Monday, December 29, 2014

The Executioners

John D MacDonald and family moved to Florida in the fall of 1949, living first in Clearwater, then in 1951 down in Sarasota, originally on Casey Key then eventually to a house on Point Crisp Road on Siesta Key. They chose Sarasota because of a suggestion by Richard Glendinning, a resident of the town and a writer with whom MacDonald shared a literary agent, who boasted of a quieter life away from tourists, better schools for 12-year old Johnny, and a more conducive environment for a writer. Sarasota after the war was becoming a magnet for creative people of all persuasions: cartoonists like Dik Browne and Bandel Linn; architects Philip Hiss and Ralph Twitchell; photographer Joe Steinmetz; artists like Sid Solomon, Thornton Utz, Al Buell and Ben Stahl; and, of course, writers, like Glendinning, Budd Schulberg, Borden and Babs Deal, Joseph Hayes, Wyatt Blassingame and Eric Hodgins.

It was this kind of artistic camaraderie and mutual support that MacDonald and his artist wife Dorothy had been searching for ever since he had decided to write fiction for a living. Their first attempt was the 1947 move to Clinton, New York, where life in a college town was supposed to be one of intellectual stimulation and the exchange of great ideas. Instead it turned out to be one with “a carefully established pecking order, with status often achieved and maintained through elegancies of entertaining rather than any quality of wit or insight.” From there it was on to Mexico, inspired by the details of the artists’ community in Cuernavaca described by Malcolm Lowry in his novel Under the Volcano. But after a little over a year the family -- Dorothy especially -- grew homesick, and they returned to the States. The west coast of Florida, MacDonald wrote later, was a place where “there are so many writers and painters… the community considers us normal as if we were real estate brokers or insurance agents.”

This need for the proximity and support of fellow writers is typical of most authors, and it was especially so with MacDonald, whose insecurity at starting a career so late in life was such that he never really got over it. But a support system wasn’t all that this community provided. There was an underlying sense of competition and a need in some to prove themselves over and over again, especially to the more successful members of this group. Given MacDonald’s insecurities he was, perhaps, especially susceptible to this.

It’s hard to imagine the John D MacDonald of 1957 having to prove himself to anyone. The man had written over 300 short stories, published in both the pulps and in some of the highest circulating slick magazines in the country. He had produced over 20 novels, four of them in hardcover, and six of them previewed in abridged form in respected periodicals. And he had earned a considerable income, which by his own account was nearly $400,000 in total sales of all his work. But there were those who thought he could do better, chief among them one of his fellow Sarasota writers.

“One day a friend went too far [suggesting JDM was not writing as well as he could] and I told him I’d guarantee that in 30 days I’d write a book that would be serialized in the magazines, be a book club selection and be turned into a movie, and I’d bet him 50 bucks. The book was The Executioners and was turned into a movie called Cape Fear. It was serialized and a Literary Guild selection. I collected the 50 bucks… although he wanted to renege because it was only an alternate selection.” JDM in 1976.

That “friend” was fellow author MacKinlay Kantor, the dean of Sarasota writers whose friendship with MacDonald predated JDM’s move to Florida. Kantor was the author of scores of short stories, articles, screenplays and over 30 novels, the most recent (when this bet was made) being Andersonville, for which Kantor won the Pulitzer Prize. Charming, intelligent and generous with advice, he was also difficult, self-absorbed and a dyed-in-the-wool racist, but MacDonald looked up to him and the two remained friends up until Kantor’s death in 1977. In December 1952 the pair, along with Glendinning, met for lunch at the Plaza Restaurant in downtown Sarasota and began what became an institution in the writer’s colony of the area, known informally as the Liar’s Club. Getting together every Friday for rounds of cocktails and lunch, the group met regularly for over thirty years, and continued beyond MacDonald’s death in 1986. “The only rules for [membership],” wrote Kantor’s son Tim in 1988, “are that the individual make, or have made, his living through the use of words; exceptions are sometimes made for those who currently only struggle and aspire to do so.” Oh, and you had to be male.

