Monday, January 15, 2018

"Eyewitness" (1964 and 1979)

Argosy holds the historical distinction of being the very first pulp magazine ever, the creator of the mold that everyone else followed. Begun as a children’s weekly called The Golden Argosy by Frank Munsey in 1882, it went on -- in a variety of formats -- for nearly 100 years before finally folding. It was Munsey’s idea to convert the weekly to an all-fiction magazine, his idea to print it on the cheapest paper available (pulpwood) and his idea to load it with as many stories as the binding could hold. Its nearly 200 pages -- no illustrations -- held stories of infinite variety, especially after he merged Argosy with another creation of his, All-Story, and gradually the stories took on the various elements of what we now call pulp fiction: strong, identifiable lead characters with an inner, personal morality, often working in exotic locales, in tales written in bright, clear prose, strong plots and, of course with a bit of violence and romance. Argosy plied this format until 1943, when it was converted to a slick and began printing non-fiction articles. As the 1940’s moved into the 1950’s non-fiction took a greater and greater portion of the magazine’s contents, and it eventually morphed into a “men’s magazine,” with articles about hunting and guns, and featuring “true” stories about dangerous safaris in Africa, sports, real police procedurals, and war stories. Fiction took a definite back seat to the articles.

John D MacDonald never wrote for Argosy the pulp magazine -- it converted to a slick three years before he began writing -- but he was well represented in its men’s magazine form, publishing ten original short stories there and one excerpt from a novel (The Last One Left in the July 1967 issue). His work for Argosy was uniformly excellent, with top-of-the-line entries like “A Young Man’s Game,” “Jail Bait,” “Cop Probe,” “Long Shot” (chosen for inclusion in the author’s 1966 anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories), and the unheralded gem of the pack, “Built for Speed,” published in the magazine’s June 1954 issue. His story “Eyewitness” appeared in the September 1964 issue and it is also a quality entry, revolving around an investigation of a hit and run accident. In fact, it was so good that MacDonald used it again 14 years later, in another format and with another protagonist.

Of course MacDonald had used hit and run accidents before, in two different but identically titled stories written nine years apart (“Hit and Run” in 1952 and “Hit and Run” in 1961), but both of those tales featured policemen as the seekers of the identities of the drivers. In “Eyewitness” MacDonald goes back to the Cliff Bartells model he used in his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, and uses an insurance claims adjuster as the protagonist. Carl Beldon is a man-with-a-past, although the author never explains exactly what has happened to him, hinting at it only at the beginning and the very ending of the story. He arrives in the beach town of Stoney Cove, somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean shore (probably Florida, but never explicitly identified), has a cup of coffee at a local diner, and is observed by the young, “burly and cheerful” waitress:

He had an ironic objectivity about what she was seeing, a young-old man, with a chronic tiredness around the eyes, with that look of having been savaged a few times by life and then released, free to assemble a new set of adjustments and compromises.

Beldon works for Guarantee Mutual Liability, an insurance company that holds the auto-fleet policy for a company called Swain Electronics, headquartered in Charles City, a much larger community located about 20 miles north of Stoney Cove. One of those cars was driven by Swain Electronics co-owner Mercer Swain, who was down in Stoney Cove having dinner with a Swain secretary named Joanne Treiber. After a long afternoon of drinking and dinner, Swain rents a room at the local Tahiti Motor Inn and suggests that he and Joanne shack up for the night. She is having none of that and takes the car to drive back to Charles City, leaving the inebriated Mercer to take a cab home the next morning. On the way home, while still in Stoney Cove, she takes a notorious curve way too fast and hits a young girl on her way home from a babysitting job. The car was traveling at full speed and the victim was killed instantly. The car made no effort to stop and Joanne drove on home to her apartment, where she fell asleep as if nothing had happened.

But Joanne claims she never hit anyone. An anonymous caller got in touch with the police stating that he witnessed the accident and described the driver right down to the color of Joanne's hair, her dress and her purse. He also gave the license plate number, which led to Mercer, which eventually led to Joanne, who was roused from sleep by the police the next morning. Joanne’s story is different and, after talking with the local police and inspecting the car, Beldon heads up to Charles City to interview the accused.

John D MacDonald fans will surely smile at the introduction of Joanne Treiber. From the author’s description we know instantly that she is not only not guilty, but that romantic sparks are soon to fly. She’s “tall,” “blonde,” “slender,” and “red-bronze from recent exposure to the sun.” She is, understandably, in bad shape, facing felony manslaughter charges, but she is adamant that she did not hit anyone. When Beldon reminds her that she was drinking the whole afternoon, she responds by making one of the “drinks” for him: a wine spritzer -- only an ounce of Rhine wine mixed with soda. She relates her own side of the story: after refusing Mercer Swain’s advances, she took the keys to the company car and headed home. Before she made it out of the area she pulled over onto a deserted stretch of beach and walked about a mile down the shore to clear her mind. She got back in the car afterword and drove home, “very carefully,” as she was unused to the size and weight of the car. She didn’t realize anything was amiss until the next morning when she was awakened by the police.

