The Connoisseur of Crime, John D. MacDonald, Is Shadowing the E-Book World

The books occupy an entire shelf of the library in my parents’ basement — dozens of yellowed, flaking paperbacks, some more than a half-century old, and so fragile that I often feel I should don white cotton gloves before presuming to pick any of them up. Their spines bear titles like A Bullet for Cinderella and Cry Hard, Cry Fast and One Monday We Killed Them All. Their covers invariably depict statuesque women looking either seductive or vulnerable but always in some form of dishabille. Each book sells itself: the rugged titles and the cover copy (“A ruthless collision of driving passions” runs a typical example) promise a world of pervasive danger, while at the same time the sultry cover girls suggest why that danger might be a risk worth taking.

These are the collected works of John D. MacDonald (1916-1986), the titan of the mystery-suspense field who hammered out more than 60 novels and 500 short stories in a 40-year career that took him from the lowliest rags of the late pulp era (Dime Detective) to the New York Times bestseller list. Most people who recognize MacDonald’s name today know him as the creator of Travis McGee, the Ft. Lauderdale boat bum and all-around demigod who starred in 21 novels from 1964 through 1985 and was one of the last great tough-guy series characters to hit the scene before a certain self-consciousness overtook the genre. Travis’s popularity helped elevate MacDonald from the paperback racks to hardcover publication and mainstream respectability; deservedly, the McGee novels have never gone out of print, and have just been reissued in an attractive new set of trade paperback and e-book editions.

McGee needs no help from me; his adventures will find an audience as long as readers looking to escape from workaday lives crave vicarious excitement. No, the real news today is that concurrent with the Travis McGee reissues, Random House has released ebook editions of the standalone novels MacDonald published in the ’50s and ’60s, usually as paperback originals, and nearly all of which had gone out of print. The ebooks mean that a rich body of work that had been previously accessible only by scouring Amazon’s used sellers or specialty websites is now available at the click of a mouse to anyone with a Kindle or a Nook. (If there’s a better argument for owning one of these gizmos, I haven’t heard it.)

Among the connoisseurs of crime, MacDonald’s non-McGee novels have long been something of a cult taste—but it’s a cult that boasts some lofty names among its members. Sort through the old paperbacks and you will find blurbs from Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ian Fleming; meanwhile Kingsley Amis, evidently in a sportive mood, once called MacDonald “by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow”.

What all of these admirers were responding to first and foremost was a command of storytelling so assured as to be almost invisible. With his lean, efficient prose MacDonald can set up a conflict and generate tension within a handful of opening pages, so that the end of one chapter inevitably lures you on to the next, and then onto the one after that, plot and pacing fused together into such a precision instrument that by the time you’re halfway through, putting the book down before you know how it’s all going to come out is virtually unthinkable. (Shrewdly judged allotments of sex and sadism are also crucial to this effect, of course.)

Beyond that, though he is nominally a mystery-suspense specialist MacDonald brings an almost panoptic eye to American society: he’s as comfortable with lowlifes as he is with corporate executives, and indeed will frequently delineate the traits that they have in common. This is a novelist who, before he turned to writing, both obtained a Harvard MBA and served in the OSS, in the India-Burma theatre, during World War II. He knows a lot not only about how the world works but also about how human beings are liable to bear up, or not, in extreme situations. In his canonical study of mid-century pulp fiction, Hardboiled America (1981), Geoffrey O’Brien defines the appeal of MacDonald’s non-Travis McGee books as follows:

They are considerably rougher and more pessimistic than the later novels… They all seem to spring out of some long, hot American afternoon, an unfamiliar Cadillac gliding through the streets of a small town, a hundred tiny dramas of loyalty and betrayal, small lusts, quiet madness, interior dramas of regeneration, all set spinning about each other, meeting and meshing.

It’s true that MacDonald’s work doesn’t seethe with the kind of barely contained mania that bubbles out from under some of Jim Thompson’s first-person narratives, and he never ventures into the kind of pulp poete maudit territory that makes a handful of David Goodis‘s novels so distinctive. But in his sly way he is just as much of a guide to the wild frontier as they are, and some of the books are still startling in their extremity today. To cite two of the roughest, and best, of the novels that have just been reissued, Soft Touch (1957) is a portrayal of a criminal personality as chilling as any of the psychopaths who stalk through Thompson’s fiction, and all the more effective for being so understated; while a couple of jaw-dropping twists near the end of the Las Vegas exposé The Only Girl in the Game (1961) show that MacDonald could conjure up a mood of contemporary Gothic even in Nevada’s neon glare.

