Friday, March 9, 2018

One Monday We Killed Them All

Excluding science fiction, author John D. MacDonald penned over 50 thrillers, including his long-running salvage-consultant series 'Travis McGee'. His 1960 novel, “The End of the Night”, was described by mammoth bestseller Stephen King as “the greatest novel of the 20th century”. The 1958 novel, “The Executioners”, was adapted twice for film under the well-known title of “Cape Fear”. While new to the crime genre, I'm beginning my MacDonald run with 1961's bold-named “One Monday We Killed Them All”. 

The novel is set in the fictional locale of Brook City, in an unnamed state. My guess, based on process of elimination, puts the book in a rural stretch of Pennsylvania, surrounded by hill country. Brook City is robust, netting large press and a hefty police force. Gravitation from northeastern criminals makes the city more of a landing pad, trafficking the hardened through the softer clutches of mainstreet America. It's a controlled city, with police leveraging criminal supplier Jeff Kermer to run the red lights. The leash has plenty of slack, allowing him and canaries to limit outsiders to mere spectators.  Categorically, the police work for the newspapers.

Our first-person narrator is Lieutenant Fenn Hillyer, an admirable family man and career cop. He's in the precarious situation of career and family colliding, choosing sides and picking up the pieces. The opener has Fenn escorting his brother-in-law, Dwight, from the Brook County Prison. Dwight is a career criminal, physically built for violence but possessing a deceptive coolness that has fooled his sister Meg for a lifetime. Fenn describes his smile as “that of a cat in a fish supermarket”. Fenn and Dwight are at odds, cop vs goon, but share the same household. Meg insists Dwight live with them and Fenn, being a devout husband and father apprehensively agrees.

Dwight's backstory is a familiar one – bad childhood, early arrests, misfortune. The three eventually led to Dwight's role as beefy enforcer for Kermer. He winds up killing an ex-girlfriend that has close ties to the town – she's the newspaper owner's daughter. The pressure is two-fold – Meg's diligence to defend Dwight while the force and press want him out of Fenn's house, out of town and off the radar. The two have escalating conversations, some one-sided, like this stiff-shouldered command from Fenn:

“Come at me boy, and I'll backpedal fast, and I'll be lifting out the Special, and I'll blow your knee into a sack of pebbles and kick your mouth sideways as you go down”.

It's a small sample size of the impact MacDonald has with his story-telling violence. While the book's nucleus is family affairs and it's worrisome burden, the gritty crime-thriller builds to an explosive climax. Dwight's cerebral tension spills over into a procedural pace, marking boundaries, staking out, planning and commitment. Without ruining it for you, which I couldn't live with, the book's last 40-pages builds to a furious stand-off in hill country. This alone is worth the price of admission. As a MacDonald first-timer, I'm unquestionably going back for seconds.