Monday, May 23, 2016

Deadly Welcome

"I work long each day, and usually have at least three books in various stages of clumsiness, letting the subconscious mind untie the knots of the ones on the shelf while I work on the one in front of me. I revise by throwing out whole chapters, sections, even whole books, and starting again—a device which seems to enhance freshness.”

By the second half of the 1950’s John D MacDonald had set a pace for writing that was nothing short of astonishing. From 1955 thru 1959 he wrote 17 novels, 34 shorter works of fiction, a novella that became the second half of his first anthology (“Linda”) and, edited a short story anthology for the Mystery Writers of America, a task he claimed that took the time he could have used to write a full novel of his own. Of course, MacDonald was no stranger to producing large quantities of fiction in a short period of time. His output in 1949 was an amazing 72 short stories and novellas, but these were done mainly for the pulps and their quality was not always first rate. His novels, on the other hand, -- outside of a few early titles -- show a steadily increasing mastery of the written word, in plot, dialogue, characterization and story construction. These were not two-cents-a-word quickies written for an ephemeral periodical market, but works that have survived and influenced a generation of other writers because of their quality and originality.

In 1959 MacDonald had two novels published in the same month, both of them excellent works and both of them as different as two books could possibly be. In March Simon and Schuster published MacDonald’s sixth hardcover effort, the comedy-romance Please Write for Details. Also in March Dell published what would be their last JDM novel, a mystery of superior quality titled Deadly Welcome. It was JDM’s return to form in a couple of ways: he once again used the plot device of a (relatively) ordinary man travelling to a unfamiliar place in search of something (See A Bullet for Cinderella and Death Trap). And, for the first time since 1956’s Murder in the Wind -- ten novels back -- he set the action in Florida.

The “something” Tal Howard in A Bullet for Cinderella was searching for was, ostensibly, a hidden treasure, but his real quest was for some meaning and purpose to a life that had been undone by time spent in a brutal prisoner of war camp. Hugh MacReedy in Death Trap seeks to help an old girlfriend to whom he had done dirt to, but the real subtext of his search is atonement. In Deadly Welcome, Alex Doyle is sent to a small town on the west coast of Florida to do a job for the Pentagon, but this particular town forces him to face insecurities he has been running from all his adult life.

Doyle is State Department employee, an investigator of sorts, who is pulled off an assignment in South America and sent over to the Department of Defense for an odd and unique assignment.  A year and a half ago, Colonel Crawford M’Gann, a brilliant Air Force scientist who had been working on an important top secret project for the Pentagon, suffered a heart attack and was nursed back to health by his young wife, a “questionable” woman who had been a nightclub singer prior to their meeting. Jenna M’Gann moved her ailing husband to her hometown, Ramona Beach, Florida, an undeveloped small town on one of the keys south of Sarasota. A few months later Jenna was found murdered and the assailant was never identified. M’Gann’s sister Celia moved in with her brother and she strenuously guards access to him and the remote beach cottage where they live.

The Pentagon needs Colonel M’Gann back working on their project and has sent several of their people down to Florida in an attempt to convince him to return. None of them has gained access, thanks not only to Celia’s strong defenses but to the insular nature of the community, a throwback to a small southern town that was typical before Florida began turning into a statewide resort. Simply put, they don’t like strangers in Ramona Beach. And that’s where Alex Doyle figures into the equation.

Ramona Beach is Doyle’s home town, where he was born, raised and lived until he was eighteen, and he has strong reservations about returning.

"I... I was born there, Colonel. Right at the bottom. Swamp cracker, Colonel. My God, even talking about it, I can hear the accent coming back. Rickets and undernourishment and patched jeans. Side meat and black-eyed peas. A cracker shack on Chaney's Bayou two miles from town. There was me and my brother. Rafe was older. He and my pa drowned when I was ten. Out netting mackerel by moonlight and nobody knew what happened except they'd both drink when they were out netting. Then Ma and I moved into town, and we has a shed room out in back of the Ramona Hotel and she worked there. She died when I was thirteen, Colonel. In her sleep and I found her. She was just over forty and she was an old, old woman. The Ducklins were distant kin and they took me in and I worked in their store for them all the time I wasn't in school. I don't even think of Ramona any more. Sometimes I find myself remembering, and I make myself stop."

And there’s another reason he hasn’t been back in fifteen years. On his eighteenth birthday he celebrated and got drunk for the first time. He woke up later to find that the Ducklin’s store had been robbed, his key used to gain entry and some of the money stuffed in his pockets. He hadn’t committed the crime, but the evidence was clear.

“I knew what they were all saying. That the Ducklins had taken me in and been decent to me, and that was the way I'd paid them back. Like all the rest of the Doyles. Can't trust that trash.”

Doyle was arrested and a deal was struck: plead guilty, agree to enlist in the army and the sentence would be suspended. He did so and left for good, fighting in the world war, going to college, back to war in Korea, then on to the State Department. He has buried those first eighteen years deep into his psyche and does not want to revisit it.

