This is probably the darkest John D. MacDonald book I’ve ever read.
The story details, sort of, a cross-country crime spree by four drugged-out kids in the late 1950s. The action focuses really on their last murder (of 4, I think) in a small town and the events that lead up to their capture as well as bits from the trial. MacDonald does not go into a straight narrative, instead starting out with a letter from one of their executioners to a former employee at the prison where the bad guys died. MacDonald then weaves in an out of the in-over-his-head defense attorney’s blustery memos during the trial, the death row diary of the college-kid-gone-bad in the quarter, some “live” actions of the final victim, her fiance, and law enforcement on the trail of the criminals. It’s a bit jumbled, but you get a decent picture.
In most of MacDonald’s book, we get a protagonist of sorts, in some cases a shopworn hero and in others a pretty ruthless, efficient sort of character, but in this book, the protagonist ultimately is circumstances and dogged law enforcement that leads to their arrest. You get a couple scenes with the functionaries in law enforcement, not one guy doggedly stepping forward. Just the professional grouping and how they come together to catch crooks hell-bent on being caught.
MacDonald spends a lot of time on the college-kid-gone-wrong, a kid from a good home who one day decides he’s done with common life, so he walks out in the last semester of college and gets into a tawdry adventure and then falls into the group of drug-addled ne’er-do-wells. He has some conscience, sort of, and serves as a reminder that but for the grace of God go we.
The final scene of the book occurs after the fiance of the last victim, an architect, sells the property where he was going to build their dream house along with the plans he’d drawn up for them. As he drives away, he suddenly swerves to hit a dog but misses and then feels bad for the attempt and relief that he missed. This is the message of the book: one small swerve, maybe even only on whim, can lead one to great evil.
MacDonald’s characterization talents are up to snuff, but overall the book isn’t among his best because of the choppy pacing and lack of a protagonist. Also, did I mention its bleak outlook?