Sunday 7 January 2018

One Monday We Killed Them All by John D. MacDonald

Among the many excellent suspense novels by John D. MacDonald, this is another favourite of mine. There is an amazing grim sense of foreboding and approaching doom in the book, which derives not least from the brilliant title.

The set up is simple and powerful. A small town cop called Fenn Hillyer has an idyllic marriage save for one small detail — his wife Meg's brother, Dwight McAran. McAran is a psychopathic thug. And he's just about to be released from prison.

And he's sworn revenge on the town where our hero lives. 

Heightening the tension is the fact that Meg utterly refuses to believe that there's anything wrong with McAran. She's protective of her little brother. So much so that, to Fenn's chagrin, she invites him to stay with them when he gets out of the slammer.

Fenn reluctantly drives up to the prison to collect McAran and brings him home. As soon as they get out of the car, the big silly family dog comes bounding towards them in a frenzy of delight to offer a friendly greeting.

And, in one of MacDonald's most brilliant scenes, McAran responds thus: "He punched her in the chest with a quick lift of the knee... she landed a-sprawl six feet away." With "a shrill keen of spinster despair" the poor dog turns tail, flees and hides. 

"The back of my neck felt cold," says Fenn. And then his wife Meg, who has not witnessed any of this, comes racing out of the house to welcome her beloved brother.

Which is where MacDonald's unique brilliance and dark humour really show themselves: "for one nightmarish moment I had a vision of the knee lifting again... to send her, too, tumbling onto the sodden ground."

Soon the entire family except for Meg, including the kids and the dog, realise there is a psychopath in residence.  

Actually MacDonald — or at least his character Fenn — dismisses the term "psychopath", but he gives a pretty shrewd description of the characteristics ("considerable surface charm... impulsive and unreliable"). Fenn is content to conclude that "the quick dark shapes of his thoughts were beyond my capacity to imagine."

Meg attempts to keep things jolly, but "The unyielding presence of McCaran made it like trying to play a banjo in a crypt."

This book is close kin to MacDonald's The Executioners (filmed twice as Cape Fear) in that is shows an ordinary family on a collision course with a criminal psychopath while the hero is helpless to lawfully do anything to stop it.

Probably the most powerful engine in the story is our frustration at Meg's stubborn refusal to realise what McAran is, and the grim delight we take in the terrible inevitability of her finally seeing the truth.

Throughout the book MacDonald's superlative powers of description are in evidence. An impulsive, spoiled young woman is "as random as the March wind." And the death rattle of a character is described as "a last sound that was like somebody trying not to cough in church."

The climax, which takes us out of town and into the wilderness of the surrounding hill country, is particularly vividly evoked. Fenn looks up into the morning sky where "A hawk drifted, turning his head from side to side, his mind on a breakfast mouse."

And Fenn's grim early assessment of his own situation is entirely accurate: "there's no way to stop it. It's like a long hill and no brakes."

By the way... I committed a professional foul earlier when I said that McAran was Meg's brother. MacDonald actually made him a half brother instead of a full sibling. Which was, I think, a failure of nerve. Or perhaps it was imposed on him by a weak-kneed publisher.

That has no effect on the greatness of this beautifully written, utterly compelling, compact thriller. I know I've said it before (of The Drowner), but if you're thinking of trying John D. MacDonald, this is an ideal place to start.

(Image credits: The covers are from Good Reads. Incidentally, the Bob McGinnis cover of the snowy landscape is bizarrely irrelevant. There isn't a flake of snow in the entire book. But then, for that matter, as far as I can tell nobody actually gets killed on Monday in the story... The magazine spread with illustrations by Thornton Utz is from Pinterest. The Danish cover — even more irrelevant than the snowscape — is from a handy site entitled John D. MacDonald Covers as is the Spanish one. The back cover art for the Gold Medal edition is from Time Machine to the Twenties.)

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