Showing posts with label John D. MacDonald. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John D. MacDonald. Show all posts

18 July 2016

Rediscovered Favorites


By Susan Rogers Cooper


For the past few months my mind has been wandering back to a couple of mysteries I read back in the 80s. They were my second introduction to the mystery genre after I'd read everything John D. MacDonald had ever written. Of course I'd gone through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys as a child, and Agatha Christie as a teenager, but it wasn't until my early thirties that I got back to the mystery genre. But, alas, those mysteries I'd read after Mr. MacDonald alluded me. I didn't remember the authors' names, the book titles, or even the characters' names. Which began to gnaw at me. But far be it from me to let a little thing like lack of knowledge stop me. I have access to the internet! Voila! And, after several aborted attempts, a lot of swearing, and a couple of phone calls to my eleven year old grandson, I was able to find what I was looking for. And was delighted to find out things about two of my early influences that I never knew.

The first author I found again was Dimitri Gat, author of the Yuri Nevsky series. These were written and were read (by me) before the fall of the Soviet Union, so “white” Russians in America were still the good guys, as opposed to the way they are portrayed these days. There were three Nevsky novels, NEVSKY'S DEMON, NEVSKY'S RETURN, and THE ROMANOV CACHE. I truly loved these books. Great characters and vivid descriptions. I was delighted to see that Mr. Gat is still writing, both under his own name and under pseudonyms. But then I found out something I never saw coming. Like I said earlier, I was a great reader of John D. MacDonald. But in Googling Mr. Gat, I discovered that NEVSY'S DEMON was admittedly a direct “homage” to Mr. MacDonald's THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY. Having read both within probably a year or two of each other, I was shocked I hadn't seen it. But it was such a direct “homage” that the publishing house had to recall the book and Mr. Gat was asked to apologize to Mr. MacDonald, which he did.

The second rediscovered author is Lucille Kallen who passed away in 1999. She was the creator of four C.B. Greenfield mysteries, INTRODUCING C.B. GREENFIELD, THE TANGLEWOOD MURDER (one of my favorite all-time reads), NO LADY IN THE HOUSE, and A LITTLE MADNESS. These were definitely cozier than the Nevsky books, which were rather dark, but an enjoyable read. Personally I can travel between cozy and hard-boiled without suffering any kind of whiplash. But in Googling Ms. Kallen, I discovered something I didn't know: She was the lone woman writer on Sid Ceaser's “Your Show of Shows,” and the prototype for such TV characters as Sally Rogers from “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

In reading about Ms. Kallen and her books, it has dawned on me that perhaps I never read A LITTLE MADNESS. It appears that Amazon will be hearing from me shortly. But, in reality, I can't remember that much about the other books in the Greenfield series, or, to be honest, in the Nevsky series. So maybe I'll be adding a little to my Amazon cart. Oh, and I really should get another copy of THE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE, just for comparison's sake. But if I do that, I should probably restock my Travis McGee selection. Does anyone know if Amazon does lay-a-way?

I hope that someday, thirty or forty years from now, some other writer will re-discover my work and think as highly of me then as I do of these two now.

15 February 2016

Confessions of an Addict


by Susan Rogers Cooper

I'm an addict. I wasn't exactly born this way, but, to my shame, I was encouraged by my parents, and my peers. It started small: a little Nancy Drew, a couple of Hardy Boys, the elusive Winslow Brothers. It didn't take long before I was mainlining Agatha Christie. For a while I switched drugs, went with Steinbeck and McCullers and a few Russians. But your first hit is always the best: I found John D. MacDonald and I was back on the hard stuff.

It wasn't until my mid-thirties that I became a truly hard-core addict. I'd played around with the real drugs a little as a kid, writing short stories and plays, starting a couple of novels. But in my mid-thirties it hit me: I should try writing mystery! Oh the rush. The tingle of my nerve ends. The fast beating heart. And so it began, this never-ending torture of writing a mystery. How many times have I told myself you can stop this. All you have to do is turn off the computer! And I do! Lord help me, I do! Every night I turn the damn thing off.

But then the morning comes. I try to ignore the siren song, but it just sits there, right in my living room, taunting me. Beckoning me. “Just turn me on,” it says. “You don't have to write. You need to check your email, don't you? You need to see what's on Facebook, right? Maybe play a game or two? It'll be okay. Really.”

