Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Gold Medal Corner -- John McPartland

This is a little essay I did for Steve Lewis's Mystery*File. I'm reprinting it here because Duane Swierczynski recently read a McPartland book and wrote about it in his blog. Now Ed Gorman has joined in the fun with a reprint on his own blog.

Gold Medal Corner
by Bill Crider


If people of a certain age (that would be my age) remember John McPartland at all, it’s probably because of his 1957 “breakthrough” novel, No Down Payment. But the truth is hardly anybody remembers even that. (Try a google search if you don’t believe me.) Probably even fewer people remember that both before and after the publication of his “big” book, McPartland published novels with Gold Medal. And they were good ones.

Probably my favorite is The Kingdom of Johnny Cool (1959). Written years before Mario Puzo thought of The Godfather, this is a crackerjack novel about the Mafia (McPartland calls it the Outfit). The title has a couple of meanings, as there are two Johnny Cools in the novel, one young, one old. The young one is the killer, the man who’s going coast-to-coast to kill five men in one day. How he does it, what he becomes in the process, and what happens to him are just a few of the things the book is about. Although there are only 160 pages, this novel has enough details about the Outfit and the way it operates to make even Puzo blink. I seem to recall that Puzo said he made everything up. McPartland may have done the same, but it certainly sounds authentic, as do the all the details of police procedure that are introduced after the murders. The book had at least two Gold Medal printings, and they probably weren’t small ones, but I’m surprised it didn’t do even better.

Maybe it would have, in a different time. McPartland was restricted by publishing conventions of the 1950s, so he couldn’t be nearly as explicit as Puzo was able to be later on. For example, after a young woman with the unlikely name of Dare Guiness is raped, Johnny takes revenge on the killers by stabbing them with a knife from Dare’s kitchen. And then: “There was a tradition for bodies like these two, a tradition that required the use of the knife once more on each of them. Johnny did this and left the bodies where they lay on the gray sidewalk near the garage.” Readers these days (and probably those days, too) knew what it was that Johnny did, but specificity in that sort of thing seems mean bigger sales. McPartland did his best. And even with the restrictions, this is a brutal book, maybe even a little shocking for 1959, and the ending is a real downer.

But there are a couple of lighter moments, including some snappy patter that wouldn’t be out of place in an Arnold Swarzenegger movie of a few years ago. After a couple of killings in Las Vegas, Johnny gets on a package tour bus and sits down next to a guy counting his winnings. The guy wants to talk:

“Boy, I murdered them here,” he said. “How did you do?”
“I did all right,” said Johnny.

McPartland’s books are well worth reading if you like hardboiled action, as I do now and then, and the writing’s fine, too. The Wild Party is another good one, as are the others I’ve read.

If McPartland was so good, why didn’t he make a bigger impact on the crime field? One reason might be that he died at the age of forty-seven. He was already dead by the time The Kingdom of Johnny Cool was published. Too bad he didn’t stick around longer. A lot longer.

Gold Medal Media Bonus: In 1963, The Kingdom of Johnny Cool was made into a movie with the shortened title of Johnny Cool. It starred Henry Silva and Elizabeth Montgomery, and it made a big impression on me and my date (who’s still my date to the movies, by the way). I thought it would make Silva a big star. He was a brat-packer at the time, and Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis, Jr., make cameos in the movie. The real revelation, though, is Montgomery. Wotta performance! After you see her in this movie, you’ll never be able to think of her as that cute Samantha again.

Non-Gold Medal Media Bonus #1: After you see Johnny Cool (which will be next to impossible, as I don’t believe it’s available), you should watch Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samurai (1999). Supposedly it’s based on some French film, and I might be the only major movie critic who noticed that it’s sort of a remake of Johnny Cool. Forrest Whitaker is the star, but the old Mafia guy is (a great touch) Henry Silva.

Non-Gold Medal Media Bonus #2: And after that, see if you can find the movie version of No Down Payment. I’m betting you can’t, but give it a try. It’s one of the better “lost” movies of the 1950s, with Joanne Woodward and Tony Randall, who proves here that he could do a lot more than just play the comic sidekick in movies with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. This is one of the best portrayals of suburbia ever, or at least of what people thought suburbia was like in the 1950s. I’ve never read the book, but I really should, one of these days.

6 comments:

Duane Swierczynski said...

Thanks for sharing this, Bill. I needed a McPartland fix, and there's so little written about him.

Vince said...

The Fox Movie Channel is running NO DOWN PAYMENT this month. I recorded it the other day because I remembered your recommendation of it. Now I just have to get around to watching it.

Juri said...

Don't know whether anyone will look here anymore, but I thought I'd add that when I wrote the entry for McPartland in my Pulpografia, I wrote that he was Bertolt Brecht of the American crime paperback, defying the reader the easy points of identification. Just the fact that there are two characters with the same name is uneasy stuff, but McPartland also offers different spellings for the other one (and all the time he's but a shadow of the *real* Johnny Cool).

McPartland also wrote some screenplays in Hollywood, for Harry Horner's THE WILD PARTY (1956, with young Anthony Quinn), David Lowell Rich's NO TIME TO BE YOUNG (1957) and William E. Berke's STREET OF SINNERS (1957). Haven't seen any of those, though.

jh said...

just saw the "no down payment" flick. especially amusing was the prescient line about some day needing a masters degree just to clean toilets.

Mike said...

John McPartland is my biological grandfather.
I've just recently become curious about him and you are right, a Google search doesn't return much. He doesn't even have a wikipedia page.
Thanks for the blog post. It gives me a place to start.

Bill Crider said...

Good luck with your search. As you can see, there's a good bit of interest in his work out there.