Yet what distinguishes MacDonald from many of his fellow noir practitioners is that his brutality is always carefully calibrated: he knows just how much to dole out. He can train his basilisk stare on the darkest corners of human experience because he knows they are only corners—and he keeps an eye on the big picture all the while. The novels fascinate precisely because of this balance, the writerly discipline that ensures that no matter how rough the going gets—and revisiting these books, you’re reminded of just how vicious the old paperback originals could be—the steady hand at the wheel means that nothing will be allowed to jar the overall scheme out of alignment. Noting the “element of measure” that characterizes the entirety of MacDonald’s output, O’Brien concludes that the author “was not an obsessed man impelled to spell out the horrors of his vision; he was a professional, whose obsession was Narrative.”

1960s paperback edition, The End of the Night

Nowhere are all of these gifts displayed to better advantage than in The End of the Night (1960), the book that I would be most eager to foist on anyone who’s never read MacDonald before and the one that, in a more just literary universe, would lift his reputation out of the genre ghetto where it is too often confined. I’m not alone in my assessment. Back in the ’80s Stephen King, not pulling any punches, told an interviewer “John D. MacDonald has written a novel called The End of the Night which I would argue is one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. It ranks with Death of a Salesman, it ranks with An American Tragedy“.

The End of the Night traces a cross-country crime spree perpetrated by four young sociopaths, three men and a woman, whom the press dubs the Wolf Pack once word of their crimes begins to get out, and inspires the 1960 version of a media frenzy. If the material sounds familiar, even shopworn, that’s because by now it is; but five years before Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was being serialized in The New Yorker, and a whole generation before Hollywood movies like Kalifornia and Natural Born Killers were spattering multiplex screens, MacDonald snuck into print a bleak, uncompromising portrayal of a uniquely American violence.

A bold narrative gambit opens the book. The story begins at its chronological end—in the death chamber, where the four criminals, long since captured, tried, and sentenced, are about to be executed via the electric chair. From this grisly beginning, the suspense will hinge on our learning how the Wolf Pack came together, what they did on the road, and how they finally got caught. In a manner that will be familiar to anyone who knows the earlier Quentin Tarantino movies, MacDonald moves back and forth through time and lets these events unfold from multiple perspectives: the narrators will include a garrulous prison guard present in the death chamber, the defense attorney who fails to get his clients life sentences, and, most crucially, one of the actual killers, a seemingly decent college boy named Kirby Stassen. (At rare intervals an omniscient third-person narrator will hover over the scene, but this is more in the way of stage management, a device the author needs to finesse the occasional transition.)

MacDonald’s fans know that he loved to insert mini-essays on modern mores into his novels, but in The End of the Night he resists the temptation to assign any overt cause to the Wolf Pack’s atrocities. To him—writing two years after Charles Starkweather’s rampage through the northern Midwest, and only months after the Clutter family murders that inspired In Cold Blood—the crimes are a reflection of the Way Things Are. As a jaded FBI man assigned to the case reflects:

Violence had so little meaning. It was a little area of decay in the great soft body of society, a buildup of pressure, and then a gaseous belch.

Later commentators have regularly seen in the Wolf Pack a prophecy of the Manson Family, and it’s true that some of the story’s power derives from its seeming to anticipate any number of horrors to come.

And yet: for alert readers, a particular contemporary cultural phenomenon is also discernible in the margins of this story. I said above that MacDonald wasn’t concerned with overt causes, but he did tell the interviewer Ed Gorman in 1984 that at the time of writing The End of the Night he was “very curious about the social and political effects of the mind-altering drugs. This was a new force in our arena at the time I wrote the book.”

That seems a little coy, however, when we learn that two of the Wolf Pack’s members, the vacuous 20-year-old sexpot Nanette Koslov and her sometime boyfriend, the twitchy, motor-mouthed Sander Golden, hail from what their defense attorney will call “that curious subterranean artistic world of San Francisco,” and the allusion to a Kerouac title is only the first tip-off to the duo’s affinities. In the depths of his rucksack Sander maintains a “portable pharmacy”, a supply of Dexedrine and barbiturates that he doles out like Gummy Bears to his accomplices, and his hopped-up hyperactive speech is peppered with choice hepcat lingo like man and cat and swingin’.

You don’t have to be a literary scholar to recognize what’s going on here. Sander and Nanette are Beats, Beats who have taken the Beat fascination with delinquency and ramped it up to criminality on a massive scale, and the murderous spree that takes the Wolf Pack from south Texas to Pennsylvania is a depraved descendant of the cross-country jaunts Kerouac chronicled in On the Road. Completing the analogy: the Pack’s first murder is a ghastly William Tell escapade that’s almost certainly meant to evoke William Burroughs’s notorious fatal shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer in Mexico City in 1951.

