Tuesday, February 24, 2015


If John D. MacDonald's early crime novel, DEAD LOW TIDE (1953) had originally been published as a 1950s horror comic book, it would most likely show up in the current Overstreet Price Guide with the notation: "injury to throat motif". That's because not one, not two, but three people meet their ends in the course of the story by having sharp instruments applied with force to their throats. One murder weapon is a spear fishing gun, another a pair of clipping scissors, the third, well, you'll have to read the book to find out.

I know I read this one long ago, back in the 1980s when I went through my original spree of reading almost everything ever written by the late, great John D. MacDonald. I went through his books at a staggering pace, like a drunken sailor in a women's prison with a fistful of pardons, consuming all of the Travis McGee adventures and most of his stand-alone crime novels in the space of a couple of years. But it's now been long enough for me to have forgotten the particulars of any given MacDonald yarn so that reading one again is like reading it for the first time.

Case in point, DEAD LOW TIDE, which was reprinted last year in a handsome trade paperback edition by Random House. I finished re-reading it last night and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a good, early story about a young man who finds himself framed and set up to take the fall for the murder of his boss, who owns a construction company in Florida. The man was killed with a weapon belonging to our hero but he is, of course innocent. The story is routine stuff with our hero showing remarkable detective skills for a young man who works in a construction company office. There's a signature MacDonald villain, a sick and twisted psychopath who's a real doozy and there's a major plot twist in the third act that  I didn't see coming (or had forgotten, take your pick).

The pleasure in reading DEAD LOW TIDE (or any book by MacDonald), is in "hearing" his narrative voice. Sure, he has good characters, a strong sense of place (the Florida Gulf Coast), nice dialogue and well constructed plots. But it's the way he puts all of this together that is so damn addictive. DEAD LOW TIDE is, really, a fairly average crime novel. It's not MacDonald's best work (he got better, much better) but even this early effort shows a major writing talent developing his chops and putting narrative muscle on a skeletal frame of a plot.

I recall reading once, years ago (and I can't for the life of me remember who wrote this) that MacDonald's writing was like the work of a fine carpenter, a master craftsman. Every piece is finely turned, every piece fits with no visible joins or welds and the whole thing works with remarkably smooth precision. I'll second that.

DEAD LOW TIDE. Recommended.

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