Monday, June 20, 2016

Cinemantics

In June of 1947, when John D MacDonald was still a struggling author of short stories and novellas for the pulp magazines of the day, he and his family moved from their apartment in Utica to a home in the small university town of Clinton, New York. This was before the novels, before the science fiction, and certainly before Travis McGee, with only a couple of sales to the slicks to put on his trophy stand. In October of that year MacDonald managed to convince the editor of the town’s only newspaper, The Courier, to let him write a weekly column, the subject matter of which would be whatever came into the author’s head, titled From the Top of the Hill. (The MacDonald home was situated on a hill overlooking the town on the edge of the Hamilton College campus.). The gig lasted for seven months and produced 32 columns, whose subject matter ranged from jazz to local traffic problems, from family remembrances to book reviews, and it ended in May of 1948 after the death of Dorothy’s mother and the family’s decision to move to Mexico.

This column is from the May 20, 1948 edition of the paper and reveals a bit of JDM’s war background while stationed in India and Ceylon.

Cinemantics:

A boy in his last year of Syracuse U. was up the other day to talk about this odd business of writing. His yen is to write for the movies.

There is a funny thing about writing for the movies. Any shooting script or plot outline sent to any major studio is returned unopened. And they have a good reason.

Suppose you send in a script, they read it and reject it, and four years later you see a movie which contains a scene startlingly reminiscent of your effort.

The odds are that it is a coincidence -- based on the very paucity of available plots. But the courts are inclined to discount coincidence, and any suit you might bring would have a high nuisance value.

So how do you arrange to write for the movies?

One -- write a novel that sells well. Despite popular superstition, the vast majority of sales to the movies are in the one to five thousand dollar range. Suppose they want to give you five thousand. You say, "No. Give me twenty-five hundred outright, and a ten week contract at two-fifty a week to work on the movie treatment."

That is your 'in'. Whether or not they pick your option at the end of the ten week period depends on whether you are able to produce for them.

Two -- make a name in the smooth paper magazines. Sooner or later a studio will see movie possibilities in one of your stories. Every story published in national magazines, both slick and pulp, is read by people in the major studios whose job is to do nothing else.

Three -- and this is the new way -- graduate from the University of Chicago out of that Hutchens 'best books' course, or go to the Graduate School of the Cinema at the University of Southern California. Maybe you will be hired on graduation as a sort of apprentice. Dore Schary of RKO is a writer-producer. He feels that the hope of the industry is to develop specific movie talent in the writer-director-producer field, rather than acquiring people from other lines of endeavor.

And those are the three ways to cut yourself a hunk of those fabulous salaries out there. The fourth way is to be a nephew of one of the studio heads.

While with the OSS during the war, we got to know a few of the Hollywood names.

Gene Markey
Gene Markey was one of them. When his navy promotion came through, elevating him to the rank of Captain, a certain Major Willis Bird and I went to see him. Bird said, "If you're real good, maybe they'll make you a major one of these days."

Birdie is now a bone buyer in Bangkok. In addition to importing 25¢ books. Every month he has to ship so many tons of ground bones to a chemical company in the US.

Gene Markey baffled me a little. He seemed, at first glance, to be such an unimpressive guy to have been married to all that beauty. [Markey's wives, up to this point in his life, included Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamar and, at the time this column was written, Myrna Loy.] But he has that charming knack of making any acquaintance feel that he, Gene, has been languishing around for years without ever having met as unique and marvelous a person as yourself. It is a wonderful knack to have.

Melvin Douglas
Melvin Douglas was in the same headquarters as we were for a time. He was a fine, hard-working, reticent guy, forever backing out of the limelight with almost obvious annoyance. He organized an entertainment outfit and took them all over the theatre, with the one provision that he would work behind the scenes, never taking a bow.

[John] Ford, the director, was around for a time. He was a vast, moody, unpredictable man, hard to meet and harder to know.

In addition to the 'regulars,' some of the other Hollywoodians made flying trips through our malarial sector. We were in hospital when [Joe E.] Brown came through. The man with the mouth. He chatted with everybody. His son had but recently been killed in a plane crash in the states. Above that wide grin of his was a pair of the saddest, warmest eyes we have ever seen. No talent ever worked harder in our theatre.

Joe E. Brown
Maybe the fates sorted out a few of the best for us, but those we did meet gave us the idea that the screen colony contains a batch of very fine people.

