Here’s another novel I haven’t thought of in many years, but that probably deserves a re-read sometime soon: John D. MacDonald’s 1958 psychological thriller, The Executioners (which was later filmed as Cape Fear). Steve Scott offers an excellent long piece about that book in his MacDonald-focused blog, The Trap of Solid Gold.
(Hat tip to Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine.)
In 1959 the Mystery Writers of America decided their annual anthology should feature stories entirely by women. The resulting volume of fourteen stories, The Lethal Sex, published as a paperback original by Dell (with an amazing Robert McGinnis cover) included short tales by Margaret Millar, Nedra Tyre, and Miriam Allen deFord (all of whom appear in Troubled Daughters) as well as other notable crime writers of the time like Ursula Curtiss, Anthony Gilbert (yes, a female), Jean Potts, Juanita Sheridan, and Christianna Brand, as well as other writers who were obscure even to me (who, exactly, is D. Jenkins Smith?)
For some reason MWA felt The Lethal Sex should be edited by a notable male crime writer of the time. They reached out to John D. MacDonald, who hadn’t yet hit upon the Travis McGee idea that would give him fame and fortune from the 1960s onwards, but was a mainstay of Fawcett’s Gold Medal line and other paperback original houses. Not only did he choose the slate of stories that would appear in the anthology, he wrote an introduction *and* an afterword. The full pieces aren’t available online but what is available is awfully mind-boggling. Here are a few, with thanks to The Passing Tramp and The Trap of Solid Gold for memorializing them previously:
“I wrote imploring letters to eighty-odd female members of the Mystery Writers of America… They responded and, when you have read the book you will know how handsomely. Should any man care to give his life a flavor of vivid unreality I suggest he engage in a simultaneous correspondence with eighty women. Eighty female writers! I will say, without critical intent, that a certain percentage of all women are neurotic. A certain percentage of all writers are flamboyantly neurotic. In those cases where the personal and professional neuroses overlap, you can find yourself opening mail that makes your knees buckle.
Naturally, all the contributors to this collection are splendid, stable types, beautifully adjusted to both their femininity and their talent. All? Read the stories and make your own guesses.
I like women. I am in that male minority which is perfectly willing to concede that they are people, and treat them as such. But I do not understand them. Out of unguessable motivations and indefinable applications of inexplicable instinct, they can always produce the irrational act. And then justify it.
Had I, in my coward heart, ever felt the sneaky yen to emulate the career of Casanova, this boyish dream has been cruelly obliterated. If it takes only an inundation of spirited professional correspondence with women to make me highly nervous, I can not help but wonder how catastrophic would be the results of an equal number of personal associations. I can now see that the modern occupation known as International Playboy requires much more than suavity, money and social charm. It requires, primarily, nerves of tungsten steel.
It is traditional, I am told, for anthologists to explain in an introduction the rules they used for selection. I asked for bite, and violence and atmosphere. I did not want any of those tidy, cozy, hemstitched little formula jobs. If you just adore those comfy little predictable puzzles, you’ve bought the wrong book…”
“….As you read each [story], keep in mind that a woman wrote it, and try to imagine what special qualities inhabit the mind and heart and soul of that woman. And after you are through, take all of those qualities and form of them a composite woman.
She will be magic and mystery, sensitive, earthy, compelling, wry, humorous, humble, arrogant, diligent, lazy, neat, careless, spiritual and bawdy. I guess this is a love note to that woman. She is a very special gal. And she is, of course, any woman, anywhere….”
“When, in my original ignorance, I planned this anthology I had intended to write a little introductory note for each story. Some biographical jazz, and an applause bit. Now I know better. Honestly, girls, I’m not really terrified of you, en masse. This nervous twitch comes from weaving baskets. I have not even touched your titles! Even though some of them are not what I would call apt. In fact, it took supernatural courage to correct a few mistakes in spelling.
This is an exotic banquet I set before you. We have called it The Lethal Sex. I would prefer to think of it as The Modern Man’s Guide and Handbook for Understanding a Creative Woman. Here they are, with their buttons and bows, their silks and scents… and their savage little minds.”
