Saturday, March 8, 2014

THE MID-CENTURY MASTER

My first encounter with American mystery writer John D. MacDonald (July 24th 1916-December 28th 1986) was in an English class I took in college. The class focused on mystery and suspense fiction and one of the novels on our syllabus was MacDonald's THE LAST ONE LEFT. I must confess that I only read the first couple of chapters of the book and found it boring. I didn't finish the book at the time (I did read it years later) but I still passed the course without really experiencing the work of John D. MacDonald.

In the early 1980s, I read a book about how to write best-selling fiction by Dean Koontz. Throughout the book, Koontz sang the praises of John D. MacDonald over and over again. Since I wanted to learn how to write best-selling novels (something I've never done by the way, a write a novel of any kind),  I decided to pick up a MacDonald novel and see what all the fuss was about.

I chose the then current Travis McGee novel, THE EMPTY COPPER SEA. MacDonald wrote twenty-one novels (each one with a color in the title) about "salvage expert" Travis McGee who lives on a houseboat in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. McGee takes his retirement in chunks and only works when he's low on funds. And he only takes a job in which something of value is missing under the consideration that he will retain one half of the value of said object as his payment.

I don't remember the specifics of the story but I was immediately hooked. MacDonald's characters, his vivid sense of place, his masterful plotting and above all, his authorial "voice" all won me over in an instant. I decided to start reading the rest of the McGee novels as well as the many non-series, stand-alone crime novels that MacDonald wrote.

I came to discover that as good as the McGee books were, MacDonald's other books were, in my opinion, better. Perhaps his most famous book is THE EXECUTIONERS, published in 1958. It was later filmed twice as CAPE FEAR. The first time in 1962 with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and then again in 1991 by Martin Scorsese with Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro (the 1962 version is the better of the two).  Travis McGee was played by Rod Taylor in the film adaptation of DARKER THAN AMBER in 1970 and again by Sam Elliott in the 1983 made-for-television version of THE EMPTY COPPER SEA (Elliott was totally wrong for the character and the script relocated McGee from a houseboat in Florida to a sailboat in California!).

Over the years I managed to read the entire McGee series and most of MacDonald's other novels. And over that time, he became one of my all-time favorite authors. I had seen his books around for years before I ever read them and I always thought that, given the way they were packaged, the books were intended for an older, more mature reader than I was at the time. Reading the works of John D. MacDonald in the 1980s, I felt like a "grown-up" in many ways. The  books are full of adult concerns like jobs, money, careers, business, crime, murder, infidelity, the environment, adultery, blackmail, alcohol and sex (among many other things). Those are all ingredients for cheap pulp trash but MacDonald took those elements and used them to craft exciting, engaging stories about mid-century America. MacDonald had something to say about our post-war consumer culture and the price of progress and prosperity on the men and women caught up in the angst and anxieties of a rapidly changing new age. You think MAD MEN is hot stuff? The novels of John D. MacDonald are the real thing.

Witness A KEY TO THE SUITE. Originally published in 1962, this novel was just reprinted in a handsome trade paperback by Random House, who has been bringing back most of the MacDonald catalog (both the McGees and the stand alones) over the last year or so. Kudos to the publisher for this long overdue move. The books feature introductions by Dean Koontz and Lee Child wherein both authors admit their debt to the works of MacDonald.

I read A KEY TO THE SUITE years ago but I devoured this new edition over the course of a week. I remembered the general plot of the story but I didn't recall the particulars so it was like reading a new book for me. The story takes place at a big business convention at a Florida hotel. Corporate hatchet man Floyd Hubbard has been sent to the convention by his bosses to gather information on one Jesse Mulaney, an aging, over-the-hill executive that the top brass want to get rid of. Mulaney gets wind of Hubbard's mission and sets a diabolical trap for him in the form of a very expensive, very classy and very beautiful call girl named Cory Barlund. The plan is for her to seduce Hubbard (a married man with two kids) and then cause a big scene in the middle of the convention that will discredit Hubbard and, hopefully, save Mulaney's hide.

But things don't go as planned. There are other plots and schemes in place amidst the drinking and whoring taking place at the hotel and two people are dead before it's all over. A KEY TO THE SUITE isn't a mystery novel. It isn't a crime novel and it's not your typical thriller (although MacDonald does an excellent job of building the suspense slowly and methodically). But it is a superlative novel full of insight into human nature, the ins and outs of big business, the desires of the heart and the flesh and the regrets of the soul.

If you've never read a John D. MacDonald novel, you now have a perfect opportunity to do so. The books are back in print and every one of them is worth reading. You can start with A KEY TO THE SUITE which gets my highest recommendation. But then, so do all of the books by the master, the one and only John D. MacDonald.


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