Perhaps it was at one of these club meetings that MacDonald made his bet with Kantor. It sounds like something that would be done after several dry martinis. According to JDM, Kantor began badgering him to “get off this mystery crap and write a real novel with some depth and some substance” after MacDonald rudely refused to attend regular reading sessions of Kantor’s works in progress. MacDonald’s bet was perhaps a reaction to this kind of superior criticism masked as advice, but it’s hard to see what he was trying to prove. All sorts of bad novels were being serialized in the slick magazines of the day, and getting picked up by a book club or being made into a movie was no indication of quality of any kind. Perhaps this bet was something MacDonald spun out of whole cloth -- it seems a bit too pat and convenient, and the movie part of it didn’t happen for another five years -- or perhaps something like it did occur in 1957. It would certainly explain the spate of “morality novels” the author wrote during this period: A Man of Affairs, The Deceivers and Clemmie. Were all of these efforts attempts to prove himself to Kantor as a novelist of “depth”?

MacDonald won his bet by writing The Executioners. It actually predated all of these other novels, although most chronologies of JDM’s novels place it at the end of this period. It first appeared in its serialized form, in of all places the Ladies’ Home Journal,  in the magazine’s October and November 1957 issues. This was the same month that The Price of Murder was published (October), but before The Empty Trap and A Man of Affairs, which both appeared in December. The hardcover edition of the novel was published by Simon & Schuster in April of 1958, before The Deceivers (May) and Clemmie (July). The book club edition was made available in September.

MacDonald obviously thought The Executioners was, for him, an exceptional work. He chose to have it published in hardcover -- his first since Contrary Pleasure in 1955 -- even though it meant he would almost certainly earn less money for it, but this was offset by his earnings from the magazine serialization and the book club edition. The author’s agent Max Wilkinson hit a home run for his client with The Executioners, but he had an easy pitch to hit: the novel is a terrific and suspenseful tour de force that is the culmination of MacDonald’s talent up to this point. At the same time it is unique in the JDM canon in several respects. For the first time in a single point of view novel we get a protagonist who is happily married, middle class, and who possesses a noble sense of morality that seems unshakeable. He feels no gnawing ennui or an urge to upset the mores of the American middle class lifestyle. He is not running from or to anything or anyone. The life of this happy man and his family is painted in nearly bucolic terms, and all seems right with the world. In fact, the novel opens with the Bowden family -- Sam, his wife Carol, their children Nancy (14), Jamie (11) and Bucky (6) -- picnicking on a small pastoral island in the middle of a lake, with the summer just beginning and everything to be thankful for.

Everything was under control. The marriage was of the very best variety. Everybody was healthy. He had been a partner in the law firm ever since 1948. Their house, just outside the village of Harper, thirteen miles from New Essex, was more house than he should have purchased, but he could console himself with the constantly increasing value of the ten acres of land. They had no savings to speak of, a very few shares of pale blue-chip stocks. But his hefty insurance program gave him a feeling of security.

Sam is one of MacDonald’s consummate professionals: intelligent, hard working, idealistic and, to a point, self-aware, although he is the author’s first attorney-as-protagonist. Physically he possesses some very familiar features: Knobbly bone structure, pale-blue eyes.. incurably lean, shambling, stringy, a tall man “of physical indolence and ropy toughness.” Carol is JDM perfect wife, and although she is not blonde she is in every other way the author’s perfect physical type. Nancy, who has brought along a male friend with her to the picnic, is past the cusp of puberty and maturing into someone who will clearly be a lovely woman. The boys are, well… boys.

But a shadow is encroaching on this sunny perfection, and as the novel opens only Sam knows about it. Carol senses a remoteness in her husband and, as they sit together on the island with the children swimming, she manages to get Sam to tell her what has been silently bothering him for the last few days.

As a lieutenant in the Army during the second world war, Sam served in the Judge Advocate General’s Department in New Delhi, India. When the war ended Sam was shipped home by way of Australia, and while in Melbourne late one night on his way back to the ship after an evening of drinking, he chanced to witness an American soldier raping  a fourteen year old Australian girl. Sam intervened and knocked the soldier out, and became a witness in that soldier’s court-martial proceedings, delaying his trip home. The soldier was convicted and nearly hanged,  but because of his seven years of service with over two hundred days of combat in the islands, he was given life at hard labor. But the soldier was paroled after serving thirteen years -- a time when his own wife divorced him and their young son died -- and he is back in the States, here in New Essex, and he has sought out his former accuser. His name is Max Cady and, while not directly stating it, makes it clear that he is here for revenge.