"I can't go back. Maybe it's... too important in my mind, more important than it should be. But I was... proud of myself, I guess. I'd made a good record in Ramona High School. Scholarship and athletics. I was popular with... the better class of kids. And then... It all went wrong for me. What will they say to me if I go back?"

Eventually Doyle decides to face his demons and agrees to the assignment. There’s one thing he didn’t tell the Pentagon boys, a bit of his past that links him even more to this particular affair. Colonel M’Gann’s murdered wife, Jenna, was Jenna Larkin, a popular and notorious wild child, whose body turned “to perfection at thirteen,” and used it to her advantage. She was the eldest and favorite child of Spence Larkin, a “mean and stingy bastard” who all but ignored Jenna’s younger sister and brother, and it’s hinted that father and daughter’s relationship was not exactly a healthy one, although MacDonald never quite goes there. Alex lost his virginity to Jenna in an once-only tryst on a deserted island, weeks before she left Ramona Beach to seek her fortune.

Doyle’s cover story has him as a construction worker who has just returned from South America, where he earned enough money to start a little business of his own, and what better place than in his old hometown? He is greeted with the expected disdain from the townsfolk who remember him, and finds that Jenna’s siblings are still living in Ramona Beach, running their father’s old marina. The sister, Betty, is described in terms so familiar to the frequent reader of MacDonald that her place in the story is self-evident.

She was a girl of good size and considerable prettiness, and she came swinging toward him, moving well in her blue-jean shorts and a sleeveless red blouse with narrow white vertical stripes and battered blue canvas top-siders. She had been endowed with a hefty wilderness of coarse blonde-red hair, now sun-streaked. She was magnificently tanned, but it was the tan of unthinking habitual exposure rather than a pool-side contrivance of oils and careful estimates of basting time... a big, strong, vital-looking woman, and when she was on his level he knew that if she were to wear high heels, she would stand eye to eye with him.

She and Alex have a typically MacDonaldean meet-cute, and over a beer they discuss old times. Alex has no memory of Betty, but she, several years younger than he, nursed a strong crush on Alex when she was young and even kept a scrapbook of clippings of his high school sports exploits. Alex confesses his innocence of the burglary, and, in a later scene, Betty reveals the reason she’s in her late twenties and still unmarried: she’s frigid, a fact that the whole town is aware of. Her malady is not one of simple disinterest, but of atavistic repulsion, a state that was brought about by several factors including her father’s lack of love for her and an attempted rape back when she was in college. “She became actively, physically ill if any [man] attempted the most innocuous caress.”

Alex rents a beach cottage, away from town and fairly remote, but close enough to the M’Gann cottage for him to begin his work. It’s also very close to where the body of Jenna was discovered, and, as Alex eventually wheedles his way into the good graces of Celia M’Gann, he starts to question the circumstances of Jenna's murder, wondering why she brought her husband down to a small town she had abandoned years ago, her recent activities here, and the behavior of her father many years ago.

And then the inevitable: a visit from the Sheriff’s office in the person of Deputy Donnie Capp, a JDM bad-cop whose personality borders on the sociopathic. He awakens Alex from a nap and enters the cottage oozing menace.

He brought into the [cottage] the slow creak and jingle of petty authority, and a thinly acid edge of sweat, a back-swamp accent and an air of mocking silence. Doyle felt irritated by his own feeling of intense wariness. It was a legacy from the faraway years when there would be trouble and men like this one would come to the bayou and go to Bucket Bay. You let them swagger through the house and poke around as they pleased. You never told them anything. And you never made a fuss because they would put knots on your head. Yet on another level he sensed his kinship to this man. That light-eyed cracker sallowness, the generations of bad diet and inbreeding behind both of them that had resulted, curiously, in a dogged and enduring toughness, a fibrous talent for survival.  

This initial scene between Alex and Capp is uncomfortable in the extreme, and mirrors a similar encounter between protagonist and bad cop in an earlier JDM novel, The Price of Murder. In that book the violence between the two was verbal and psychological, but in Deadly Welcome a third element is added: physical, in the form of an expert, merciless beating by Capp with his black nightstick.

Capp is the law in remote Ramona Beach, fifteen miles from the county seat, and his introduction into the scene both complicates matters for Alex and brings new aspects of Jenna’s murder to light. It is Doyle’s “criminal” background that has aroused Capp’s interest and ire, and the deputy’s new presence proves to be both hindrance and opportunity.

As noted, Deadly Welcome’s structure and form is not new to MacDonald, nor are many of the character types and plot points, and anyone who is familiar with his previous novels will instantly recognize aspects of his style and the situations he creates. But outside of the neat story hooks  -- government agent on assignment, innocent man returning to the scene of the “crime,” an impossible romance between a man operating under false pretenses and a woman who cannot express love physically -- the real joys of this novel are the things that set MacDonald apart from his contemporaries: his characterizations, his dialogue, and the author’s ability to create scene, mood and atmosphere with only a handful of words. Alex Doyle’s journey from confident State Department agent to insecure cracker-returning-home, then to a man at peace with himself is not, of course, a unique one, and some might argue that this would have been a more interesting book had Alex actually committed the burglary he had been accused of and had to return home to face the music, but that would have been impossible in MacDonald’s moral universe, at least in 1959. Still, the character development here is done very nicely and Doyle is flawed in ways JDM was either unable or unwilling to experiment with in earlier protagonists.

