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.
Do you find people disagreeable? Maybe it's you that's the problem.
This Ron Lesser cover for John D. MacDonald's Pale Gray for Guilt is a variation on the one we posted years back. Yes, we keep reading these MacDonald books even though we complain about the author, but we have no problem with the writing itself—the guy was named a Grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, after all. He can certainly write, his plots are usually engrossing, and his characters are interesting. All good. But to an extent we also read him for the same reason some people watch cable news—i.e. to disagree with his opinions. We think the ’60s and ’70s counterculture brought about important, positive, and long overdue changes to society. MacDonald is basically counter-counterculture.
Years back we developed an aphorism, which we became known for among our friends: The moment you make a generalization about any group of people, the living contradiction to that generalization will be nearby to make you look like a fool. MacDonald's franchise character Travis McGee has met his share of people and has scathing views of various groups. We don't mean ethnically or gender-wise, but more esoterically. He'll put down all people who see psychiatrists, or all people who waterski, or all people who vacation in Palm Springs. He finds various categories of humans tedious, save for the few that meet his lofty standards and in so doing serve as proof of his own excellent taste.
The Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle states that the more accurately you measure the velocity of a particle the less accurately you can measure its position, and vice versa. Which is to say any energy you use to pinpoint position will alter a particle's velocity simply by impacting it, and the reverse is true. In human relations, some people tend to alter those they meet. Nice people may cause disagreeable people to temporarily behave a bit nicer; disagreeable people may make normally nice people behave disagreeably. To a disagreeable person, then, it seems as if lots of people are disagreeable.
In Pale Gray for Guilt the disagreeable Travis McGee is focused on avenging the murder of one of his best friends, which seems to have come about due to a refusal to sell waterfront acreage to a large development corporation. McGee manages to buy the land himself, thus bringing the villains out of woodwork to wrest it from him. The story takes a curiously long time to develop, gets overly deep into the minutiae of stock trading, and contains virtually no action, so we imagine this is one of the less liked entries in the McGee series. Yet it's still very readable, which just goes to show what raw writing skill can do.
We finally used the internet for something useful and solved this MacDonald problem—we simply looked up some lists of his best books. Based on the consensus that emerged from his fans (who by the way seem to agree that the McGee series is not as good as his earlier standalone novels), we're going to read Dead Low Tide, Soft Touch, Deadly Welcome, The Executioners (made into the film Cape Fear), and The Drowner. Those seem to be the books people really like, and as a bonus they're all cheap to buy.
Somebody tried to put a glass slipper on my foot but I told him I'm strictly a Gucci girl.
Above is a nice George Gross cover for John D. MacDonald's 1953 novel A Bullet for Cinderella. We acquired this book mainly because of the art, but also to see if the weird generalizations about various types of people we complained about in MacDonald's Travis McGee novels was the character or the author. Turns out it was the author. But he keeps it in a lower gear than in his McGee novels, which helps. In the story a Korean War prison camp survivor heads to a dead buddy's home town to try to locate $60,000 in stolen money. On his deathbed in the prison camp the friend had confessed to hiding the money, but in his delirium did not say exactly where. He asked that the money be returned to its rightful owner but the hero of the story plans to keep it. To his dismay another death camp survivor who somehow learned the same information is already in the town, also trying to locate the cash. You get a battle of wills, a moral struggle over whether to keep the money if found, and a love interest who was once the dead man's girl. You could find a better book to read, but you could also find a lot worse.
The pieces of treasure are worth a fortune. The nuggets of wisdom—not so much.
Barbara Walton art graces the dust sleeve of John D. MacDonald's A Deadly Shade of Gold. It was published in 1967 by Robert Hale, Ltd. two years after the book's U.S. debut. MacDonald's franchise character Travis McGee kicks ass and dispenses unsolicited wisdom, and while the action is fun, the philosophizing is less so. The latter is sometimes insightful when directed at civilization, but is often sweeping and incorrect when directed at civilians. Vacationers are this way. College boys are that way. Lesbians are this way. We've had plenty of experiences with all the categories of humans McGee thinks of as tedious and banal, and we found them to be as varied and interesting as any other group.
