Monday, January 8, 2018

"Friend of the Family"

Serious students of the works of John D MacDonald, along with readers of his short fiction and followers of this blog, are no doubt aware of the fact that Travis McGee was not the author’s first attempt at creating a series character. That particular effort began all the way back at the beginning of his writing career when Doc Savage editor and early mentor Babette Rosemond implored him to give it a try for that pulp magazine. MacDonald created one Benton Walters, a war vet who quits his dull bank job and takes on an improbable career as a cold war spy. He debuted in the December 1946 issue with a story titled “Private War,” and again the following month in “Eight Dozen Agents,” before MacDonald tired of him and put him to rest, famously writing Rosemond, "Honest to God -- I'm never going to start another series. They are limiting and I hate them."

But he did just that four years later for Detective Tales magazine when he created Parker Falkner, a fabulously wealthy playboy and resident of his own island off the coast of west Florida. MacDonald’s formula for this particular series was to have Falkner relieving his constant boredom by digging into the pasts of people he believes have done some great wrong and have gotten away with it, then devises a clever and complicated ruse to smoke them out. Yet again, it took only two stories (“Breathe No More, My Lovely” and “The Lady is a Corpse,” both reprinted in JDM’s 1982 pulp anthology The Good Old Stuff under the author’s original titles) before MacDonald put Falkner to rest.

And in between those two early efforts was the almost-series character of Shane Brent, the protagonist of the 1948 science fiction short story “Dance of a New World” which appeared in the September issue of Astounding Science Fiction. He showed up again in “School for the Stars,” also in Astounding, before disappearing altogether. As I wrote in my piece on “School for the Stars,” this particular character seems to have been intended for a closed-end series of stories rather than one that would have been ongoing.

Fast forward to 1964 and the birth of Travis McGee. So, no, he wasn’t MacDonald’s first attempt at a series character. But here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know: he wasn’t the last.

I didn’t know this either, until I recently expanded my JDM story collection to include two works I’d heretofore been unable to locate. Back in July of 2015 I wrote a piece on “Finding Anne Farley,” also known as “Ring My Love With Diamonds” a unique 1977 newspaper serialization MacDonald did for the Field Newspaper Syndicate, owned by the Chicago Sun-Times and which included scores of smaller and regional newspapers. The lengthy story was serialized over five weekly installments (more in some of the smaller papers), with the final installment delayed a week so that readers could write and submit their own versions of the ending, revealing who done it. A winning entry would be selected, printed along with JDM’s actual ending, and the submitter awarded a prize of $100. For a protagonist, MacDonald went back to the beginning of his paperback career and created a subject remarkably similar to Cliff Bartells, the hero of JDM’s first book, The Brass Cupcake. Oliver “Duke” Rhoades is an insurance investigator, especially adept at recovering stolen goods. Rhoades’ nickname is derived from his facial similarity to John Wayne, but he is not especially tall, and any other similarities to MacDonald’s other famous protagonist end there.

MacDonald went on to produce two other serialized stories for the Field Syndicate, one published the following year (“Friend of the Family”) and the final effort in 1979, a reworking of a 1964 story with the same name, “Eyewitness.” I speculated in my piece on “Finding Anne Farley” that Rhoades may have been the star of these two other stories, and now that I own copies of them I can report that this is indeed the case. Duke Rhoades is series-character number five in the John D MacDonald canon.

Like the story written before it, “Friend of the Family” is a short work built around an elaborate crime, a rare whodunit for JDM, who usually avoided such stories. But that was the whole point of the contest, to have readers not only guess who did it but to explain how they did it. The author introduces various unusual characters, plants clues along the way (both real and red herrings), then springs the trap at the end. The tales are short on characterization and background, yet as with everything MacDonald, the writer’s singular skills at creating whole worlds from a few well-chosen words help to fill out all the background the reader needs.

Unlike Cliff Bartells in The Brass Cupcake, insurance investigator Rhoades does not actually work for an insurance company but instead is employed as a consultant. He’s the guy brought in when the company’s own man fails to find anything suspicious with an unusual or expensive claim. As such, when he arrives on the scene all the important people have already been grilled, investigated and exonerated, and the claimant is usually impatiently awaiting the insurance money. Rhoades is so good that once he gives the claimant a pass the insurance company complies without further investigation.