Beldon reminds her that that was the car that hit the babysitter -- spectrometer analysis of the paint proves it. Joanne acknowledges that she is in “a horrible mess” but sticks to her story. Then time stops:

Looking at her, he knew the rare thing had happened. He could conduct fifty investigations and aside from a feeling of pity or distaste, feel no involvement with the people concerned. They were factors in a violent human equation. He could imitate empathy when it seemed the only way to open someone up, but he always felt shabby about doing it. In the fifty-first case, he would find someone who suddenly involved him in a personal way, tapping a hidden well of genuine concern. He did not want it to happen, ever. Because these things often came out very badly. And there were enough old scars to live with. Here it was again, where he had least expected it, and least wanted it -- with this doomed girl.

As Beldon compares Joanne’s timeline with that of the police, and once he decides to believe her protestations of innocence, he comes to the only conclusion he can: someone else took the car when Joanne was walking on the beach, hit the babysitter and returned the vehicle to where they found it. Thus it was probably the person who made the anonymous call to the police with the detailed description of the driver. Now it’s a case of trying to smoke the person out, and Beldon has an idea…


“Eyewitness” is an engaging, entertaining story, even with some of its obvious plot points and inevitable romance, and it is certainly worthy company to his other Argosy stories. So it’s no surprise to learn that when MacDonald wrote three serialized stories about an insurance claims adjuster in the late 1970’s, he borrowed “Eyewitness” for the third and final entry in that series. Indeed, this story seems to have been the template for the idea. Duke Rhoades, the protagonist of all three stories, began life in May 1977 with the five-part “Finding Anne Farley,” published by the Chicago Sun-Times’ Field Newspaper Syndicate in scores of newspapers around the country, both large and small. There was a gimmick involved with these stories, one that would hopefully inspire readers to study the plots and characters more closely: the final installment of each tale was withheld for a week so that readers could write their own endings, pick their own perpetrators from the cast of suspects, submit that ending to the local paper and possibly win a prize for best submission. Their ending would be printed alongside MacDonald’s own.

The second story, “Friend of the Family,” was published the following year, although fewer papers picked it up, and by the time MacDonald submitted the third and final story, the whole idea seems to have run out of gas. The contest idea was thrown out the window and the story presented as a simple four-part serialization. MacDonald himself didn’t even bother writing an original story: he rewrote “Eyewitness,” with the new protagonist and hewed to the original plot as closely as he possibly could. In fact, a comparison of the two stories reveals that he did almost no rewriting at all. Most of the characters names are the same and every detail from the original story is included, save the paragraph about the protagonist being “savaged by life.” Duke Rhoades is a much less complicated character. The final paragraph of the original story (which I won’t reveal here) is a wonderful ending, beautifully and concisely written, but it is ruined in the rewrite, replaced by a few banal sentences. One tends to think of writers getting better as they age, learning their craft as they go along, and MacDonald certainly thought that of himself, but when he tried to re-do his older material he almost always ended up destroying the pace, grace and sense of magic in the prose. Think The Good Old Stuff. In fact, if you ever want a perfect example of what I am talking about, read my piece on his Crack Detective Stories tale “You Remember Jeanie” and its rewrite in More Good Old Stuff.


“Eyewitness” was the end of the line for Duke Rhoades. So unenthusiastic were the members of the Field Newspaper Syndicate over the story that few picked it up, with only one major metropolitan daily (the San Diego Union-Tribune) doing so. I managed to find my copy of it in the September 30, October 7, 14 and 21st editions of Florida Today, a Gannett publication. A rather ignominious ending for a character who is part of a special and unique group of fictional protagonists, including Benton Walters, Shane Brent, Park Falkner and Travis McGee.

Monday, January 8, 2018

"Friend of the Family"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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





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


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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

From the Top of the Snow Covered Hill

Things have been quiet lately here at The Trap of Solid Gold as an altered work schedule and family obligations have eaten into my free time. I’ll try and do better going forward, but I will probably be forced to switch to a bi-monthly schedule of postings, at least for the time being.

