Showing posts with label John D. MacDonald. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John D. MacDonald. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Duke Rhoades #01 - Finding Anne Farley (aka Ring My Love With Diamonds)

I was thumbing through some old hardcovers and stumbled on Best Detective Stories of the Year – 1978. It was edited by Edward D. Hoch and published by E.P. Dutton. The first author I flipped to was John D. MacDonald. The entry is called “Finding Anne Farley”, a novelette that first appeared in 1977 as a serial in the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers via the publication's Field Newspaper Syndicate. 

There are a number of interesting aspects to “Finding Anne Farley”. First, and foremost, is that this was the debut of MacDonald's short-lived insurance-investigator Duke Rhoades. The character's first name is derived from his described physical appearance as being similar to actor John Wayne. The character appeared in two additional stories, “Friend of the Family” (1978) and “Eyewitness” (1979). Second, “Finding Anne Farley” was a unique five-week concept that allowed readers to mail responses on how the story will end. The lucky winners received a monetary prize payout. Lastly, the syndicated run of the story allowed newspapers to run the story under an alternate title of “Ring My Love With Diamonds”. 

As readers are introduced to Rhoades, he has just accepted his most recent job of retrieving stolen diamonds. The owner of an Atlanta jewelry store filed an insurance claim that 32 pieces of jewelry were stolen from his store. The thief, and possible accomplices, reproduced and systematically replaced these stolen diamonds with fakes. After a lengthy criminal investigation, and repeated calls and letters, the store was paid out for the missing diamonds. The conclusion is that an employee named Anne Farley was behind the theft. She took the money and ran, seemingly disappearing into parts unknown. If Rhoades can get a lead on her whereabouts, he may be able to locate the diamonds and put the insurance company back to even.

This five-week serial amounts to about 30 hardcover pages, a suitable length for MacDonald's “search and rescue” narrative to propel through the peaks and valleys of the investigation. Rhoades is a likable hero, complete with the gumshoe characteristics and tender-heart that makes for an honest and capable protagonist. The ending was a little stereotypical of a cozy whodunit, but getting there was fun. You can read this story for free HERE.

My source for this review was Steve Scott's excellent blog The Trap of Solid Gold. He has a detailed, and more analytical look at this story and character HERE. I also snagged the accompanying artwork there as well. 

Friday, October 14, 2022


Before he was crime-fiction royalty, John D. MacDonald was a prolific, multi-genre author of short stories and novellas for the pulp magazines. His output included many science-fiction stories, including “Flaw” from the January 1948 issue of Startling Stories.

The year is 1964, and our narrator Carol Adlar is sadly looking back to 1959. That was the year she met and fell in love with an astronaut named Johnny Pritchard when she was working as a clerk at the Arizona Rocket Station. Johnny was committed to outworking his colleagues to earn the chance to go into space and eventually help colonize a new planet.

Love sometimes happens at inopportune times, and leaving the planet for 14 months is a helluva time to embark on a new romance. Nevertheless, Carol and Johnny fall madly in love with plans to marry upon his return to Earth. Unfortunately, five years has now passed with no sign of Johnny’s return flight home.

MacDonald’s writing is beautiful and heartbreaking as he assumes the melancholy longing of Carol’s narrative voice. He wrings every ounce of emotion from the loneliness and worry of an astronaut’s sweetheart. The downside is that the story’s punchline has been overtaken by our modern understanding of the solar system and space travel — facts we take for granted that were open to speculation in 1948. However, the emotional core of “Flaw” remains evergreen.

“Flaw” was reprinted in a MacDonald collection of his short science-fiction stories called Other Times, Other Worlds, available HERE.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Too Early to Tell

Between the 1930s and 1950s, John D. MacDonald authored over 500 short stories for the pulp magazines and digests. Often, he used pseudonyms so he could appear multiple times in the same issue.  Shortly after moving his family to Florida, and before his first paperback original was published (The Brass Cupcake, 1951 Fawcett), MacDonald's fight story “Too Early to Tell” was published in the October, 1950 issue of Adventure. The story and entire issue is available for free HERE.