For their last JDM novel, Dell produced a single printing of 176,000 copies, their lowest ever for a MacDonald novel and completely dwarfed by the 771,000 copies of their first book by the author, Area of Suspicion (another JDM tale of a man returning home). According to Hugh Merrill in his 2000 biography The Red Hot Typewriter, MacDonald had left Fawcett in 1954 over his unhappiness with his editor Dick Carroll and moved to Dell, where old friend Knox Burger was now working. In 1958 Burger left Dell and went to Fawcett, and MacDonald again followed him, returning to the publishing house where he began and would now forever stay. Dell was likely smarting over this defection and probably chafed over having to pay MacDonald for a second printing. It was the last book in his contract and the only other time his name appeared on a Dell First Edition was in December of 1959 when the Mystery Writers of America anthology The Lethal Sex was published, a project Burger had developed when he was still with Dell and one he had convinced MacDonald to edit.

When Fawcett purchased the rights to the MacDonald back catalogue in the early sixties, they didn’t get around to reprinting Deadly Welcome until May 1966. It eventually went through twelve printings, to May 1987, for a total of 596,000 copies.

The cover for that single Dell First Edition was an auspicious one, for they commissioned a young artist by the name of Robert McGinniss to produce the illustration. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful professional relationship between author and artist that would last throughout MacDonald’s remaining career. As I pointed out in my posting on the JDM short story “Kitten on a Trampoline” a few months back, McGinnis holds the record for illustrating the covers of more editions of MacDonald paperbacks than any other artist. And it all began here, with his depiction of Alex and Betty, in the beach cottage right after Alex’s beating at the hands of Donnie Capp. His depiction of Betty is quite accurate, even if her makeup is a bit heavy.

McGinnis was again chosen to illustrate the first Fawcett edition, an interesting composition that highlights the title and author’s name in favor of the rendering of the characters, this time a prone Betty at the feet of Donnie Capp. This cover went through four separate printings. Then, in October 1973, Fawcett issued a fifth edition with a new cover, again by McGinniss, this time depicting what must be a seated Jenna Karp M’Gann, feet propped up on a barrel and wearing a dress that covers very little. Here we have a very recognizable McGinnis female: thin, buxom and long-legged. This illustration was used for the last eight editions of the book.

In fact, if my records are correct, Deadly Welcome is the only JDM paperback where Robert McGinnis illustrated the covers for every edition printed in the United States. There was no William Schmidt version of this title.

Deadly Welcome and Please Write for Details were published for two completely different worlds back in that long ago March of 1959. While the hardcover Please Write for Details garnered much coverage, many reviews and its own publicity campaign (of sorts), Deadly Welcome pretty much received a deadly welcome in the press. Outside of Anthony Boucher’s brief comments in his New York Times column, MacDonald’s clipping service could find no other reviews of the novel at the time. I managed to find one in the Galveston Daily News, written by reporter Stanley E Babb, but it is little more than a plot synopsis, calling the book “worthy of more than just a casual glance,” and ending the plot summary -- and the piece -- with “"A lot of things happened to Alexander Doyle at Ramona Beach and they are recounted in a dramatic manner in Deadly Welcome.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Boucher was not exactly overwhelmed either, writing, “Deadly Welcome disappoints just a little, possibly because its calculations are too obtrusive. Certainly the story -- of an agent who can carry out his assignment only by returning to the small town he left in disgrace as a boy, and achieve his objective only by facing up to his own life -- is a strong and effective one; and my disappointment is probably only because I've come to expect so much of MacDonald.”

Deadly Welcome’s reputation -- where you can find evidence of a reputation -- is certainly a mixed one. Jared Shurin in his “Underground Reading” series on the Pornokitch blog, is quite hard on the novel, calling it “lifeless” and “uninteresting,” and dismisses the protagonist Alex Doyle as “so bland as to be invisible.” Author Ed Gorman, on the other hand, considers Deadly Welcome to be one of the ten best JDM stand alone novels, calling it a “violent and melancholy trip back in time.” I can certainly understand both opinions, and without revealing too much of the later portion of the plot, MacDonald does borrow heavily from earlier books, as well as presaging a major part of one of the early McGee novels. And the plot’s “calculations,” as Boucher terms them, are certainly there, perhaps more so than in some of MacDonald’s superior efforts, but as I have argued, it is Alex Doyle’s journey  toward redemption that makes this book come alive, and the book’s atmosphere, reflecting all of Doyle’s fears and insecurities, really does add up to an underlying sense of melancholia.

