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

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Precursor to the Donald Westlake/Richard Stark books by some time.