                *        *        *

Art Note:

If you are a mature person of not more than three feet six inches in height, there is a promising career waiting for you as a model for the artists who illustrate the automobile and appliance advertisements.

Naturally, drawing automobiles with normal sized people in the front seat would make the cars look far too small. Thus the ads contain models who can barely reach the steering wheel and peer out over the bottom sill of the window.

This is also desirable with drawings of prefabricated houses. When the tiny models, who would have difficulty in reaching the knob on the front door, are posed in front of the prefab, it looks truly enormous.

Refrigerator ads utilize tiny women not more than three feet tall. If one of the models ever opened the door to the refrigerator, standing on tiptoe, a quart of milk falling out would smash her flat.

Some cynics affirm that this use of tiny models is to make the products look so huge that the public is enticed into buying.

We have a different theory. We feel that in the beginning the models and the appliances were in scale. And the artists have merely changed the scale to keep abreast of the rise in prices.

If the trend continues, we can expect to see refrigerator ads where the female model stands beside the product, a happy smile on her face, a scaling ladder in her hand and climbing irons on her dainty feet.

                *        *        *

See you next week.


Monday, June 13, 2016

"Game for Blondes"

John D MacDonald wrote three science fiction stories that were published in that best-of-all sf digest, Galaxy magazine, two in 1951 and one in 1952. By the time that third effort -- “Game for Blondes” -- was published in the magazine’s October edition, the author’s interest in sf was winding down to its ending point, at least as far as the science fiction digests were concerned. He had written over 50 stories, published in nearly all of the prominent sf pulps and digests of the day, from Startling Stories to Astounding Science Fiction, from Thrilling Wonder Stories to Super Science Stories. In 1951 he had written seven stories and one novel, his first sf book-length effort, Wine of the Dreamers. But seven in ‘51 was way down from 13 in 1950, and Wine of the Dreamers wasn’t original, it was an expansion of one of those novellas. Likewise, his second sf novel, Ballroom of the Skies, which appeared at the end of 1952, was itself a rewrite of an earlier Super Science Stories novella titled “Hand from the Void,” and his total short story count that year was a paltry two. (That’s only if you include “Incubation,” which appeared in a hardcover anthology.) Either MacDonald had said all he wanted to say in the field, or he had lost interest in it entirely.

Or, perhaps, he found that it was just not enough of a challenge. In his 2000 biography of MacDonald, The Red Hot Typewriter, Hugh Merrill quotes a letter the author wrote to an unnamed correspondent where he explains why he had lost interest in this particular kind of fiction:

I think [science fiction] is a marvelous exercise of the imagination, as you can say things behind the scenes in science fiction that you wouldn’t dare say in straight fiction. Don’t tell this to any science fiction writer, for God’s sake, but I got the feeling that it was a little too easy. You are cheating on reality. I remember I had an argument with MacKinlay Kantor... and I said to him, “You know, I have a problem when I want to define character. If I want to make a guy really stupid and excitable I have to build that,” I said. “But you and those historical things—you can have him run into a room and say, ‘They just fired on Fort Sumter and the whole thing will be over in two weeks!’ and okay, you’ve lined your guy out as a stupid fellow.” It’s almost the same kind of thing in science fiction. You can cheat, you can do a pretend history... Contemporary reality is the most difficult thing to write about because we’re all in the midst of a big cloud of dust and you hear the horses running by but you don’t know who’s winning.

If MacDonald’s interest in the form was flagging in 1952, his abilities certainly were not. “Game for Blondes” is one of his very best short stories of any genre, a dark, intense rumination of failure, regret and ultimate redemption, built around time travel and a future not that much different from today. The story’s superior qualities were immediately recognized: it was anthologized in two contemporary collections, Bleiler and Dikty’s The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 as well as in The Second Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction in 1954. In 1978 it was included in MacDonald’s own sf anthology, Other Times, Other Worlds, where editor Martin H. Greenberg called it “a minor classic” and had this to say about it in the story’s prefatory remarks:

This is simply one of the most powerful psychological stories in American science fiction… It has a lovely, hard-boiled feel about it that expresses the multiple pulp influences of the author.

The story still packs a wallop today, 64 years after its initial appearance, and no matter how many times I’ve read this, its effects never wear thin.