The book, though, is engrossing, built around our favorite film noir and crime fiction device—a trip to Mexico, with the action set in the fictional coastal town of Puerto Altamura. There McGee seeks to uncover the killers of a close friend and determine the whereabouts of a set of golden pre-Colombian statuettes. Five entries into the series and MacDonald seems to have hit his stride. We liked this caper, though McGee is obviously going to keep making dubious pronouncements (we sent a supposed-to-be racially insightful passage from the seventh entry Darker than Amber to a friend who'd be qualified to judge, and he said: “What idiot wrote that?”). If you're curious about the character or author you can learn more at thetrapofsolidgold.blogspot.com, pretty much the last word on all things Travis McGee and John D.
It isn't easy being more highly evolved than everyone else.
These covers are from John D. MacDonald hardbacks published by British imprint Robert Hale during the mid-1960s, two entries in his famed Travis McGee series. Eight years ago we shared a selection of Fawcett Gold Medal paperback covers from the series which were painted by luminaries Ron Lesser, Elaine Duillo, Robert McGinnis, and others. You can see them here if you're inclined. When we put together that set we hadn't read any of the books, so we figured it was time to take ole John D. and his creation McGee for a spin.
We read the novels you see above and the results were a bit mixed for us. McGee is a sort of fixer who lives an idle life on a houseboat in Florida, but takes detective-like jobs whenever money runs short. Despite his laid back trappings, he's a cynical, hypercritical guy who thinks he knows everything about everyone. MacDonald tries to mitigate this somewhat by making McGee occasionally critical of himself, but it's just a fig leaf. The guy is an enormous pain—manipulative, often pointlessly mean, and of the opinion that he can discern facts about people that they don't know about themselves.
These assessments of others always turn out to be true, as you'd expect since they come from the star character, but we couldn't help thinking how in real life McGee would be a real trial to know. That's just our opinion. But here's what's indisputable—MacDonald's female characters are mentally weak and sexually neurotic. McGee sometimes treats them shabbily and they later thank him for shaking them up. In The Deep Blue Goodbye when a woman important to McGee dies, he has virtually no reaction. His aplomb is inconsistent, considering at other times we hear his deepest thoughts about everything from the sexual proclivities of hippies to the eventual fate of western civilization.
Our feelings about him are probably generational. We weren't even zygotes when these novels were published, so maybe this sort of jaundiced and superior cynicism played better back in the sixties when a major cultural shift was underway. Despite our quibbles, the plots of these novels are engaging, and McGee, though full of himself, isn't invincible. The difficulties he runs into are surprising, and often deadly, particularly in Nightmare in Pink, in which the villains manage to put him into an exceedingly tight spot. A palpable sense of menace in the fiction helps carry the day.
The art above was painted by the genius illustrator Barbara Walton, who was sort of a house artist for Robert Hale Limited, producing scores of dust jackets for the company. In fact, she was one of the greatest of dust jacket artists, someone whose work surpassed its boundaries to become fine art. That fact may not be fully clear here, but trust us. We haven't talked much about Walton because of our focus on paperbacks, but she was really something. You can see another example of her work (one of her least impressive pieces) here, and an entire gallery of good stuff here.
These are people who definitely pay attention to the poles.
When you look at lots of paperbacks sometimes a common thread suddenly jumps out at you that went unnoticed before. Such was the case a few weeks ago when we noticed the large number of characters on mid-century covers leaning against poles—light poles, telephone poles, sign poles, etc. We suggested someone should put together a collection, but of course we really meant us, so today you see above and below various characters deftly using these features of the urban streetscape as accessories. Art is from Benedetto Caroselli, Harry Schaare, George Gross, Rudolph Belarski, James Avati, et al. You can see a couple more examples here and here.