The story is presented in first-person narrative by Lew, a gym rat that is friends with an older, veteran fight-trainer named Micky. At a rough local dive bar, Micky watches an irritating kid named “Junior” badmouth the patrons, then proceed to waylay a half-dozen men before being sapped. Micky drives the drunk and dazed kid home and then later gains his life story.

Junior's real name is Harkness Willoughby Franklin the Third and he's living with a sizable emotional burden. His father died, his mother remarried and they moved to California where she started a new family. Considering Junior a forgettable bad apple, his mother sends him to a private school in Massachusetts. Over the years, Junior has asked to visit the family, only to be rejected and then promptly receiving a check in the mail. Now, Junior is mad at the world and Micky thinks he can channel that negative energy into boxing.

Most fight stories simultaneously spin a rags-to-riches lesson on responsibility, humility, determination, and internal fortitude. MacDonald's story is interesting because Junior is never a likable protagonist. That's what makes this so unique and engaging. The story, approximately eight pages in length, contains Junior's rise through the ranks to attain the coveted title shot. But, there's a side-story involving the sister of Micky's former protegee falling for Junior despite his angry, emotional barricade.

If you love in-ring action, MacDonald delivers a great, climactic bout in the story's conclusion. With its clash of characters, fighting, and emotional undertakings, “Too Early to Tell” was an enjoyable reading experience.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Travis McGee #01 - The Deep Blue Good-by

Crime-fiction author John D. MacDonald began the Travis McGee series with three novels, including The Deep Blue Good-by, originally published in 1964 by the powerhouse publisher of the time, Fawcett Gold Medal. The novel introduces McGee as a salvage consultant that helps clients recover stolen funds. The deal is that if McGee can successfully make the recovery, he keeps a percentage plus additional funds to cover expenses accrued. MacDonald's niche is that McGee performs most of these jobs in and around the Floridian coast on his houseboat, the Busted Flush. I've enjoyed MacDonald and wanted to explore this popular character a little more. I'm starting with the “official” series debut, The Deep Blue Good-by.*

In the book's opening chapters, McGee's newest lady “friend” asks what he does for a living. McGee explains the nature of his business to her and soon gains a referral in the form of a young, voluptuous dancer named Cathy Kerr. McGee's new client is rather reserved and quiet, but explains that her father served in WW2 and had been sentenced to prison for killing another soldier. Prior to his capture, Cathy feels that her father buried something valuable in the building materials of his house in the Florida Keys, but it was stolen by a man named Junior Allen. Her father is now dead, the valuable thing is still missing and Cathy is dancing for peanuts. McGee explains the terms of the deal and becomes involved in an enthralling mystery.

The search leads McGee to Lois Atkinson, a woman who was abused and robbed by Junior Allen and left in a near-death state. McGee, with the aid of the good doctor, nurses Lois back to heath and learns even more about this dubious Mr. Allen. McGee and Lois eventually form an emotional bond that spills over into sex – Lois requiring security and McGee seemingly recovering from some ailments of the past (the series will later hint at his military career, lost loved ones, etc.). 

McGee embraces the mantle of the noble hero, bent on punishing Junior Allen for the atrocities he's committed and the young lives he's ruined. McGee's investigation is multifaceted - what is the valuable thing, how did Cathy's father obtain it, where is it now? The job combs a great swath of area from Florida to New York and points in between. The more McGee learns, the more vicious and terrifying Allen becomes. The inevitable confrontation leads to a boat chase and a spectacular fight scene on board.

Like James Bond, or any popular fictional hero, one can jump into numerous rabbit holes online to learn more about the character and the series (movies, color scheme, boat, etc.). We even covered the character on a podcast episode here, so there's a lot to explore if you are interested. I went into the novel thinking it would be a fun, sexy splash in the water with comparisons to a more violent Shell Scott. I couldn't have been further off. 

This was more like Lawrence Block's early Matthew Scudder novels, just a little more sexy. Junior Allen proved to be a calculated, sick psycho with a penchant for power grabs. McGee's clients are victims, some more scarred and disgruntled than others. I truly felt a sense of obligation to these victims, as if McGee was righting a personal wrong for me. The ending was an emotional roller coaster that left me gutted. The closing scenes with McGee and Cathy had such an impact, and set the tone for the character. He's the hard-boiled hero, but thankfully it's complex. 

