Ed here: I've reprinted my own piece on John McPartland two or three times in the past five years. Thought I'd let you see what a real critic has to say about him. This is John Fraser's take on McPartland, one of the Gold Medal boys who never got his due. What made him interesting to me was that he had a great Fitzgeraldian social eye for every strata of society, from blue collar all the way up to the gated communitiy folks.
McPartland was no genius but he came to writing with a voice and social take all his own and neither had anything to do with the hardboiled material then flooding the market. As John Fraser said to me in a recent letter, "McPartland deserves the attention. He seems rather to have slipped through the critical net, maybe because he didn't deal in cliched noir depressiveness, with the inevitable failure of love."
John McPartland by John Fraser copyright 1998
The Face of Evil (1954)
She was the kind of woman a man noticed, mostly because of her eyes. Dark, almost black pools, they had a warmth that I felt could turn to fire. She had turned her head, looking over the shoulder of the man she was with, and we looked at each other. The third or fourth time it happened he noticed it and I paid some attention to what he was like.
He was a type. You find guys like him driving ten-wheeler transport trucks, or flying, or sometimes as chief petty officers in the Navy, on a sub or a destroyer. Square-built, tough tanned skin, big hands with knuckles that are chunks of stone.The type—what makes him recognizable as a wanderer, a fighter, sometimes a killer—shows in his face.
Big white teeth, yellow a little from cigarettes like his fingers, and he smiles with his teeth closed, talking through them when he’s angry. A thin line of short black hairs for a mustache, sideburns of curling hair, hair black and curly, a face that is rough and yet young, and it won’t change much if he lives to be fifty. The eyes are fierce, amused, hard.
It’s a special breed of man, and the breed are men. Maybe a mixture of German, Irish, French-Canadian, with a streak of Comanche, Ute, or Cheyenne in there about three generations back. You meet men like this one in the truck-stop cafés along U.S. 40, with the diesels drumming outside; or you meet them walking toward the plane on the airstrip; or in jail, still smiling, still ready for a fight.
This guy was laughing as he swung off the bar stool. He was still laughing as he walked over to me.
The Face of Evil (1954)
McPartland is that rarity, a writer of tough novels who feels tough himself. (Was Spillane a barroom brawler? If so, did he win?)
McPartland was one of the Gold Medal blue-collar writers; had served in Korea; obviously knew the black-market milieu of that war; came back and wrote raw, rugged, at times very powerful novels; obviously drank, lived with a mistress and illegitimate kids before it was OK to do so; and died young of a heart attack. He was the kind of person who knew what it meant to be in trouble with the law, doing dumb impetuous things, getting into fights.
What comes across again and again in his novels is his understanding of power, the hard masculine will to dominate others, break them, destroy them. His bad guys are some of the most frightening in thriller fiction: Southern rednecks, syndicate “troopers,” the Mob. His fights are fights in which the loser can get hurt very badly.
When a black-marketing non-com says he’s going to scramble someone’s eggs with his combat boots (crush his testicles), or the middle-echelon syndicate enforcer Whitey Darcy tells the fixer Bill Oxford, “We’re going to make you cry, feller,” or when Buddy Brown, the twenty-year-old petty crook in Big Red’s Daughter (1955) tells Jim Work that he’s going to make him crawl, we know that’s just what they intend to do.
They are hard men.
King McCarthy in The Face of Evil (1955) is a natural fighter. Buddy Brown wins his first two fights with the hero—knocks him down with a sucker punch; gets a painful lock on his knuckles and punches him in the throat while they’re sitting drinking beer in a barroom booth. And the Syndicate, the Mafia, punish offenders ruthlessly. Oxford knows what it will be like to go to prison and have your kidneys smashed by an inmate, crippled with pain for the rest of your life every time you pee. Johnny Cool’s end in The Kingdom of Johnny Cool is dreadful.
However, in most of the novels there isn’t just violence, there’s also love, and things work out all right in the end for the hero and heroine. They very easily couldn’t, though. A strong, focussed counter-energy on the part of the heroes is necessary.
McPartland’s best book is The Face of Evil, about the fixer Bill Oxford, who’s been on the long downward slide of compromise, complicity, corruption, and has been sent to Long Beach by the PR agency to which he’s attached to ruin a genuinely decent reform candidate, upon pain of being stripped of all his high-living perks and slammed into prison. It is tense and well-made throughout.
The Kingdom of Johnny Cool is his other best novel. When it appeared, I wrote to Ross Macdonald (a total stranger, but he’d done a Ph.D. in English himself) to ask him to review it for a student journal I was co-editing. He declined, saying that it seemed to be simply Spillane-type melodrama. He was wrong.
The novel is a powerful account of a Sicilian criminal’s rise and fall in America—a more interesting one than W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar (1929)—and it takes us into dark cold waters full of predators. McPartland was on to the Mafia as a subject twelve years before The Godfather, and his attitude towards it is far healthier than Puzo’s sentimental power worship. There’s nothing cute or admirable about McPartland’s Italianos.