Finally, here is JDM’s dedication for the anthology, which also says a lot:
To all those unsung heroes of modern letters, those harassed, unraveled, ink-stained wretches, the professional editors. At last I understand their problems.
Paperback 708: Gold Medal d1682 (3rd ptg, 1966)
Title: Nightmare in Pink
Author: John D. MacDonald
Cover artist: [Ron Lesser]
Yours for: $7 (yeah, I paid only $3, but … inflation/postage — his books are being rereleased in $14 trade paperbacks … why, WHY would you buy those when you can get beat-up ’60s-era stuff, which is much cooler *and* much cheaper?)
Best things about this cover:
- Really hate the turn cover art took in the ’60s—toward text/branding, away from full-page cover art—and I associate MacDonald’s books most closely with that trend, to the extent that I almost blame MacDonald personally. Over the years, the girls get smaller, while the whole MacDonald/McGee Brand swells up and dominates. Probably smart marketing. But sucky from a purely aesthetic perspective.
- I do like the way Pink suffuses every corner of this thing.
- Her hair is, frankly, terrible.
Best things about this back cover:
- It’s bad enough you’ve shrunk her and made her all modest on the front—this bland-and-white corner punishment is just degrading. Even John D’s like “C’mon guys. Too far.”
- OK, I haven’t read a sexier phrase than “sweetly wanton career girl, living alone in a Manhattan walk-up” in a Long time.
- Not sure what is meant in this context by “Cafe Society,” but I would like to join.
- “And introducing … LSD!”
Terry Drummond rapped at my door and I let her in. She wore fifteen thousand dollars worth of glossy fur coat. Her brown simian face wrinkled with distaste as she looked around. “God, what a scrimey hole!” The coat swung open.
This is the kind of passage that makes me wonder why I have not read more MacDonald than I have. Love it.
Last November, when actor Larry Hagman died at age 81, I went looking for a particular monthly publication I’d remembered saving: the September 1980 edition of Panorama, a short-lived (17 issues only!) features magazine about television produced by TV Guide’s then parent company, Triangle Publications. It was the only issue of Panorama that made it into my long-term storage, the others having been jettisoned as I went through the years and moved from one residence to the next.
What interested me most about that edition of Panorama was a piece, tucked into the middle of its 112 pages, in which several prominent crime-fictionists of the
time speculated on who had
shot J.R. Ewing, Hagman’s manipulative oil baron character on the popular
CBS-TV nighttime soaper, Dallas. That shooting took place at the conclusion of the March 21, 1980, season finale episode of the series, and a resolution to the crime would not be delivered until the November 21, 1980, episode. In the meantime, Panorama editors enlisted an all-star panel of “experts” to figure out whodunit: P.D. James, Nan and Ivan Lyons (Someone Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe), John D. MacDonald, Emma Lathen, and Collin Wilcox.
Of course, when I searched for that issue of Panorama in late November, I couldn’t find it. There were simply too many boxes of old magazines stuffed away in the corners of my basement. I finally abandoned my quest, fearing I’d lost the magazine.
This last (hot!) weekend, though, I decided to clear out some of my storage. And wouldn’t you know it, I just stumbled across that Panorama I’d been seeking. It proved to be an entertaining reminder of what the American TV landscape was like 32 years ago, with stories about “Why You Can’t Always Trust 60 Minutes Reporting,” the rise of women executives in the broadcasting business, the chances that cable-TV news might overtake conventional network news shows, and an odd breed of programming called “reality TV.”
But the centerpiece of that magazine for me, still, is its collection of five short essays headlined “Dallas and the Smoking Gun: Revealing Who Pulled the Trigger.” I can tell you right now that none of the authors who contributed their speculations to Panorama got the answer right. Yet there’s fun to be had in seeing what reasons they came up with for getting the murderer’s identity wrong.
This week the gang of reviewers who make up Patti Abbot’s Friday’s Forgotten Books feature salute the prolific creator of Travis McGee and a pioneer in “Florida noir” – John D. MacDonald. Please be sure to check out the other reviews listed on Patti’s blog here.