Sexy, violent, captivating, and mysterious, The Deep Blue Good-by is a masterpiece that you need to read right now. Or, reread it again. There's an obvious reason for the fuss...Travis McGee is the real deal. 

* MacDonald authored the first three Travis McGee novels in quick succession and submitted all of them to the publisher at the same time. To my knowledge, no one really knows which was the very first.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

In a Small Motel

Even after he became a a marquee writer of paperback original novels, John D. MacDonald continued to write and sell short stories - his chosen profession during the 1940s. The July 1955 issue of Justice magazine featured a JDM novella called “In a Small Motel” that clocks in at about 39 modern pages. The story has been compiled in various anthologies through the years and is currently available as a 99 cent ebook.

It’s a busy evening for proprietor Ginny Mallory at Southern Georgia’s Belle View Courts motel with needy customers checking in while others are demanding ice and roll-away beds. Ginny is a hard-working widow from Jacksonville, Florida whose husband bought the motel and then died in a car accident seven months ago. She’s been trying to keep the business afloat all alone ever since.

A mystery man arrives wanting a single room and insisting that he hide his car behind the building where it can’t be seen from the highway. Rather suspicious, no? A romantic suitor from Jacksonville swings by the motel to visit Ginny, and the mystery man gets the mistaken impression that the visitor is following him and then...

Stop, stop, stop!

I shouldn’t say any more or else I’m liable to ruin this excellent story for you. “In a Small Motel” is really something twisty and cool. The novella will make you want to dive deeper into MacDonald’s vast short fiction library. Read this one. It’ll be the best 99 cents you spend this year.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, September 14, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 61

Would you believe that there are series characters from Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald and others that you know nothing about? We drop some serious knowledge bombs on Episode 61 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast with reviews of The Best of Manhunt 2 and A Great Day for Dying plus a special bonus unmasking of T.C. Lewellen. Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download HERE:

Listen to "Episode 61: Hidden Series Characters" on Spreaker.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Brass Cupcake

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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

On the Run

After 13-years of writing stand-alone hardboiled and crime noir novels, MacDonald's love for nautical adventure and the Florida Gulf Coast would logically evolve into a series character. Beginning in 1964, the author would embark on a 21-book series of nautical-crime books starring salvage-consultant Travis McGee. MacDonald's transition into the series mostly halted his stand-alone hardboiled-crime writing. In fact, 1963 proved to be one of the last few years that MacDonald would write multiple stand-alone novels. That year, he wrote a screenplay novelization called I'll Go on Singing and only two crime novels – The Drowner and On the Run. I decided to try out the latter title to determine if the author's crime-noir writing had declined by that point in his career.

On the Run introduces readers to a multimillionaire named Tom. At 90-years old, the feeble man has hired a private-investigator to track down his two estranged grandchildren – George and Sid. In backstory, the author reveals that both were taken from Tom in their early childhood. After their mother died, the two were placed into foster care and ultimately grew up apart from each other and their grandfather. With over $8-million to divvy up, Tom hopes to locate the two of them.

The first few chapters are dedicated to Sid's life as a soldier, used car salesman and husband. After learning that his wife had an affair with a high-level crime-kingpin, Sid assaults the man and leaves him facially scarred. Since the beating, Sid stays one step ahead of the mob and flees from town to town. It's a roadside life filled with deceit, booze and women. After learning Sid's whereabouts, Tom sends his nurse to Texas to summon Sid back home. In doing so, Tom opens the door for a mob assassin to track down Sid's location.

In alternating chapters, there's a backstory on George, a fairly one-dimensional character that's greedy and deceptive. Knowing about Sid's price tag to the mob, George is enthusiastic to meet Sid at their grandfather's house. Hoping to not only cash-in with the mob, George wants to get his hands on Sid's portion of their grandfather's inheritance.

In a rare misstep, John D. MacDonald creates a convoluted mess for the reader to follow. With having to explore both George and Sid's past, the interweaving characters didn't quite meld together as well as the author likely intended. At 140-pages, I could sense that MacDonald had some unused story ideas and just threw them together in an attempt at fluid storytelling. The pacing is off, there's minimum character development and the romantic narrative planned between Tom's nurse Paula and Sid was rushed and didn't feel organic.

