Florida Man

I first read John D. MacDonald’s stuff in short story form in the pages of those neat paperbacks “edited” by Alfred Hitchcock, culled from his Mystery Magazine (I’d love it if such publications were widespread and cheap today). He wrote great little minimalist Marlowe knock-offs. Now I’ve started on his Travis McGee novels, of which there are plenty. They’re all very short, very snappy, very loosely plotted (MacDonald seems to embody the same traits Donald Westlake found in Jim Thompson: his novels, Westlake said, have moments when you sense he needed to go back and fix something to make it all come out right, but he didn’t have time. The first four McGees came out in 1964, and MacDonald was writing other stuff too).

I only realised later that MacDonald also wrote The Executioners, which became CAPE FEAR, twice.

All the McGee novels have colour-coded titles, many of them absurd: Bright Orange for the Shroud features a villain transparently a version of CAPE FEAR’s Max Cady, ported in, renamed, and described as having a Robert Mitchum quality.

McGee is a beach bum who lives on a houseboat won in a card game, and specialises in “salvage” — getting things back for people who’ve been robbed. His fee is half of whatever it is. It’s a clever variant on the private eye set-up, and an added wrinkle is that often the victim/client has been robbed in a way that’s basically legal, and McGee extracts reparations in a way that isn’t.

Given the Floridian setting I was on the alert for signs of wingnut tendencies in the author and his character. McGee is a self-aware white knight, an anachronistic romantic, and that probably chimes nicely with how right-wingers see themselves. Lefties of the modern era are perhaps less likely to see themselves as romantic heroes. In fact, MacD and McGee sometimes speak, with their one voice, about the harm done to Florida by crazy rightwingers, but on the other hand there’s an unpleasant vein of homophobia that surfaces only occasionally but enough to creep me out. And he one time refers to “the war between the states” which is a big red flag (with a blue X and white stars).

This bigotry dates the books more than any other aspect — the attitude to women isn’t too far off-base, racial questions are curiously absent so far (itself a faint warning sign?). McGee usually gets laid at least once, but he’s nearly always in love with the girl; some contrivance will prevent him “getting” her in a permanent way at the novel’s end. And he unfailingly gets horribly injured once per book. There’s a format, but the variations MacDonald executes are impressive.

Another amusing aspect is most apparent in Nightmare in Pink: MacDonald was writing science-fiction stories for the pulps, like Westlake, at the same time as his early thrillers, and the SF bent of his mind comes through in unexpected places. In this one, McGee, in New York to help a friend’s sister, finds himself musing on the city and his thoughts are more those of a science-fictioneer than of a “salvage specialist” — he regards the hostility New York’s citizenry and speculates that “New York is where it is going to begin, I think,” running a scenario in his head that plays like a zombie apocalypse fuelled by anomie. Relaxing in his soulless modern hotel room he imagines the room piping happiness directly into the guests’ brains in the not-so-distant future. Best of all is this bit about poodles:

“You could almost hear the dogs sigh as they reached the handiest pole. There was a preponderance of poodles.

“This is the most desperate breed there is. They are just a little too bright for the servile role of dogdom. So their loneliness is a little too excruciating, their welcomes more frantic, their desire to please a little more intense. They seem to think that if they could just do everything right, they wouldn’t have to be locked up in the silence — pacing, sleeping, brooding, enduring the swollen bladder. That’s what they try to talk about. One day there will appear a super-poodle, one almost as bright as the most stupid alley cat, and he will figure it out. He will suddenly realize that his loneliness is merely a by-product of his being used to ease the loneliness of his Owner. He’ll tell the others. He’ll leave messages. And some dark night they’ll all start chewing throats.”

Nightmare in Pink‘s plot hinges on psychiatric abuses involving LSD, and this was written in 1964 (the year Trav first appeared in print), which suggests MacDonald was pretty switched on. His anxiety about social change, undoubtedly tinged with conservatism, also seems genuinely alert — The Quick RedFox, which was the first TM I read, plays like countercultural 1968, but was published in ’66.

If you’re looking for 270-page potboilers, I recommend John and Travis. I haven’t seen the TV movie with Sam Elliott but the feature film with Rod Taylor, DARKER THAN AMBER, is impressively vicious, although it does FEEL like an installment in something, rather than a standalone film. Which is a drawback, and probably what stopped it becoming a bigger hit, and thus a series. Perhaps they should have started with the first book. James Bond is the only movie franchise to get away with starting on the wrong book, isn’t it?

9 Responses to “Florida Man”

  1. MacdDonald’s ONE MORE SUNDAY, set at a mega church, is pretty fascinating and has as supporting characters a sympathetic pair of closeted lesbians plotting a heist, but also has a weird proto-fascist street preacher who serves as a plot device. He also wrote another novel about a collapsing Florida condo complex that feels very prescient in 2021. From what I’ve read, he definitely has some complicated politics.

  2. My favorite McGee is the green ripper.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    An entire chapter of my Marty Book is devoted to “Cape Fear”, recreating the three days I spent in the editing room with Marty and Thelma.

    Mind-blowing!

  4. When MacDonald sets his action in a milieu I’m familiar with– small town newspaper, shitty little three person car rental office, food service kitchen– he is absolutely dead on, both in terms of the nuts and bolts of the daily routine and how the power dynamics operate. I don’t know anything about casinos or mega churches, but I absolutely buy the behind the scenes stuff in THE ONLY GIRL IN THE GAME and ONE MORE SUNDAY. The intensifying panic of literally everybody in CONDOMINIUM as they come to realize they are going to lose everything (for a variety of reasons) and the far worse realization that there is nothing they can do about it is handled spectacularly.

    Travis McGee’s daughter, product of a brief dalliance around 15 books back, shows up in the very last one, THE LONELY SILVER RAIN.

    Most likely lead off novel in the (someday!) LIBRARY OF AMERICA John D. MacDonald compilation: A FLASH OF GREEN (the movie is also good) (Not a McGee despite the title)

    Best lesbian scene: DRESS HER IN INDIGO.

  5. Carl Hiaassen is a Florida writer of radical – if not technically left-wing – sympathies. His main concerns are ecological and the villains intent on turning Florida into even more of a tourist trap than it is.

  6. Simon Kane Says:

    No Sherlock Holmes franchise started with the first book, I think. Of course, more stuff is made up for Holmes, like Bond.
    Isn’t MacDonald Stephen King’s favourite writer?

  7. Yes, seems King is a huge MacDonald fan, as was Kingsley Amis, rating him “better than Saul Bellow, by any standard.”

    Lots to read! Excited to get to the non-McGees, but will probably read all of the series first. Right now I’m sidetracked on Clancy Sigal’s Hollywood epic Black Sunset.

    I guess A Study in Scarlet presents big difficulties in adaptation (Holmes disappears for the big flashback) so it wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice, though the introduction of the character is great, and somebody SHOULD do a version that uses that and rewrites everything else. Which the Moffat-Gatiss update show kind of did.

  8. Simon Kane Says:

    Doesn’t every detective show since also kind of do that?
    Oddly, I think Bruce and Rathbone’s first Holmes was Baskervilles, from which Holmes is also often absent. But it successfully sets up H and W as a double act, for – again, as far I know – the first time outside of the books.

  9. Good point, Watson is shortchanged in previous adaptations. He’s there in the Barrymore, but William Powell’s spy gets more sidekickery to do than Watson.

    Clive Brook had a different Watson in each of his films (1929 and 1933) and I seem to recall Reginald Owen being thoroughly sidelined in the ’33 lunacy. Never saw the ’29 one, but Watson is second-billed.

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