Sunday, November 25, 2012

John D. MacDonald

 "To diggers a thousand years from now...the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."--Kurt Vonnegut

I read through Hammett and Chandler and then I put mysteries away for a long time.  When I was working at Shakespeare and Co. somebody told me to try Ross MacDonald.  At the time I was driving down 101 a lot to visit friends in LA.   I’d stop for lunch in Santa Barbara.  Ross Macdonald gave me a new slant on the place. His novels have a quality that reminds me of David Lynch films—all the yucky evils that lurk behind the middle-class façade.  Also, there’s the light—the novels seem so sun drenched. Black Money has always been my favorite, but I’ve read them all a couple of times.
   There’s a temptation to reread a great mystery series immediately after finishing.  You’re in the author’s world and you’re not quite ready to leave. But the quick reread never works.  Too much is remembered.  I had finished them all but, hope against hope, I thought there could be one last obscure title that I’d missed. Or maybe I’d read Black Money one more time….
     I was trying to jump ship at Shakespeare and move over to Moe’s. I’d spend my lunch hours in Lit or Pockets, to remind Moe that he was holding my resume and that I’d be the perfect Moe’s employee.  Sometimes he’d seem to recognize me, often not.  Busy shelving.  On this particular day I may have gotten a nod.  There was lots of Ross on the shelf but I’d read them all.   There are a few guys named MacDonald writing mysteries (I came to Gregory later—good but not great).  I may have heard about Travis McGee, or maybe not. Anyway John D. was next to Ross so I bought Deep Blue Good-by on a whim.  I didn’t know it was the first in the series—dumb luck.  I tore through all the novels as they came into Shakespeare and Moe’s. Fifteen years later I reread the entire series , shamelessly stealing from them to write my own detective novels.  Hopefully I’ve covered my tracks and have stopped short of plagiarism.  I’ve since become a fan of his earlier pulp novels.  Over-the-top lurid junk writing, but mixed with a poet’s ear—and somehow you know that he knew what he was doing.   He lets you in on the fun.  Next time you’re in the store look for The Beach Girls, A Bullet for Cinderella, or April Evil.  They aren’t especially rare—you usually can find them for under five bucks.  Good, tough noir.
   But the Travis McGee series is his masterwork.  You get that Mad Men hit—characters get to drink and smoke with abandon, flight attendants are “stews”.  The novels were written from 1964 to the eighties, but seem very mid-sixties rat pack.  Embarrassing at times, but isn’t that part of the fun in Mad Men?   I’ve read MacDonald’s letters to Dan Rowan (!) and you can imagine him (and Travis) hanging out at the Playboy Club, or maybe some surf and turf place with an ocean view and a smoky bar.   MacDonald wasn’t a complete Neanderthal.  His love of the Florida coast caused him to be strongly anti-development—he was a conservationist before that was popular (probably still isn’t popular in Fort Lauderdale, Travis’ home turf).  Carl Hiaasen acknowledges this in the introduction to the 1995 reprint (pretty easy to find used).  MacDonald could be pretty subversive—the novels are full of phony capitalist types.  Mostly, though, he was a great story-teller.  Addictive stuff!
  I recently decided to reread Travis, but that I’d read them in order, and I’d only read the original hardbacks with dust jackets.  Not necessarily first editions (can be pretty pricy), but books from the period.  Deep Blue Good-By is the exception. It was a paperback original. But I scored a nice British reprint (they spell it Goodbye, not Good-By) with a suitably noirish dust jacket.  I’m looking for a cloth copy of Nightmare in Pink , so if you see one….
 Owen Hill
 (Reposted from 5/18/2011)

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