On the Run suffers from misdirection, shallow characters and an uneven plot. With so many great MacDonald novels to choose from, your reading efforts would be better spent somewhere else. On the Run is disposable fiction.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Empty Trap

“The Empty Trap”, published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1957, is a shorter, stand-alone crime-fiction novel by John D. MacDonald. It's patterned like a traditional western yarn, albeit more savage and uncontrollable in a contemporary setting. While the story's most violent portions occur in Mexico, MacDonald leads his readers into the dry, scorching Nevada town called Oasis Springs. It is here where “The Empty Trap” snares Lloyd Wescott and his beautiful lover Sylvia.

In the novel's opening pages, readers are immediately introduced to Lloyd. But it's a brief introduction. You see Lloyd has skimmed nearly $100,000 from his employer, a crooked Casino calling itself The Green Oasis, and he's now a broken shell of a man about to meet death. Harry's three brutish enforcers have gang raped Sylvia to death and viciously burned and beaten Lloyd in an effort to retrieve the money. In the opening 19-pages (not for the squeamish), Lloyd is placed into a Pontiac and pushed off of a high cliff. But unbeknownst to the enforcers, Llloyd survives.

Like a rugged Spaghetti Western, Lloyd is found by an old Mexican and brought to the man's large village. The impoverished villagers slowly nurse Lloyd back to health. With his disturbing new appearance – splintered teeth, broken facial bones, spider-web of scars – Lloyd contrives a plan to avenge Sylvia's murder...and his own.

MacDonald weaves his short narrative into a series of backstories. The reader is brought full circle from Lloyd's beginnings as a hotel manager to his affair with Harry's sultry wife Sylvia. It's a timeless retelling of a man's quest to avenge the death of a loved one, but MacDonald squeezes a lot of originality out of the familiar story. Lloyd's affection for his employer's wife helps the reader identify with a flawed character (as opposed to the popular crime-fiction trend of alcohol addiction). The novel's bloody beginning sets the tone for what is ultimately a very gritty and violent tale of theft, misfortune and loss. Readers know exactly what's behind the curtain jerk, but will still be impressed by MacDonald's magic.

"The Empty Trap" proved to be a fulfilling reading experience. Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Travis McGee #09 - Pale Gray for Guilt

The character of Travis McGee was the most successful creation of Florida crime fiction icon John D. MacDonald. The McGee series lasted for 21 installments from 1964 to 1984. Like most long-running series titles of that era, the earlier entries are known to be better than the later ones. MacDonald was smart cookie and wrote the books so they can be read in any order. Today, we’ll tackle the ninth McGee paperback, “Pale Gray for Guilt” from 1968.

McGee is a self-described beach bum living on a Florida houseboat called The Busted Flush named after the poker hand that won him the boat. To the extent that he works at all, he’s a “salvage consultant” who helps people find things they’ve lost - usually money or people - in exchange for a piece of the recovery. In practice, he functions as an unlicensed private eye (or “knight errant”) for friends and their referrals. In many of the books, McGee has a sidekick named Meyer, an underemployed economist and fellow armchair philosopher who often joins McGee on his escapades. That’s pretty much all you need to know to jump into the series at any point.

“Pale Gray for Guilt” opens with McGee going to visit a friend of his nicknamed Tush who owns a low-end motel and river marina with his wife Janine not far from the Bahia Mar marina where McGee resides on his own boat. Tush is having financial difficulties, and there’s a major land developer who wants Tush and Janine’s leveraged property. The evil corporation up the road is polluting the river and wants to dredge the waterway to make room for barges. However, these plans are contingent on Tush and Janine getting out of the way.

It’s important to understand that the environment and corporate development of Florida’s coastal waterways were major bugaboos for MacDonald. Many McGee books have the character pontificating about this issue, and it’s clear that McGee is speaking with MacDonald’s voice. Some of MacDonald’s stand-alone novels address this issue head-on, and “Pale Gray for Guilt” is the McGee paperback that makes corporate greed and land development the enemy of the righteous and the apparent motivation for murder.