At first Sam did not recognize him. He recalls the image of Cady as he sat in court:

Like an animal. Sullen, vicious and dangerous. And physically powerful… Cady had looked across the court at Sam as though he would dearly enjoy killing him with his hands. Dark hair grew low on his forehead. Heavy mouth and jaw. Small brown eyes set in deep and simian sockets…”

Now Cady is “wide and thick-set… more than half bald and deeply tanned, and he looks as though you couldn’t hurt him with an ax.” Sam is deservedly unnerved by their initial encounter outside his law office in New Essex, where Cady seemed to appear out of nowhere, moving like a cat, and snatching Sam’s car keys out of the ignition. Referring to him sneeringly as “lieutenant,” Cady has complete control of the situation and obliquely tells Sam that he (Sam) never had “the word,” that he “never saw the  big picture.” Sam just sits in the car and sweats.

We have seen characters like Max Cady before in the works of John D MacDonald, and we will see them again. The mental qualities and sociopathic nature of the man are hinted at in the characters of John Guilfarr in The Brass Cupcake, Roy Kenny in Dead Low Tide, Ronnie Crown in April Evil, Junior Allen in The Deep Blue Good-by, and (especially) Boo Waxwell in Bright Orange for the Shroud. But Cady is a more basic, animalistic villain than any of the above men, an intuitive animal on the prowl, seemingly everywhere but nowhere, always watching, always aware, impossible to stop. In a 1976 essay titled “The Precarious World of John D MacDonald,” University of Maryland professor R Gordon Kelly explained it nicely.

“Cady… is a distinctive combination of mental qualities matched with physical characteristics that are presumably the appropriate, widely recognized and accepted complements and manifestations of personalities such as his. Without conscience or compassion, these recurrent individuals in MacDonald’s fiction are savage, quick, and merciless. Like Cady, they have an instinct for their victim’s weak spot and have no scruples about exploiting it. They are sadists, and their assaults are typically sexual. Physically, Cady is stocky, big-boned, and heavily muscled but nevertheless exceptionally fast and agile. MacDonald’s initial description of him clearly hints at the link between his physical appearance and his personality and suggests as well an explanation that is reaffirmed throughout the book… From the outset, Cady is presented as congenitally vicious. He comes from ‘old stock’ -- southern mountain hill people, specifically -- but he is also a reversion to a more primitive stage of human evolution. His ‘simian’ appearance (a term that reverberates throughout MacDonald’s books) suggests his cunning, his merciless cruelty, his formidable combination of agility and strength. A ‘rough beast’ -- MacDonald’s term -- he exists beyond the law, beyond the terms of civilized persuasion -- an outlaw and an outsider in a literal, profound , and ineluctable way… Cady [is] the personification of all the inexplicable ‘black things’ let loose in the world. If he is not precisely evil, he is, by nature and by experience, without conscience or even the possibility of conscience…”

How Sam Bowden will deal with the likes of Cady seems, to him, obvious. Sam is an attorney, an officer of the law, and he will handle the matter in a lawful way. Sam’s position in New Essex brings him in direct, daily contact with the forces that govern the city, and he is “reasonably well known” among the wielders of power, including members of the police force. He has already spoken with a friend in the city attorney’s office, and this colleague has arranged to officially make things so uncomfortable for Cady in New Essex that he will leave voluntarily. When Carol asks Sam, “Why don’t they just put him in jail?” Sam responds with remarks that not only illustrate his own character but go to the crux of what MacDonald wants to explore as a novelist in The Executioners.

“What for? My God, it would be nice if you could do that, wouldn’t it? An entirely new legal system. Jail people for what they might do. New Essex goes totalitarian… I believe in the law. It’s a creaking, shambling, infuriating structure. There are inequities in it. Sometimes I wonder how our system of law manages to survive. But at its base, it’s an ethical structure. It is based on the inviolability of the freedom of every citizen. And it works a hell of a lot more often than it doesn’t… I like it. I live it… So maybe it is the essence of my philosophy that this Cady thing has to be handled within the law. If the law can’t protect us, then I’m dedicated to a myth, and I better wake up.”

But of course it is a myth, because in the law’s expression of “the inviolability of the freedom of every citizen,” it cannot cope with the Max Cady’s of the world. Or at least it couldn’t in 1957, before anti-stalking laws and court-mandated restraining orders. The “roust” fails, as Cady behaves with perfect politeness toward the police and has an acceptable reasons for the money he is carrying and the car he is driving. He likes New Essex and is thinking about settling down there. With the promise of watching his movements and nailing him for even the slightest infraction, it is suggested to Sam that he hire a private investigator to follow Cady and to try and gather enough evidence to bring some sort of conviction. But the investigator, an experienced professional named Sievers, is no match for the wily Cady, who is way too shrewd to be caught in any overtly threatening act against the Bowdens. Then the first real act of malice occurs when the family dog is poisoned and dies writhing in agony in front of Carol and the three children. And while Sam is convinced that the perpetrator was Cady, he has no proof or eyewitness to corroborate his suspicions and has nothing to legally bring the man to justice.