For now, here are a few new items:

I recently managed to score a couple of original issues of This Week magazine containing JDM stories I have already written about. As a result I was able to replace the crappy microfilmed black-and-white illustrations with full-color versions. And to add icing to the cake, both stories were illustrated by my favorite magazine artist of the last century, Lucia Larner. As an added bonus, one of them -- “Who Stopped That Clock?” contains the short story in its entirety, if one is so inclined to read it. It’s certainly not one of MacDonald’s better efforts, but it’s an entry in the canon that has never been collected or reprinted. Here are the links:



To make up for three weeks of dead silence here, below please find a transcription of one of JDM’s From the Top of the Hill newspaper columns from the Clinton Courier. This one was published on February 26, 1948, when the MacDonald family was living in a house on the campus of Hamilton College, at the crest of a tall hill. It contains a cat story that was omitted from The House Guests (the mole) and one that was included, albeit in a more detailed version (the Mattingly’s Gothic cat door).


From the Top of the Hill
Personals:

We have a subscription to a magazine called Writer's Digest, and we are fond of it not only because it has information about changes in editors and magazines and such, but because it has one of the most fascinating "Personals" column we have ever seen anywhere. This week we'll give you a random sample.

"GUAM POSTMARK -- Your letters mailed from Guam. 25¢ each -- five for one dollar."

Right there, friends, you have the perfect method of handling those eager creditors. Acknowledge receipt of your bills from Guam.

"A PLAN OF ACTION lies behind every success. Write me about one thing you desire. A specific plan by return mail. $2 Box...."

Think of the incredible wisdom of someone who can whip up a plan of action for you and get it off by return mail!

"A YOUNG MAN struggling sincerely to achieve writing success. I need time. Your dollar may turn the tide. Box...."

After the first three dollars arrive, this paying for the ad, our unknown friend is in the only business I've ever heard of with a 100% net. And whatever he gets is apparently subject to gift taxes, not income tax.

"25 CENTS WILL BRING a poem written just for you. Any subject, any length."

One of these days we're going to send in two bits and ask for a poem on the subject of writing a newspaper column.

"HELP WOMAN. Unpublished novel yours for $1.50, cash. Box...."

Sadder words than these were never written. As a short, short, short story, it is superb.

"LUANA: Please write. Joe."

If we ever meet Luana, we'll certainly tell her a thing or two. Poor old Joe has been putting the same line in for month after month after month. We suspect that Luana is a rich, cool and heartless debutante who. during her war career with the WAVES, was stationed at some little town where she toyed heartlessly with the affections of poor, but honest Joe. Luana has gone back to the dizzy whirl of the big city, leaving Joe with enormous tears in his eyes and no way to find her except by paying his forty cents a month for those four little words that are like a moan in the night.

Luana, why don't you at least write to him?

*     *     *

Local Animal Life:

One of our cats, Geoffrey, the adventurous one, has insisted a dozen times this winter on being dropped out one specific window. It is not politic to ignore the demands of our cats. They have high, nasal voices and limitless persistence.

Each time he was dropped out of this one window he proceeded to dig a hole in the snow in which he would wedge his head, and we had about decided that he was psychoneurotic. We thought maybe the endless winter we getting him and he was trying to finish himself off in a suitable manner.

Then the snow melted, and we find that deep under where Geoffrey was digging, a mole had rooted up a patch about two yards square, going around and around and around where we had optimistically hoped to have grass, come summer. Friend mole operated like a miniature trench digger.

Anyway, Geoffrey has vindicated himself by depositing the body of the mole on the side porch, and has been walking around looking smug ever since.

But even with all the snow, we suspect that Geoffrey has been getting his mouse ration regularly. Our neighbor, earlier in the winter, asked us to bring him over to the barn. We did so and introduced him to a new, small Gothic arch cut through the barn door. Since the introduction, his tracks have led directly to the arch.

*     *     *

College Hill Driving:

Driving a car up and down College Hill is the most exciting winter sport available in this vicinity. Ski enthusiasts, well versed in high-tempo turns and forty degree slopes have been known to turn pale before making even the first turn on College Hill.

As a topic of conversation, the condition of the Hill is unexcelled. Old residents spend many happy hours comparing techniques and methods for the proper approach.

There is no thrill comparable to rounding the first turn on your way up, only to find someone bearing down on you sideways. Strong men, having zoomed all the way up, only to come to a dead stop with wheels spinning a scant fifteen feet from the crest, have been known to sit behind the wheel with the tears dripping off their chins while the cars slowly sagged backward toward the abyss.

Coming down the hill is most exhilarating. The moment of suspense arrives when you let the car take over and let it decide whether it will carom off a snowdrift, or off another vehicle on the way up.

A few times a winter there comes what is known as a "tangle". This is a technical term and refers to that moment when two or three cars, with fenders locked, slide slowly and majestically down to the foot of the hill, where they provide a sort of backstop for any number of other cars which crunch into the group.

The happy people laugh and shout, and their cheers are punctuated by the crinkling of fenders and the tinkle of breaking headlights.

Unless you have participated in one of their "tangles" and unless your car bears the honorable wounds and scars of the icy battle, you cannot claim to have really enjoyed the sport.

