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.

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