They call it the Devil’s wheel for a reason.
It’s been a while since we’ve put together a pulp collection, so below you’ll find vintage cover art that uses the roulette wheel as a central element. They say only suckers play roulette, and that’s especially true in pulp, where even if you win, eventually you lose the money and more. Art is by Ernest Chiriaka, Robert Bonfils, Robert McGinnis, and many others.
Sorry to barge in. Remember you said your life was total shit and couldn’t possibly get worse? The sheriff is here with a county crew—he says he has to bulldoze your shack.
We’ve already shared Robert McGinnis covers twice this month, but since it’s in the charter of pretty much every pulp website to feature him constantly, here’s another contribution—Deadly Welcome, written by John D. MacDonald, 1959, for Dell Publishing. Probably a substantial proportion of you have read this, but if not, it deals with a government employee sent by the Defense Department back to his home town, the fictional Ramona Beach, Florida, to locate a missing government scientist. We'll get into what we think about MacDonald's writing at a later date. Not that our opinion matters, but we have to fill up these posts somehow.
What is authorship, after all?
This striking paperback cover for Mr. Arkadin was put together for Britain’s WDL Books by R. W. Smethurst, a well-known illustrator of comic books during the 1950s and 1960s. The Smethurst signature you see is not an autograph, but rather part of the art, something many of his covers contained. But the fact that he claims credit at all is rather interesting, because the art isn’t completely his. He seems to have borrowed his red-skirted femme fatale from Robert Maguire, who painted her for John D. MacDonald’s April Evil, below. It’s quite possible the other figures are borrowed as well. How strange.
Or is it? Maybe Smethurst was simply following Orson Welles’ lead. Though Welles is credited as author of Mr. Arkadin, he never wrote it. He developed a story for the film version, and wrote the script for it, but after the film he farmed out the novelization to a French film critic named Maurice Bessy. That screenplay adaptation was published in French in 1955, then translated from French into English a year later and released as what you see above. So in the end we have Welles taking credit for another’s writing, and Smethurst borrowing another’s art. And to think, all this derived from a film Welles never finished.
Yet, it’s fitting. Welles was consumed by the question of fakery. His documentary F for Fake discusses the subject in absorbing detail, even focusing on his own work. In short, he suggests that authenticity is a chimerical concept because it is subject to human error and fraud. While Welles slyly avoided explicitly claiming authorship of the Mr. Arkadin novelization, Maurice Bessy’s role, if it was ever widely known, was reconfirmed only in 2007. It’s easy to suspect that Welles knew the role of his ghostwriter would be forgotten. We’re talking about a man, after all, whose career caught fire thanks to one of history’s ultimate fakes—his panic inducing War of the Worlds broadcast.
We’re pretty sure, Smethurst, however, is not actually playing with the concept of fakery. John D. MacDonald was not obscure and neither was artist Robert Maguire, so there was no attempt at theft when Smethurst painted a close duplicate of Maguire’s femme. His cover falls into the category of pastiche—work in the style of another. What we’d really enjoy is if someone out there identified the other figures on the cover. But if those are Smethurst’s that would prove interesting too. In the meantime, if you want to know about Welles’ F for Fake and learn more about his attitudes toward authenticity, go here.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1942—Battle of Stalingrad Begins
The Battle of Stalingrad, perhaps the most pivotal event of World War II, begins. It lasts for more than six months, spread across the brutal Russian winter, and ends with two million casualties. The Russian sacrifice reduces the powerful German army to a shell of its former self, and as a result Nazi defeat in the war becomes a simple matter of time.
1979—Alexander Gudonov Defects
Russian ballet dancer and actor Alexander Borisovich Godunov defects to the U.S. The event causes an international diplomatic crisis, but Gudonov manages to win asylum. He joins the famous American Ballet Theater, where he becomes a colleague of fellow-defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, and later earns roles in such Hollywood films as Witness and Die Hard.
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.
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