Monday, July 20, 2015

Travis McGee Reads Bluebook

An especially heavy work schedule these past few months has limited my writing time and caused me to exhaust my “backstock” of essays for The Trap of Solid Gold. Things may be a bit sporadic here for the next couple of months as I try and meet my own personal deadline of a weekly Monday morning posting. In the meantime, I offer this brief “discovery.”

I’m currently going through the McGee canon for the umpteenth time, and for the first time in this most enjoyable of endeavors, I’m not reading the books one after the other, but reading other things between the novels. I always enjoy all of the McGee titles, but mixing them up with other works by other authors seems to make each subsequent McGee fresher and more original. As many times as I’ve gone through the titles from Blue to Silver in one gulp, I doubt if I’ll ever tackle the works that way again.

Anyway… I’m currently rereading A Deadly Shade of Gold and came upon a passage which was made a lot more interesting to me after reading and writing about a short story published years earlier.

As I drove back to Bahia Mar I wanted to hold fast to all the small speculations about her, the forlorn erotic fancies, because I knew that as she slipped out of my mind, Sam Taggart would take her place.

And he did, before I was home. I found a slot and then I shoved my hands into my pockets and walked across to the public beach. I walked slowly where the outgoing tide had left the sand damp and hard. The sea and the night sky can make death a small thing. Waves can wash away the most stubborn stains, and the stars do not care one way or the other.

It was a cheap and dirty little death, a dingy way to die. When dawn came, there would be a hundred thousand more souls alive in the world than on the previous day, three quarters of a million more every week. This is the virus theory of mankind. The pretentious virus, never knowing that it is a disease.

Imagine the great ship from a far galaxy which inspects a thousand green planets and then comes to ours and, from on high, looks down at all the scabs, the buzzings, the electronic jabberings, the poisoned air and water, the fetid night glow. A little cave-dwelling virus mutated, slew the things which balanced the ecology, and turned the fair planet sick. An overnight disease, racing and explosive compared with geological time. I think they would be concerned. They would be glad to have caught it in time. By the time of their next inspection, a hundred thousand years hence, this scabrous growth might have infected this whole region of an unimportant galaxy. They would push the button. Too bad. This happens every once in a while. Make a note to re-seed it the next time around, after it has cooled down.

Lofty McGee, shoulders hunched against the cold of the small hours, trying to diminish
the impact of the death of a friend.

This is a remarkably similar thought behind a short story Travis must have read when he was in college, titled “Virus H,” published in the June 1955 issue of Bluebook, and written by a guy named John D MacDonald.

Monday, July 13, 2015

“When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?”

John D MacDonald’s 1977 blockbuster novel Condominium fiction that works on many different levels. If we are to believe MacDonald’s biographer Hugh Merrill, the book was conceived as a revenge piece against a local developer who was attempting to build an eight-story condominium next door to the MacDonalds' dream home, into which they had moved only two years earlier. The couple fought this development tooth and nail, eventually launching a lawsuit, but it was all to no avail. The condo was built and the MacDonald’s had to live with it.

But the 447 pages of Condominium covers many other related subjects, such as building codes, zoning ordinances, hurricane formation, the venal business practices of amoral businessmen, and the great social plight of America’s retirees who have left the places they once called home to live out their lives in this retirement paradise called Florida. This is where the novel works best, in MacDonald’s detailed, insightful and mostly compassionate portrayal of old people starting the final phase of their lives in a place that is not quite what it was advertised to be.

Condominium was not MacDonald’s first take on the subject. Way back in 1953 he wrote an article for This Week magazine with the extremely clunky title of “When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” Advertised by the magazine as a cautionary tale exposing a problem America’s leaders needed to deal with, it was strongly implied that this was a work of nonfiction. The reader is led to believe that MacDonald went out, tape recorder in hand, and interviewed a typical Florida retired couple, then wrote an article about them. With no other information besides having read the piece, I’m pretty sure that was not the case, that this is fiction, a kind of early precursor to the kind of thing MacDonald was trying to do in his Travis McGee short story “Terminal Cases” and in the more well-known final JDM “book” Reading for Survival, where important issues are presented and argued by fictional characters.

