This week, Barry Ergang’s 2012 review of the short story, “Breathe No More” by John D. MacDonald is the focus for this last Friday of January 2020. For the full list of reading suggestions check out Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog.
"Breathe No More" by John D. MacDonald
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
Writers who contributed to the pulp magazines had to be, above all else, able storytellers or they wouldn't see their efforts in print. Many of them were what I call "grinders," folks who could mechanically crank out competent but undistinguished stories to suit various markets in order to earn money to live on, with no thought of artistry. But there were also some conscious craftsmen who honed their skills in the pulp markets, writers who have since come to be regarded as serious and enduring artists whose work constitutes Literature with a capital L or something approaching it. Among these are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury and--yes!--Tennessee Williams.
John D. MacDonald is another from the latter group. Although for many years his novels were published as paperback originals by Fawcett during an era when "serious" writers' work initially appeared in hardcover editions, MacDonald was always well-received critically, considered one of America's finest storytellers and a man who had important things to say and insights to share.
Primarily known as a novelist, he was no slouch in the short fiction department. "Breathe No More," reprinted in the 1982 collection The Good Old Stuff, and originally published under the title "Breathe No More, My Lovely" in the May 1950 issue of Detective Tales, is a good example. Its morally ambiguous protagonist is a quirky man of wealth named Park Falkner, who lives on a private island in Florida and who has a crew of investigators who look into cases that interest him. Falkner invites the principle figures in a given case, among other guests, to his island so as to expose them and dispense his particular brand of justice. In "Breathe No More," his plan backfires when one of the guests is murdered and another, a woman near and dear to Falkner, is put in jeopardy.
The story amply displays MacDonald's crisp, literate prose style, his sense of place and pace, and his skill in limning characters. Beyond this I'll say no more lest I spoil the story for readers unfamiliar with it.
Barry Ergang © 2012, 2020
Among other works, Derringer Award-winner Barry Ergang's own impossible crime novelette, The Play of Light and Shadow, is available at Amazon and Smashwords as is his recently released book of poetry, Farrago, and other entertaining reads. For more on Barry’s books as well as his editing services, check out Barry’s website.