Two months before Deadly Welcome was published it was featured in condensed form under MacDonald’s original title “Ultimate Surprise” in the January 1959 issue of Cosmopolitan. As with all of JDM’s longer works that appeared in magazines, this was not simply the novel edited down to size, but an original rewrite by the author. There were no major changes, as in Murder in the Wind ("Hurricane"), or additional material like he added to The Deceivers, just a shorter, quicker version of the tale that is nowhere near as satisfying as the book. The ending, however, is written differently, changing the perspective of a scene from first person to third. It’s an interesting idea, and I think it's superior to the one in the novel. To reveal more would be to spoil the plot. If anyone is really interested in reading it just email me and I’ll send you a scan of the final page.


Cosmopolitan art editor Robert Atherton commissioned JDM’s Sarasota neighbor Al Buell to handle the illustrations, of which there were two. I won’t show you the second one because it is a depiction of the novel’s climax.

Deadly Welcome enjoyed a total of thirteen printings between its Dell and Fawcett editions, the final one in May 1987, and that is -- needless to say -- long out of print. Used copies, as with most of MacDonald’s novels, are very easy to find at reasonable prices. A digital version, struck from the Hale (UK) edition, was published in 2014 and is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever eBooks are available. It’s a clean edition with no obvious typos and costs only $5.99.

Finally, a glancing reference to the novel from Whitney Bolton’s syndicated Glancing Sideways column back in March of 1959:

Later, [I] get [myself] dressed and drive to New York and meet Randy MacDougall and John MacDonald, novelists and writers, introduce them to each other and mention to John that someone you know recently has bought a paperback edition of one of his novels but you can't think of its title.

"Deadly Welcome, probably," says John.

"Obviously an ardent love story," says Randy.

Whereupon John shakes hands with Randy and says: "I think I'm going to like you."

Later, you three fall into discussions of the sadistic novelist you mentioned in this column recently, though not by name, and Randy says:

"There is another one. He recently has published what is ostensibly a novel but pretty certainly is an autobiography. What is astonishing is that throughout the book he has, unwittingly, laced page after page with frightening evidence of his character, his depravities, his perilous nature.

"He doesn't even realize himself how he has betrayed himself, yet it is all there for anyone of discernment to see and recognize. Like puma-paw marks in the snow. When you finish his novel, you have an accurate, horrifying portrait of the author."

John laughs and says: "I know a novelist I see all the time, an outwardly amiable, blameless person, yet I think he must be harboring tensions and ambitions of a felonious nature. He so obviously adores his villains and so carefully makes it seem that he does not.

"He goes out of his way to say to you: 'This is a foul fellow I'm writing about,' and shouts it so long and often that you know in your heart that he secretly admires the lout and, probably, is much like him.

"I always think of something Diogenes once said and all novelists should learn it, lest they betray their true natures without knowing it. It goes something like this - that every man should treat his superiors as he treats his fire: never getting close enough to be burned nor so far away that he gets cold. No author should treat his characters as anything else but a superior or a fire."

Monday, May 16, 2016

"The Rabbit Gets a Gun"

When pulp magazines began their sometimes-sudden, sometimes-gradual death in the early 1950’s, it is generally presumed that the causes of this demise included television, the paperback original, comic books and men’s adventure magazines. There were others, of course, including economic pressure (a 72% increase in production costs between 1944 and 1947), a more sophisticated audience just returned from a world war, and the inability of publishers to get their product to market when a major distributor stopped handling these kinds of magazines. This final reason caused pulp powerhouse Street and Smith to kill all of their pulp titles with the exception of one: Astounding Science Fiction. But even that title didn’t survive as a pulp: since November 1943 it had been published as a digest.

Digest refers to the magazine’s smaller size, about 7.5 inches x 5 inches, the term derived from that earliest and most popular version, Reader’s Digest, begun back in 1922. Although a magazine’s size shouldn’t define its content, in the world of mystery and detective fiction, it has come to that. For as the crime pulps dropped dead, one by one in the early 1950’s, the mystery digests took their place and filled a the void with a different kind of story. As editors Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin H Greenberg assert in the Introduction to their 1997 anthology American Pulp, “... looked at objectively today, a good deal of pulp fare was laughable and forgettable.

“This was not true, however, when the pulps gave way to the digest-sized magazines of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Manhunt, Accused, Hunted, Pursuit, The Saint, Detective Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Mystery Book, Mantrap, Verdict, Tightrope, all consistently produced excellent crime fiction.

“... For us, this was the true golden age. Manhunt alone, at its peak, published two or three minor masterpieces per issue, month in and month out… The new breed of writer was generally superior to the old pulpsters. To be sure, they were still writing pulp fiction, but a more fetching and insightful variant of it… [These writers] turned out stories and novels that were artful in every respect. Unlike most plot-driven pulp stories, these were realistic tales of character, mood and theme. And these same elements were reflected in shorter works they wrote for the magazines.”

John D MacDonald wrote stories for several of the above-mentioned digests, including Manhunt, Justice and that oldest of mystery digests, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, where some of his finest crime stories appeared. A few of his older pulp stories were reprinted in other digests, including Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, The Saint Detective Magazine and Shell Scott Mystery Magazine. In fact, much of MacDonald’s better pulp work is quite interchangeable with the stories he wrote for the digests, a testament to the author’s superior fiction skills. Take a story like, say, “Night Watch,” which appeared in the May 1950 issue of Detective Tales. It boasts all of the qualities the editors of American Pulp laud the digest stories for: character, mood and theme, and it could have been published in any of the mid-1950’s digests without batting an eye.