Appearing in the March 8 issue, “When You Retire…” is told in the first person by the interviewer. This setup is a device to allow the retired couple to do most of the talking, which they do with little interjection by “MacDonald.” They are the Talmadges, Bert and Pearl, who moved down to St. Petersburg from Michigan several years ago, moving into the first home they ever owned, albeit with a mortgage. Bert was a lineman for the power company and Pearl a homemaker. Their two children are mentioned only briefly, in a typical MacDonaldian aside that speaks volumes: the son died and the daughter, after a bad marriage, is estranged and living in Canada. They have agreed to be interviewed as a typical retired couple, ones who are slowly getting squeezed between a fixed income, rising prices and unexpected expenses.

"Thirteen hundred dollars a year seemed like enough, back then," [Pearl] said ruefully.

"It was, Pearl. It was"

"But now,” she says, "it's little things like haircuts for Bert. Since I got the arthritis in my hand this year, I can't cut his hair... There's only  nine years left on the mortgage, but this year the homestead taxes went up again.

"And his teeth. And the man said it would be nearly two hundred dollars to get rid of the termites. I guess we're just going to have to live with them. It's all those little things that make me so nervous when I get to thinking about them."

As the interview progresses we see just how close to the edge their life in retirement is. In order to bring in some extra cash Bert bought a moped and started a delivery service. But the heat and several near-collisions dissuaded him of that endeavor. This is followed by a wonderfully concise exchange that reveals the extremes to which they have gone in order to make ends meet.

Bert: I sold the bike for forty dollars after I painted it fancy, and put the money in the plants I showed you out back. I think we'll do better with those."

Pearl (darkly): "Better than selling those greeting cards, I hope."

Bert: "There were just too many doing that. Just like with the animals you make out of shells, and like delivering those circulars. I used to deliver every one, too, not stuff 'em under a hedge like some did. If I was better with my hands I could make out better. But I always did heavy work."

Pearl: "You did too much heavy work, Bert. You worked too hard all your life."

During the conversation the Talmadges mention some other couples they know who are under similar pressure. There’s the retired postman and his wife, who after he got ill, was unable to keep up with the mortgage payments and lived on a diet of rice in order to try and save money. And “Old Ralph,” a retired school teacher who catches fish and sells them to local restaurants.

"[He's] over seventy. Goes to the same place on the bridge every day. Fishes for his dinner first, and gets that usually, and then fishes for something extra [for] the fish house... Used to like it, Now he plain hates the sight of fish and the taste and being out there every day, but he can't figure how he can quit."

All of these points of quiet desperation don’t support the Talmadges’ constant reassurances of “we’re getting along” and “others are worse off.” The cumulative effect of all of this, especially to anyone who is close to retirement themselves, must be unnerving to say the least, especially since this was written over sixty years ago and little has seemingly changed. Well, actually, lots has changed, and potentially for the worse. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the mass conversion of corporate pension plans into 401k’s, fixed benefit plans into fixed contribution plans, with the responsibility for managing those investments placed into the hands of the employee. The fact that most employees didn't have a clue as to how to invest for the long term didn't seem to matter to the businesses that switched plans or to the government that allowed it. The result was predictable: given a choice whether or not to save for retirement, most didn't, and those who did invested in the most conservative way possible, guaranteeing a nest egg that would not even come close to providing a decent middle class lifestyle upon retirement. At least the Talmadges' meager pension plan provided something, and it was good for life. Could any reader imagine Bert Talmadge managing a 401k?

“When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” is an interesting curio, a JDM short story that has never been included in MacDonald's list of fiction writings, except by me. (It's on my list of JDM short works in the Trap of Solid Gold Resources.) It's not going to win any awards or be something the reader would ever go back to for re-reading, but it does contain some good JDM characterization, developed mainly through the words of the characters themselves. And it does describe a particular American social problem in an era long past, one that has not really corrected itself in over sixty years of trying.

The story has never been anthologized, which is no surprise. But as with all of the work MacDonald had published in This Week over the years, “When You Retire… Will This Happen to You?” is available to anyone with access to a newspaper database, provided the newspapers available were ones that provided This Week in their Sunday editions. If you don't have such access, perhaps your local library does.

Monday, July 6, 2015

"Finding Anne Farley" ("Ring My Love With Diamonds")

In 1977 John D MacDonald went from being a fairly well known writer of crime and suspense novels to a Big Deal. In March of that year his massive novel Condominium was published in hardcover by Lippincott to fairly universal acclaim and major sales. Only the year before the author’s sixteenth volume in the very successful Travis McGee series had been published and accounted for JDM’s first ever appearance on the New York Times Best Seller List, peaking at Number 3. With Condominium he again made it to that then-sacrosanct listing, where it sat for a full 27 weeks, peaking (again) at number 3.