The Drowner (1963) is the closest to a pure detective novel among the handful of MacDonald’s books I’ve read. True, the Travis McGee books have elements of a detective novel, but for the most part I find them to be more suspense and crime with minimal detection. The Drowner features a real private eye, a questionable death, secrets galore and plenty of suspects. And being a MacDonald novel it also has a healthy dose of sex. In fact sex and “sinning” are at the root of the intriguing plot.
Paul Stanial is a former cop grown jaded in his new career as private investigator. He is weary and disgusted with the daily routine of peeper jobs. Armed with a camera and holed in up in seedy motels snapping incriminating photos of adulterous couples in an endless parade of divorce cases has left him empty. He asks for something challenging, something that will make use of his talent and skills he acquired as a top cop so many years ago. He gets more than he wished for when his boss hands him their most recent case.
Barbara Larrimore hires Stanial to determine if someone killed her sister Lucy Hanson, an expert swimmer. That she drowned accidentally is unbelievable to Barbara. Couple this with a series of letters that hint at sketchy business deals and she can only suspect foul play even if there is no mark on body to suggest a violent death. It seems that Lucy was entrusted by her older lover, real estate mogul Sam Kimber, with a secret and large sum of money. In one of the letters she confesses to Barbara that she was tricked into revealing Sam’s confidence to a mysterious unnamed third party. Barbara is sure that third person is the one who killed Lucy.
Stanial passes himself off as an insurance agent who represents a company that suspects Lucy committed suicide. A double indemnity clause in Lucy’s fictional insurance policy would pay double for accidental death but if suicide was the true cause, then nothing would be paid out. Taking into consideration Lucy’s expert swimming and armed with this phony scenario he hopes he will be able to get people to discuss openly the third possible cause of her death – murder.
|UK 1st hardcover edition (Robert Hale, 1964)|
The list of possible suspects include Kelsey Hanson, Lucy’s drunken Lothario of a husband who strayed once too often; Sam Kimber, Lucy’s lover and a businessman with some shady dealings; Gus Gable, Sam’s accountant who wants to protect Sam from the IRS and police; Angie Powell, Sam’s Amazonian secretary who plays the role of a righteous Christian girl to an uncomfortable extreme; Angie’s monstrous mother Mary who puts Steven King’s Margaret White to shame in her own private war against the sin of sex; and several frivolous and swinging couples who make up Kelsey’s sex obsessed friends and whom Lucy collectively despised. Sex is everywhere in this story — the characters attitudes about sex, and the casualness of sexual relations keep cropping up in the investigation. Paul and Barbara take advantage of this when they concoct a dangerous plan to trap the killer by using Barbara as a sexual decoy. Their plan goes horribly wrong in the book’s thrilling climax when we discover exactly how the killer managed to murder Lucy.
MacDonald’s mastery at regional dialects and excellent dialog is on good display. Also on display is his fondness for character monologue and didactic speeches. Nearly everyone in the book suffers from logorrhea. Characters talk for page long paragraphs at a time. Only occasionally, when Barbara and Paul have scene together or when Paul and the laconic Sheriff Walmo exchange ideas, do we get anything resembling real conversations. The monologues are often engaging when we get to read flavored speech from someone like Willard, a Florida hick who knew Lucy, but when an intellectual like Shirley, one of Kelsey’s girlfriends, is interviewed we get a speech sprinkled with fodder of the intelligentsia.
Overall, this was a good example of what the detective novel was evolving into by the mid 1960s. There is a the examination of clues surrounding a puzzling death, ample amount of character study, all mixed with trenchant social criticism of the swinging 60s. There is even an experiment with narrative structure in that while we mostly follow Paul and Barbara in their sleuthing, at the midpoint we are treated to the revelation of the killer who makes contact with one of the suspects then dispatches that person with relish. Then MacDonald spends an entire chapter explaining the psychology and motives of the killer. At that point the book switches from a whodunit to a cat-and-mouse thriller as we watch the killer try to outwit and undo Paul and Barbara before the unmasking. The action scenes are kept at a minimum in this book but — almost to make up for their dearth — are piled on in a suspenseful and violent finale.