As the foreclosure documents are being served upon Tush, his body is found at his marina dead from an apparent suicide. Upon learning this, McGee refuses to believe his friend would kill himself and sets out to find the killer and save the property for the distressed widow Janice. The legal and business machinations McGee employs to stymie the foreclosure are plenty clever. The author had an MBA and enjoyed strutting his business acumen for many storylines through this career as a fiction writer.

The problem with white collar crime stories involving land deals and stock price manipulation is that it can make for some dry and technical reading. The middle section of the novel has a lot of that, and if such things are uninteresting to you, there are 20 other McGee novels that aren’t as mired in business machinations.

Once he gets back to the actual murder investigation, the plot is materially more satisfying. The boots on the ground investigation into the causes and perpetrators of Tush’s death make for a fun mystery novel. McGee’s sidekick for this adventure is a plucky love interest named Puss (I know, I know) who adds some value to McGee’s fieldwork. His normal sidekick Meyer also gets a piece of the action in the paperback’s second half.

Under no circumstances should “Pale Gray for Guilt” be your introduction to the Travis McGee series. It’s just too slow to hook a new reader. However, if you are acclimated into McGee’s world and open to a financial crime murder adventure, you’ll probably enjoy this one just fine.

Buy a copy of this novel HERE

Monday, February 10, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 30

On our 30th episode, it's a Fawcett Gold Medal All-Review Extravaganza! We discuss vintage paperbacks by John D. MacDonald, Lionel White, Dan J. Marlowe, Basil Heatter and more! We are available on all podcast platforms or stream below. Download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 30: Fawcett Gold Medal All-Review Extravaganza" on Spreaker.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 28

In the newest Paperback Warrior Podcast episode, we discuss John D. MacDonald's iconic Travis McGee character, including a review of the series' ninth installment, "Pale Shade for Guilt". We also evaluate the debut novel in Jon Messman's Handyman series, "The Moneta Papers", and have an impromptu look at Lawrence Block's Chip Harrison novels. Stream wherever fine podcasts are presented or stream below. Direct downloads are HERE. Listen to "Episode 28: Travis McGee" on Spreaker.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Bullet for Cinderella

“A Bullet for Cinderella” from 1955 was John D. MacDonald’s 14th novel. When he originally submitted the stand-alone crime thriller for publication, it was titled “On the Make,” and Dell Books eventually reprinted the paperback with the author’s original title for later editions starting in 1960. Since then, the paperback has been re-released several times under both names. If you’re seeking a used copy, you should have plenty of luck - just search both ways.

The story begins with our narrator, Talbert (“Tal”) Howard, arriving in a town called Hillston and checking into a motel. When he was a prisoner during the Korean War, a fellow POW named Timmy confided that he had buried a ton of stolen cash in Hillston without providing specifics about a precise location. Timmy never made it home from the war, and Tal is now in Hillston looking for the loot.

Upon arrival, Tal quickly learns that another POW from the camp named Fitz arrived in Hillston before him. While in captivity, Tal and Fitz were enemies because Fitz refused to help his fellow American G.I.s work toward their collective survival in the camp. And now Fitz is curiously in Hillston. Could he be searching for the same buried cash as Tal?

Although “A Bullet for Cinderella” is basically a treasure hunt story, it’s not an Indiana Jones type of adventure. Instead, Tal does a deep dive into Timmy’s past to unearth logical places for burying the loot. For the reader, this gets a bit melodramatic at times as historical romances and family dramas are mined for clues, and secrets of the past are revealed. I was never bored, but understand that this is a mystery, not an action novel. To be sure, there are some grisly murders and a rather terrifying, sociopathic bad guy, but we are still firmly in mystery-suspense territory here.

A paperback like “A Bullet for Cinderella” is only as good as its ending, and MacDonald delivers a violent and compelling conclusion that will stay with the reader. I don’t think this novel was necessarily peak MacDonald, but even a second-tier book by the Florida author is a damn sight better than most of the stuff I read these days. As such, it’s an easy recommendation for you.

A feature on Richard Matheson aired on the seventh episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 19, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 07

On this episode we are examining the noir work of successful author Richard Matheson, who's predominantly known for his horror and science-fiction work. We have two new reviews for you, 1955's "A Bullet for Cinderella" by John D. MacDonald and William W. Johnstone's 1984 western "The Last Mountain Man". Stream the episode below or wherever podcasts are streaming. Direct downloads are HERE.

