The Other JDM: The Empty Trap

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.

 

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Guest Post: McGee Is Not Noir – Part Three

In which we find a bromance at the heart of things.

By Kevin Comer

One essential trait of a hard-boiled protagonist is that he or she is a loner. By the time the final installment, The Lonely Silver Rain, is published, McGee is anything but a loner.

He lives in a community. He has created a loose family from friends and neighbors picked up along the way. He has discovered a vital relationship that he didn’t know he had.These connections, especially his friendship with Meyer, are critical to the pride of place we grant to McGee and his creator. Silver is an acceptable finale to the series, as much as we regret that it must be the end, because of the epilogue, which includes this passage:

We brought aboard pungent cauldrons of Meyers special Incomparable Chili, and enough icy beer to make the chili less lethal. How many of us are there? Twenty? Thirty? Lets say a lot. Jim Ames and Betsy, The Thorners, Teneros, Arthur and Chook Wilkinson, the Mick and Carlie Hooper, Junebug, Lew, Roxy, Sue Sampson, Sandy, Johnny Dow, Briney, Frank and Gretch Payne, Miguel, the Marchmans, Marilee, Sam Dandie with two nieces, and a leavening of beach folks, and two dogs and a cat, dutifully ignoring each other.

We are here, and there is music and there are bad jokes, and so we are all a little bit longer in the tooth and have seen life go up, down, and sideways without any rhyme or reason anyone can determine. We laugh at old jokes because they are old and tired and familiar, and it is good to laugh.

I’m just discovering that this can still make me cry—proving that I, at least, am not hard-boiled. This passage, for me, says it all. But I know I’ve got more of a case to make.

McGee’s principle habitat is Bahia Mar. There is an active community of permanent residents, as well as folks just passing through. McGee participates in the life of the marina. Throughout the series we are introduced to many acquaintances, friends, and ex-girlfriends who have histories with McGee. A number of these folks are on board for that final party on the Busted Flush in Silver. Some, such as Arthur and Chook, were more than minor characters. McGee is no loner. He maintains his connections to people. Although it’s unusual for a hard-boiled thriller to contain so much from the protagonist’s life, this isn’t enough on its own to separate McGee from the genre.

The first few books of the series are quite similar to the sort of hard-boiled thriller JDM had been putting out for the previous decade-plus. There are definite similarities between Travis and characters like Sam Brice in Where is Janice Gantry?, Andy McClintock in Dead Low Tide, and even Cliff Bartells in The Brass Cupcake. They’re big, rugged, athletic, tough, competent, resourceful, and attractive to women. When facing danger, they’re on their own. Don’t get me wrong, this is great stuff.

But once the hirsute Meyer and his mildly mordant banter begin to creep toward center stage in A Deadly Shade of Gold, he quickly becomes an essential player—and McGee is no longer going it entirely alone.

Meyer enters the stage simply as a fellow resident of Bahia Mar. His “squatty little cruiser,”the John Maynard Keynes, is moored close to slip F-18 and he is sharing a friendly game of acey-deucy with McGee on the sun deck of the Busted Flush. Two books later in Darker than Amber, Meyer is promoted from friend and neighbor to full-fledged sidekick. McGee and Meyer are no longer simply hanging around the marina sharing wry cultural musings. Meyer is a full partner in planning and executing the takedown of a vicious gang of psychopaths preying on well-to-do, but not too well-to-do, men on cruise ships. From this point on, Meyer is an active participant in the series as McGee’s boon companion and sometime partner in the action—and, for me, the more Meyer in the story, the better.

Meyer’s involvement in McGee’s adventures is incidental to their relationship. There is no equivalent to Meyer for Spade, Marlowe, or Archer. The amusing, intellectual boon companion is not a device of the hard-boiled thriller. The reader doesn’t eagerly anticipate the urbane badinage between the protagonist and his egghead best friend.

Beginning with Meyer’s appearance in Gold, JDM gives us a portrait of a friendship: Two people who like hanging out with each other; who have grown close; who love each other. I don’t think JDM would takeissue with that assertion. Meyer is not just a partner. It’s a bromance. Something like a bro’version of Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, the last novel of the author who started the whole hard-boiled business, Dashiell Hammett. Nick and Nora’s interaction is why we read the book and why we watch the movies. Who cares about the mystery?

