The John D. MacDonald novels, reissued
By Jonathan Yardley,
Nearly half a century ago, John Dann MacDonald, a successful writer of paperback mysteries little known within the larger reading public, quietly published “The Deep Blue Good-by,” the first of what by MacDonald’s death in 1986 had turned into a series of 21 novels featuring the cynical yet idealistic freelance salvage operator Travis McGee. The novel was yet another paperback original to which the literati paid no attention, but though no one could have guessed at the time, it marked a momentous change in MacDonald’s career. Over the years McGee attracted what became a huge and ardently loyal following, and MacDonald not merely began to be published in hardcover but to appear on national bestseller lists.
But that was yesterday, a century ago in this radically altered new world of e-books and tablets. The McGee novels have remained in print in mass-market editions, but most of the other books by this prodigiously prolific writer long ago vanished. Among the non-McGee novels, only “Cape Fear” has remained more or less steadily in print, no doubt because of the deliciously terrifying 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum and the somewhat less successful 1991 remake with Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte. To be sure, some characters in suspense fiction have long outlived their creators — think Lord Peter Wimsey, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Philip Marlowe — but mostly they just fade away, a fate that surely seemed in store for Travis McGee.
Perhaps that day will come in time, but that time is not now. With the publication of this handsome trade-paperback edition of the first of the McGee novels, Random House — a publishing Goliath not known for sentimentality in literary matters — is bringing not only McGee but almost the entire MacDonald oeuvre back to life with what can only be called a bang. Over the next couple of years, all the McGee novels will appear simultaneously as trade paperbacks and e-books, with “Nightmare in Pink” and “A Purple Place for Dying” arriving next month; a number of MacDonald’s other novels — notable among them “Cape Fear” (originally published in 1958 as “The Executioners”), “The Brass Cupcake,” “Dead Low Tide” and the 1977 blockbuster bestseller “Condominium” — will be published similarly; and some three dozen of MacDonald’s forgotten novels will be issued as e-books.
Yes, Random House probably feels some loyalty to MacDonald. Its subsidiary Ballantine acquired his original publisher, Fawcett Books, in 1982, and presumably MacDonald titles have brought in some welcome income since then. But for a large and, for the most part, resolutely commercial publishing house to take a step such as this on behalf of an author who has been dead for more than a quarter-century is rare indeed. The only comparable example that comes readily to mind is the commitment made by Overlook Press, a self-described “eclectic independent publisher,” to bring out a complete and uniform hardcover edition of the works of P.G. Wodehouse, an edition that is one of the glories of contemporary publishing. But Wodehouse is of course a perennial favorite, whereas MacDonald had seemed on the verge of disappearance.
Obviously the existence of e-publishing, with its flexibility and low overhead, is what makes this new MacDonald edition possible, but as one who still reads books only if they’re printed on real paper, I welcome the trade-paperback MacDonalds with gratitude and enthusiasm; e-book readers doubtless will be happy to pay $11.99 apiece for the titles. For some years it has been my conviction that, even as MacDonald’s reputation has risen considerably over the past few decades, he remains pigeonholed as a genre writer although there is far more to him than that: a fluid, economical prose stylist, a mordantly witty cultural and social critic, a sympathetic but clear-eyed observer of the human comedy — and a comedy, despite all the violence and human meanness that course through his work, is just what he knew it to be.
MacDonald, a purposeful and organized man, set the stage for Travis McGee in the opening pages of “The Deep Blue Good-by” and adhered to it throughout the series. Each of the books is similar (he color-coded the titles to help readers remember which they had and hadn’t read) in much the way that each Jeeves and Wooster novel is similar: In the latter it’s boy meets girl, girl chases boy, boy escapes by the skin of his teeth, while in the former it’s Travis at ease, Travis visited by someone who desperately needs help, Travis takes on the case, Travis rides to the rescue. But beyond that each novel is different, with twists of plot — and usually with one or more twisted characters — that invariably are surprising and often border on the hilarious.
McGee lives aboard the Busted Flush, a “52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale,” and works only when he needs the money or can’t resist a victim’s pleas, the latter being the case in “The Deep Blue Good-by.” As a salvage operator, he has a simple if often dangerous system, as described by a friend: “You said that if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you just . . . live on that until it starts to run out.” Or, as McGee himself puts it: “I like to work on pretty good-sized ones. Expenses are heavy. And then I can take another piece of my retirement. Instead of retiring at sixty, I’m taking it in chunks as I go along.”
As that makes plain, McGee is in tongue-in-cheek mode much of the time. He is (in his own words; he narrates all the novels) “that big brown loose-jointed beach bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl- seeker, that slayer of small savage fish, that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, argufier, that knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society,” and his list of dislikes fills the fat part of a paragraph: “plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.”
Variations on that list appear in other McGee novels, but the sense of alienation from the worst of the modern world is a constant. As has been noted elsewhere, he is a knight errant, though somewhere along the line he remarks that his armor is on the rusty side. He isn’t exactly a Don Quixote, since he wins more jousts than he loses, but there’s more than a little that’s quixotic about him, and it adds to his appeal, especially his appeal to the ladies, to whom he’s catnip pure and simple, not least because he’s “an incurable romantic who thinks the man-woman thing shouldn’t be a contest on the rabbit level.” This is said to Lois Atkinson, a woman who has managed to get herself into a very large batch of trouble thanks to a creature named Junior Allen, a perpetually smiling monster, one of those “men in this world who are compelled to destroy the most fragile and valuable things they can find, the same way rowdy children will ravage a beautiful home.” Junior is a classic MacDonald twisted creep, and lives hang in the balance as McGee tries to bring him down.
So what a grand way to begin the new year: with a bit of the “Good Old Stuff,” to borrow the title of a collection of early MacDonaldiana, a title soon to be available in an e-book, and with the promise of a great deal more of it in the months to come. Every once in a while, against all the odds, justice rears its lovely head in the world of books, and a publisher does itself proud. Thanks, Random House.
THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY By John D. MacDonald Random House. 222 pp. Paperback, $16