Sunday 10 December 2017

Murder in the Wind by John D. MacDonald

My survey of the work of the great American writer John D. MacDonald continues. 

MacDonald got his start in the pulp magazines and in some ways the title of this book is the  last gasp of the pulp mentality. It would have sat happily on the contents page of any of those lurid publications.

But the book itself is vastly beyond the standards of pulp. It interweaves the narratives of a group of disparate (and sometimes desperate) characters who are thrown together when a hurricane hits Florida.

The story begins menacingly with the origins of the storm out in the Caribbean: "The flat sea had the look of a blue mirror on which warm breath had been blown, misting it." As the hurricane develops we are introduced to the protagonists.

They are vividly and economically presented and I felt I was reading about real people until I came upon Malden, a ludicrously phony spy in a ludicrously phony spy subplot. He is described at one point as the "big man with the face of silence"; the big man with the face of bullshit, more like. 

This is the only strand that doesn't ring true. Which is odd, because MacDonald really did work in intelligence during the war. But no matter, Malden plays a tiny part in the proceedings and any weakness in his strand is buried in the general splendour of the novel.

MacDonald's powers of observation, and his sardonic asides, are as acute as usual — "Hal turned the radio off after two bars of hillbilly anguish" — as his characters travel along the roads of Florida through "the hard roar of the rain" to rendezvous with their fate: "The miles ran fleetly under the fat wet wheels of the car."

But it is in his account of the hurricane itself where MacDonald truly excels. The various travellers meet when they come to a blocked bridge and can go no further, and they're forced to take refuge in an abandoned house. 

Here he describes the "the claw and tug and pull of the wind" as they fight their way towards it, the "small wild sounds, fill of a supersonic shrillness" in the empty rooms. Once inside, there's still no true safety. "A great hand pushed against the house." 
And there is the "odd thudding sound that was making the whole house tremble" like "a home built near the tracks of a railroad where a train went endlessly by."

The wind almost becomes a character in its own right — "this monstrous roaring thing." "Within the constant screaming he could hear various soft lost sounds—thumpings and crashings and flappings as though outside there was some great sad imprisoned animal that fought dully for release." There is "a deep note in the heart of it like the constant bowing of a string on a bass."

Because the hurricane coincides with a high tide, there is enormous flooding. One of our protagonists feels "the Gulf was coming in after him." And their ramshackle shelter floods and fills... "When the house shook the tremor of the walls made ripples that met in the middle of the room. In the faint light the water looked black, oily."

The story culminates when some violent young thugs among our group of refugees decide that it is the perfect moment to commit robbery at knife point. 

This act of deliberate human violence in the heart of the hurricane is particularly ugly and disturbing and effective (quite unlike that bit in the movie Titanic when they're racing around fighting over the diamonds).
The robbery attempt goes horribly wrong, and the most hateful of the young thugs decides he's going to leave the flooded house and try and swim to safety. Powerful currents sweep him along until he manages to grab onto some trees. 

He shares this precarious refuge with "two soaked miserable raccoons" in the branches above him. But the murderous thug gets what's coming to him. The roots of one of the trees gives way and it traps his leg against the trunk of the other one, as the water continues to inexorably rise...

"The trees were as unmovable as pillars of concrete" — MacDonald gets the meaning into the reader's brain with perfect precision. And the thug drowns... 

"When both trees went slowly down together, he was released and the current moved the body inland. The two raccoons swam sturdily towards other refuge, eyes alert in the bandit face."

John D. MacDonald is an astonishingly good writer. He is so good he makes me quietly smile and put the book down and write notes for this post.

(Image credits: These are all scanned from my own library — the Dell with the George Gross cover art, the Dell with the Bob Abbett art and the blue Fawcett with the Bob McGinnis art — except for the green Fawcett edition with the Bob McGinnis art which is from Good Reads.)

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