Monday, July 30, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 5: November 20, 1947

John D MacDonald's fifth column for the Clinton Courier,  written back when he was still a struggling pulp fiction author.

For students of JDM's biography, this column contains several interesting sections. He begins with a brief discussion on personal independence and conformity, which -- perhaps -- reveals the first seeds of his discontent with the town he had moved to, as discussed in detail in his 1965 non-fiction hardcover The House Guests. It also presages attitudes that would make up much of the character of one Travis McGee.

 And speaking of The House Guests, this column contains the first ever mention of the MacDonald's cats, Roger and Geoffrey, made "famous" by that cat-biography.

Finally, there is a piece on speeding cars, a favorite subject of the author's, explored over the years countless times, in short stories such as "Hit and Run[1952] ,"  "Eyewitness," "Hit and Run[1961]," and "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top," and in novels like Cry Hard, Cry Fast and Slam the Big Door.

We had lunch at the Inn last Tuesday -- as every Tuesday -- with the Clinton Chowder, Walking and Three No Trump Society, and we were subjected to various jeers and jibes from citizens named Stanley and Johnson and Robinson and Weber and others because we spurned regimentation and refused to accept the standardized lunch.

It turned out that our independence cost us the sum of fifteen cents, (15¢), and somehow it seems very nice to be in a place where some measure of individual liberty can be obtained for a nominal fee.

We make no cult of eccentricity or individualism, and yet we derive a certain feeling of contentment from the fact that if we should choose to diverge from the standard pattern, we will not be given a vacation behind barbed wire to think over the sin of deviation. Such would be a pretty grim situation.

In this day, in this country, an individual who refuses to conform can be punished only through the somewhat ineffectual medium of social ostracism. In a police state, a minor deviation from the norm implies freedom of thought and, as such, is deserving of direct and implacable punishment by the forces of the police state.

Of course, this has gone a long way from our fifteen cent fee for a small hunk of self-determination. We generalize too much... and we don't care for hash.

* * *

Last week's column led to a discussion with Ed Stanley. He objected to the criticism of the fifteen cent toll charge. Ed Stanley says, and I have his permission to quote, "If Clinton became a part of the Utica exchange, it would cost Clintonians a great deal more money each year in phone bills than it does now."

Since neither of us was able to quote sources and statistics, I will let it stand as is. Maybe we should haul in a statistician from the telephone company.

We can go on record as saying that we resent paying seventeen cents when we use our own phone and fifteen when we use a pay station.

* * *

In addition, we received some comments on our eulogy of a Beagle named Kelly, probably because the column happened to be printed alongside a long letter from a Pennsylvania gentleman who seems to have been nibbled by a canine once upon a time.

We'd be in a better position to argue, if we owned a dog. We'd like to own a dog right now, but we can't get permission from two domineering felines named Roger and Geoffrey. We obtained them from a market in Utica, and they would not look kindly on any whim of ours to obtain a dog.

They are representative of the Cat of the Future. Particularly Geoffrey. The anthropologists say that we would still be swinging from limb to limb were it not for the fact that we have a thumb which works in juxtaposition to our fingers so that we can grasp objects and use them as tools.

Geoffrey has a toe on each front foot that works as a thumb. He can pick up small objects in his hand and nibble on them.

When at last most of the earth's surface is vitrified by the atomic bombs and mankind is no more, a few surviving cats with rudimentary thumbs will be fashioning stone axes to hunt with.

A few thousand years hence, cat historians will be pondering over those strange two legged beings that once inhabited the earth. Where did they come from and where did they go? They were obviously unfit to rule the world.

We are being very nice to Geoffrey.

* * *

But in these years we have left, before atomic disintegration, maybe we can do something about a menace more easy to visualize.

Somehow anything you say about the automobile seems very trite.

There is nothing particularly trite about two tons of metal traveling at one hundred and eighty feet per second.

This is not an appeal to ninety percent of the people of Clinton. This is an appeal to ten per cent.

Clinton is a children's town. There isn't a better place in which to raise kids.

Except for one thing. Among us we have a few citizens who are very, very proud of a fast reaction time, and get a feeling of almost sensual joy out of swooping into the village at a speed that would be dangerous "for anyone else."

Under the hood are over a hundred horses that give a joyous leap with the least little touch on the gas.

Within twelve months in the Village of Clinton one of our children is going to be badly smashed by one of these high octane Knights.

It might be our boy. It may be yours.

The Knight is going to be sick with remorse. Maybe he'll give up driving for the rest of his life. Maybe he'll never go over thirty from that moment on.

Somehow his remorse isn't going to help very much.

Yes, this is a children's town -- except for that one little thing.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, July 23, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 4: November 13, 1947

Here's the fourth installment of John D MacDonald's Clinton, New York, newspaper column, From the Top of the Hill. It contains an animal story left out of The House Guests.