Listen to "Episode 07: Richard Matheson" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Dead Low Tide

“Dead Low Tide” was John D. MacDonald’s sixth published novel. The 1953 Fawcett Gold Medal release is a tasty bit of Florida noir that predates his iconic Travis McGee series by over a decade and remains a fresh and exciting crime thriller 66 years later. The book is still in print currently with a loving introduction by Dean R. Koontz.

The narrator of “Dead Low Tide” is the extremely likable Andy McClintock, an over-qualified clerk with a business degree from Syracuse working for a Florida gulf-coast home-builder named John Long. One night, Andy is visited by his boss’ wife at home. Mrs. Long is concerned that her husband has recently been behaving strangely and asks Andy to snoop around and determine what’s happening. Andy is taken aback by both the visit but reluctantly gets roped into helping her.

The paperback’s back-cover synopsis reveals that Mr. Long is murdered with Andy as the primary suspect. Of course, it falls upon Andy to solve the crime and save his own hide. It’s a setup you’ve read before, and the author’s execution of the basic murder mystery format is predictably solid. The appeal of this vintage paperback is that MacDonald’s writing is top-notch, and the reader really gets to know and love Andy through the first-person narration. MacDonald touches on many of the themes he explores decades later in the Travis McGee books - most notably the ins-and-outs of real estate development on Florida’s coasts. Moreover, he makes it interesting, and you walk away knowing a thing or two you didn’t know before.

MacDonald creates a vivid supporting cast particularly in the form of Andy’s buxom neighbor with whom he used to sleep before they decided to just be friends and confidantes. The hapless police chief, the intrepid local reporter, and the clever town attorney are also examples of superior characterization in this thin, fast-moving novel.

I’ve been working my way through MacDonald’s stand-alone novels and the quality varies wildly. “Dead Low Tide”’ is a definite winner in the bunch - perhaps the best I’ve read thus far. The central mystery is compelling but not groundbreaking. However, the writing is so good that you won’t want it to end. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Death Trap

Author John D. MacDonald penned over 50 thrillers, including his long-running salvage-consultant series 'Travis McGee'. He's widely considered one of the greatest crime-fiction writers of all-time. This 1954 novel, “Death Trap”, was his 18th stand-alone crime novel, an astounding number considering it was written 10-years before the successful 'Travis McGee' debut.

The book is written in the crime noir format of first-person. Our protagonist is Hugh, a former war veteran who's on a much-needed vacation from his engineering job in Spain. While planning to fish in California, he takes a detour after reading some disparaging news in a national newspaper. The brother of his former lover, Vicky, is about to be executed for murdering a teen girl in a small college town in Illinois. Hugh, feeling the man is innocent, vows to uncover the truth.

After a tearful reunion with Vicky, Hugh begins to understand the layout of this sleepy college town. The citizens are declaring murder, the verdict was guilty and the torches are well-lit. With just 10-days before the date with the chair, Hugh begins to uncover the town's corruption in a riveting whodunit. All signs point to Vicky's brother, convincing me that the kid should fry. Surprisingly, Hugh discovers a mysterious rape and drowning at a lakeside cabin years before the crime. This mystery is tantalizing, but the connection is blurred. Can Hugh put the two time-frames together? If he can, how does he convince the frenzied town?

John D. MacDonald's literary sales are over 70-million for a reason. The prolific writer spins the typical murder – tramp killed on a lonely backstretch, but this ordinary event is catapulted into a myriad of violence, blackmail, intrigue and ultimately...entertainment. The author keeps us turning the pages, surveying the clues and coming to our own conclusions before swaying us with another exciting chapter of “unveil the next surprise”. I can't say enough good things about “Death Trap”. I've loved every book MacDonald has written and this one is no exception.

Buy this book HERE

Friday, September 28, 2018

The End of the Night

John D. MacDonald’s 1960 paperback, “The End of Night” is often cited as one of his finest stand-alone novels. This is a bold claim as MacDonald produced so many excellent stories outside his acclaimed Travis McGee series. While picking a best JDM book is likely a fool’s errand, there is no doubt that the short novel is a crime fiction classic.

