Monday, September 15, 2014

Three Years Later...

2X2L calling CQ . . .  2X2L calling CQ . . . Isn't there anyone on the air?

After almost three years, that’s a good question to ask. Is there anyone out there?  I don’t suppose there is, but here goes anyway...

On December 25, 2011 I posted a piece on The Trap of Solid Gold commemorating the the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of John D MacDonald, a reprint of something I had put up two years earlier, but with a few added comments. It was to be the last posting to the blog, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was working on two other pieces, one on an old Doc Savage novella and the other on the novel A Man of Affairs. But I never got past the planning stages.

On New Year’s Day I received a telephone call from my son asking my wife and I to look after his eight-month old son for a few hours, as he and his wife were on their way to the emergency room of the local hospital. His wife had been experiencing excruciating head and neck pain for the past two days and their local hospital couldn’t find anything obviously wrong with her. An hour later our grandson was dropped off and my son and daughter-in-law headed for the Murfreesboro emergency room. That brief babysitting duty eventually turned into a year and a half of living with us, not just our grandson, but our son and our daughter-in-law, as they worked their way through an illness that was eventually diagnosed as something called Trigeminal Neuralgia. I’m happy to report that the illness has been dealt with --- without the brain surgery that doctors were recommending -- and the kids are living independently, close by, happy and with another child, and once again it’s just me and my wife here in the house.

Trying to write was, of course, impossible under the circumstances, and even after they departed, it was tough to get back into the swing of things. I had packed up all of my JDM stuff, the old pulps and magazines, to protect them from the mischievous hands of my toddler grandson, and they stayed packed even after we were alone again.

I got involved with another project a few months before the kids moved out. Writer Elaine Ford, author of five excellent novels and a distant cousin of mine, asked me to assist her with researching what started out as a short story and eventually turned into an historical novel about our mutual ancestor, Thomas Lawson Ford, who lived from 1807 to 1882. It was enjoyable, time consuming work that lasted over a year and required a couple of weeklong trips to rural Mississippi and much time spent in dusty storage areas of old courthouses.

Meanwhile, my MacDonald books were still up on a high shelf, and eventually I began bringing them down and rereading them. I made my way through the McGee canon earlier this year and it got me interested in seeing if I could maybe try and get the old blog up and running again.

Back when I began writing The Trap of Solid Gold I was unemployed, living off of a generous severance package from my employer of 30 years, a “victim” of the Crash of 2008. I had all the time in the world to read, research and write about my favorite author, a wordsmith I had idolized and followed since 1974, and in the first months of writing I posted something every single day. Now the severance is long gone and I’m forced to do honest work again, so my time to blog is limited. I’m going to try and do a posting a week and see if I can keep it up. Some of the pieces -- especially the ones on the novels -- require a great deal of time to research, outline and get down onto “paper,” so when I’m preparing those particular writings it may take a bit longer.

The purpose of this blog, back when I first started it, was “to share some of my knowledge, opinions, information and artwork from an old and dusty collection of JDM stuff,” and that won’t change, but my real interest  is to try and acquaint readers with the bulk of MacDonald’s work that is not Travis McGee. Now, before anyone blows a fuse, I’ll put my love of the McGee novels up against any other reader’s, any day of the week: it’s the work that introduced me to MacDonald and it’s the JDM I return to most often. But MacDonald was so much more than Travis McGee, and I don’t just mean his 42 books that preceded The Deep Blue Good-By. He started his trade writing short stories, and he published nearly 400 of them in his career. Much of the early pulp stuff was more learning experience than high art, but there are many, many examples of beautifully crafted short works that are all but unknown to even the most rabid JDM fan. These stories are sometimes hard to find, as many of them have never been reprinted, but I’ve been collecting these old magazines since the mid 1970’s and I still pull them out and enjoy them. Hopefully reading about them may inspire others to seek them out. And maybe one day they may finally see the light of day again when they are republished. One can hope…

And speaking of republishing, there’s been a big change in the John D MacDonald world since I posted that last 2011 article. Almost every one of MacDonald’s novels and anthologies, even two he never wanted published again, have been issued as eBooks, available to anyone with an eBook reader and $9.99 to spend. (The exceptions are The Executioners, S*E*V*E*N, and Other Times, Other Worlds). I’ve purchased and read two of them and they are well done, finely crafted products that are worth every penny… certainly nothing like the sloppy Death Quotient and Other Stories. And there’s a nice introduction by Dean Koontz in all of the non-Travis books.

I’ve added considerably to my own JDM collection in the three years since I last posted. Of those 400 short stories and novellas I now own nearly 300 of them, and a lot of the earlier postings that relied on anthologized versions of the stories now feature some original story art from the magazines. I’ve spent the last month or so rereading and proofing all of my prior postings, cleaning up some sloppy grammar and fixing typos, so hopefully it will be a better resource for the student of the author. I resisted the temptation to rewrite a few of the pieces that weren’t that well thought out. Perhaps one day, but not now.

And as before, I won’t advertise on this blog and I certainly don’t make any money writing it. I do it because I enjoy writing and sharing it and will stop when that is no longer the case. My audience was never big to begin with and has probably scattered to the four winds since 2011, but I’m hoping at least a few of you will find your way back. Never being one for self-promotion, I’m just going to write it, post it and move on the the next piece.

Also as before, I’ll accept comments here, but I’ve found the need to moderate them, so they may take a day or two to post. Spammers have discovered the site and, even after years of being idle, I still have to delete three or four fake “comments” everyday, comments which purport to be saying something about the specific post (in the most general of terms) but which invariably contain a link to some nefarious website trying to sell something. The genuine comments that are proffered will almost always get printed, provided they are civil and constructive. You may disagree with me, but please do so without any ad hominem.

If you want to contact me outside of commenting, just click on my name in the About Me box on the right and then click the Email link under Contact Me.

My first piece should post in about a week, and I’m really looking forward to writing again.

Finally, a huge “thank you” to all of the followers who have sent me encouraging and supportive emails and comments these past three years. Also to all of you who commented your appreciation of the blog when it was active. I hope that what I do here from this point forward is worthy of your continued readership.

Steve





Sunday, December 25, 2011

Twenty-Five Years Ago


Photo by Jerry Bauer
December 28 will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of John D MacDonald's death, a date I recalled with a posting on this blog two years ago. I'm reposting that entry today, a few days early, along with a some new comments at the end.


Monday, December 28, 2009


It's Been 23 Years...


John D MacDonald died 23 years ago today. As I write these words I find myself in a state of disbelief that it has been that long.

In September 1986 MacDonald checked into St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee for a "routine" heart bypass operation. He was 70 years old. The operation took place on the 18th and MacDonald developed pneumonia afterward. He was bedridden and did not improve. In late November he slipped into a coma and died a month later, on December 28, 1986 at 10:40 am.

According to biographer Hugh Merrill, MacDonald's doctor had assured him that the operation was relatively safe, with "only a 5 to 8 percent operative risk."

A month after his death an article appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel (reprinted in the JDM Bibliophile 39) written by one Joe Manning, describing JDM's time in the hospital:

"JDM's wife of 49 years, Dorothy, and their son Maynard, and a grandson, Karsten, were with him when he died ... from complications of heart disease...

"'You would not believe the impact his death has had on the hospital staff who were involved in his care. So many people had gotten close to him and his family,' said Steven Pinzer, hospital spokesman.

"Mrs. MacDonald and her son had remained in the Milwaukee throughout MacDonald's stay in the hospital.

"Nurses brought food from home Thanksgiving and Christmas so the MacDonald's could have home-cooked dinners together in the hospital's intensive care unit.

