Sunday, July 24, 2016

Book Notes: John D. MacDonald At 100

If you are not a critic, or an academic specializing in crime fiction or a reader obsessed with it, you are forgiven if all the MacDonalds are just a bit confusing. In addition to John D. MacDonald, there is Ross Macdonald and Gregory Mcdonald. What they have in common, besides ever-so-slightly different last names is that they are all critically acclaimed crime writers, and all three have sold a helluva lot of books.  I once thought that I should change my last name to McDonald if only to capitalize on the magic of the name. Because my first name is Ronald, I quickly gave up on the idea.

John D. MacDonald
The reason I am focusing on John D. is to honor on the last day of a two-week celebration of the centennial of his birth and the appropriately timed, handsome reissues of some of his work. Perhaps his most esteemed work is the 1957 thriller, The Executioners, better known to moviegoers as Cape Fear, a film so good they made it twice.  MacDonald is also the creator of one of America’s most popular fictional P.I.s, Travis McGee, who works out of his a boat in Florida.

If you are a new reader though, it’s probably a good idea to start with this first of his 21 Travis McGee novels because The Deep Blue Good-By is the series exposition — building the character, painting the setting, and developing the mechanics, which is how this P.I uniquely goes about his business.  The year is 1964, and McGee is a tough but conscientious man of his times. Though we are not mired down in his philosophy of good and evil, we are dealt at least some thoughtful, literary exposure to the subject as the P.I. sees it.  In this first of his series, we witness a strange kind of murderer: A monster, maybe, but not a sophisticated, brilliant Ripley or a sophisticated, obsessed Hannibal Lecter, but a coarse, rough-hewn charmer, whose motives include but go well beyond self-enrichment, at least in the monetary sense.

“There are men in the world who are compelled to destroy the most fragile and valuable things they can find, the same way rowdy children will ravage a beautiful home. Look at me, they are saying.”

In The Deep Blue Good-By, McGee hunts for such a man, a twisted Romeo who sees fragile women as an object to dominate, extort, and ravage. To break. If Travis McGee can be warm and compassionate, he can also be vicious in pursuit of justice. After a long sea-chase, the finale is a testament to up-close and very personal violence.

Though John D. is not my favorite of the various McDonalds, there is no doubt he is one of the masters of the genre. The good looking cover of the recent rerelease shows the high regard in which he is held by current crime-writing luminaries. Praise comes from Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark and Jonathan Kellerman.  Lee Child wrote the introduction to this edition.

Final note: Though a promised Travis McGee film is in dry-dock, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt — all of them — flirted seriously with the P.I. role in The Deep Blue Good-By.  Also, over at The Rap Sheet, there’s more interesting stuff on the 100th birthday of John D, especially a gallery of old John D. covers.

Happy birthday, John.


Fran Johns said...

That's really interesting, even to us crime writers who never published anything more than one brilliant locked-room mystery short story.

I think Ronald Writer McDonald has a nice ring to it. Cheers from the Land of Fog.

Ronald Tierney said...

And many cheers in return to a writer of a brilliant short story and some serious very relevant social justice books as well.