Vintage Pulp May 11 2017
THE SMARTEST GUY IN THE ROOM
It isn't easy being more highly evolved than everyone else.


These covers are from John D. MacDonald hardbacks published by British imprint Robert Hale during the mid-1960s, two entries in his famed Travis McGee series. Eight years ago we shared a selection of Fawcett Gold Medal paperback covers from the series which were painted by luminaries Ron Lesser, Elaine Duillo, Robert McGinnis, and others. You can see them here if you're inclined. When we put together that set we hadn't read any of the books, so we figured it was time to take ole John D. and his creation McGee for a spin.

We read the novels you see above and the results were a bit mixed for us. McGee is a sort of fixer who lives an idle life on a houseboat in Florida, but takes detective-like jobs whenever money runs short. Despite his laid back trappings, he's a cynical, hypercritical guy who thinks he knows everything about everyone. MacDonald tries to mitigate this somewhat by making McGee occasionally critical of himself, but it's just a fig leaf. The guy is an enormous pain—manipulative, often pointlessly mean, and of the opinion that he can discern facts about people that they don't know about themselves.

These assessments of others always turn out to be true, as you'd expect since they come from the star character, but we couldn't help thinking how in real life McGee would be a real trial to know. That's just our opinion. But here's what's indisputable—MacDonald's female characters are mentally weak and sexually neurotic. McGee sometimes treats them shabbily and they later thank him for shaking them up. In The Deep Blue Goodbye when a woman important to McGee dies, he has virtually no reaction. His aplomb is inconsistent, considering at other times we hear his deepest thoughts about everything from the sexual proclivities of hippies to the eventual fate of western civilization.

Our feelings about him are probably generational. We weren't even zygotes when these novels were published, so maybe this sort of jaundiced and superior cynicism played better back in the sixties when a major cultural shift was underway. Despite our quibbles, the plots of these novels are engaging, and McGee, though full of himself, isn't invincible. The difficulties he runs into are surprising, and often deadly, particularly in Nightmare in Pink, in which the villains manage to put him into an exceedingly tight spot. A palpable sense of menace in the fiction helps carry the day.

The art above was painted by the genius illustrator Barbara Walton, who was sort of a house artist for Robert Hale Limited, producing scores of dust jackets for the company. In fact, she was one of the greatest of dust jacket artists, someone whose work surpassed its boundaries to become fine art. That fact may not be fully clear here, but trust us. We haven't talked much about Walton because of our focus on paperbacks, but she was really something. You can see another example of her work (one of her least impressive pieces) here, and an entire gallery of good stuff here.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
April 16
1943—First LSD Trip Takes Place
Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann, while working at Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, accidentally absorbs lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, and thus discovers its psychedelic properties. He had first synthesized the substance five years earlier but hadn't been aware of its effects. He goes on to write scores of articles and books about his creation.
April 15
1912—The Titanic Sinks
Two and a half hours after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage, the British passenger liner RMS Titanic sinks, dragging 1,517 people to their deaths. The number of dead amount to more than fifty percent of the passengers, due mainly to the fact the liner was not equipped with enough lifeboats.
1947—Robinson Breaks Color Line
African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson officially breaks Major League Baseball's color line when he debuts for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Several dark skinned men had played professional baseball around the beginning of the twentieth century, but Robinson was the first to overcome the official segregation policy called—ironically, in retrospect—the "gentleman's agreement".
April 14
1935—Dust Storm Strikes U.S.
Exacerbated by a long drought combined with poor soil conservation techniques that caused excessive soil erosion on farmlands, a huge dust storm known as Black Sunday rages across Texas, Oklahoma, and several other states, literally turning day to night and redistributing an estimated 300,000 tons of topsoil.
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