"A physician at St. Mary's said MacDonald 'had technically difficult arteries to bypass,' and complications to other organs led to intensive respiratory support.

"MacDonald's hospitalization had been particularly draining to the staff and family members because ' his progress was like a roller coaster, up and down.'

"'When it looked like he was going to make it, there would be a setback. Everyone thought he was finally on the road to recovery, but he had another coronary arrest and went into a coma,' the physician said...

"'There were MacDonald novels all over the hospital,' said the physician, who asked not to be named.

"The physician said MacDonald 'was incredibly lucid and his notes were extremely descriptive.' (JDM's wife Dorothy actually kept the notes, and wrote a detailed log of what she thought would be of interest during JDM's stay in the hospital.)

"'His intelligence came through all of it. He was unique in the way he coped with all the vicissitudes in the intensive care unit,' the physician said...

"Maynard, who lives in New Zealand with his wife and children and makes rocking chairs, remembers following behind his father on a family walk during a visit by his father.

"'He was walking alone with all of his five grandchildren in tow, as if they were following a big battleship. And this battleship, my father, had complete and constant awareness. He was aware of the people around him and he noted little things he saw. He had tremendous insights into people.

"'It was as if he had radar and electronic sensing equipment like a battleship would have, and nothing escaped his detection -- the exotic little things. He was very curious about the world.'

"During the visit, Maynard said, he told his father about a friend who worked in the sewer department. The friend had told Maynard that people often lose their false teeth down the toilet and the teeth are held at the treatment plant until claimed by the people who lost them.

"Maynard and his father had a hard time believing that, but went with his son to visit the friend, who worked the late-night shift.

"'My friend, Simon, took him into a room and showed my dad row upon row of false teeth that had been recovered from the sewer. He thoroughly enjoyed it. He was curious enough to go check it out for himself.

"I've been waiting for years to pick up a McGee and see the teeth thing in there,' he said..."

Nearly every newspaper in the country wrote some sort of appreciation of the man and his work, a fact that must seem astounding to anyone today who is not familiar with him. He was deeply respected, especially by his fellow writers, and authors such as Stephen King, Ross Thomas, Tony Hillerman, Dean Koontz and Donald Westlake all wrote appreciations. The Boston Globe wrote that JDM was "the Dickens of mid-century America -- popular, prolific and, if not conspicuously sentimental, conscience-ridden about his environment..." The Richmond News Leader said "No reader ever finished a MacDonald book without having learned something of value" and The Raleigh News and Observer said JDM was "almost certainly the most important novelist contemporary Florida has produced."

One of my favorite recollections of MacDonald came from Dave Hughes, a BIB subscriber from Colorado who had interviewed JDM in the mid-1970's:

"He was tall, broad-shouldered, with a ready smile and friendly conversation always waiting to be released. His love and pride for his wife and son were obvious and unmistakable. He loved life, he loved writing, he enjoyed good talk, he liked people. His grin and good-natured teasing were aimed at himself as much as at anyone or anything else. He flatly refused to take his fame and critical appraisals seriously. He was aware of his own foibles and had long since accepted them. He was satisfied with what he had become -- although he was never satisfied with his writing. No matter what stage of his career was discussed, he described himself as 'still learning my craft.'"

We're currently living through a period -- at least, I hope it's only a period -- when MacDonald and his works have become largely forgotten by the reading public. Except for the Travis McGee novels, there are only two of his other 56 books still in print: The Executioners (published under the title Cape Fear) and A Bullet for Cinderella, which was reprinted by Wonder Publishing Group as part of their Noir Masters series. A new biography promised this year by Schaffner Press seems to have disappeared, although it may see the light of day eventually. A film version of The Deep Blue Good-By is "in development" and will likely star Leonardo DICaprio, but that wouldn't appear until at least 2011 at the earliest, and it is one of 27 (!) films listed under DiCaprio's IMDb profile as being "in development," so who knows if it will ever be filmed.

Wouldn't it be ironic if a film version of a MacDonald work was the trigger for a new explosion of interest in his work? If the medium that never seemed to understand him or get him quite right was the cause behind having his books republished? I think even JDM would have a good laugh over that.

Steve Scott
When I consider that it's been twenty-five years since MacDonald took his last breath, it seem incredible to me. At times it will feel like only yesterday, and at other times like a million years ago. Little has changed since I posted this entry. One additional John D MacDonald short story anthology has been published, the eBook Death Quotient and OtherStories. A Bullet for Cinderella was republished in paper format by Gutter Press under MacDonald's original title, On the Make. And MacDonald's 1955 short story "The Killer" was included in a mystery anthology -- another eBook -- called Master of Noir: Volume Three. Other than that there hasn't been much change in the world of JDM. The film version of The Deep Blue Good-By is still "in development," and has gone through a number of proposed directors. The JDM biography that was originally to have been published in 2009 is still MIA, although I have been contacted by the author, who assures me that he is still working on it. MacDonald expert and former managing editor of the JDM Bibliophile, Cal Branche, along with his wife Nola, have just completed a three year project of transcribing John and Dorothy MacDonald's wartime letters -- 523 of them! -- for the Archives Department of the University of Florida and they are hoping they will eventually be made available to the reading public. And The Trap of Solid Gold is still humming along, albeit at a slower pace than the one-post-per-day I somehow managed when I began this project.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

JDM on the Hollywood Red Scare


Now that the headlines on the testimony of various Hollywood characters have faded away -- to reappear later, no doubt -- we must confess that the whole affair gave us an odd feeling of unreality. There were those famous faces -- R. Taylor, G. Cooper, R. Montgomery -- performing for the investigating committee. We are used to those people as two dimensional beings on a flat silver screen. We are accustomed to seeing little publicity releases on their marriages and their swimming pools. To have them plunked down in the middle of a discussion of ideologies seems a bit like reading an appreciation of Einstein by one Mickey Mouse.

The next time we go a few steps up Fountain street and buy ourselves a hunk of celluloid escape, we will gaze at those famous faces and ponder that the life of an actor or actress in indeed a hard one. Not only do you have the responsibility for getting rid of several thousand dollars a week, but you might at any time have to sit in front of a group of un-sympathetic Congressmen and be led into a discussion of realities. Any touch of reality must be quite a jolt to our tinseled friends out there.

-- from JDM's Clinton Courier column "From the Top of the Hill," November 6, 1947

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Kahala Road

Travis McGee fans will be interested to learn of a forthcoming new literary series character inspired by the Ft. Lauderdale knight-in-slightly-tarnished-armor. Screenwriter and columnist Charles Memminger has written his first novel, titled Kahala Road, created as an "homage" to John D MacDonald, and set to be published by Minotaur Books. Here is the press release:

Oct. 13, 2011
For Immediate Release:
St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books Sings Two-Book Deal
with Hawaii Writer Charles Memminger
Kahala Road” Is An Homage to John D. MacDonald’s
“Travis McGee” Series
NEW YORK, NY – Minotaur Books has signed a deal with Hawaii-based writer Charles Memminger to publish his first novel, “Kahala Road” and a sequel. The publication dates have not been set yet.
Memminger is best known as a national award-winning humor columnist and screenwriter who was a staff writer on the final season of “Baywatch Hawaii.” But he also spent years as a newspaper crime and investigative reporter. He drew on both his experiences in crime and humor to create “Kalaha Road,” a light tropical thriller set on Oahu. “Kahala Road” is an homage to John D. MacDonald’s celebrated “Travis McGee” series.
“I wanted to create a 21st century Travis McGee character set in Hawaii,” Memminger said. “The result is Stryker McBride, a former newspaper reporter-turned barefoot philosopher who withdrew to a houseboat in Kaneohe Bay after being shot by a rogue cop during an investigation of Honolulu organized crime. In ‘Kahala Road,’ Styker emerges from his self-imposed exile to find himself in drawn into a mystery whose roots reach back to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.”
Memminger has been recognized as one of the top humor columnists in the country by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. His essays and columns have appeared in national magazines, distributed by the New York Times News Service and he was the only writer in Hawaii to be included in “Chicken Soup For The Soul of America,” written in memory of the victims of 911. He’s had too books of his work published in Hawaii, the most recent being “Hey, Waiter, There’s An Umbrella In My Drink (Tales From The Tropics By Hawaii’s Favorite Humor Columnist)”.
He is represented by the New York literary agency Inkwell Management.
Minotaur Books is an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a subsidiary of Macmillan.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly

Stephen King -- ever the John D. MacDonald fan -- makes reference to his former friend in his Entertainment Weekly article "My 2011 Pop Culture Favorites," published in this week's issue. Number 10 on his list of 20 is Phillip Caputo's novel Crossers.
 