“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” – Aristotle
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly a decade after defense attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) acts as Good Samaritan by intervening in an attempted rape, perpetrator Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) tracks him to Savannah, Georgia and begins to deal out long-awaited retribution on Bowden’s family. As Cady carefully navigates the ever-thinning line between licit and illicit, Bowden becomes increasingly vulnerable to crossing criminal boundaries in order to protect his wife and daughter. The threat of the stable family unit by outside forces is a common motif in the noir genre, but never did the threat feel as tangible as it did in Cape Fear. An unpretentious film, it was received as coarse and vulgar in its time, yet it provokes a visceral reaction from the viewer as it questions the supposed usefulness of societal law.
The making of Cape Fear was put into motion by Gregory Peck, who also acted as producer through his motion picture company, Melville Productions. While his production house may have been named after a respectable author, Cape Fear’s origin was pulp – the touchstone of film noir screenplays. Though author John D. MacDonald was a graduate of Syracuse and Harvard universities, the Second World War derailed his life, and once discharged he found himself penning short stories for even shorter stacks of cash. Thanks to a booming crime novel market MacDonald was well-known by the time he wrote The Executioners, which eventually fell into the hands of Peck. Under the impression that films with geographical titles did well at the box office, Peck ran his finger down the Eastern Seaboard until he hit the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. In short order, Peck assigned himself the role of Sam Bowden and handed Cady’s reigns over to drinking partner Robert Mitchum.
Peck looked no further than his last director, J. Lee Thompson who had earned himself an Academy Award nomination with The Guns of Navarone. Cape Fear would be Thompson’s sole expedition into noir territory, but he was enthusiastic about conveying the film’s sense of threat and carnal undertones. Director of Photography Samuel Leavitt had little more experience with the genre. When all was said and done, his offerings were slightly dubious noirs like Johnny Cool, Crime in the Streets, and The Crimson Kimono. Yet Leavitt absolutely understood how to film chiaroscuro; after all, he took home the Oscar for black and white cinematography for Anatomy of a Murder and The Defiant Ones. Leavitt elevates Cape Fear from thriller to noir with his careful attention to shadows and light: he and Thompson shoot Mitchum behind a blur of black wrought-iron, with shadows of bar glasses gleaming on his naked back, and the sheen of sweat and black blood glistening on his skin.
“Hello, Counselor. Remember me?” – Max Cady
Max Cady has spent the last eight years, four months and thirteen days (roughly) with one thing on his mind: revenge against the man whose interference put him behind bars. Or, more accurately, Cady has spent his incarceration learning the loopholes in criminal law so he may legally terrorize Bowden’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen), and teenaged daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin). The film follows Cady as he plagues the Bowden family unit, but always outside the long arm of the law. There are no witnesses when he poisons the family dog. And if he’s outside Nancy’s school or leering at her on a boat dock? Well, a man has a right to be in public places, does he not? Not without resources, Bowden pulls a few strings and asks police chief Dutton (Martin Balsam) to roust Cady or dig up some warrants – but he’s clean. “You show me a law that prevents crime. All we can do is act after the fact,” Dutton complains. When the chief somewhat scornfully suggests a private detective, Bowden hires Charlie Sievers (played by a positively hirsute Telly Savalas) and Bowden is finally given something he can work with. Sievers follows Cady and finds that he has picked up and brutally beaten a young woman named Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase.) However, it is Cady who is sending a message to the counselor: he’s hurt and scared the young woman so badly she refuses to press charges or make a statement. Cady’s threat to her looms so large that she flees the city in the middle of the night. Bowden and his wife, Peggy, understand now that this is what Cady means to do to Nancy. It’s not the act that is important to Cady; he wants Bowden to think about an attack on his daughter for the rest of his life.
The denouement of the film is particularly tense and almost wordless, and Bowden’s indecision about his own capabilities and the practicality of law are neatly tied up. After a nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse through swampland, Bowden has Cady lined up in the sights of his revolver but does not pull the trigger. He dooms him to spend the rest of his life in jail and restores his own faith (if not so much the audience’s) in justice.
