Sunday, December 07, 2014

"In a Small Motel" by John D. MacDonald

This week I have another short story to talk about from the nifty anthology American Pulp; an anthology that every reader of hardboiled mystery should own because it simply rocks. The story: “In a Small Motel” by John D. MacDonald. It was originally published in the July 1956 issue of Justice.

Ginny Mallory is a widow. She owns a small motor-in motel on a major highway in South Georgia. The summer heat is still strong in the waning days of October, and she is tired from a long summer season. The story opens with Ginny fighting an uncooperative rollaway bed. The guests are not cordial and treat her less like an equal and more like the hired help.

As the evening progresses Ginny’s motel begins to fill-up and we are introduced to the four secondary players in the story—Ginny’s dead husband Scott, a full-time motel resident named Johnny Benton, a strange motel guest who insists on parking his car behind the motel, and a would-be suitor named Don Ferris.

The story revolves around Ginny—a single and lonely woman trying to operate a business in 1950s America. Ferris wants to marry Ginny, but he admits it is not entirely because he loves her; Benton is a friend, but he seemingly has a dark underside that may surprise both Ginny and the reader; a guest that is the catalyst for a long and frightening night; and a dead husband whose long shadow is cast across Ginny’s life like a long heavy rain.

“In a Small Motel” is an accomplished and full-bodied story—the characters each have their own subtle and convincing motives. The setting is brilliantly realized. The climate is described with short visual blasts:

“Thick October heat lay heavily over South Georgia. Though she walked briskly, she felt as if all the heat of the long summer just past had turned the marrow of her bones to soft stubborn lead.”

And Ginny is perfectly cast as a strong and resilient woman in a quandary—she doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. The memory of her husband is a prison. A prison she does not want to escape, and the motel is its literal translation.

“In a Small Motel” is a character study cast within the confines of a rich and textured crime story. The characters—the way they act, talk, and shift from one desire and fear to another—control the story and plot. It is also a tightly woven story that MacDonald never loses control of; everything is in place and works perfectly on the reader. The suspense is pure and it ratchets tighter and tighter as the story plays out. 

There are more than a few surprises and the writing is so fresh and alive—even after 54 years—that the reader can nearly smell the autumn Georgia air, the car exhaust, hear the highway noise, and feel the empty and hard fear escalating from a nervous vibration to a deep and harrowing roar.

This post originally went live July 31, 2009 after my first reading of In a Small Motel. I have since gone back to the story several times, and after each reading my appreciation and enjoyment of it only increases. 


Jake Murdock said...

An excellent story and an excellent review. I really enjoy reading the short stories of JDM.

Ben: Great descriptive sentence: "The reader can nearly smell the autumn Georgia air, hear the cars on the highway, smell the exhaust, and feel the empty and hard fear that escalates from a nervous vibration to a deep and harrowing roar."

Ed Gorman said...

Yeah that's why I don't understand JDM's fall from grace. The only books in print are the McGees which are, for the most part, the weakest element of his body of work. He was such a fine craftsman and such a fine observant chronicler of his era. For me few writers have every come close to his storytelling prowess. But he has slipped from view, n doubt about it.

Ben Boulden said...

Jake. Thanks for the nice words. I get a little fan-boy enthusiastic sometimes as I write these reviews. But I kind of like that line too.;)

Ed. I wonder if the McGee novels are easier to market since it is a series. I have always preferred stand alone novels (with some notable exceptions), but the mystery genre is littered with series characters, which makes me think I am very much in the minority in my tastes.

I would love to see HCC publish a few collections or anthologies as part of its line-up, but I'm not holding my breath.

Also, a thought just hit me, I wonder if one of the reasons much of MacDonald's work is out of print stems from how many copies he originally sold--most of his work is easily available in most used bookshops at very reasonable prices. Of course this is probably due to his fall from grace. Alas...