 
 

Friday, November 11, 2011

"That Strangest Month of All"

A few postings back I wrote about Cosmopolitan magazine, how it holds the record for most John D MacDonald appearances in a slick general interest magazine. While many may think of MacDonald as a "pulp" writer -- and indeed he was one, with the majority of his short fiction written for such periodicals -- he wrote an awful lot of general interest, non-crime fiction that appeared in magazines not normally associated with mystery fiction. I'm talking about titles like Ladies' Home Journal, Redbook, McCall's, Esquire, Playboy, and a host of titles who have long since published their last issues, including Collier's, Woman's Home Companion, Liberty, and The Saturday Evening Post. Most of these magazines published several JDM short stories over their long history, but a few were one-shots. And while one may wonder why this prolific author appeared only once under these titles, the real question becomes why his fiction appeared there at all. A good example is the one and only short story he ever sold to Family Circle magazine, "That Strangest Month of All."

Family Circle seems one of the most unlikely homes for JDM fiction. Begun in 1932 as a giveaway periodical in then-newly emerging supermarkets such as Safeway and Piggly Wiggly's, the magazine was aimed squarely at housewives, with features on cooking, cleaning, sewing and childrearing. There were also the seemingly mandatory features on Hollywood stars, although these articles contained nothing that would be considered gossip or innuendo. Indeed the premier issue featured Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby on the cover. And, like almost every other magazine of the era, Family Circle contained fiction -- usually two original short stories per issue -- written by third-rung mainstays of the industry of the time, authors like George Sumner Albee, Dana Burnet and Nelia Gardiner White, people whose work is virtually unknown today to all but a handful of readers.The artwork that accompanied these stories was illustrated by some of the great names of the era, artists like Peter Stevens, Richard Hook and Ernest Chiriaka, and their artwork in Family Circle is indistinguishable from their work in the higher-class slicks.

John D. MacDonald came to Family Circle relatively late in the game, at a point where his short story writing had taken a back seat to his novels. "That Strangest Month of All" appeared in the October 1959 issue of the magazine and was one of only two shorter works he would have published that year. Coming in at a tidy 5,000 words, the author employed an oft-used premise that bears a close resemblance to Stanley Ralph Ross' 1952 short story "You Got To Have Luck" (and probably dozens of other tales), where a housewife, living in a remote location, is home alone and terrorized by an escaped bad guy. In Ross's tale it is a convict, in MacDonald's, an escaped mental patient. And MacDonald, as he often did when featuring a female protagonist, uses the plot to tell a morality tale, where wishing for more, or simple unhappiness seems to be the causation of the events that follow. Not a very progressive notion, especially in a male writer (see his "Jail Bait" and "Pickup") but I think here the author was attempting something a little deeper than simply a story about a woman in peril. Much of the writing deals with the mental process of fear, as the heroine (in third person limited narrative) is suddenly confronted and then held captive by a powerful lunatic.

"She was a wife named Susan, a slim tanned woman with a soft cap of black hair, a lively face, but with a brooding inward look, an air of containment. She was called Susan. Not Sue. Not Suzy."

Susan and family (MacDonald's typical four-member family unit) live on an old farm, fourteen miles from an "industrial city" and barely within visual distance from their nearest neighbor. Husband Paul has left for work and the school bus has left, carrying her two children to morning classes. It is a day of "incomparable stillness and clarity," with the sun shining in a cloudless sky and warm enough for Susan to put on her "treasured and threadbare yellow sun suit" so she can finish sanding an old drop-leaf table out in the large backyard.

"Autumn had always been for her a time of haunting nostalgia, a longing for something she could not even identify. A time for what Paul called her 'gypsy' mood. It left the children uncertain and Paul troubled. They seemed to sense she was off in some place where they could not reach her."

As she works on her project Susan is surprised to see a helicopter flying low over her farm, and then the sound of sirens in the distance. A fire, perhaps? Children gone missing?

"As she worked, she became aware of a curious feeling of restlessness, a tiny threshold of irritation. She turned suddenly and looked behind her and found herself staring into the eyes of a man who stood a dozen feet away. She looked at him and knew the meaning then of the helicopter and the sirens."

And not just any man.

"He was big, as big and hard and solid as the trunk of one of the old oaks. He wore gray denim coveralls that seemed to be some sort of uniform... She looked into the man's face and saw an animal emptiness that stopped her breath. The shaved head and the hard high cheekbones and the flattened cartilage of the nose gave him almost a cartoonist's version of brutality. But what horrified her was the slackness of the lower part of his face and the pale uncomprehending opacity of his eyes... She remembered a long-ago time when she had been cornered by a vicious dog. She had stood very still then, a small frightened girl, sensing that any attempt to run would be the necessary trigger."

Susan attempts to smile and holds her hands out so he can see she is carrying nothing. He has trouble speaking when he asks if anyone is in the house. When the sirens sound again he "raised his head sharply, the flattened nostrils widening," grabs her by the arm and drags her inside. As the sirens fade she "stood there in her terror [and] one part of her mind thought quite calmly, saying 'This is the way it happens.'"

After giving him a drink of water, she notices that the man has been shot through the hand.

"He stood for a moment with his eyes shut, and her sudden pity was as keen and unexpected as a knife. He was exhausted. His hurt hand was horrid. Dumb creature in pain. And what of all the tales of the thorn in the pad of the lion? Were they true? ... She thought,  'And for you there is no place. No place in this world.'"

After bandaging his hand she gets him to sit calmly in a kitchen chair. But suddenly the phone rings and all thoughts of paws and lions are thrown out the window as he leaps up threateningly. Susan quickly convinces the man that the call is probably from her husband, and to ignore it would bring the police here. She picks up the receiver and Paul tells her that there is an escapee from the local lunatic asylum loose, one who has already killed three people, and for her to lock herself in the house and to keep the kids inside when they return from school. The thought of the school bus returning and her children coming home awakens a realization within her.

"You must think, she told herself. This is an almost mindless thing. You can't run from him, even when the school bus stops. You can't save everything. So it comes to a choice. At any cost to you, Susan, you must warn them. Before the school bus comes."

She quickly devises a plan to lure the man upstairs under the pretext of hiding him in the attic. Once there she will break a jar of turpentine onto the floor, light it and jump out onto the roof, with the belief that the flames will prevent the man from following her. The plan almost works, but Susan is unable to light a match quickly enough and darts out of the window. Unable to follow her because of the heavy boots he is wearing, he grabs the nearest object -- a can of orange paint -- and hurls it at her, hitting the standpipe she is holding onto and splattering the paint all over her and onto the roof. Then she sees him emerging from the window, boots now off, climbing out with little difficulty and toward her...


