Lives and deaths converge at a river crossing in John D. MacDonald's iconic thriller.
Fawcett Publications kept illustrator Barye Phillips mighty busy with its Gold Medal line, and here his work is yet again, on the cover of John D. MacDonald's 1952 thriller The Damned. The creekside setting doesn't actually capture the mood of the book, but it's a very nice, ominously serene piece of art. Beyond the cover readers will encounter MacDonald wrestling with what we considered to be a very literary concept. An automobile ferry develops various issues, leaving a long line of cars stuck at a Mexican river crossing most of a day and all of a night. Except for the few people who had driven there together, none know each other, but on that desolate roadside they interact in life-changing ways, ranging from budding love to betrayal to abandonment to sudden death. With more than a dozen stories interwoven, none are truly resolved, but most characters end up pointed toward destinies that can be guessed. As we've mentioned before, the farther you go back into MacDonald's bibliography the less didactic he tends to be. The Damned is his fifth novel, and its freshness of concept speaks to a writer spreading his wings and reveling in the purity of creative flight. This is the MacDonald we think newcomers to his work will enjoy most.
MacDonald paves the way for two brilliant film adaptations.
John D. MacDonald's The Executioners should be studied in screenwriting classes as an example of what great movie minds can do with good base material. The book was made into two movies, both called Cape Fear, the first in 1962 with Robert Mitchum playing an iconic villain, and the second in 1991 with a lean and terrifying Robert DeNiro in the same role. You probably know the novel's basic set-up: a young man's testimony sends a savage rapist to prison, but years later as a middle-aged lawyer, he's astonished to find not only that the rapist has earned an early parole, but that he has one thing on his mind—revenge. MacDonald gets the entire backstory of the rape, trial, and imprisonment built in the first twenty pages, then kicks the tale into high gear as the hero tries to save his family from several potentially horrible forms of retribution.
The book is great, but even so it's of minimal scope compared to both film adaptations. The 1962 Cape Fear rearranged the book's climax into something more intense and physical, while the 1991 Cape Fear, which was directed by Martin Scorsese, took the pedophile sexual predator subtext of the novel and dragged all its dark ugliness right out into the open. Both adaptations made wise, bold choices, both were acclaimed by critics, and both pushed the envelope while daring audiences to endure the ride. So what you have here is a book that is among MacDonald's best, and two movies based upon it that are both among the best cinema of their era. That's some trick. We suggest you make time for all three. It will be well worth it.
Unstoppable forces meet immovable opinions in John D. MacDonald's novels.
John D. MacDonald is a polemical writer. We've jumped around his lengthy bibliography enough to be intimately familiar with his strong opinions about a wide ranging array of subjects. His basic approach is, “I've thought about this social phenomenon/cultural development/historical factoid much more carefully than anybody and here's the ironclad dogma I've developed about it.” Which is fine, we guess. His observations about the inexorable direction of civilization remain insightful half a century later. We've built a house of cards and MacDonald took pains to point that out, with intelligence and some wit. But in seven books we've read, which he wrote in three different decades, he consistently cheats when writing about people, choosing in general to portray them as weak willed cardboard cutouts so they serve as foils for his sociological philosophizing.
This, more than any other reason, is why so many contemporary readers say MacDonald's writing hasn't aged well. But in our opinion he's still worth reading. There's real menace in his work, which is job one for a thriller author. In 1953's Dead Low Tide his hero is suspected of using a spear gun to skewer his boss, seemingly over either a real estate project or the man's slinky wife, and someone may be setting him up for the crime. His actual prospective love interest, a longtime neighbor, is drawn into the mess in her efforts to provide an alibi. MacDonald dishes out the twists, despairs the loss of Florida wilderness to fast-buck builders, and laments what's in the hearts of men. It's a good book, but you don't need us to tell you that. The man sold a skillion novels for a reason. We're moving on to The Executioners after this, which is the source material for the film adaptation Cape Fear, and we have high expectations.
Do you find people disagreeable? Maybe it's you that's the problem.
This Ron Lesser cover for John D. MacDonald's Pale Gray for Guilt is a variation on the one we posted years back. Yes, we keep reading these MacDonald books even though we complain about the author, but we have no problem with the writing itself—the guy was named a Grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, after all. He can certainly write, his plots are usually engrossing, and his characters are interesting. All good. But to an extent we also read him for the same reason some people watch cable news—i.e. to disagree with his opinions. We think the ’60s and ’70s counterculture brought about important, positive, and long overdue changes to society. MacDonald is basically counter-counterculture.
Years back we developed an aphorism, which we became known for among our friends: The moment you make a generalization about any group of people, the living contradiction to that generalization will be nearby to make you look like a fool. MacDonald's franchise character Travis McGee has met his share of people and has scathing views of various groups. We don't mean ethnically or gender-wise, but more esoterically. He'll put down all people who see psychiatrists, or all people who waterski, or all people who vacation in Palm Springs. He finds various categories of humans tedious, save for the few that meet his lofty standards and in so doing serve as proof of his own excellent taste.
The Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle states that the more accurately you measure the velocity of a particle the less accurately you can measure its position, and vice versa. Which is to say any energy you use to pinpoint position will alter a particle's velocity simply by impacting it, and the reverse is true. In human relations, some people tend to alter those they meet. Nice people may cause disagreeable people to temporarily behave a bit nicer; disagreeable people may make normally nice people behave disagreeably. To a disagreeable person, then, it seems as if lots of people are disagreeable.
