OBITUARY: Jack Finney

Half-way through Jack Finney's 1973 novel Marion's Wall the hero Nick Cheyney is watching the original silent movie version of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the scene in the cafe where Valentino dances the tango with a smouldering Helena Domingues. All at once Cheyney becomes Valentino, at one and the same time seeing "himself" dance so brilliantly up on the screen while seeing, too, the eye of the camera following his splendid, urgent movements. And then - at what must have been a moment of pure triumph for Valentino (the scene was shot in one superb take) - Cheyney, as himself and as Valentino, is overwhelmed by a "hopeless yearning for what might have been". For Cheyney is inadvertently transferring his knowledge 50 years on to Valentino who is suddenly, horribly, aware that he will soon die, his life, talent, career, his immense dramatic promise, all unfulfilled, decades of world-wide fame lost and gone.

It is a classic Jack Finney moment. A rich mix of yearning, nostalgia, sentiment, magic - and irony sharp as a serpent's tooth. For although Finney was himself a man who longed for what he saw as the uncorrupted graciousness of the past - of "days that are no more" - in his novels he was not above mockery, in Marion's Wall lightly lampooning the massive egos, the vast oceans of self-pity to be found in the acting profession.

Finney was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1911, and educated at Knox College, Gales- burg, Illinois. His first creative writing sale, a story called "The Widow's Walk", was made in 1946, at the relatively antique (for a fiction writer) age of 35. This was because after college Finney worked as an advertising copywriter in New York, where, in 1947 with "The Widow's Walk" he won a Special Award in a story contest promoted by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (in an editorial, Queen praised Finney for his elliptical approach - "The Widow's Walk" was essentially a murder story without a murder). Thereafter, he was a professional wordsmith until the day he died: his most recent novel, From Time To Time, was published earlier this year.

Yet he was not prolific. With Finney it was truly a case of quality over quantity. In 41 years, from 1954 through to 1995, he produced only 10 novels and four volumes of short stories - but the novels include some of the biggest-selling and most popular entertainments of the past half- century: the "caper" thrillers Five Against The House (1954: the looting of a Las Vegas casino) and Assault on a Queen (1959: the raising of a First World War U-Boat in order to rob the Queen Mary); Time and Again (1970: a wonderfully evocative time-travel tale); and his celebrated The Bodysnatchers (1955).

Finney was a publisher's and film producer's dream writer. He came up with simple, uncomplicated, yet gripping narratives that people wanted to read, and which translated swiftly, without complex and expensive story- reconstruction, into cinematic terms. His peculiar genius lay in being able to write genre fiction acceptable to the kind of audience who bought the "slicks": the glossy, highly priced general-and-women's-interest periodicals whose payments were way beyond even the aspirations of most pulp-writers. Finney wrote story after story for Collier's; he wrote for Saturday Evening Post; he wrote for Lady's Home Journal and Good Housekeeping and McCall's Magazine; he wrote for Playboy (and during the 1950s and 1960s one story in Playboy would probably have paid the average downtown Galesburg, Illinois, groceries bill for a year).

His most famous story was The Bodysnatchers. When it was serialised, Collier's readers wolfed it down, the paperback original was a roaring success (the British hardback, issued the same year, is now something of a modern first-edition rarity), Don Siegel turned it into a movie, The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956), still lauded today, and twice re-made since. And although the plot - seed-pods from outer space replicate human beings - is on the face of it absurd, what it touches is the terror of masks, of people not being who they claim to be (Finney always denied any covert condemnation of 1950s political paranoia, whether anti-Communist or anti-McCarthyite: "I wrote the story purely as a good read").

Like the short story writer Nelson Bond and the novelist Richard Condon, Finney brought genre fiction into the mainstream. His fantasy yarns and science fiction stories, in particular, were cleverly aimed at readers who hated fantasy and science fiction . His other work, too, rarely failed to inspire enthusiasm in perhaps improbable critics such as V.S. Pritchett who thought Five Against The House "ingenious, alarming, uncommonly good".

Nor did Finney balk at "difficult" subjects if he thought he had a story. His comedy Good Neighbour Sam (1963) is as near as damn-it a comedy about wife-swapping. (Jack Lemmon starred in the movie.) Much of the action in The Woodrow Wilson Dime (1968) takes place in a parallel world in which the hero has a second, and even more glamorous, wife. In Marion's Wall the sensual, demanding ghost of a long-dead silent-movie actress takes control of the hero's wife (causing a certain amount of confusion beyond the bedroom door).

Jack Finney's strong sense of the past, his feel for the hundred or so years that preceded the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, informed just about all he wrote. Mildly mock his own obsessions as he might on occasion, he was never happier than when setting a story or a novel in another time, or a different, and better, reality (his choicest time-tales were collected in About Time). His masterpiece was Time And Again, a superbly nostalgic and skilfully plotted trip back to the Manhattan of the 1880s which, more than any other of his books, demonstrated his infallible instinct for touching the right public nerve at precisely the right time: the book, lavishly illustrated with old photos, was read and raved over by virtually all New York when it came out in 1970. Like most of Finney's enthralling tales, it has rarely been out of print since.

Jack Adrian

Walter Braden (Jack) Finney, writer: born Milwaukee, Wisconsin 1911; married (one son, one daughter); died Greenbrae, California 14 November 1995.

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