But it isn't. Oh, I can do all those things: email, Facebook, a game or two, but in the end I'm right back at it: writing a mystery.

The books do end, which is just a hoax, really. My agent wants me to change this, my editor wants me to change that. Then the copy editor and the galley copies and it's over! But it isn't. Not really. Because the buzz is going on in my head, and my pulse is beginning to race. A new idea is forming. And it wants to come out and play. I've tried to stop. I held off for almost six months once, but this addiction has me by the balls. If I had balls. One day I might be able to pull it off. To stop. To end this torture of endless hours at the computer, of trying to figure out why one character did that when the other character should have seen it coming. Of wondering if there really is a plot, or if I'm just fooling myself. One day. Or I'll die trying.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Is it too obvious that I've been binge watching “Nurse Jackie” on Netflix? I didn't think so.

16 November 2015

Thanksgiving


by Susan Rogers Cooper

As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches I thought I'd jot down a few things I'm thankful for: my beautiful daughter and her three wonderful children, the memories of a good marriage that lasted over thirty-four years, old friends and new friends, and, yes, books.

I'm thankful for Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Winslow Brothers who enriched my childhood, for Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger who molded my teenage years, and for John D. MacDonald who brought me back to mystery in my early twenties. I'm thankful to Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton, and Sarah Peretsy who taught me that women can write just as hardboiled as any man. And I'll always be grateful to Jan Grape, my mentor, who did more for my career than any agent or editor has ever done. And I'm thankful for those agents and editors who helped mold my work – especially the undisputed queen of mystery editors, the late Ruth Cavin, who once told me – when I complained after she read my fifth book that I hadn't gotten the editing letter from her that I usually got – that I finally sent her one without any big boo-boos.

I'm thankful that I've been blessed with the career of my choice, and that I've had a job that makes me mostly happy – except on those days when all I can do is stare at a blank screen. I'm thankful for the friends I've met since I started this career – Joan Hess, Sharan Newman, the late Barbara Burnett Smith and the late Nancy Bell, Dean James, Charlaine Harris, and so many more who've made me laugh and cry and given me advice that I'll always remember.
This is a good time to remember these things, to count our blessings, and say thank you to those we love. And to stock up on extra books since we'll soon have a day off.

21 September 2015

The Little Murders


by Susan Rogers Cooper

We who write and read at SleuthSayers share a common bond: We love a good mystery. There are a lot of reasons people come to mystery: escape from their own lives; the purity of the store – good vs. evil; or simply because of the entertainment value.

There are those of us who only like cozies, and those of us who prefer our mysteries hard-boiled. And those who'll read anything they can get their hands on – that's the category I put myself in.

I admire people like John D. MacDonald and John Grisham who deal with the big murders – the corporate crime and national intrigue that leads to someone's untimely death. But those are not my stories. My stories are about the little murders, what we do to each other, to those we love and those we fear, for very personal reasons.

For years I was a trainer for new volunteers at Crisis Hotline in Houston. One of the exercises I taught the new trainees was a way to empathize with suicide calls. I told them: Start taking things away from yourself – your home, your family, your job, your friends, your health – until, in your imagination, you can feel that point where you might consider suicide.

That's the way I deal with the little murders. What would it take for you to commit murder? Not self-defense or defense of a loved one, or even a stranger – that's not murder. But under what circumstances could you see yourself calculating to take a human life? Planning it? Putting that plan into action?

A lot depends on the kind of person you are – or the kind of character I'm dealing with. What could seem a very legitimate reason to take a life to one person, to another is total insanity.
As writers we want to be clear as to motive – whether someone slept with someone else's spouse, or the dog down the street told them to do it. As readers, we need to feel satisfied as to the whys and wherefores. We want answers.

22 February 2015

Songs of the South


by Dale C. Andrews
Please not yet. Those are the three eternal words. Please not yet.
                                                John D. MacDonald
                                                A Deadly Shade of Gold

       As usual the month of February finds me on the gulf shore of Alabama, making a good on a promise my wife and I made to ourselves back when we were still in the work-a-day world: once we retired February would never again find us in Washington, D.C. So we have again traveled south to a rental on the shore. Not the tropics, but also not the frozen east coast of the past several weeks.

