Onion x Comic Book Cinema
Graphic Novel Round-up: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Underground Reading: Death Trap by John D. MacDonald

Death Trap Death Trap, originally published in 1957, is one of John D. MacDonald's best stand-alone thrillers.

Hugh, a globe-trotting construction bum, spots that an ex-girlfriend's younger brother is about to be executed for murder. He is drawn back to a small Anytown in the hopes of helping his ex-girlfriend, Vicky, through the trauma - and also to ease his own troubled conscience.

Hugh invariably gets tangled up in detective work. Initially, he makes a haphazard effort to placate Vicky, but soon discovers that this small Midwestern town has a seedy underbelly. 

It also, in the best JDM tradition, has a violent deputy and a politically-minded sheriff, neither of which encourage Hugh's amateur investigations.

Hugh's efforts lead him into the depressing swamp of small-town juvenile delinquency and the frighteningly rigid adult system that created it. Hugh's interactions with the town's sordid teen populate - and its deliberately-blind authority figures - are the highlights of the book. With his outsider's point of view, Hugh can see that the town is built on lies, desperately painting over the corruption to preserve the status quo.

Death Trap Hugh's relationship with Vicky isn't astoundingly progressive, but it is still a far cry from the slappenfuk of Neon Jungle, another one of JDM's socially-insightful thrillers from the mid-1950's. After a brief sexual encounter several years ago, Hugh left Vicky behind to go explore the world. Which he drowned the ensuing guilt in wine, women and whiny women, Vicky has remained behind - a solitary woman (not socially "ruined", but the implication is there). To the author's credit, Hugh's apology is heart-felt and his motivation throughout the book is simply to prove himself worthy of the woman whose heart he broke. (With nary a single slapping!)

Vicky, however, is a nonentity. Her entire life has been in a supporting role, first for her brother, and now for Hugh. Despite being an intelligent, strong-willed woman (or, so we're told), she's incapable of handling any of the problems around her. Without Hugh's timely arrival and intervention, she would've been completely lost and helpless. Still, Hugh's redemption is well-told, even if the object of that redemption is just that - an object.

The main criticism with the book is the deus ex machina in the conclusion. After doing some satisfying leg-work for the majority of the book, Hugh hands the case over to the Gods of Fiction to solve the case using HYPNOSIS. Where evidence fails, the wizardry of modern science steps in to save the day. Again, to the author's credit, the hypnotic sessions are told well and in a suspenseful way. The dramatic climax and confrontation with the killer is an exceptionally well-told scene, and MacDonald proves again that he mastered the art of the thriller.

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