“You just put the law in my hands and I’m going to break your heart with it.” – Max Cady
Although the ending of Cape Fear stops short of the anticipated slaughter of Max Cady, the film goes beyond B-grade horror by doing an effective job of exploring the uneasy introspection of the its hero. While Cady patiently bides his time in the murky grey waters of the law, Bowden becomes positively mired in it. He’s a man who has built the foundations of his life in the black and white world of right and wrong only to discover that a he cannot use logic to solve an illogical problem. The core struggle in the film is not whether Bowden will stop Cady’s reprisal, but whether he will give up the known truths in his life to operate outside societal rules. Sam Bowden never quite makes the transition into full-fledged noir anti-hero. Though he constantly questions the law’s ability to protect upright citizens, he only dips his toes into the criminal cesspool when he hires thugs to rough up Cady after Diane Taylor’s assault. After the thugs are neatly dispatched by Cady, Bowden waits for imminent threat to his wife and daughter before he takes personal responsibility; he’s only willing to bloody his knuckles within the confines of the laws he stubbornly clings to.
“Max Cady, what I like about you is you’re rock bottom. I don’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.” – Diane Taylor
Draw a line in the sand, because the debate for Mitchum’s best villainous role is about to begin. Watch these Cape Fear scenes back to back: Cady’s soliloquy on the reckoning of his ex-wife, the aroused phone call he makes after he’s worked over by a chain, and the treatment he gives Peggy Bowden on the houseboat. Mitchum’s accolades for his work in Charles Laughton’s delirious The Night of the Hunter are deserved, but his character is not as authentically depraved as Cady. Yes, preacher Harry Powell surely is a devil of a man, but his performance there is somewhat tempered (through no fault of his own) in the dreamlike mise-en-scène. Powell’s ruse of posing as a preacher renders Mitchum’s performance just the tiniest bit hammy – though no less fun to watch. However, Powell is like a character in a nightmare the audience can wake up from. Max Cady’s foundation is realism; you find him not in your nightmares, but in your local tavern.
Inevitably, what made Cady such a great noir baddie caused great concern for the censors: he stares unabashedly at a scantily clad adolescent and slowly smears raw egg across a woman’s décolletage. Mitchum doesn’t walk in this film, he oozes. During the climax he slithers into the swamp like a cottonmouth. Any perceived slight gives Cady the motivation for savagery, and he wallows in the fun of it. Though censors had grown more lenient since the inception of the Hays Code, they were still vigilant with respect to two issues. Gone was Max Cady’s past as American Government Issue. In the past, noir films had gotten away with the unstable soldier issue by giving characters a good case of shell shock or amnesia, but Cady goes through life as a psychotic rapist, unchallenged by the Army or prison. Gone too, is the real reason Cady focuses on Bowden’s daughter. The original attack the good counselor tried to prevent was not on a woman, but a fourteen year-old girl. Cady finds a certain humor and justice in despoiling Bowden’s adolescent daughter. While British censor John Trevelyan lopped six minutes of Cady’s degenerate behaviour off the UK version, American censors gave Thompson a little more leeway with his film. Good thing, too: his portrayal of Bowden’s antagonist is the driving force behind the film and Cape Fear would fall flat with a tamer villain.
Cape Fear is a transitional film, one of the last that can claim noir roots. If its predecessors were thoughtful noir films like Act of Violence, then Cape Fear ushered in the era of psychological horror along with Psycho. It was not well-received by audiences despite the release of Hitchcock’s film two years prior. It came up about one million dollars short of production costs. “What on earth is Gregory Peck doing in such a movie?” The New Yorker wondered, calling it “A repellent attempt to make a great deal of money… out of sexual pathology.” Indeed, Cape Fear would be the last film put out by Peck’s Melville Productions. But in Hollywood everything old becomes new again, and when Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear as an homage to Thompson’s film, Peck received a rather late return on his investment and a new audience was introduced to Max Cady. While Robert DeNiro’s Cady is fun to watch, it is Mitchum’s performance that has stood the test of time. Cape Fear is ageless: still unapologetic, still chilling, still raising relevant questions. Watch this one at night with the lights turned low and raise the volume for Bernard Herrmann’s disconcerting hymn to depravity.