Monday, March 15, 2010

Area of Suspicion

Area of Suspicion was John D MacDonald's eleventh novel, published in February of 1954. Up to that point all of MacDonald's paperback originals had been published by Fawcett Gold Medal, but Area of Suspicion appeared as a Dell First Edition, the twelfth in that series. According to Hugh Merrill in The Red Hot Typewriter, MacDonald was having a "personality conflict" with Fawcett editor Dick Carroll and jumped ship to Dell and into the open arms of Knox Burger. Burger had been the fiction editor of Collier's in 1949 and was responsible for the author's first four-figure payment, for the delightful "Looie Follows Me," and the two had remained in contact. When Burger joined Dell it was only a matter of time before JDM would join him there, and although MacDonald still owed one more book to Fawcett (All These Condemned, which came out in September), his next eleven paperback originals alternated between Dell and Popular Library. In 1958 Burger joined Fawcett and MacDonald moved with him again, delivering Clemmie as his first Fawcett Gold Medal release in four years.

Area of Suspicion is an odd and unique entry in the JDM cannon. It began life in early 1952 as a serialized novel titled "My Brother's Widow" and was published in five consecutive issues of Collier's. Very soon after publication the author began expanding the work to novel length, under the working title Threat of Storm. By May of 1953 he had changed it to Area of Suspicion and told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, "This is a tiresome job. You see, I know how the [story] ends." Dell published a relatively large run of the book (750,000 copies) and there was never enough demand to print a subsequent edition. In 1961 Fawcett published the "First Gold Medal printing" in an edition "specially revised by the author." It is that edition that saw life in over a dozen new printings through 1987.

So, depending on how dedicated a JDM collector you are, you can read three versions of this same story.

It is also MacDonald's first "business" novel, that unique genre of JDM tales that deal with a hero who is a member of upper management in industrial America. He would expand on this theme, producing far better books, in Contrary Pleasure, The Deceivers, Clemmie and A Man of Affairs, to name the most obvious. Yet Area of Suspicion draws on a unique segment of industry, the military armament sector, as it was a field where the author had much personal experience. From 1940 to 1943 he served in the US Army as an ordnance inspector, first in Rochester and later in Schenectady before shipping out to Asia during World War II. The setting for the novel is obviously one of those two locations, or perhaps Utica, for the place descriptions ring with a telling authenticity. Still, the plot is a potboiler and the book enjoys a mixed reputation, at best.

Told in first person, Area of Suspicion begins on the west coast of Florida(!) and our hero is one Gevan Dean, "...sun-darkened... to the shade of waxed mahogany, hair and eyebrows bleached lighter than [his] skin." Gevan is beginning year five of an early retirement and living off the dividends from his large share of stock in Dean Products, a family business begun by his grandfather and a business he ran before coming to Florida. Gev seems to have it made, with parties every night, his pick of the "little sun-tanned beach girls," and not a care in the world. But lately he has begun to feel the "vague, unwelcome stirrings of discontent."

"Mine was the Great American Dream achieved. Money and idleness. But with it had come a sense of guilt, as though I were accused of some unspecified crime. And I guessed that my playmates, when they were alone, felt the same way. Hence our perpetual and turbulent parties. It was as though we had all begun to have a faint aroma of decay. The world was spinning toward some unthinkable destination, and we sat in the sand with our buckets and castles."

Trouble arrives in the form of a visitor, an old associate from his hometown of Arland, informing Gev that his younger brother Ken has died, shot outside his home by an unknown assailant. Lester Fitch has flown down to Florida because Gev wasn't answering his phone. He's already missed the funeral and Fitch has brought some paperwork along with him, including a voting proxy for Gev's 8,000 shares of Dean Products stock. Through an interior monologue we learn that Gevan's Florida retirement is not as simple as it seems. Five years ago he was engaged to be married, to a young secretary who worked at Dean named Niki Webb, but a few weeks before the scheduled marriage, Gevan walked in on Niki and his brother Ken. Gevan attempts to justify what has essentially been a four-year pout:

"... I found out that I could not go on. I couldn't adjust myself to the role of the betrayed, the strong silent type who contents himself with Job alone now that Girl is gone. I might have managed it if it had been someone else who had taken her from me. But Ken and I had been close... my brother had stolen the satisfaction of my work in the same moment he had stolen Niki Webb."