The basic plot and resolution of this story are fairly predictable, and I recall that the first time I read this back in 1982 I was thoroughly unimpressed by it, thinking that MacDonald surely could have done better by this point in his career. "That Strangest Month of All" was, after all, written only one year before he published two of his finest novels, The End of the Night and Slam the Big Door. But re-reading it nearly thirty years later reveals an interesting subtext that was lost on me in my younger years: the process the protagonist goes through in a moment of real peril. The ending of this short story -- which I won't reveal other than to state the obvious, that Susan does indeed survive -- contains several interesting touches that never would have been articulated in earlier JDM work, including some poignant revelations about the escapee's past and Susan's processing of her ordeal moments after it is resolved. MacDonald had come a long way from "Jail Bait," where a similar situation seems almost like divine retribution for wanting something different in life than marriage and children. JDM's short story output had been reduced to a relative trickle by this point in his life, but the quality of the product was far and away superior to his early pulp work. This should have come as no surprise to me, but writing this blog has become a learning experience.

In 1982 Family Circle celebrated its 50th Anniversary, and its September issue of that year contained loads of retrospectives and histories of the various departments and features of the magazine over the years. To celebrate all of the fiction the magazine had brought to newsstands over five decades, the editors chose only one story to reprint, and that story was "That Strangest Month of All." It appeared with a brief introduction and a smaller reprinting of the original story art, a meticulously accurate illustration by Dick Hook. It was, perhaps, an easy editorial decision to choose an author who, in 1982, was at the height of his bookselling power, but the story itself is good enough to have left no doubt as to the wisdom of its selection.

"That Strangest Month of All" has yet to be anthologized.







Tuesday, November 8, 2011

JDM in Panama (1977)


"We sat in the shelter of the [Hotel Panama] Pool Terrace and talked with others who had been milling around town that day, about what they had found and the attitude of the people. Because of the increasing agitation for a new canal treaty, we expected the same sort of obvious hostility we had once experienced in Caracas: people glaring, shaking fists, blocking the sidewalk, making audible comments.

"But no one experienced any of this. The Panamanians seemed pleasant and courteous, though not overtly warm. One cabdriver had told us his particular view of reality. He said the politicos and the students were the ones making the big fuss about the canal. and the general public did not really care that much. The thing they cared about was that the canal keep operating, because it brought in a lot of money in wages, and it brought tourists. He said he thought Panamanians could run it okay if they took over, but probably wages would go down and tolls would go up, because that is always what the politicos do, everywhere.

"In all Latin countries one sees, of course, those quick dark glances from the slender young men. Scorn, disdain, challenge? A look is only a look. Without accompanying word or gesture, it can be interpreted incorrectly. Instead of thinking about plastique and machine pistols and assaults on the embassy, he may be wondering where you bought the funny hat or pondering what he is going to wear to the evening disco. Many travelers have acute attacks of paranoia in foreign places. Drawing the most generous conclusions is the way to retain balance and sanity. Fear spoils the view."

-- from Nothing Can Go Wrong (1981)


Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Stephen King Connection


Regular readers of this blog have no doubt seen the small list of quotes I've placed in the right column of the page, quotes of praise about the work of John D MacDonald. The most succinct and adulatory of this tiny collection is also the most oft-quoted: author Stephen King's "[John D MacDonald was] the great entertainer of our age."

 Although the two writers were separated by 31 years of age their careers shared many characteristics, including early years as short story writers working in entry-level markets (JDM in the pulps, King in second-tier men's magazines), similar writing styles that featured a strong gift of narrative, and ultimate best seller status in the world of American fiction writing. The two men were also friends, a relationship that began with MacDonald's agreement to write the introduction for King's first short story anthology Night Shift. After MacDonald passed away King wrote a fascinating tribute to his pal that appeared in the inaugural issue of Mystery Scene magazine, along side tributes from over two dozen other writers, including Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, Charles Willeford and Harlan Ellison. King's piece offered an interesting history of his introduction to the fiction of JDM, how the elder author came to write the introduction to Night Shift, and ended with King's heartfelt admission of deep loss.

 King revealed that his first exposure to MacDonald occurred in 1959 when he read the author's 20th novel Murder in the Wind, which was published three years earlier. He described how the book illuminated a truth that was instrumental in guiding his own career choice as a writer:

 "[I was] knocked cockeyed by it... and both while reading it and afterward, I went around in a state of exhilaration, thinking 'So it can be done. It can be.'

 "By 'it' I suppose I meant telling the truth about life even while you were writing for the popular market, so often regarded by those self-esteeming English profs as a market made up of closet sadists, lowbrow truck-drivers, and bored housewives. But even at twelve, with no more experience of life than a rural upbringing could afford, I knew the feel of the real when it touched me in that book. How could I, or anyone, not feel it? Murder in the Wind did not reach out and touch you; it grabbed you, jerked you into a dark alley, and assaulted you.

 "MacDonald was writing about people I knew, about smells I had smelled, and I thought, about the way I would feel under certain circumstances. It was like seeing your first color movie after a lifetime of black-and-white."

When King was in college he managed a brief period of "writer's block" by reading many of MacDonald's novels, a recollection he revealed in his excellent 2000 memoir On Writing, where he mentioned the incident in a condemnation of creative writing classes. By the the time King had become a full time writer -- after the publication of the paperback edition of Carrie in 1975 -- his second novel 'Salem's Lot contained an interesting passage, probably an unconscious bit of writing but one which would blossom into a kind of literary mutual admiration between King and MacDonald. The novel's hero Ben Mears is an author who returns to his boyhood town of Jerusalem's Lot, Maine, only to discover that the town's citizens are slowly turning into vampires.  During a lengthy interview with Homer McCaslin, the county sheriff, he reveals his occupation and it turns out McCaslin had read some of Mears' published work. McCaslin was not impressed. The interview (and the chapter) ends with the sheriff offering the author some advice:

 "You ought to write books with better sense. Like the guy who writes those Travis McGee stories. A man can sink his teeth into one of those."

Three years later, after the publication of his third novel The Shining,  King put together a collection of his early short stories he called Night Shift, and after the initial editing process with his editor Bill Thompson, he was asked who he would like to write the introduction. Specifically, King recalled Thompson's question thusly:

"If you could have anyone in the world do the introduction to the book, who would you pick?"

King remembers his response as being "quick and automatic. 'John D. MacDonald,' I said."

"Why MacDonald?" [Thompson] asked.

"Because he taught me everything I know," I said, hesitated, and then added in spite of my embarrassment (hell, it was the truth): "Because I idolize him."

"Well, let's ask him," Bill said

I said that would be okay (as long as we was Bill Thompson), but I was taken aback all the same. To me it was like asking God to write an introduction... Someone like that writing an introduction for my book? Presumptuous, man. Extreeemly presumptuous.

"He'll probably be too busy, though," I said. What I really thought was that John D. MacDonald was about as likely to waste his valuable time writing an introduction to my book of short stories as Adolph Hitler was apt to be then employed building snow-forts down in hell.

"Doesn't hurt to ask," Bill said...

I went back to Maine, thinking little more about the business. In my mind MacDonald had already sent Bill a form letter or no response at all.

Instead, Bill called and read me an extremely courteous letter from MacDonald, saying he would read my stories, and, if he liked them, do the introduction. I couldn't believe it. Refused to believe it, in fact, until Bill sent me a photocopy. Then I had to... but I knew he'd decline, because the stories weren't very good, mostly just pulp stuff I'd published to help keep my family afloat during the first four years of married life (and having no inkling, at that time, that MacDonald had fought his own battles for light and survival and a little extra nourishment in that same pulp jungle, as Frank Gruber termed it), and besides, MacDonald wrote crime stories, not horror stories, although I'd be less than honest if I didn't add... I also knew he'd written some horror and fantasy shorts, and two sf novels.

