Tag Archives: Travis McGee

The thriller of it all

All readers are critics, but not all readers (and definitely not all critics) are created equal. So when this reader-blogger offers a critique of a thriller, it’s useful to pay attention. I particularly liked this observation:

There are three ways to go with a thriller.  You can write what’s essentially a horror story.  You can tell a morality tale.  You can make it a comedy.  It seems like most contemporary thrillers—books and movies—are horror stories. The bad guys are monsters, inhumanly evil, irresistible, relentless, and possessed of an almost supernatural ability to cause harm and get away with it.  John D. McDonald, Raymond Chandler, and Robert B. Parker told morality tales. Most of the crimes in their novels arise from decent people’s moral failings rather than from the intrusion of an outside evil.

That certainly gets at the core of what I like most about John D. MacDonald’s novels. His Travis McGee books are not as consistent as, say, John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport series, but the only out-and-out stinker of the series, The Green Ripper, goes wrong because MacDonald has his hero tangling with a terrorist cell disguised as a bizarre religious cult. (Great way for terrorists to avoid attention.) There’s also the tired device of having the hero out to avenge the murder of his beloved, but even that might have been less wheezy if MacDonald had kept his villains within the realm of crooked sheriffs, sleazy developers, petty mobsters, and rustic psychopaths — territory MacDonald made his own over the course of dozens of novels.

I’m not crazy enough to equate myself with MacDonald or any of the other authors in Lance Mannion’s piece, but my own fiction rests comfortably within his definition of a morality tale. I tend to nod off when reading about eeee-vil global conspiracies and bands of maniacs with Hitler’s head tucked away in the freezer. I like human-scaled heroes and villains, and I prefer the evil acts to arise from recognizable human-scale behavior.

That’s the case with my first novel, We All Fall Down, and it will be the case with my second, Echo, coming out in about ten months or so. But I’ll get back to that in due course.     

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The life and crimes

James Lee Burke hits the nail on the head when he talks about how good crime stories have become the last refuge of the sociological novel. I like to point out that Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, came out in 1929, the same year as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and which novel do you think had more real observations to make about contemporary life? Hammett showed his readers a grimy industrial city where the wealthy and the criminal class had come together to destroy a labor union, and in the aftermath continued in a state of dangerous balance, corrupt from top to bottom and ready to collapse at a touch. As Burke himself notes, James T. Farrell’s  1930s novels about Studs Lonigan were, at heart, crime stories. John D. MacDonald never enjoyed much critical esteem for most of his career, but a book like Bright Orange for the Shroud, centered on a semi-legal real estate scam in mid-1960s Florida, will tell you more about what was turning sour and mean in mid-twentieth-century America than most other novels of its time.

This will no doubt come as a shock to Tom Wolfe, who wore out the shoulders of his ice-cream suits while patting himself on the back for paying attention to American society in The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and his other notebook-dump novels. Those novels had their virtues, but Wolfe didn’t seem to grasp that someone like MacDonald could pack just as much sociological observation into a slender paperback original, all without getting into pissing matches with John Irving.

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Payback McGee

Writers — journalists in particular, but writers in general — have a finely honed instinct for payback. So it’s no surprise to learn that John D. MacDonald, creator of Travis McGee and scores of superb suspense novels, spent the later years of his career sending sarcastic rejection letters to editors who approached him for stories after having turned him down during his scuffling years.

I don’t know what trapdoor slips were like in the Forties, when MacDonald got started, but his parody letter is far more personable and intelligible than the bizarro-world corporate-speak rejections going out these days. But that’s John D. MacDonald for you. The man never wrote a dull sentence in his life.

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Friday finds

Weimar book

Journey Round My Skull takes us on a journey round the book covers of Weimar Germany.

Devin Johnston and the compulsion for stillness.

Now that Asbury Park is showing signs of life once again, it’s sort of appropriate in a skewed way that this kind of thing would happen.

Another view of that maybe-might film version of John D. MacDonald’s first Travis McGee novel.

