Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books, Friday, April 13, 2012

John Dann MacDonald (July 24, 1916 – December 28, 1986) was an American crime and suspense novelist and short story writer.

MacDonald was a prolific author of crime and suspense novels, many of them set in his adopted home of Florida. His best-known works include the popular and critically acclaimed Travis McGee series, and his novel The Executioners, which was adapted into the film Cape Fear. In 1962, MacDonald was named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, and he won a 1980 U.S. National Book Award in the one-year category Mystery. (Wikipedia)

Take a look at some covers.

Interview with John D. MacDonald by Ed Gorman

From Ed today..Which brings me to John D. MacDonald. I was one of the lucky ones who was old enough to read most his books as they were published. He sold big time in the heyday of paperback originals and when he switched to hardcovers with his Travis McGee series he became and remained for approximately fifteen years an enormous international bestseller. He was feted by some of the world's most important critics and the McGees became a benchmark for a certain kind of adventure fiction.

I don't think I've ever seen a writer's books fade from popularity as quickly as MacDonald's did. The McGees are in print but little else. For those of us who believe that MacDonald's best work was often in the stand-alones he wrote for Gold Medal this is sad news because few if any of them in print today. Even the critical acclaim has waned. He doesn't seem to appeal much to people under forty-five. I understand that the McGees have dated. MacDonald got pretty pontifical and silly about modern life in his speechifying. But when you read End of The Night and Cape Fear (The Executioners) and The Last One Left and many of his other books you're in the hands of a master.

Sez me.

But not enough of other people to bring him back into print. So what we're left with are some good sites that steer us to his books and his very interesting life. Maybe the next couple generations up will rediscover him all over again.

For those of you who grew up with the internet, I'm sure all this sounds crazy. So who didn't know there were a lot of sites dedicated to the work of dead writers? Well, a lot of us actually. I had never heard of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, for instance. I saw a reference to her on a site, ordered a used book of hers and was hooked for life. Her suspense novels walk right on the edge of horror, almost fever dreams. She was so good Raymond Chandler called her "the best suspense writer of (my) generation." I'm told she's about to get a serious website. And maybe some serious new readers, too.

Zombies aren't the only dead people who deserve attention.

From The Thrilling Detective Website. A look at the entire oeuvre.

April Evil, John D. MacDonald
(Patti Abbott)

I think this is the first novel, other than all the Travis McGee series that I have read in many years by John D. MacDonald. I had truly forgotten what a great writer he is. There is not a page of this book when things don't happen, when the story isn't speeding along, when you will want to put it down.

Three men, one newly out of jail, and a woman converge on Flamingo, a Florida town. Their plan is to rob an old man who keeps all of his money in a safe in his house. There are at least a dozen other players who make things hard for this trio for various reasons. This story has three critical female characters. And a kid who noses around too much. It is vicious in spots, but also tender, observant, and clever. The atmosphere is excellent. I can't think of one good reason not to read this book.

John D. MacDonald, Border Town Girl (Gold Medal, 1956).

Review by Jeff Meyerson

I am far from an expert on the works of John D. MacDonald, though I’ve read two dozen of his books over the years, mostly in the 1970’s and 1980’s., about half of them Travis McGees. The most memorable to me were probably The End of the Night (1960), that so eerily evokes the Manson killings of a decade later, and his book of correspondence with the late Dan Rowan, chronicling the rise and fall of their friendship (A Friendship: The Letters…1967-1974). But rather than talk about one of those I thought I’d read one of the several unread MacDonalds on my shelf, picking this one more or less at random.

Border Town Girl consists of two 75 page novellas, the title story (originally published in Dime Detective Magazine in 1950 as “Five Star Fugitive” - a stupid title in my opinion) and “Linda” (1956). These are (apparently) meant to be two tales of femmes fatales, so-called “B girls” trapping hapless men in their web, but they are really quite different. The first has former war correspondent Lane Sanson, deep in the bottle in Mexico, getting dragged into a drug smuggling operation on the Texas border. For me the most memorable character in this one was the thug Christy, a man who likes to hurt people with the power of his bare hands. The “fatale” turns out…well, I won’t tell you in case you want to read it yourself.

“Linda” is a different, much colder thing indeed. The incredibly foolish narrator Paul Cowley can’t believe the beautiful Linda has married him. They become friends with another, much richer, couple and end up vacationing together on a small key on the west coast of Florida where it takes a decidedly nasty turn. From that point on the story is riveting and you can appreciate MacDonald’s slow buildup. This is one you probably won’t forget once you’ve read it.

THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY by John D. MacDonald, reviewed by Deb Pfeifer

About Deb Pfeifer: I was a technical writer for two decades, then a stay-at-home mom for a while. Now I work in a special ed classroom with severely autistic students. It's challenging work, but also very rewarding. I love to read across all genres, but mysteries are my favorite.

I was in my teens when Disney World first opened in the 1970s, The highlight of our family's summer was an annual trip to Florida, starting in St Augustine and ending at Disney (where we'd promptly buy extra E-tickets). To get from St. Augustine to Orlando, we would drive along miles of newly-constructed interstate running through sparsely-populated areas. I have returned to Disney World a number of times in the intervening four decades and one thing I can tell you is that, other than the Everglades, there is no longer an uninhabited mile anywhere in Florida.

