Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Forgotten Books: Bad Ronald by Jack Vance

Jack Vance is such a revered sf/fantasy writer his career as a mystery-suspense writer has largely been overlooked. One of his early mysteries won the Edgar, in fact, and at least one of his suspense novels was made into a TV movie, this being BAD RONALD which is a whole lot better than the 1973 Ballantine packaging would lead you to believe.

The era was still in the throes of Psycho. Numerous writers tried to run riffs on the basic Crazy Mama theme. Vance took the simple but suspenseful story of a seventeen year old kid named Ronald and paired him with an over-protective mother who had to hide him after Ronald committed an unthinkable crime, an event which Vance wisely skims quickly.. The only thing Mom can do is hide him in a hollowed out space in the house (a familiar trope in those days; in fact a more more celebrated novel was called CRAWLSPACE).

As grisly as the set-up is Vance deals with the rest of the novel (the police staking out the house; the nasty neighbors taunting her; and her near-breakdown) with, believe it or not, a healthy dose of black humor. All too soon Mom begins to understand Ronald is not only murderous but maybe even worse, he's a loser. He's pretty much happy to be hidden in the house. She feeds him three times a day (but makes him go on a diet); she gives him magazines hoping this'll keep him in contact with the real world--but he prefers working on his imaginary fantasy novel world; and he whimpers like a child when he can't get exactly the kind of "treat" he wants.

The dark humor only makes Ronald's psychopathology all the grimmer. We really are dealing with a freak here, one who should be chained to a dungeon wall for life. And the wily plot with many twists and turns shows just how many riffs you can run on freaky.

Unlike many of the PSYCHO riffs, there's a great deal of perceptive and nimble writing here. A very solid novel. The TV movie was straightforward and wasn't hip enough to include the humor.


Jerry House said...

I remember it being one of the scarier books I read that year.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

Subterranean Press is putting out a collection of 3 Vance mystery novels later this year which includes Bad Ronald.

Anders Engwall said...

I still vividly recall the TV version, and so does my sister. We occasionally discuss it even today, some 35 years later. It was just one of those things that once seen, never forgotten. How I would love to see it again. And now you are telling me the book is even better?

Ed Gorman said...

I probably shouldn't comment on the movie. It's been forty years since the last time I saw it and I don't have a clear memory of it. I don't recall though that they used any of the mother's tart observations about the

Anonymous said...

The made for TV movie is available on disc - so you can see it agin if you want, @Anders.

RJR said...

Vance did three mysteries under this pseudonym. Pretty good ones.