I've a very busy next couple of weeks ahead of me, so I'll probably be posting several of these columns in a row until things settle down.

The other day we were at a very fine wedding reception, and, noting a good many Clintonians present, we went on the prowl, sliding up to each and asking in a tense voice what they thought of the column so far and what they would suggest to improve it.

A few people said, "What column?" but we smiled bravely.

One gentleman said, "What are you trying to do in that column, anyway?"

We were prepared for him. We have two aims. The first is to entertain. The second is to develop in Clinton a feeling of pride and unity, so that we can all be conscious that we are living in the prettiest part of the best country the world has yet produced.

On second thought, we believe that gentleman walked away before we had quite finished with our statement of aims and objectives.

* * *

At the reception we saw a Clinton lass named J. Sinnott and, in our one track manner, asked her what she thought the column ought to say. She said, "You ought to complain about the fifteen cent toll charge to Utica, but you won't get in in the paper."

We were intrigued.

Dear Telephone Company: On the first of the month when we pay our telephone bill, fifteen cents per Utica call seems like an awful amount of money. Please look and see if you could cover your costs and standard rate of profit for a little less.

Once upon a time we used to look at huge corporations and think of them as a sort of prehistoric beast, lumbering across the financial pages, staring out of beady little eyes and thinking deeply with sharp little brains that would never forget, never forgive, never relent.

Thus it was somewhat of a shock to find that these huge corporations seem to be collections of very average citizens, people who worry about Russia, about their kids reading too many comic books, about their wives acquiring that "new look," about any dilution of that little guarantee of freedom of speech tucked away in the Bill of Rights. We don't think that those American citizens who happen to set policy for the Bell Telephone Company are going to put ponderous machinery in motion to squash us because we question their fifteen cent toll charge.

Jane, you can pay us off on that little wager any time.

* * *
Last week we met a Beagle. He is a relatively new resident of Clinton and his name is Kelly. It is, of course, immaterial as to who pays his annual license, because dogs like Kelly belong, not to one family, but to the human race.

Even Evans of Huckster fame told us that good advertising is based on repetition. Love that Soap! Kelly can't read. But Kelly can think.

He has one item to sell -- a massive appetite.

Other dogs merely sit and beg -- paws held limply.

Not Kelly. He understands the psychological basis for repetition in advertising. No limp paws for him. He touches his two front paws together and waves them up and down. Not for balance. For effect. He does this with all the mechanical fervor of a metronome.

It works!

But if Kelly used this discovery of his merely to eat frequently, he could be classified as a smart and greedy dog.

Kelly is more than that. When anyone in the house is feeling low and blue, Kelly comes over, sits up and makes like an account executive.

Kelly figures that if the metronome act usually makes him feel good, it can also cheer up other people who need it.

So Kelly is the logical result of a few hundred thousand generations of proximity to these queer creatures called "people".

He can diagnose a mood and cure it. Kelly is the only Beagle so far who has become a practicing psychiatrist.

* * *

We have heard one argument so far concerning the two way traffic around the Square. The argument was -- Quote -- It's always been that way -- End Quote.

We have given the argument due consideration and, meaning no disrespect, we can not find much merit in it.

In a surprising number of cases, the statement, "It's always been that way" has certain merit. Traditional methods lead to a sense of security.

In this case, traditional methods lead to a sense of insecurity -- a feeling that you're about to lose a fender.

Somebody must have a better argument than the only one we've heard so far.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The JDM Master Checklist

A few weeks ago friend and author Dan Pollock wrote me to say that he was cleaning out some old files and that he has uncovered something that might be of interest to me. Dan shares my love of the writing of John D MacDonald and has donated much of his own collection of JDM ephemera to The Trap of Solid Gold, including articles on writing, past issues of the JDM Bibliophile, and many other items of interest I had no idea existed. This time he had discovered a copy of The JDM Master Checklist and assumed I had a copy, but wanted to offer it in case I didn't. Well, I did not own a copy and asked him to send it along to me. If truth be told, I had never even seen the thing.

The JDM Master Checklist was a project begun back in early 1965 by Len and June Moffatt of Downey, California, to catalog all of MacDonald’s writings up to that point. In the pre-internet age where little if any indexing of pulp magazines existed, this was no small task, but as the JDM Bibliophile -- the fanzine the Moffatts created to begin this project -- began to circulate, fans, researchers and fellow bibliophiles started contributing information for what would become The JDM Master Checklist. MacDonald himself was contacted and became interested, as he was in the process of renewing the copyrights on these works, and he provided much valuable information from his vast files. Finally, in early 1969, the work was published: a 56-page mimeographed, stapled, stenciled work that contained everything known -- up to that point -- on the works of JDM.

