Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Bullet for Cinderella - John D. MacDonald

I do not like to think about the next half hour. He put the gag back in my mouth. He had his strong hands, and he had the small sharp knife, and he had a sadistic knowledge of the nerve ends. From time to time he would stop and wait until I quieted down, then loosen the gag and question me. The pain and humiliation made me weep like a child. Once I fainted. Finally he was satisfied. He had learned how much I thought of Ruth. He had learned that we had to go where the money was hidden by boat. 

Fawcett Gold Medal

This is my second time reading A Bullet for Cinderella by John D. MacDonald. Many years ago I came across a whole stash of his non-Travis McGee novels in a used bookstore and I bought most of them over the weeks I visited the place. I worked a night shift on the security team for a resort and had plenty of downtime to read. MacDonald's novels kept me company through the quiet hours of the night after the lobby bars had closed and the most of the staff had checked out. I remembered that this one was a particularly good one, but had forgotten pretty much all of the plot. Reading it again was a blast. I put it up there with Soft Touch as a favorite.

The setup is a classic noir opener. Tal Howard (MacDonald had a knack for coming up with unique names) comes to the town of Hillston on a mission to find a hidden stash of $60,000 in stolen loot. He learns about the hidden money from his Army pal, Timmy Warden, who admitted to embezzling the money from his brother's lumber company back before the war. Howard and Warden were fellow P.O.W's in North Korea. It's during their shared time in the POW camp that Warden confesses to Howard that he'd stolen from his own brother at the urging of his brother's wife. Warden hopes to make it back home and make amends with his brother and return the money. Unfortunately, Warden succumbs to a sickness and dies in the camp. Feverish, dying and remorseful, he tells Howard someone named Cindy knows where the money would be hidden. Only Cindy would know.

Howard returns home from the war with a bad case of PTSD and memories of Warden's confession. He loses his job, loses his girlfriend, and loses any sense of purpose in life. He figures that if he could find the money Warden stole, he can make a new start. But first, he's got to find the mysterious Cindy.

But things aren't going to be so easy for our hero, Tal Howard. He's not the only one who got word about the $60 grand hidden somewhere in Hillston. Turns out, another fellow P.O.W. survivor named Earl Fitzmartin has been a few steps ahead of him. Fitzmartin is one of those classic John D. MacDonald sociopaths that he's so good at creating. Think of Cape Fear and Max Cady (or the movie versions played by Robert Mitchum and Robert De Niro) and you got a good idea of the type of bad guy Fitzmartin is. Torture, rape, theft, murder, it doesn't matter to Fitzmartin what he has to do to get what he wants. And he wants that money.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this novel. It's from 1955 and you have the typical MacDonald observations on society, now read from a historical perspective. Reading it in 2017 you realize how little things have changed in human nature and our "modern" fears of the breakdown of society. I'm pretty sure it's still in print, since every few years we see reprints of MacDonald's Travis McGee novels in bookstores.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Moment of Power - Burt Hirschfeld

An amplified rock group blared out its charged sound in the dining room. The floor had been cleared and was alive with movement as the Ambassadors and Secretaries, businessmen and ladies of no visible means, Cabinet members and their wives, jerked and twisted, hopped and swayed, eyes fixed in space, faces grim and concentrated. 

Avon, December 1971
I really had no clue regarding the plot of this potboiler by Burt Hirschfeld, published back in 1971. The blurb on the back of the  novel indicates political intrigue in Washington DC, but not much else beyond that. I assumed that it might be a literary soap opera along the likes of Aspen or Acapulco only set among the political climate of the nation's capital. Instead I got a strange novel that, given today's political turmoil and dysfunction, seems oddly topical in spite of being published 40-some years ago.

In Moment of Power, we have a nation that's capable of sending a manned mission to Mars while it has yet to legalize abortion. References to Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs are made, as well as the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations. I don't think Nixon is mentioned at all. So the reader is placed in a time that seems contemporary as to the year the book was published, yet there is a sabotaged manned mission to Mars that kicks off the plot. Mini-skirts and thin ties are the fashion, Madison Avenue mores dictate the trends and martinis are consumed with the same frequency as double scotches. An illegal abortion figures heavily as a side plot to the the turmoil of the main story. Affairs are pursued, women are not equal to men in terms of careers and power, a Press Secretary dates a woman of 23, an aging intellectual pursues young girls with abandon, and a President of the United States just might be an impostor placed by a foreign power.

And that is the real plot of this novel. It could have been marketed as a novel of espionage, but instead of going full-board espionage, Hirschfeld chooses to fill the pages with hook-ups and sex and flashbacks interspersed with the growing suspicion, and ultimately paranoid fear, that President of the United States, Gunther Harrison, is indeed a foreign agent impostor who has somehow taken the place of the real Gunther Harrison. This suspicion eventually consumes our main characters; Press Secretary Guy Pompey and Secretary of Defense Ralph Jacobs. Their problem is how should they deal with a man whom everyone believes is the real POTUS while they're convinced otherwise.

I'd hate to ruin any of the plot by revealing what happens in its 450 pages. I enjoyed the heck out of it. Burt Hirschfeld is a master at hooking the reader into following a variety of characters as they maneuver their way through intrigue, honor and deceit. I kept wondering how Hirschfeld would pull off the big reveal of the novel and ultimately I was not disappointed.

This one is a whole heaping dose of good old fashioned fun. With all the crap that's being dumped upon us in today's toxic (insane!) political world, this novel proved to be a somewhat pleasant diversion. If you come across a used copy of it somewhere go ahead and grab it. Maybe you can get lucky and read it on the beaches of Acapulco while the shit hits the fan here in the states.