His agreement to do that introduction and its prompt arrival a couple of weeks later pleased and impressed me more than the kind things the essay itself had to say about my work; MacDonald's generosity to a young writer who he'd never met helped to keep that young writer open to the needs -- and wistful hopes - of other young writers...

MacDonald's piece was a rambling yet brief and pitch-perfect analysis on the art of writing and being a writer. Discussing King -- a man he had never met or spoken to -- he was really writing about himself, putting into words beliefs about his profession he would repeat in interviews over and over until his death eight years later. Remember, this was before King had become STEPHEN KING, the bestselling American author of all time, so MacDonald's agreement to write this introduction was obviously done because he genuinely liked the stories and enjoyed the craft employed in creating them.

King wrote MacDonald a thank you letter before the book was actually published, saying how much he appreciated the gesture and the content: "I thought [it] was intelligent, witty, and very kind. Your comments on why and how we write were especially welcome." He went on to praise MacDonald's novel Condominium, which King had just read, calling it "a good, honest, meaty job of writing and an acrobatic feat of storytelling." MacDonald responded a month later, saying "Glad the introduction seemed okay to you," and went on to bemoan the mountain of mail that had piled up while he was away on a cruise.

In 1980 King sent two copies of Night Shift to MacDonald, apologizing that they were "sadly overdue" and revealed that he and his wife Tabitha had been in Florida the month before and had thought about giving MacDonald a call but didn't because King was afraid that JDM "might bite [his] head off" for not sending him a copy of the book.

The next year King published his sixth novel (I'm not counting the Richard Bachman books -- that particular secret hadn't been revealed yet). Cujo was the story of a rabid St. Bernard who menaces a mother and her young son trapped inside a car in a remote location. Containing almost no supernatural content, it featured King's second fictional reference to his idol. As things turn bleak and it becomes apparent that there is no way they can get free, the mother ruefully thinks:

The time might also have gone, but she would have to live with that -- and perhaps die with it. No one was going to come. There was going to be no knight on a silver steed riding up Town Road No. 3 -- Travis McGee was apparently otherwise occupied.

That same year King published his first non-fiction work, the indispensable Danse Macabre, a lengthy and wonderfully written study of the horror fiction genre. In it he relates the story of how JDM came up with the title for his 1979 Travis McGee novel The Green Ripper:

John D. MacDonald tells the story of how for weeks his son was terrified of something he called "the green ripper." MacDonald and his wife finally figured it out -- at a dinner party, a friend had mentioned the Grim Reaper. What their son had heard was *the green ripper, and later it became the title of one of MacDonald's Travis McGee stories.

One year later MacDonald finally reciprocated in the literary game by including a Stephen King reference in the 1982 Travis McGee novel Cinnamon Skin. While staying in the apartment of Meyer's niece, the duo eat dinner and Meyer heads to bed.

I cleaned up, looking around, and found a paperback by Stephen King about a big weird dog. Took it to bed and read a lot longer than I'd planned to. Very scary dog. Very scary writer. Wondered if he would be able to guess what kind of person Evan Lawrence was: as scary as King's dog, but in a different way.

King's 1983 novel Christine featured a scene where a man is sitting reading a John D MacDonald novel.

When King's Pet Sematary was published later in 1983 King gave a copy of the book to John and his wife Dorothy, inscribing it "I hope this book scares the hell out of you." So, in the subsequent and final McGee novel The Lonely Silver Rain MacDonald plays the game again. While waiting at an airport McGee buys a book; this time it's King's Pet Sematary:

Once through Security I found an empty chair that backed up to a wall. There I pretended to read the book I had picked up at the hotel newsstand. I had gotten to the part where a buried cat came back to life, but couldn't walk well.

That was MacDonald's last King reference, as he wrote only one more book before he died in December of 1986. King, however, has continued to include references to MacDonald in his works of fiction. In Bag of Bones the protagonist recalls having read 23 John D MacDonald novels. In Needful Things a character reads a JDM novel while nursing her baby son. In Duma Key a character references the kinds of sociopathic people that MacDonald turned into an art form in the persons of Max Cady, Junior Allen and Boo Waxwell. And in the fifth entry to The Dark Tower series, Wolves of the Calla, MacDonald's name appears on a menu board(!)

King's most direct fictional reference to MacDonald came in 1990 when he published Four Past Midnight, an anthology of four novellas. The final entry was titled "The Sun Dog" and King dedicated it to his literary friend:

This is in memory of John D. MacDonald. I miss you, old friend -- and you were right about the tigers.

The novella is preceded by a lengthy "note" where King relates how he came up with the idea for "The Sun Dog." Nowhere does he mention MacDonald or the cryptic reference to "the tigers." It is probable that the note was written before King decided to dedicate the novella, for nothing in the subject matter of the story bears any relationship to MacDonald, at least as far as I can tell. "The Sun Dog" is about a Polaroid camera that is given as a birthday gift to a young boy. Instead of reproducing images of what the camera is pointed at, it prints images of a particular scene in front of a house, with a savage-looking dog in the corner of the frame. As subsequent shots are taken the dog slowly begins to fill the screen, eventually ripping through from some other dimension and attacking the camera's owner. The novella is an unfortunate choice as King's one and only story specifically dedicated to MacDonald, as it has got to be one of the weakest works of fiction he has ever written. Dull, predictable and wordy beyond belief (even for King!), it might have made a fairly interesting 3,000-word short story as part of a larger anthology. At its existing length of 62,000 words spread over 145 pages it is nearly unendurable.

(Lest anyone think I am being disrespectful to King, I would note that I was an early and rabid reader of his works, beginning in 1975 when I unpacked pile of paperback copies of Carrie while working in the book section of a department store. Leafing through it I noted the epistolary style of the writing -- reminding me a great deal of Bram Stoker's Dracula --  took it home and devoured it. I purchased and read every subsequent King novel -- in hardcover! -- up to The Talisman, when I simply ran out of gas and lost interest. I have been back to the well now and then over the years but have not come close to reading everything the man has published.)

In 2007 King was chosen to receive the annual Grand Master award from The Mystery Writers of America. Not surprisingly, his acceptance speech included a JDM reference:

"I'm delighted to be getting the Grand Master Award and to be joining the company of some of my greatest idols and teachers -- people like John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain and Donald E. Westlake. The award means a great deal to me personally, because it's an award from people who understand two things: the importance of good writing and the importance of telling stories."

In interviews over the years King rarely fails to mention MacDonald when talking about early influences. A good example is one you can read here, where he states,

"I had cut my teeth on [JDM] stories. I still think that of all the people doing top fiction today, he is the best. He was my model as a kid. If there are people out there that want to write, all you need to do is read 20 of his stories to get an idea what it takes to make a story kick over."

It really must have been a waking dream for King to have become an associate, and later a friend, of his childhood idol. The two authors and their wives eventually met, and MacDonald and King exchanged letters regularly in the years up to JDM's death. During MacDonald's final year King was one of the few people on earth to whom JDM revealed the plot of the never-to-be-written new Travis McGee adventure, and he wrote to King of personal travails, including his wife's cancer and chemotherapy treatments. And in 2001 the Kings purchased a winter home in MacDonald's adopted town of Sarasota, barely a mile south from the home where the MacDonalds lived from 1952 to 1969.

It's safe to assume that King's Mystery Scene tribute really was as heartfelt as it reads, and it's as touching to read today as it was back in 1987.

