RARA-AVIS: MacDonald bio

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 18 Sep 2000

I completely share Bill Crider's view of THE RED HOT TYPEWRITER by Hugh Merrill. This weekend I picked up a copy at Murder One in London, a great book store, by the way.

What a disappointment. Yes, the title is terrible but then so is the entire package with the cover one of the least attractive JDM publicity photos screened with odd characters from a typewriter. It is as ugly a book as I've seen in a while.

Despite the fact that Merrill is now an academic, he spent a good many years as a reporter before becoming a professor of journalism. In fact, he used to work at the Atlanta Journal where I briefly drew a salary. All of this built my anticipation, as I really expected a good read as well as insight on MacDonald. With apologies to all the academics out there, bios by academics can get a bit turgid.

But what do we get? I am afraid the title was a good indicator. This is a superficial toss-off written in breezy journalism with absolutely no insight whatsoever. All the signs are there. To make MacDonald seem "relevant," Merrill points out that without him novels by Carl Hiaasen and Jimmy Buffett would not have been possible. Sorry. This does not overwhelm me with thankfulness.

Merrill did have access to letters and journals and there is new material here. He processed it with a minimum effort. There is little analysis of his significance or how he changed the field. Merrill again did a superficial glance at the pulp world by reading Gruber's PULP JUNGLE and a few other primary sources. He does not really discuss with any understanding Gold Medal or the writers who were part of that movement. There is no sign that Merrill really cares about this or that he really cares about MacDonald all that much. It was an assignment. He came into some new material and he processed a bit of it and the check cashed. That's the feel the book has.

The glimpses of MacDonald that do come through are not all that flattering. I was interested in reading about his falling out with Borden and Babs Deal, writers who were part of his Florida social set. There is a very self-righteous letter to Borden denying an affair with Babs and laying all the responsibility on her shoulders that is difficult to read and think well of JDM as a person. Even if his version is the complete truth, it is hard to justify the tone of that letter. I think Babs later got him back with a review of one of his books that makes a very insightful hint that did not escape JDM's wife. There is also a "tough love" letter to his sister that is just over the line into the malicious. He could be a real A-hole. I can understand confronting a sister with her alcoholism but to write her (in response to asking his help in getting her husband a job): "First your face.
 It is not any mask of tragedy or anxiety or any product of age. It is the all-too-typical potato-face, as it is commonly called, of the self-destructive drinker--lumpy, rivulated, out of shape and out of focus..."

Thank you brother!

So, yes, this is a disappointing bio and a better one is on the way. But, you know what? I may not read the next one. I would rather read and reread JDM's novels and perhaps not know all that much more about the writer.

Richard Moore

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