Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Other MacDonald

Genre fiction made me a reader. Starting with Franklin W. Dixon (the pen name given to many writers hacking out The Hardy Boys), then quickly moving to Ian Fleming, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain, Ross MacDonald, Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark and others, I learned to appreciate how a mystery or thriller should move, how characters develop, how a writer makes you want to turn the page. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not comparing Spillane to Hammett, just stating what attracted me to those writers in my so-called formative years (I like to think I’m still formative, even as I edge reluctantly towards the Big Six-Oh). I still go back to some of these writers today, and nearly every year I read one of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels (see the entry dated June 7, 2010: “An Oil Spill-- and a Legendary Private Eye”).
But there was another MacDonald, also a best-seller writer of mostly thrillers, many of them published in paperback in the earlier part of his prolific career. I speak of John D. MacDonald, creator of the famous Travis McGee series.
John D. MacDonald (1916-1986) wrote more than 70 books over some 36 years, 21 of them chronicling the adventures of Travis McGee, a knight-errant in slightly tarnished armor who lived on a splendid houseboat named The Busted Flush in Fort Lauderdale and described his occupation as “salvage expert.” But what McGee salvaged had nothing to do with sunken ships. McGee specialized in salvaging damaged people.
McGee made his debut in 1964 with “The Deep Blue Good-by,” published in paperback as an original Gold Medal Book. Two more McGees followed in the subsequent months, a clever ploy to quickly hook readers on the series. Even cleverer was MacDonald’s decision to use a color in each title. Hence the next two books: “Nightmare in Pink,” and “A Purple Place for Dying” (McGee’s final outing 20 years later was “The Lonely Silver Rain”).
MacDonald had an MBA from Harvard, and McGee’s Sancho Panza is a brilliant economist named Meyer. Business scammers play major parts in many of the McGee novels, and Meyer often deciphers what these con artists are conspiring. McGee is tall, athletic and a magnet for the ladies. But most of all, McGee is introspective, sometimes to the point of boredom, at least for me.
Through McGee, MacDonald channeled whatever contemporary issues were bugging him. Like Ross MacDonald, John D. was an environmentalist. John D. realized early on that over development would destroy many of the most beautiful places in Florida, his adopted state. And to read McGee’s musings on this subject makes you realize how prescient MacDonald was. But on other issues, McGee in retrospect often proves himself dated and just plain wrong.
“These are the playmate years and they are demonstratively fraudulent . . . A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of very much value to anyone else . . .”
As MacDonald’s biographer Hugh Merrill says in “The Red Hot Typewriter,” McGee sounds like “a stern Presbyterian preacher delivering a jeremiad.” While McGee may lament the so-called “playmate years,” he doesn’t mind sleeping with numerous women throughout the series.
And here’s McGee predicting the end of the world:
“New York is where it’s going to begin, I think. You can see it coming . . . One day soon two strangers will bumps into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. . . . They will stop and stare and then leap at each other’s throats in a dreadful silence. The infection will spread outward from that point . . .”
Merrill believes that McGee’s musings helped make the series a hit. He’s probably right. But for me, McGee waxing philosophical is just annoying.
That said, MacDonald was a pro. The McGee stories move when Travis gets off his soapbox, for the characters are interesting, their plights involving. This is evident in "The Empty Copper Sea" from 1978. There is an intriguing mystery, and McGee is motivated to save a man's reputation. There's a crooked businessman, and women hot for the hero (although romantic dialogue, as Merrill points out, was not MacDonald's strong point). A good, solid read, as are all the books in the series.
Sadly, only one McGee novel made it to the screen: 1970’s “Darker Than Amber,” staring Rod Taylor. Not available on DVD, and if it has aired on TCM I missed it. But a friend who recently saw it at a revival house in New York said it was pretty good. I’d love to see it sometime.
Seven other MacDonald novels did turn into movies, either for film or TV. The most famous was “Cape Fear,” based on MacDonald’s 1958 “The Executioners,” and made twice, once in 1962 with Robert Mitchum as the memorable psychopath, Max Cady, and once in 1991 with Robert DeNiro. Oh, there were also two memorable and comic homages to Cady: one on the Ben Stiller Show, in which Cady is presented as a crazy Eddie Munster, and once on “Seinfeld,” when Jerry dreams that Uncle Leo has turned into a Max inspired by DeNiro’s intense interpretation of the role.
Stranded on a desert island with a choice between John D. and Ross MacDonald, I’d pick Ross because Archer is a character who sees the world in a way I can readily identify. But if fate left me with the collected works of John D., I could happily fritter away my time until a passing boat rescued me—perhaps helmed by Travis McGee on The Busted Flush.


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