Unstoppable forces meet immovable opinions in John D. MacDonald's novels.
John D. MacDonald is a polemical writer. We've jumped around his lengthy bibliography enough to be intimately familiar with his strong opinions about a wide ranging array of subjects. His basic approach is, “I've thought about this social phenomenon/cultural development/historical factoid much more carefully than anybody and here's the ironclad dogma I've developed about it.” Which is fine, we guess. His observations about the inexorable direction of civilization remain insightful half a century later. We've built a house of cards and MacDonald took pains to point that out, with intelligence and some wit. But in seven books we've read, which he wrote in three different decades, he consistently cheats when writing about people, choosing in general to portray them as weak willed cardboard cutouts so they serve as foils for his sociological philosophizing.
This, more than any other reason, is why so many contemporary readers say MacDonald's writing hasn't aged well. But in our opinion he's still worth reading. There's real menace in his work, which is job one for a thriller author. In 1953's Dead Low Tide his hero is suspected of using a spear gun to skewer his boss, seemingly over either a real estate project or the man's slinky wife, and someone may be setting him up for the crime. His actual prospective love interest, a longtime neighbor, is drawn into the mess in her efforts to provide an alibi. MacDonald dishes out the twists, despairs the loss of Florida wilderness to fast-buck builders, and laments what's in the hearts of men. It's a good book, but you don't need us to tell you that. The man sold a skillion novels for a reason. We're moving on to The Executioners after this, which is the source material for the film adaptation Cape Fear, and we have high expectations.
If you'd just asked for directions like I told you we wouldn't be in this mess.
This is a nice acquisition—Vereen Bell's Swamp Water with George Gross art on the front. The book is a rural slice of life novel dealing with a young trapper named Ben Ragan who ventures into the Okefenokee Swamp in search of his lost hunting dog, Trouble. Nobody, aside from Indian tribes of earlier times, is thought to have entered the dreaded swamp and returned. Ragan goes in and finds Trouble—and trouble. Bell expertly catalogs swamp flora, fauna, and topography, which makes for a backdrop so vivid you can almost feel the humidity. This is an extraordinarily enjoyable tale, a sort of a revenge novel/chronicle of the deep South/backwoods adventure, written when the vast Okefenokee straddling Georgia and Florida was nearly uncharted territory. 1941 on this originally, with Bantam's edition coming in ’47.
Yes, we'd like two medium pepperoni pizzas, please. And the delivery boy will need scuba gear.
What's the collective noun for a group of mermaids? A school? A shoal? A bevy? No idea. But above and below we have some beautiful Technicolor postcards featuring a— Well, since they seem to be having so much fun let's call them a party of mermaids, who were participants in a popular aquatic show in Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida. A 430 acre water park was built there in 1947 with numerous areas, and the mermaid show made its home in a large pool dubbed the Underwater Grand Canyon. By the 1950s Weeki Wachee Springs was one of the nation's most popular tourist stops.
The spot reached its zenith during the 1960s, when the swimmers staged ten performances a day, but its popularity waned from that point. Usually these stories of protracted decline end with something wonderful and weird disappearing forever, but just when it looked like the mermaids might go extinct, the Florida government stepped in and converted Weeki Wachee Springs into a state park. Thanks to that bit of legislative goodness the party of mermaids exists to this day, spreading fun and making memories. These cards are all from the 1950s and 1960s. Want to see more underwater beauty? Check out the Los Angeles Aqua Maidens here, and the famous Belita underwater here.
As long as you're already feeling terrible I might as well tell you he landed on your cat.
For such clever animals cats do get underfoot at inconvenient times, don't they? But fret not—no felines are flattened in Day Keene's Wake Up To Murder. There's barely any character development at all, let alone time for extraneous animals. What happens here is the protagonist James Charters decides to save a woman from death row. Sound familiar? That's because it's the same set-up Keene used for Death House Doll. Plotwise the books diverge from there, as Charters gets blamed for a couple of murders and has some mobsters chasing after him for $10,000 they think he has. Put this in the Florida thriller bin, copyright 1952.
