Authors: John D. MacDonald
“MacDonald isn’t simply popular; he’s also good.”
“MacDonald’s books are narcotic and, once hooked, a reader can’t kick the habit until the supply runs out.”
—Chicago Tribune Book World
“John D. MacDonald remains one of my idols.”
“The Dickens of mid-century America—popular, prolific and … conscience-ridden about his environment.… A thoroughly American author.”
The Boston Globe
“It will be for his crisply written, smoothly plotted mysteries that MacDonald will be remembered.”
“MacDonald had the marvelous ability to create attention-getting characters who doubled as social critics. In MacDonald novels, it is the rule rather than the exception to find, in the midst of violence and mayhem, a sentence, a paragraph, or several pages of rumination on love, morality, religion, architecture, politics, business, the general state of the world or of Florida.”
A Key to the Suite
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
2014 Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition
Copyright © 1962 by John D. MacDonald
Copyright renewed 1990 by Maynard MacDonald
Foreword copyright © 2013 by Dean Koontz
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of
The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
and the H
colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Originally published in paperback in the United States by Fawcett, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, in 1962.
eBook ISBN 978-0-307-82707-4
Cover design; Joe Montgomery
Cover photo: © Cade Martin/Corbis
WHEN I WAS IN COLLEGE
, I had a friend, Harry Recard, who was smart, funny, and a demon card player. Harry was a successful history major, while I passed more time playing pinochle than I spent in class. For the three and a half years that I required to graduate, I heard Harry rave about this writer named John D. MacDonald, “John D” to his most ardent readers. Of the two of us, Harry was the better card player and just generally the cooler one. Consequently, I was protective of my position, as an English major, to be the better judge of literature, don’t you know. I remained reluctant to give John D a look.
Having read mostly science fiction, I found many of my professors’ assigned authors markedly less exciting than Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon, but I was determined to read the right thing. For every Flannery O’Connor whose work I could race through with delight, there were three like Virginia
Woolf, who made me want to throw their books off a high cliff and leap after them. Nevertheless, I continued to shun Harry’s beloved John D.
Five or six years after college, I was a full-time writer with numerous credits in science fiction, struggling to move into suspense and mainstream work. I was making progress but not fast enough to suit me. By now I knew that John D was widely admired, and I finally sat down with one of his books. In the next thirty days, I read thirty-four of them. The singular voice and style of the man overwhelmed me, and the next novel I wrote was such an embarrassingly slavish imitation of a MacDonald tale that I had to throw away the manuscript.
I apologized to Harry for doubting him. He was so pleased to hear me proclaiming the joys of John D that he only said “I told you so” on, oh, twenty or thirty occasions.
Over the years, I have read every novel by John D at least three times, some of them twice that often. His ability to evoke a time and place—mostly Florida but also the industrial Midwest, Las Vegas, and elsewhere—was wonderful, and he could get inside an occupation to give you the details and the feel of it like few other writers I’ve ever read. His pacing was superb, the flow of his prose irresistible, and his suspense watch-spring tight.
Of all his manifest strengths as a writer, however, I am most in awe of his ability to create characters who are as real as anyone I’ve met in life. John D sometimes paused in the headlong rush of his story to spin out pages of background on a character. At first when this happened, I grumbled about getting on with the story. But I soon discovered that he could make the character so fascinating that when the story began to race forward again, I wanted it to slow down so I could learn more about this
person who so intrigued and/or delighted me. There have been many good suspense novelists in recent decades, but in my experience, none has produced characters with as much humanity and truth as those in MacDonald’s work.
Like most who have found this author, I am an admirer of his Travis McGee series, which features a first-person narrator as good as any in the history of suspense fiction and better than most. But I love the stand-alone novels even more.
Cry Hard, Cry Fast. Where Is Janice Gantry? The Last One Left. A Key to the Suite. The Drowner. The Damned. A Bullet for Cinderella. The Only Girl in the Game. The Crossroads. All These Condemned
. Those are not my only favorites, just a few of them, and many deal with interesting businesses and occupations. Mr. MacDonald’s work gives the reader deep and abiding pleasure for many reasons, not the least of which is that it portrays the contemporary life of his day with as much grace and fidelity as any writer of the period, and thus it also provides compelling social history.
