woodenly agrees to come with Mahar, who has booked her a room at a local hotel. Mahar is a recovery agent working for an insurance company, although Eileen doesn’t know this and Mahar is eager to hide it from her. Once in the hotel room Eileen bathes and puts on some nice new clothing Mahar has purchased for her. They order room service and Mahar tells Eileen that he knows a plastic surgeon who can fix her damaged cheek. Eileen is curious about Mahar’s motivations but is too disinterested to ask too many questions. She is told that tomorrow she will see her old prison bunkmate, Betty Krastnov.

Mahar and his partner Cam Stoddard have concocted this ruse for a purpose. Eileen’s husband, Boo Renaki, was part of a four-man team who came up with the idea for the jewel heist. He was working on and planning the burglary unbeknownst to his new wife. But a few days before the planned snatch Boo decided that he could perform the deed on his own and freeze out his partners. With an unknowing Eileen acting as getaway driver, Boo robbed a safe and cracked an unexpected janitor over the head before hightailing it. The janitor soon died from his injuries, so now Boo was guilty of both burglary and murder. Plus, he had three very angry ex-partners now wondering where he had gone to. The couple was hiding out in a remote cabin on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and soon after the robbery Eileen returned from shopping to find Boo dead and the cabin turned upside down. Obviously the former partners had discovered Boo’s whereabouts and snatched the jewels before getting their revenge. Soon thereafter Eileen was picked up and sentenced to prison.

Mahar and Cam have convinced Betty Krastnov to go along with a ruse to pretend that the three of them are crooks looking for the whereabouts of the other partners, certain that Eileen must either know something or hold some unvoiced secret that will help them recover the jewels. But once Eileen realizes that they are “crooks” and that all the help Mahar has offered was only a means to an end, she comes out of her stupor and storms out of the hotel room. Suffering defeat, Mahar calls the hotel dick and asks him to stop her, thinking that having someone on the right side of the law pressure her might succeed where he had failed. But she is too quick and exits the hotel and walks down the street. After only a few moments outside a car stops and she is picked up and shoved into the back seat. The chase begins…

“A Corpse on Me!” -- which was, surprise, not MacDonald’s original title: it was “Sentence for a Lady” -- is a good, fairly representative example of MacDonald’s maturing writing skills during the dying days of the pulps. While the plot is straightforward and fairly obvious, the writing is peppered with keen, expertly expressed observation and even social awareness. Eileen’s background is compassionately described by Mahar in a conversation with his partner:

Cam: "Is she a pretty rough type?"

Mahar: "No. The Krastnov woman was right, Cam. I suppose women's prisons all over the country are full of them. Sensitive kids who grow up in the wrong neighborhood, too innocent to see what's going on right under their noses, then getting mixed up in something pretty shoddy. They get clapped into prison before they find out what the world is all about."

Cam: "If you're through with the philosophy and sociology, we'll get practical."

And even MacDonald’s typically glib ending is written to be shadowed in some doubt.

(For the seasoned reader of John D MacDonald, the clue that Eileen is a good girl is made obvious in her description: a blonde with pale gray-green eyes.)

The bit that was later reused in a Travis McGee novel occurs far too late in the story for me to reveal it here. It’s not terribly original and was probably used by countless other authors of the era, but still it’s similar enough to ring familiar tones in the mind’s ear of a MacDonald fan. The novel is the excellent eighth entry in the McGee series, One Fearful Yellow Eye, and the mcguffin was stolen and hidden by Saul Gorba.

As far as I can tell “A Corpse on Me!” has never been reprinted.

Monday, May 21, 2018

JDM on Spillane (and Other Things)

On Friday, February 19, 1955 John D MacDonald was invited to participate in an open discussion on writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. The affair was a regular weekly thing and was called the English Coffee Hour. Supervising was FSU English instructor John H Lawler who, along with science fiction author Mack Reynolds, dished out the questions. The get-together was covered by the local Tallahassee Democrat, which ran the story headlined "Spillane Creates Mythological Characters Says MacDonald”. JDM's discussion of Spillane takes up less than two paragraphs of the story, but the headline is not surprising. Spillane was a Big Thing back in the early 1950’s, and his story intersects with that of MacDonald’s, which I’ll talk about after presenting a transcription of the article. For reference, in February 1955 JDM had just had published his thirteenth novel Contrary Pleasure the previous year and would see the appearance of number fourteen -- A Bullet for Cinderella -- in July. On the short story front, his excellent “The Killer” had just appeared in the January issue of Manhunt, and in May one of his true masterpieces, the award-winning “The Bear Trap,” would be published in Cosmopolitan.