If “Game for Blondes” had been published in anything other than a science fiction digest, one would be hard pressed to guess that the story was science fiction until late into the text. We meet the protagonist, Martin Greynor, in his now-natural location and in his now-natural state: in a bar and drunk. Not recent-drunk but permanent-drunk, a condition he has wallowed in for three weeks now, precipitated by his careless, anger-induced driving that resulted in a crash and the death of his beloved wife Ruth.

Now it was New Year's Eve. Ruth was gone. His job was gone, the car gone. Money was left, though, money a-plenty. Funny about drinking. The wobbling, falling down, sick stage lasts about twelve days, he discovered... Then you're armor-plated. Liquor drops into a pit, clunk. Walk steady, talk steady. But in come the illusions on little soft pink feet.

And the illusions have come, to accompany the dissipated person Martin has become, unwashed, unshaven, rancid and stinking, to the point that he has been kicked out of the nicer drinking establishments he used to frequent in his previous life. Sitting at the bar in one dingy dive he imagines his wife as she once was:

The bar mirrors are enchanted. Ruth stands behind you. She said, "Never run away from me, darling. You'd be too easy to find. Wanted -- a red-headed man with one blue eye and one brown eye. See? You couldn't get away with it." The face that looks back has been gaunted, because you stopped eating.

Outside he he sees Ruth ahead of him, hurrying down a dark street. He calls after her, she turns, revealing "a wattled mask" that rasps in a "mocking gin-husky voice," "Ya wan' something, sweetie?"

The illusions don’t seem to be limited to ghosts of his dead wife. This particular evening he looks in the mirror of a nameless bar and sees three young women, all blondes, looking intently at him. Had he seen them before? He can’t remember. He leaves the bar and walks down a slush-filled street, drawn to life by the author’s wonderful prose.

Next block. Don't turn right. That will take you toward midtown, toward the higher prices, toward the places where they let you get three steps inside the door, then turn you firmly and walk you back out. Stay over here, buster.


They'd rolled him a few times that first week. Made a nuisance to go to the bank and get more cash each time. Now they'd stopped bothering. One of the times they'd left him sitting, spitting out a tooth, His tongue kept finding the hole.


Neon in the middle of the next block. Two couples sitting on the curb.


"Down by-ee the old mill streeeeeeem..."


Spotted by the prowl car.


"Break it up! Move along there!"

Then he notices the three blondes following him. “Three blondes. Three arrogant, damp-mouthed, hot-eyed, overdressed blondes -- sugary in the gloom.” He ducks into the closest bar and they follow him in, regaining their watchful place at a table near the bar. When a male patron makes a pass at one of them, they give him cold looks, and when he persists the poor fool suddenly turns "fast and hard and went high and rigid into the air. Martin saw him go up in that jet-leap of spasmed muscles, head thrown back, agony-masked face. He fell like something pushed out of a window."

For the first time since Ruth’s death, Martin begins to feel real fear and makes a run for it…


What resonates in “Game for Blondes,” besides its clever science fiction angle and trick ending, is the hopeless, lost quality of the protagonist, a successful man for whom the good life has ended and who seeks escape and punishment in the bottom of a bottle. It’s a fictional device that MacDonald had used at least once before, in his 1947 novella “You’ve Got to Be Cold,” although never to better effect than in “Game for Blondes.” The regret is palpable and the dissolution Martin has consigned to himself is not only gritty and unflinching, it is the result of a new-found self-awareness he was only able to attain through tragedy. And it is a state that could only be redeemed through science fiction.

MacDonald would go on to write only one more sf story for the digests, “Labor Supply,” which was published in a 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. And as I’ve documented here on this blog many times, the author never categorically gave up writing science fiction, it was simply published in other kinds of magazines (Bluebook, Playboy, This Week) and was, for the most part, science fiction of a different kind, bordering more on psychological horror and the workings of the mind. Still, if the qualities of the stories he did write for the digests are an indication of his talent in the field, he could have very well become a science fiction “name” had he decided to keep at it. What he left us are five-score works of fiction that, for the most part, still resonate today.

“Game for Blondes” is currently out of print, even in JDM’s Other Times, Other Worlds, which, for some reason, still has not had its initial eBook publication. Used copies of that paperback anthology are fairly easy to find, and it is a collection that belongs in the library of any fan of the author’s short works of fiction -- any kind of fiction.

