Saturday, May 28, 2011

JDM on His Early Years Writing for the Pulps

"One piece of advice which I came upon in texts [on how to sell fiction to pulp magazines] over and over again was the firm suggestion to read the magazines and then write for a specific market. I tried. I tried very hard. But I could not read those stories. I learned that there were some names I could read and enjoy, but I did not want to try to learn to write like those chaps. The rest of the contents of the pulp magazines seemed to me to be such godawful junk, I felt slightly edgy about appearing in the midst of it, and at the same time I felt nervous about my qualifications to be a low-level snob.

"It became my habit to write the story which bobbed up to the surface of my mind when I rolled new paper into the machine, and to write it to whatever length the substance of the story seemed to require. This is a matter of subjective taste. Were ten writers to attempt the same story, the length would vary wildly. Pace is highly individual.

"Once the story was done, I would change hats and become my marketing director. I would write down a list of possible magazines, with the most likely ones at the top of the list. I would write this list on a file card, and then start sending the story out, each time with return postage, until either it sold or the list was exhausted. In 1946 and 1947 there were twenty to thirty stories in the mail at all times. I remember meeting a fellow at that time who had been waiting three months for word on his novel, then in the hands of a large publishing house. While waiting, he was not working. I thought this a most peculiar attitude.

"My work habits accounted, I think, for not only the diversity of plot and structure and societal themes in early work, but also for the diversity of the places where they were published. All manner of pulps except the love pulps and, during 1947 Cosmopolitan, Liberty, Esquire and The Elks Magazine [sic]. When I tried to work exclusively within a specific genre, everything went stale for me. The words died."

--- from "Introduction and Comment," MacDonald's preface to a number of scholarly papers written about his work, published in the Spring 1980 issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Double Hannenframmis"

"Double Hannenframmis" is the oddly-titled John D MacDonald short story that was originally published in the August 1970 issue of Playboy. It was MacDonald's fourth appearance in the famous men's magazine -- his fourth of five stories that were published there -- and it was the last of his Playboy stories that would soon become part of the 1971 anthology he titled S*E*V*E*N. In fact, four of the seven stories that made up that collection were all originally published in Playboy, and the other three were written especially for the book. Like those other stories, "Double Hannenframmis" is adult JDM, a tale featuring an unlikeable protagonist caught in an inescapable spiral of greed and lust. In fact Wyatt Ross could be nearly interchangeable with the main characters of two other S*E*V*E*N stories: D. Franklin Raymond in "Dear Old Friend" and Aldo Bellinger of "Woodchuck".  Almost, but not quite. Wyatt Ross's evil is of a different degree.

In 1985 MacDonald was asked in an interview if, as a writer, he was trying to "change" his readers. His answer was revealing and goes a long way to explain his central moralistic point of view:

"I have, let's say, certain moral values and standards that cannot help but appear in my books. I am, in a sense, Calvinistic. I think that the worst that any of us can do is hurt someone unnecessarily, maybe just to prove that we've got the muscle to hurt them, to hurt them emotionally, to hurt their image of themselves. That, to me, is Sin Number One, and if that shows through in the books, if I seem to be trying to promote that as a way of life, and if a few people could be moved by it, OK."

By this definition, Ross is certainly guilty of "Sin Number One," although the reason for his being so lies not in a desire to prove he's "got the muscle," but out of cold fear and a desperation to save his own hide, even at the expense of the person most dear to him. In the "Playbill" section at the beginning of this issue of Playboy, MacDonald summarizes his character in a brief two sentences:

"['Double Hannenframmis'] is about a young man who rode the explosive bull market in 1967 and 1968, wheeling and dealing like all the Young Turks of the go-go funds and the hatchet men of funny-money conglomeration. When the times and tides change, he maintains position by turning corrupt, and sacrifices his wife along with his integrity."

As Ross's wife is depicted as a complete innocent, it is hard to imagine a more repulsive protagonist in the JDM universe.