“Friend of the Family” sends Rhoades to MacDonald country, specifically Sarasota, where a couple of years earlier two Fortune 500 retirees had grown restless fishing and playing golf all day and decide to start a small business together, making white camera cases designed to keep film unspoiled in the hot Florida sun. The idea sounded better than it really was and the enterprise never took off, leading the company to go slowly downhill until the pair eventually decide to liquidate its holdings, laying off the workforce and selling its inventory. In the process of doing so, one of the partners, Tyde Dunning, decided to go into work one late evening to do some paperwork and never returned home. He was discovered the next morning by the one remaining employee who comes to the building, located on the grounds of the Sarasota Airport, to finish up some work. She finds Tyde in a most unusual state:

[He] sat in a wooden armchair ... slumped to the right, his head tilted forward and to the right. He wore a short-sleeved sport shirt, pale shorts and leather sandals. His legs were tanned and hairy. He had a pot belly. His arms were bound from wrist to elbow to the arms of the chair. There were some wide strands of the same white tape around his chest and around the back of the chair, holding him upright. His head was totally wrapped in the white tape, around and around, covered from the crown of his head to his adam's apple. He was a contemporary mummy, semi-processed.

Tyde was a nice guy and everyone who knew him liked him, so there are no obvious suspects. The widow was playing in a bridge tournament in Miami at the time, and all of the ex-employees have been cleared. But there was a $700,000 key-man life insurance policy for the business with a $300,000 accidental death rider. The beneficiary, now that the business is shuttered, is Tyde’s partner Ralph Sharn. But Ralph has terminal cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, which has made him frail and in need of continual care from his second wife, Betty. His adult daughter, Laura, has even come down from her home up north to help with her dad.

Or course all of this has been investigated before by the insurance company's own investigator, so it is Duke’s job to go over everything again, interview all of the people who were involved with the victim and try to either find a killer or authorize the payment of the insurance to Ralph. Here we get to see MacDonald firing on all cylinders as Duke meets with them, and the author gets to show off his amazing ability of drawing characters with a minimum of words, a line here, a movement there, a description that says all the reader needs to know to understand who that particular character is. We meet the local agent who sold the pair the insurance policy, we meet the deputy who investigated the case, we meet the widow, the partner and his wife and daughter, the lawyer who handled the business’s affairs, and even Ralph Sharn’s doctor. MacDonald’s painting of Duke’s first meeting with Ralph is a perfect example of his ability with character:

Ralph Sharn was tall, very tanned and quite thin. His posture was bad. He walked as though he were on the parapet of the tallest building in town, braced against unexpected gusts of wind, trying not to look down. He had frail, scattered remnants of gray hair, pale-blue eyes framed in flesh so dark it looked bruised, and a smile of welcome so exceptionally warm and sweet that I became an instant friend.

“Friend of the Family” hearkens back to many of the stories MacDonald did for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Manhunt and Justice back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, before Travis McGee took over his writing life. There is an emphasis on procedure and the characterization of the protagonist is necessarily thin, certainly nothing even close to that of McGee or any other main character in one of his novels. But it’s an enjoyable story that will keep the reader guessing -- up to a certain point, when it becomes pretty obvious (at least it was for me, but I’ve read too much JDM to be surprised very often.)

So longtime readers won’t be surprised when Duke meets Ralph’s daughter Laura and she is described as “ash blond almost as tall as I am,” it leads to a relationship. (Apparently Duke’s girlfriend from “Finding Anne Farley” has gone by the wayside.) And readers of MacDonald’s own biography will certainly recognize the neighborhood where the Dunnings and the Sharns live two houses apart. It’s on a spit of land that juts out into Sarasota Bay from Siesta Key, just off of Midnight Pass on a road called Blind Cove Road. As Duke approaches, “I drove between old, live oaks, catching glimpses of expensive-looking houses beyond tropical shrubbery. The Dunning house was off the turnaround at the end of Blind Cove Lane, the wide blue bay glinting beyond it.”

This is, of course, the neighborhood where the MacDonalds lived from 1952 to 1969 on Point Crisp Road and the house described is that of his next door neighbors.

The Field Newspaper Syndicate offered the series to its member newspapers along with supporting story art and author background, but it seems that fewer papers picked up the option than before with “Finding Anne Farley.” Of course Field’s main newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times carried it, as did the Miami Herald and the Sarasota Journal, but it does not appear that as many of the smaller presses ran it. One that did was the Daily Record of Morristown, New Jersey, which is where I located my copy. Unlike “Finding Anne Farley,” the story was never anthologized in book form. The winning entry for the ending was submitted by one Lorraine Biear, a resident of Rockaway Township and an unpublished mystery writer herself. She got the bad guy right but her ending is, of course, much different.

It would be another year before Duke Rhoades’ final appearance in print took place. I’ll write about that next time.