Fiction: 'The Shadows on the Wall' by Mary Wilkins Freeman
'The library of Dr Dee' by William Younger Fletcher (1902)

Underground Reading: The Dead Letter and I Could Go On Singing

John D. MacDonald's I Could Go On Singing and Metta Victoria Victor's The Dead Letter - two books of... interest. And occasional flashes of quality.

I could go on singingAlthough John D. MacDonald's I Could Go On Singing (1963) is packed with personal significance, it is hard to make a case for it as a particularly interesting book in the greater scheme of things. One of JDM's rarest books, I Could Go On Singing is hard to find precisely because of its mediocrity. It was published as a movie tie-in (no shame in that, I suppose), and after the movie (a Garland vehicle) didn't do well, JDM encouraged the book's disappearance.* It has not, as far as I know, ever been reprinted. (I believe JDM did the same with Weep for Me, which, again, is sort of perplexingly average.)**

The prime mover of I Could Go On Singing is the chanteuse Jenny Crawford - a popular singer and actress, at the very height of her career. Jenny's sharp - and professional - but also, as we quickly learn, filled with a sort of ennui. Despite her success and her popularity, there's something missing from her life. As we quickly learn, that something may be her (gasp!) illegitimate child - the result of a torrid affair with a British doctor over a decade ago. When Jenny reroutes her tour to visit London for the first time ever, her management team suspects that Jenny's having belated mothering instincts. And this sort of scandal could wreck the good ship Crawford.

Enter her ex-boyfriend, Jason Brown, a typically MacDonaldian sort of male - rumpled-but-handsome, cynical-but-sensitive, making tough decisions about career and love. Jason is recruited by the movie studio with Jenny under contract: they need her to behave, lest her next film go from "a shower of Oscars" to a disgraceful failure. Jason reluctantly flies out to London and renews his acquaintance with Jenny.

Although the story is from Jason's point of view - complete with a lackluster romance and by-the-numbers pensive musings - I Could Go On Singing is notable because every character is in orbit around Jenny. Professionally, everyone exists in some capacity to serve her. And personally, they're all in thrall of her charisma - her moods dictate theirs, her whims have seismic impact on their lives. Ultimately, this is a book about her decision, and Jason and the others are all incidental characters: he's a sidekick.

Unfortunately, although this is about Jenny's choice, there's no real tension to I Could Go On Singing. In the film (at least, summaries that I have seen), Jenny and her doctor ex are the central characters, and the decision between family and career is - apparently - more conflicted. In the book, we're merely awash in the fallout as Jenny (largely off-screen) oscillates immaturely between one stance and another. Her final conclusion is less a dramatic revelation than a relief; now everyone else can get some rest. 

For collectors of MacDonald trivia, I Could Go On Singing is, I suppose, made, a little more intriguing by contrast to the rest of his work. As far as I know, this is his only book that takes place in London. One of JDM's consistent strengths is his ability to describe societies and settings, and his take on the British is no exception. Jenny Crawford also makes an interesting contrast to Lysa Dean, the movie star from the Travis McGee books and another powerful female figure. Travis, is, of course, no Jason Brown, and rather than capitulating to Lysa's whims, he deliberately resists her like the pillar of hypermasculinity that he is. 

The Dead LetterMetta Victoria Victor's The Dead Letter (1867) is credited as America's first full-length crime fiction novel. Victor, who wrote under the pen name "Seeley Regester, was also one of the pioneers of the dime novel, writing over 100 during her life. The Dead Letter begins with a murder - a promising young man is found cruelly stabbed to death. As an upright member of society, all the right-thinking people of upstate New York mourn his passing. This includes two young men - Richard (who narrates) and James (who doesn't) - who are united by their love of the dead man's betrothed. The two set off, more or less, to figure out whodunnit. Along the way they recruit a private detective, Burton, who sort of flits around the case in a mysterious fashion.

As a mystery, it ain't much of one, and, at the risk of spoilers, James dunnit, and this is obvious from the very first pages, which we learn that Richard is ALL THAT IS GOOD AND TRUE and James PROBABLY ISN'T. As a mystery, it is more along the lines of Dickens than Christie - The Dead Letter isn't about the solution to the mystery as much as the process and emotional toil of solving it.

For what should be a very linear case, Victor throws the kitchen sink at it:

  • Richard and Burton spend a good portion of the book tracking down a female witness even though they both know that she had nothing to do with the crime
  • They find her
  • She had nothing to do with the crime, but we learn a lot about her ex-husband
  • And her kid
  • They trek off to California and to Mexico in search of some stolen money
  • Burton's daughter is, of course, psychic, and is consulted at every opportunity
  • Richard is framed (kinda) for the murder, and has to disappear for a year to go work in the post office
  • Richard and James do a lot of pining and flirting for fair Eleanor
  • Richard and James do a lot of (eew) pining and flirting for fair Eleanor's younger sister
  • Richard has struggles at work, trying to negotiate a partnership arrangement with James' dad
  • Richard talks to his mom a lot.
  • James does stuff with gamblers
  • There's a media res bit with the beginning and the late-middle with the dead letter office
  • Burton fakes 'quitting' the case, in order to lure everyone into a false sense of complacency
  • Burton something something arson case in the past or something

These aren't red herrings because they're all obvious dead-ends and distractions. A better marine metaphor might be the sort of cheap octopus that supermarkets sell as crabmeat. Or something along those lines: the filler percentage of The Dead Letter is simply ridiculous. Also, as it turns out, ironic. The mystery concludes by Burton saying, "JAMES DUNNIT", and, James confesses before the evidence is even presented. The mighty private investigator could've saved everyone a lot of headache by pointing the finger back in chapter one, when, according to Burton, he apparently recognised the killer on sight. 

All that said, as goofy as The Dead Letter is (and it is very goofy), Victor's got a clear knack for the page-turner. No matter how clunky the story gets - or how hand-wavey the distraction - there's a certain something about the book that keeps the reader going. Richard, for his square-jawed goody-two-shoes-ness, has a certain depth: he's a hard-worker and does well with rejection. He might be a little thick, but the reader can empathise with him: he's an alright kind of guy. Burton is more of an enigma, but as a proto-badass PI, he's pretty fun: he'll spit Death in the eye (politely). And as saccharine as Richard's romances are, they are heartfelt, and provide the only true tension in the book. Perhaps the kitchen sink approach works after all, as, although there's no one good reason to stick with The Dead Letter, it proves, on the whole, 'pretty readable' - which is certainly more than the sum of its otherwise unimpressive parts.

*Random House seems to have a different opinion, and this is now available as an ebook. I'm not sure how I feel about that. The generic cover doesn't help. I'm clearly biased, but if you're going to buck the dead man's wishes and bring back the 'lost MacDonald', you should make more of a thing, right? Instead of sneaking it onto the 'long tail' shelf and forgetting about it. The $10 price tag is either pure insanity or evil genius ("we're only going to sell this to crazy JDM fans, so we can charge whatever! MWHAHAHAHA"). 

**Why not, say, A Flash of Green? Because that was really bad.