In Pale Gray for Guilt the disagreeable Travis McGee is focused on avenging the murder of one of his best friends, which seems to have come about due to a refusal to sell waterfront acreage to a large development corporation. McGee manages to buy the land himself, thus bringing the villains out of the woodwork to wrest it from him. The story takes a curiously long time to develop, gets overly deep into the minutiae of stock trading, and contains virtually no action, so we imagine this is one of the less liked entries in the McGee series. Yet it's still very readable, which just goes to show what raw writing skill can do.
We finally used the internet for something useful and solved this MacDonald problem—we simply looked up some lists of his best books. Based on the consensus that emerged from his fans (who by the way seem to agree that the McGee series is not as good as his earlier standalone novels), we're going to read Dead Low Tide, Deadly Welcome, The Executioners (made into the film Cape Fear), and The Drowner. Those seem to be the books people really like, and as a bonus they're all cheap to buy.
Somebody tried to put a glass slipper on my foot but I told him I'm strictly a Gucci girl.
Above is a nice George Gross cover for John D. MacDonald's 1953 novel A Bullet for Cinderella. We acquired this book mainly because of the art, but also to see if the weird generalizations about various types of people we complained about in MacDonald's Travis McGee novels was the character or the author. Turns out it was the author. But he keeps it in a lower gear than in his McGee novels, which helps. In the story a Korean War prison camp survivor heads to a dead buddy's home town to try to locate $60,000 in stolen money. On his deathbed in the prison camp the friend had confessed to hiding the money, but in his delirium did not say exactly where. He asked that the money be returned to its rightful owner but the hero of the story plans to keep it. To his dismay another death camp survivor who somehow learned the same information is already in the town, also trying to locate the cash. You get a battle of wills, a moral struggle over whether to keep the money if found, and a love interest who was once the dead man's girl. You could find a better book to read, but you could also find a lot worse.
The pieces of treasure are worth a fortune. The nuggets of wisdom—not so much.
Barbara Walton art graces the dust sleeve of John D. MacDonald's A Deadly Shade of Gold. It was published in 1967 by Robert Hale, Ltd. two years after the book's U.S. debut. MacDonald's franchise character Travis McGee kicks ass and dispenses unsolicited wisdom, and while the action is fun, the philosophizing is less so. The latter is sometimes insightful when directed at civilization, but is often sweeping and incorrect when directed at civilians. Vacationers are this way. College boys are that way. Lesbians are this way. We've had plenty of experiences with all the categories of humans McGee thinks of as tedious and banal, and we found them to be as varied and interesting as any other group.
The book, though, is engrossing, built around our favorite film noir and crime fiction device—a trip to Mexico, with the action set in the fictional coastal town of Puerto Altamura. There McGee seeks to uncover the killers of a close friend and determine the whereabouts of a set of golden pre-Colombian statuettes. Five entries into the series and MacDonald seems to have hit his stride. We liked this caper, though McGee is obviously going to keep making dubious pronouncements (we sent a supposed-to-be racially insightful passage from the seventh entry Darker than Amber to a friend who'd be qualified to judge, and he said: “What idiot wrote that?”). If you're curious about the character or author you can learn more at thetrapofsolidgold.blogspot.com, pretty much the last word on all things Travis McGee and John D.
I'm not judging you for being an easy lay, baby. I'm judging you for not letting me get any damn sleep.
This is a nice effort from illustrator Barye Phillips for John D. MacDonald's 1951 thriller Judge Me Not. Everything Phillips does is beautiful, of course, but we were particularly stuck by the pastel pinks and blues here. As for the writing, this is early John D., and the story concerns a burned out war vet having an affair with the mayor's wife in a small town, and the events set into motion when she turns up dead. We've been making our way through MacDonald's bibliography. His renown makes us sure we'll soon come across the book that truly thrills us, but this wasn't the one.
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.
These are people who definitely pay attention to the poles.
When you look at lots of paperbacks sometimes a common thread suddenly jumps out at you that went unnoticed before. Such was the case a few weeks ago when we noticed the large number of characters on mid-century covers leaning against poles—light poles, telephone poles, sign poles, etc. We suggested someone should put together a collection, but of course we really meant us, so today you see above and below various characters deftly using these features of the urban streetscape as accessories. Art is from Benedetto Caroselli, Harry Schaare, George Gross, Rudolph Belarski, James Avati, et al. You can see a couple more examples here and here. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1951—Churchill Becomes Prime Minster Again
The Conservative Party wins the British general election, making Winston Churchill prime minister for the second time. Churchill is nearly 76 at the time, making him the second oldest prime minister in history after William Gladstone. Churchill remains PM until 1955, when he steps down at 81 due to ill health.
1964—The Night Caller Is Executed
In Australia, Eric Edgar Cooke, who had earned the nickname Night Caller, is hanged after being convicted of murder. He had terrorized Perth for four years, committing 22 violent crimes, eight of which resulted in deaths. He becomes the last person to be executed in Western Australia.
1938—Archbishop Denounces Dance Music
The Archbishop of Dubuque, Francis J. L. Beckman, makes headlines in the U.S. when he attacks swing music as a degenerated musical system destined to gnaw away at the moral fiber of young people. His denouncement follows on the heels of the music being banned in Germany due to its African and Jewish origins.
1993—Vincent Price Dies
American actor Vincent Price, who had achieved the height of his fame acting in low budget horror movies, and became famous again as the macabre voice in Michael Jackson's song "Thriller," dies at age 82 of complications from emphysema and Pariknson's disease.
1929—Stock Market Crashes
Black Thursday, a catastrophic crash on the New York Stock Exchange, occurs when the value of stocks suddenly declines and continues to decline for a month. The event leads to a subsequent crash in world stock prices and precipitates the Great Depression. This after famous economist Irving Fisher had declared that stock prices had reached a permanently high plateau.
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