A much gayer time would be had by all. of course, were it not for the spoilsports who are all the time sprinkling the grand slide with salt, ashes and sundry abrasive materials.

*     *     *
See you next week.

Monday, October 24, 2016

"The Legend of Joe Lee"

Imagine, dear reader, that the year is 1964, this very month of October, 52 long years ago. You are an avid fan of author John D MacDonald, a writer who has already published 46 books of fiction, 368 short stories and novellas in scores of different magazines, both pulp and slick, and who, only five short months ago introduced his first novel-length series character Travis McGee, who has already (!) appeared in four new novels. You’re perusing the magazine racks at your local newsstand (they still had them in 1964) and you spot the cover of the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. Nothing much of interest here -- a couple of attractive Spanish models dressed in red, and headlines for the various non-fiction articles therein, with a single come-on for a “complete” novel by Lee Colgate titled Oh, Be Careful! You vaguely recognize her name from a few issues of Redbook back in 1961 but you’ve never read anything by her, and you certainly don’t know that she is the Colgate toothpaste heiress. No need to drop 35-cents for this particular issue.

But you’re a John D MacDonald fan, and you’ve been one for years, so you are well aware that your favorite author has been published in this magazine before. In fact, you’ve read 17 of his shorter works here, including two -- “The Bear Trap” and “Hangover” -- which were among the best he had ever written, and 13 of his novels have been published (in shorter versions) in Cosmo. So you have been trained to look for a new JDM piece every time you visit this newsstand of yore. A peek at the table of contents tells you nothing, as no individual entries are listed, only subjects. On page 90 begins the handful of new stories that are seeing the light of day for the first time. And, sure enough, on that very page you see the byline “By John D MacDonald” under the title “Fiction” and the title of this particular entry, “The Legend of Joe Lee”.

By now you’ve come to expect anything from JDM in Cosmopolitan. You’ve read crime stories, bittersweet remembrances, romances, and, what they used to call “women’s stories.” The one thing you don’t expect -- that you would never expect -- would be a science fiction or fantasy story. Cosmopolitan’s readership, both before, then and now, was the antithesis of the sf crowd that spent their days reading Galaxy, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But here’s the thing: you don’t realize that this is a fantasy until you get to the very end of the short story. Up to that point it reads like a typically excellent John D MacDonald product, full of mood, atmosphere, characterization, and that amazingly terse style that says so much with so few words.

The point of this little reverie is to lament that fact that most of us will never have that opportunity afforded the readers of Cosmopolitan over fifty years ago. We know it’s a fantasy because it was anthologized in MacDonald’s 1978 science fiction collection Other Times, Other Worlds. And, when one reads science fiction or fantasy, especially that which takes place in a normal setting, we are always waiting for the make-believe stuff to come in -- at least that’s the way it is for me. I recall wondering just that back in 1978 when I first read the story. How neat must it have been to have been a reader in 1964 and to have been floored by how this terrific bit of fiction turned out.

This is not to say that one can’t enjoy “The Legend of Joe Lee” on its own terms, knowing full well that something impossible is going on. It is first-rate JDM, a tale of mystery, loss and regret, built around a generation of adults trying to understand and come to grips with their own teenage children, all taking place in the flat inland wetlands of south Florida. Who could ask for more?

The story is told in first person by an unnamed reporter for a Ft. Lauderdale newspaper. He has come to fictional Afaloosa County to write a human interest story to tie in with a series his paper is doing  on “the teen-age war against the square world of the adult.” He is looking over a map with two state troopers, listening as he is told the plans for that night once the sun is down and a full moon is shining. Once a month a boy from a neighboring county named Joe Lee Cuddard and his girlfriend Clarissa May Farris use an eighteen-mile stretch of county highway to drag race in the dead of night in a custom-built hot rod that can reach speeds of 120 miles per hour. The police have tried and failed several times to apprehend them but lack any kind of automobile that could keep up with the rod, which Joe Lee has named the C.M. Special, for Clarissa May. This evening the plan is to bottle up a section of the road where there is nowhere to turn off except for “the deep ditch and the black mud and the ‘gator water.” The troopers are tired of being embarrassed by this kid.

When asked why they don’t just pick up Joe Lee at home, the reporter is told that “his folks don’t know where he is, and don’t much care, him and that Farris girl he was running with, so we figure the pair of them is off in the piney woods someplace, holed up in some abandoned shack, coming out at night for kicks, making fools of us.”