MacDonald had four stories published in Manhunt, and I’ve already written about three of them. His first appearance in the magazine was in January 1955, exactly two years after its inaugural issue, with his superlative “The Killer.” The following year Manhunt published the almost-as-good “Squealer” in its May issue, and the year after that the January issue had “The Rabbit Gets a Gun.” MacDonald’s final story for the magazine was “Black Cat in the Snow,” which appeared in the February 1958 issue.

The rabbit in “The Rabbit Gets a Gun” is the story’s protagonist, an unremarkable, unimpressive, soft-spoken assistant branch manager of a personal loan company named Frank Lowell. After several years of slaving away for this “rough cold outfit,” he is given the impression by his boss that he would be promoted to branch manager when the position opened up. But when it finally does Frank is passed over for a more appropriate -- and younger -- choice, a “tall, breezy, confident, smiling” man named Carl Aldrich. Everything that Frank is not. This slight sends Frank into a depressive sulk, and after a few weeks he decides to use his vacation time -- time he was to have spent with his fiancĂ© apartment hunting -- to clear his head and make some decisions about his future. But he’s not really fooling himself, or his girl: he’s running away, from the job and “the responsibilities of marriage.”

He drives relentlessly for 500 miles before wearily pulling into a fleabag motel, a collection of rundown cabins on the side of a wooded hill. The opening paragraph of the story is wonderfully atmospheric and shows what MacDonald could do with only a handful of words:

By the time he was ready to stop for the night, the good places were all filled up and he had to settle for a third rate setup -- where he was charged five dollars for one of the sour little cabins back up on a slope behind a diner that smelled of grease and sweat. He had parked beside the cabin, carried in a single suitcase, and now he sat on the sagging bed, looking down at the reflected glare of a naked light bulb on scuffed linoleum…

Realizing he is out of cigarettes, Frank walks down the road through the woods to the diner, stumbling a few times in the darkness. Inside he asks a heavy man in a soiled apron behind the counter and is treated to a typical indignity:

The man stared at him with heavy, weary, contempt. He yawned and let the insolent seconds pass and finally said, “The machine, bud. The machine.”

Frank flushed and turned and located the machine. He bought a pack and walked out again into the night. He was too depressed to be very angry. Perhaps the reaction of the fat man was a capsule demonstration of why this job, or any job, would be a dead end. Suppose Aldrich had asked the same question. “Right there behind you in the machine, sir.” Maybe when you have no look or air of importance, all the world treats you with bored contempt, forgetting you the moment you turn away.

So, lost in his own self pity, Frank makes his way back to his cabin in the darkness. He opens the door and is startled by what he sees.

There were three people in the room. They all stared at him with identical expressions of shock and alarm. One of them moved very quickly, and Frank Lowell found himself, for the first time in his life, staring at the muzzle of a gun. The man who held it was young. Perhaps nineteen. But his eyes were old and his mouth was cruel and old. He wore khaki pants and was stripped to the waist. His arms and chest were heavy, muscular and deeply tanned. There was a flag tattooed on his upper arm.

Frank has accidentally walked into the wrong cabin. He is shoved up against a wall, searched and questioned. His response is “thin, scared and breathless.” He is instructed to sit on the floor while the men finish their card game and decide what to do with him. When it becomes obvious that they intend to kill him and make it look like a suicide, Frank has a decision to make…


MacDonald’s original title for this story -- “The Shortest Vacation” -- certainly lacked poetry, and it’s not surprising that the editors of Manhunt changed it, but at least they could have kept from ruining some of the suspense of the story. It’s a problem with many of the stories MacDonald submitted, and it wasn’t limited to the pulps. Still, “The Rabbit Gets a Gun” is an enjoyable, atmospheric tale that exhibits MacDonald’s clean, terse style and brilliance at characterization. It’s the only one of the author’s Manhunt stories to have never been reprinted or anthologized, a shortcoming that will hopefully be rectified one day.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Look of Travis McGee


Once John D MacDonald made the decision to create the series character Travis McGee he wrote three versions of the first novel before coming up with a person he could “live with.” He sent the book off to his editor at Fawcett Gold Medal, Knox Burger, with the request to hold off publishing it until he could come up with some additional adventures, and once he had three done the go-ahead was given to begin publishing. Then began the editorial preparations for publication, including cover art.

In what seems like an unusual move, Burger chose to have the early covers illustrated by two different artists: one for the main cover and one for an inset of a portrait of McGee himself. Why this was done is anybody’s guess at this point, although I’m sure there is evidence among the MacDonald papers at the University of Florida. Perhaps a clue can be found in the particular artists Burger chose to do these covers, Ron Lesser and, for the likeness of McGee, John McDermott.

