Friday, January 9, 2009

Book Review: The Red Hot Typewriter by Hugh Merrill

The Red Hot TypewriterJohn D. MacDonald was one of the most prolific crime writers to ever put pen to paper. MacDonald published more than 70 novels (not all in the crime genre) and 500 short stories during his lifetime. Probably best known for the 21 Travis McGee novels he wrote, MacDonald spent most of his adult life banging out millions of words of prose at home in Sarasota, Florida. A biography by Hugh Merrill entitled The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald, chronicles the life of one of the most popular crime writers who ever lived.

Some biographies are mind numbingly thorough in chasing down every living person who ever interacted with the individual in question. Such weighty tomes ensure that no stone is left unturned and no detail left unexplored. Thankfully, The Red Hot Typewriter is not one of those biographies. That may be a disappointment to some, but others are just as likely to welcome a lighter, more readable volume. Perhaps Merrill was attempting to emulate the lean writing style that MacDonald was known for in many of his Travis McGee novels.

Neither are there any lengthy interviews with family members or friends of John D. MacDonald. The book is based mainly on letters that MacDonald wrote, and observations and opinions of the author. There are, of course, the requisite passages devoted to the childhood of MacDonald, but things quickly shift to his writing years.

As the lives of some of the past century's greatest writers go, MacDonald's certainly can't be classed as dramatic or overly interesting. But when you churn out so many books and short stories, how much time do you have to get up to real-life adventure? For that reason, the book probably won't appeal to those readers who aren't fans of MacDonald. But Merrill himself clearly is a fan, and his narrative style results in an entertaining and enjoyable book despite the fact that MacDonald led a relatively low-key and conservative life.

The biography rightly focuses on MacDonald's writing but we also discover other aspects of the great crime writer's life. His lifelong concern for the environment, his love of cats, and his battles with property developers in Florida are just a few of the things that kept MacDonald occupied when he wasn't writing.

Despite their wealth, MacDonald and his wife didn't lead extravagant or flamboyant lives. One of their greatest shared passions later in life was going on boat cruises.

MacDonald was such a faithful and committed husband that he was overwhelmed with regret at engaging in a "tryst" that consisted of exchanged glances at cocktail parties and a few emotional conversations. MacDonald dutifully admitted his lapse to his wife and was quickly forgiven. Merrill writes briefly about the non-scandalous, non-affair but MacDonald's life didn't lean towards sleaze, and the biography doesn't seek out gossip or make innuendos.

The most interesting part of the book for many readers will be the passages that discuss the development of MacDonald as a great writer. The advent of Travis McGee came about almost by accident, as Fawcett books contacted MacDonald after one of their most popular crime series writers jumped ship to another publisher. MacDonald had initially decided to name the character Dallas McGee but changed it to Travis after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. At that time, MacDonald didn't want to use the name that could have other associations in the minds of readers. Merrill writes regarding the decisions that went into developing the series:

Once he had a character, he had to decide how to distinguish one McGee book from another. He didn't want to number them, because then a reader might feel compelled to read them in order. MacDonald discussed this problem with friends on a trip to New York.
"Musical terminology, days of the week, months of the year, varieties of gemstones--all of these were discarded, and I believe it was Knox Burger, who edited all the early ones, who suggested colors."

The repeated attempts by movie studios to bring Travis McGee to the big screen also make for interesting reading. MacDonald was torn by the idea, at once not wanting to lose control of his creation but also craving the enhanced legacy that a well-made film could have brought. The unique elements of the McGee novels meant that a successful transition to film was never made.

MacDonald also discusses his hopes and fears in many of the letters that Merrill references in the book. We find out that MacDonald could never wrap his head around the whole race issue that was gripping the U.S. during much of the 1960s and 70s and he never worked the theme into his books in any convincing way.

MacDonald was a drinker for most of his life but it was never a major problem. However, together with his smoking habit and overall sedentary lifestyle, it probably contributed to his death in 1986 at the age of 70.

After reading The Red Hot Typewriter, you will probably have a greater appreciation for John D. MacDonald as a writer and will likely also see him as a reasonable and decent person.

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