While waiting for night to come the reporter fills the hours before sunset with visits to the homes of both Joe Lee and Clarissa May. Here we are treated to some of MacDonald’s best and most amazing characterization and dialogue, creating people who seem as real as you and me, echoing creations from prior novels as diverse as Deadly Welcome, The Drowner and A Flash of Green. Joe Lee’s house “was a shacky place, chickens in the dusty yard, fence sagging,” with a ancient pickup truck out back. His father, unloading cinder blocks from the back of that pickup, is stripped to the waist, “a lean, sallow man who looked undernourished and exhausted… with “pale hair and pale eyes and a narrow mouth.”

“That boy warn’t no help to me, Mister, but he warn’t no trouble neither. The onliest thing on his mind was that car. I didn’t hold with it, but I didn’t put down no foot. He fixed up that old shed there to work in, and he needed something, he went out and earned up the money to buy it. They was a crowd of them around most times, helpin’ him, boys workin’, and gals watchin’. Have radios on batteries set around so as they could twisty dance while them boys hammered that metal out. When I worked around and overheard ‘em, I swear I couldn’t make out more’n one word from seven. What he done was take that car to some national show, for prizes and such. But one day he just took off, like they do nowadays.”

The Farris home was closer to town and the reporter is able to chat with Clarissa May’s mother on the front porch while the family of six adults and a dozen children are eating dinner. She is described as “grossly fat, but with delicate features, an indication of the beauty she must have once had.”

“I can tell you, it like to broke our hearts the way Clarissa May done us. If’n I told [my husband] once, I told him a thousand times, no good would ever come of her messin’ with that Cuddard boy… You write this up nice and in it put the message her momma and daddy want her home bad, and maybe she’ll see it and come on in. You know what the Good Book says about sharper’n a sarpent’s tooth… Him nineteen and her seventeen. The young ones are going clean out of hand these times. One night racing through this county the way they do, showing off, that Cuddard boy is going to kill hisself and my child too… She was neat and good and pretty and quiet, and she had the good marks… You’re easier on a young one when there’s no way of knowing how long she could be with you. Doc Mathis, he had us taking her over to the Miami clinic. Sometimes they kept her and sometimes they didn’t, and she’d get behind in her school and then catch up fast. Many times we taken her over there. She’s got the sick blood and it takes her poorly. She should be right here, where’s help to care for her in the bad spells… When I think about her out there… poorly and all…”

That night the reporter sits in the patrol car with one of the troopers, quietly waiting for something to happen, listening to “choruses of swamp toads mingling with the whine of insects, close to my ears, looking for a biting place. A couple of times I had heard the bass throb of a ‘gator." Then, the “oncoming high-pitched snarl of high combustion.” The trooper remarks, “Hear it once and you don’t forget it.”

“... the next instant the C.M. Special went by. It was a resonant howl that stirred echoes inside the inner ear. It was a tearing, bursting rush of wind that rattled fronds and turned leaves over. It was a dark shape in moonlight, slamming by, the howl diminishing as the wind of passage died.”

The trooper gives chase, but Joe Lee is running without lights so it is impossible to tell how close they are. At the end of the eighteen mile stretch awaits a road block and nowhere to turn off. But when they arrive there they see nothing but the red flashing lights of patrol cars. They backtrack, checking every foot of the surrounding swamp to see if the C.M. Special has pulled off or crashed. Nothing.

The reporter returns to Lauderdale and, several days later, is contacted by the trooper. They have found the C.M.Special, submerged in a canal off Route 27, twelve miles south of town and are preparing to bring it up out of the water. He rushes to the scene and is astonished to see “at least a hundred cars pulled off on both sides of the highway.” As a wrecker is preparing its winch, he looks around and takes in the strange scene.

Only then did I realize the strangeness of most of the waiting vehicles. The cars were from a half-dozen counties, according to the tag numbers. There were many big, gaudy, curious monsters not unlike the C.M. Special in basic layout, but quite different in design. They seemed like a visitation of Martian beasts. There were dirty fenderless sedans from the thirties with modern power plants under the hoods, and big rude racing numbers painted on the side doors. There were other cars which looked normal at first glance, but then seemed to squat oddly low, lines clean and sleek where the Detroit chrome had been taken off, the holes leaded up. The cars and the kids were of another race. Groups of them formed, broke up and re-formed. Radios brought in a dozen stations… They wandered from car to car. It had a strange carnival flavor, yet more ceremonial…

The winch whines, the C.M. Special emerges from the dark water, and inside, behind a smeared window, were “two huddled masses, the slumped boy and girl, side by side, still belted in…”

Of course, this isn’t the end, despite MacDonald’s neat red herring of referring to the hot rods as “Martian beasts.” And while this great short story works on many levels, it’s basically about the broken relationship between a new generation and their parents, as can be attested by the sections quoted above. It’s a theme that MacDonald explored in many of his works, both short and novel length. In 1964 it was cars, and a few years later it would be sex and drugs, covered in many different works such as “The Willow Pool,” “He Was Always a Nice Boy,” and the Travis McGee novel Dress Her in Indigo.