Although the author had pretty much given up on writing short stories at this point in his career, this particular year saw the publication of three such works, all of them unusual to some extent. In the spring his “Wedding Present” appeared in the literary journal Antaeus, his first and only work for that title. It’s an ingenious and fairly typical JDM crime story centered around a particular method for committing that crime. It reads, however, like a much older work, and I’m betting that it was something the author had done years before and perhaps had it rejected by his first choice of publishers. In October New York magazine published the first Travis McGee “short story,” a monograph really, titled “Terminal Cases.” It’s basically McGee and Meyer conversing about a particular societal problem and is a precursor to the posthumously published Reading for Survival, a work we typically classify as a book rather than a short story.

But in May of ‘77, a month after the publication of Condominium, one of MacDonald’s more unusual efforts appeared, not just in one periodical but in many dozen across the country. The Field Newspaper Syndicate, an organization owned by the Chicago Sun-Times, contracted with MacDonald to publish a JDM novella he called “Finding Anne Farley,” to be serialized in five parts, with installments published weekly. The serial would appear in the syndicate’s flagship publication (in the paper’s Sunday magazine supplement) and be offered to the scores of regional papers that were members of the syndicate. To make things interesting, the editors at Field came up with the idea of delaying the story’s final installment so that readers could write and submit their own conclusion to the tale. A winner would be chosen by each member newspaper and a prize of $100 awarded. In addition, the Field editors offered its members the option of publishing the story under an alternate title, “Ring My Love With Diamonds,” and nearly all of the papers that picked up the serial did so using the second title.

For a protagonist, MacDonald went back to the beginning of his paperback career in creating 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 ends there. Rhodes, once employed by Equity Protection Insurance, is now a private “consultant” and hires out to whoever is paying. In “Finding Anne Farley” Equity is grudgingly using him as an independent for the first time.

The company has paid a huge settlement after a large amount of diamonds were stolen from an Atlanta jewelry story. Thirty-two items worth $600,000 was taken over a weekend from Westcott and Sons and replaced with professionally made but worthless copies. The initial investigation resulted in the conclusion that a long-time, trusted employee named Anne Farley was the thief. Using the opportunity of a weekend when the store’s manager was out of town at an auction, Farley apparently made her way into the store’s vault on a Friday and took the items, all of them worth in excess of $300, and replaced them with the phonies. After a pre-arranged weekend vacation, Monday rolled around and Farley didn’t come in to work. She hasn’t been seen since.

Duke’s first stop in his investigation is to a diamond broker in New York City named Wally Marks. Looking over the store’s reference photographs of the stolen items, Marks concludes that the pieces in question were selected not only for their value but for their anonymity: diamonds that could be sold with little effort and funneled back onto the market.

“Somebody had a channel to feed this stuff right back into the industry. Somebody had a lot of time in the vault to select these items and leave the fancy cuts behind. There’s no junk here. All these stones are salable, and probably already sold.”

The conclusion is that Anne Farley sneaked the photos of the items out over time and used them to have the phonies made, then waited until the Friday the manager was away to switch them and take off.

Duke then makes his way to Atlanta and Wescott and Sons. He interviews the store’s manager, one J. Trevor Laneer, who he finds is less than interested in reviving the case.

“Five different people -- two of them from Equity Protection -- questioned me at great length over a period of many weeks, you know. They extracted every scrap of information from me. Surely all that material is on record, and if you have a legitimate purpose in all this, surely it will be available to you. Frankly, I am sick unto death of it. I was deceived by a person I trusted. It took far too long to get the insurance settlement. I feel I was treated badly.”

But Duke hangs around the store afterward and meets one of the saleswomen, Libby Franklin, the only member of the sales staff who doesn’t appear “demure and bloodless.” Libby agrees to meet at a local bar after work to answer Duke’s questions. They eventually end up back at Libby’s apartment and order Chinese carryout. Duke learns that Anne Farley was a dedicated and severe assistant to a severe and authoritarian Laneer. The two of them were the only members of the staff with access to the vault. Farley, referred to by Libby as the “head vestal virgin” of the all-female staff, had no real personal life, had lived with her mother until she passed away, and had resided in a residential hotel until a week before the theft, when she moved to a motel near the Atlanta airport.

A romantic relationship eventually develops between Duke and Libby, but it is never directly referenced and doesn’t becomes part of the main plot.