First published in 1974, THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY, John D. MacDonald's 16th Travis McGee mystery, shows us a Florida tottering on the verge of the over-development and over-commercialization that has now claimed most of the state. Here is McGee's analysis of how this process happened to the small coastal community of Bayside:

"There had been a little town on the bay shore, a few hundred people, a sleepy downtown with live oaks and Spanish moss. Then International Amalgamated Development had moved in, bought a couple of thousand acres, and put in shopping centers, town houses, condominiums, and rental apartments just south of town. Next had arrived Consolidated Construction Enterprises and done the same thng north of town. Smaller opeators had done the same thing on a smaller scale west of town. When downtown decayed, the town fathers widened the streets and cut down the shade trees in an attempt to look just like a shopping center. It didn't work. It never does. This was instant Florida, tacky and stifling and full of ugly and spurious energeis. They had every chain food-service outfit known to man, interspersed with used-car lots and furniture stores."

Phew! If that doesn't sum it up in microcosm, I don't know what does.

THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY begins with McGee asleep on his boat, The Busted Flush, when a woman from his past shows up. The woman is named Carrie Milligan (with that name, it was hard for me not to visualize her looking like actress Carey Mulligan). Carrie arrives with a suitcase full of cash and a request that, "if anything happens" to her, McGee get the money to her sister. Within a few days, Carrie is dead--supposedly the victim of a hit-and-run accident. McGee doesn't buy it and, aided by his enigmatic and lugubrious sidekick Meyer, sets out to discover what actually happened to Carrie in the aforementioned town of Bayside. Naturally, every time McGee thinks he's getting closer to solving the mystery of what happened to Carrie and why, he discovers only deeper layers of deception. Not surprisingly, the investigation into Carrie's death brings McGee face-to-face with some unsavory characters including drug smugglers, shady developers, crooked politicians, on-the-take lawmen, drunken marina owners, unscrupulous insurance agents, and, of course, beautiful women. Not all of these women are duplicitous--but all of them want to sleep with McGee and none of them feel the slightest reticence in letting him know it.

And this is what I find to be the biggest road-block to whole-hearted enjoyment of the McGee books: the attraction EVERY female character instantly feels toward McGee the moment she meets him. Perhaps this aspect is just part of the seventies time-capsule that these books represent, but somehow the fact that McGee is a magnet for every woman in a ten-mile radius makes him seem less of an adult and more of a me-decade caricature, especially when the rather cold and clinical sex scenes are presented in McGee's first-person narration as if he were doing a favor for the woman in question. In this regard, THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY is no diferent from many other less well-written books from the same era. That being said, THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY is also an ingeniously-plotted, well-developed narrative that not only solves the mystery of one particular crime, but also exposes the larger "crime" of what it took to turn Florida in less than half a century from a sleepy southern state blessed with lots of sea and sunshine into the over-developed, over-crowded monolith it is today.

(the book jacket for DREADFUL kept throwing everything off, so I omitted it)

MacDonald Reviews

Scott Cupp

Bill Crider

Roger Ebert column

Cullen Gallagher

Jerry House

Randy Johnson

Nick Jones

George Kelley

B.V. Lawson

Steve Lewis

Steve Lewis.David Vineyard

Todd Mason

Jeff Meyerson

J.F. Norris


David Rachels

James Reasoner

Richard Robinson

Steve Scott

Bill Selnes

Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang

John Weagly

Non JDM choices

Yvette Banek

Joe Barone

Brian Busby

Scott Cupp

Martin Edwards

Marjorie KInberg

Rob Kitchin

Evan Lewis

Ron Scheer

Kerrie Smith




Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Well done for finding pretty much the only John D. MacDonald post on my blog, Patti! I've since read The Only Girl in the Game, and I liked it a lot – MacDonald's take on how Vegas operates struck me as authentic, and it's certainly a dramatic little tale. I had hoped to post a full review of it ahead of the deadline, but I'm in the midst of a series of posts on spy novelist Jeremy Duns at the moment, so it wasn't possible. Still, one of those posts, on Adam Hall's The Ninth Directive (Jeremy's a big fan of Hall) might suffice for next week.

As ever, thank you for the link!

TomCat said...


Here's another review for your non-JDM choices: Rex Stout's Too Many Women (1947).

Joe Barone said...

Aside from the Travis McGee books, the two John D. MacDonald books I remember most are Condominium and The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald (1967-1074).

I had to look the titles up. Condominium seemed prescient to me. And the letters chronicled a friendship which went sour. I found them to be interesting reading.

Joe Barone said...

Obviously the dates are supposed to be (1967-1974).

J F Norris said...

RE: Deb's review. MacDonald and Carl Hiassen are the two best critics for what Florida used to be and what it has become. I wonder if anyone has ever done a compare/contrast with those two writers. I'm from Deb's generation and can still remember the old Florida and these days much prefer visiting the panhandle and northern Florida which still have pockets of well preserved and forgotten "Old" Florida as opposed to the overdeveloped Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast and Orlando with its theme park inundation.

Casual Debris said...

Sadly, I don't think I've ever read a JDM novel. Back in the country, I've posted two reviews to make up for being on hiatus.

The Aggravation of Elmer

Yvette said...

I hadn't read any John MacDonald so my post isn't relevant to today's theme. But I did post a review of a book, even if rather late in the day.

Anonymous said...

What a great idea, Patti, to focus on MacDonald's work :-). And thanks for including one of my posts, too.

Deb said...

Even though I voted for Simenon, I've enjoyed reading all of the MacDonald FFB reviews and writing one of my own. Patti, I hope you will consider doing another theme'd FFB at some point in the future.