RARA-AVIS: Who I've been reading - John D. MacDonald

From: Doug Bassett ( dj_bassett@yahoo.com)
Date: 25 Jan 2006

I'm currently on a non-Travis McGee JDM kick, which will probably be an exercise in sado-masochism for me as I don't generally like JDM's non-Travis McGees. Some people seem to have the impression (apparently JDM felt this way himself, from what little I can gather) that his non-McGees are his most impressive work; I think that's completely wrong.

As is often the case with writers, the genre restrictions that the McGee series imposed actually helped JDM out tremendously. JDM had a lot of oddball notions about sex, for instance, especially in the late fifties and through the sixties. (They come off as sort of a Puritanically Playboy thing, if that makes any sense.) When they come out of McGee's mouth, they're interesting, because they're embodied in a character that has a specific life history, setting, point of view, etc. These notions make him seem more real, more individual. Detached from the reality of McGee, though, they just seem pretty goofy, especially when you meet up with them again and again in the most improbable places.

It's more than just JDM's philosophy being more palatable in the context of McGee, though. JDM obviously had ambitions towards writing "more serious" works, but in practice what that meant was a number of sub-John O'Hara type things, soapy beyond all hope. I'm writing this on the sly at work, and as such don't have my books around me, but I'd certainly toss THE DAMNED, CONTRARY PLEASURE, CANCEL ALL OUR VOWS, CLEMMIE and THE BEACH GIRLS in that hopper, off the top of my head. A somewhat better variant was the much later ONE MORE SUNDAY, which unusually for it's time took a somewhat sympathetic look at evangelical Christianity. (Probably the kind of thing he'd been aiming at.) JDM could, in fact, be very insightful about America, but he seems to have needed the "rules" of the McGee series as a base to launch his best thoughts.

Another interesting thing is that JDM had real problems writing non-McGee crime novels. THE DROWNER, ON THE RUN, MURDER IN THE WIND - all of these seem to me to be relatively clunky affairs. One problem here I think is that JDM was excellent at crafting villains/sociopaths/evil characters, but seemed curiously reluctant to give these guys their voice. ONE MONDAY WE KILLED THEM ALL would've benefited immensely from being told from the POV of the antagonist (the protagonist is another JDM Earnest Dullard.). It's been a long time since I read THE LAST ONE LEFT, but I remember it, too, could've used more bad guy and less good guy.

(Another strange one is THE END OF THE NIGHT, which I've kept not because it's especially good - it's not
- but because it's so strange, Middle America meeting up with the drug scene. Reading it is like watching your dad disco at the local club, not something you really want to see but you can't look away.)

The best non-McGee crime novel JDM ever did was probably SOFT TOUCH, a really first class book that turns the usual JDM protagonist inside out. Certainly I haven't bumped into another non-McGee that equals it. TOUCH reveals a certain level of experimentation, a kind of distance, which would've been great to follow up on. (It does help if you've read other JDM's, though. Oddball comparison: SOFT TOUCH is to JDM's work the way THE BURNING COURT is to John Dickson Carr's. They're both great books, but they're especially effective if you know the writer's general formulas.)

Outside of that, JDM's successful non-McGees are very much of a type. They tend toward business settings, often with business scams or interoffice politics being a major theme. They tend not to have traditional crime plots. One character is often a self-made business man from the backcountry, not conventionally educated but shrewd. They also tend to work in their moral crises in stark terms. A KEY TO THE SUITE manages to blend business machinations with JDM's oddball sense of sexual sin in what I thought was an unusually effective way (everyday Man in the Grey Flannel Suit type meets up with a hooker at a convention), partly because of the downbeat ending. I also remember more or less liking A MAN OF AFFAIRS.

Right now I'm reading WHERE IS JANICE GANTRY?, which looks to be somewhat more sophisticated than a lot of non-McGees from this period (it was written in 1961) though it has it's clunky moments, too. It's certainly a lot less clunky than DEADLY WELCOME, which I just finished and which has too many scenes of people standing around telling each other parts of the story. Also on the stacks to read or reread are APRIL EVIL, THE GIRL THE GOLD WATCH AND EVERYTHING, A BULLET FOR CINDERELLA, and A FLASH OF GREEN, which I read a long time ago and don't remember much.


Doug Bassett dj_bassett@yahoo.com

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