Fitch, who Gevan has known since childhood and had never liked or respected, seems just a bit too anxious to have Gev sign the proxy. His suspicions aroused, Gev decides to return north and vote in the upcoming shareholders' meeting. At stake is the control of Dean Products, a contest between old-timer Walter Granby, the company treasurer who has been around forever, and a relative newcomer, corporate hotshot Stanley Mottling. With the battle lines drawn, it seems that Gev's shares represent the swing vote. But returning to Arland means revisiting a lot of ghosts and, undoubtedly, facing Niki once again.

And face her he does. Niki, the grieving widow, seems far too interested in rekindling their romance, and Gev seems incapable of resisting her charms. Of all the improbabilities in Area of Suspicion (and there are a lot) this one reaches the farthest, as we are asked to believe that a man who has just spent four years partying and bedding probably hundreds of beach bunnies is incapable of resisting a woman who wounded him so deeply. On his first visit to the house they kiss, and on the second well... applying sunscreen was never so erotic.

Gevan soon sees there's more going on at Dean Products than a classic power struggle between old guard and new blood. Niki has inherited Ken's block of stock and has developed a sudden interest in making sure that Stanley Mottling stays in power. The company has received a major government contract to build super-secret weaponry and the Pentagon has installed an onsite contracting officer, a Colonel Dolson, who also seems to have some sort of proprietary interest in keeping Mottling. And of course there was Fitch and the voting proxy. There is an air of wariness and resignation among the old guard of employees who were there when Gev ran the place. In the words of one, "There's a smell around [Dean Products]. Like something crawled under the buildings and died."

After a visit to the police and a talk with the murder suspect, Gevan makes a call on the suspect's girlfriend. Suspicions are aroused about the official story. He decides to poke around the plant and enlists the aid of his former secretary Joan Perrit. Joan is a classic MacDonald "type," the once gawky, painfully-shy-but incredibly efficient teenager who has now grown up to be a confidant, self-assured and still-single beauty. When Gev reminisces about Old Joan, the reader can immediately see that a relationship is going to develop:

"She was a sweet kid, with dark red hair and a look of virginal freshness. She was so loyal it was embarrassing. On the morning I dictated my letter of resignation, she had to leave the office. She was gone a full ten minutes, and when she came back her eyes were reddened and swollen, but her voice was level and calm again as she read back to me the last sentence I had dictated."

As Gev and Joan start looking around, strange things begin to happen. When another employee is found dead -- a girl who was working for and having an affair with Colonel Dolson -- the wild ride begins. People begin disappearing, a truck nearly knocks Gev's car off the road, and the police ultimately begin to believe that there may have been more to Ken's murder than they originally thought. The final fifty pages of the book are exciting, suspenseful and impossible to stop reading.

Taken on its own terms, Area of Suspicion is a fine work of thriller writing, with plenty of good characterization, expert detail and breathless suspense. MacDonald's background in ordnance contracting allows him to fill the pages of the book with all sorts of detailed descriptions of cost-plus government contracting, assembly-line mechanics, industrial techniques and the latest theories on methods of upper-level management. Gevan Dean is a Harvard Business School graduate, as was MacDonald, and the author's prior work in a factory just like Dean Products allows him to come up with a believable plot and a realistic method of sabotage.

But if we look at the book in light of MacDonald's progression as an artist, Area of Suspicion is not only an anomaly, it's a step backward. This is not surprising, given the nature of the story's beginnings as a serial, and the improbabilities in the plot have bothered more than one reviewer. One gets the sense in reading the novel that much of it was padded, especially in the overly-long interior monologues Gev engages in when fighting his desire for Niki. I've never read "His Brother's Widow," but I have a feeling that it is far better work, at least in the pacing.