Later at a lakeside marina, the Bowden family is working on their boat, and Cady makes an appearance. It’s his best and longest scene in the novel, and it is at this point where his exact intentions are revealed. Sam sees him watching daughter Nancy while she works topside, dressed in red short-shorts that “pulled to strained tightness around [her] young hips.” He goes to confront Cady, who is cool and clearly in control. It is here where the reader learns of Cady’s wife and child, of what Cady did to the wife once he got out of prison, and, obliquely but unmistakably, learns of Cady’s intentions with the Bowdens.

Cady: “You’re supposed to be a big smart lawyer, Lieutenant. I thought about her [Cady’s wife] and I thought about you.”

Sam: “And made plans for me?”

Cady: “Now you’re getting warm. But I couldn’t make plans for you because I didn’t know how you were set. I wasn’t even sure I could locate you. I hoped to hell you hadn’t been killed or died of sickness.”

Sam: “Are you threatening me?”

Cady: “I’m not threatening you, Lieutenant. Like I said, we started pretty near even. Now you’re a wife and three kids ahead of me.”

Sam: “And you want us to be even again?”

Cady: “I didn’t say that.”

It is at this point in the book where Sam begins to consider extra-legal measures to rid himself of Cady’s threat. He goes to the New Essex police chief, and asks if it is possible to have the police throw Cady out of New Essex. The chief is professional and courteous, but explains that he is powerless to act against a man who has done nothing provable and suggests that Sam “pack [his] family off somewhere.” Next Sam goes to the senior partner of his law firm and explains the problem. It’s a wonderfully written scene where the reader (and Sam) begin to see the hopelessness of getting anyone to help him. Bill Stetch listens sympathetically to the story, but “without any constructive suggestions. Sam had the curious feeling that Bill did not want to be pulled into the situation in any way. He had an air of holding himself apart.” Stetch responds to Sam’s revelation that he is seeking a solution outside the law with condescending humor and goes on to puncture some of Sam’s idealism, revealing why Sam was chosen to join the firm.

“Hell, when it was just Dorrity and Stetch, I knew we needed some noble motives around here, so we could retain our sanctimonious manner. After you worked with me in India I sensed you were our boy, and it couldn’t have worked out better. Mike Dorrity and I are a pair of licensed pirates. We needed a balance wheel. One with starry eyes… You do a hell of a fine job. You more than hold up your end… But there’s some parts of this business you can’t handle, and we don’t give you a chance to handle. Mike and I dirty our hands with that… You are a good man who believes in himself and what he is doing. Every law firm ought to have at least one in the shop… So pay no attention to a cynical old bandit. We don’t actually steal. Sometimes we show other people how they can steal, but it doesn’t happen too often… Don’t get too appalled at yourself when you ask the police for an extralegal favor. Life is a continual process of compromise, Sammy… I hope you solve you nasty little problem”

Sam retreats back to his own office with black thoughts of self-contempt.

Stop bleeding, Bowden. You’re all grown up. Stop marching around waiving all your little flags. Cady shoots your kids while you cry onto your diploma and look through all the dusty books for a way to slap his wrist legally.

That evening he contacts Sievers again, who suggests Sam pay several hired thugs to administer a professional beating to Cady. Sam agrees, but even three thugs are no match of the feral Cady, who bests them but, in the process, slugs a police officer who was attempting to break up the brawl and is sentenced to thirty days in jail for resisting arrest. This period of “grace” give Sam and Carol time to breath easier and get the two elder kids off to summer camp. Sievers suggests a second attempt at beating Cady, one done by more experienced thugs, at a significantly higher price. Sam agrees, but before anything can be arranged, Sievers is transferred out of the state and leaves Sam with the name of a contact who can arrange the deal. But a few days later the contact dies of a heart attack, leaving Sam with no one but himself to solve his dilemma.