“The Legend of Joe Lee” was anthologized twice before appearing in Other Times, Other Worlds. In 1965 it appeared in The Year’s Best SF: 10th Annual Edition, edited by author and JDM fan Judith Merril. A paperback edition of this collection was published a year later. In 1969 the story was included in another kind of anthology, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Month of Mystery. The paperback edition of this work was published under a different title, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Terror Time: More Tales from a Month of Mystery. A British edition of this paperback was published by Pan in 1973 as A Month of Mystery: Book Two.

Our imaginary reader in 1964 would have certainly found “The Legend of Joe Lee” worth every one of the thirty-five cents that issue of Cosmopolitan cost them, but he or she would have been disappointed on a different front. There is no artwork to accompany the story. In fact, except for the novel Oh, Be Careful!, none of the short stories in this issue are illustrated. By 1964 story illustration, along with the fiction it depicted, was becoming more and more passé, and illustrators were finding it harder to find work in the magazines of the times. Just as fiction became an afterthought, even in Cosmopolitan, which was once the premier fiction periodical of its time, so too did illustrations, replaced by photography and, sometimes -- as in the case of this issue -- nothing at all.


Monday, October 10, 2016

The Taxpayers' Research Bureau

In 1945 when John D MacDonald decided to take a chance on earning a living as a writer of fiction, he did so using the thinnest of rationales: a four-month severance package from the Army, a single sale of a short story to a fiction magazine, and a lifelong desire to be an author. Returning to his home in Utica, New York in September, he began writing in early October, famously churning out 800,000 words of unsellable stories. His newfound occupation raised the eyebrows of friends and family, who no doubt thought him emotionally damaged from his two and a half years of war overseas (“a readjustment case” was the term MacDonald used), and his inability to sell a second story may have even caused doubts to cross his own mind. But his wife Dorothy believed in him and, five months later in February 1946 he finally received an acceptance letter for that second work and his course in life was set.

Yet at that point in his writing career he had a grand total of $65.00 to show for all of his hard work, and his terminal pay from the Army was coming to an end. The family lived cheaply in a rent-controlled apartment ($23.50 a month) but had run up a $300 credit balance at the local grocers, and it wasn’t as if that second sale had opened up the floodgates to the publishing world. Sales happened, but they were still slow and uncertain, so MacDonald panicked. Here are his own words from The House Guests, the “cat book” that is the closest thing we have to an actual autobiography.

Along in April and May of 1946, though I had begun to sell some stories here and there, they were to pulp magazines, and the money was small. I began to think we might not make it.

I found a job as Executive Director of the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau in Utica. I made that jump  a little too nervously and hastily. I spent every spare moment writing. Through the summer the stories began to sell at a greater rate and to better markets. We paid off our debts and began to build up a little surplus. By autumn I was still stuck with that job, and with an unwritten obligation to keep it for a year. There we were with the funds and mobility to evade the misery of a Utica winter. I resigned on the basis of need to take Dorothy to a warmer climate. It was not entirely a pretext. She could have endured the winter, but she does not take cold well, and it was certain that she would spend a good portion of the winter in poor health. We arranged to go to Taos.

I’ve always wondered: what exactly was the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau and what did JDM do for them? MacDonald was obviously hired based on his Harvard MBA and experience in military procurement, and his rank on leaving the Army (lieutenant colonel) probably didn’t hurt. A bit of research into this period of MacDonald’s life paints a somewhat more interesting picture than that of the author sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day, scheming of ways he could quit.

One could be forgiven for thinking -- based on its title -- that the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau was a part of the municipal government of Utica, but that was not the case. Founded in October 1934, the Bureau was a joint creation of the the Chamber of Commerce and the Oneida County Taxpayers’ League, and its mission was to “conduct studies of local and county governmental operations, with the view of bringing about a reduction in costs without loss of service.” And although the Bureau was funded by these two founding entities, it operated with total autonomy, consisting of a president, vice president, secretary and treasure and, initially, a hired expert on governmental matters as a director. As was reported at the time, the intention was to “fill a long-felt want in the impartial and independent study of local governments and [to supply] taxpayers and others with correct data regarding local public affairs.” Its offices were housed in the Chamber of Commerce building, located on Elizabeth Street, just east of Genesee.

Both Utica newspapers of the period carried the story of MacDonald’s hiring, revealing that it occurred earlier that he remembered in The House Guests. The March 22 edition of the Utica Daily Press carried the following article, complete with bio and a photo of a very young-looking JDM:

Appointment of John D MacDonald, 1109 State [Street], as executive secretary of the Taxpayers Research Bureau, was announced yesterday by Richard E Hatfield, chairman of the board of directors. He succeeds Floyd W Fenner, who resigned several months ago to devote his time to his business interests.