Spillane Creates Mythological Characters Says MacDonald

Mickey Spillane's popularity stems from his ability to make "the little man with fallen arches" become a "mythological beast," John D MacDonald, novelist and short story writer, told guests at the English Coffee Hour Friday afternoon in the Westminster House at Florida State University.

"Spillane has created a completely impossible human gening who tears up gangsters and throws them around the room," MacDonald said. "Its modern mythology." Concerning the sadism found in Spillane by some critics MacDonald said "There is more sadism in Mother Goose."

MacDonald was questioned by John H Lawler, FSU English instructor, and Mack Reynolds, science fiction author who is visiting in Tallahassee.

The best way to learn to write is by writhing, MacDonald said. During four months of terminal leave following army service overseas MacDonald wrote some 800,000 words to get started on a writing career. While overseas he had sent his wife a story instead of a letter -- "we were censored 100 percent by both the British and Americans and you couldn't put anything of interest in a letter" -- and his wife sold the story to the old Story magazine. He decided the $25 she got for it was "easy money."

Of his 12 published novels, two are science fiction. Forty ar fifty of his short stories also are in that field which he said is "free of taboos you find in other sorts of magazines."

"If a magazine of mass circulation used a story about a man with a wooden leg, and three people in West Overshoe, Minn., don't like it, the editor will never again buy a story with a wooden leg," MacDonald said by way of illustrating the rules of various publications. "Mass circulation magazines have so many taboos you can't say anything. But most science fiction fans are crackpots and you can get away with just about what you want.

Reynolds remarked that as long as the author put his story "a thousand years from now on Mars he was safe. MacDonald answered that an author also can say a lot about here and now if he puts the story in a different "frame," so it won't offend too many individuals.

Concerning his writing techniques MacDonald said that he doesn't revise -- or if he does, it's in his own way. "If something mechanical goes wrong I throw away the page. If it's something structural, I may throw away four or five pages." But when he reaches the end, the first draft is the final one. He cannot go back and replace one word without another and then retype the story. "It sounds flat," he said.

His main difficulty is finding where to start. "It can't be too close to a main point of action, or you need too many flashbacks. If it's too far away, the story starts out slowly," he said. But once he gets the ending and the beginning he "plays the middle by ear."

MacDonald warned against "adopting a patronizing attitude toward a field you want to enter. If you're going to do a story on young love for one of the slick magazines, with a happy, upbeat ending, forget your superior attitude and write the best love story you can."

When you write for a certain, be sure it is one that you can read in with pleasure, he advised. He added that probably the reason the "confession" magazines pay so well is the scarcity of writers in that field. "Those who like to read that sort of thing can't write" was the way he put it. Then he added the exception to the rule was writing for comic books as "their readers can't recognize a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

In answer to a question he said that his favorite American author changes for year to year, but that right now he thinks the best bit of writing he has run across in a long time is the screenplay for the film On the Waterfront.

To be good a piece of writing has to be on different levels, he said. He finds them in Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, early Irwin Shaw and "some of that little man Capote." Reynolds mentioned John Collier as another who can "write on different levels."

MacDonald, who comes from Sarasota, was greeted at the coffee hour by a delegation of Sarasota students.

Leading with the Mickey Spillane quote was a way to sell newspapers, for the popularity of Spillane in the world of postwar popular fiction cannot be overstated. His first novel, I, the Jury was published in hardcover in 1947, followed by a paperback version the following year. Between the two of them it sold six and a half million copies in the United States alone. It’s protagonist, a private eye named Mike Hammer, was cut from the same cloth as many of the detectives introduced in the pulps, including Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but the writing was different and so was the action. There was sex -- lots of it, more so than in most other mystery novels of the time -- and the violence, well… the violence, which seems pretty tame to modern readers, was extreme and nearly over the top, eliciting cries of outrage from the literary community. They used terms like “atrocious” and “nauseating,” and even Spillane’s own father referred to his work as “crud”. That these beacons of high culture would even deign to mention Spillane’s name at all was a testament to his books’ popularity, their effect on popular writing of the day and on the culture in general. Raymond Chandler’s reaction is illuminating in that it shows not only the contempt, but the amazement at the success of Spillane’s work. In a letter to publisher Dale Warren in 1952 he wrote:

