All These Condemned (John D MacDonald)

Written in 1954 before environmental issues became big in the public consciousness – this is very different than his later works. If I didn’t know I would never have guessed it was by JDM. In the hands of some lesser writer, the two chapters per character-narrator would have come off as a cheesy gimmick, but not for the MacDonald. In just pages, MacDonald fashions whole biographies, not of these character’s histories, but of who they are in body and soul. I rarely come across a book filled with such depth and such distinctive characters. 

Unexpectedly brilliant. A ghastly and controlling perfume tycoon holds a small party at her luxurious lakeside house and there’s a murder. The best parts of it are the various descriptions of Wilma Ferris, who is a femme fatale of legend, a figure with such personality and such overwhelming presence that all the other guests there are like moths circling her bright flame. They are all entranced by her, men and women alike. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character – including her sexually-dependent lickspittle, his humiliated and vengeful wife and a manipulative and vainglorious PR – flicking between before the murder and after, and we see that everyone has a reason to hate her.

It’s a classic whodunit and the conclusion is satisfyingly grizzly and gothic, a study in psychopathy that would make Brett Easton Ellis weep onto his Ralph Lauren silk pyjamas. But what makes this so good is the quality of the writing, the keen cutting edge of the satire, and the hard but nuanced view of human nature. The satirical targets are familiar (ad man, tycoon, PR, flavour-of-the-month artist, TV personality) and deliciously horrible, with everybody adopting a pose, but the rotating narration means that we also get to see their emptiness from the inside. That reveals their falsity but also their humanity, with their own baggage and pain and inadequacy and insecurity and weakness. They are unsympathetic characters with whom we can’t help but sympathize. They’re all monsters, but all victims.

I loved this book. Macdonald always us gives great one liners. Studying and getting to know the characters is the best part. Almost so that you really forget the plot. Ironically, it’s the lickspittle who has the best lines, his wrung-out cynicism and self-loathing producing some enjoyably chewy and downbeat observations on the predicaments he, and we, face: “She had a nice knack of making others die a little. Now she had died a lot….Pleasure without purpose feeds on itself until it is finally consumed and the thing is dead….They gave you the big words, the philosophical words, Man’s destiny. And then you learned the only destiny was function. Be born, breed and die. And of the three, there was only one over which you had control.” 🙂

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