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.
(Random House) - ’The Deep Blue Good-by’ by John D. MacDonald
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.