Monday, June 6, 2016

"The Fraud That Paid Off"

John D MacDonald’s relationship with the Sunday newspaper supplement This Week was a long and profitable one for the author. In began at the end of 1950 with the publication of his short story “I Love You (Occasionally),” a brief, humorous situation comedy about a man who tries to impress his wife and ends up putting his foot in it. From 1950 to 1958 MacDonald had at least one story published in This Week every year, and most of them were of this ilk: harmless little family misunderstandings that cause friction before resolving themselves nicely with a typically MacDonaldean happy ending.

In their April 22, 1956 issue This Week published their 12th JDM short story, “The Fraud That Paid Off.” Fans of the author who happened upon this title in their Sunday newspaper supplement could be forgiven for thinking this a crime story, perhaps along the lines of some of the stuff MacDonald had been submitting to the mystery digests of the time, like “The Killer” in Manhunt or “In a Small Motel,” in Justice, or perhaps something akin to his two most recent novels, April Evil and You Live Once.

Alas, they would have been -- and probably were -- disappointed. The “fraud” in “The Fraud That Paid Off” was not criminal or even illegal, and the payoff wasn’t monetary, it was romantic.

Protagonist Johnny Brewer works in a job that was very familiar to the author: he’s a production chaser in an assembly plant, an industry MacDonald worked in during his stateside stint in the Army. Johnny is young, capable, well thought-of by his superiors, and single. He is smitten by a particular young lady secretary, a fact known to many at the plant, and especially known to Kathie Morrison, the secretary of the Production Manager, Johnny’s direct superior.

Johnny Brewer's endless efforts to make a date with The Princess were well known and frequently commented upon throughout the big plant of the Kallston Corporation. The Princess, Miss Virginia Conway, was secretary to the Plant Manager, highest resident brass at the plant. In looks she was faintly reminiscent of Grace Kelly, with Kelly's same air of cool, polite, delicious unattainability. When an errand brought her down to the production floor, she did not look out of place -- she made the entire production floor look out of place. Johnny's varied and diligent efforts had thus far been rewarded by a frostiness of blue eyes, a tiny, pitying smile.

After a particularly stressful day caused by a missed order and a transposed figure, Johnny arrives at his boss’s office to report that everything is under control. He trades familiarities with Kathie, a “smallish” girl with red hair and gray eyes. (Uh-oh.)  After he is congratulated by his boss, Johnny intimates to Kathie that he will be spending the rest of the day dreaming of a date with The Princess. The “light of warmth and pride” fade from Kathie’s eyes as she returns to her work, muttering “Good Luck.”

[She] balanced her chin on a small capable fist and scowled. She had tried once to tell Johnny that Virginia had all the ripe, rich warmth of a servo-mechanism, but had only succeeded in angering him... Kathie knew he deserved better, but Johnny was not very bright about people. She scowled and thought and plotted.

So four days later, when Johnny happens upon The Princess at the water cooler and clumsily tries to strike up a conversation, he is startled -- just as the reader is not -- when she responds warmly and agrees to dinner that night at the finest and most expensive restaurant in town. After a wonderful dinner with the very attentive Princess, the couple sit together on a banquette holding hands while listening to the piano. Then she leans "her golden head close to him and, with a slant of mocking eyes [says], 'You've kept it a very good secret, you know.'"

The trite, obvious plot and resolution of “The Fraud That Paid Off” is only slightly salvaged by MacDonald’s terse, economic prose and occasionally humorous observations. But there’s nothing of real substance here, only a quick read for a Sunday afternoon in 1950’s America. We read them so you don’t have to.

Not surprisingly, “The Fraud That Paid Off,” (MacDonald’s original title, incidentally) has never been reprinted or anthologized. Like all of his This Week stories, it is available through the microfilm and digital archives of the various newspapers that carried This Week during all or part of its run. You may have a local library that has access to one of these newspapers, so you can collect them all if you are so inclined. “The Fraud That Paid Off” aside, there are some real gems in there.

The artwork for this story was done by the great Fredric Varady, one of the premier magazine illustrators of the mid-twentieth century. I would have reproduced the main artwork for “The Fraud That Paid Off” but, unfortunately, it depicts the story’s final scene.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Deadly Welcome

"I work long each day, and usually have at least three books in various stages of clumsiness, letting the subconscious mind untie the knots of the ones on the shelf while I work on the one in front of me. I revise by throwing out whole chapters, sections, even whole books, and starting again—a device which seems to enhance freshness.”