Duke manages to track down a travel agency where Anne paid for a trip to CancĂșn, presumably to disappear. It is a plot development that bears remarkable resemblance to MacDonald’s Travis McGee novel The Empty Copper Sea, which he was presumably in the process of writing when “Finding Anne Farley” was published. But unlike McGee in Copper, Duke actually makes the trip to CancĂșn and to the hotel where Farley had reservations. Eventually he deduces that although Anne had a reservation and had paid for her room, she never actually arrived there.

Things get more complicated when Duke learns some additional facts about Laneer. The store manager’s older wife comes from big Atlanta money and the store is owned by a trust set up by her father. She suffered a paralyzing stroke several years ago and is completely incapacitated, able only to sit in a chair and look out the window onto an expansive rock garden that Laneer has lovingly built for her with his own hands.

“Finding Anne Farley” is a straightforward tale of investigation, clues and the solving of a meticulously planned crime. It has little characterization outside of MacDonald’s trademark economic descriptions and does not contain a single wasted word. The author didn’t write a lot of what could be classified as whodunits, but this story definitely fits that bill. It seems to have been fairly successful, with a number of papers around the country picking up the option to run it, from big city dailies such as The San Francisco Examiner and the Miami Herald to smaller publications like the Van Nuys Valley News and the Oil City (Pennsylvania) Derrick. It was successful enough for the Field syndicate to do it again the following year, with a serial titled “Friend of the Family.” The year after they published a third and final serial called “Eyewitness.”

I’m unsure if Duke Rhoades repeated his role as protagonist in the subsequent serials, as I don’t own copies and have never read them. If that was the case, and it seems likely, then we can add Rhoades to the list of JDM series characters that began with Benton Walters back in 1946. I can say that the third series, “Eyewitness,” was an adaption and expansion of an early JDM short story of the same name that was published in the September 1964 issue of Argosy. Although the protagonist of that earlier tale isn’t named Duke Rhoades, he is an insurance investigator, so it seems likely to me that these three serials all feature that particular character. “Eyewitness” (the serial version) appeared in very few newspapers -- in fact, according to Walter Shine, it didn’t even make it to the Sun Times -- so it has been hard for me to find out exactly who is in the new tale.

“Finding Anne Farley” was reprinted once, in the Best Detective Stories of the Year anthology for 1978, edited by Edward D Hoch. There one can read it as a unified piece without the installment interruptions. Used copies of this book occasionally turn up online. If you have access to a newspaper database, either at home or at your local library, you may be able to find it in its five parts, including perhaps the winning entries in the reader contest for the ending. If you can get into the archives of the San Antonio Express-News, you will find not only MacDonald’s own ending, but the winning reader’s ending and a handful of runner-up entries. One of them, written by Phillip D. Tritchler, has got to be one of the funniest and most outrageous bits of reader participation ever. Believe me, I’m giving nothing away from MacDonald’s own ending by printing Tritchler’s wacko conclusion below.

After his return to Atlanta from Mexico, Duke Rhoades talks again with each of the key figures in the case, looking for some unusual occurrence in the jewelry store's routine over the past year or in Anne Farley's woefully sterile life.

One of Anne's fellow sales clerks mentions the name of Travis McGee as the only man she's known Anne to show an interest in.

Duke finds that McGee was a highly successful salvage operator of sorts, recovering lost, stolen or swindled valuables for friends, usually for a fee of half the sum recovered.

It was on just such a case, involving precious gems, that McGee visited Atlanta and met Anne Farley.

What serves to whet Rhodes' curiosity even more is that McGee, in his last "salvage" operation, departed from his usual pattern and, weighing friendship and honesty in balance with greed, kept the entire bundle for himself.

Could he have done it again?

Following this trail, Rhodes goes to Florida to talk with McGee. But McGee's houseboat, "The Busted Flush," departed its usual moorings one day after Laneer's diamonds disappeared in Atlanta.

There was also, McGee's neighbors reveal, an attractive blonde on the houseboat. Anne Farley?

After weeks of searching the Caribbean, Rhoades finds the “Flush” anchored in an isolated bay near Bimini in the Bahamas and confronts both McGee and Farley.

After a brief but violent confrontation, McGee collapses with a fatal coronary. Turning to Anne, Rhoades notices that all those months of leisure in the sun have had their effect on her as well.

The mousy, shy clerk has blossomed into a woman worth second and third glances. Farley confesses the plot including the false Mexico leads was McGee's idea [sic] and produces the diamonds.

