The Book that Should Have Been Called Linda
By Kevin Comer
I picked up JDM’s Border Town Girl because I thought it would provide an opportunity to leaven a review with facts about JDM’s association with Mexico and how it found its way into his fiction. You might recall Travis spends time in Mexico in A Deadly Shade of Gold, Dress Her in Indigo, Cinnamon Skin, and The Lonely Silver Rain. But I discovered Border Town Girl isn’t the right vehicle for revealing JDM’s Mexico. In fact, Border Town Girl isn’t what I expected it to be at all. Happily, in some ways, it is more than I expected. I’m beginning to wonder if I should ever start with a plan.
Border Town Girl, published by Gold Medal Books in 1956, is similar to an analog era 45 RPM Single. It has an A side and a B side. The book takes its title from the A side, which consists of a novella originally published as “Five-Star Fugitive”pseudonymously in the July 1950 issue of Dime Detective, but here re-titled “Border Town Girl.” This is one of the last pieces JDM did for the pulps and is true to its roots.
The bonus title on the B side is where I found unexpected gold: Pulpy “Border Town Girl” is followed by the equally long, sensational original novella, “Linda,” one of the best works of JDM’s pre-McGee fiction I’ve read so far.
The contrast between these two novellas is striking. Suppose, in a fit of whimsy, you bought an installment of the 1940s Michael Shayne film series starring the inimitable Lloyd Nolan on DVD and discovered, to your surprise, the Billy Wilder film noir classic Double Indemnity was included as a bonus. That’s sort of what “Border Town Girl” is like.
Which isn’t to say the novella “Border Town Girl”isn’t good fun, especially when you keep in mind that this story was first published in a magazine that cost a dime. The readers were certainly getting more than their money’s worth.
“Border Town Girl”features a man who’s hit rock bottom and a gangster moll—strangers to each other—who find themselves traveling their separate roads to redemption together. There are brutal fights, bloody murders, G-men, heroics, cars racing through the dark, and a slightly cheesy beast-in-the-night, double-dealing mob enforcer, who would be at home in a Dean Koontz novel. It’s a hard-boiled ripping yarn.
“Linda,” though, is an elegant noir-fiction tour de force. JDM shows us what he can do when everything clicks. This is a story where the character of the protagonist is central to the narrative, not the action.
Clueless, mild-mannered introvert, Paul Cowley, reveals himself as he tells us what’s been going on. His tale is colored by his retiring personality. Wishful thinking has generally made an idiot out of him where his wife is concerned. He practices little self-deceptions. He rationalizes. He turns a blind eye. At times, we readers get a little bit ahead of Paul. But when the shit hits the fan, we’re as shocked as he is.
For the past nine years, Paul has been married to his high school dream girl, Linda. A girl, he confesses, so out of his league that he’d have rather cut off his own hand than try to speak to her in high school. Years later, a week out of the army, he ran into her on the street and said hello.
She looked at me blankly. I told her who I was and how I’d been in high school with her. We went into a place and had coffee. Then I saw she didn’t look good at all…It was a pretty tragic story she told me.
…What had happened to her had just taken the heart out of her, and it made me feel bad to see the way she was. I guess what I did was pick her up and dust her off and put the heart back in her.
Savvy readers are pretty sure Paul heard a load of crap from Linda. Starry-eyed Paul heard only what he wants to hear.
Paul begins his tale by explaining that Linda began nagging him around the beginning of the year about taking their vacation in the fall. She wants to go to Florida with another couple, the Jeffries, whom they’ve been seeing a lot of since Christmas. Paul is reluctant. He’s made other plans, but hasn’t dared tell Linda since she’s gotten this bee in her bonnet about Florida. He’s concerned about money and, truth be told, he’d rather stay home altogether. He isn’t so sure about vacationing with the Jeffries, either.
We saw a lot of each other, but there was always a reserve. Nobody ever seemed to let their hair down all the way. Maybe some of that was my fault. I have two or three close friends, and a lot of people I just happen to know. I’ve always been quiet.
Paul also has well-founded concerns about other men. At first, big, handsome, successful Jeff Jeffries had gotten Paul’s antenna up, but he’d decided Jeff was on the up and up.
When you’re married to a woman like Linda, you develop a sort of sixth sense for those jokers who are on the make.
…I watched Jeff pretty closely, worrying a little bit, because if anybody had a chance of making out, that Jeff Jeffries certainly would. But I could see it was all right. They kidded around a lot, with him making a burlesque pass at her now and then, but I could see it was all in fun. And he was very loving with Stella, his wife, holding her hand whenever he could, and kissing her on the temple when they danced together at the club and that sort of thing.
Linda is a handful, especially for a guy like Paul. Arguing with her isn’t likely to change her mind. They don’t often see eye to eye. They don’t share the same values. Keeping her happy is a challenge. There are red flags everywhere.
Linda never thought or talked about money except when we didn’t have enough for something she wanted to do or wanted to buy, and then she had plenty to say.
It’s hard for a man to assess his own marriage. He cannot say if it is good or bad. Maybe no marriage is entirely good or bad. I know only that after that first year there was strain between us. Linda wanted a life that I didn’t want…We worked out a compromise. She lived my way, and when we could afford it, she would take a trip, usually to Chicago. That seemed to ease her nervous tension.
Sometimes out of irritation, she would say cruel things to me, calling me a nonentity, a zero, a statistic. But I understood, or thought I did. She is an earthy, hot-blooded woman, and our life was pretty quiet…
Paul had hoped the idea of going to Florida with the Jeffries would just blow over. But there’s no stopping Linda. She’ll get her way.
But Linda kept harping on it. Now, of course, I know why she kept after me the way she did. I know the horror that lived in the back of her mind all those months she was cooing and wheedling. Now that it’s too late, I can look back and see just how carefully it was all arranged.
I’m going to let you find out what happens on a lonely stretch of Florida beach on your own. Take it from me, Paul is going to have a hell of a time on this vacation.