By the second half of the 1950’s John D MacDonald had set a pace for writing that was nothing short of astonishing. From 1955 thru 1959 he wrote 17 novels, 34 shorter works of fiction, a novella that became the second half of his first anthology (“Linda”) and, edited a short story anthology for the Mystery Writers of America, a task he claimed that took the time he could have used to write a full novel of his own. Of course, MacDonald was no stranger to producing large quantities of fiction in a short period of time. His output in 1949 was an amazing 72 short stories and novellas, but these were done mainly for the pulps and their quality was not always first rate. His novels, on the other hand, -- outside of a few early titles -- show a steadily increasing mastery of the written word, in plot, dialogue, characterization and story construction. These were not two-cents-a-word quickies written for an ephemeral periodical market, but works that have survived and influenced a generation of other writers because of their quality and originality.

In 1959 MacDonald had two novels published in the same month, both of them excellent works and both of them as different as two books could possibly be. In March Simon and Schuster published MacDonald’s sixth hardcover effort, the comedy-romance Please Write for Details. Also in March Dell published what would be their last JDM novel, a mystery of superior quality titled Deadly Welcome. It was JDM’s return to form in a couple of ways: he once again used the plot device of a (relatively) ordinary man travelling to a unfamiliar place in search of something (See A Bullet for Cinderella and Death Trap). And, for the first time since 1956’s Murder in the Wind -- ten novels back -- he set the action in Florida.

The “something” Tal Howard in A Bullet for Cinderella was searching for was, ostensibly, a hidden treasure, but his real quest was for some meaning and purpose to a life that had been undone by time spent in a brutal prisoner of war camp. Hugh MacReedy in Death Trap seeks to help an old girlfriend to whom he had done dirt to, but the real subtext of his search is atonement. In Deadly Welcome, Alex Doyle is sent to a small town on the west coast of Florida to do a job for the Pentagon, but this particular town forces him to face insecurities he has been running from all his adult life.

Doyle is State Department employee, an investigator of sorts, who is pulled off an assignment in South America and sent over to the Department of Defense for an odd and unique assignment.  A year and a half ago, Colonel Crawford M’Gann, a brilliant Air Force scientist who had been working on an important top secret project for the Pentagon, suffered a heart attack and was nursed back to health by his young wife, a “questionable” woman who had been a nightclub singer prior to their meeting. Jenna M’Gann moved her ailing husband to her hometown, Ramona Beach, Florida, an undeveloped small town on one of the keys south of Sarasota. A few months later Jenna was found murdered and the assailant was never identified. M’Gann’s sister Celia moved in with her brother and she strenuously guards access to him and the remote beach cottage where they live.

The Pentagon needs Colonel M’Gann back working on their project and has sent several of their people down to Florida in an attempt to convince him to return. None of them has gained access, thanks not only to Celia’s strong defenses but to the insular nature of the community, a throwback to a small southern town that was typical before Florida began turning into a statewide resort. Simply put, they don’t like strangers in Ramona Beach. And that’s where Alex Doyle figures into the equation.

Ramona Beach is Doyle’s home town, where he was born, raised and lived until he was eighteen, and he has strong reservations about returning.

"I... I was born there, Colonel. Right at the bottom. Swamp cracker, Colonel. My God, even talking about it, I can hear the accent coming back. Rickets and undernourishment and patched jeans. Side meat and black-eyed peas. A cracker shack on Chaney's Bayou two miles from town. There was me and my brother. Rafe was older. He and my pa drowned when I was ten. Out netting mackerel by moonlight and nobody knew what happened except they'd both drink when they were out netting. Then Ma and I moved into town, and we has a shed room out in back of the Ramona Hotel and she worked there. She died when I was thirteen, Colonel. In her sleep and I found her. She was just over forty and she was an old, old woman. The Ducklins were distant kin and they took me in and I worked in their store for them all the time I wasn't in school. I don't even think of Ramona any more. Sometimes I find myself remembering, and I make myself stop."

And there’s another reason he hasn’t been back in fifteen years. On his eighteenth birthday he celebrated and got drunk for the first time. He woke up later to find that the Ducklin’s store had been robbed, his key used to gain entry and some of the money stuffed in his pockets. He hadn’t committed the crime, but the evidence was clear.

“I knew what they were all saying. That the Ducklins had taken me in and been decent to me, and that was the way I'd paid them back. Like all the rest of the Doyles. Can't trust that trash.”

