Thursday, August 12, 2010
Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald
Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald, 1958
John D. MacDonald (1916-1986) is not a showy author. What he does, and does incredibly well, is tell a story and wind it tighter and tighter. His tales of crime and suspense are short and simple--MacDonald's plots are typical of his era's pulp fiction--but incredibly effective.
Soft Touch is the story of Jerry Jamison, a middle-aged married man trapped in a dull suburban life and a loveless marriage to an alcoholic floozy.
Enter his old war buddy Vince, who has a proposition: an easy two-man heist that will leave him and Jerry with over three million dollars in cash, no strings attached.
Jerry goes through with the robbery and gets his share of the loot, only to see his life fall apart in a tangle of greed, betrayal and even murder.
The story itself is not highly original, but MacDonald handles it like a master. The novel is incredibly brief, only 160 pages. I usually like a thicker book, but it's just the right length for the paranoia-inducing story.
Jerry himself is an interesting character to base the story around. He considers himself one of the good guys, at least until he gets his first glimpse of the money. His lust for wealth leads him down a very, very dark path and he eventually murders both Vince and his wife in the novel's most disturbing segment.
MacDonald doesn't cater to the thrill-a-minute crowd. Even though the novel is very brief, Jerry only faces down thugs at the very end. MacDonald, unlike so many other mystery/suspense authors, understands that it's tension, not action that really makes a novel riveting.
Despite his reputation as an author of pulp fiction (most famously the Travis McGee series), MacDonald's prose is tight, yet packed with wit and insight:
A one-dollar bill has a humble and homely look. A five-dollar bill has a few meek pretensions. A ten is vigorous and forthright and honest, like a scout leader. A twenty, held to the ear like a seashell, emits the far-off sound of nightclub music. A fifty wears the faint sneer of race track. It has a portly look, needs a shave, wears a yellow diamond on the little finger. And a hundred is very haughty indeed.
Then there is quantity. A wad of ones in the bottom of a grubby pocket, or fanned between the fingers in an alley game. Or three frayed fives in a flat cheap billfold. Then there is the flashy billfold, padded fat with ones and fives and tens and twenties. Next step is the platinum bill clip, with its dainty burden of twenties and fifties, crisp and folded but once. After that is the unmarked envelope with its cool sheaf of hundreds, slipped from hand to hand in the corridor of a government building. (page 48).
The novel doesn't have pretensions of its own. None of MacDonald's work does. He clearly understood what he was doing. He was a storyteller, and he was an excellent one. Soft Touch is a good read, not as excellent as MacDonald's The Only Girl in the Game (1960), but probably the equal of his A Bullet for Cinderella (1955).
Soft Touch is currently out of print, which is too bad. MacDonald's crime novels are boiled-down little masterpieces of the genre and Soft Touch is no exception. It's a good novel, written by an excellent author.
NEXT UP: I'll be reviewing Ian McEwan's modern classic Atonement.