I never owned a copy of The JDM Master Checklist, for two reasons. First, it preceded my interest in John D MacDonald by about five years and was out of print by the time I became aware of it. Copies were hard to find back then as owners jealously guarded their own copies. Second, the list was superseded by Walter and Jean Shine’s John D MacDonald: Bibliography Biography, published in 1980 by the University of Florida. This I did obtain and it has been my primary source for keeping track of my own large JDM collection. There was to be a second edition of this work (something I myself worked on) but it never came to be.

When I was finally able to look at The JDM Master Checklist a week ago, I was surprised at how inclusive it was. I had assumed that the Shines had done much of the heavy lifting in cataloging the nearly 400 short stories published in various magazines of the last century, but the listings in the Master Checklist is nearly as complete as that of the Shines. In addition to that there is a section of works published in anthologies, one on the novels (including international editions), an index, and even a biography. A Herculean task, to say the least, but the Moffatts had help: a lot of help, and they listed these people in their introductory pages. John D MacDonald fans own these people -- most of whom have probably passed on by now -- a huge debt of gratitude, and I have transcribed their names here as The Trap of Solid Gold could not exist without the work that they did.


Anthony Boucher, Leonard Broom, Knox Burger, William J. Clark, Ed Cox, Jack Cuthbert, Les Deuel, Ron Ellik, Rory Faulkner, John Hale, Robert G. Hayman, Mrs. Eugene Hobel, George C. Hoyt, Jr., Brian Kirby, Cathy Konigsberg, John D. MacDonald, Hiroshi Onta, Thomas L. Powers, S. Gilbert Prentiss, J. Prince, Henry D. Renard, Takumi Shibanon, Rick Sneary, J. Clyde Stevens, Chuck Toole, Robert Turner, Gail & Tom Van Achtoven, Ramona Weeks, Mike Wharton, Bill Wilson, Ira Wolff, Stan Woolston, L. H. Zelders


Of greater interest to me was the biography that was included, running five pages and containing -- in addition to the standard stuff you can find anywhere -- much personal information on MacDonald, provided by the author himself, who is quoted frequently. I’m not sure any of this was really new to me, but I believe this is the only bio where one can find it all in one place, a rich collection of the minutiae of MacDonald’s interests when away from the typewriter. As such, I have transcribed it and present it below. At some point I’ll produce a stand-alone version with a link under The Trap of Solid Gold Resources over in the right column.

If Dan Pollock does any future file cleaning I’ll be sure to share it here. Thanks Dan!

A Brief Biography

John Dann MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania on July 24, 1916. He lived in Pennsylvania -- with summer trips to a small, unworked farm on the Pymatuning River in Orangeville, Ohio -- until he was twelve, at which time his family moved to Utica, New York.

After grade school, he attended the Utica Free Academy, graduated at 15, and took a post-graduate year there. He returned briefly to Pennsylvania at the age of 17 as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, but his formal education was to be completed in New York and in Massachusetts. He received a BS from the University of Syracuse in 1937, and an M.B.A. from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1939.

The effects of the Great Depression were still in force during his college years, and he "pieced out the pocket" at various jobs. In Massachusetts he worked in a factory feeding a bank of automatic wood lathes. In Syracuse he was a chauffeur, a fruit-stand clerk, a janitor in the medical arts building, and a book-duster in a bookstore. In New York City he sold magazine and book subscriptions office-to-office, washed dishes in a cafeteria, and was "an under-aged liquor waiter, overworked bus-boy and overworked food waiter". He also had a stint of collection work, repossessing automobiles, refrigerators and washing machines.

During all of this time, he had no particular interest in writing as a hobby or as a career. He did write a little for his high school paper one year, but his writing in his college years was limited to the subjects he was studying.

However, he has always been a compulsive reader, reading as many as three or four books per week. His childhood hobby interests, other than reading, included stamp collecting and model airplanes. Golf, skiing and archery were to follow.

His father, a financial officer in the Standard Tank Car Company and Savage Arms Corporation, urged him to prepare for a career in the business world, and as John had no particular alternative to offer, he followed his father's wishes. From various sources we have learned that the literary world's gain was indeed the business world's loss. The brilliant writer could have been the brilliant business consultant. As a matter of fact, he became both an excellent writer and an outstanding businessman if only because of his business-like approach to the writing trade.

During the time he was preparing for a business career, he had no interest in writing, but another major interest entered his life. He married Dorothy Mary Prentiss, an artist, in 1937. Dorothy received an M.F.A. from Syracuse University. She has taught at Cazenovia Seminary, and at the Clearwater Art Center. Her work has appeared in national shows, and is in several private collections.