Doyle was arrested and a deal was struck: plead guilty, agree to enlist in the army and the sentence would be suspended. He did so and left for good, fighting in the world war, going to college, back to war in Korea, then on to the State Department. He has buried those first eighteen years deep into his psyche and does not want to revisit it.

"I can't go back. Maybe it's... too important in my mind, more important than it should be. But I was... proud of myself, I guess. I'd made a good record in Ramona High School. Scholarship and athletics. I was popular with... the better class of kids. And then... It all went wrong for me. What will they say to me if I go back?"

Eventually Doyle decides to face his demons and agrees to the assignment. There’s one thing he didn’t tell the Pentagon boys, a bit of his past that links him even more to this particular affair. Colonel M’Gann’s murdered wife, Jenna, was Jenna Larkin, a popular and notorious wild child, whose body turned “to perfection at thirteen,” and used it to her advantage. She was the eldest and favorite child of Spence Larkin, a “mean and stingy bastard” who all but ignored Jenna’s younger sister and brother, and it’s hinted that father and daughter’s relationship was not exactly a healthy one, although MacDonald never quite goes there. Alex lost his virginity to Jenna in an once-only tryst on a deserted island, weeks before she left Ramona Beach to seek her fortune.

Doyle’s cover story has him as a construction worker who has just returned from South America, where he earned enough money to start a little business of his own, and what better place than in his old hometown? He is greeted with the expected disdain from the townsfolk who remember him, and finds that Jenna’s siblings are still living in Ramona Beach, running their father’s old marina. The sister, Betty, is described in terms so familiar to the frequent reader of MacDonald that her place in the story is self-evident.

She was a girl of good size and considerable prettiness, and she came swinging toward him, moving well in her blue-jean shorts and a sleeveless red blouse with narrow white vertical stripes and battered blue canvas top-siders. She had been endowed with a hefty wilderness of coarse blonde-red hair, now sun-streaked. She was magnificently tanned, but it was the tan of unthinking habitual exposure rather than a pool-side contrivance of oils and careful estimates of basting time... a big, strong, vital-looking woman, and when she was on his level he knew that if she were to wear high heels, she would stand eye to eye with him.

She and Alex have a typically MacDonaldean meet-cute, and over a beer they discuss old times. Alex has no memory of Betty, but she, several years younger than he, nursed a strong crush on Alex when she was young and even kept a scrapbook of clippings of his high school sports exploits. Alex confesses his innocence of the burglary, and, in a later scene, Betty reveals the reason she’s in her late twenties and still unmarried: she’s frigid, a fact that the whole town is aware of. Her malady is not one of simple disinterest, but of atavistic repulsion, a state that was brought about by several factors including her father’s lack of love for her and an attempted rape back when she was in college. “She became actively, physically ill if any [man] attempted the most innocuous caress.”

Alex rents a beach cottage, away from town and fairly remote, but close enough to the M’Gann cottage for him to begin his work. It’s also very close to where the body of Jenna was discovered, and, as Alex eventually wheedles his way into the good graces of Celia M’Gann, he starts to question the circumstances of Jenna's murder, wondering why she brought her husband down to a small town she had abandoned years ago, her recent activities here, and the behavior of her father many years ago.

And then the inevitable: a visit from the Sheriff’s office in the person of Deputy Donnie Capp, a JDM bad-cop whose personality borders on the sociopathic. He awakens Alex from a nap and enters the cottage oozing menace.

He brought into the [cottage] the slow creak and jingle of petty authority, and a thinly acid edge of sweat, a back-swamp accent and an air of mocking silence. Doyle felt irritated by his own feeling of intense wariness. It was a legacy from the faraway years when there would be trouble and men like this one would come to the bayou and go to Bucket Bay. You let them swagger through the house and poke around as they pleased. You never told them anything. And you never made a fuss because they would put knots on your head. Yet on another level he sensed his kinship to this man. That light-eyed cracker sallowness, the generations of bad diet and inbreeding behind both of them that had resulted, curiously, in a dogged and enduring toughness, a fibrous talent for survival.  

This initial scene between Alex and Capp is uncomfortable in the extreme, and mirrors a similar encounter between protagonist and bad cop in an earlier JDM novel, The Price of Murder. In that book the violence between the two was verbal and psychological, but in Deadly Welcome a third element is added: physical, in the form of an expert, merciless beating by Capp with his black nightstick.

