JOHN D. MACDONALD is usually brought forth -- along with Raymond Chandler, the unrelated Ross Macdonald, and, lately, Elmore Leonard -- as the sort of crime-story writer who writes books likely to appeal to people who don't particularly care for crime novels. I happen to fall into that class. My thing is science fiction. I have read Elmore Leonard's books -- seven of them, voraciously and with delight, in the past three months -- but until that surprising binge I hadn't read anything of the crime/suspense sort in years. The Lonely Silver Rain, which is the 21st in a series that has been chugging along with enormous success since 1964, is the first of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee books to come my way. I think this is a necessary disclaimer: I am not a member of the McGee cult.
Which is not to say that I'm a stranger to John D. MacDonald's work. I remember him from his sf days, some 35 years ago, when he was writing cool, crisp, hardboiled tales of the future. And a little later I read a good many of his cool, crisp, hardboiled paperback novels of suburban adultery (Cancel All Our Vows, The Deceivers, etc.), which deftly explored O'Hara/Cheever/Updike territory in efficient mass production. In both cases I admired his competence greatly. When he began doing the McGee series, I took note of its swift rise from the realm of paperback originals to hardcover publication, Book-of- the-Month Club selection, and the best-seller lists. But I was not impelled to read one. The crime/suspense novel, as I say, is not my thing.
Well, now I've read one. I went into it with my head full of Elmore Leonard's quirky, idiosyncratic, altogether individual kind of storytelling, and I suppose I expected MacDonald to give me something equally remarkable, of a somewhat different sort. My mistake. Leonard has worked in virtual obscurity for nearly his whole career, whereas MacDonald has been an overwhelming commerical success right from the start: a clue right there as to what to expect. Both men work from a formula, but Leonard's formula is a mixture entirely of his own devising, lean and artful and strikingly desentimentalized; and MacDonald, as I should have guessed, is merely dishing up a superior version of the conventional first-person rugged-male-adventurer-with-heart-of-gold narrative that has been a big thing with escapist-minded readers since the days of H. Rider Haggard.
TRAVIS McGEE, I discovered, lives on a houseboat in Florida. He is a big, strong, virile guy in his late forties or early fifties, something of a loner, making his way quietly through a corrupt and troublesome world. Whe he needs money, he takes on some sort of sleuthing job, usually somewhere on the borderlands of legality. Now and then he lets himself become involved with a woman, but never very deeply or for long. He is basically a decent, honorable man who will never hurt anyone except in self-defense, though he is willing to hurt someone quite badly if his safety requires it. He is cynical, worldly- wise, opinionated, capable, and shrewd.
He is, in short, a stock post-Hemingway figure, good old Gary Cooper keeping a wary eye out for the bad guys who stand between him and a decent day's fishing. He tells his own stories in efficient, underplayed prose, speckled with predictable macho wisdom ("Once you have made enough people sufficiently unhappy with your activities and the effect on their lives and fortunes, it is wise to live as though there is a small deadly snake in every shower stall, cyanide in the tastiest cookie") and a certain relentless jocularity (eath is "that big marina in the sky"). He has the usual supporting cast of sidekicks perfunctorily sketched ("Meyer had set out a package of his notorious chili to thaw") -- perhaps they were presented more three-dimensionally in the earlier books, and MacDonald feels no need to do all that again. He dips now and then into slick, unconvincing street argot that sounds more like the things people say in paperback novels than what they say on the street ("I am gifted from birth with a lot of quick"). All the right commercial ingredients, that is; and the mixture is the mixture as before.
This particular McGee -- like the others, I suppose -- sees McGee hired for a tracer job, accidentally become the target of lethal- minded hoodlums, and get himself out of trouble (rather easily, it seemed to me) by the use of his wits, his fists, and a hefty dollop of good luck. It moves along smoothly and professionally most of the way -- a good hammock book. Astonishingly, MacDonald wraps up his mystery plot in a perfunctory fashion -- a minimum of jeopardy for McGee -- with 15 pages still to go. He devotes those 15 pages to the wrapup of an unexpected bit of unfinished business out of some earlier McGee novel, handled for tearjerking macho/sentimental effect. This breaks all the rules of good suspense writing, but apparently doesn't break the rules of McGee-novel writing. Regular readers evidently regard themselves as members of a fan club eager for any news of their hero. This reader -- never a member of the club, not likely to become one now -- was resentful of the irrelevance of the book's finale. Members of the club, who have clear expectations of each new McGee novel, will probably find that MacDonald has met those expectations. Unfortunately for me, he has done no more than that.