Their son, John Prentiss MacDonald, grew up to be an artist and a teacher, too. He and his wife, Anne, recently moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, with their three-year old son, Karsten, and one-year-old daughter, Margaret. John P. MacDonald teaches art at a girls' college in Christchurch.

John D. MacDonald's career as a businessman was interrupted when he joined the Army in 1940. He served until 1946, mustering out as a Lieutenant Colonel. His career as a writer began during his overseas sojourn. The latter included China, India, Burma, Ceylon, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, New Guinea, Okinawa, Ulithi, Hawaii and Saipan. Wartime censorship prevented him from writing long and detailed letters to Dorothy -- so he wrote a short story for her entertainment. The year was 1945. Dorothy submitted the story, and eventually it sold to Story magazine, where it was published in the July-August 1946 issue as "Interlude in India". Encouraged by this and subsequent sales, John continued to write. The short stories, novelets, articles and novels listed in this bibliography attest to how much -- and how well -- he has written in the past 23 years.

John brought his knowledge and talent for conducting a business to the very serious business of writing-for-a-living. He applied the accepted and workable habits of a good business to his own chosen profession, such as regular office hours -- or as regular as one can make them in the writing profession.

He knew -- instinctively, perhaps -- or perhaps it was just plain, hardnose common sense (or business sense, if you prefer) that one could not survive as a writer if one did not produce. Sitting around half the day waiting for "inspiration" to strike was fine for the dilettante writer, but not for the working writer. The more words going the rounds of the publishers, the more chance of selling some of them.

His first sales were to the pulps (although Story magazine, where his first story appeared, was not in the pulp class), a magazine market that had been somewhat depleted by the paper shortage in World War II, and which eventually breathed its last in the early fifties.
Television and the paperback market provided -- and still provide -- the same kind of entertainment that once could be found only in the pulp magazines. Today's “Man From UNCLE” was yesterday's "Doc Savage". But the pulps were only a training ground for MacDonald. He was a hack only in the sense of being capable of turning out thousands of words within short periods of time. This is not to say that his early stories were all gems of literary craftsmanship. He was learning the trade, and competing with writers who at that time were "old-timers" in the field. Many of the top-name writers of that era had started when they were very young men. Some of them went on to become top names outside of the pulps, and others never graduated from the pulp methods of story-telling.

But John soon became popular in all the various types of pulp magazines -- adventure, mystery, western, sports and science-fiction. During this postwar period, the MacDonalds resided in various places, from New York State to Texas to Mexico. They settled in Florida in 1949, and also have a house in the Adirondacks. Since then, then have traveled most frequently to the Bahamas and to Mexico, but they have visited many other states and places in this hemisphere. (John also visited Europe in the summer before college, wandering around England, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc.)

As someone once said, "MacDonald seems to know something about everything and every place". This remark was of course inspired by the variety of subjects and places to be found in JDM stories. It is obvious that John has a fantastic memory, and is capable of transmitting the pictures in his mind to word-pictures on the printed page.

As a result, he did not become just another hack for the pulps. The slick magazines and the hardcover and paperback markets were goals he achieved because no market could be more demanding on him as a writer than he was on himself.

As a matter of fact, during his first full year of writing for a living (1946) he sold one short story each to Esquire, Liberty and Cosmopolitan, and in 1947 he sold ten or twelve stories to the slicks. He was not so much writing for the pulps as he was writing stories and then trying to sell them wherever he could. Had Collier’s rejected his first serial, it probably would have sold to Popular Publications.

He is "more intent on telling it true than in selling it once it is told". With this motto, he became more than just another writer of suspense fiction; he became a great American novelist and short-story writer.

In later years, when he was established and successful, he had his son, then about ten years old, help him burn approximately two million words of "impossible" manuscripts. Imagine the courage, the integrity and the self-criticism it took to do that!

He was one of the first -- if not the first -- paperback writer to be elected to the Presidency of the Mystery Writers of America. Writers of paperback originals (not to be confused with paperback reprints of hardcovers) have only recently come into their own -- that is, to be given the same "prestige" that was once reserved for writers of hardcover books.

By concentrating on the paperback market, and not being concerned about the prestige associated with hardcover publication, MacDonald helped to raise the quality of the market, along with others who did not worry about the comments of hardcover-oriented critics. Over the years be has won awards and acclaim, with many reprintings of his work, including translation into several foreign languages. He has been dubbed "the writing machine" by his friends, and is generally known as a "writer's writer". The latter translates into: "Geez, I wish I could write like that!"

Although he is generally known as a leading paperback writer, he has had twelve hardcover books published, not counting Three for McGee, which is a hardcover reprint of three paperback originals. Five of the twelve had been published at the time he became President of the MWA in 1962.