“...the taste of the public is as mysterious as the taste of critics. Look at the success a fellow called Mickey Spillane is having, a success comparable to that in England of James Hadley Chase, the distinguished author of No Orchids for Miss Blandish. Mickey Spillane is just about on the same low level of phoniness, and as far as I’m concerned just as unreadable. I did honestly try to read one just to see what made them click, but I couldn't make it. Pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff. It isn’t so very long since no decent publisher would have touched it. I suppose it won’t be long until the Book of the Month Club selects a handsomely produced volume of French postcards as its contribution to the national culture. This Spillane stuff, so far as I can see, is nothing but a mixture of violence and outright pornogoraphy. He and his publishers have had the courage, if that is the correct word, to carry these a little further than anyone else without interference from the police. I can’t see anything else in it. This sort of thing makes the home boys with their libraries of elegant erotica seem rather nice people.”

Knowing what we know about John D MacDonald, a man of strong opinions he was not afraid to present, it might be expected that his own thoughts on Spillane’s books would mirror that of fellow moralist Chandler, but if that was the case he kept it well hidden. For John D MacDonald owed Spillane a huge debt of gratitude, one that was inadvertent on Spillane’s part but went a long way toward launching MacDonald as a bestselling author.

When MacDonald’s 1952 novel The Damned was in galleys prior to publication, Ralph Daigh, the storied editor at Fawcett, loaned a copy to Spillane to read. He returned it later and told Daigh that it was a good book and that he wished he had written it. Daigh quickly wrote that remark down and asked Spillane to sign and date it, which he did. When the first edition of The Damned appeared in May of that year, splashed across the cover artwork was a banner which read, “I WISH I HAD WRITTEN THIS BOOK! -- MICKEY SPILLANE. That The Damned was, and still is, MacDonald’s best selling novel, is in no small part due to that unintended promotion. (I’ve often wondered how many Spillane fans bought The Damned, expecting a Hammer-like novel, only to be graced with the subtle nuances and brilliant characterizations of MacDonald’s first multi-perspective opus.)

MacDonald and Spillane went on to be friends of sorts. Spillane visited the MacDonald’s frequently in their Florida home and they exchanged letters throughout their lives. MacDonald once poked fun at Spillane in his early novel The Neon Jungle, where one of the more obtuse characters reads and enjoys a Mike Hammer book. And Spillane was one of the few people on earth to have been privy to the progress of the final, never-to-be-completed Travis McGee novel.

Monday, May 14, 2018

"Hang the Man High!"

John D MacDonald wrote nearly 400 original short stories and novellas that were published in the magazines of the last century: hundreds of crime stories, scores of science fiction, sports and mainstream tales -- and all of three westerns. Clearly, this wasn’t a genre of fiction that interested the author, and the quality of the stories bear that out. Only one of the three, the last-published “Nine Coffins for Rocking H.” reveals and deep background into the time, place and history of the old west. The other two -- “The Corpse Rides at Dawn” and “Hang the Man High” -- read like plot ideas so preposterous that the author could only fit them into a long-past, western setting. That was certainly the case for “The Corpse Rides at Dawn,” which featured a character weakness that would have been laughed out of any contemporary crime pulp of the era, and it’s also a weak point in the second story, “Hang the Man High!” I’m not sure exactly what MacDonald was trying to do here, but the plot is certainly something that would not have worked in any setting outside of an historical one.

The setting is the fictional small town of Chambers, a remote, dusty place in an unnamed state, built and settled to support the numerous cattle ranches that surround it. The story opens soon after the arrival of a stranger from the east -- in this case, way east, as in Eastern Europe by way of Boston. Stanislau Wadic has come to open a dress shop in Chambers, and he is portrayed as the classic effeminate: timid, fluttery, pinky finger permanently extended, everything but a lisp. Franklin Pangborn comes to mind. His first stop after renting a vacant storefront is to a local carpenter named Chub. The first words out of Wadic’s mouth are “I want wooden woman.”

That was when Chub dropped the pin he was working on and gave himself a shallow cut across the back of the thumb.

"You want a what?" he asked loudly.

"Wooden womans. For to put on dresses in the window my store."

Chub got up and limped over to the windowsill and got his pipe. He said, "Now let me get this straight, friend. You have a store?"