This begins the best part of the novel, where Sam undertakes a kind of Dante’s descent into hell in order to get rid of the threat to his family. His first effort is to attempt to meet with the family of the now-dead contact to see if there is someone else who can arrange the second beating. He travels to a dingy section of New Essex and locates the store the contact ran but is informed bruskly that the successors to this operation don’t know anyone named Sievers and won’t deal with Sam. He then travels to a local bar and tries to engage several tough looking customers in conversation, with nearly comic results. He asks the “sad-faced” bartender, “Who runs this town? Who is the big wheel of the New Essex underworld?” only to be told “Chief, you better stay away from that television set.” He returns home more than a little inebriated and makes an ass of himself at a neighborhood cookout before Carol has to slap him into his senses. (MacDonald was a complete master of such scenes of drunken embarrassment in 1950’s suburbia. See any number of examples in such works as Cancel All Our Vows, The Deceivers, Clemmie, or in short works like “Hangover” and “The Cardboard Star.”) Next he attempts to make contact with a woman Cady was seen with frequently while Sievers was following him. He does so at a local dive and has a long conversation with Bessie McGowan, a classic JDM floozy described by Sievers as “a fat blonde with a loud laugh,” who reveals that she had Cady up to her place one evening, where he eventually beat her senseless and left. The incident is graphically retold by Bessie.

“I thought he was going to kill me, honest. And then all the lights went out… At dawn I woke up. I was on the floor and I was a mess… I crawled to bed on my hands and knees.... I had a face on me like a blue basketball. I was so sore all over I couldn’t move without yelping. I got the doc over and told him I fell downstairs. I’ve never yelled cop in my life, but I was close. Three cracked ribs. Forty-three bucks dental. I looked so awful it was a week before I stirred out of the place, and even then I was walking like an old lady. It’s a good thing I’m strong as a horse, mister. That go-round would have killed most women. And you know, I don’t feel exactly right yet… He isn’t a human being. That Max is an animal… If I saw him dead in the street, I’d buy drinks for the house.”

But Sam’s attempts to get Bessie to report the incident are fruitless and he is, once again, left with no one else to turn to. He purchases a pistol and a permit, and a few days before Cady is set to be released from jail he sends Carol and Bucky off to stay at a distant motel, while he closes the house and get a room at a downtown hotel. A few weeks go by and nothing happens. Then it does: He receives word from the summer camp that eldest son Jamie has been shot…

MacDonald’s primary theme in The Executioners is simple, yet in its narrative sense profound, for nothing outside of original sin can account for this upright, moral and innocent man’s experience at the hands of Max Cady. Through the noble act of rescuing an innocent child from the hands of a monster Bowden has inadvertently placed both his and his family's safety and very survival at risk. There is no Shakespearean fatal flaw, no unremembered sin or un-acted-on dark wish to account for the ordeal of the Bowdens. In this respect the work bears a close similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s film masterpiece, The Wrong Man, which interestingly, was released a month after The Executioners appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal. The main characters of both works are innocents who suffer at the hands of a regimented and primarily uncaring world through no fault of their own and their families are, as a result, nearly destroyed. But MacDonald uses this innocence as a contrast to a great theme that runs throughout his work: the action and existence of pure evil, or “evil for its own sake” as he once put it, run amok in a world that cannot respond because it doesn’t acknowledge that it can exist. And the source of this evil -- the old “nature versus nurture” -- is briefly touched on in a scene between Sam and daughter Nancy, right after Cady has oggled the girl at the marina. Nancy relates something her English teacher taught her:

“She’s been telling us that good fiction is good because it has character development in it that shows that nobody is completely good and nobody is completely evil. And in bad fiction the heroes are a hundred percent heroic and the villains are a hundred percent bad. But I think that man is all bad.”

In response, Sam tells her a bit of Cady’s background, about how he went from “dirty, brutal” combat in the Pacific islands straight into life imprisonment at hard labor, and how that experience embittered him to the point of making him “mentally sick.” But this conversation seems little more than window dressing and a means to illustrate how mature Nancy has become, unbenounced to her father. There is no mistaking the author’s attitude toward the novel’s antagonist, and he is clear to illustrate that Cady would have been bad had be been raised in a monastery. And he is also clear to develop the idea that once man’s rational and legal means are exhausted in attempting to deal with this evil, the only remaining, even moral thing to do is to eradicate it.

