Archive for John D MacDonald

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?

Page Seventeen II: Risk Addiction

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2021 by dcairns

It was very late when we were finishing the meal, and the sun was already low on the horizon. I was barefoot, and one of the girls in our group, who had been an admirer of mine for some time, kept remarking shrilly how beautiful my feet were. This was so true that I found her insistence on this matter stupid. She was sitting on the ground, with her head lightly resting against my knees. Suddenly she put her hand on one of my feet and ventured an almost imperceptible caress with her trembling fingers. I jumped up, my mind clouded by an odd feeling of jealousy toward myself, as though all at once I had become Gala. I pushed away my admirer, knocked her down and trampled on her with all my might, until they had to tear her, bleeding, out of my reach.

The office was furnished in sombre good taste that was relieved by a pair of bronze puppies on the chimney-piece. A low trolley of steel and white enamel alone distinguished the place from a hundred thousand modern American reception-rooms; that and the clinical smell. a bowl of roses stood beside the telephone; their scent contended with the carbolic, but did not prevail.

I continued to smell the flower, from time to time, for its oddity of perfume had fascinated me. I passed by the house on the cross-road again, but never encountered the old man in the cloak, or any other wayfarer. It seemed to keep observers at a distance, and I was careful not to gossip about it: one observer, I said to myself, may edge his way into the secret, but there is no room for two.

This view is mistaken. You underestimate even the foothills that stand in front of you, and never suspect that far above them, hidden by cloud, rise precipices and snow-fields. The mental and physical advances which, in your day, mind in the solar system has still to attempt, are overwhelmingly more complex, more precarious and dangerous, than those which have already been achieved. And though in certain humble respects you have attained full development, the loftier potencies of the spirit have not yet even begun to put forth buds.

The dead man was face down on the dark hardwood floor. He was frail and old, and the house was sturdy and old, redolent of Victorian dignity. It was the house where he had been born.

Next to Ken’s store was Milton. He dealt in furniture and bric-a-brac, and went by the soubriquet of Captain Spaulding, perhaps because of the lyric, in the song of the same name, ‘Did somebody call me schnorrer …?’

This observation and part of the surrounding narrative appear to have been borrowed from a passage in The Gothic War by the sixth-century Byzantine historian, Procopius. The passage is known to Celtic scholars as a particularly late reference to Celtic religious beliefs. Procopius describes how the Armoricans – the inhabitants of Brittany – would be woken by a low voice and a knocking at the door in order that they might ferry the souls of the dead over to the island of Britain. When they went to the harbour they would find boats, apparently empty, sunk to the gunwales. One common explanation of fairy origins was that they were souls of the dead, an explanation which accounts for Puck’s disguise as the dead Tom Shoesmith in this story. Hobden’s wife is a descendant of the widow herself and so the borrowing from the historian indicates the ancient descent and immemorial continuities imagined by Kipling for his embodiment of Sussex man as well as for his fairy spokesman.

Seven extracts from seven page seventeens from seven books bought from Edinburgh’s charity shops or sent in by readers. (Send me books!) Feel free to reply with extracts from some page seventeens of your own, especially if they make suitable rebuttals to the bold statements cited above.

The Secret Diary of Salvador Dali by Salvador Dali (natch); The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh; The Ghostly Rental by Henry James, in Classic Tales of Horror, Vol. 1; Olaf Stapledon’s introduction to his Last and First Men; There Hangs Death! by John D. MacDonald, from Stories to be Read with the Door Locked II “edited” by Alfred Hitchcock; A Whore’s Profession by David Mamet; Sarah Wintle’s introduction to Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling;