According to Urban Dictionary, the term “Brass Cupcake” refers to a person predisposed to living in a fantasy-like state which leads to inappropriate behavior in public. It’s also the title of the first published novel by John D. MacDonald from 1950 after he left the world of pulp magazine short fiction to find his fortune in the brave new world of paperback originals.
The novel takes place in the sunny beach town of Florence City, Florida hosted by our narrator, Cliff Bartells. He’s an insurance adjuster - the guy who determine the legitimacy of a claim’s economic damages - for a big company based in Connecticut. A girl named Liz was found murdered with all of her jewelry stolen - pieces insured by Cliff’s employer for $750,000 when that was a lot of money. Cliff is assigned to recover the stones, which really means investigating the murder, since the killer and the thief are probably the same person.
We quickly learn that Cliff isn’t a normal insurance man. He’s a World War 2 veteran who returned to his job as a police officer in corrupt Florence City. He was drummed out of the force for refusing to participate in the more heightened version of corruption adopted after the war. In jailhouse parlance, a “cupcake” is anything earned through breaking the rules. For Cliff, his police lieutenant badge was nothing but a brass cupcake - a piece of cheap metal earned through mild corruption and then taken away through greater dishonesty.
In his capacity as an insurance adjuster, Cliff functions as a salvage consultant in the same manner MacDonald’s Travis McGee character would 14 years later. Cliff gets paid for recovering the stones from the thief in a more formalized arrangement than McGee utilized in his series. Along the way, Cliff needs to leverage his relationships with police officers without ticking off the department’s management who still holds a grudge against our hero. Of course, there’s a local mobster who may or may not know something about the jewels.
It wouldn’t be a JDM novel if there wasn’t a sexy babe in the mix. In this paperback, that role and related bikini are filled by Melody Chance, the niece of the murder victim and early suspect for the murder and theft. Meanwhile, the police are scared that Cliff is going to find the jewels, buy them back to avoid paying the claim, and let a murderer skate. As the novel progresses, the official pressure to make Cliff buzz off increases exponentially with each passing chapter.
The Brass Cupcake is a remarkably polished first novel, but it’s not a remarkably good John D. MacDonald book. It’s a basic, run-of-the-mill mystery without the human elements that makes the author’s body of work so special. The paperback is certainly worth reading, but it’s nowhere close to the best of his output. JDM was one of the greats, so the bar is set higher for him than his contemporaries. If you’re being a completist, definitely read and enjoy the novel. However, if devouring all the author’s books before you die isn’t going to happen, you can safely skip The Brass Cupcake without missing much.
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