"Today I get it. With window. I paint my sign. Want womans in the window. For cloths."

Chub grinned as the great light dawned. "You want a dress dummy!"

A week later, after the mannequin is delivered, Wadic is in his store window dressing the dummy. It’s late on a Saturday and ranch hands from the surrounding area are pouring into town to enjoy a night of drinking and carousing at the local saloon. But before they get to boozing they are attracted to the strange new sight in Chambers, and congregate in front of Wadic’s shop, observing him at work.

The hands nudged each other and cackled in glee... "Seems downright indecent... Full grown man, too."

"Or, on the other hand, is he? Look how he keeps that little finger bent... There's no place in Chambers for that one"

Once inside the saloon and with a few drinks under their belts, the cowhands -- which include the slab-handed foreman Redneck George and little Tad Morgan, “a hundred and ten pounds of cured leather" -- begin to amp up their resentments.

"We ought to be able to show him somehow... Damn furriner, coming in to mess up our town, gettin' the women all gaga over his fancy cloth. Like as not he stole the stuff in the first place."

Just then Wadic himself enters the saloon and, after a “good evening” to everyone, heads directly over to the bar. With all the ranch hands glaring at him silently, the newcomer asks for wine, is given a bottle of cheap stuff and sips it out of a shot glass. “It is bad,” he tells the bartender. He doesn’t notice that all of the hands have mockingly imitated his drinking gestures, pinkies extended. It doesn’t take long for things to get really ugly and eventually one of the men slugs Wadic.

"Why is fighting? Wadic asked.

"It's the custom for strangers here."

"With fists, yes? American way?

"That's right."

"Is necessary?"

"I'm afraid so, Mr. Wadic."

With Wadic preparing to fight by raising outstretched fists and closing his eyes, he is easily beaten and carried back to his apartment above his shop. But the evening doesn’t end there. After a few more drinks the rowdy bunch move to the streets, smash the window to Wadic’s shop and remove the wooden mannequin, tying it to the back of a horse and dragging it through the streets of Chambers. This proves a step too far for the newcomer…

If “Hang the Man High!” was MacDonald’s attempt to deal with prejudice, it was an utter failure, for the only way Wadic gains acceptance in Chambers is by becoming something like one of the good old boys. And while the ranch hands are portrayed as an especially ugly lot, the character of Wadic seems nebulous, like the author had to saddle him with enough obvious and characteristic attributes to make him a target, while also trying to make him sympathetic. It doesn’t really work. And the author’s glib ending, complete with mutual backslapping and “I’m buying you a drink!” lines ring especially false, considering the ugliness that has preceded it.

MacDonald’s brief dalliance in the world of the wild west seems to have been limited to a very short period in his writing career, from April 1948 to December 1949 and, unless I discover something else in the pages of an old Bluebook or Argosy, he never tried it again. The world of fiction is not poorer for that decision.

“Hang the Man High!” (a meaningless title, by the way… Wadic is never threatened with hanging) was published in the November 1949 issue of Fifteen Western Tales, has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted.

Monday, May 7, 2018

"The Giant Who Came to Our House"

John D MacDonald wrote 27 short stories that appeared in the weekly newspaper supplement This Week, spanning a 16 year period from 1950 to 1966. I’ve written about most of these brief tales, fiction that included situational comedies, family issues, youthful reminiscences and, yes, even crime. Considering the vast circulation of This Week -- it was included in scores of American Newspapers from 1935 to 1969 -- more people probably read John D MacDonald stories in this magazine than in any other. As I wrote in a previous post, “[This Week] started out being carried by 21 newspapers with a combined circulation of more than four million. Over the the next thirty years the magazine’s growth was explosive: eleven million issues per week in 1955 and a high of over fourteen million by 1963. These numbers dwarf those of contemporaneous newsstand slicks -- four million got a periodical into the big leagues, with only a few like Life (5.6 million) and Reader’s Digest (ten million) exceeding that.”

The quality of these various stories ranged from the fairly inconsequential (“I Love You (Occasionally),” “A Matter of Life and Death,” “Who Stopped That Clock?”) to superior works of popular fiction, like “End of the Tiger” and “Blurred View”. Between those two extremes were the so-so stories, interesting on a fairly superficial level but leaving little or no lasting mark. “The Giant Who Came to Our House,” which appeared in the May 5, 1957 issue of This Week, probably falls into this category: it’s engaging, creates a wistfully-remembered childhood past, and tells an easy lesson. But it’s really more interesting as a dress rehearsal for a superior short story MacDonald would write six years later.