The story opens with a prison official marveling that his institution just sent four inmates - one being a female - to their deaths in the electric chair. But that’s really where this story ends as the majority of the novel is one long flashback explaining how and why this foursome were eventually put to death for their crimes. This is a fairly bold literary choice for MacDonald that effectively steals the “will they get away with it?” thunder from the crime fiction plot.

Never fear, the story leading to the death house has plenty of twists and turns along the way. “The End of Night” is essentially the inside story of four post-adolescents dubbed “The Wolf Pack” by the media who set out on a cross-country crime spree culminating in a murder.

By 1960, MacDonald was a good enough writer that he told the story of The Wolf Pack through a show-offy narrative trick. The narration is told through letters, memos, and memories of various side characters bearing witness to the juveniles’ spree and its aftermath. The death-row executioner, the defense attorney, the sheriff and others tell their portions of the story in a way that gives the readers the pieces of the crime story puzzle. While we all know by page 10 that the killer foursome (Kirby Stassen, Nanette Koslov, Robert Hernandez, Sander Golden) are caught, there's a heartfelt need to determine if the hopeful young Helen Wister survives the brutish quartet.

In a way, “The End of the Night” is staged as an amorphous display of unbridled youth. Despite  social class (Stassen from wealth, Koslov from poverty, Sander is the bored middle class intellectual), the four collectively create a firestorm of frenzied rebellion that spills into murder. There are drugs - a consistent daily flow of drugs - but it's the condescending disposal of empathy that's MacDonald's bold expression. In fact, as Helen Wister pleads for her life, Stassen casually remarks, “We're expressing aggression and hostility, miss.”

For 1960, this is a gritty, powerful crime novel that prefaces a turbulent time in American culture. Shockingly, the culprits, while not affluent in any sort of transcendent religious rite, exhibit psychotic tendencies that re-appear just nine years later with the Manson Family murders. It's not a far-cry to see how the novel may have inspired horror writers like Stephen King, Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon. King went as far as to declare the book one of the finest novels of the 20th Century. It's a well-deserved praise. “The End of the Night”, while disturbingly fitting the mold of “entertainment”, is an obligatory read for anyone claiming to love the American Crime Novel.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Deadly Welcome

The Travis McGee series defined John D. MacDonald as a master of the crime and mystery genre, but he wrote a ton of excellent stand-alone novels as well. His 1958 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original mystery, “Deadly Welcome”, is among his best.

The book follows U.S. State Department special operative Alex Doyle who is pulled away from an overseas assignment and loaned to the Pentagon for a special mission involving a talented military scientist on medical retirement in Ramona Beach, Florida. The Pentagon wants to get the scientist back to Washington, so he can return to the weapons science game. However, the scientist isn’t inclined to leave his beachfront bungalow where his is mourning the loss of his recently murdered wife, Jenna. Alex is asked to use his manipulative people skills to convince the scientist to leave Florida when others have tried and recently failed.

Alex is uniquely qualified for this assignment because he was born and raised in the redneck, dead-end town of Ramona. The hope is that if Alex can solve Jenna’s murder, the scientist will snap out of his depression and get back to work. For his part, Alex has a complicated relationship with the town of Ramona and the deceased Jenna. Alex’s family was swamp trash, and he left in a cloud of scandal that still haunts him. The idea of going back to the land of his painful childhood is too awful for Alex to contemplate.

As you may have guessed, the Pentagon isn’t concerned with Alex’s psychic scars from 15 years ago, and he’s ordered to Florida to do his job. Upon arrival, he finds the gossipy pettiness and police corruption of the small town working against him every step of the way as he tries to uncover the truth about Jenna’s death as a lever to coax the scientist out of his stupor. Alex treats this as a quasi-undercover assignment where he is playing the role of a less-accomplished version of himself.

MacDonald’s work is always a notch higher on the literary writing scale than most of his paperback original contemporaries, and “Deadly Welcome” is no exception. There are many poignant passages of excellent introspection about the strong emotions that go along with returning to one’s hometown years after maturity has done its job. It’s refreshing to find an exciting mystery novel with so much to say about the human condition.

