I reported last week on a mystery by Robert Crais and was somewhat critical. When I compare his work with that of MacDonald, it is the difference between an A grade and a solid B. Both good grades, but clearly one is better.
For example, the Travis McGee character feels real; a bum willing to help his friends; an idealist; a man who wants to be left alone but who works when he needs money.
MacDonald is one of several dozen great writers who came out of WWII eager to tell stories, sometimes based on their war experiences. In the case of Travis McGee, the story is about living a simple, uncomplicated life, only to find that life throws bad things our way. This novel is MacDonald’s second of the McGee series of 21 books, the first four of which were all published in 1964. Clearly, he had been working on them for a while.
He published his first novel in 1950, The Brass Cupcake. That was followed by 41 more before the Travis McGee series began. He wrote 5 more stand-alones after that, the last one published the year he died, 1986. He wrote over 500 short stories throughout his career.
Let me copy a paragraph from this book to give you a feel for his style. The setting is an office in an investment firm in New York City.
Robert received me in a junior shrine of his very own, a leathery little church-lighted opaque box, filled with a hush of money. He sat waxen in his dark suit, his pale little mouth sucked in, a steep and glossy wave in his dark brown hair. No one had ever called him Bob or Bobby. He was a Robert, brown-eyed and watchful.
With those few words, we know everything we need to know about Robert, and likely about his role in the death being investigated.
One of the problems with reading older authors is that they are stuck in time. This book was published in 1964 when the explosion of social movements was just beginning. For all his skills as a writer, he was not a literary soothsayer. He lagged behind the various equality movements–women’s lib, racial equality, etc.
But, just like reading Moby Dick, or Huckleberry Finn, we have to remember history.
I will be reading more of John D. MacDonald.