In addition to the already mentioned unique qualities of The Executioners in the John D MacDonald canon up to this point -- its hardcover medium, the protagonist, the family setting in a suspense novel -- it also seems to me to be a bit different stylistically from the author’s prior works, here and there, with an overall sense of uniqueness the student of the author feels after finishing the book. The plotting seems more precise than before, with fewer sidetracking plot extras, fewer asides,  and none of the seeming disinterest toward the end of the work that marred a few of his earlier works (A Man of Affairs anyone?) I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this plotline was outlined from beginning to end -- MacDonald claimed that he never wrote a book this way -- but it does seem more structured than prior works and at times the prose comes across as more sterile and cold than one is used to. Still, the overall effect is powerful and gripping and the ending is supremely satisfying, even if a bit glib. If any JDM character deserved a glib ending, it was certainly the Sam Bowden.

The magazine version of the novel appeared on newsstands in late September of 1957, and The Executioners was, and would turn out to be, the second and last John D MacDonald novel to appear in a magazine in more than one installment. (“My Brother’s Widow,” which became Area of Suspicion, was the first.) The Ladies’ Home Journal version of the book is a straightforward condensation, with nearly every scene from the novel included, but with most of them truncated, especially toward the end. It’s easily the most complete version of a JDM novel ever to appear in a magazine. The installments feature two very nice illustrations by Coby Whitmore, one of the premier illustrators working in that era.


The hardcover edition of The Executioners was published by Simon and Schuster in April of the following year with a single printing run of 6,000 copies. Priced at $3.50, it was considerably more expensive than the 35 cents the author’s readers were accustomed to paying for one of his paperback originals. Despite this lofty price tag, the first edition was a poorly made book with fragile binding and dust jacket. (Copies that survive in fine condition are very hard to come by and carry prices near $1,000.)

And because it was a hardcover original, it was widely reviewed in many of the major newspapers and periodicals of the era. The always faithful Anthony Boucher wrote in The New York Times Book Review that “MacDonald not only tells, with quiet realism, a powerful and frightening story, he takes a deeper look than most suspense novelists at the problem of private and public justice…” Anne Ross, writing in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, wrote “... Mr. MacDonald, who is an old hand at all sorts of fiction tells an exciting story which keeps you reading from start to finish. He is no practitioner of the distinguished style, or the sensitive detail, but he can spin an expert yarn.” The Saturday Review covered it and called the novel “the author’s usual fine job.” It was even reviewed in The New Yorker, by an unnamed critic, who gave it a typical nose-in-the-air New Yorker review, stating that the book was “competently written and [told] an ingenious story… The virtuous characters… have their rather sticky domestic moments, and they are a good deal less interesting than the monster dedicated to exterminating them, but altogether the effect is unusually chilly.”

Not the sort of reception, I’m sure, that MacKinlay Kantor had in mind.

The book club edition of the novel appeared as the alternate selection in September, offered not by The Literary Guild as MacDonald asserted, but by the Guild’s poor stepchild, The Dollar Book Club. For those of you old enough to recall, these book clubs sent out monthly bulletins featuring any number of new releases, but always with a primary selection that would be sent to members unless they proactively sent back an enclosed card stating they did not want the book. Thus, any sales of The Executioners -- the alternate selection -- attributed to The Dollar Book Club was not due to members forgetting to send in their postcards. (Much of the sales volumes of these clubs were derived this way.) Hardcover book club editions of the novel are much easier to find, have fairly typical binding and dust covers, don’t cost as much and, obviously, are worth far less than the first edition. No print records for The Dollar Book Club seem to have survived, so it is unknown how many copies were printed or purchased.

The first paperback edition of The Executioners appeared the following year, in May, under Fawcett’s Crest imprint, reserved for Fawcett’s publications of novels which originally appeared in hardcover. It featured a rare photographic cover featuring a bathrobe-wearing Carol Bowden looking warily out into the darkness. This was the only paperback edition published until 1962, when the release of the movie version, retitled Cape Fear, induced Fawcett to rerelease the book, but with the title changed. It featured no artwork, only huge cutout letters spelling the new title, and featuring the standard info on the film. There were two printings of this retitled version.

In June of 1968 Fawcett issued yet another version of the paperback, with the original title restored, and featuring artwork by one Z. Keith. I’m not sure if this was a pseudonym for a more famous illustrator, but it is the only JDM cover done by this individual (assuming it’s not a pseudonym.) It depicts a decidedly older looking Sam Bowden with wife Carol, cowering in fear inside their home. This cover, probably the most recognizable of my generation, was used in one form or another for eight editions through 1978. Finally, in 1981 Fawcett released their 12th edition of the paperback, this time with a cover by William Schmidt. Schmidt illustrated new covers for nearly all of MacDonald’s titles around this time, and all are interesting depictions of minutia from the story. His cover for The Executioners illustrates a scene from the finale of the novel.

