Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald

The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald, 1964

I am tall, and I gangle. I look like a loose-jointed, clumsy hundred and eighty. The man who takes a better look at the size of my wrists can make a more accurate guess. When I get up to two twelve I get nervous and hack it back on down to two oh five. As far as clumsiness and reflexes go, I have never had to use a flyswatter in my life. My combat expression is one of apologetic anxiety. I like them confident. My stance is mostly composed of elbows.

Lew, faithful dog, wanted it over right now. He hooked with both hands, chin on his chest, snorting, starting the hooks way back, left right left right. He had fists like stones and they hurt. They hurt my elbows and forearms and shoulders, and one glanced off the top of my shoulder and hit me high on the head. When I had the rhythm gauged, I counter punched and knocked his mouth open with an overhand right. His arms stopped churning and began to float. I clacked his mouth shut with a very short left hook. He lowered his arms. I put the right hand in the same place as before and he fell with his mouth open and his eyes rolled up out of sight.
--- (pages 128-129)

John D. MacDonald, while an accomplished writer of standalone crime noir novels, is best known for his Travis McGee series, a loose cycle of mystery/thrillers with a hard-edged, philosophical Fort Lauderdale beach bum/private eye as the central character. Travis McGee (who could be The Continental Op's son and Jack Reacher's father) tangles with a colorful rogue's gallery of freaks, killers and evildoers (and saves more damsels in distress than James Bond), all while waxing poetic about Florida and life in general. The series is a great vehicle for MacDonald's talents and McGee is a terrific character, as offbeat and quirky as the villains he goes up against.

Although The Deep Blue Good-By is chronologically the first in the series I've read others and, like Lee Child's books, there's not too much continuity. Other than an uncharacteristically awkward little saga sell in the first chapter, there's no sign that Good-By is the first book in the cycle. MacDonald jumps right into things as though Travis McGee has been having adventures in print for years.

One night, while relaxing aboard his houseboat, the Busted Flush, McGee has a visitor in the form of a scared young dancer with a problem. Her father, a WWII veteran, left an unspecified treasure hidden on her family's property when he died in prison. Now his psychotic cellmate, a "smiling man" named Junior Allen, has absconded with the loot. She wants McGee to retrieve it for her. Ever the knight in shining armor, McGee enters into a dangerous game with a sexually twisted opponent who uses his new found wealth to prey on women.

The basis for the series is clear from the start: McGee as the reluctant, somewhat reclusive hero with a kind heart and a harsh sense of justice. From a basic description, his character sounds like most of the crime-fiction heroes of the last sixty years, but MacDonald makes him a strange and compelling figure. He's not invulnerable, not invincible, capable of making rash decisions and bad mistakes. It's not really clear why he pulls away from the world the way he does, but he seems happy that way. His trademark bursts of impassioned and wordy commentary do take some getting used to, and at first they seem unnatural coming from someone who's supposedly a rough-and-tumble private eye. After a while though, they just become part of McGee's off-kilter charm.

Good-By has a pretty bare-bones plot, even for a John D. MacDonald novel. There aren't a lot of conceptual twists or complexity, just a simple crime story that uses familiar tropes. There's only one villain, one McGuffin, one central quest without subplots or discursions. What sets it apart from the crowd is MacDonald's twin gifts for creating suspense and generating rich, evocative prose.

Before the praise begins, I have one big criticism, which especially applies to the book's first half. MacDonald is a pretty flagrantly sexist author and he has an exhausting habit of creating paper-thin female characters that literally throw themselves at McGee in droves. None of his female characters have any real characteristics of their own; they exist to provide McGee with someone to talk to and go to bed with. Most of them are whimpering victims who need his protection; the rest are slutty imbeciles who have no control over themselves. MacDonald describes all of his female characters with loving, sexualized detail, and after a while it gets incredibly tiresome and exaggerated to the point of interfering with the story.

I'm not saying MacDonald was a horrible person and I'm not saying there aren't a few female characters in his whole body of work with a little more complexity, but in this particular book the constantly sexualized imagery and characterization is wearying. This probably says more about the time the book was written in and the target audience than anything else, but it's one of the only aspects of MacDonald's writing that I'm not crazy about.

What I am crazy about is MacDonald's use of language. His rhythm is offbeat, but once you're used to it his prose just pops off the page. A bootlicking assistant answers the phone in "a young, hushed and earnest voice." A man is "hunched, seamed, cadaverous [. . .] with dusty-looking black hair[.]" One of McGee's contacts is a "jouncy, leathery little man who punctuated each comment with a wink and a snicker, as if he had just told a joke." At one point in the action, while surrounded by "[d]apper little fellows. . . making shrill little cries of consternation[,]" McGee "grabbed the nearest handful of silk blazer and lifted it onto its tippy toes[.]" There's something unique and delightful about MacDonald's writing, something that elevates the novel well above typical pulp fiction.

He's also a master at creating suspense and tension. Like all the best storytellers, he knows how to pace and how to set up a story that whizzes like a roller coaster to a big finale that pays everything off. MacDonald gets a lot of mileage out of Good-By's relatively simple story just by keeping Junior Allen off-stage for most of the book. As we hear more and more about his depravity and animal cunning, he becomes more intimidating without showing up until just before the climax--which, I must add, is everything a thriller climax should be. MacDonald, of course, follows up the action finale with one of the sad, deflating revelations that he does so well. The novel is more than just a breezy tale of adventure; there's a little depth here, a little soul, as there always is with MacDonald and McGee.

NEXT UP: Janet Evanovich's One for the Money.

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