|The other day I finished reading (for the second time), John D. MacDonald's novel, CAPE FEAR. Originally published in 1958 as THE EXECUTIONERS, the novel now officially bears the title of the two films that were later made from the material. But there are differences between page and screen and, as is almost always the case, it's the book that is the best.|
The novel, thanks both to the movies and the talent of John D. MacDonald, ranks as one of his most popular and best-selling stand-alone crime thrillers. The story centers on Sam Bowden, a small town attorney with a wife and three children (two boys and a girl). Years ago, when Bowden was in the army during WWII, he testified against Max Cady in a criminal trial. Bowden was the only eyewitness to Cady's rape of an Australian girl. Cady was sent off to Leavenworth and Bowden returned to civilian life to raise his family and pursue his career.
But when Cady is released from prison, he tracks Bowden down and begins to threaten the entire Bowden family. Cady, a stone cold psychopath, is also very smart, clever and cunning. He keeps just this side of the law and is careful not to do anything that will get him arrested again. Bowden is terrified by the threat but he's a man totally devoted to the legal system and is determined to fight Cady with the law. But when Cady poisons the family dog and later shoots the oldest Bowden boy in the arm, the stakes are raised and the threat is escalated. Bowden has run out of legal options and must now take matters into his own hands to protect his family.
MacDonald does a great job of slowly but steadily building the suspense throughout the novel. He puts Sam Bowden into a moral box and let's us watch how he gets out of it. Cady is kept largely off of the pages. He has a few scenes here and there but he's relegated to the shadows where he plots his next move in the tense game of cat and mouse. Cady is like the great white shark in JAWS. You know he's out there, lurking just under the surface. You don't know when he'll strike but you know that when he does, it will be brutal and savage.
Bowden and his wife, Carol, eventually set a trap for Cady and Bowden does manage to shoot and kill the monster and end the threat to his family. His killing of the man is justified because Cady breaks into the Bowden home and attempts to rape and kill Carol. But it's the law of the jungle that has prevailed, a savage justice far removed from the black and white world of the legal system.
The differences between the book and the films are many. The films locate the action to Cape Fear, a coastal community in North Carolina. The book has the action in a land locked, Midwestern setting. The Bowdens have a houseboat upon which the climactic battles take place in both films but in the book, the finale takes place inside the the Bowden home (although they do own a boat that figures in the story). In the films, the Bowden's only have one child, Nancy, their teenage daughter. In both films, she is object of sexual attraction for Cady. Not so in the book as there it's oldest son Jamie who is harmed by Cady.
While the films have their respective good and bad points, ultimately we're left with the original source material to judge and evaluate. CAPE FEAR is a wire taut tale of suspense and a psychological study of just how far one man is willing to go to protect himself and his family. MacDonald did a masterful job with this novel. It is a tribute to the man and his skill to say that the book is just as fresh and exciting as it was when it was originally published fifty-six years ago. Highest recommendation.