Sunday 28 May 2017

The Nerve-End Night: All These Condemned by John D. MacDonald

In some previous posts I've suggested that the crime novelist John D. MacDonald really began to hit his stride around the early 1960s. So it's salutary to read this small masterpiece, published in 1954, and discover not only that MacDonald is really cooking, but that he's already at the top of his game. 

Over the next few decades he would develop further in scope and depth, and perhaps pare down his story-telling technique, but his writing genius is already on display here, intact and complete. In fact, he's scarily good.

The title All These Condemned is taken from a quotation by Juvenal, from his 12th satire. Later MacDonald cheerfully confessed to faking this — there are only 10 satires by Juvenal. It is a multi-viewpoint novel, something of a speciality for the author.

It is a splintered collection of first person narratives with an ingenious, neat symmetry.  The characters are all wonderfully evoked — and impressively diverse. Two chapters are devoted to each, one chapter before and one after...

Before and after what? I hear you ask. The death of Wilma Ferris. Wilma is a ruthless tycoon. She has built an empire selling cosmetic products and she is a tough cookie, with "all the vulnerability of a meat axe."  Each of the people in the book is dependent on Wilma in some way or other — financially or emotionally. Sometimes both. 

All of them have been invited out to a weekend party in Wilma's cabin — it's actually more like a mansion in the woods — beside a lake. The book begins with the local authorities dragging the lake for Wilma's body. The small boats with their outboard motors are "rattling their tin thunder off the dawn mountains," using "grappling irons and hooks, looking like medieval torments." 

Wilma's body is soon found, and we  learn that her death is not an accidental drowning but murder. And we're off the to races.

MacDonald is sympathetic and scrupulous in the painstaking way he fleshes out his characters — even stupid little Mavis Dockerty (nee Mary Gort), who is besotted with Wilma, and easily manipulated by her. Mavis is brilliantly evoked, with MacDonald effortlessly slipping into her skin...

Mavis says things like "I would have been mortified to death" and "chew my nails right down to the hilt." She thinks her poor, hardworking husband has "got about as much romance as a toad in the grass." Wilma Ferris is using her as a weapon against her husband, but Mavis is too dim to see this.

Instead she hero-worships Wilma. Since they met she feels her life, "had kind of opened up. Like going down an alley for a long time and then coming out into a park." Indeed, although Mavis can't or won't see it, she has a powerful sexual crush on Wilma.

There is also the snobbish, inhibited Wallace Dorn, wearing "the disapproving expression of a master of hounds who has just seen a farmer shoot the fox." Or Randy Hess, Wilma's milksop of a financial advisor, who has made the fatal mistake of having an affair with his boss. He knows the weekend is going to be a catastrophe: "I undressed and lay in the darkness, feeling as if my nerves had poked out through my skin, waving in the night, sampling all the emotions that moved through the big house."

(It's passages like this which remind us that MacDonald was also a distinctive and able writer of science fiction.)

Then there's poor Paul Dockerty, husband of the dimwitted, besotted Mavis, who reflects on love: "it wasn't supposed to go away, like throwing away the pumpkins after Halloween." His view of Wilma Ferris is that "You've got to admire her. But sort of the way you admire a parade going by."

MacDonald was really flying when he did this book. He writes of the "dainty and absent-minded finesse" with which a preying mantis devours its mate; the "ponderous morality" of a dullard of a state trooper. Or how the obsequious Randy Hess has "the manner of a dog that... has made a mess on the rug and seeks to avoid punishment with hectic affability."

And then there's the virtuosic throw-away gags. Wilma "drives like a banshee with her hair on fire." The dance routine in a Hollywood musical has "sharp-shouldered chorus boys and a quarter ton of bare thighs." A cartoon safe falls out of a window on a cartoon passerby with "damp finality." 

Of course I won't give any hint of who the murderer turns out to be, but I will say the culprit is a Thomas Harris-style psychopath undergoing a "trial of strength" who talks of the killing as a "precise ritual". (Regular readers will know about my cherished theory that Harris is a big John D. MacDonald fan.) On the other hand, the juxtaposition of art and psychopathy is pure Charles Willeford.

But MacDonald really is in a league of his own, way above competitors or emulators. And this is a splendid, outstanding book.

I don't think it needed the last chapter, though,  with the good honest simple country cop (state trooper, actually — he of the ponderous morality). It spoils the symmetry (I'm starting to sound like the psychopath now!) and it reduces the quality of the book. But I sense the imposition of a banal editorial mind in this.

The penultimate chapter, what I think of as the real last chapter, is a striking anticipation of Robert Bloch's Psycho with the killer finally retreating unreachably into their own mind. Maybe the world, or at least America, wasn't ready for an ending like this yet.

(I'd like to acknowledge Steve Scott's excellent John D. MacDonald blog The Trap of Solid Gold, which provided some valuable information. Image credits: the book cover art is from Good Reads, except for the 25 cent photographic cover and the early Gold Medal with a painting by James Meese, also 25 cents, which are from Lesbian Fun World, where the book has quite a profile, and the croquet balls cover, by William Schmidt, which is from Amazon and gives away the murder weapon. The stunning Robert McGinnis cover painting sans text is from Pinterest.)

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