How many readers were beginning to doubt that I could trace “the thread”from Hammett to MacDonald?

I find it interesting that both Hammett and MacDonald decided to introduce intimate companions for their protagonists. Were they feeling limited by the hard-boiled formula?

Whatever the reasons, the introduction of such a close companion expands the emotional canvas. Through their interactions, we relate to the characters more readily. They feel more real, more human. I believe this is why we develop the feelings we have for these characters. You can enjoy Spade, Marlowe, and Archer, but you don’t feel affection for them. Not the way we do for Nick and Nora – or McGee and Meyer.

At the end of Silver, the Flush is packed to the gunnels with treasured friends. Meyer is on the sun deck. Travis and his current girlfriend, Briney, have the following exchange while sharing a sun pad on the bow:

“What are all these people doing in our home, sweetheart?”she asks drowsily.

“We invited them all, every one”

Spade, Marlowe, and Archer are forever on their own. McGee is not, and if you’re not on your own, you’re not hard-boiled. It’s as simple as that.

Of course, I have a theory about how I would categorize McGee, but I’ve got to talk about the women and this is far too big a topic. It deserves its own post—or maybe more than one.

 

 

Guest Post: McGee is Not Noir – Part Two

In which we look at origins.

By Kevin Comer

Set in Florida and containing definite hints of the McGee to come, JDM’s first novel, The Brass Cupcake, falls well within the conventions of hard-boiled crime fiction. The narrator, Cliff Bartells, is an insurance adjuster, who is tasked by his employer, Security Theft and Accident Insurance, with buying back stolen jewels insured for $750,000. The case offers more than the usual measure of danger because the thieves have already proven they’re capable of murder. Making things even more difficult, the local mob and Cliff’s former colleagues at the Florence City Police Department are in cahoots, and they’re eager to get Cliff off the case. With a big bonus at stake and because he won’t be pushed around, Cliff is willing to do whatever it takes to recover the jewels, even if he sometimes hates himself in the morning. Surviving a shooting attempt and a savage beating, he recovers the jewels and turns the tables on his adversaries.

While Cliff is not a private investigator per se, he is a former police officer. (You’ll recall that Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer was a former cop; and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe had been an investigator for the Los Angeles District Attorney.) Cliff left law enforcement because he couldn’t tolerate the corruption he found. He’s a tough cookie. He’s a chick-magnet. He lives alone, sleeping on a sofa bed, in an efficiency apartment. Experience has taught him some bitter lessons—lessons he’s taken to heart. But he still has a code. In short, Cliff is a near classic first-person protagonist of the mainstream hard-boiled school.

The Brass Cupcake was published at the dawn of the golden age of paperback originals. Due to a number of factors, including television and even cheaper and more lurid competitors entering the market, this era was already coming to a close by the early ’60s, when John D. MacDonald was imposed upon to try his hand at a series. By this time, he’d published nearly forty novels. He was most renowned for his suspenseful thrillers, but he’d produced a variety of other sorts of stories as well, including some science fiction. Meanwhile, the author of Gold Medal’s best-selling series, Richard S. Prather—whose protagonist was the laughably hard-boiled Shell Scott—jumped ship to another publisher for a handsome deal. Gold Medal needed a new series and the publisher thought JDM could produce what they wanted. Despite the pressing economic concerns of Gold Medal (sales were down) and the rewards on offer, JDM did not lightly step up to the challenge of a series.

JDM had long maintained he would not do a series. He’d taken a stab at it a couple of times early in his career with the pulps, but was unable to sustain the effort beyond a couple of stories each time. He found sitting down and trying to write a story around an established character caused writer’s block. He was also concerned about becoming typecast: Unable to sell anything else and, like Conan Doyle, unable to free himself from the character.

By his own estimation, JDM wrote a million and a quarter words in the process of creating McGee. He wrote The Deep Blue Good-by twice, but in each case he was unhappy with the central character. There are a number of problems with each version, but essentially, he felt the first was too dour and the next was too silly. Third time was the charm for Blue—the version we all know and love.Feeling he was onto something, he wrote the first five McGee novels before he allowed a single one to be published. He wanted to make sure that Travis McGee was a character he could live with; a character who would not constrain his creative impulses by boxing him into a limiting formula.