We once asked John to list his favorite writers. He refused to attempt a list of living writers, because an omission could sound like a knock, but he did list deceased writers who are among his favorites: "Faulkner, Chandler, Hemingway, Camus, Conrad, Maugham, Cary, London, and (so help us ) Kipling and Fitzgerald."

If you have read The House Guests, you know of the MacDonalds' love of animals. They still have old Knees, the goose, and her child Duck, a Peking from an egg she hatched. They also have two cats, each one-quarter Abyssinian, three years old, from the same litter: Beauregarde and Marilyn. Each has only one good eye, due to rhinotracheitis in the first week after birth. John says that both cats are "frighteningly bright", and -- if you have read The House Guests --we say that's as it should be.

John says that he exercises by walking, and that he is in pretty fair shape at six feet, one and one-half inches, and 173 pounds. We would consider fishing as exercise, but to him it is an avocation. He gave up golf because it took too big a piece out of the day.

On their annual visits to their home in the Adirondacks, John engages in his "traditional" exercise of felling, hand-sawing, splitting and stacking all of the cords of hardwood that they use. His interest in (and knowledge of) boats is well known, and he is rather proud of his "very fast and satisfying 240 horse Muñequita", and his little sailing catamaran.

He was once a semi-pro bridge player for large money and a "pretty fair country chess player," but these too would steal the hours he needs for his other major interests. He is wary of competitive games because he can get hooked on them, and they would take time that he prefers to spend in other ways. He does love poker, and considers himself a purist in that he prefers table stakes, pot limit, 3-card draw or 5-card stud, nothing wild. "I play to end the evening ahead, and have no wild, wistful optimistic urge to try to improve a nothing hand."

His favorite spectator sports are pro football, the bullfights and professional hockey, in that order. He is a long-time "wistful" supporter of the Cleveland Browns, dating from the first year they had Jimmy Brown. But he would rather be slowly parboiled than to have to sit through a basketball game.

John cannot stand the live theater. He sits with shoulders hunched, breathing shallowly, painfully waiting for a blown line, a bad line, a sickly goof. He says he sees a stage play about once every ten years. He goes to maybe seven movies a year, after seeing what Judith Crist, the New Yorker, Time and Holiday have to say about them. He claims that he hasn't seen a really bad movie in years. (The last movie he had seen, at this writing, was Rachel, Rachel, which he labels "Superb!")

He is not a joiner. He belongs to the MWA, the Authors Guild and the P.E.N. Club (Poets-Essayists-Novelists). He resigned from the Players Club because he didn't use it.

John does not like to kill things, be they birds, crickets, spiders, snakes, rabbits or whatever. An angry, edible fish is the solitary exception, and "I do not like killing him, only catching him, provided he weighs more than the test of the line". (His reels have 4, 6, 8 and 12-pound test line on them. The 12 is for tarpon and dolphin.) He prefers fishing for small angry fish wherever they may be, St. Lawrence River or a brackish Florida canal, and he "will release anything I do not damn well intend to eat". (He does not knock hunters or hunting, but he cannot do it himself.)

About music, he says: "I just went down and checked the records most recently played, and find a most catholic assortment: Billie Holiday, La Misa en Mexico, Simon and Garfunkel, Pablo Casals, Modern Jazz Quartet, Brubeck, Chicago-The Blues Today, Ohana-Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, Eydie Gorme and Trio Los Panchos, Illya Darling, Tatum and Bach.

"I guess I like all music that has enough quality of invention, guile and surprise so that I get a feeling of pleasurable amusement when they fit the pieces together in a way I could not have anticipated. I have good stereo equipment, and built a lot of the pieces of it myself. Most 33 1/3's have some dreary bands thereon, so I tape to eliminate the drearies, and because I scrupulously clean tape heads and demagnetize, the per-play loss of quality on the tape collection is infinitesimal compared with the loss resultant from needle play, even on the Marantz turntable."

His favorite hobby is photography, and he has achieved a semi-pro status in that field. He is a member or the ASMP, and has sold color work to Venture and True. He has also done back-of-book studies of many writer friends. He uses Nikon and Rollei equipment, and prefers to work in black-and-white. He doesn't have the time to do his own lab work, and uses a professional lab in New York. He says that photography is good for the novelist's eye, "Keeps it fresh and questing."

We asked him if there really was a Plymouth Gin (a favorite or McGee's), not having been able to find any in this area, and also asked him about his other favorite drinks and foods. His reply: "Yes, Virginia, there is really a Plymouth Gin, and very good and dry and strong it is. I like it in a beaker of cracked ice, with a dab of extra dry sherry. Despise all sweet drinks. Like very spicy Mary's, like outdoor drink or Planters Punch, no sugar. Great Western Brut is damned fine champagne. Like dark beers. There is no domestic beer worth drinking. Have cast-iron stomach, and most enjoy the very spiced Spanish, Mexican, Italian dishes. Love Julia Child but hate French cooking. Indifferent to steak. Would prefer knockwurst and kraut any time."