Both had done work for Gold Medal up to that point in late 1963, but McDermott was responsible for doing the covers of another crime series, Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. Beginning with the sixth entry in the series, The Ambushers, published in 1963, McDermott took over the cover duties and began adding an inset depiction of Helm. When Fawcett began reprinting earlier titles they had McDermott create new illustrations along with his version of Helm. This was right around the time that MacDonald was submitting his manuscripts of the McGee novels, and I guess Burger thought it a good idea to have McDermott do the same for McGee. Why he chose Lesser to do the covers proper -- always a beautiful girl in some unusual pose -- and not McDermott is not known. Perhaps he didn’t want the two series to become confused in the minds of his customers.

MacDonald was closely involved in the process, and perhaps it was he who had some input into the two-artist decision, although it seems improbable that even an author with MacDonald’s reputation could have had this kind of decision-making power. Nevertheless, he did do his best to make sure the illustration of McGee was in keeping with the picture in his own mind. As evidence, here is a portion of a letter from MacDonald to Burger outlining how the author wanted his new character to be seen. It was written in September 1963, and in places it almost seems as if MacDonald had seen McDermott’s Matt Helm portrait and was giving instructions on how to avoid having it looking similar.

A head that has to belong to a big man. This is done, I suspect, by scale of the ears and eyes… I did not mean to imply light hair. And when I refer to wire hair, I do not mean kinky. I mean the kind of hair that does not respond well to a brush cut. It is short, brown, lays in whorls and mats adhering to heavy skull structure. Eyes very pale gray. This means that he can be given an extraordinarily deep tan… Heavy shelf of brow. Nose straight, slightly disarranged at bridge but not flattened. Wide broad level mouth, but with a long curve of jaw line rather than squared off. No goddam cleft or dimple. This man is no kid. A half block away the face will look more youthful than up close. Plenty of hair in the brows, and it can be sun-touched a half shade lighter than the skin. But the hair should be a no-color, with tendency toward widow’s peak… The expression will be important. Somber, brooding, but slightly quizzical. Instead of trying for it in a flat light, I would like to see strong dramatic side-lighting from below on one side, and fill-in faintly from high on the other, so that immediate impression is of those pale eyes looking out of shadowy strength, sort of lighted from within.

I’ve always thought that McDermott did a terrific job, and this is the McGee I always see in my own mind’s eye when reading the books.

Monday, April 25, 2016

John D MacDonald Audiobooks

The history of spoken word recordings goes back to the invention of recording itself, with Thomas Edison’s reading of the Mother Goose poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Throughout all of the subsequent format changes, from 78 rpm’s to 33 rpms to reel-to-reel to cassette, music may have made the money, but words were always there, available if you knew where to look. I vividly recall growing up with a five-disc 78 of Macbeth, owned by my parents and featuring Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in the primary parts. It was the gateway drug to my lifelong love of Shakespeare, and I played those discs to death.

But it was the cassette, portable and relatively cheap, that launched the real audio revolution, as companies were founded to market readings of books, mainly fiction, to the masses. Audiobooks were now portable, playable on the amazingly convenient Walkman or in a player in the dashboard of your car. One of the earliest companies to produce these recordings was Books on Tape, a California company whose business model was renting cassettes of books to subscribers through the mail. They also sold their product to libraries, where cardholders could check them out and make their own recordings. Even though it was expressly forbidden (and one heard this admonition at the beginning of every book), many did.

The digital revolution was another transcendent moment for the industry, with the ability to download audio files onto an iPod or smartphone, leading to a huge spike in popularity. According to the Wall Street Journal in 2014, audiobooks are now a $1.2 billion industry, up from $480 million in 1997. Audible, the industry leader (now owned by Amazon, not surprisingly), has nearly 275,000 audiobooks available for sale, many available with their Whispersync feature, which allows the recorded version to sync with an eBook, permitting the reader/listener to switch seamlessly between formats. Amazing stuff, especially for someone who grew up listening to Shakespeare on 78’s.

The earliest recordings of John D MacDonald novels were done by the Library of Congress for their Talking Books Division, a part of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. This service distributes free audio transcriptions through a network of over a hundred regional and sub-regional libraries throughout the country and is available only to eligible patrons. The JDM titles, originally available on either tape or disc, began being produced in the mid-1970’s and included a little over half of the Travis McGee series (Pink, Orange, Lemon, Green and Turquoise were some of the early titles) as well as a smattering of the stand-alones, including Condominium, The Drowner and Where Is Janice Gantry? I’ve never had the opportunity to listen to any of these adaptations and have no idea who performed them. The service is still going strong and I imagine they have modernized to digital downloads and, perhaps, broadened their JDM selections.

Michael Prichard
In 1977 Books on Tape began doing MacDonald, and -- no surprise -- focused on the McGee series. They started, I believe, with the first McGee bestseller, The Dreadful Lemon Sky and also did Gold that year. The books -- all of them -- were read by Michael J Prichard, a Los Angeles stage actor who has gone on to record over 500 books in his career. Speaking in a rich baritone, Prichard’s McGee is done matter-of-factly, with little emotion and minimal efforts to differentiate characters by vocal style or pitch. Still, his McGee is a good one and he got better as the series progressed. Once the listener gets through the first few chapters his rendition it’s a comfortable fit. Here’s an example, the first few paragraphs of The Deep Blue Good-by, which Books on Tape didn’t get around to doing until 1982.


