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.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Book Review: The Deep Blue Good-by: by John D. MacDonald

The Deep Blue Good-byThe Deep Blue Good-by was the first of 21 Travis McGee novels by the late, great John D. MacDonald.

McGee is a nihilistic, misanthropic loner who lives on his boat, The Busted Flush, which is docked in a marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He has largely dropped out of mainstream life and only works when he runs low on cash.

In the opening chapter of The Deep Blue Good-by, a female character queries McGee about what he does for a living, rephrasing a "job description" McGee had apparently offered up earlier:

"You said if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you on that until it starts to run out. Is that the way it is, really?"

McGee accepts this version and thus the reader has an idea of what kind of character they are being presented. He is a sort of private eye, but not exactly. However, like most of the well known hard-boiled private eye novels, this McGee story is a morality play. And like most of the hard cases who came before him in the pulp fiction world, behind the tough talking, fearless forays into dangerous situations, McGee is also someone who genuinely cares about the people he tries to help.

It’s almost as if MacDonald fashioned McGee as a combination of the hardened crime novel detective and the sensitive new age man who was gaining prominence at the time (The Deep Blue Good-by was published in 1964). The typical sleuth/lothario, McGee comes across his share of attractive and troubled tarts. He rebuffs some, sleeps with a few, and feels regret at leading others on.

Through it all, McGee riffs on various things he loathes about the modern world. In The Deep Blue Good-by, a recurring theme is the women he deals with and the limited opportunities they have in life. In one classic rant, McGee muses:

"The scene is reputed to be acrawl with adorably amoral bunnies to whom sex is a pleasant social favor. The new culture. And they are indeed present and available, in exhaustive quantity, but there is a curious tastelessness about them. A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of much value to anyone else. They become a pretty little convenience, like a guest towel.”

These philosophical asides (and later in the series, conversations with a character named Meyer) became one of the trademarks of the McGee novels. They are one of the aspects that fans of the novels like the most but probably one reason the books were never successfully adapted to the big screen.

The book is written in the first person using simple, lean sentences that move the action forward. The plot is almost secondary here. McGee’s observations, monologues, and dialogue with other characters are the driving force behind the story. Not that there isn’t any plot or action.

McGee tracks down the nasty piece of work who has abused and cheated the two main female characters. While McGee is a nuanced individual who doubts himself and doesn't always play by the rules, the villain is pure evil. The action builds to a brutal showdown in which all does not end in a pat, satisfying way.

A taut, sparsely written novel that is the first in the classic Travis McGee series.