John said recently that he is not "a political animal," and that was one of the reasons he supported LeRoy Collins when Collins was running for a seat in the U. S. Senate. (Unfortunately, a real political animal defeated Collins so overwhelmingly as to be heartbreaking.) John calls himself a pragmatist. He believes that "Government should protect men from one another and from the other organizations, devices, violences that man keeps creating. Government is always cyclical -- going from revolutionary to power-progress, to status-quo, to oppressive, to decline and death. All power corrupts; all committee effort is asinine, 99 of 100 politicians are warped, limited, saddening simpletons. Most of mankind is indifferent to political philosophy."

John believes in a divine, inexplicable order (i.e., shape, texture, rhythm) to the observable universe, from single leaf to island universe, but feels that joining in groups to celebrate such condition is grotesque, often ludicrous, sometimes cruel. Personal awe needs no congregation.

We asked John about his current and future writing plans. His answer: "In order: A McGee, The Blood Game (a novel he started some time ago but put aside until now), another McGee, The Primitive Experience (the second Coppolino trial), and that takes me so far into 1970 that I will not make any guesses as to what, God willing, comes after that."

When asked if there would be more than twelve McGee novels, he replied that it would depend on how he felt about it after the twelfth... He may not sit around and wait for "inspiration", but like all good writers he writes first of all for himself. So, if there are to be more than twelve McGee novels, we must hope that John's interest in Travis continues, and that he will not tire of McGee as Doyle did of Holmes.

John's mother is still living in Utica, N. Y. His sister Doris and her husband, a construction company executive, also live in Utica.

John D. and Dorothy MacDonald are "pretty much turned off and turned on by exactly the same things." John says that neither of them "are what anyone would call gregarious. We are sufficient unto ourselves, and stick with the very few good, close and true friends, cherish privacy, and find all the days far too short for all of the things we want to do."

-ljm February, 1969

Monday, July 9, 2018

"The Little People"

When writing about the early fiction of John D MacDonald, that period when he was just starting out and learning his craft, enough words cannot be said about the support and guiding influence of pulp editor Babette Rosmond. At that time she was an editor at Street and Smith, managing two of the publisher’s premier titles, Doc Savage and The Shadow magazines, crediting herself as B. Rosmond, probably because of her gender. Like every other editor MacDonald submitted stories to in the that six-month time frame between October 1945 and March 1946 when he couldn’t sell anything to save his life, she was among those who rejected many of his submissions, but her rejections were personal and encouraging. In one rejection letter she wrote, “I, too, am an admirer of atmosphere, but too much atmosphere and too unconvincing a plot make [your story] a weak yarn... However, I am extremely fond of the way you write -- so dry your tears and send me something else very soon." She was an early coach, mentor and -- eventually -- friend who not only helped him in getting a literary agent but counseled him to expand the scope of his stories’ locales.

To put it in real perspective, of the 57 stories MacDonald had published in his first two years as a writer, 30 of them, or 53%, were purchased by Babette Rosmond.

Much of MacDonald’s early work reads like just that: the earnest attempts of a man still learning his craft. While the plots and story ideas are strong, characterization and atmosphere still have a long way to go. This is certainly true of “The Little People,” a very early novella published in the November 1946 issue of Doc Savage, an issue that contained three different JDM tales, including “The Scarred Hand,” which was deemed good enough by the author to be included in one of the Good Old Stuff anthologies. “The Little People” isn’t as good as “The Scarred Hand,” but it’s better than the third story, “The Startled Face of Death,” a story that took place in -- you guessed it -- India.

“The Little People” takes place in the United States, specifically upstate New York, where the MacDonalds were living at the time the author wrote this. It’s a sprawling “heist” tale, carefully thought out and nicely executed, but as it goes on it becomes both repetitive and very predictable. Yet taken for what it is -- one of the earliest published works of a man who would go on to become a great writer -- it proves to be both instructive and enjoyable.

With any heist tale there has to be a mastermind, a leader who runs the show, and in “The Little People” it’s a man named Joseph Turin, a criminal whose slight frame is more than made up for by his ruthlessness and steely, “illimitable determination.” He has gathered a team of twenty men, "a collection of village hard guys from Northern New York State, with a sprinkling of city crooks." The plan is nothing less than to rob an entire town. The men have been chosen for their particular expertise, some in firearms, some with explosives, even one who can fly a plane. They gather in an abandoned warehouse in an unnamed location to make their final preparations.