Rural heist goes way south.
The Big Caper by Lionel White is a bank robbery thriller written in multi-p.o.v. style, with more than a dozen characters ranging from compassionate to psychopathic all getting to describe the action. It's a good book. The crux of it is that a career bank robber sends his girlfriend and an associate to act as the advance team for the robbery. They go to the Florida town where the bank is located, set up as husband and wife, and spend six months gathering intelligence for the operation—from pacing out bank dimensions and vault location, to befriending local cops, uncovering data on important people and town operations, to renting a big house and hosting other members of the crew as they trickle into town. The boss has told his vanguard that their husband and wife act is just that—an act. Do they pay attention? No. And it's from there that complications begin to arise. The plot is carefully structured and the writing is a cut above the usual genre fare, but the ending is a bit pat. Still, it's basically a winner. Gold Medal published this edition in 1955 with cover art by Barye Phillips, and the book became a 1957 film noir of the same name starring Rory Calhoun and Mary Costa. We may check that out later.
Listen, lady! There's two of us and only one goat on this island! We're going to have to come to an agreement!
No, this cover for William Fuller's 1954 thriller Goat Island is not a duplicate of yesterday's. It's a similar piece painted by the great same artist—George Gross. On both fronts you have the dark-haired femme fatale, the open white shirt, the seated position, the nearby tree, the shack in the distance, and a general backwoods mood. If you must copy, copy yourself. In terms of content the book falls into the category of South Florida detective yarns, a sub-genre scores of writers have found profitable over the decades. It's the second book featuring Fuller's franchise detective Brad Dolan. In 1957 Ace Books republished it with the art redone by John Vernon, which you see below. Yes, they're different. Look closely. Vernon's signature appears at the extreme bottom right, whereas Gross's is absent at top. Duplicating covers was common during the mid-century paperback era but we've rarely seen an artist as accomplished as Vernon given the task. Both covers are good, but Gross gets the nod of quality for only copying himself.
The Florida heat cooks up trouble in Lawrence Kasdan's masterful neo-noir.
Kill your husband for you? Sure, I can make that happen, I guess. Spousal murder is a film noir and pulp fiction plot tentpole, and the motivation for trying something so risky generally revolves around sex. But during the time the film noir and pulp fiction genres were extant their makers could only imply it. The neo-noir thriller Body Heat, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1981, fixed that problem, as not-so-bright lawyer Ned Racine, played by William Hurt, is seduced into a murder plot by whip smart bombshell Matty Walker, played by Kathleen Turner in her cinematic debut.
Body Heat is an apt title. The setting is South Florida during a heat wave, with most of the action set in the mythical towns of Pinehaven and Miranda Beach. Every frame of the movie seems to vent steam. There's copious slippery sex and nudity, all of it important to the plot. When the pair have their electric first encounter Hurt pulls off Turner's panties with an expression of pure awe on his face and intones, “So wet.” For just that moment he wonders if it's really him turning on a woman that much. And he's right to wonder, because it isn't him. What's turning her on is money.
Directed and written by Lawrence Kasdan, the film is a reworking of Double Indemnity, but it improves on the original in the sense that we fully understand the visceral reasons why murder has occurred. That moisture between Turner's legs causes an electrical short in Hurt's brain. After subsequent sexual encounters, including an anal session that's implied but clear as day thanks to some clever visuals, he's hooked like a bluegill. For a guy just smart enough to get a law degree, but not bright enough to avoid being known as his town's worst lawyer, bedding Turner makes him feel godlike. Surely he can pull off murder and make it look like an accident.
Body Heat made Turner, Hurt, and Kasdan superstars, and did the same for a few of its below-the-line players. Turner went on to become one of the pre-eminent actresses of her generation; Hurt, who had starred in the brilliant but under appreciated Altered States, became one of Hollywood's top leading men; and Kasdan directed Silverado, The Big Chill, and other hits. Co-star Ted Danson also blew up, and Mickey Rourke parlayed a blazing supporting bit into a career as Hollywood's go-to rebel creep. You know any film that ignites five such careers is top notch, but as a post-noir entry Body Heat is also cinematically important. Not only did it finally lay bare the motivation behind all those noir murders and obsessions, but it did so with a reverent visual style and pitch perfect mood. We can't recommend it strongly enough.