Capp is the law in remote Ramona Beach, fifteen miles from the county seat, and his introduction into the scene both complicates matters for Alex and brings new aspects of Jenna’s murder to light. It is Doyle’s “criminal” background that has aroused Capp’s interest and ire, and the deputy’s new presence proves to be both hindrance and opportunity.

As noted, Deadly Welcome’s structure and form is not new to MacDonald, nor are many of the character types and plot points, and anyone who is familiar with his previous novels will instantly recognize aspects of his style and the situations he creates. But outside of the neat story hooks  -- government agent on assignment, innocent man returning to the scene of the “crime,” an impossible romance between a man operating under false pretenses and a woman who cannot express love physically -- the real joys of this novel are the things that set MacDonald apart from his contemporaries: his characterizations, his dialogue, and the author’s ability to create scene, mood and atmosphere with only a handful of words. Alex Doyle’s journey from confident State Department agent to insecure cracker-returning-home, then to a man at peace with himself is not, of course, a unique one, and some might argue that this would have been a more interesting book had Alex actually committed the burglary he had been accused of and had to return home to face the music, but that would have been impossible in MacDonald’s moral universe, at least in 1959. Still, the character development here is done very nicely and Doyle is flawed in ways JDM was either unable or unwilling to experiment with in earlier protagonists.

For their last JDM novel, Dell produced a single printing of 176,000 copies, their lowest ever for a MacDonald novel and completely dwarfed by the 771,000 copies of their first book by the author, Area of Suspicion (another JDM tale of a man returning home). According to Hugh Merrill in his 2000 biography The Red Hot Typewriter, MacDonald had left Fawcett in 1954 over his unhappiness with his editor Dick Carroll and moved to Dell, where old friend Knox Burger was now working. In 1958 Burger left Dell and went to Fawcett, and MacDonald again followed him, returning to the publishing house where he began and would now forever stay. Dell was likely smarting over this defection and probably chafed over having to pay MacDonald for a second printing. It was the last book in his contract and the only other time his name appeared on a Dell First Edition was in December of 1959 when the Mystery Writers of America anthology The Lethal Sex was published, a project Burger had developed when he was still with Dell and one he had convinced MacDonald to edit.

When Fawcett purchased the rights to the MacDonald back catalogue in the early sixties, they didn’t get around to reprinting Deadly Welcome until May 1966. It eventually went through twelve printings, to May 1987, for a total of 596,000 copies.

The cover for that single Dell First Edition was an auspicious one, for they commissioned a young artist by the name of Robert McGinniss to produce the illustration. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful professional relationship between author and artist that would last throughout MacDonald’s remaining career. As I pointed out in my posting on the JDM short story “Kitten on a Trampoline” a few months back, McGinnis holds the record for illustrating the covers of more editions of MacDonald paperbacks than any other artist. And it all began here, with his depiction of Alex and Betty, in the beach cottage right after Alex’s beating at the hands of Donnie Capp. His depiction of Betty is quite accurate, even if her makeup is a bit heavy.

McGinnis was again chosen to illustrate the first Fawcett edition, an interesting composition that highlights the title and author’s name in favor of the rendering of the characters, this time a prone Betty at the feet of Donnie Capp. This cover went through four separate printings. Then, in October 1973, Fawcett issued a fifth edition with a new cover, again by McGinniss, this time depicting what must be a seated Jenna Karp M’Gann, feet propped up on a barrel and wearing a dress that covers very little. Here we have a very recognizable McGinnis female: thin, buxom and long-legged. This illustration was used for the last eight editions of the book.

In fact, if my records are correct, Deadly Welcome is the only JDM paperback where Robert McGinnis illustrated the covers for every edition printed in the United States. There was no William Schmidt version of this title.

Deadly Welcome and Please Write for Details were published for two completely different worlds back in that long ago March of 1959. While the hardcover Please Write for Details garnered much coverage, many reviews and its own publicity campaign (of sorts), Deadly Welcome pretty much received a deadly welcome in the press. Outside of Anthony Boucher’s brief comments in his New York Times column, MacDonald’s clipping service could find no other reviews of the novel at the time. I managed to find one in the Galveston Daily News, written by reporter Stanley E Babb, but it is little more than a plot synopsis, calling the book “worthy of more than just a casual glance,” and ending the plot summary -- and the piece -- with “"A lot of things happened to Alexander Doyle at Ramona Beach and they are recounted in a dramatic manner in Deadly Welcome.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Boucher was not exactly overwhelmed either, writing, “Deadly Welcome disappoints just a little, possibly because its calculations are too obtrusive. Certainly the story -- of an agent who can carry out his assignment only by returning to the small town he left in disgrace as a boy, and achieve his objective only by facing up to his own life -- is a strong and effective one; and my disappointment is probably only because I've come to expect so much of MacDonald.”