Another aspect of the book may color the modern reader's impression, and that is the fact that the villains are communist agents.The story takes place during 1954 when the Cold War was being fought between two different sets of ideologies. Anything involving communist infiltration tends to be dismissed nowadays as unrealistic and the product of the Red Scare, as if the whole thing was made up to destroy good people's lives. The opening of the Soviet archives in the 1990's prove that the infiltration was all too real, but the US government's bulldozer method of dealing with the problem has left permanent scars, even as the people involved are largely no longer with us. I don't know... It's just a thought, but I wonder if the novel would be better remembered if the time period had been moved back to the war years, and the bad guys had been Nazis...

Like every John D MacDonald novel, there are passages of exceptional prose that ring musically and remain in the mind's eye. A few:

"There is a sickness in murder. It made a sickness in the city, and made me think, perversely, of the Gulf in pre-dawn grayness, the sudden hard strikes on the trolled lure, the dip of the rod tip, the singing of the reel, the breath-taking silver of the tarpon at the height of his leap. Later the sun would come up and the Gulf would be blue and the terns would dip and waver on the morning wind, white as bone, squabbling like picnic children. I had left all that and I had begun to walk along a narrow place."

"Among any group of chickens there is what the behavior specialists call 'the pecking order.' Put any batch of chickens together, and within a day or so, after considerable bickering, they will work it out. It is a rigid social system. Chicken number eight can peck chicken number nine without fear of retaliation. And chicken number seven can peck just as freely at chicken number eight. And, in the order, should any chicken develop an illness, an unexpected weakness, the formal caste system will be suspended just long enough for all the others to peck it to death."

"So I took my brother's widow, violent, oiled and naked, squirming and thrusting on quilted white plastic on a redwood chaise on a walled fieldstone terrace in April sunshine, out of the wind, protected by all the formal stature of the dead man's home. It was without grace, dignity, tenderness or affection. It was like trapping in some narrow place something hard to kill, then killing it clumsily, violently, in fear and hate, with dreadful weapons, killing it as quickly as you can."

"Yes indeedy, off [Niki and I] would sail and in a couple of years we'd be able to speak fondly and tolerantly of good old Ken, and we'd be grateful to good old Stanley for keeping our dividends nice and fat. We'd just rove the blue seas and tie up at the fun places at the fashionable times, and make love, and drink too much, but always with adorable and enchanting people. And when the sex and sensation bit started to go a little dead, we could always give it a booster shot by taking exactly the right sort of couple on a little cruise, some adorable, enchanting pair too vulnerable to tell tales, and with some trading around and with some of the practices of the voyeur, we could put our romance right back on the up-beat, yes indeedy, and we would push the good old machine until finally the parts wore out, at which time the medics could gut her like a trout and carve away portions of me, and we would then want a larger and more comfortable boat and somebody to run it for us while we sat in adjoining deck chairs astern, soft, fat, brown as saddles, and without one bloody word left to say to each other or one itching thing to do to each other, yes indeedy. Bliss without end."

Prose like that, it's bliss without end.

As I've said, the reaction to the book was mixed, both then and now. Anthony Boucher in the New York Times gave JDM his first less-than-good review when the book was released, calling it "A long and often lifeless study of a battle for power in the management of an industrial plant... somewhat ponderous for a thriller..." A reviewer in the Norfolk Virginia Pilot slammed it as "... a routine thriller ... the characters, as usual, are cardboard." And more recently, in is excellent book Hardboiled America, Geoffrey O'Brien calls the book a "... startlingly banal anti-Communist thriller..."

Still, Area of Suspicion did have its defenders. The Lexington Leader called it "...edge-of-the-chair reading on a quiet night..." and the Columbus Citizen said it was " of his best...Don't start Area of Suspicion until you have the time to read it through without laying it down." When the British edition of the novel was published in 1956, the Daily Mail called the book "...a finely written novel of passion, crime, and retribution." And more recently, in their 1985 mystery study titled Private Eyes: One Hundred and One Knights, authors Robert Allen Baker and Michael T. Nietzel called Area of Suspicion a novel of "exceptional quality," proving that not every modern critic can become unhinged over the book's communist bad guys.

None of the four biographies of MacDonald bother to deal with the book in any substantive way.