The catch in the caper, she said, came when her love for McGee turned to hate during the months of isolation.

Rhodes, staring at the beautiful blue-white diamonds and glancing at Anne, thinks of the return to Atlanta and comes to a decision.

With a smile and a gesture toward the houseboat controls, he asks her, "Can this thing get us to Brazil?"

It’s been a long time since I’ve wiped tears of laughter from my eyes after reading something.

Monday, June 29, 2015

On Writing a Series Character

Four years ago I wrote a lengthy piece for this blog about the genesis of John D MacDonald’s most famous creation, Travis McGee. The primary research tool for that article -- which I called The Difficult Birth of Travis McGee -- was a 1964 essay MacDonald wrote for the magazine The Writer titled “How To Live With a Hero,” where he recalled the step by step process of creating the character and the series. Published in September of that year, “How To Live With a Hero” saw print only a few months after the first three McGee’s hit the stands and a month before the fourth entry arrived.

At that early point in the life of McGee it was too early to tell if MacDonald could sustain the series beyond the handful of titles he had published or had already written and were waiting in the wings. He was philosophical about the possibility of failure, claiming that after writing more than a million-and-a-quarter words of McGee at least he had “learned just that much more about my profession, learned skills and attitudes and solutions which will inevitably be valuable in other areas.” But, as we all know by now, McGee was a success beyond the imagination of both the writer himself and his publishers. The fact that we are still reading him, writing about him and waiting patiently while a major film version of one of the novels is produced, is a testament to that success. In my own case (which admittedly is not the best example) I can honestly state that I have completely lost track of the number of times I have re-read the series, but I think ten would be a conservative figure.

Fast forward to 1983 and McGee was as established as any series hero could be, at least for one in print. Beginning with entry number 15 (Turquoise) the books were published in hardcover and beginning with 16 they unfailingly appeared in the Best Seller lists of the day. Number 20 had appeared the year before and the author had signed a contract to write two more titles in the series. (Of course he only wrote one more before he died. For the few bits of information known about that final, never-written, McGee, see my piece titled A Black Border for McGee.) In August a college professor who was writing an article about private detectives wrote MacDonald, asking the author what it was about the type of character in general, and McGee in particular, that made it interesting for MacDonald to continue writing these books. A month later JDM answered him and his response was printed in the JDM Bibliophile.

First, I think it important to note that there are perhaps thirty published attempts at a continuing series hero for every one that manages to endure. The ones that endure meet certain ancient prerequisites for the mythic hero. One must not know too much about his past. Just a hint here and there of past deeds of greatness. He must be an honorable man without being a prig, moral without pretense to sainthood, brave without being a damned fool. And he must be in opposition to the authority of his times. A loner. Most of all he should be likeable, with the ability to scoff at his own pretensions.

The writers most likely to stumble upon that useful pattern are the ones reasonably well educated who consciously or unconsciously borrow from the writings about the mythic heroes of the past. People of all times have much the same tastes in heroes.

Now to take it from the reader’s point of view - the reader brings to the reading of a new book about his friend a whole fabric of past association. He knows the man. He does not have to work his way very warily into a book, wondering if he is going to like this new dude, if the man is going to do the right things at the right time. If he wins too big, the hero is too heroic. If he loses too much, he is depressing. Even in the anticipation of the events which have not yet unfolded in the new book, the reader has a sense of familiarity with what will probably happen - not the specifics, but the general outline of trial, error and conflict.

Now back to the writer's point of view. I have done twenty books about Travis McGee and I am under contract to do two more. If there will be any more after twenty-two, I do not know. It is restricting and difficult to work in the first-person mode. One cannot cheat. Everything must be seen, appraised, evaluated through the eyes of McGee. This keeps the writer out of the hearts and minds of the other characters. As a novelist I get a great deal more creative satisfaction out of doing such novels as Condominium, The Last One Left, The End of the Night, Slam the Big Door and the upcoming One More Sunday, which Knopf will publish in May.

The second distressful aspect of writing the McGee books is the chore of maintaining freshness while dealing with a fairly rigid structure. One is involved in a folk dance which must necessarily be concerned with a limited number of ingredients. They must be arranged in a way which is genuinely fresh, not a simulated freshness. In other words, I must enjoy what I am writing, and not give an imitation of enjoyment.