The death of a writer who has spoken so clearly from his own heart into your own is always a painful, scouring thing, and I'm in a little too much grief to find any uplifting conclusion... It doesn't seem right to me, somehow, that a voice like that should ever be stilled... I'll read [one of his books] when I need something I know will hold up. Man, he was a good writer, wasn't he? When you went out to the drugstore to grab a paperback, most times you got a bologna sandwich. With John, you got the whole fucking delicatessen. And man, he was a good man.

Jesus, John, I miss you.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stephen King on JDM

Question: "Is there a novel you go back to again and again? If so, why? What does it teach you?"

King:   "I go back to the John D. MacDonald novels from the fifties, like The End of the Night and One Monday We Killed Them All. Great stories. The Travis McGee books are small beer compared to the stand-alones (the greatest is The Last One Left); the stand-alones are real American literature -- rough, sure, but so's Thomas Wolfe. These books taught me how to write stories."

 --from The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook (2010) Edited by Daniel Alarc√≥n

(Interestingly, the three titles King cites were all written in the sixties, not the fifties.)


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Empty Trap


The Empty Trap is one of my all-time favorite John D MacDonald novels. I felt that way the first time I read the novel back in 1975 and have confirmed my opinion every time I have reread it. When tackling it once again for this blog posting I was amazed at how fresh and alive it seemed, and -- re-reading the JDM novels in chronological order -- how sharp a departure it was from the books the author had penned up to this point. Its plot it simplicity itself -- a pulp revenge-morality tale that bears strong resemblance to some of his earlier short stories (see especially his 1953 novella "Death's Eye View") and its protagonist's primary motivation is not redemption but revenge. Yet it's the setting and the secondary characters that bring this tale alive, as well as the interesting, gradual way JDM reveals the past in a series of disjointed flashbacks. And while said protagonist is a MacDonald prototype -- big, athletic, rugged, hardworking, an expert in his field of work -- he is imperfect, in ways that the author had rarely touched on in previous works, with the notable exception of his early novel Weep For Me. Indeed, The Empty Trap reads a lot like a reworking and a kind of penance for Weep for Me, one of only two novels the author didn't ever want reprinted. Gone is the Cainsean sin of fatal impulse, replaced by a nobler imperative, equally mistaken but morally (as MacDonald defines morality) more acceptable.

That's not to say that the book doesn't have problems. The plot itself is rather fantastical, full of all sorts of improbable occurrences, happenstance, near misses and circumstances that beggar belief. The device of using radical plastic surgery to completely fool otherwise intelligent people is laughable at points. And the author's treatment of Mexican Indios as noble creatures, full of ancient wisdoms and without any faults borders on worship, to the point where the reader may begin thinking they are reading some hippie primer from the 1960's. (It brought to mind the old Firesign Theatre bit where the earnest young stoner assures an old Native American: "There's a lot of young people in the country, just like myself, who really know where the Indian's at. And don't worry. Soon we're all gonna be out here on the Reservation, livin' like Indians, 'n' dressin' like Indians and doin' all the simple, Beautiful Things that you Indians do. Hey --  got any peyote?") But these faults are far outweighed by MacDonald's trademark narrative drive, and the novel, once started, really is almost impossible to put down.

And with the exceptions of Weep For Me and Judge Me Not, it's probably as close as MacDonald came to writing noir up to this point in his career, and by that I mean true noir, the form defined by Otto Penzler as "...bleak, existential, alienated, pessimistic tales about losers-people who are so morally challenged that they cannot help but bring about their own ruin." In Weep For Me the protagonist fits the classic mold more so than in The Empty Trap, with Kyle Cameron starting from a place of comfort and, because of one really bad decision, sees his life spiral down into the pits of hell. Technically the same could be said for The Empty Trap, but here the author plays with time in his telling of the tale, and we begin the story where the fruits of his misdeeds are punished, then flip back and forth through flashback to see how he got there. He also uses introspection a lot more here, where the hero examines his past and his motivations, never really understanding them but realizing how he came to be where he is. And Lloyd Wescott, The Empty Trap's hero, is no Kyle Cameron, no listless soul stuck in a low-level job waiting for life to happen. He's a success in his trade, one of the top men in the industry, making his decent into the noir underworld all the more bracing.

The Empty Trap was MacDonald's twenty-first novel, his seventeenth paperback original, his third of four novels written in 1957, and his fifth and last title for Popular Library, a publisher that seemed to have been losing interest in the author. In fact, The Empty Trap suffered from the smallest first run of any JDM paperback ever, with only 72,000 copies printed for a single run. Coming on the heels of Dell's huge printing of The Price of Murder only a few months earlier, one wonders what Popular was thinking. Did they recognize how different this book was from the author's previous efforts? Were they unhappy with the sales of their previous MacDonald effort, Border Town Girl? Or did somebody simply screw up? And since MacDonald was paid not on sales but on the size of the printing runs, he must have received a very modest paycheck for this great book. Perhaps it was MacDonald himself who severed the ties with Popular. The book did not see a second printing until 1967 when Fawcett brought out a new edition, and from that point forward the book went through many printings of over half a million copies.

Another interesting anomaly with this effort is the fact that, for the first time since writing You Live Once, five novels back and two years prior, there was no simultaneous magazine version of the novel published. Cosmopolitan had already printed two JDM titles in 1957, and perhaps wasn't interested in doing another only two months after The Price of Murder. (The Empty Trap was published in December of 1957). Redbook, who had published the condensed version of Murder in the Wind would have likely been put off by the tone and subject matter of the new novel. The only possible market for a book like The Empty Trap would have been a magazine like Argosy, but that didn't happen, and the novel came and went with little notice.

The story of The Empty Trap begins at what seems like the end but turns out in fact to be the middle of the story. Beaten, tortured and bound Lloyd Wescott is sitting between two mob goons in the front seat of a dark blue Chrysler with Nevada plates, riding along a remote and mountainous road in the wilderness of Mexico, en route to his death. Following closely behind is Lloyd's own car, a Pontiac, which carries the dead body of his girlfriend Sylvia. They are coming from several days of hellish treatment in a Mexican motel at the hands of these three men. Lloyd has been burned, slugged and cut, and seems barely alive, but he's luckier that Sylvia, who endured several days of repeated raping before being put to death. Now it's time to kill Lloyd and dispose of the bodies, in Lloyd's own car, over a steep and high cliff where they will likely be found only by the locals, poor Indios who will be more likely to scavenge the wreckage than to call for the police.

Lloyd himself is no mobster but one of MacDonald's best-of-breed professionals, a hotel manager at the top of the industry. In a flashback midway through the novel we learn how Lloyd, already a success in a variety of different hotels, is approached by a guest named Harry Danton. Danton wants to build his own hotel, a gambling resort in Nevada, and he is so impressed by Lloyd's work that he offers him a job: not just to manage the resort but to design it from the ground up. When warned by Lloyd that such an endeavor could easily fail, Danton responds "I'm in a lot of things. People can go broke in any one of them, Wescott. I don't, on account of I always get top people and give them their head." Lloyd has already been warned by a knowable associate that Danton is a mobster, so despite the offer of a relatively free hand and a huge increase in pay, he refuses. But a year later, after changing jobs for the winter, Danton asks again and Lloyd accepts.

At that point Lloyd has fallen into the "trap" of the novel's title. Thinking of himself as "one of the good guys" in the "script" of life, he can't imagine himself becoming involved with the mob or being sullied by his association with a known gangster. Losing himself in nonstop work helps this conceit, and it's not until he has a conversation with someone long after the Hotel Green Oasis is up and running and a roaring success, that he recognizes the freedom he has forever lost. It begins when Danton decides to move his headquarters from Detroit to the hotel, living in a small bungalow beside the main building. He brings with him three hoodlums, the three who eventually are sent to kill Lloyd, and later he brings a new wife, Sylvia. Unlike most of the brain-dead bimbos that Danton previously had hanging around him, Sylvia is different. When told that she is a lounge singer Lloyd imagines "a brass-haired blonde going to seed, with the gutter voice of the blues shouter," but when he actually meets her she is anything but:

"She was a long-bodied girl, medium tall, narrow of waist, sleek of leg. Her black hair was of a soft texture and it was pulled back into a bun...Her eyes were a deep brown, almost black, her face well-cut and delicate, her smile warm and personal...Her voice was low, well-modulated, her diction precise."

