John D. MacDonald’s “Soft Touch”

Soft Touch. By John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald did not often venture into true noir, the literary territory of James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and Jim Thompson.

MacDonald was every bit as interested in the darker elements as they were—see The End of the Night or On the Run among others—but he usually brought his books to a more conventional resolution. No so with Soft Touch.

Published in 1958, it’s a bleak tale of two veterans who decide to pull off one big score. The first-person narrator is Jerry Jamieson. He’s a typical rough-edged MacDonald protagonist who married the boss’s daughter and finds himself trapped in a suburban hell of booze and casual infidelity. On the first page, his father-in-law is described as “a little white-skinned man with a face like a trout and a voice like a French horn.”

In the next paragraph, Jerry’s old O.S.S. pal Vince shows up with a shady proposition that could be their ticket out. You should know nothing more about the plot, but I suspect that even seasoned fans will be surprised at the ending. I still remember discovering it as a teenager and being floored by the last page.

One other thing about the book really underscores MacDonald’s reputation as a craftsman who understood how to construct a story. With no changes in plot or character, Soft Touch could be set in 2017. Stories of young men who have trouble adjusting to life after a war are universal.

Put this one on your list.

—Michael Mayo

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