Although it is impossible to quantify the real success of the novel’s sales without the book club numbers, it is safe to say that The Executioners did pretty well over the years, and when compared to the number of copies printed of other books written up to this point in the author’s career, it ranks right up there with his best. In addition to the 6,000 hardcover copies published by Simon and Schuster, Fawcett published a total of 1,163,000 copies over a total of 14 editions through 1988, which is when JDM books took a dive in popularity. If we add a presumably large number of Dollar Book Club editions, it did very well indeed, although probably not coming close to the all-time John D MacDonald bestseller, The Damned.

The Executioners was one of the very few JDM novels up to this point to feature a dedication. Prior examples include his first two morality novels (Cancel All Our Vows, dedicated to his wife, and Contrary Pleasure, to his parents) and one paperback original -- Area of Suspicion -- which was dedicated to his first literary agent, the legendary “Cap” Shaw. The Executioners features one of the most cryptic of all dedications in the JDM canon, including  even the one for 1960’s The End of the Night, which was dedicated to his two cats. It reads:

For Howard, who believed; and for Jennie, who believed in Howard

Abstruse, perhaps, but not to dedicated and detail-minded readers of MacDonald’s biography. In 1965’s The House Guests, JDM’s autobiography-disguised-as-cat-book, he writes of his return from World War II and his very early days back in the States after he had made the decision to write fiction for a living. The family was living in “an old and shabby neighborhood” on State Street in Utica, in a rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a converted house. With little savings and only four months of terminal pay coming in, things were “precarious,” especially with nothing but rejection slips coming back in the mail.

State Street sloped downhill toward the mills. the next street down was Mandeville Street, and just around the corner on Mandeville was the Mandeville Market, owned and operated by Howard Ehrenspeck, a good friend then and now… Once upon a time, when food was half today’s cost, he let a very nervous and insecure writer run up a grocery bill of three hundred dollars. People came from all the best parts of the city to trade there. Howard and his employees had been most kind to Dorothy and Johnny [during the war]. And so it got to be a pleasant habit to take a break and walk over to the market to get a pack of cigarettes and have a soft drink.

It was at the Mandeville Market where the MacDonalds acquired their first cat, Roger.

If The Executioners is remembered at all outside of John D MacDonald’s immediate circle of readers and fans, it is -- of course -- because of the film versions of the book, Cape Fear. I’ve already posted my thoughts on these movies nearly five years ago and have little to add to what I wrote about Martin Scorsese’s version -- as bad a hash of a MacDonald work as one is ever likely to see. But I recently re-watched the original adaptation starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum while researching this essay and was pleasantly surprised at how faithful the film was to the novel, despite what MacDonald thought. The basic structure of the two works are nearly identical, with the film trimming and tightening things in order to fit into a restricted form. Gone are the two male children, leaving Nancy the only child of Sam and Carol (in the film renamed Peggy). The location of the Bowden residence is changed, from a remote farmhouse to a house in town, which would have ruined the ending had the filmmakers retained the location of the novel’s finale. An extended set-piece was added involving Nancy being terrorized and chased by Cady in an empty school building, which was not even hinted at in the book. But MacDonald’s contention that the Barrie Chase character “wasn’t in the book” is only partially accurate. She is clearly a dressed-up version of Bessie McGowan, with all the exact same plot points, changing only her name, appearance and her reasoning for not testifying against Cady.

The character of Cady is given much more face time in the film, understandably, and his machinations are more sophisticated and educated than those of Cady in the novel. The Mitchum character has made a serious study of the law while in prison and uses its finer points and loopholes to thwart many of Bowden’s attempts to stop him. But the primary difference between the novel and the movie is the film’s focus on Cady as sexual predator, with his ultimate intention being the rape of teenaged Nancy. Perhaps this is what upset MacDonald more than anything.

There’s a curious mystery about the film’s new title. According to Peck, who was both star and executive producer of the 1962 movie, he loved the book but hated the title, calling it “a kind of a turn-off.” He credited himself -- as did the film’s director J Lee Thompson -- with coming up with Cape Fear. “I think,” he said, “that I had the idea that geographical titles were sometimes successful, like Casablanca [and] Dodge City, and it occurred to me to run my finger up the Atlantic coast from Florida on north [to] look for an interesting title. I was lucky enough to discover Cape Fear, the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, and it seemed extremely appropriate for our story.” This is the version of the title change that I’ve always heard and I’ve never known it to be disputed. But according to JDM bibliographer Walter Shine, the title Cape Fear was MacDonald’s own. In his 1988 bibliography A MacDonald Potpourri, he claims -- without comment - that Cape Fear was MacDonald’s original working title for the book.