MacDonald, son of E A MacDonald, 9 Beverly [Place], vice president of Savage Arms Corporation, was discharged from the Army in January with the rank of lieutenant colonel after more than five years of service.

He was called up as a reserve officer in 1940.

After two and a half years of industrial procurement work of the Rochester Ordnance District he was sent to the China-Burma-India theater, where he remained until late last year.

From August 1944 to July 1945 Colonel MacDonald served in the CBI theater with operatives from Colonel Donovan's Office of Strategic Services that gathered information behind enemy lines for the combined chiefs of staff.

Born in Sharon, PA, MacDonald attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years, then entered Syracuse University where he received a bachelor of science degree from the College of Business Administration in 1937. He then entered the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration where he received a master's' degree in business administration in 1938.

Prior to entering the Army, he was employed in Syracuse and Northern New York by the Commercial Investment Trust Company, Inc. His wife is the former Dorothy Prentiss of Poland. They have one son.

As Executive Secretary of the Research Bureau it will be MacDonald's job to obtain factual data about city and county government operations, analyze and present it to the bureau directors for public distribution. A monthly bulletin is being planned to distribute this information among members and other interested persons.

Offices of the bureau, formerly located on the second floor of the Chamber of Commerce Building, are now on the first floor in the section formerly occupied by the Industrial Association of Utica.

Note how MacDonald fudged his résumé to account for the missing months of 1945, claiming that his discharge took place in January 1946 rather than September 1945. Also left unsaid was the fact that his employment with the Commercial Investment Trust Company ended with him getting fired. Not something anyone ever puts on a resume, to be sure.

So, what did he do all day? He obviously worked at his job, however much he surely hated having to do it, and it must have become more and more onerous as the short stories started selling and the checks rolled in. A few weeks after MacDonald passed away in 1986 a letter to the editor was published in the January 4, 1987 edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch, written by one Mason C Taylor, a lifelong resident of the city. Taylor was a reporter for the Daily Press at the time MacDonald served on the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau, and his recollections are both interesting and amusing.

John D MacDonald, the award-winning mystery writer who died last Sunday in Milwaukee, began his professional writing career in the old Chamber of Commerce building that was on Elizabeth Street just east of Grace Church.

He had returned after World War II to Utica where his father was works manager at the Savage Arms Company (where Charlestown is now located) and had taken a temporary job as director of the Municipal Research Bureau, a Chamber of Commerce subsidiary.

I was then City Hall reporter for the Daily Press and the Chamber of Commerce was part of my beat and I called there every afternoon. I remember stopping in John's office one afternoon to find him hard at work on a yellow legal pad at a desk cluttered with pulp magazines. He told me he had decided to try his hand at fiction writing and was developing a formula.

He had served in the Burma theater with the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA. Due to security he was unable to tell his wife about his work, but when the war ended, he said, he wrote her a long letter telling about some of his experiences.

From his letter his wife concocted a story, he told me, which, as I recall, she sold to Short Story Magazine.

John's research bureau duties were not arduous and he had plenty of time to develop his formula. He did that by determining the mean percentage of action, dialogue, description, characters in the best of those pulp magazine stories.

Using that formula, he sold his very first story to Street & Smith's detective magazine, as I recall. He sold several more during the several months he was at the research bureau. He later refined his formula to become one of the nation's foremost mystery writers, chiefly for his Travis McGee series.He was very personable, good company and I always intended to renew our friendship when he summered at Piseco Lake, It turned out to be one of those things you always plan to do but never get around to, until it is too late.

This recollection was written 40 years after it happened, so Taylor can be forgiven for his many inaccuracies -- at least for the ones we can document. And who is to say that the picture of an ex-Army officer trying to puzzle out the form of the successful pulp story wasn’t the one MacDonald himself was trying to put up for Taylor and everyone else outside of his immediate family? For just as he had fudged the timing of his discharge, so too was it likely that he wasn’t very proud of having papered the walls of his home office with rejection slips after four months of grueling work and wouldn’t have wanted others to know about it. Still, the image of JDM working on a story formula behind a stack of pulp magazines while being paid to do something else is a bit of a departure from the standard image one has of the author.

MacDonald’s recollection of his ultimate departure from his position at the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau is also at odds with historical records. He stated that “By autumn I was still stuck with that job, and with an unwritten obligation to keep it for a year.” This implies that he stuck with the job until late September or early October before resigning, but that was not the case. His resignation made the local papers, and it was reported in the June 2nd issue of the Observer Dispatch:

John D MacDonald, 1109 State, executive secretary of the Taxpayers' Research Bureau since the first of the year, announced his resignation yesterday because of illness in his family.

MacDonald said the resignation would be effective this fall when it was believed a man trained in statistical research could be obtained to replace him.

