The 1950s were a remarkably productive period for JDM the paperback novelist. And 1957 particularly so. His bibliography lists three novels that were published that year—Death Trap, The Price of Murder and The Empty Trap. For a pulp writer, of course, that kind of output wouldn’t have been exceptional. But for a novelist of JDM’s talent, it was something akin to what Georges Simenon did throughout his career, year in, year out—crank out one little gem after another, an assembly line of inspiration.
And a “little gem” is exactly what The Empty Trap is. Weighing in at under 150 pages, it’s lean, mean and utterly entertaining. It practically cries for a screen adaptation. And it wouldn’t matter whether Hollywood treated it as a period piece or updated it. It would work equally well in a setting of today or half a century ago. I can just see it directed by someone like Paul Greengrass (the Bourne films and Captain Philips) or Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton).
If you’re hoping to see one of JDM’s Travis McGee prototypes in action, however, you’ll be disappointed. But if you like anything bordering on noir territory, with a dash of thriller, then The Empty Trap will be your cup of tea—a tale of lust, greed, murder and revenge drawn with razor-sharp acuity. This third-person narrative shifts back and forth between the present day (c. 1957) and flashbacks to earlier times, to the circumstances that led to the events depicted. And it begins in full flight—in media res, as the Romans said. Right in the middle of a shitstorm.
Hotel manager Lloyd Wescott is being driven up an isolated, rocky Mexican mountain road, crammed into a Chrysler between two thugs, “wrists bound behind him, ankles lashed together, both tied tightly with a sheer nylon stocking, gossamer thin, unbreakably strong.” In the Pontiac behind is his dead lover, raped and murdered the night before—slumped next to her killer. The cars stop at a vertiginous drop-off and the three thugs check it out.
Is this a spot where you could push a car over, and not have it and its dead occupants discovered for a while? The trio of thugs decides that it is, install Wescott next to his woman, cut his bonds and give the big Pontiac the old heave-ho. Somehow, Wescott is “spun high and free and he saw the car and the mountains turn around him and knew he was apart from the car. Then, in the turn, the brown rocks came up to a smash of whiteness against his face, a flooding light whiteness that dwindled down and away like the last white spot on a cooling TV picture tube.”
Miraculously, the hotel manager survives his rocky plunge, tumbling onto a ledge. Despite a smashed-up arm and leg, and other injuries, he manages to crawl laboriously and painfully down to ground level. He gets to the water of a creek, drinks, then makes for the crushed Pontiac—thinking there may be food in the car. Buzzards are literally circling. He drifts in and out of delirium. When he sees of what’s left of his lover, it makes him nauseous.
He dreams about how the two of them stole the hundred-plus grand from her gangster husband. And how the gangster’s men tracked them down and tortured them and prepared them for extinction. Just in the nick of time, natives from an isolated Mexican village find the shattered Gringo, take him by burro to their village and begin to nurse him back to health. He comes to know the villagers and like them—especially the serious, homely young woman who takes care of him.
He slowly mends, starts to build up his body. He begins to help in labors around the village. He picks up Spanish and starts to explain himself. It had to do with money and a woman, he tells his new friends, and something he did that was dishonorable. He’s startled to see how much his near-death experience has disfigured a face that some considered handsome. Above all, he ponders how he got into this awful mess, flashing back to that summer in Maine when he met a shady character named Harry Danton.
Wescott was only 27 and already manager of a resort hotel on the coast. When Danton arrived, a hotel employee warned Wescott against getting close to this guy—known to have mob connections. But Danton likes what he sees in Lloyd. He asks him to come in with him on a new hotel project in Nevada. The young manager has the good sense to say, “No thanks.” Some time later, though, Lloyd is stuck in a crappy job. When he encounters Danton again, he jumps at the chance to build and manage the new resort casino. And it’s a hit. Lloyd does his management thing and all is well with the world. Except one day Danton shows up with his new bride named Sylvia—a young beauty known as a chanteuse and gangster’s moll. “A cheap tramp, a consort of criminals, a hardened chippy,” says the grapevine. Only she doesn’t seem that way. They meet, they like each other, they have earnest discussions when Danton isn’t around. Danton, his wife announces, is an abusive SOB. And you know where this is going.
Lloyd also can no longer avoid the realization that Danton’s casino operation is as crooked as a three-dollar bill. Even more worrying is a little conversation he has with Danton about maybe quitting. The hotel owner makes it clear that there are only three ways to leave his employ. Disablement/serious illness. Old age. Or death. Lloyd has to conclude that the only way out for him and Sylvia is to go on the lam—with a pile of Danton’s ill-gotten gains. Which they proceed to do.
The injured, disfigured Wescott of the Mexican village understands from his new friends that if he does one thing with the rest of his life, it’s to revenge himself on Danton. Only then will he be a real man. After many months of healing and rebuilding, he leaves the village, recovers a large piece of the hidden loot and gets plastic surgery to make his face look less disfigured. He slips back into the U.S. and builds up a résumé in hotel work in various places—with a new name, of course—heading like a guided missile for Harry Danton’s Green Oasis Hotel and Casino. By the time he arrives, the place is looking shabby and misused, Danton having sucked the operation dry.
With his new, beaten-up face and a voice repitched for the occasion, Wescott fools everyone. The first fool is one of the hoods who “killed” him back on that mountain road. In a bit of fine symmetry, Lloyd lures the fellow up to a mountain precipice, with the intention of heaving him over. Oddly, it doesn’t turn out the way he planned. Nor do the endings of thug number two and Danton himself. (Thug number three was killed while Lloyd was “dead.”) Lloyd’s ending also isn’t what you’d expect. But it feels right nonetheless. JDM shows his class and artistry by taking the road less traveled.
In the hands of a slighter writer, a plot like The Empty Trap’s would have descended into grand guignol and melodrama and horror. But JDM—while unreeling a fairly straightforward, compelling thriller—manages to give his central characters some real emotional resonance and dimension. Like Simenon, JDM has a very good grasp of what makes people tick. That’s what makes The Empty Trap special.
Sylvia’s neither a bimbo nor a “hardened chippy.” JDM paints a young woman who’s had a hard life, who’s had to fight and scrap for her survival. Apart from the fact that you know she’s doomed right from the outset, you almost hope that life with Lloyd really would work out. Isabella—Lloyd’s Mexican caregiver and lover—is no beauty. In fact, she’s considered in the village to be an “old maid.” But she has strength and honesty and decency enough for two. In fact, I almost see her as the still center of the novel, the obscured center of gravity around whom the rest orbit.
As for Lloyd himself, he begins as a shallow young businessman whose life and beliefs are reforged in the fire and heat of horrible events. Although the handsome Lloyd of the book’s beginning and flashbacks has what most men of that era thought they wanted, it’s the older, wiser, damaged and healed Lloyd who ends up with the things of most value.
Happily, The Empty Trap–like most of JDM’s non-McGee books–is readily available online as either an e-book or as a used paperback.