The End of the Night By John D. MacDonald (1960)

STANLEY Kauffmann, finding himself with a minority opinion of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood in 1965, recommended John Bartlow Martin's fine case-history study, Why Do They Kill?, for insight into the minds of rampant, unmotivated killers. I would have added John D. MacDonald's novel, The End of the Night.

No, John D. MacDonald was not Ross Macdonald of the Lew Archer stories (the private eye as a sensitive, wounded moralist). John D. MacDonald was author of the Travis McGee series (the private eye as a preachy hedonist) and admittedly a less likely candidate for the kind of superior novelist's insight I am claiming for him here. The End of the Night may even have used the same case as Capote's fact-crime book, but only as an oblique point of departure. MacDonald's view of what his fictional journalists dubbed "the wolf pack killers" was that of a novelist, and his effort was to depict, through an imagined particular, how so terrible a thing could happen.

MacDonald was, goodness knows, a winning storyteller, the kind of storyteller, as Geoffrey O'Brien has remarked, who could spin essentially the same tale more than once and make us like it. In his few essays on writing, MacDonald showed little patience with and no interest in discussing the subject except as craftsmanship and a kind of trial-and-error hard work. His craftsmanship is everywhere in evidence here, but he repeatedly transcends it. MacDonald really wants, and wants us, to understand, and his commitment is not so much to the events of his narrative as to his characters and the substance of their lives.

The story is told to us largely through a series of documents. We begin with a letter to a friend from the prison executioner, an unexpectedly touching document, in part because it reveals that his wife has to stay away from him for awhile after each state-ordered execution.

We learn parts of the story from the killers' lawyer, Riker Deems Owen, whose memos on the case reveal an inflated self-importance we sense he could never come to terms with, and which prevents him from relating to the killers with even a lawyer-client understanding.

For the most ironically cruel death (and therefore the most difficult for the novelist to handle), the killing of a woman on the verge of middle-age and a very promising marriage, MacDonald uses an early, sudden flash-forward, told through the novelist's omniscient third person, and there are periodic returns to that thread of his story.

Mostly MacDonald gives us excerpts from the death house diaries kept by the most intelligent and articulate of the pack, an upper-middle-class college student, Kirby Stassen. It is he who shows us the other pack members, Sandy Golden, a would-be painter with a failure's need to control others; Nanette, a rather dissolute and sexually available hanger-on; and Hernandez, an almost mindless whipping-boy distinguished only by his repressed bitterness toward his companions.

MacDonald was, as anyone who has ever read him can attest, a master of the vivid, quickly introduced incidental character and setting -- the kind of vignette that might disappear from a book within a few pages, but from the reader's mind perhaps never. Here, among others, there is Pearl Weaver, a feisty widow in her seventies, piecing out an existence as proprietor of a once-prosperous motel on a highway now generally avoided because of the turnpikes. She escapes the pack's almost casual hit-and-run attempt simply by plunging into a ditch at the right moment, still puzzled at what those strange young people were up to. And there is a small-town sheriff who, frankly, gets into the case because he is after publicity for his reelection, but who comes up with a shrewd guess as to the wolf pack's likely movements.

Early on, we learn that during his adolescence, Stassen had observed his parents during love-making at a time (to make it worse) when he was bitterly angry with his tyrannical father over a harsh punishment. We learn that that ambitious father had outlined a meaningless life for him. Stassen reacts to lawyer Owen's patrician questioning by protesting that the victims were inferiors whose lives didn't matter. We have observed Stassen in a love affair, the kind of experience that just might have redeemed him, but it was with a calculating, married actress who skillfully played the coquette, and then cruelly used him to humiliate her alcoholic husband. Clearly, in falling in with Sandy Golden and his group, Stassen had taken up with what used to be called "bad companions." And we have watched as his conscience is destroyed by drugs.

Any of these experiences might be seized upon by a social psychologist to explain Stassen's heedless conduct. For MacDonald, however, such facts about his characters are facts among other facts, and he is too much the novelist to offer us any such facile or reductive interpretations of his people or their motives. Indeed, Stassen himself, when he is not reacting to his lawyer's officiousness, will not allow himself to make excuses. But it is he who raises a core truth, almost casually and without regret, in one of his diary entries: he had joined the slaughter because he had no capacity to love. IN THE heritage of a mid-century American writer like MacDonald there is a twofold temptation to cynicism. It comes from the boyish disillusionment of Hemingway on the one hand and from the bitterness of Dashiell Hammett on the other, and many a popular novelist has succumbed to it. John D. MacDonald did not, and I think it was because one might say of him, as he says of one of his characters here, that he was a devout man, "respecting the living materials that yielded to his skills."

The End of the Night might be praised as a provocative social document: MacDonald perceived what lay ahead as 1950s on-the-road beatniks became 1960s hippies and turned more and more to drugs. But, again, our author remains a novelist. He gives us the imagined particular made real, and he shows us that the novelist's art can make us understand what case histories and social theories cannot. :: Note on availability: A trip to any well-stocked used bookstore should turn up a copy of "The End of the Night." You might even find it in its original hardcover from Simon and Schuster. If you do, hang on to it. Martin Williams, an editor at the Smithsonian Institution Press, has written on literature, theater, movies, television, and music. His most recent book is "Jazz Heritage."