 The story opens as Ross is flying into an unnamed city (Las Vegas?), the sole passenger on his company's private jet. This corporate executive, the president and majority owner of Dallas-based Wyro International Services, usually travels with the company of his "strike force," but today he is alone.  Distracted and unable to concentrate on the transcripts of his own Senate sub-committee testimony, he bears little resemblance to the "Young Turk" he has been portrayed by the press in the last six years, profiled in big-circulation periodicals such as Business Week, Forbes and Newsweek. Things were great in the "go-go" years, as Wyro International grew and prospered through a series of expertly timed corporate takeovers, but when the economy soured while Ross was in the process of acquiring Kallen Equipment, he got out the only way a man with no moral compass could: he cheated.

He didn't cheat smart, he cheated "greedy stupid." Making market moves based on information known only to himself, he "got in at the bottom and out at the top." And he pulled cash out in a way that could never be traced back to him. His actions got the attention of a Senate sub-committee and the SEC, and when he knew he was in too deep to ever extricate himself alone, he sought the aid of a fixer.

He's paying a man named Willy Russo to come up with a way to get him in the clear. Russo's plan involves laying the blame on Wyatt's innocent wife and mother of his two young children. The idea is to make it seem as if Wyatt's wife Mary Lou is having an affair, and that her lover is exhorting her to pump insider information from her husband. Just exactly how Russo hopes to lay that blame takes the reader down a very familiar road in the JDM universe.

The purpose of Wyatt's trip to this "resort city" is to meet with one Ruth McGann, an expert in vocal mimicry. Wyatt arrives with a reel of tape containing a secretly-recorded conversation between him and Mary Lou at the breakfast table, and he finds Miss McGann a formidable, independent professional, albeit one straight out of the JDM playbook:

"A tall woman, younger than he had expected. Strong-bodied, big-bosomed blonde, with a pretty and impassive face, cool blue eyes, careless hair, brief green skirt with a big brass buckle, yellow sleeveless blouse, yellow sandals."

Ruth has quite a setup in her hotel room, consisting of two tape recorders, an amplifier with two small speakers, and "a piece of laboratory equipment that looked like an unfinished television receiver." She takes the tape from Wyatt and plays it, listening intently to Mary Lou's intonation. When she tells Wyatt that it sounds like he has "a nifty little wife," Wyatt reacts with controlled outrage, a CEO unused to being talked to that way. He gets a response he wasn't expecting:

"Correction, deary. I'm not on your conglomerate payroll. I am a specialist, and I am damned good, and I get paid very, very well. You got too confident and you got too cute and you got caught. You can lose your ass, fellow. Russo knows it, you know it and I know it. I think your Mary Lou is better than you deserve and I think you will be doing her a favor by dropping her off the back of your sleigh, fellow. I say what I want when I want to and take crap from no man alive. Now tell me you're not used to being talked to like this. And I will tell you to relax and enjoy it. Now let me get to work."

Once Ruth has Mary Lou's voice down the two of them perform a script for the recorder, where "Mary Lou" asks a lot of leading questions about the name of a company she saw among Wyatt's papers on his desk. Then another one about quarterly earnings, and another where Wyatt tells her he has changed his mind about the merger. After a few wooden performances Wyatt finally gets it down and they are through. At this point he isn't exactly clear what the grand plan is, and when he asks "what's next?" Ruth can only surmise.

"There's a lot of options... Somebody will show up with the tapes. In the interest of fair play and all that... Some woman hired an investigator to get the goods on your Mary Lou and her husband. So the investigator bugged the house; and, because it wasn't exactly legal, he sends the tapes in with an anonymous letter of explanation, sends them to your attorneys."

This is too much, even for a corporate cheat, and Wyatt claims he won't stand for it. When he tries to rationalize his actions, Ruth smiles a crooked smile and replies:

"[You were doing it] for the wife and kiddies? Come on! Any way you deal the hand, you've lost your Mary Lou. Best to set it up to look as if somebody was using her. Otherwise, she could get clipped for tax evasion. After they play the tapes and question her, and after you testify that those are conversations you had with your wife, you think she'll forgive and forget? ... [If you are cleared] you can afford to give her big alimony. If they nail you, she might have to work waitress to support those kids."