The novel actually won an award back when it was published. The Mutual Broadcasting System awarded MacDonald a watch for "Best Mystery of the Month," proclaiming, "In recognition of his outstanding work as a writer of mystery and suspense stories whose literary efforts in the mystery writing field have enriched the American scene." I'll bet whoever wrote that proclamation never won an award for writing!

The cover art for the Dell First Edition, showing Gevan and Joan skulking around the outside of the Dean factory, was illustrated by Stanley Borak, the only JDM cover he ever produced. When Fawcett issued their own first edition it featured an alluring Niki lounging on red satin and wearing a very sheer negligee, illustrated by the great Barye Phillips. Another great illustrator, Robert McGinnis did the 1972 reprint, featuring an imagining of singer Hildy Devereaux (a character I didn't discuss). The 1997 version was another McGinnis illustration and it was used, in one form or another, in all subsequent printings.

The only copy of Area of Suspicion I own is the 1961 revision. It's tough to try and determine exactly to what extent MacDonald changed things, but I suspect it had more to do with the current events and science of the period rather than any artistic considerations. There is a lengthy scene where Gev is lecturing Jane on the ability of the United States and the USSR to wipe each other out with ICBMs, a technology the Soviets didn't possess until 1957. There are references to the revolutions in Cuba and the Congo which hadn't happened yet in 1954. Other than that I can't tell. There had been other "revisions" in the novels that were reprinted in the Sixties. In All These Condemned, for example, there is a reference to Marilyn Monroe in the past tense. Yet no other novel contained the cover blurb "Specially revised by the author," and it leads me to believe that the changes were more sweeping than what MacDonald typically did with subsequent printings.

And that, ultimately, may be the problem with Area of Suspicion, the fact that it has been tinkered with and worked over so much that it seems more like quilt work than an organically conceived novel. It's good, fun JDM but it's not the work of a novelist who was growing and learning with each successive work. Happily this would be the last time the author would return to an older work to try and change it into something different.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Steve.

    I was lucky enough to find a 1954 Dell First Edition of Area of Suspicion a few weeks back, with its excellent cover by Stanley Borak. I had previously glanced through your blog on this story for the publishing and other background elements, but usually gloss over your summary and the excerpted passages so as not detract from my own reading of the book, which I enjoyed thoroughly. I re-read your blog last evening and was drawn to your comments about, “…to what extent MacDonald changed things, suspecting that it had more to do with the current events and science of the period rather than any artistic considerations.”

    You are spot on with the references to ICBMs, Cuba and the Congo in your 1961 revision, which aren’t in the earlier Dell printing; Gevan mentions only an “intercontinental rocket” and “Uncle Sam’s big Sunday punch” in his discussion about the D4D warhead assembly with Perry. But perhaps more interesting, there is a significant difference in the relationship Gevan has with Niki in the 1954 version. Re-reading your blog, I was struck by the excerpted passage from the 1961 printing, “So I took my brother’s widow, violent, oiled and naked, squirming and thrusting on the quilted white plastic…” and so on through the end of the paragraph. That was a real surprise.

    Gevan simply doesn’t cross this line in the original novel. He holds back after he applies the suntan lotion. “I did the small service for her quickly and efficiently and then straightened up and recapped the bottle, saying, ‘That should do it,’” after which she re-hooks her halter top. Niki continues to make a play for him until he leaves the house, but his sense of mistrust trumps his desire.

    I find it very interesting that the earlier Gevan is treated by MacDonald more conservatively in this sense, although his strong desire for Niki is apparent (tho’ improbable, as you say and which I agree with). Wouldn’t you expect to find this handled similarly in the Collier’s version, although I realize you say that you haven’t read “His Brother’s Widow”?

    Whether the change was for “artistic considerations” or perhaps at the prompting of his editor at Fawcett, who may have been looking for a more robust and explicit sexual relationship between Gevan and Niki for a 60s audience is hard to say. But it is an interesting example of how JDM re-worked this novel. Many thanks for your insightful blog on this and the other earlier works of MacDonald.

    Steve Wellmeier