During his term as secretary, MacDonald said he has obtained factual data about city and county government operations which he is in the process of analysing for presentation to the bureau's executive board, headed by Richard E Hatfield. Before he relinquishes his position he plans to make a series of reports on various phases of both city and county government.

MacDonald came to his present position early this year after more than five years service with the Army. He was discharged in January with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He had spent two and a half years in industrial procurement work for the Rochester Ordnance District and then served in the China-Burma-India theater, where he remained until last year.

A native of Sharon, Pa., he attended the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, and Harvard School of Business Administration.

Before entering the Army, Colonel MacDonald was employed in Syracuse and Northern New York by the Commercial Investment Trust Company, Inc. His wife is the former Dorothy Prentiss of Poland. They have one son.

Note how this account repeats the assertion that MacDonald was discharged in January, when this very same newspaper had reported the event in an October issue from the previous year. And, if this report is to be believed, MacDonald asserted that there was an “illness” in the family: a bit more definitive than a “pretext”.  And the dating of this report draws a specific timeline for MacDonald’s last-ever salaried job: he lasted two whole months before deciding to resign, although he agreed to stay on until the fall.

Babette Rosmond
A review of MacDonald’s publishing history for 1946 is revealing, showing just how precarious his financial condition must have been. Had it not been for Babette Rosmond, the editor of Doc Savage and The Shadow, and who was the first person in the publishing world to show real interest in developing MacDonald’s obvious talents, he may have had to put in his full year with the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau.

  • January: one story published, no payment.
  • February: one story published, no payment.
  • March: no stories published.
  • April: no stories published.
  • May: one story published (Detective Tales)
  • June: two stories published (Doc Savage, Short Stories)
  • July: three stories published (Dime Mystery, Short Stories, Story: "Interlude in India, his first sale, for which he had already been paid.)
  • August: one story published (Doc Savage)
  • September: one story published (The Shadow)
  • October: three stories published (Dime Detective, Mammoth Mystery, Doc Savage)
  • November: five stories published (Doc Savage (3), The Shadow, Short Stories)
  • December: five stories published (The Shadow (3), Doc Savage, Esquire)

MacDonald’s short stint with the Taxpayers’ Research Bureau accomplished its mission, providing funds to get the struggling writer out of debt and on his way to earning a living doing what he wanted to do. It also provided him experience in the workings of municipal government, which eventually became fodder for his fiction. A corrupt city government provided the background for his 1947 short story “Oh, Give Me a Hearse!” written about a year after his resignation. In 1951 the management of the city of Deron (probably a stand-in for Utica or Syracuse) is put under the care of a city manager in his novel Judge Me Not, and the protagonist, Teed Morrow, actually has employment by a taxpayers’ research bureau on his résumé. Even as late as 1982 MacDonald still displayed an interest and precient knowledge of the nuts and bolts of municipal government, especially those of the counties and cities in the rust belt, when he has Meyer pontificate on the subject in Cinnamon Skin.

He and Travis have travelled to Utica seeking the sister of Cody Pittler and they spend their first evening there enjoying dinner at a restaurant called Grimaldi’s, which, incidentally, was a real place, a longtime Utica landmark located a few blocks from the chamber of commerce building where MacDonald worked. (It closed in 2012.). Travis takes note of a large group of local government types at the bar.

I looked around at the patrons of the restaurant and the bar. Politicos, many of them
young. Lawyers and elected officials and appointees. Some with their wives or girls. It looked to
me as if a lot of the city and county business might be transacted right here. They had a lot of
energy, these Italianate young men, a feverish gregariousness. I wondered aloud why they
seemed so frantic about having a good time.

Meyer studied the question and finally said, "It's energy without a productive outlet, I
think. Most of these Mohawk Valley cities are dying, have been for years: Albany, Troy,
Amsterdam, Utica, Syracuse, Rome. And so they made an industry out of government. State
office buildings in the decaying downtowns. A proliferation of committees, surveys, advisory
boards, commissions, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, road departments, health care groups… thousands upon thousands of people making a reasonably good living working for city, county, state, and federal governments in these dwindling cities, passing the same tax dollars back and forth. I think that man, by instinct, is productive. He wants to make something, a stone ax, a bigger cave, better arrows, whatever. But these bright and energetic men know in their hearts they are not making anything. They use every connection, every contact, every device, to stay within reach of public monies. Working within an abstraction is just not a totally honorable way of life. Hence the air of jumpy joy, the backslaps ringing too loudly, compliments too extravagant, toasts too ornate, marriages too brief, lawsuits too long-drawn, obligatory forms too complex and too long. Their city has gone stale, and as the light wanes, they dance."

Wonderful writing and amazing understanding, given birth in a long-ago time in the author’s life.