On the other side of the ledger, I like McGee and I like Meyer, and I have spent more time with them than I have with any other friend I know. Consequently, when I try to force them to do and to say things that are not within their characters as they have been drawn, then they turn puppety, and the structure of the book sags. I know in my gut when this is happening and so I have to then go back and identify the place or places where I pushed them into uncharacteristic behavior, and scrap everything that happened after that deviation, then give them a chance to act like themselves-which they are ever anxious to do.

If I force them into contrivance, they not only disappoint me by making my book sag, they disappoint the reader. "What the hell happened to McGee?" they ask in angry letters.

I believe that series characters, after three or four successful books founder because the author becomes restive working within that framework and tries to alter the basic structure - the way 007 was screwed up by a change of viewpoint in one of the later books. Some writers try to add new components that do not belong in the genre - political opinions, science fiction and fantasy, lady or tiger endings. One or two bummers and you are out of business, just like the movies.

It would be less than honest to leave out the money part. The money part of a successful series is nice. It enables me to live in the style to which Travis McGee is accustomed. But, beyond sustenance, I have never written for money alone. I have written to please myself, and would keep on doing it even if there were no markets left at all. The only change would be that I would probably do less of McGee and more of the multi-viewpoint novel. Aiming at the money is the primary way of creating a weak book.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"Even Up the Odds"

I’ve always been a reader. Growing up in a house full of books and with one parent a true bibliophile (my mother), reading was a normal and expected way of life. I began at an early age and never looked back. And outside of a normal childhood fascination with comic books, it has always been the written word that has captivated me. Looking back on my reading life I sometimes try and quantify my experience: how many books have I read? How many different authors have I enjoyed? How much required reading did I zip through while my classmates struggled with a volume of Cliff Notes? What was the first book that I stopped reading because it was so bad I couldn’t continue? (That one’s easy: The Word by Irving Wallace. Taking a cue from Dr. Watson, I threw it across the room in disgust.) The route from my house to the local library has always been a well trodden one, and once I learned to drive I practically lived in used book stores on the weekends.

Of all of the great literary years of my life, 1978 stands out as the Year of the Short Story. In the tenth month of that year three monumental and indispensable anthologies of short stories by three of the best writers America ever produced were published. Irwin Shaw, who had long since devolved into a slightly pedestrian writer of sprawling novels, issued a huge tome titled Short Stories: Five Decades. It contained 63 stories that dated back to the beginning of his career and revealed a craftsmanship that was only sporadically exhibited in his novels. Stories such as “Circle of Light,” “Tip on a Dead Jockey,” “The Eighty-Yard Run,” and the magically titled “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” were a revelation to me at the time. I never thought of Shaw the same way again. John Cheever released his own collection of past writings that same month, The Stories of John Cheever, and it was even better. A superior writer to Shaw, Cheever’s short work was more familiar to me as I owned an old used paperback of an earlier, shorter collection titled The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories. Most of the stories from Housebreaker were in The Stories of John Cheever, as were many more, nearly as many as Shaw had published (61). A few of the stories contained therein are some of the most memorable moments of fiction I cherish, including “The Swimmer,” “The Season of Divorce,” “O Youth and Beauty!,” “The Death of Justina,” and, especially, “The Sorrows of Gin.” Cheever’s anthology went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The third anthology published that October certainly doesn’t seem to belong with the two other weighty collections, but on a John D MacDonald blog and in my own literary life it certainly does. It was Other Times, Other Worlds, published as a lowly paperback, and was a collection of MacDonald’s science fiction short stories, mainly from his early pre-novel career that hailed from the pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories and Galaxy. To me, these stories were the equals of the works of the other two authors, not in style or even in depth, but in revealing the sheer breadth of MacDonald’s talents. It was also the first collection of his stories culled mainly from pulp magazines and it got a lot of fans thinking that MacDonald, an author we championed as an equal to the great writers of the time, deserved his own large collection of short stories. In a word, we wanted him Cheevered.

It began with the amazing Martin H Greenberg, possibly the world’s greatest expert on the short story published in the American popular press; he was also the editor of Other Times, Other Worlds. Along with Francis M. Nivins -- writer, editor, anthologist, mystery story historian and frequent contributor to the pages of the early JDM Bibliophile -- he approached MacDonald about just such a project, although restricting it to the writer’s early work for the pulps. MacDonald was less than enthusiastic but agreed that the two could proceed and present him what they deemed to be the the best of the lot. Jean and Walter Shine, the foremost JDM bibliographers alive, joined the project and proceeded to go through every one of MacDonald’s pulp tales. They eventually whittled the list down to thirty and presented the proposal to the author. Admitting that he was “astonished” at the quality of the work, MacDonald eliminated only three of the thirty stories and agreed that they could be published, not in a single book (which would still have been half the size of the Cheever and Shaw collections) but in two separate volumes. The second would only see light if the first one didn’t tank at the bookstores.

