Archive for Donald Westlake

Florida Man

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2021 by dcairns

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?

Pg. 17, #9

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on June 26, 2020 by dcairns

isaac

Towards midnight — it would have been in the autumn in the year 1860 — there was a sudden violent hammering on the door, which echoed through the whole hall. Baptiste, who acted as cook, footman and doorman in Madeleine’s small household, had gone to the country for his sister’s wedding, and so it happened that only Madeleine’s maid, Martinière, was in the house and still awake.

*

At this point, a visitor named Isaac Post decided to try communicating with the spirit. His first question brought a barrage of raps, as if it was relieved that somebody had finally decided to behave sensibly. Soon afterwards, there followed a message that stated: ‘Dear friends, you must proclaim this truth to the world. This is the dawning of a new era; you must not try to conceal it any longer. God will protect you and good spirits will watch over you.’ After this, the communications continued, but they ceased to be violent. Tables moved, guitars were played by unseen fingers, which also touched people lightly, and objects were transported around the room.

*

I made him sit out that encore and wouldn’t let him talk till they got through playing it. Then they played something else and I was all right again and Frank told me about meeting Jack Barrymore. Imagine meeting him. I couldn’t live.

*

“It is he–it is he! I have seen him myself,” was his only comment; and to all questionings but one reply was vouchsafed: “Deux fois je l’ai vu; mille fois je l’ai senti.” He would tell them nothing of the provenance of the book, nor any details of his experiences. “I shall soon sleep, and my rest shall be sweet. Why should you trouble me?” he said.

*

There was no answer. For a long while, there was no answer, and then I pushed the button again, and then there was no answer some more.

*

With sudden courage she said, “I’m trying to get in touch with someone who lives in this building and I can’t find the name outside.”

*

The hunting peoples of the Paleolithic Ice Age, like their nomadic descendants in Siberia and North America, shared their world not only with the animal creation but also with a vast population of spirits.

*

Seven more bits of page seventeens. Use them as a screenplay you can film in your head.

Tales of Hoffmann, by ETA Hoffmann, from the story Mademoiselle de Scudery; The Psychic Detectives, by Colin Wilson; The Best of Ring Lardner, from the story I Can’t Breathe; Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James, from the story Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook; The Fugitive Pigeon, by Donald E. Westlake; The Lottery: Adventures of the Daemon Lover by Shirley Jackson, from the story The Daemon Lover; Altered States: Creativity Under the Influence, by James Hughes.

Closing In

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2019 by dcairns

I hope to finish off all of Costa-Gavras’ work shortly, apart from I guess LA PETITE APOCALYPSE (1993) which seems to be totally unavailable, and ADULTS IN THE ROOM, the new one, which I don’t have any way of seeing right now. I should try and find the distributor actually, I might be able to write a more sympathetic review than Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. No guarantees are possible, of course.

MISSING holds up remarkably well — Fiona was bored by it as a teenager and cried this time, was terrified, moved in all the right ways. I had flashbacks, there were moments, like the white horse running down the street at night, which I suddenly recalled from 1984 or whenever I last saw it. And the sense of Jack Lemmon’s character being politically awakened, opening his eyes at last, and being shocked and hurt by what he sees.

HANNA K. is my least favourite so far. C-G followed MISSING with a look at the Israel-Palestine question through one woman’s complicated love life, and the lens doesn’t seem adequate to the problem. MISSING is more cinematically inventive and unusual than I remembered, but C-G’s own story doesn’t seem to excite him in the follow-up. And then we get three more rather uninspiring US movies.

It seems to me that Mr. Gavras’ best movies are adaptations: THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS is Sebastien Japrisot, UN HOMME DE TROP is from a novel based fairly closely on fact (the role model for the Bruno Cremer didn’t like the movie), Z and L’AVEAU are based on factual books, I’ve still to catch up with STATE OF SIEGE but it’s factual, SECTION SPECIALE is distilled from a huge history, CLAIR DE FEMME is a novel, MISSING is from the last 65 pages of a fat true story, then we get four originals that aren’t as good as the rest, but in there is LA PETITE APOCALYPSE which sounds intriguing and is from a novel and is French. Since there’s (nearly) always a big topic, this one is about the fall of communism. But I’m not paying 40 Euros for an unsubtitled DVD from eBay.

AMEN. (the Vatican and the Nazis) is from a gigantic play and from history, LE COUPERET is from a Donald Westlake and is just brilliant (big topic: what the job market does to people), and I’ve still to watch EDEN IS WEST (on migration, an original) and LE CAPITAL (on global capitalism, from a novel).

The new one is from former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s book. The title needs a THE in front of it. People underrate the importance of the definite article. But the lousy reviews don’t put me off at all, I am THERE for this. It’s got a dance number!

People talk about the issues in C-G’s work, and I get that, but they don’t talk about his genius with camera and editing, or about his use of humour, which to me is dazzling. Z is very, very funny, but the laughs are balanced on the edge of an abyss. LE COUPERET is hilarious about the decay of the moral sense. Costa-Gavras says his chief concern is human dignity which sounds very earnest, and it is, but his best stuff isn’t ploddingly worthy, it’s CUTTING.