Danton asks Lloyd to show Sylvia around the hotel and the two end up in one of the establishment's many drinking holes. An initial air of courtesy quickly gives way to animosity as Lloyd admits that he and Danton's mobsters were surprised at how classy Sylvia turned out to be. There follows an amazing piece of JDM backstory as Sylvia, in an attempt to shock and anger Lloyd, tells her the background of her life. It's one of those short-story-within-a-novel bits that MacDonald had mastered early in his novel-writing career and did better than almost anyone else. Speaking of herself in the third person, she begins:

"So take Sylvia at fourteen. She looked eighteen. A kid from Hell's Kitchen. A tough bastard of a kid with a whore mother and an unknown father. She was tough through and through and you don't lose that kind of toughness, my friend... She knew every filthy trick in the books and got picked up helping the other kids roll a lush, and got sent to one of those schools and got out by knocking out a matron with a Coke bottle. That was twelve years ago, Lloyd. How am I doing?" 

He was shocked by the whispered vehemence of her words. "You've come a long way." 

"Before I was fifteen I was traveling with a syndicate car thief named Joey Tower. He got hot so they transferred him to the west coast and I went along. My hair was bleached white. I wore sweaters two sizes too small. I talked with a whine and the language would make a truck driver shiver. But Joey's boss saw something in the slut, and cut Joey out, with a little help from the slut, who was a very greedy child, and still is." 

"Sylvia, I--" 

"You started the needle job, and you're going to listen..."

And on it goes for three densely-packed pages as we learn how this tramp became a lady, working her way through one gangster after another, dealing dirty and getting people killed, until she ultimately ended up a singer in a "sour little club," billed as "the ex-darling of mobland," doing a routine that contained "some very blue material." (A sure sign in MacDonald's moral universe that she had indeed hit bottom.) After she goads Lloyd into telling his very dull life story, she is nearly brought to tears.

"I need to stop feeling so damn sorry for myself all the time. I've felt that way for years. I wanted to shock you. I wanted you to come up with a lot of asinine questions. But you put me very neatly in my place. I thought I was being dramatic. I guess I was being silly." 

"Just a little bit silly. Not enough to count." 

"All I ever really wanted was a guy with one drug store who could maybe build it up to three. You're going to be good for me, Lloyd. You have...balance."

The new marriage quickly sours and Lloyd finds that he can't get Sylvia out of his mind. When he sees her a week after their initial meeting, she is morose and withdrawn. They talk for a while and the subject turns to Lloyd's relationship with Danton.

Lloyd: "He's left me alone." 

Sylvia: "Try to leave and see." 

He stared at her. "I could give notice and leave. Why not?" 

"You could be desk clerk in a flea bag. You'll never get a good job managing a good hotel. Not for long. Not in this country. And I know just how he'd fix you. Through the unions. Hiring you would be a guarantee of a walkout on some other pretext. Harry never lets people go. He likes them to try it, though, because he likes to have them crawl back." 

"He's no monster!" 

"Of course not. In his business there are certain rules. He's carried those rules over from the rackets to the legit enterprises. Nobody leaves. No top people. You're in for life. But don't kick about it. You have it good."

Lloyd is astounded (he's apparently never read anything about the mob before!) and he tests Sylvia's assertion by going to Danton, who, in a fairly nice way (for a mobster) confirms the claim.

Lloyd: "What you're saying is, I work for you from here on in." 

Harry stood up. "Is that so bad? Am I some clown? Isn't the pay right? Listen, I'll tell you something. In every business they got key personnel, right? Okay, you're key personnel. In a lot of businesses they got a turnover problem with key personnel. G.E. has it. General Motors has it. Even the Air Force has it. But you know what ratio of turnover I run on key personnel? None. No ratio at all. I don't want you trying to spoil my record, kid. If right now you got an itch, that's okay. It's letdown. You've worked like a dog. Tell you what you do. Draw a thousand and take off for a week. The house won't fall down. Go away someplace. Go get laid." 

"Thanks, Harry. I'm not that restless. I was just thinking." 

"Don't think too much."

It is at this point that the novel begins to borrow heavily from the plot of Weep For Me, as Lloyd and Sylvia fall in love and decide to run away together. They plan a massive theft from the hotel's casino, and it comes off without a hitch. They jump into Lloyd's Pontiac and head to Mexico, making it to Juarez in three days. Their plan, right out of Weep For Me, is to use a portion of their stolen loot to purchase citizenship in an unnamed South American country, far enough away from Harry Danton to finally feel safe. But Sylvia will never feel safe.

The increasing distance had not given her peace of mind. Rather she had seemed to grow more frightened, day by day, pale, nervous, irritable.

"We're safe now," he told her. 

"We'll never be safe. We shouldn't have done it. We shouldn't have tried to do it, Lloyd. We were crazy to try it. We were insane to even think of it. You don't know what they're capable of. You don't know how he'll feel about this. He can't let a thing like this go. We'll never be safe." 

"Don't worry about it. Let me take care of things." 

"You can't take care of things. You don't understand them. You don't know how they are."

Her fear is real enough for Lloyd to take one precaution, a move that will further the plot along later in the novel when it's time for revenge. He takes a portion of the loot, forty thousand dollars, stuffs it in a peanut brittle jar and hides it under the floorboard of the motel room.

Of course they are caught -- Danton's three mobsters have located them fairly easily -- and they suffer at their hands for several days in a locked motel room. It is at this point that "boy scout" Lloyd Wescott realizes the truth of the world, that there is no good or bad, no cosmic justice, no moral compass, only strength and survival and the white-hot emotion of hatred.

"Lloyd sat with his chin on his chest, the tears running out of his eyes, breathing hard, sobbing against the gag. He could smell the rich stink of his burned chest and belly, his burned feet. He knew he could never be the same person again. He knew he could not go back to what he had been before. He had learned, abruptly, a special kind of hatred. He thought he could not hate any more violently than he did in those moments. Yet an hour later the hatred was stronger. The next hour tempered it, like a cherry red blade thrust into the quenching oil...

"The script was wrong. There were always the good guys and the bad guys. And the beautiful woman. Lloyd had known all his life that he was one of the good guys. That made it simple, because then you always knew how it came out. The good guy and the beautiful girl would always get into one hell of a mess, but something always happened just at the very last minute, just when they both seemed doomed. Something happened. The bonds were worked loose, and you felled the bad guys with a chair. Or the cops came. Or the cavalry. It usually happened just when they were getting set to torture you. But something was wrong with this script and they went right ahead and did it. It didn't happen in the nick of time. The nick of time went right on by while you screamed and screamed on to a bloody towel. And always the beautiful girl was threatened by a fate worse than death. And they never quite got to her. They made some error in timing, or they left a gun around loose. But this nick of time went right on by too."

