Sunday 30 April 2017

The Crossroads by John D. MacDonald

Well, this 1959 novel from John D. MacDonald sees one of my favourite writers near the top of his game. It's a human drama which rapidly develops into a crime thriller. By human drama, I guess I'm talking about what would more pejoratively be called a soap opera.

Indeed, British readers will be amused to know that the Crossroads of the title is a motel. Because Crossroads was also the title of a long running (1964-88) and low-rent British TV serial about a motel. Now that really was a soap opera. 

But this is very different territory. John D. MacDonald makes the working of his motel operation entirely fascinating and he peoples it with complex, troubled and appealing characters.  The book is utterly addictive and tremendously riveting and, as I've indicated elsewhere and at length, this guy can really write.

MacDonald memorably evokes the setting of the motel with the "pulsing insistence" of its endless passing traffic, and the big parked trucks outside the diner are "patient as elephants" in the floodlights. And he is bracingly cynical about America's automotive culture and the consequences of frail human beings in their hurtling cars in that endless traffic stream: "Of all the young families a remarkably small percentage, statistically speaking, were crunched into bloody ruin."

Small, random details constantly bring the narrative to life — a woman wears a "cinnamon cardigan" as she sits in her tiny apartment, "with the wind whining outside and intermittent gusts of sleet rattling against a window." A man stands in the bathroom of a cheap motel — not the one of the title, belonging to our heroes — under the "drizzling shower."  Elsewhere, outside, it's a "thunderous Sunday, a day of storms."

Internal landscapes are evoked just as vividly, like the hallucinating alcoholic who commits suicide to escape "the imaginary monsters who sat tall around his bed, staring at him." Or a woman, also destroyed by alcohol, with the "slow thoughts moving in her head."

The book concerns a robbery, and the tense buildup to it. It has some interesting resemblances to MacDonald's The Last One Left (1967). Here again is the use of sexual manipulation to set up a fallguy for the heist, though in The Crossroads it's a male psychopath who is the puppet master, and the fallguy is a hardened young thug rather than an innocent teenager.

As with The Last One Left, the cops turn up very late in the story — inevitably, I guess, since it's not a procedural and the viewpoint characters are not police. And once more the killer is faked out so as to get them to confess. But I think the police are more authentically depicted in The Crossroads. They talk about who they "like" for the crime, and MacDonald unforgettably describes the "pure delicious triumph" the cops feel when they nail the bad guy.

The suspense in this book is considerable; you dread what's going to happen and can hardly bear to go on, but nothing could induce me to stop reading — and after I was finished I immediately wanted more.

(Image credits: The Robert McGinnis cover with all those lovely green trees is from EbookBike. The Pan cover is from Pinterest. The Crest Book original is from another Pinterest page. The Inner Sanctum Mystery hardcover is from AntiqBook. The Fawcett Gold Medal second paperback issue is from Good Reads.)

No comments:

Post a Comment