"Now, men," Turin said, his voice low and hoarse with intensity, "before I go over the high spots again, let me tell you that some of you guys are going to get killed on this deal. It's in the cards. That's so you will understand the risks. But the profit is going to make up for it. Those that come through will be set for life. This is going to be the biggest haul in the history of crime. You guys are going to make history. But if any one of you wants to back out now, go ahead."

The medium-sized fictional town of Misoo Falls, New York, an hour or two east of Syracuse, was chosen for its location: only three roads in and out, with its western border taken up by a large lake. The various members of the gang will go in in groups, meticulously timed, blocking all of the roads, cutting the lines of communication and disabling the local radio station. Other teams will infiltrate the town and immediately overtake the small police station, while others will rob all of the town’s banks, its post office, jewelry stores, railroad station and even the local citizens they encounter. In the meantime, a hijacked C-47 will land at the local airport (where all the other planes there have been disabled) and stand ready while the thieves load their swag onto the airplane. Once done, all the teams will gather at the airport and take off, heading west to a secret location where they will split the stuff, separate and "melt away into the quiet places of the world, unsuspected, the possessor[s] of great wealth and a bloody secret that would stand unmatched in the history of world crime..."

There would obviously be some resistance from the citizens of the town, and the teams are instructed to deal with them accordingly:

"Don't shoot unless you have to. Don't let anybody corner you. If you have to shoot, make it a good clean job. We aren't going to be able to avoid knocking off a few guys and once that's done it doesn't make much difference how many more we have to get rid of."

It doesn’t take much imagination on the part of the reader -- especially given the story’s title (MacDonald’s own, believe it or not) -- to realize that the drama of “The Little People” involves how things go wrong at the hands of some of the citizens of Misoo Falls, those who fight back and eventually thwart the well planned heist. These incidents are told in a fairly rote, reportorial style, one after the other, all similar as the gang of crooks slowly dwindles in number. Here's the first such mishap, a good example of all that follow it, showing how one citizen deals with the first entry of the gang:

Buck Deegan was hot, tired and mad. He wheeled the dolly into the truck, loaded on the last box and wheeled it out onto the platform and into the warehouse. He cursed the fates that made him not only a truck driver, but a part-time stevedore. The heavy muscles of his shoulders ached. He stowed the last case and stood for a minute on the loading platform. He looked at the long line of red vans. The rest of the guys had finished and gone out to eat. Only sucker-Deegan was left. He looked curiously at a truck, an open job, loaded with men, that wheeled into the yard at a good clip. Men piled out of the truck and walked toward him.

He recognized the lead man who had worked with him for two weeks and then quit for no reason. He grinned and said, "Hi there, Winny! Who're your friends?" To Deegan's immense astonishment the little dark-haired guy walking beside [Winny] pulled a gun out of his pocket, leveled it at Deegan's middle and fired.

The slug crashed heavily into Deegan and he fell backward as the men swarmed up onto the platform. Through the swirling mists of pain he felt the upsurge of a mighty wrath. The men ignored him. Buck shut his eyes, grasped the fluttering remains of consciousness and bunched his muscles. He reached one hand around behind him and grasped the butt of a small heavy wrench protruding from his hip pocket. Feeling as though he was in a dream, he rolled heavily against a pair of ankles standing next to him.

Dimly, he felt the man fall. He brought the heavy wrench around and felt the deep pleasure as the wrench crunched against bone. He raised it and crashed it down once again into the misty circle of the stranger's face. He lifted it again and it fell with his arm as the second shot smashed the back of his head...

And so it goes, as the local citizens -- farmers, policemen, shop owners and radio station engineers -- all rise to the occasion, retaliate and gradually winnow the gang of men down to a mere handful by the end of the tale. And, of course, things end badly for Joseph Turin…

“The Little People” was submitted to Babette Rosmond along with another story, and in her written reply to the author (dated April 9, 1946) she tells him that she would purchase both of them. She really liked the unnamed story, and mentions that she will probably publish “The Little People” in The Shadow, "going on the excuse that there's a lot of action in it." Six months later it appeared in Doc Savage, giving one an idea of how long it could take from date of sale to date of publication, at least at Street and Smith. In this same letter she offers to help find him an agent (the one JDM was considering apparently was revealing himself to be “a joker”) and she wryly begs his loyalty after he becomes professionally represented. Mentioning a story his would-be agent was trying to peddle, she wrote, “As for "The Bright Flash of Vengeance,” don't worry about it. If your joker sells it, okay -- if not, remember mama." Rosemond would go on to publish that story in the January 1947 issue of The Shadow. (You can read the letter on Cal Branche’s JDM Homepage, here.)

“The Little People” has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted.