What would you do to get your hands on $3.5 million?
Gil Brewer wrote a lot of books. Wild rates in the bottom tier, according to most critics. When private detective Lee Baron takes over his father's investigative agency his first case is an old flame asking him to intercede on her behalf with her angry, cuckolded husband. Baron finds not an angry spouse but a mutilated corpse. Arms removed, face chopped apart with a hatchet, it's clear somebody was very angry at him. Or they were trying to obscure his identity—which means the corpse might not be the husband at all. When Baron uncovers a connection to a $400,000 bank robbery ($3.5 million in today's money) he begins to think he's landed a case that can put his agency on the map—if the police don't shut him down before he gets started. We agree this isn't Brewer's best, but it's still a mildly entertaining jaunt into Tampa, Florida's underbelly circa 1958. Above are two editions from Fawcett Crest and Gold Medal (aka Fawcett Crest).
Security—there's a serious situation in sporting goods.
Steve Brackeen's, aka John Farris's, Baby Moll tells the tale of a former mob tough guy who's dragged away from the normal life he's built for himself to help his former boss survive the attentions of an assassin. It seems that years ago the bossman torched a building and a young girl survived with burns. The girl has grown up is presumably behind the murder attempts. But the book isn't really focused on her, which makes Barye Phillips' excellent cover art and the accompanying tagline a bit misleading. The various women spend little time on the page. Baby Moll is really about how the protagonist goes about his investigation. There's a good amount of action and an assortment of interesting characters, but we wouldn't go so far as to call the book either exceptional or well written. It's okay. It goes in the South Florida crime bin, so the setting might be enough to put it over for many readers.
He fell for her—hook, line, and sinker.
Above is a nice cover for Ed Lacy's Blonde Bait. We talked about Lacy recently—he was a white writer who lived much of his life in Harlem and wrote many black characters. Blonde Bait isn't one of those books. It's about a guy named Mickey who's sailing the Florida Keys on his yacht and comes across a woman stranded on a sand bar. Strangely, she has a suitcase. Her name is Rose, and how she got there, as well as what's in the bag, is what the book is all about. That and whether she's telling the truth about highly connected and dangerous men trying to kill her. Lacy wasn't a master stylist—at least not this time around—but for those who like books with boats, islands, and mysterious femmes fatales, this one will fit the bill. The art on this beautiful 1959 Zenith Books edition is by Rudy Nappi.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1950—Althea Gibson Breaks the Color Barrier
Althea Gibson becomes the first African-American woman to compete on the World Tennis Tour, and the first to earn a Grand Slam title when she wins the French Open in 1956. Later she becomes the first African-American woman to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
1952—Devil's Island Closed
Devil's Island, the penal colony located off the coast of French Guiana, is permanently closed. The prison is later made world famous by Henri Charrière's bestselling novel Papillon, and the subsequent film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
1962—De Gaulle Survives Assassination Attempt
Jean Bastien-Thiry, a French air weaponry engineer, attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle to prevent Algerian independence. Bastien-Thiry and others attack de Gaulle's armored limousine with machine guns, but after expending hundreds of rounds, they succeed only in puncturing two tires.
1911—Mona Lisa Disappears
Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, aka La Gioconda, is stolen from the Louvre. After many wild theories and false leads, it turns out the painting was snatched by museum employee Vincenzo Peruggia.
1940—Trotsky Iced in Mexico
In Mexico City exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky is fatally wounded with an ice axe
(not an ice pick) by Soviet agent Ramon Mercader. Trotsky dies the next day.
1968—Prague Spring Ends
200,000 Warsaw Pact troops backed by 5,000 tanks invade Czechoslovakia to end the Prague Spring political liberalization movement.
1986—Sherrill Goes Postal
In Edmond, Oklahoma, United States postal employee Patrick Sherrill shoots and kills fourteen of his co-workers and then commits suicide.
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