Monday, September 23, 2019

66. The End of the Night by John D. MacDonald

This is the second of the Ed Gorman-inspired haul of JDM books I found in Vancouver.  I went in with some trepidation.  My mother had just finished a Travis McGee book and excoriated it thusly:
Just finished A Turquoise Lament and what a horrible book. 9/10ths of it was mansplaining about everything, and sooo tedious. The denouement happened in about 10 pages after endless lamenting about this and that. I can’t believed that. I used to enjoy his books!
While we do not share the same tastes and she has zero patience for nerdy, manly things, it pains me that there is truth in her critique and sometimes MacDonald's wordy explanations of the Human/American condition in the second half of the twentieth century can wear on me as well. Furthermore, this one looked pretty nasty.

It's an interesting read.  It is structured with much more variety than I have yet to encounter in a JDM book.  Usually it is first person or third-person most of the way.  Here we have a letter from an executioner to an old workmate, the notes from a trial lawyer, the notes from one of the suspects before he is to be executed and some omniscient narration, all structured around a crime spree you already know happened with the victims dead and the culprits caught.  The sole narrative tension is what happened to the perfect, innocent young fiancée they picked and how far did it go?

It is more of an investigation into a crime spree by psychopathic counter-culture young people with no motivation other than kicks.  It is the drugstore paperback In Cold Blood, but with 4 individuals whose backgrounds and psychologies make them together into murderers.  The main character is the fourth one to join the team, privileged college dropout who had just got over a crazy love affair with the older actress he was chauffeuring (which caused her murder and her husband's suicide).  He wanders out of Mexico with nothing left to live for and runs into a crazy pill-popping loser leader, a psychopathic beatnik slut and a massive beast of a young man.  Together, their dynamic plus the bills and booze triggers a crazy joy ride of murder, rape and car theft.

JDM's philosophizing about how it all came about and why the ostensibly well-raised college boy would go down this road is voiced by the defense lawyer, representing the older generation.  The college boy speaks for himself.  Combining the two, we get the jumbled thesis that the youth of this time have gone astray because we aren't disciplined enough and that people are a few steps from becoming animals at any given time.  It isn't super convincing. 

Despite my critiques, The End of the Night is a good read.  There are some great procedural passages when the authorities try and close in on the gang.  The locations and side characters feel very real, very American.  You do want to find out what happens.  The ending is oddly soft, compared to the lead-up and left me a bit puzzled as to what he was trying to do (or if in the end, he just had to pull his final punch).

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