Underground Reading: One Monday We Killed Them All by John D. MacDonald
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
One Monday We Killed Them All (1961) is one of John D. MacDonald's stand-alone thrillers. A Fawcett Gold Medal original, the first edition (pictured) has a fantastic cover. I'm not sure who the artist is (doesn't look like a McGinnis), but the layout is a masterpiece - skillfully evoking tension. I'm also a sucker for big goofy lettering, which this has in spades.
The book itself is equally tense (and not, happily, goofy). The story begins with Lieutenant Fenn Hillyer - a model policeman - picking up his brother-in-law from prison. Dwight McAran has spent five years in jail for manslaughter. On one hand, he's lucky - he beat his girlfriend to death in front of a dozen witnesses. On the other, he's not - the woman was related to the most powerful man in town, and McAran has had five long, long years getting the hell kicked out of him.
Although his beloved wife is everything good and pure in the world, she has a blind spot for her brother Dwight. So while Fenn would rather McAran just ride off into the sunset, he's stuck welcoming McAran back with open arms.
One Monday We Killed Them All (a great, if completely irrelevant, title) is very similar thematically and tonally to one of John D. MacDonald's more famous thrillers - The Executioners (Cape Fear). There's no question that McAran is a horrible, terrible man - within the first dozen pages he's actually kicked a puppy to make that point clear. The focus of the story is how everyone else reacts to him. When does the law of society fail and the law of the jungle take over? Fenn Hillyer is an exceptional police officer, but quickly discovers that is more of a hindrance than an asset when it comes to handling a monster like McAran.
MacDonald, to his credit, adds more sides to the story. This is not a conventional tale of Fenn discovering his inner caveman to defend his family. McAran is, indeed, monstrous, but MacDonald gives us insight into his background. Showing how the 'law of society' fails to protect Fenn is easy - but showing how the 'law of society' has failed McAran as well - that's hard, and that's where MacDonald rises to the occasion.
One Monday We Killed Them All is also notable for the unconventional resolution. Although good triumphs and evil loses, the ultimate climax occurs when Fenn is reconciled with his own internal struggles. As a pure, manly thriller, there's a lot of clinging and tears (and not just from the ladies), but as an investigation into man's struggle with his place in the world (as exemplified by both Fenn and McAran), this is impressive work.
It is worth noting that the women are, unimpressively, objects. Fenn's wife (McAran's sister), Meg, is an impossible picture of sickening sweetness and naivete. This, unfortunately, isn't due to Fenn being an unreliable narrator (he's quite sweetly in love with his wife) - we have Meg's perfection (and moronic idiocy) pointed out by virtually every character in the book. She is the forgiving Madonna. The other women fare no better. McAran is a sexual predator, and his encounters (Mildred, Cathy) are sordid and reflect poorly on all the parties involved (including the author).
As a book about men, One Monday We Killed Them All is terrific. As a thriller, it is a masterful exercise in building tension and releasing it explosively and climactically. And, as a work of dated misogyny, it is distressingly par for the course.
Tube journeys: 2
You might also like:
Collection of John D. MacDonald covers - his books had some fantastic art (and also some true crap)
Previous reviews of JDM's work - Deadly Welcome, Death Trap and Please Write for Details.