In 1985, when my publisher, Putnam, wanted to send advance proof copies of
to Mr. MacDonald among others, I literally grew shaky at the thought of him reading it. I suggested that they shouldn’t send it to him, that, as famous and prolific as he was, the proof would be an imposition on him; in truth, I feared that he would find the novel unsatisfying. Putnam sent it to him anyway, and he gave us an enthusiastic endorsement. In addition, he wrote to me separately, in an avuncular tone, kindly advising me how to avoid some of the pitfalls of the publishing business, and he wrote to my publisher asking her to please carefully consider the packaging of the book and not condemn it to the horror genre. She more or less condemned it to the genre anyway, but I took his advice to heart.
In my experience, John D. MacDonald, the man, was as kind and thoughtful as his fiction would lead you to believe that he must be. That a writer’s work accurately reflects his soul is a rarer thing than you might imagine, but in his case, the reflection is clear and true. For that reason, it has been a special honor, in fact a grace, to be asked to write this introduction.
Reader, prepare to be enchanted by the books of John D. MacDonald. And Harry, I am not as much of an idiot as I was in years gone by—though I know you won’t let me get away with claiming not to be to any degree an idiot anymore.
THE GENTLE HAND
of a girl pressed him awake, and he looked up along a tailored arm at the gloriously empty smile of a stewardess. “Fasten your seat belt, please.”
When he straightened in the seat and began to grope for the ends of the belt, she resumed her tour of inspection, looking from side to side, waking other sleepers.
It would have to be a surgical technique, he decided. Their smiles are all too alike. A few minutes of deftness with the scalpel, cutting the frown muscles loose, rehooking the nerve circuits, and you would limit each of them to just two expressions—the habitual superior blandness or the dazzling smile. Perhaps with true corporate efficiency they had hooked the smile to the vocal nerve complex so that they could not speak without smiling. “Prepare for ditching,” would be said with the same smile as, “How would you like your fillet, sir?”
But of course they had not yet been able to do anything
about the expression of the eyes. They all looked at you with the same aseptic, merciless disdain, then walked away, germless Dynel hair a-bounce under the trig cap, tennis hips swinging the military worsted skirts, any bounce of breasts falling neatly within the maximum and minimum allowable limits as set by the airline.
He ran the pad of his thumb down the line of his jaw, feeling the sandstone texture of the night growth of beard, and smacked his lips in self-disgust at the stale and clotted taste in his mouth. He was on the starboard side of the airplane, behind the wings, and as it tilted into the landing pattern, he looked out the port windows and saw the dawn jumble of the city, with random neon still on, paling in the grayness, and the shining eyes of some small cars in the small streets.
The airplane slowed as the flaps were extended, and it felt tentative and less airworthy under him, so that he inadvertently tightened his buttock muscles and held his chest a little higher.
There had been so much jet travel in this past year, a Super-Constellation felt like a flapping silly thing, rough and haphazard, like an old lady roller skating on cobblestones. An intrusion of history, he thought, to ride in this sister of the Ford Trimotor, and to be killed in one would have certain ludicrous overtones.
“Snob,” he said to himself. Fanciful snob at that, with the analysis of surgical smiles, and preference for dying up-to-date—but always fanciful when overtired, always that half step to one side of reality, so the world bulges into strange shapes.
He saw, to the east, a dark gray velvet sea with a pink rim, delicate as porcelain, and then looked down at the racing, upcoming ribbon of warehouses, scrubby lots, auto dumps; then saw the landing strip lights, and tucked his anus up yet more
firmly until he felt the yelp of tires, the second contact, the rolling that began to slow down. Then the muscles softened, and he unlatched the safety belt and stifled the sigh that meant—“Hubbard, you made it again.” Hubbard, the hero of progress. He remembered being told that when his grandfather bought a battery flashlight and brought it home, they made him go out into the yard to light it up. Dangers have become more joyless. Each horseless carriage shall be proceeded by a man on horseback carrying a red flag by day and a lighted lantern by night.
He retrieved his hat and dispatch case from the overhead shelf and walked down the stairway on wheels into a curious damp warmth like that of a team locker-room a little while after the last hot shower has been taken. There were puddles on the ramp from recent rain. He marched with the others down an endless corridor, thinking that the air age is turning us into a race of pedestrians.
The main part of the terminal was so savagely air-conditioned he felt chilled when the sweat of walking began an immediate evaporation. He found a men’s room, whitely lighted, and as he was washing his hands he stared dispassionately at himself in the mirror and was mildly astonished he should look so tidy in that cruel light. The smut-shadow of beard gave him somewhat the look of imported syndicate muscle, but, he decided, of the upper echelon where the payoff goes into a numbered account and the shotgun stock is of Circassian walnut.