Sunday 16 December 2018

You Live Once by John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald is one of my all time heroes. He wrote nearly 80 books, primarily crime thrillers and suspense fiction, and almost every one of them is excellent. 

Most of these novels began life as disposable American paperbacks and many were never published in a more permanent format — i.e. hardcover editions. In the UK, though, a publisher called Robert Hale reissued a lot of MacDonald's work between hard covers.

I pick up these Hale editions whenever I can. I like their durability, even though sometimes the cover art leaves something to be desired — as in the case of You Live Once, which I just got hold of this week. (It features this silly and quite irrelevant photo of a glamour model with a fishing rod and a gun.)

You Live Once dates from 1956 and I'm posting about it now because I just happened to glance at the first page yesterday, before putting it on my MacDonald shelf, and I promptly found myself falling under its spell...

And 24 hours later I've finished it and I'm writing this. 

It's the story of Clint Sewell, who has been dating a troubled rich girl called Mary Olan. As the book begins he wakes up with a very strange, intense headache and discovers that Mary has spent the night at his place — dead in his closet.

Clint isn't the type given to morbid self doubt, so never for an instant does he question whether he might have actually killed Mary, perhaps during a blackout. That might well be the basis for a memorable noir tale by Cornell Woolrich...

But MacDonald is a very different sort of writer. (And, it has to be said, a superior one.) So, instead, Clint correctly infers that someone wanted Mary dead and is trying to frame him for the crime.

Therefore he decides to get rid of the body...

What could possibly go wrong?
This plot neatly combines a classic murder mystery — who really killed Mary? — with a powerful suspense element: will Clint end up going to the electric chair as the fall guy, after all?

And indeed, at times, the suspense is almost unbearable.

But what really distinguishes MacDonald, as I've said before, is the quality of his writing. He can even make the description of a parked car memorable — "My black Merc sat dozing in the sun." 

Or here he is talking about "the cruel slant of the bishops" on a chess board. (He also reflects on the intellectual purity of the game "... a special, clean geometric world... Perhaps it was a good world to hide in.")
And here he describes a man receiving bad news: "staring at his large clenched fist as though he held something small there, captive."

MacDonald shows that, even at this relatively early stage in his career, he was capable of great psychological acuteness. After dumping Mary's body in the woods, Clint reflects, "If no one found her, I knew I would live with nightmares for a long, long time." 
(As it turns out, he doesn't have to worry about that.)

The characterisation in You Live Once is excellent and often darkly funny, but I would say this is not absolutely top notch John D. MacDonald. It's perhaps a bit too cursory —as if the author never entirely fell in love with the story. And there's a slightly drippy romantic sub plot.

But the absorbing murder mystery is skilfully constructed. You're highly unlikely to guess who the culprit is, but when all is revealed, the answer is entirely satisfying. 

Which is the highest accolade for plotting in this genre.

Well done again, Mr MacDonald.

(I have also previously written posts on these other John D. MacDonald novels: The Brass Cupcake, The Last One Left, The Crossroads, All These Condemned, Border Town Girl — actually two novellas, but let's not split hairs —  The Drowner, Murder in the Wind and One Monday We Killed Them All.)

(Image credits: The crazy Hale hard cover with the gun-toting fisher-girl is from Flickr. The 25c Popular Library edition — the first incarnation of this book — is from the admirable John D. MacDonald Covers site. The more recent version of the McGinnis cover, with the Green Ripper citation is from Good Reads. You Kill Me is from Pinterest. The Magnum edition with the green cover of photo and gun is from the bookseller GD Price. The other covers, including the Cosmopolitan magazine (where an early version of the novel appeared), are from the truly excellent John D. MacDonald blog The Trap of Solid Gold.)

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