“The Giant Who Came to Our House” is told in flashback, a man remembering an incident from his childhood, unimportant on its surface but lasting in the mark that it has left on him. In this regard it mirrors previous works like “Looie Follows Me” and “The Bear Trap” and would provide the template for that six-years-later story, “End of the Tiger.”

It happened on a Sunday long ago, on one of those hot still days in late summer. I was ten that summer, and it was a bad summer for me because of my father. It wasn't that I was ashamed of him. I just felt sort of let down. I think my mother felt the same way, but there wasn't anything we could do about it.

Billy Barret’s problem with his father Sam began way before that Sunday incident long ago. Sam had run his own “mercantile store” in town before partnering up with another local retailer, an obnoxious feed store owner named Ed Wadley. Wadley is a kind of character familiar to readers of MacDonald’s work: big and beefy, loud and obnoxious and given to using demeaning names to others (he refers to Sam as “Shorty”). Readers of “Blue Water Fury” and “The Killer” will recognize him immediately. The two argue constantly about the direction of the business and Wadley always wins those arguments, many of them taking place at the Barret home and in front of Billy. But the incident Billy is recalling took place outside of the business relationship and involved a third party, an outsider to the family.

Harry Sturmer is a circus performer, a seven-foot-four, three hundred and twenty pound giant whose stage name is Big Tex. Out of work and penniless after his circus closed unexpectedly and robbed of his stash of money, he wandered by the Barret place -- a large house and a yard big enough to fit a barn and an apple orchard -- asking for work. Billy’s mom Sarah took pity on him and, needing to replace their other handyman, hired him on at a dollar per day. Harry sleeps in the barn and, between chores, writes to circuses around the region looking for work. Billy’s recollection of the giant is characteristic MacDonald: tersely but tellingly descriptive, evoking a deeper character in as few words as possible:

His voice didn't sound the way a giant's should. It was thin and kind of rusty sounding. All in all, I guess he was a disappointing sort of giant. Unfinished looking. And nothing fit just right. He was powerful, but slow and awkward and clumsy. His face was long and he had a sad look and he sunburned easy. Every time I asked a question, he had to think over his answer and then he made it short.

Billy gets used to having Harry around the place and over time comes to admire him. So it is no surprise that the “incident” the story is built around takes place at Harry’s expense and involved the noxious Ed Wadley.

On that particular Sunday Wadley is over and he and the Barrets are out on the porch talking, with Billy playing in the yard and Harry doing yard work out near the driveway. The contentious conversation is, as always, about the store and at one point Wadley makes a point loud enough for everyone -- including Harry -- to hear:

"Now honestly, Shorty, how much respect am I supposed to have for the business judgement of a man who'd hire a freak to take care of the work around this place?"

There was a strange silence. The whole afternoon seemed to stop, even the birds. I was close enough to barely hear my mother whisper, "That was rude, Ed Wadley. Very rude. You've hurt his feelings."

But Sam Barret was silent.

And my father didn't do anything. He didn't tell Ed Wadley to get off the place. I felt sick inside. I wanted to make it up to Harry somehow, but there just wasn't any way I could think of.

“The Giant Who Came to Our House” ends happily, as one would certainly expect in a Sunday morning read from 1957, and its themes and concerns go deeper than most of the previous stories MacDonald wrote for This Week. The subject of prejudice and standing up for oneself surely trump tales of marital misunderstandings and household pets. But the story, seen now from the perspective of time and an understanding of MacDonald’s entire writing career, reads more like a dry run for the superior “End of the Tiger.” The author obviously liked these childhood tales told from the perspective of a grown man and he continued to write them throughout his career. He even tried it after “End of the Tiger,” less than a year after the publication of that great story, with another This Week effort, “Wild, Wonderful Old Man,” with much less success. And as good as “End of the Tiger” was -- and is -- it paled against JDM’s greatest recollection tale, “The Bear Trap.” Now that was a piece of writing.

“The Giant Who Came to Our House” has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted, but it can be easily read by anyone with access to an online newspaper database, either at home or through your local library. Microfilm archives of most US newspapers are readily available and many of these dailies carried This Week. Some examples are the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Star.