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.”
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!
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 ****