By Kevin Comer
Readers of a blog dedicated to Travis McGee might be surprised to discover JDM’s top selling novel was not one of the McGee canon.
The Damned, published by Gold Medal in 1952, sold 2.3 million copies in 19 printings and was unlike any of JDM’s previous novels up to that point. The two published just prior its release were science fiction, Wine for the Dreamers (1951) and Ballroom of the Skies (1952). These sci-fi novels followed The Brass Cupcake (1950), Murder for the Bride (1951), and Judge Me Not (1951), thrillers straight out of JDM’s hardboiled pulp repertoire. In fact, his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, was a pulp story he bulked up to novel length at the request of Gold Medal.
The Damned is a portmanteau style narrative. JDM weaves together the stories of nine characters over a single day spent waiting to cross the Rio Conchos by ferry on the main highway between Mexico City and Brownsville, Texas. It is a leap forward in terms of complexity. However, that is not why it became a best seller.
The Damned owes its success to the blurb splashed across the cover declaring: “I wish I had written this book! — Mickey Spillane.” Spillane’s endorsement sent sales through the roof. Mickey was at the height of his popularity. He didn’t do blurbs. In fact, he didn’t intend to endorse the novel.
JDM’s Gold Medal editor, Ralph Daigh, loaned Spillane a set of the galleys for The Damned. When he returned them, Spillane casually remarked, “That’s a good book. I wish I had written it.” The quick witted editor wrote the words on a card and Mickey politely agreed to sign it. When the blurb appeared on the cover, Spillane protested, but Daigh had irrefutable proof he’d said it.
Although readers may have been surprised not to discover a tale of misogynistic mayhem between the covers of The Damned, most were probably not disappointed.
The characters are well drawn and compelling—except perhaps for John Carter Gerrod, whose confusion about whether he’d rather be on Mars or Venus seems psychologically Victorian. Each is in the midst of their own drama. Some of their stories will find resolution as they wait to cross the Rio Conchos; for some, the wait is only an interlude and we’ll never know what happened next; and for others, new stories will be born as their paths cross.
Darby Garon is at the depressive end of a sudden mid-life crisis. In San Antonio on business three weeks ago, he met slatternly Betty Moony. He was armed with a credit card. Now he can’t wait to see the last of Betty, and he fears he’s fouled things up beyond repair with his wife and family. He’ll never get to find out. Ever adaptable Betty won’t miss a beat.
Young John Carter Gerrod is on his way home from a Mexican honeymoon. He isn’t sure what he thinks about the physical reality of marriage to his exquisitely lovely 19-year-old bride, Linda. He feels oddly put off and ashamed. His mother has come down to accompany them on their return to Rochester. They won’t be going back together.
Del Bennicke is on the run. Things had gone seriously bad in Cuernavaca. The authorities will never understand that it was an accident. His background as a small time operator on the fringes of crime isn’t going to help him beat a murder rap, especially of a popular matador. He’s got to keep his head down and get across the river. He can’t make it alone.
Bill Danton is waiting patiently to get back to his father’s spread in Mante with his crew of Mexican farm hands. Unless you knew he was from Texas, you’d think he was just another Mexican laborer. He and his father have made a good life for themselves here in Mexico. You had to be smart and know how things work, but this was a fine country. Sometimes, however, you can’t just stand by, you’ve got to act. And life can surprise you—and change you for good.
Phil Decker has struggled to find success in show business. But things have been looking up since he’d worked the twins, Riki and Niki, into the act. It’s just in time, too. He’s getting old. It’s now or never. Unfortunately for Phil, Riki and Niki have ideas of their own. It’s going to be hard to tell him.
Some of these characters are indeed damned. Poor Darby Garon is sitting, leaning against a tree beside the road, beating himself up with regret. He recalls his college courtship of wife, Moira; how good their life together has been; the joy of their children. He doesn’t know what happened. Betty is repulsive. Moira will never forgive him. Something is happening on the distant riverbank, some kind of struggle. A shot rings out:
His chin was on his chest. He lifted it with great effort. The scene wavered a bit and then came clear. Startlingly clear. He could see the muddy river, the far shore. Ferry was on the other side. The black cars going up the road. And a small figure over there … Hell, what had been the matter with his eyes! Even at that distance, you could tell the brown hair , and that sweater and skirt. Bought that outfit for her for her birthday. God, that was a long time ago. Thought she’d worn it out and thrown it away, long ago. One thing about Moira. She always used her head. One sharp girl. Traced him somehow. Came riding, riding, riding up to the old inn door. No, wrong line. Came riding to the rescue.
He grinned at the figure of his wife on the far shore. Now everything was fine. Sure, even at that distance he could read her eyes. He could read the sweet forgiveness, and the understanding. She knew the answers. She’d tell him why he’d done this thing to the two of them, and he would understand when she had told him. The sweet kid, she was standing over there with books held tightly in her arm, just like during campus days.
He got easily and quickly to his feet , bounded down through the ditch, and went swinging down the road, his head high.
She saw him, and she lifted her free arm and waved. And he broke into a run. Hadn’t run for years. Thought I’d forgotten how. But look at me go! Just like the coach said. Knees high and a lot of spring in the foot and stay up on your toes, Garon.
Running, running, with the wind in his face, running by all the surprised people who thought he was too old and too tired to run. And the river bank was speeding toward him, the way you’d see it from the windshield of a fast car. And Darby Garon went out in a flat dive, hitting the water, knifing down through the water, down through the blackness, feeling it against his face , like dark wings, knowing that he would rise to the surface and she would be close, and there would never again be any problems between them. With his arms straight out in front of him, and with a smile on his lips, he knifed through the blackness, waiting forever for the moment when he would begin to rise toward the surface.
The Damned is worth reading. It’s pretty damned good.