There’s no doubting this guy can write. I got onto him via a dustjacket blurb praising Dennis Lehane as being in this sort of league. It’s one of his earliest books, and I was bemused to read on the back cover two unflattering comments (much later) from the author himself about it:
“It should die quietly in the back of used paperback booknooks,” and,
“It’s really quite a bad book … imitation James M. Cain … with some gratuitous and unmotivated scenes.”
He does have a point. Two of the three women are particularly gratuitous at times, especially the (spoiler) ludicrous daydream exotic beauty of the last couple of chapters (a voluptuous sex slave, she falls deeply and we’re supposed to think sincerely and mutually in love with the hero on the basis of him surprising her by not taking her when she’s offered because, you know, we Americans don’t use women in that way. Hey presto, she then gives herself to him in Mills and Boon sex, murders two of his guards, and vows to wait for the next decade or two until he gets out of jail. All in about twenty-four hours!). Reminds me of some of the absurdities of Peter Temple’s similarly otherwise able In The Evil Day. The central woman, Emily, is a prototype of garish 80s (now, disturbingly, TV midday) erotic thrillers: too good to be true sexually aggressive stunners who turn out to be disturbed predators. There’s a little more to her than this, but not a lot.
Yet apparently MacDonald went on to great critical success, and even this book remains popular. I can see why. I suspect I’ll enjoy later books more – and I will read some more – but even in this at times gaudy beginning, MacDonald places himself above the crowd (in this very crowded genre). He works much of his basic plot tightly and effectively, much as, say, Forsyth will take a usable idea and meticulously work it up into a story. It may be hackneyed, but MacDonald also manages some poignancy in the idea of an everyman faced with the choice between the classic grey, safe, suburban marriage and mortgage, and a fantasy bank robbery and escape with a bad girl. Rather than tie it all up neatly, there is some room at times here for seeing the pros and cons of each. The plot then, initially at least, is clever and has some interesting social commentary (however over time it becomes increasingly silly). Moreover this is clearly a book written in the late 40s, early 50s – and for all the positives of a far more innocent mainstream sexual time, we see that some of the sexual politics of suburbia, particularly for a nice girl moving past her nubility peak, can be quite brutal. Women here, from the masculine view, are still another species, perhaps here as virgin, whore and amazon.
But more importantly, the style is just plain good. Engaging, spare, powerful – MacDonald can write, and I’m happy to spend some time with someone who can go to this place with words and stay there.