Friday, January 20, 2012

Remembering John D. MacDonald's pulp fiction by Fred Blosser

Remembering John D. MacDonald's pulp fiction by Fred Blosser

Years ago, as a fledgling enthusiast of pulp and paperback fiction, I was a big fan of the legendary JDMBibliophile ‘zine. I was especially fond of the “Early JDM” column, in which Francis M. Nevins Jr. profiled MacDonald’s pulp stories from Black Mask, Dime Detective, and other such wonderful treasuries of hardboiled fiction.

Several of those stories, with JDM’s blessings, were eventually collected by Martin H. Greenberg, Nevins, Walter Shine, and Jean Shine in the two “Good Old Stuff” volumes of the 1980s. But many others remain unreprinted. This is unfortunate, because nuggets of tough-guy gold repose in those now-crumbling pulpwood pages. As cases in point, I would refer you to two novelettes from Dime Detective that show MacDonald at his youthful peak as a riveting storyteller.

I wrote about those stories in the Spring 1992 issue of The JDM Review, and what follows is an updated recap of the article. I figure that most of you are unfamiliar with the 1992 article. Twenty years later, with pulp making a resurgence of sorts with e-books and POD houses, it may be a good time for a reminder as to how energetic MacDonald’s magazine work was.

First, “Call Your Murder Signals!” (Dime Detective, June 1948). As in most of JDM’s pulp stories, the protagonist of this 12,000-word effort isn’t the typical private eye or police detective pulp hero. Benjamin “Tige” Gaynor, war hero and former All-American lineman, is coach of a pro football team called the Port Davis Travelers.

When Tige runs afoul of a crooked gambling ring, local gangsters try to kill him. Failing that, they frame him for the murder of a former player. With a pert young woman on his side, Gaynor clears his name and brings the bad guys to lead-laced justice. (Man, pulp lingo is contagious.)

From the first page, in which Tige is shot and pushed out of a speeding car on a lonely country road, “Call Your Murder Signals!” is textbook-perfect pulp. JDM keeps the plot moving at high velocity, while throwing in the occasional twist of phrase that presages his mature Gold Medal style:

“Without knowing how it happened, I was on my face in the shallow ditch, and my hands were no longer tied. My right arm was twisted under me at a funny angle. I burned in a dozen places. My cheek rested in a puddle, and the rain beat down on me.

“The legs were gone, too. Oh, they were there, but they were old stockings filled with sand and putty.”

The blurb on the magazine’s contents page is pure pulp platinum: “Snap into kill formation, boys, and -- CALL YOUR MURDER SIGNALS! When the trigger toughs tried to bench him for keeps, All-American Gaynor decides he’d rather do-in than die.”

Incidentally, by that June 1948 cover date, Dime Detective no longer sold for 10 cents. Cover price: 15 cents.

Another placid town seething with hidden corruption, Hunt City, is the setting for “Too Many Sinners” (Dime Detective, June 1949). Johnny Rogan, a “tall, hardy-looking young man with a firm jaw, friendly blue eyes, and a shock of yellow hair,” is a soft-hearted repo man. Assigned to repossess a car for a bank, he encounters a prostitution and extortion ring, a deceptively cherubic old man named Esperance whose enemies have a way of disappearing suddenly, and a lethal beauty named Carlotta.

In the 1992 article, mentioning Carlotta, I suggested that readers visualize Barbara Carrera in a 1940s pageboy hairdo. Now I would suggest Eva Mendes, Sofia Vergara, maybe Eva Longoria.

With a plot slightly reminiscent of Hammett’s “The Scorched Face” (in the 1992 article, I goofed and inexplicably cited Hammett’s “Fly Paper”), “Too Many Sinners” may strike modern readers as dated, at least in regard to details of technology. Esperance drugs local young women, puts them into what the tabloids used to call compromising positions, and uses the photos to blackmail the women or force them into turning tricks. Nowadays, I guess sex videos or on-line porn would be involved.

As in “Call Your Murder Signals!”, JDM keeps the action rocketing along. There’s a masterful sequence in which Johnny, tied up in his car and doused with gasoline, struggles to free himself before a lighted cigarette burns down and ignites the petrol.

The blurb for this one is even better than the one for the 1948 novelette:

“A thrill-starved girl’s fury cremates -- TOO MANY SINNERS. She was just a brunette on a skip list -- steering Johnny to hell."

In between the beatings, shootings, and stabbings, the mundane details of Rogan’s repo job have an authentic ring. One suspects that JDM drew on his own brief career in repossessing cars and appliances while putting himself through college.

Incidentally, if you think “Call Your Murder Signals!” and “Too Many Sinners” push the limits of corn, consider that two other titles in the June 1949 issue were “A Sap Takes the Rap” and “Tin-Lizzy Houdini.” As noted in the “Good Old Stuff” collections, the titles of MacDonald’s pulp stories were often changed as they crossed the editor's desk. Whatever the title, they deserve better than the impermanence of brittling pulpwood pages.


jervaise brooke hamster said...

I want to bugger the girl in the red dress and the bird with the big tits.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Now I want to read some of these stories. Has anyone ever tried to do a multi-volume Complete JDM short stories collection, like what Dennis McMillan did with Fredric Brown or what Ramble House is doing with Day Keene?

Ed Gorman said...

Sometime in the early 90s I got together with Walter and Jean Shine, JDM' s great friends and keepers of the flame, and said we should do a two volume collection of JDM's best stories. I shopped the proposal around and got a solid offer almost immediately. JDM left his work in the hands of a movie agent, a man I like and respect but a man who doesn't have much interest in small projects. He was big on Travis McGee, for instance, less so on the less commercial books. He wouldn't give us the right to make the deal. I'm sure a lot of the old pulp stories are now in public domain so an enterprising publisher could probably collect them.

Keith said...

It's unfortunate that some agents act that way. From what I understand, the person with the rights to Henry Kuttner's estate was that way at one time. I would love to see a comprehensive collection of JDM's work. He's always been one of my favorites.

argott said...

Wow, I'm sure that I'm not alone in thinking that it's too that two volume collection was blocked, Ed. Sound like it would have been right up my alley.

Tiffany said...

It's too bad that fierce storytelling has had "blocks" like that. It could prevent great writers from emerging. I'm a new fan to the pulp thrillers and enjoying it thus far. I got started with first reading threshold and now I'm onto Just Before The Dawn continues the twisted world of Honey McGuinness.