And soon thereafter we arrive at... the beginning of the novel. Lloyd's push off of the Mexican cliff nearly kills him but of course it doesn't. He is thrown from the car and lands on a convenient tree sticking out the side of the cliff. His efforts to get his already-tortured and now broken body off the tree and safely down to the bottom where there is a small river are painstakingly detailed, as MacDonald ventures into Jack London literary country. And this is how much of the beginning of the novel is told, with the backstory haltingly revealed in sporadic flashback. Lloyd is eventually rescued by a Mexican Indio, a member of a small and remote village, whose people are victims of some sort of tribal warfare that has left them outcasts. This allows MacDonald the time and the solitude to have Lloyd slowly heal without any news of his survival getting back to Danton. It also gives the author a chance to revel in his knowledge of Mexico, a country he took his family to live when he was a struggling pulp writer, and more importantly, to express his singular love of the people of this country.

As we are shifted back and forth in time, from the "present" of Lloyd's reoperation to the past of the events that brought him here, we slowly learn about the people of this village, their nobility, their simplicity, their open caring for a stranger in distress. And naturally there's a girl, just as there was a girl in Weep for Me (Adela) and a girl in "Border Town Girl" (Felicia). Here she is named Isabella, but she might as well have been either of the other two named characters, for she serves the same purpose and is essentially the same character. Not as strikingly beautiful as Adela, Isabella is described as a simple girl, one Lloyd wouldn't have looked twice at in his former life, but here she is pretty enough to strike a chord within him.

Usually it was the girl who took care of him. Her name was Isabella, and often they called her 'Bella or 'Bellita. She seemed to be seventeen or eighteen, a sturdy girl with a broad brown face in which he saw a family resemblance to the three boys, with black thick brows, black braided hair coarse and shiny as the tail hair of a black horse. She came to feed him and care for his needs during the day when the others worked, came to him smelling of sun and the fields and of sweat, impersonally gentle, sometimes crooning to him with the reassuring sounds you make to a small child. He knew she was not directly of this family, yet somehow related.

It is Isabella, young, unmarried Isabella who nurses Lloyd back to life over the many months it takes for him to recuperate, and eventually they couple and produce a child. But Lloyd cannot stay here in this bucolic setting, a place where he has been accepted and where hard work in the fields under a blazing sun has helped bring him back to life. He explains it to the villagers one evening, and they understand completely.

"I feel it is necessary [to tell you all]." He found himself looking at Isabella. She was looking down at her clasped hands. "The money and the woman. They were not mine. I took them. I was followed." He looked around at impassive faces. "But a thing cannot be black or white. I was a thief when I took the money, but that money had been stolen from others. I was a thief when I took the woman, but she was gentle and unhappy and often beaten. She asked me to take her away, and I wished to give her happiness. The men found us. My actions were not honorable, perhaps. But their actions were the actions of animals. With me and with the woman. Most of all with the woman, before one of them killed her. That is why it is necessary to kill them. 

I will not be a man again until that is done." 

It was not something he could have said in his own land in his own tongue without feeling ridiculously melodramatic. And he wondered whether the need to kill would have been as understandable even to himself in another place and time. Yet here it was perfectly clear, and he could see that [they] accepted it. 

Here there was no talk of the futility of revenge. This was a mission of honor.

And so Lloyd leaves, first to reclaim the hidden stash of loot in the motel room, then to a plastic surgeon in Mexico City to repair his horribly damaged face. Then it's on to the Hotel Green Oasis...

I wish I could better explain why it is that I love this novel so much. It's certainly not the simplistic revenge plot, or the naive and romantic portrait of a more primitive people, or even the redemptive love experienced between Lloyd and Isabella. I think it has more to do with MacDonald's telling of the tale, his experiments with time, revealing two sections of Lloyd's experience in alternating chronological order. And the revenge part is pretty satisfying, I have to admit, even if it is tempered to an extent in the end (read it yourself to find out what I mean). But what I think I really like about this book is JDM's attempt to improve on a failure, or at least what he perceived to be a failure. He obviously loved the idea of escaping to Mexico with a beautiful babe and a stash of stolen cash, and he does tell it much better here than he did in Weep For Me. And I love the idea of redemption, of taking what even MacDonald must have realized was becoming a kind of archetypal hero in his own fiction and making him more flawed than perhaps even he as the author was comfortable with. The background of Sylvia, for example, would have consigned her to an early and deserved death in one of his earlier short stories or novels, but here -- even though she does pay the ultimate price -- is dealt with compassionately and with some degree of understanding. MacDonald was indeed growing as an artist.

And I really, really love the ending of this book, which according to my own rules of this blog I can't discuss. It's a descent into a noir world that eventually leads to.... no, I can't. You have to read this book.

As far as I can tell, and as best as bibliographer Walter Shine could research, there was only one contemporary book review for The Empty Trap when it was published in December 1957. Not surprisingly it was by MacDonald champion Anthony Boucher, who wrote in his New York Times column Criminals at Large:

"In John D Macdonald's The Empty Trap, a man left for dead by gangster assassins is nursed back to life by an isolated Mexican community in the mountains of Queretaro. Recovered, he is pulled in various directions by the kingdom concept of revenge-killing, by the local code of manly honor, and by his own upbringing which makes killing impossible. MacDonald has taken some familiar elements of the gangster novel, developed them brutally and even shockingly -- and looked behind them to write a book that is a novel rather than a shocker."

When Fawcett reprinted the novel in 1967 the book got a lot more press, much of it very favorable. The Toledo Blade said "Like all MacDonald novels of recent years, this is absolutely top-notch and eminently readable. In our opinion, the man can do no wrong." (I'm guessing the reviewer didn't bother to look at the original copyright date.) The Springfield Journal and Register wrote "Let's face it, there just isn't anybody around today turning out suspense-sex-adventure stories like MacDonald... [He] has been increasingly prolific and amazingly consistently good for the size of his literary output. This brisk, crisp and often downright brutal tale is one of the better ones, even for him." And the Montclair-Piedmont Spectator out of Oakland, California went completely overboard, stating that "MacDonald may be the very best story teller in American history." (OK, I won't argue with that one.)

The first edition cover features two scenes that give the would-be reader a clue about the dichotomy of worlds featured in the story. To the right and largely filling the frame is a sultry blonde with a trio of grinning thugs behind her. If this is supposed to be the motel scene it has some curious features, including a blonde Sylvia (she was brunette) looking very unlike anyone who is about to undergo what she is about to. Below that the smaller figures of an injured Lloyd being nursed by Earth Mother Isabella. Above the art is a quote from Real Magazine which may or may not be "real," as Walter Shine was never able to uncover a copy of the  review it came from. The artwork, which has an almost seedy, unfinished quality to it, was uncredited.

And the cover for the first Fawcett version of the novel, published in April 1967, was also uncredited. It's a somewhat unremarkable illustration of a woman carrying a hat bag and an overcoat walking away from the viewer down a very wide hotel lobby. The green carpet looks almost alive.This cover was retained for Fawcett's second printing in 1969, but by 1971 it had been dispensed with and replaced with a Robert McGinnis lovely wearing a bikini and standing in front of a large Aztec sun. This version was retained for a total of five printings, through 1980. Finally, in 1982 William Schmidt created one of his best paintings for the final four printings, featuring a large vulture sitting on the makeshift grave of poor Sylvia, her arm sticking out between the stones.

Just as John D MacDonald wasn't through with the themes and plot devices he had begun to explore in Weep For Me, so too was he not finished with the doors he had opened with The Empty Trap. Three years later he came back to the world of hotel management in the darker, more mature The Only Girl in the Game. It's an amazing job of plot reconstruction, taking a similar tale with similar characters (the mob is again involved) and leading it down a completely different path. It will be quite some time before I get around to dealing with that wonderful novel (there are ten JDM books between these two) but Jared Shurin, who helps write the great Pornokitch blog, has recently published an insightful piece at Tor.com comparing the two novels. It's highly recommending reading, which you can find here.

The Empty Trap, long out of print, is is readily available from all the usual used booksellers on the web.