Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Executioners

I usually read a John D. novel every month or so. There are eight or nine I never get tired of simply because they're so well done.

Last night I picked up The Executioners (Cape Fear) for bedtime reading and read to page 102 before turning out the light. Yes, there's cutesy-poo dialogue but mostly in first half of the first act. But except for that this is a virtually perfect suspense novel. MacDonald wisely hews to the Hitchcock rule--suspense comes from knowing that the bomb is under the chair. MacDonald plants the bomb in the first chapter and they slowly lets the wick burn lower and lower. Several lesser incidents anticipating the final explosion.

Cady isn't Robert Mitchum's Cady but he could be his cousin. The scene where the family buries the dog Cady kills is as fresh and moving as it was the first time I read it. The wife is a tough woman, not the Polly Bergen version. And protagonist Sam, while not a typical MacDonald tough guy, is not the cipher he seems to be in the movie. JDM gives him real depth here.

As for being slow...I suppose it is. And for good reason. In those days one of the marks of a serious writer was the ability to make part of the narrative a portrait of the milieu where the story is taking place. Last week I mentioned how well Lawrence Block did this in A Diet of Treacle. MacDonald does it well here, too. We get to know the sociology of the time and place almost as well as we get to know the people. I'm sure this is a matter of age--I like this kind of writing.

The Executioners would be written very differently today. It would be angrier, bloodier, more brutal in terms of Cady's psychology (Mitchum got it exactly). But for me The Executioners bears re-reading because it's one of the best stories told by one of the best storytellers of my time on the planet.

4 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Never read the book although I like him very much, but it was maybe the scariest movie I've ever seen. He radiates evil. Nobody did it better. Not DeNiro either.

Todd Mason said...

Patti, you need to read it. It beats the hell out of CAPE FEAR the first film the way the first towers over CF the remake...and I won't even agree it's slow (though I haven't reread it in a decade plus--I'll take your word on cutesy early on), so much as just right as the decent couple, as you note, Ed, don't turn into the jellyfish of the films but come to realize, very early on, that they have to do what they have to do, however little they like it--and however damned hard it is, in every suspenseful way. Pity Mitchum wasn't able to star in a faithful adaptation. Still my favorite MacDonald.

Bill Crider said...

I agree about the excellence of this one, and count me in on liking the parts about the sociology of time and place. I'm the right age to like that kind of thing, too.

Fred Blosser said...

The Scorcese remake is essentially THE EXECUTIONERS rewritten today -- Cady is so over the top that he comes close to parody, the Nick Nolte character is ineffectual as hero and family man, some of the action is 007-style physically implausible (Cady hangs on to the underside of Nolte's vehicle on the drive all the way to the coast??),and the Juliette Lewis teenage daughter is a space cadet who sort of wants to get molested. DeNiro is impossible to accept at face value as a backwoods swamp rat: Nolte actually might have been more intrinsically believable in the role.