Back in high school, I used to watch a lot of late night weekend television. One of these particular channels liked airing classic movies, and since I’d never heard of some, I was mildly intrigued. There was the original King Kong with its theatrical acting and ridiculous looking Kong; The Sheik and its devilishly handsome Rudolph Valentino and his creepy Christian Grey-esque antics; and then there was the one that stuck with me the most—Cape Fear. Most people only know of the apparently terrible ’90s remake, but I was fascinated by the 1962 incarnation for its interaction between the main character Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) and arch-nemesis rapist Max Cady, who was trying to tear apart his life and that of his wife and daughter. Couple Cape Fear with the more recent Red Eye, directed by Wes Craven, and my love of psychological thrillers was born. Recently, I looked more into the movie, and was surprised to see it was loosely based on a book: The Executioners by John D. MacDonald.
The Executioners, available here, is the 1957 psychological thriller by John D. MacDonald. The basic premise is this: 14 years ago, while in the army and stationed in Australia, Sam Bowden caught antagonist Max Cady in the middle of the rape of a 14 year old girl, and then exerted his influence as a lawyer to keep Cady behind bars for a lot longer than usual for the crime. Unbeknownst to Sam, Cady spent his 14 years in prison with a vengeful rage, and vows the destroy Sam’s life once he gets out of prison. Once out of prison, he tracks down Sam back in the U.S. and discovers he now has a wife, Carol, and three children including eldest Nancy, who is the same age as Cady’s last victim. With this knowledge, as well as his strength and prowess, Cady vows to do everything to destroy the life of naive lawyer Sam Bowden.
The first thing I have to say about MacDonald’s book is its writing style. As a product of its time—similar to John Wyndham and Ian Fleming—the writing style is very dry. That’s not a bad thing; to me, I prefer this to, say, the overly poetic style of Nabokov or Plath. The dry style fits in with the theme of the book, and MacDonald does the suspense wonderfully, and especially because of his use of simple, basic-descriptive writing. As it says on the back jacket of my edition of the book: The suspense is tremendous. As I couldn’t recall most of the events of the original movie, I was left nervous and excited for what lay ahead: Would Cady get to Sam Bowden’s children or wife; how on earth could someone do what he did to the family pet (!?); how could Sam possibly outrun a man who had no care or grasp for the law? Of course I expected Sam to win the battle, but due to the suspense, and the cloaked mystery of Max Cady, I had no clue how he’d do it, and was turning pages (albeit not as quickly as I wanted to) to see how he would resolve everything and live a peaceful life with Carol and the kids.
Of course, since The Executioners was published in the late 1950s, I was expecting the undertones of sexism/racism in this book, but was surprised to see both Carol and Nancy as strong, capable characters. In any case, it’s silly to hold a book from 1957 to a 2010s standard without looking like a complete idiot/someone who’s trying to rewrite the past to appear just like today. Surprisingly, Carol Bowden was a strong character on her own. She is able to hold competent, serious conversation with her husband about Cady and what he may do; she learns to shoot a gun to protect herself; and is generally willing to do what she can to save her family and livelihood instead of just moping and fainting.
The action-packed nature of the film/s was completely unnecessary in this novel, and it works well on its own, completely separate to the films. Of course, without the movies, I wouldn’t have known about The Executioners, as MacDonald is far better known for other books. However, there was one thing that kept me wanting to read: Strong, believable characters. At first glance, you’d see the characters as cookie cutter stereotypes. Sam: Goody-goody lawyer who provides for his family and lacks emotion. Cady: Evil monster intent on destroying society. Carol: Generic housewife. Nancy: Generic ’50s teenager obsessed with boys and clothes. However, further examination show them as anything but, and this makes them much more interesting. Despite Cady clearly being the villain, he is at least given a backstory (terrified ex-wife, hick upbringing, abusive family) to show why he became the way he is, and he actually has a personality, instead of just being a shadowy figure of dark darkness. Both Sam and Carol change throughout the story, becoming less naive, understanding the world didn’t work in such a clean way as they once thought, and both try to make the most of a dark situation and never let it affect them and ruin their lives—because that’s just what Cady would want.
The Executioners is a book perfect for lovers of dark psychological thrillers, haters of flowery writing and anyone who wants a quick, simple read that will make them challenge the ways of the justice system. On the downside, it’s clearly a book of its era, which isn’t bad in itself, but won’t really intrigue newer readers. Bowden’s character at the beginning is a little naive and silly, expecting too much of the police and his fellow lawyers, and realising by the end that he can only truly stop Cady by himself; his own morally Lawful Neutral way of saving the day. The dull writing style may deter some, but for the most part, this is a perfectly enjoyable quick read.