A (Black) Gat in the Hand: John D. MacDonald’s ‘Ring Around the Redhead’

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: John D. MacDonald’s ‘Ring Around the Redhead’

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

I’m putting the finishing touches on my long-delayed Jo Gar essay. But I realized I’ve not talked about my all-time favorite author yet here in A (Black) Gat in the Hand. I have written about a half-dozen essays on John D. MacdDonald, and I included Bill Crider’s review of The Brass Cupcake.

But I haven’t included any of his stuff in my Pulp column. Though he achieved fame as a paperback writer, John MacD honed his skills as a prolific Pulpster. He was a regular in Doc Savage in 1946, before breaking into both Dime Detective, and Black Mask, the following year. He became a regular in the sci-fi Pulps, and even contributed to the Mystery Pulp successors, Manhunt, and the (short-lived) Justice. Black Mask’s famed editor, Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw was MacDonald’s agent for a time.

Back in 2016, I wrote a detailed piece on MacDonald for the 100th anniversary of his birth. Click on over if you want to learn some things about him. Back in 2018,I guested in Steve H Silver’s Birthday Reviews column, with a rare science fiction post by me. So, bringing that one over here into the Pulp column to get some JDM here. More to come (though not sci-fi).

Every so often, I prove that the Black Gate firewall needs some serious tightening up by jumping in and putting up a post where I don’t belong (many readers and fellow bloggers believe that would be the entirety of the Black Gate website…). So, if you’re reading this, the crack web monitoring team hasn’t seen it yet. Don’t tell Steven. He might gnaw through the restraining chain around his ankle and crawl over to my desk in the cellar…basement…journalist’s suite to thrash me.

John Dann MacDonald, my favorite author and one of the best writers of the twentieth century – in any genre – was born on July 24th, 1916. MacDonald, a Harvard MBA and a lieutenant colonel in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, was thirty years old when he began writing for the pulps in 1946. Through hard work and talent, he quickly became successful, selling to the mystery and sports magazines.

He graduated to the slicks more quickly than most pulpsters and he began writing paperback novels in 1950, mostly for Fawcett Gold Medal, and Dell. And in 1960 he created his famous non-private eye, Travis McGee, in The Deep Blue Goodbye. MacDonald wrote over 400 short stories and five dozen novels.

It’s less well-remembered that in the late forties and early fifties, MacDonald wrote a great deal of science fiction: over fifty short stories and two novels. He tired of the genre and essentially quit cold turkey in 1952, writing only seven more stories and one novel (The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything, which was made into a movie with Robert Hays and Pam Dawber) in the final thirty-four years of his life. He wrote that he tired of science fiction and simply quit writing it.

“Ring Around the Redhead” appeared in the November, 1948 issue of Startling Stories (His “Shenadun” had been in the September issue). It was anthologized in 1953 and again in 1967. I read it in Other Times, Other Worlds, a collection consisting entirely of science fiction stories by MacDonald.

That year he had nineteen science fiction/weird/fantasy stories in seven magazines, under three different names (Scott O’Hara, Peter Reed, and his own).

Bill Maloney, an inventor, is on trial for murdering his next door neighbor. There’s no body, just some brain and hair bits. Anita Hempflet, the classic nosy neighbor (you know, the kind that says “I don’t mind anybody’s business but my own” and then proceeds to gossip like it’s an Olympic event) weighs in with her nose in the air, saying that Bill has been shacked up (remember: it’s 1948) with a pretty redhead who seems to be deaf and was wearing some odd, metallic clothing when she appeared.

She adds that Bill and the neighbor argued not long after the woman appeared. Miss Hempflet even asks around and opines that such an immoral girl must have hitchhiked into town. It’s too bad she’s not the one on trial. She reminds me of the really annoying aunts in Jane Austen novels.

