A Key to the Suite (1962) by John D. MacDonald

Somehow I always find myself returning to John D. MacDonald, and for good reason; I haven’t been disappointed by one of his novels yet. I was attracted to his work by the mysterious titles and lurid artwork, but shortly after reading my first MacDonald novel I sought out every other book he had written, always in vintage paperback form. I’ve been inching my way through them ever since, rationing them in a way, knowing that once I’ve made my way through all of them that there will be no more.

A Key to the Suite hails from 1962 and is about a man on a mission; Floyd Hubbard has been assigned to evaluate the performance of Jesse Mulaney, an upper level manager in the sales division of a company, while at a convention full of free flowing booze and girls. Mulaney’s a hack and knows it, and the writing is on the wall for his exit from the company. And so he has engaged a high-class prostitute, Cory Barlund, to seduce Hubbard and make a big, embarrassing scene in front of a lot of people to destroy his credibility in the hope that it could help save Mulaney’s job. But things don’t go as planned (do they ever?), and it all comes down to a showdown with the person who has the pivotal “key to the suite.”

 

back cover
 
I love a story with a scheming hooker, and Cory Barlund is one for the record books. She is at the convention posing as a reporter, but her striking beauty catches everyone’s eye. One of the few convention wives attending comments, “You know, that girl comes on slow. She builds. The more you look, the more you see. Floyd, only a woman could know what kind of a total effort that takes, all the time and thought and care.”

Cory is no pushover either, only agreeing to the framing job as a favor to her madam and after approving of Hubbard. When another person in on the scheme suggests an extra pay day for a tumble, she wryly replies, “Try me again in ten years. By then I may have lost the freedom of choice. That’s supposed to be the standard pattern, isn’t it?”

We learn more about Cory’s background and why she took up the trade, blaming it on a cheating former husband who infected her with syphilis while she was pregnant. She says that it “turned my baby into an idiot. It’s over five years old now. It will never speak or walk or recognize anything or anyone. I have one child, defective, institutionalized.” Her harsh words here go way beyond what I think any woman would ever say about her offspring; it’s a shocking stance though and definitely paints a picture of the kind of woman Hubbard is dealing with. “After the divorce I was trying in an amateur way to prove to every man in the world that I was more useful than every whore in Havana.” Mission accomplished, Cory!

  
No one describes women like John D. MacDonald, and here is an excerpt of when Hubbard is watching Cory out by the pool and she approaches him:

  
 
It may seem like I’ve given a lot away, but trust me when I state that there is a lot more where all of that came from. There are sex scenes written in such a stylish way that it is possible for one not in the know to read them and not be explicitly clear on what is going on! There are also a lot of characters for such a short book, and some have names that didn’t fit the gender I would’ve thought (Cass is a man, Cory is a woman, etc.), but the book is a real slice of corporate life right out of the “Mad Men” era. I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and hoping for the best as it sped on towards an inevitable and violent conclusion.

I was struck by how dated and yet contemporary the novel was, and in equal parts. The stereotypical “good old boys” who are woefully under qualified for positions but are appointed due to their chutzpah are still the types we see today in businesses (and in public office), but the women in the novel are nothing more than wives, whores, or eye candy. It’s a reflection of the time in which it was written, to be sure, and of the environment at the convention. Still, the novel is a quick and exciting read, with just the right amount of spice to keep it on the right side of the sleaze border.

**** out of ****

inside cover teaser

Slam the Big Door (1960) by John D. MacDonald

It’s awful that it took so long for me to finish this little book. I sent a spare copy to a friend so that we could both read and discuss it, and he finished his ages ago. Oh well, it’s done now.

This is my forth MacDonald novel, and it was originally released in 1960. It has all the elements of the other MacDonald novels that I like: deft descriptions, snappy dialogue, unpredictability. It meanders a bit halfway through, but it is still a good read even if I’d rate it as the lesser of the author’s works that I’ve read to date (my favorite being Where is Janice Gantry?).

The story is about recent widower Mike Rodenska visiting old war buddy Troy Jamison at Jamison’s place on the beach in Florida. While visiting he uncovers a plot to take over a land development of Jamison’s that is about to go belly up while also dealing with Jamison’s caring but absent wife, spoiled and bratty sex vixen of a stepdaughter, and a whore from Jamison’s past. Mike steps in to try to help Troy, but the man is hell bent on destroying everything with his alcoholism and penchant for a certain woman who led him down a similar path years earlier.

My favorite parts of the novel involve Mike and the wayward woman that his buddy Troy just can’t keep away from, Jerrana Rowley. MacDonald has a way of painting a picture that would surely infuriate women today with how cutting his observations could be, as the women in his novels tend to either be Madonnas or whores.

This is the way she is referred to after maybe five years of hard living, going from place to place before re-entering Troy’s life again. The initial description of her wasn’t flattering either, but this latter synopsis is particularly vivid and biting. And yet, the character of Jerrana still has a bit of charm in her dialogue and doesn’t come off as completely rotten.

This is another description that made me take notice. In this scene, Mike goes to Jerrana’s cheap and foul bungalow looking for Troy. This is how he describes the state of the place.

What exactly does “female” smell like? I’m sure there are many people who know, but to put that adjective between burned food and urine? Classy.

The novel reaches a rather satisfying conclusion even if it does wrap itself up a bit too easily. Still I enjoyed it as decidedly second rate MacDonald, which is still better than most first rate anyone else.

**/ out of ****