There’s violence and intrigue and romance and humor - everything you’ve come to expect from a JDM novel. There’s also a genuinely loathsome and violent villain that will have the reader invested in his comeuppance. The romantic interest is sufficiently lovable and the scenes of violence are bone-cracking good. 

“Deadly Welcome” is an incredibly satisfying read and should be placed at the top of your JDM to-read stack. Highly recommended. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

One Monday We Killed Them All

Excluding science fiction, author John D. MacDonald penned over 50 thrillers, including his long-running salvage-consultant series 'Travis McGee'. His 1960 novel, “The End of the Night”, was described by mammoth bestseller Stephen King as “the greatest novel of the 20th century”. The 1958 novel, “The Executioners”, was adapted twice for film under the well-known title of “Cape Fear”. While new to the crime genre, I'm beginning my MacDonald run with 1961's bold-named “One Monday We Killed Them All”. 

The novel is set in the fictional locale of Brook City, in an unnamed state. My guess, based on process of elimination, puts the book in a rural stretch of Pennsylvania, surrounded by hill country. Brook City is robust, netting large press and a hefty police force. Gravitation from northeastern criminals makes the city more of a landing pad, trafficking the hardened through the softer clutches of mainstreet America. It's a controlled city, with police leveraging criminal supplier Jeff Kermer to run the red lights. The leash has plenty of slack, allowing him and canaries to limit outsiders to mere spectators.  Categorically, the police work for the newspapers.

Our first-person narrator is Lieutenant Fenn Hillyer, an admirable family man and career cop. He's in the precarious situation of career and family colliding, choosing sides and picking up the pieces. The opener has Fenn escorting his brother-in-law, Dwight, from the Brook County Prison. Dwight is a career criminal, physically built for violence but possessing a deceptive coolness that has fooled his sister Meg for a lifetime. Fenn describes his smile as “that of a cat in a fish supermarket”. Fenn and Dwight are at odds, cop vs goon, but share the same household. Meg insists Dwight live with them and Fenn, being a devout husband and father apprehensively agrees.

Dwight's backstory is a familiar one – bad childhood, early arrests, misfortune. The three eventually led to Dwight's role as beefy enforcer for Kermer. He winds up killing an ex-girlfriend that has close ties to the town – she's the newspaper owner's daughter. The pressure is two-fold – Meg's diligence to defend Dwight while the force and press want him out of Fenn's house, out of town and off the radar. The two have escalating conversations, some one-sided, like this stiff-shouldered command from Fenn:

“Come at me boy, and I'll backpedal fast, and I'll be lifting out the Special, and I'll blow your knee into a sack of pebbles and kick your mouth sideways as you go down”.

It's a small sample size of the impact MacDonald has with his story-telling violence. While the book's nucleus is family affairs and it's worrisome burden, the gritty crime-thriller builds to an explosive climax. Dwight's cerebral tension spills over into a procedural pace, marking boundaries, staking out, planning and commitment. Without ruining it for you, which I couldn't live with, the book's last 40-pages builds to a furious stand-off in hill country. This alone is worth the price of admission. As a MacDonald first-timer, I'm unquestionably going back for seconds.

Soft Touch

Florida’s John D. MacDonald was best known for his popular 'Travis McGee' series, but he also wrote a slew of stand-alone crime fiction paperbacks worth reading. His 1958 heist novel, “Soft Touch”, was among the best from that era of his career. 

Our hero Jerry hates his job, his wife and his life. He wants money, freedom and the hot secretary at work. Then a long-lost war buddy shows up with a foolproof plan that could change Jerry's life: a multi-million dollar heist that will allow Jerry to upgrade both his life and his wife.

Because this is a crime novel of the 1950s from Florida's literary noir master, you can guess that everything doesn't go as planned. This is familiar territory previously mined by Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer and other contemporaries from the Fawcett Gold Medal era, but MacDonald keeps it fresh with vivid characters and crisp writing.

The malaise of suburbia with irritating in-laws and busy-body neighbors was well illustrated. The fallacy of “money that no one will ever miss” is put to the test. And while the short novel's ending was imperfect, the ride to that conclusion was filled with compelling bumps in the road for our anti-hero to navigate.

Recommend without hesitation to fans of the genre and John D. MacDonald’s early work.