That same year Prichard, who by this time had himself become a big McGee and MacDonald fan, wrote a letter to the JDM Bibliophile which was published in issue #31 in January of 1983.

My job is as a professional reader for a company called Books on Tape, which records full-length, unabridged versions of books, and makes them available by rental to the general public. One of my favorite assignments has been to record MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. So far I’ve recorded all but five of them, but those should go quickly. (However, since Books on Tape wishes to release them over a period of time, I don’t know when they’ll all be available... As any fan, I don’t look forward to running out of McGees; but my bosses at BoT have said that I may also be doing the non-McGees, which I am looking forward to.

The only stand-alones I’m aware of Books on Tape producing was a version of Barrier Island, read by New England actor Jeremiah Kissel, and Condominium, which I’ve never heard and don’t know who performed it.

In 1982 Random House, who would eventually acquire Books on Tape in 2001, recorded an abridged version of then-bestseller Cinnamon Skin and chose film and television actor Kevin Conway to read it. Conway does a great job as the older, wearier McGee of Cinnamon Skin, but it was a one-shot and no attempt to do the earlier books was apparently made at that time. Then, in 1986 Conway did a version of Darker Than Amber for Random House, again doing a great job, but again, the version was abridged. A decision was made after Amber to record the entire series, but instead of using Conway, Random House hired veteran film actor Darren McGavin. McGavin was an inspired choice, having already starred as two very different yet iconic private detectives, Mike Hammer (the Anti-McGee) and Carl Kolchak (yes, Kolchak was a reporter, but a detective in every sense of the word). And although McGavin bore no physical resemblance to the six-foot-four Travis McGee, his take on the character was dead-on, imparting all of the character’s self-awareness and occasional jaundiced view of himself. Also, his performance of the other characters, especially the women, was a step above that of his predecessors; McGavin was acting, not just reading a book.

Over the next seven years Random House Audiobooks produced McGavin versions of all of the remaining titles in the McGee series, minus the two novels that had been done by Conway. These were the first JDM audiobooks available for sale to the general public, and in 1994, the year McGavin recorded the last in the series (Tan -- the titles were not done in order of publication), Random House re-released the entire series -- including the two Conway versions -- as part of their Price Less budget line: each novel on two cassettes in bare bones packaging, priced at $8.99. Who could ask for more?

Well, as it turned out, plenty. Despite the excellent performance and superior production values (each novel featured music in the form of a mournful jazz intro reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic main theme for Chinatown), these were abridged versions, and who want’s to listen to Travis McGee, or any JDM work, abridged? When these were the only JDM audiobooks available one had little choice -- I listened to these novels multiple times travelling back and forth from DC to Tennessee several years ago -- but now that there are other options I rarely put these on my iPod anymore. The abridgements are extremely annoying to the listener familiar with the works, in two ways. First, the text itself is heavily edited. Here’s the same opening passage from Blue, transcribed. The red sentences are ones that have been excised, and the green sentence is one that has been moved to a different point in the text, where I have placed a green asterisk.


It was to have been a quiet evening at home.


Home is the Busted Flush,  52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale.


Home is where the privacy is. Draw all the opaque curtains, button the hatches, and with the whispering drone of the air conditioning masking all the sounds of the outside world, you are no longer cheek to jowl with the random activities aboard the neighbor craft. You could be in a rocket beyond Venus, or under the icecap.


Because it is a room aboard, I call it the lounge, and because that is one of the primary activities.


I was sprawled on a deep curve of the corner couch, studying charts of the keys, trying to work up enough enthusiasm and energy to plan moving the Busted Flush to a new mooring for a while. She has a pair of Hercules diesels, 58 HP each, that will chug her along at a stately six knots. I didn't want to move her. I like Lauderdale. But it had been so long I was wondering if I should.


Chookie McCall was choreographing some fool thing. She had come over because I had the privacy and enough room. She had shoved the furniture out of the way, set up a couple of mirrors from the master stateroom, and set up her rackety little metronome. She wore a faded old rust-red leotard, mended with black thread in a couple of places. She had her black hair tied into a scarf.


She was working hard. She would go over a sequence time and time again, changing it a little each time, and when she was satisfied, she would hurry over to the table and make the proper notations on her clip board.


Dancers work as hard as coal miners used to work. She stomped and huffed and contorted her splendid and perfectly proportioned body. * In spite of the air conditioning, she had filled the lounge with a faint sharp-sweet odor of' large overheated girl. She was a pleasant distraction. In the lounge lights there was a highlighted gleam of perspiration on the long round legs and arms.


"Damn!" she said, scowling at her notations.


"What's wrong?"


"Nothing I can't fix. I have to figure exactly where everybody is going to be, or I'll have them kicking each other in the face. I get mixed up sometimes."


