THIS IS the second collection, a follow-up to 1982's The Good Old Stuff, mined from the hundreds of mystery and suspense stories John D. MacDonald wrote for the long vanished pulp magazines.
MacDonald himself introduces the collection, and he seems a little uneasy about the gifted young man, in his early thirties at the time, who wrote those stories back nearly four decades ago. He speaks of having "resisted the temptation to edit the florid patches of prose." What MacDonald has done again, though, and he admits he received a "few score letters of objection" over having done it in the earlier book, is update many of the stories. "I want my stories to entertain," he explains. "If a hero rushes into a candy store and puts a nickel in a pay phone, it jars."
What it is apparently difficult for MacDonald to accept is that he has always been a natural storyteller. And, although he is smoother and more in control in his Travis McGee novels, he was already telling entertaining stories when he was working in the literary equivalent of the bush leagues.
Like a magician who can do hundreds of fascinating tricks with a single pack of cards, MacDonald has always been a master at fashioning an infinite variety of workable plots from a few basic components -- the prodigal returning, the innocent lured into trouble, the crook who tries to reform, etc.
His introduction neglects to mention that seven of the 14 stories are reprinted from Dime Detective and Black Mask. All pulp magazines, despite what some historians of popular culture may say, weren't the same. Had I been writing in the 1940s, I'd have been trying to hit these two magazines, since they were the best in the detective fiction field. Black Mask after all, had published Hammett and Chandler and a good many other excellent writers in the field. Dime Detective had made a home for Chandler, too, as well as for Cornell Woolrich and a score of talented but now forgotten authors of hardboiled fiction. That MacDonald sold to these markets meant he was good, even then.
MacDonald is at his best in the longer stories. Short entries like "State Police Report That . . . " and "I Accuse Myself" don't give him time to warm up. He's an excellent observer, especially in the longer stories, and is able to pass that gift along to his readers. You always see the settings and the people clearly. He's also good at pulling you into the world of his stories and getting you to care about his characters' problems. After a few pages you're almost always hooked and you really don't care if the focal character makes his phone calls for a nickel, a dime or a quarter. "Deadly Damsel," about a lady who marries and murders for money, "Corpse In His Dreams," about a man who goes home after seven years to try to come to grips with the death of the woman he loved, "The Night Is Over," about a bitter loner who gets involved with a crooked rest home that's far from restful, are all effective and deal with situations MacDonald would return to in his novels. MacDonald, by the way, appologizes for "The Night Is Over" and labels it "one of the clumsiest." Myself, I enjoyed it, especially the quietly nasty quack doctor-blackmailer. Reprinted from The Shadow magazine, it has to be one of the better pieces of writing ever to grace the pages of that flamboyant pulp.
One other thing you notice in reading these stories is that MacDonald didn't go in much for exotic locales, bizarre crimes or tricky weaponry. He sticks mostly to American settings, big cities and small towns. He's expert at showing a pleasant heartland town and then lifting the lid to reveal the evil inside. What drives his characters are the simple motives -- love, money, revenge. And they usually shoot, stab or strangle each other, although on one occasion he allows himself a gimmick that can cause fatal auto accidents.
MacDonald promises one and all that this is to be the last collection of his pulp work. Let's hope he can be persuaded to make a few more farewell tours. And next time he doesn't have to include the word old in his title. This is good stuff, and its age is irrelevant.