It's all too much for Wyatt and he breaks down sobbing, bringing out the "Earth mother" in Ruth, but not so much that she isn't able to get off a wonderful crack: "Poor sorry bastard... later on, you can tell yourself that when it happened, you cried."

In addition to a hard sort of pity, Wyatt's breakdown elicits another feeling in Ruth and she kisses him. Soon they are in bed and, right before the moment of truth, Ruth stops the action briefly so she can make her own rationalizations for being the way she is. In MacDonald's somewhat quaint universe, Ruth and Wyatt are two of a kind.

The second half of the story takes place four months later, in a setting nearly identical to the one in another S*E*V*E*N short story, "Woodchuck." Wyatt is awakening from a dream, one where he was on trial and found guilty of "hannenframmis."

The idea of using an actor to impersonate someone else on a tape recorder is, of course, familiar to any reader of MacDonald's novella "Linda." He used a variation on this device in his 1950 short story "Breathe No More, My Lovely" and it probably appears in other early works I've not read yet. In a similar vein, he often used the device of visual trickery, where one person was made up to appear to be another in an effort to elicit a certain response. It was done rather melodramatically in the 1953 novella "Death's Eye View" and, to a much better effect, in the Travis McGee novel Darker Than Amber.

But "Double Hannenframmis" is less about the mechanics of trickery than it is about the effects of amorality on the soul. Ruth is a person who has come to accept her own lack of ethics, lost in the act of pretending to be someone else, but for Wyatt it is different. In the cutthroat world of business and high finance he could write off his actions as necessary to the growth and prosperity of the company, but when those same ethics turn personal it becomes a different thing. Wyatt survives financially, he manages to stay out of jail, and he can rationalize the greater good of how he saved his own hide, but the act weighs heavy on him and alters his perception of everything. As the author described it in the "Playbill," "... the joy is gone and it is [now] a time of despair." And if there is any trickery in the beautifully-written second half of this story, it's in the author's ability to write that despair between the lines of a relatively ordinary scene.

The stories in S*E*V*E*N are remarkable works of short fiction, even from a writer as talented as John D MacDonald. From the mad lust of "The Random Noise of Love," the coldhearted indifference of "Dear Old Friend," the achingly sad life and times of Norrie Ames in "The Willow Pool," to the predatory machinations of Aldo Bellinger in "Woodchuck," the arching theme of this collection is that of loss: how it happens, its brutal effects, and the hopeless realization that, once gone, whatever was lost can never be retrieved. And invariably in this world of S*E*V*E*N, loss doesn't just happen, it is caused -- by the omissions, the weaknesses and the conscious decisions of the author's protagonists. These tales were among the last short stories MacDonald would ever produce, and they not only prove that he never lost his literary touch, they prove that he never stopped growing as an artist.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

JDM on Other Writers II

Question:    What books do you read?

JDM:    I would say that probably over half my reading is in non-fiction, but of the fiction I read there are only a few who are tilling the same soil I am.

Question:    Such as?

JDM:    Elmore Leonard. And Robert Parker and Ross Thomas. Those three I think are the outstanding contemporary suspense novel people.

Question:    How about people like Robert Ludlum?

JDM:    No. Robert Ludlum, I think he's got a tin ear. He doesn't write good prose. John LeCarré writes good prose. Robert Ludlum plods along in the same kind of dreary style as Leon Uris.  You can cover half a page and read the top half and tell exactly what the words are going to be at the bottom. There's no surprise, there's no poetry, there's no magic. He's got a great sense of story, and you can keep a work and a career going with a great sense of story, but it doesn't keep you from being guilty of having a tin ear. A tin ear usually results from a person not having read enough during his or her youth.

--- from an interview with Mark W. MacNamara, published in a 1985 issue of the Sunday newspaper supplement Family Weekly

Interestingly, Paul Greengrass, who is currently under consideration as director for the upcoming film version of The Deep Blue Good-By, achieved his fame by directing the film adaptation of Robert Ludlum's The Borne Supremacy.