Caricature? Travesty? As a fan of Ginsburg, Kerouac, and all the rest, I’d have to answer yes — almost certainly. But this is a dimension that also lends the novel a certain savor. In rare instances this kind of cultural animus can animate and enliven a book or movie provided it remains a sort of overlay, and doesn’t turn the work at hand into a polemic. There’s no question, for example, that the original Dirty Harry movie (1971) derives much of its propulsive force from director Don Siegel’s loathing of hippies, as embodied by Andy Robinson’s longhaired psycho; but you don’t have to share Siegel’s biases to find the Robinson character creepily compelling and maybe even unforgettable. Viscerally repulsive in much the same way, Sander Golden sticks with me for weeks afterwards every time I reread The End of the Night, and I always find a new detail to ponder. Most recently, for example, I was amused to discover I’d overlooked his name-checking Scarlatti and Vivaldi as a way of one-upping his less-educated accomplices. (Always a pro, MacDonald makes sure even his psychopaths are multidimensional.)

But readers are free to take notice of these shadow Beats or not; many people, perhaps most, probably tear through the novel without even registering its extra-literary dimension. In any case, Nanette and Sander’s allegiances are tangential to the book’s bigger concerns, which hinge on nothing less than the value of a human life—the criminal’s as well as the victim’s.

The criminal is Kirby Stassen, whose jailhouse confessional offers the chilling spectacle of a human consciousness contemplating its own imminent extinction. As Kirby writes:

This morning I have been conjecturing about how long it will take me to be totally gone. By that I mean more than death. I mean the amount of time before no one will give me one single specific thought, no matter how fleeting.

MacDonald was a writer of old-fashioned conservative temperament, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to read The End of the Night as a brief against capital punishment. Kirby himself takes full responsibility for his actions, and indeed welcomes impending death as a release from the guilty conscience he can’t quite ever put into words. But as we read the condemned man’s statement—articulate, self-aware, alert to its own contradictions and evasions—and follow the downward spiral that begins with his dropping out of college in the middle of his senior year and ends with him on Death Row, less than a year later, the sense of profound waste, of catastrophe piled on top of catastrophe, makes for a genuinely unsettling reading experience. Kirby writes, just before signing off: “I know nothing about the condition of man. I know they are going to kill me TOMORROW.” (MacDonald needs 600 fewer pages than Theodore Dreiser took in An American Tragedy to get this point across.)

But the author isn’t done yet—there’s another twist to the theme. MacDonald maneuvers his plot so that the penultimate stretch of narrative centers on the Wolf Pack’s kidnapping of a young woman, Helen Wister, and on her eventual fate. Kirby has been assigned to guard Helen while the rest of the gang decides what to do with her; emerging from the daze caused by a head injury she sustained in the abduction, she surprises him with her resilience.

That’s when I expected her to fall apart, when the full realization of her situation became apparent to her.

To my surprise she forced a smile. “Then I’m in a hell of a spot. You people don’t have anything to lose, do you?”

“That’s the general idea.”

Soon after the above moment, the police will finally close in on the Wolf Pack, and their capture is an adroitly managed suspense set piece. But with each reading it’s clearer to me that the real climax, the moral climax, of The End of the Night is this scene of two people quietly talking in a motel room: the kidnapper at the end of his rope, hardly daring to believe he still has a decent impulse left, and the miraculously cool-headed woman who has to appeal to that impulse.

John D. MacDonald in the ’60s

The choice Kirby makes in the motel room is crucial both to how we read his confessional and how we read The End of the Night. That it’s ultimately not enough to save either him or Helen is the great tragic irony of the book, and what elevates it above so much of the rest of the author’s output. MacDonald’s standalone novels can sometimes shy away from their bleakest implications before they’re through, taking us to the edge of the abyss before safely depositing us back on solid ground, in the middle of the town square. Those books are wonderful yarns; they deserve to find a wide new audience in the 21st century. But with The End of the Night MacDonald went further and deeper into his genre material, using it and all the resources of his considerable craft to explore regions of human experience that most people (and certainly many mystery readers) would prefer not to have to contemplate. Here is Kirby Stassen again, near the very end:

We all—every one of us—walk very close to the shadows, to strange dark places, every day of our lives. No man stands in a perfectly safe place. So it is dangerously smug to say, I am immune. No one can tell when some slight chance, some random thing, may turn him slightly, just enough so that he will find that he is no longer in a safe place, and has begun to walk into the shadows, towards unknown things that are always there, waiting to eat him.

MacDonald dedicated The End of the Night to his two cats.