She scratched out some notes. I went back to checking the low tide depths on the flats northeast of the Content Keys. She worked hard for another ten minutes, made her notes, then leaned against the edge of the table, breathing hard.


"Trav, honey."


"Mmm?"


"Were you kidding me that time we talked about...about what you do for a living?"


"What did I say?"


"It sounded sort of strange, but I guess I believed you. 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 just...live on that until it starts to run out. Is that the way it is, really?"


"It's a simplification, Chook, but reasonably accurate."

The second form of editing was to lop out entire sections of the novel and replace them with a synopsis read by a narrator (not McGavin). These sections seem to have been done when random sentence editing would have done too much damage to the narrative. Here’s how a large chunk of Cathy Kerr’s story of her time with Junior Allen is heard, beginning at the top of page 11 of the first edition:


McGavin (as Cathy): “When Mother died it was good to have him close. Christine stopped her job because somebody had to be with the kids, but with me and Junior Allen working, there was just enough to get by. There was one thing strange in all that time he was with us.”


Narrator: Cathy told Travis that Junior Allen had constantly asked questions about her father, and in hindsight she realized he was hunting for clues. Using a variety of excuses, he managed to dig up just about every part of the yard. Then one morning she woke to find him gone. He had taken apart the rock markers at the end of the driveway and left behind only a piece of rotten cloth, that might once been army color. Junior Allen’s last search had apparently been rewarded.


McGavin (resuming as Cathy): “He took along his personal things, so I knew it was just like Wally Kerr all over again. No good looking for him.”

These annoying synopses appear throughout the recording and really detract from what could have been the definitive audio versions of the Travis McGee series.

Twenty years later much had changed. The cassette had gone the way of the dodo and audio was almost exclusively digital. In 2012 a company called Brilliance Audio (part of Amazon) was granted the rights to produce audio versions of the McGee series and they hired a New York stage actor named Robert Petkoff to do the readings. Petkoff possesses some serious acting chops and had extensive theatrical credentials (I saw him back in 1994 in a production of Romeo and Juliet, where he had the thankless role of Paris), including both film and television experience. The audiobooks were marketed both as CD sets and CD-MP3’s to libraries and the general public. Mystery writer and JDM fan Lee Child was hired to do a brief introduction, which appeared on all of the novels. Audible and other similar web services offer digital download to a computer or mobile device. (For some reason, the Lee Child intros are absent the Audible versions.) As far as I have been able to tell, these audiobooks have sold very, very well.

Robert Petkoff
Of the four actors who have taken on the role of McGee, Petkoff is my favorite. He certainly has the greatest range of the group, and he attacks the books with energy and enthusiasm. You get the sense that he is enjoying reading these books and that he likes the character of McGee. His rendition of the other characters comes closer to acting than than any of his predecessors, modulating his voice and using accents when needed (his take on Lady Becky in Indigo is a scream). And therein lies one of the quandaries of “performing” a work of fiction in the first person singular. Since all of the action is told through the voice of the narrator, does one become that character or merely relate what that character did and said? There’s no right or wrong, of course, but it does make one question the reliability of the narrator: how close to the truth is McGee’s account of the action? 

Here's a sample of Petkoff from that same section of Blue:


The Brilliance Audio/Audible McGee’s were so successful that the company began producing versions of some of MacDonald’s stand alone novels. To date they have done The Brass Cupcake, A Flash of Green, A Key to the Suite, Condominium (all read by Richard Ferrone), Dead Low Tide, The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything, The Executioners (under the Cape Fear title), Slam the Big Door (all read by Stephen Hove) and two versions of the same novel, A Bullet for Cinderella, one under that title (read by Tom S Weiss) and another under its alternate title On the Make (read by Robert Armin). Nowhere on Audible’s website does it reveal that these two audiobooks are the same novel.

I’ve purchased several of these titles and all are quite good, with one reservation. Stephen Hove, who did a superlative job with The Executioners, does a less that adequate rendition of Bonny Lee in The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything, making her sound more like Ellie Mae Clampett than a John D MacDonald character.

One final John D MacDonald audiobook I’m aware of is yet another version of A Bullet for Cinderella. This novel appears to be the only JDM book-length work that has fallen into the public domain, allowing Gutter Press to reprint the novel in 2010 as On the Make. (For background on the two titles, you can read my piece on A Bullet for Cinderella here.) It has also opened the door for LibriVox, a non-commercial, non-profit company that specializes in producing public domain audiobooks read by volunteers, to make their own version of the novel. It’s read by Winston Tharp, who does an amazing job of conveying the lost quality of the book’s protagonist, Tal Howard, a former POW in search of both treasure and some meaning in his life. It’s one of the best JDM audiobooks out there and it is 100% free! You can download it from here.

It seems entirely probable that more audio versions of JDM’s works will soon become available, although I have no inside information myself. And while audiobooks will never replace actual reading -- at least for me -- it is a wonderful way to experience the works as interpreted by other artists. Nowadays I find myself actually looking forward to getting stuck in rush hour traffic...