Babette Rosmond

Monday, July 2, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 3: November 6, 1947

John D MacDonald's third column for the Clinton Courier,  from the very early days of his career as a writer. This is pre-Florida for the MacDonalds, and here he seems every bit as involved in the governmental workings of his surroundings as he was to become as a Floridian.

I've mentioned before that Clinton was the model for the town of Dalton in MacDonald's 1956-57 novel Death Trap, and in that novel the author uses Clinton's town square as a central point in Hugh MacReedy's investigation. He even retains the name of one of the streets leading into it.

Incidentally, if you had taken JDM up on his two sports wagers offered at the end of the piece, you would have won the first and lost the second.

Now that the headlines on the testimony of various Hollywood characters have faded away -- to reappear later, no doubt -- we must confess that the whole affair gave us an odd feeling of unreality. There were those famous faces -- R. Taylor, G. Cooper, R. Montgomery -- performing for the investigating committee. We are used to those people as two dimensional beings on a flat silver screen. We are accustomed to seeing little publicity releases on their marriages and their swimming pools. To have then plunked down in the middle of a discussion of ideologies seems a bit like reading an appreciation of Einstein by one Mickey Mouse.

The next time we go a few steps up Fountain Street and buy ourselves a hunk of celluloid escape, we will gaze at those famous faces and ponder that the life of an actor or actress is indeed a hard one. Not only do you have the responsibility for getting rid of several thousand dollars a week, but you might at any time have to sit in front of a group of unsympathetic Congressmen and be led into a discussion of realities. Any touch of reality must be quite a jolt to our tinseled friends out there.

* * *

The number of cars on the road is constantly climbing. On these wet evenings at dusk it is becoming more and more of a dangerous experiment to drive through town. The Williams Street-College Street corner is particularly fascinating. Not only is traffic coming in from four directions, but people are also angling for diagonal parking slots along the curb.

Wouldn't one-way traffic around the square be a sound idea? Each of the six streets feeding into the square could become stop streets, including Utica Street. You wouldn't be able to turn left from Williams into College; you'd have to go all the way around. The blinker could be eliminated. According to the way people ease around the corner turning right into College Street, it doesn't do much good anyway. It might well be moved to another corner. Maybe where the kids cross. Or the corner of Bristol Road and College Street.

Or maybe we just haven't been informed of some unapparent but good reason why there should be two-way traffic around the square.

* * *

With elections over, we can talk about a few trends we have noticed. One is the change in county government. The Political Scientists have made clear during past years that the American City, financially speaking, is a dying organization. Cities have rigid boundaries and an assessed valuation which must bear the costs of running the cities. As total valuation decreases -- through increasing age of structures -- the dollar of assessment must bear a higher tax, thus penalizing new construction. The citizens continue to expect all city services. To avoid tax rates, the citizens buy or build outside the rigid city limits and still retain many of the commercial advantages of city life.

The State of New York has been quietly going to work on this problem, This past year all welfare was taken away from Utica and Rome and centralized under Oneida County. The state refunds 80% of all welfare costs. Thus the city tax burden is lightened and County Government becomes more of an agency of state government.

The boys who try to look into the future tell us that county and city government have overlapping functions in too many cases. They say that one day not too far in the future, all local governmental functions, including police and fire protection, will be consolidated in the hands of the county.

Frankly, we would like to see this happen. We have the idea that the towns and villages elect to the Board of Supervisors men less likely to be rubber stamps than are the men elected to the Common Council of a fair sized city. We believe that county government is the logical place, the logical body of men, to accept responsibility for the government of all the citizens of the county, country and city alike. We feel that no agency of local government is likely to be entirely free of the unfortunate effects of machine politics. We do feel, however, that if and when county government becomes the sole surviving agency, citizen interest will be focused to an extent that will make breeding conditions of machine politics a bit more unfavorable than at present.

Machine politics thrives in inverse ratio to citizen interest. Citizen interest can be measured by the degree of participation in such organizations as Community Councils, Bureaus of Municipal Research, Leagues of Women Voters, Taxpayers' Leagues -- and all other non-partisan city and county organizations. If such organizations were as healthy locally as they are in, say, Monroe County, we would have better county and city government.

* * *

Having attended three colleges at one time or another, we can usually depend on at least one of them to come through with a pretty decent football team. This year we are claiming Pennsylvania as the alma mater.

They are undefeated, but there seems to be a conspiracy among sports writers to ignore that fact. In national ratings Penn is listed lower than Columbia, which took a 34-14 whacking from the Penn men.

Somebody is taking the joy out of life. We brag about Penn and get blank looks. To get even, we will make a prediction. Penn will defeat Army by -- at least one touchdown, and Cornell by at least three. Any takers?

* * *

See you next week.