Deadly Welcome’s reputation -- where you can find evidence of a reputation -- is certainly a mixed one. Jared Shurin in his “Underground Reading” series on the Pornokitch blog, is quite hard on the novel, calling it “lifeless” and “uninteresting,” and dismisses the protagonist Alex Doyle as “so bland as to be invisible.” Author Ed Gorman, on the other hand, considers Deadly Welcome to be one of the ten best JDM stand alone novels, calling it a “violent and melancholy trip back in time.” I can certainly understand both opinions, and without revealing too much of the later portion of the plot, MacDonald does borrow heavily from earlier books, as well as presaging a major part of one of the early McGee novels. And the plot’s “calculations,” as Boucher terms them, are certainly there, perhaps more so than in some of MacDonald’s superior efforts, but as I have argued, it is Alex Doyle’s journey  toward redemption that makes this book come alive, and the book’s atmosphere, reflecting all of Doyle’s fears and insecurities, really does add up to an underlying sense of melancholia.

Two months before Deadly Welcome was published it was featured in condensed form under MacDonald’s original title “Ultimate Surprise” in the January 1959 issue of Cosmopolitan. As with all of JDM’s longer works that appeared in magazines, this was not simply the novel edited down to size, but an original rewrite by the author. There were no major changes, as in Murder in the Wind ("Hurricane"), or additional material like he added to The Deceivers, just a shorter, quicker version of the tale that is nowhere near as satisfying as the book. The ending, however, is written differently, changing the perspective of a scene from first person to third. It’s an interesting idea, and I think it's superior to the one in the novel. To reveal more would be to spoil the plot. If anyone is really interested in reading it just email me and I’ll send you a scan of the final page.


Cosmopolitan art editor Robert Atherton commissioned JDM’s Sarasota neighbor Al Buell to handle the illustrations, of which there were two. I won’t show you the second one because it is a depiction of the novel’s climax.

Deadly Welcome enjoyed a total of thirteen printings between its Dell and Fawcett editions, the final one in May 1987, and that is -- needless to say -- long out of print. Used copies, as with most of MacDonald’s novels, are very easy to find at reasonable prices. A digital version, struck from the Hale (UK) edition, was published in 2014 and is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever eBooks are available. It’s a clean edition with no obvious typos and costs only $5.99.

Finally, a glancing reference to the novel from Whitney Bolton’s syndicated Glancing Sideways column back in March of 1959:

Later, [I] get [myself] dressed and drive to New York and meet Randy MacDougall and John MacDonald, novelists and writers, introduce them to each other and mention to John that someone you know recently has bought a paperback edition of one of his novels but you can't think of its title.

"Deadly Welcome, probably," says John.

"Obviously an ardent love story," says Randy.

Whereupon John shakes hands with Randy and says: "I think I'm going to like you."

Later, you three fall into discussions of the sadistic novelist you mentioned in this column recently, though not by name, and Randy says:

"There is another one. He recently has published what is ostensibly a novel but pretty certainly is an autobiography. What is astonishing is that throughout the book he has, unwittingly, laced page after page with frightening evidence of his character, his depravities, his perilous nature.

"He doesn't even realize himself how he has betrayed himself, yet it is all there for anyone of discernment to see and recognize. Like puma-paw marks in the snow. When you finish his novel, you have an accurate, horrifying portrait of the author."

John laughs and says: "I know a novelist I see all the time, an outwardly amiable, blameless person, yet I think he must be harboring tensions and ambitions of a felonious nature. He so obviously adores his villains and so carefully makes it seem that he does not.

"He goes out of his way to say to you: 'This is a foul fellow I'm writing about,' and shouts it so long and often that you know in your heart that he secretly admires the lout and, probably, is much like him.

"I always think of something Diogenes once said and all novelists should learn it, lest they betray their true natures without knowing it. It goes something like this - that every man should treat his superiors as he treats his fire: never getting close enough to be burned nor so far away that he gets cold. No author should treat his characters as anything else but a superior or a fire."