The first volume, which was titled The Good Old Stuff, didn’t appear until 1982 and while this was not the great literary event we had perhaps hoped it would be, it was still a big deal to us fans and for many opened up a world we hadn’t experienced before. It was favorably reviewed and sold well, in fact better than anyone had expected. All of the stories are uniformly good, some okay, some excellent and a few truly amazing. I would classify “Even Up the Odds” as belonging in the later category. It didn’t appear until the second volume, which was titled More Good Old Stuff, but it was certainly worth waiting for and proved that as far as quality went, the collection wasn’t front-loaded. While written in a Runyonesque first person singular and featuring a plot that isn’t exactly original, there is a quality to the writing that is a step above most of the other tales, along with a wistful air of regret and loss that barely skims the surface. It had a lasting effect on me the first time I read it and I’ve enjoyed going back to it often. For me, it never gets tired.

Johnny Pepper, a “large and ugly” bartender, is the story’s protagonist and narrator. He works in a dingy dive called the Spot Tavern, situated on River Street in a less-than-good part of town. The Tavern’s owner, Angelo Manini, a small and somewhat elderly man, is a kind of tyrant and he frequently tries to push Johnny around, only resulting in Johnny quitting, which he has done several times before.

... always he fires me and the neighborhood hears that he is behind the bar and all the characters come around and talk rough to him and he gives away two free drinks for every one paid for, as he is usually nervous of anybody who acts like they want to hit him. Then he begins to think how he would rather be in the back room drinking that red wine and playing some screwy card game with some old guys who come in just to play with game with him. The next day he comes to see me and at twelve noon sharp I am wrapping on the apron and once again Johnny Pepper, which is me, is at the old stand, with that junior baseball bat handy to reach, prepared to handle the business.

One day Manini asks Johnny to move all of the crates and boxes of booze out of the upstairs storage room and down into the basement. When asked why, Manini informs him that he is renting it out to “a lady and her husband.” The room has “only a sink, with holes in the walls and rats like jackrabbits,” but Manini says he is getting it fixed up that afternoon.

The next day the couple move in. From the bar Johnny can see them outside supervising the movers. The man is unimpressive, a “frail type” leaning against the side of the truck “sneering at the bustle.” The wife, however, is altogether different.

She is a slim type with good clothes, and she stands out in the wind giving orders to the bums who carry up her furniture. The wind plasters her skirt against her and I see that when the customers are drinking, she better stay upstairs with the door locked, as she is built like what my customers dream about on winter nights.

Johnny’s brief reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Buster Pasternak, built “like Gargantua,” mean as a snake (“even when he is sober”) and as quick as an alley cat. He’s thirty-five, blonde and half balding, “with a beefy face and mean little eyes.” He’s also connected.

Often I have wished to work him over with the ball bat, but seeing as how his brother Dave is deputy chief of police, and his brother Harry is alderman, and his brother Francis is behind all the rackets in town, one swing with the bat and Angelo Manini has to fold his tent and sneak. Buster meets nobody but yes men and strangers. He loves to turn the strangers into yes men.

And sure enough, he picks a fight with another customer, a big man nursing a drink and minding his own business. Buster saunters up to him smiling and manages to provoke a fight, which he wins with little difficulty. (And told in a few fairly graphic sentences.) The man staggers out of the bar and is back in a few minutes with the local cop. When he points out Buster as the attacker, the cop shoves the man out of the bar. “Get away with you, you stew bum. If Mr. Pasternak beat you up, he had a good reason.”

The next day the man living upstairs makes his first appearance in the bar. He says little, but begins to open up after a few quick belts of straight rye. He introduces himself as Bob Simmonds, and Johnny thinks to himself “I had him cased. There‘s only one kind of drinker that drinks like that. I began right then to feel sorry for the wife.” Simmonds tells Johnny that he is a poet and is working on a book of poetry that, when published, will make him rich. His wife is the family breadwinner, a secretary for a guy who runs a big laundry. As the day winds on, Simmonds gets more and more lit, reciting poetry and talking about art and culture, and before Johnny realizes it he has emptied a bottle. Then Buster walks in.