As I mentioned in my first post, noir fiction is a subgenre of hard-boiled fiction. Since I haven’t read all of JDM’s pre-McGee fiction, I can’t say with certainty whether he ever tried his hand at anything that would qualify today as noir fiction, although if The Executioners (a story famous as two movies entitled Cape Fear) were written first person from the point of view of Max Cady, he’d be in the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, I can declare, definitively, that none of the McGees, not even The Green Ripper, is anything close to noir fiction for the simple reason that McGee is not a noir-fiction protagonist. He is neither a victim, a suspect, nor a perp.

At this point, however, I would have to concede that McGee has many of the traits of a mainstream hard-boiled protagonist. To quote from Dashiell Hammett’s description of Sam Spade:

He is a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander, or client.

And, yet, there is more to McGee than this.

Stay tuned for Part Three, where we find one of the great bromances in American fiction.

 

 

Guest Post: McGee Is Not Noir – Part One

In which we begin moving forward by going backward.

By Kevin Comer

I pitched the idea for this guest post to D. R. with what seemed at the time to be a simple and self-evident declaration: “McGee is not noir.” I knew what I meant and I think D. R. did, too. As soon as he gave me the green light, I dove in, going a dozen different directions. And in no time, I found myself in a confused muddle—a state I’m not entirely unfamiliar with.

I had conceived of this post as a kind of mapping of the history of modern American crime fiction, tracing “the thread” running from Hammett to MacDonald. As is so often the case with preconceived notions, the reality proved more complex and a good deal less straightforward. Even my notion of “Noir,” while valid in some respects, was naive, which requires me to begin with a bit of a philological digression.

“Noir” is the French word for “black.” It came to be loosely associated with crime fiction in America when it was imported from French film criticism, describing certain visually distinctive black-and-white American movies made in the ’40s and ’50s. The French film critic, Nino Frank, dubbed these movies “film noir” because of their shadowy, evocative lighting and dynamic compositions. The plots of film noir were often borrowed from contemporary hard-boiled American crime fiction. To name just a few: The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett; Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain; The Big Sleep and Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler. Given this, it is easy to see how “noir” could come to be associated with stories of this sort, although, technically, “noir” was not applied to literary fiction until the 1980s, when once again we are indebted to the French.

In France, the American hard-boiled crime novel is called “roman noir,” or black novel. In 1984, Barry Gifford, who founded Black Lizard Books, used the term to describe the work of Jim Thompson and others (such as David Goodis), whom he had rediscovered on a shelf labeled “Roman Noir” in a French bookshop. The stories of Thompson and others represent a particularly disturbing brand of hard-boiled thriller. The first-person protagonist, instead of being the usual detective, is a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator, and frequently self-destructive, if not outright psychopathic. In America, this hard-boiled sub-genre has subsequently become known as noir fiction. If you read Thompson’s excellent Pop. 1280, as I did as part of my research for this post, you’ll discover just how “noir” noir fiction can be.

Although examples of what is now called noir fiction go as far back as W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar (1929), it was the so-called second-generation crime writers—such as Thompson—who took the form to new levels in the explosion of original paperback novels that began in 1950. This blast of paperback fiction is where we can begin to tie in John D. MacDonald.

In 1950, Fawcett created Gold Medal Books to publish original stories in paperback. This is an early example of creative destruction in the publishing industry. Until the establishment of Gold Medal Books, paperbacks were almost always reprints of books originally published in hardcover, and as such had been deemed sufficiently literary and mainstream to merit publishing. Gold Medal Books blew the doors off this business model.

Gold Medal Books was not constrained by the judgments of traditional publishers. Much of what Gold Medal published was considered somewhat sleazy at the time. For example, Gold Medal published the first lesbian pulp novel, Womens Barracks by Tereska Torrés. Nonetheless, Gold Medal Books was an immediate success, revolutionizing the publishing industry of its day and eventually ending the long run of the pulp magazines, which hitherto had been the primary outlet for writers such as Thompson and JDM. After selling more than two hundred short stories, JDM had his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, published by Gold Medal Books in 1950.

Stay tuned for Part Two, wherein we consider McGee’s origin.