Do you know about Kate Adie? Maybe you should.

Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1989!

Scorekeeper loves the stereo remasters of the Beatles album catalogue.

A trip into the mind of Ted Nugent.

Typo from hell, big-ticket book cover edition. Not that the contents — or much else the guy has written — warrant serious attention.

Interspecies affirmative action, or: A link for those readers who think I run too many dog pictures.

“At times in this movie, I felt like it was making me regress to being a little kid, remembering the simple joy of throwing things, breaking things, building Wild Thing moviethings, making up stories, and also the feeling of being hurt by small things like mom or big sister won’t pay attention to you exactly when you want, so you go hide in your room and feel sorry for yourself. Max has those feelings and then Carol, a wild thing portrayed brilliantly by the voice of James Gandolfini, amplifies them to giant size. He represents the needy side of a kid, the one that feels sorry for himself and gets angry too easily . . . a monster who’s only scary because he’s so emotionally fragile you gotta walk on egg shells around him.  They should try that in a Godzilla movie sometime.”

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Color it hopeless

Since John D. MacDonald used color-coded titles for his Travis McGee mystery series, I’m trying to come up with a suitable shade for my response to the news that Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star in a film version of The Deep Blue Good-by, the 1964 curtain-raiser for the series.

“Black” seems too strong for what bodes to be merely another exercise in mediocrity and non-epic fail. Hmmmm . . . The Merely Mauve Mediocrity? The Weak White Washout? The Deep Blue Direct-to-DVD? I don’t know DeepBlueGoodbyanything about the behind-the-camera talent signed up, but I can tell you the casting of the lead is ridiculously wrong. DiCaprio is a Jimmy Cagney type, while McGee is a tall, gangly ex-football player who doesn’t seem very imposing until you try to tangle with him. DiCaprio is far more talented than the other actors who’ve tried to embody McGee, but this ain’t the role for him.

It wouldn’t be the first time a McGee movie went wrong. The first film adaptation, Darker Than Amber, brightly offered Rod Taylor as the Florida beach bum. Long out of print, the movie is chiefly remembered for its climactic fistfight, in which Taylor and the actor playing one of the villains got so angry at each other that the staged brawl became a real knockdown-dragout. It wasn’t one of the stronger McGee titles to begin with, but Rod Freaking Taylor? Just how open-minded do we have to be in this life? Sam Eliot was better than expected as McGee in a 1983 television adaptation of The Empty Copper Sea, but the Florida setting was switched to California. On the outrage meter, that’s tantamount to putting Philip Marlowe in Trenton, or stranding Sherlock Holmes in Gary, Indiana.

The Marlowe comparison stands because John D. MacDonald was the true successor to Raymond Chandler, another writer whose books resist adaptation. A great many actors have taken a run at Philip Marlowe, and while some have come closer than others — Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum each came pretty damn close to nailing it in their respective versions of The Big Sleep — but the character remains wedded to the printed page, and the inimitable voice crafted by the author.

There’s a lot of Chandler’s mix of romanticism and cynicism in Travis McGee, rodtaylorbut MacDonald went Chandler several steps better. Marlowe’s Los Angeles stalking grounds have already been despoiled by grifters and predators. McGee’s Florida home base is just starting to be overrun (the heyday of the series was in the Sixties and Seventies) by a menagerie of mobsters, developers, backwater creeps, and transplanted operators. MacDonald was usually at his best when he was pissed off about something, and the destruction of south Florida gave him plenty to get pissed off about. I’m not saying that cranky, mournful, sometimes inspired voice can’t be conveyed in a film, but I’m not going to wait around for it to happen.

And casting McGee is only half the battle. You also have to come up with a good choice for Meyer, McGee’s friend and foil. Not even the Sam Eliot film came up with an acceptable actor, so if anything the track record gives even less cause for hope.

Something tells me the odds are good that this film will never even get made. Plenty of projects never make it to the screen, and this has the earmarks of a non-starter.

In which case I have another problem: What color is limbo?

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