Maloney says that a recent atomic bomb mishap at the local military base had opened up a strange room in his basement, where he found a large metallic ring. Being an inventor, he quickly realizes it is a portal to another dimension. He extracts all kinds of neat stuff, including Rejapachalandakeena, the gorgeous female. Unfortunately, he can’t return the freaked-out woman and he teaches her the basics of English. Accepting the name ‘Keena,’ she reveals that she’s from a society with no war and disease, and they have mental powers, such as telepathy.

Maloney made the mistake of telling his neighbor, Jim Finch, who was immediately enamored with the commercial possibilities. Finch is the clear villain of the piece and he steals the ring, refusing to give it back. He ‘explores’ the other dimensions with all the respect the Spanish gave the Americas in pre-colonial times.

Well, he angers some world and it costs him dearly. Though things look bad, Maloney’s defense rests on Keena explaining everything. Except, the night before she’s due to testify, she disappears. Presumably taken back to her own home. Uh-oh!

I won’t tell you the rest of the story, though things work out pretty satisfactorily in just about all aspects. MacDonald was a writer of the first stripe and his sci-fi stories, while clearly in the nineteen fifties style, are solid pieces of workmanship, and a couple which I’ve read are quite good.

The story was adapted in 1985 for an episode of Tales from the Darkside, starring John Heard and Penelope Ann Miller. By all accounts, it was forgettable and did not do justice to MacDonald’s writing. Sadly, MacDonald’s works have only been filmed twice since this episode. There’s a goldmine of material waiting to be adapted.

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Will Murray on Dashiell Hammett’s Elusive Glass Key
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John Bullard on REH’s Rough and Ready Clowns of the West – Part II
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with Steven H Silver: C.M. Kornbluth’s Pulp
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MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
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Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer since.

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’).

He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series. Which is now part of THE Definitive guide to Conan. He also organized 2023’s ‘Talking Tolkien.’

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI, XXI, and XXXIII.

He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.


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Thomas Parker

I’ve read a lot of JDM, but only two of his sf yarns. I read Gold Watch many years ago and rate it near the top of his work, and I read Wine of the Dreamers just last summer, and though it wasn’t nearly as good as Gold Watch I still thought it very readable and enjoyable, like everything the man wrote. Just based on those two books, his sf ideas weren’t startlingly original or innovative, but the same is true of the ideas and situations in his mystery/suspense books. JDM was just a terrific WRITER, whatever the situation or genre – he could always draw you in and get you involved instantly; when you pull a book of his off the shelf, there’s an ironclad guarantee that you’re going to enjoy the hell out of it. That’s very rare.

You and I are in total agreement about this – right Bob?

Thomas Parker

I think I like Gold Watch so much because, fantastic trappings aside, it’s essentially a screwball comedy, and that’s about my favorite movie genre.

Rich Horton

I’ve yet to read any of Macdonald’s SF novels, though I have copies. But I’ve enjoyed several of his SF short stories (especially “Spectator Sport” which I mentioned last time you posted thin.) And I read a dozen or so Travis McGee novels back some 40 years ago, with considerable enjoyment.

Thomas Parker

I think the big argument among JDM fans is ” to McGee or not to McGee?” In other words, if you could only keep the 21 McGee books or the best 21 of JDM’s non-series books, which would you keep?

I like the McGee books very much, but if forced to make the choice, I would plump for the best of his non-series work. He sprung some very nasty surprises in those (generally more hard-edged) books, of a sort that he couldn’t quite manage in the McGee books, where you always knew one thing for sure – McGee was going to come out ok every time.

Last edited 18 days ago by Thomas Parker
Thomas Parker

The last stand-alone I read was A Key to the Suite. Corporate skullduggery, and it was terrific – and had a couple of those delightfully nasty, completely unexpected twists. My all-time favorites, though, are Cry Hard, Cry Fast and A Bullet for Cinderella (which is also probably the greatest title I’ve ever come across).

Thomas Parker

Yes, it’s the chain-reaction wreck on the highway book. I read it in one sitting several years ago; I just couldn’t stop.

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