Walter Shine knew more about John D MacDonald’s work than anyone before or since, and he was meticulous in his research and writing, but without further evidence I’d have to side with the Peck version on this discrepancy, for several reasons. First, the location of the novel is in and around New Essex, a fictional city situated on a lake, not a river. The few scenes that take place on or near the water are clearly identified as an unnamed lake. Second, neither the location or even the name Cape Fear ever appears in the book itself. Third, when Fawcett reissued the novel in 1968 after having done two printings of the book under the Cape Fear title, they reverted back to The Executioners, which would seem kind of counterintuitive to me due to the marketing advantages of having the title linked to a popular movie. Finally, I’ve never read of MacDonald claiming credit for the title, which I think he might have had it been his to begin with. So until it can be proven otherwise, I have to assume that this is a rare Walter Shine error. Besides, would Atticus Finch tell a lie?

Despite what I wrote a few months ago, The Executioners is available as an eBook from online booksellers, and paperback and hardcover editions are easy to find as used books. There’s even a brand new audio book version available from Audible, a division of Amazon, read by one Stephen Hoye. In fact, to date there are over 30 John D MacDonald audiobooks available or soon-to-be-released from Audible, including the entire McGee series and other notable titles such as Dead Low Tide, Slam the Big Door and A Flash of Green.

So far, there is only one MacKinlay Kantor book on Audible: Andersonville.


  1. Thanks Steve, for this excellent discussion of THE EXECUTIONERS. I was interested in JDM's friendship with McKinley Kantor. As a teenager I read and liked Kantor's big blockbuster novels, ANDERSONVILLE and SPIRIT LAKE.

    I imagine Kantor was trying to convince JDM to write less crime fiction and more *literary* fiction. I know Kantor followed his own advice because he started his career in the detective pulps writing crime fiction but eventually spread out into other areas. Back in the 1950's and for many years, there was a sort of prejudice against genre fiction and it continues to this day. Of course Kantor was perhaps blind to the fact that JDM's work was not strictly crime fiction but I guess he felt that JDM should de-emphasize that element and write a more literary type of fiction. A sort of compliment really. At least I'm sure that's what Kantor meant it to be.

  2. What a great review of JDM's stellar The Executioners, one of my favorite in the JDM canon. I had no idea about the bet with Kantor. What self-confidence it must have took to make a bet like that with the "Dean of Sarasota" writers.

    [in] "30 days I’d write a book that would be serialized in the magazines, be a book club selection and be turned into a movie."

    So much great info here as usual, Steve! Thanks!

  3. I don't have a lot to say on this, because for some reason I have not yet gotten around to reading the book. I'm a bit guilty of having focused on the McGee's and the Science Fiction so far. That's being worked on, though- I just brought home a stack of books from the local used book dealer.

    However, I didn't want you to think posts like this are unappreciated or unenjoyed- your avoidance of spoilers really is appreciated, even as it increases the list of books I'm looking for.

    1. Thanks Eric. Your appreciation is... well, appreciated.

      I hate spoilers. I try to avoid them at all costs here, as one of my goals is to get people to read more JDM.

  4. Hi, Steve. Thanks for the great background detail provided, as you always manage to do. I'm working my way through Merrill's "The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald," and just this morning read the account of JDM's writing The Executioners. I was quite surprised at Merrill's mistake in describing the protagonist, Sam Bowden as "... a successful lawyer with a wife and two children who live in a fine suburban house..." I often forget many of the details of JDM novels, but how could Merrill not know there are three children? As you point out, the Peck movie changed the family structure to just one child, so perhaps Merrill got mixed up? Still, hard to justify that this error went all the way through the proofing process without someone catching it.

    1. Steve, the Merrill book is filled with little errors like that, leading me to believe that he read very few of MacDonald's works during his research.

  5. Very nicely detailed. All those bits and pieces that don't quite agree come from the writing process itself.

    Life proceeds linearly but writing doesn't. I can't tell you how many versions I have of some crucial scenes - and still don't know exactly which is 'right' until I get there, lock it in, and move on. Until then, they're fireflies on a summer night - flitting about blinking on and off.