But it is Simmonds who makes the first move. In a scene that is remarkably similar to an early incident in Clemmie, he yells across the bar. “And here comes an example of the Neanderthal man. The primitive type.” Buster comes over and Simmonds takes a swing at him, “like a kiss from a mosquito.” Buster grabs him and just as he is about to start slugging, Simmonds’ wife comes into the bar and gets between them, “her big eyes flashing.” She warns off Buster with a “Keep your paws off him, ape man” and Simmonds falls to the floor in a dead drunk. She asks Johnny to please bring him upstairs for her and she heads up,  “her hips moving nicely under her skirt.” Buster, looking dazed, whistles “That’s for me. Boy! That’s for me.”

This worries Johnny, as Buster has a reputation with women, and it usually involves violence, which is always hushed up later by his brothers, no matter how extreme. Johnny carries Simmonds up to his room and he gets an earful from Mrs. Simmonds about her husband’s alcoholism, which has been especially bad for the past three years. She begs Johnny to stop serving him, but Johnny says he can’t do that, and besides, there are plenty of other bars in their neighborhood. Thinking of Buster, he tells  Mrs. Simmonds to purchase a chain for the door and tells her all about the man who nearly beat her husband. She agrees and the next day Johnny installs it for her.

A week goes by without seeing anything more than a glimpse of Mrs. Simmonds on the way to work. Then, on a rainy Thursday, in walks Mr. Simmonds, flashing a ten dollar bill, which he pilfered from his own sugar bowl. A boy who was sitting by the door rushes out and Johnny tells Simmonds to hurry up and drink his drink and get upstairs behind that chained door, as the kid just ran out to inform Buster that Simmonds had come back to the bar. Simmonds is unperturbed and pulls out a .22 automatic, answering “I loaded sweetie pie last night… I can put all seven shots into your eye from across the room. I’m ignoring the monkey, but he lays a hand on me and he gets it.”

Five minutes later, in walks Buster…

The charm of “Even Up the Odds” lies not only in the wonderful first person narration of Johnny Pepper, that kind of street level urban prose that MacDonald mastered early in his career without it coming off as (too) derivative, or in the gritty, realistic world that the author creates so effortlessly in as few words as possible, but also in the almost implied feelings Johnny has for a perfect stranger, Mrs. Simmonds. Almost as if he is afraid to reveal it to the reader or even to admit it to himself, he drops a sentence here and there that is dripping with meaning, a tender hearted bartender who is utterly smitten by a beautiful woman. The final two paragraphs of this short story are wistful, evocative and nearly poetic.

“Even Up the Odds” was published in the January 1948 issue of Detective Story Magazine, a Street and Smith pulp publication that had been on the stands since 1915 and which had once been a weekly. Over 1,000 separate issues of this title were on the stands over that 33 year period, an amazing amount of popular fiction. The pulp would last only another year after “Even Up the Odds” was published, and Street and Smith buried it. The rights to the title Detective Story Magazine were sold to Popular and they revived the pulp in 1952 as a bi-monthly. Yes, 1952 seems an odd year to be starting a “new” pulp, and the magazine lasted only six issues before folding, this time forever. “Even Up the Odds” was the only JDM story to appear in the Street and Smith version of the magazine, while he had three stories in the Popular version. (I wrote a somewhat more detailed history of the magazine in my post on JDM’s “Finders Killers!”

John D MacDonald has yet to have his day in the short story sun, and one wonders if there will ever be a The Stories of John D MacDonald published anytime, ever. I would never claim such a work could rival the prose of a Cheever, and there are a lot of his early pulp stories that are just plain bad, but there is so much good out there, unpublished or in long out-of-print anthologies, that I pine sometimes that these works aren’t better known. Still, if one gathers together the anthologies that MacDonald himself put together during his lifetime, Border Town Girl, End of the Tiger and other Stories, S*E*V*E*N, Other Times, Other Worlds and the two Good Old Stuff volumes, that makes for a pretty good The Stories of John D MacDonald, even if they aren’t collected under one roof. But that “collection” would be missing MacDonald masterpieces such as “In a Small Motel,” “The Homesick Buick,” “I Always Get the Cuties,” “He Was Always a Nice Boy,” “Built for Speed,” “Cop Probe,” “First Offense,” and a slew of other deserving stories that are lost to time. Let us hope that somewhere, behind the scenes, someone is preparing such a work. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to write about these forgotten gems, mouldering away in my collection, just waiting to be rediscovered.

More Good Old Stuff is now available as an eBook, and used copies are easy to find.