Harper Lee
     Alabama is a sort of exciting place for anyone interested in literature to find themselves this February. Only a few weeks ago, and a scant 100 miles north, Harper Lee, the now 88 year old author of the American Classic To Kill a Mockingbird announced to a stunned world that, after 55 years of literary silence, this summer a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning story of Scout, Atticus and the travails of small town life in Alabama will be published.

       Whether we should feel some trepidation as we await the return of Atticus and Scout in the long-withheld Go Set a Watchman has already been the subject of numerous articles. Far be it from me to add another. But aside from such speculations concerning the ultimate merit of the Mockingbird sequel, an interesting sidelight to the pending publication of Harper Lee’s second novel is the reaction of the reading public, which had become resigned to Lee’s oft-articulated position that she would never publish a second work. This had been both accepted and hard to get over -- we had fallen in love with Mockingbird -- and Lee’s resolve to leave it at that had left us feeling a bit like a child allowed but one toy. The anticipation has been overwhelming with the possibility of another now on the horizon. 

Arthur Conan Doyle
       A writer’s decision to not follow up on a popular book, or to end a popular series of books, often invites a public outcry. Famously, Arthur Conan Doyle found himself unable, in the face of such clamor, to leave Sherlock Holmes sprawled at the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle (and now Lee) ultimately bent, in some degree, to the clamor. Doyle took up the pen again, and Lee's attorney discovered that previous manuscript. And just yesterday Arthur Conan Doyle had his own last laugh -- a similarly "lost" Sherlock Holmes story was discovered in an attic after lying there unnoticed for the past 111 years.

       But what happens when the series ends for reasons beyond the author’s ability to remedy; when the author is gone but nothing is left behind?  Since, as noted, I am gazing out toward the Gulf as I type, what could be more natural than to allow my gaze to linger off toward the east, where 17 miles away Florida beckons? And what is more “Florida” than John D. MacDonald and his iconic literary sidekick Travis McGee?

John D. MacDonald
       Okay, okay. I know there what you may be thinking. Does he intend to offer up as a premise a column that lumps Harper Lee -- a Pulitzer Prize winning (and beloved) artist -- with John D. MacDonald, the erstwhile paperback king who wrote almost 80 books over the course of a career that began in pulp fiction?  In a word:  Yep. But I'm not the only one who places MacDonald on a pretty high pedestal.  Back in 2003 Jonathan Yardley, literary critic for the Washington Post, went back to re-read MacDonald and came away incredulous, concluding that the body of work revealed the author as "one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period."  Yardley went on to explain:
This man whom I'd snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was -- no other word will do -- breathtaking.
       This is not the first time that I have offered up thoughts on MacDonald and McGee in this space. Unlike Harper Lee, who wrote but one book (now, two), John D. MacDonald (like Doyle) was prolific. He wrote almost 80 works of fiction and nonfiction, and 21 McGee novels before his sudden death in 1986. But he still left us hanging.  In the last of the Travis McGee series, The Lonely Silver Rain, McGee is confronted with several revelations (no further spoilers here!) but then, given MacDonald’s demise two years later, McGee’s fans are ultimately left to ponder where these revelations might have led.

       Like Harper Lee, whose sequel to Mockingbird was known by some friends to have existed, at least at one time, MacDonald, too, was rumored to have a final Travis McGee novel under lock and key.  I remember reading as much in a 1975 interview with MacDonald, and Stephen King has stated that before MacDonald's death he had discussed with King the backbone of what would be the final McGee adventure.  But all rumors of that final work, usually conjectured to bear the title A Black Border for McGee, were apparently baseless. MacDonald’s heirs have asserted that no such work exists, and have steadfastly refused all requests by other authors -- most notably one from Stephen King -- to continue (and properly end) the series. One caveat, here:  there is a little-known novel, The Black Squall, by Lori Stone, which sneaks around the heirs' prohibition by offering a final adventure clearly addressing what might have happened to Travis McGee and his friend Meyer, but doing so without ever using their actual names. But other than that, barring a Harper Lee, or Arthur Conan Doyle-like denouement -- a final work miraculously discovered -- that is it for McGee.

       So aside from The Black Squall (which, I admit, I have not read) the many fans of Travis McGee have had to look elsewhere over the last thirty years for a fix. And that has sparked a bit of a literary cottage industry among authors seeking to re-capture, and then offer to the reading public, the essence of McGee. 

       So, pause with me here. What, at base, is the Travis McGee formula?  What do readers look for in a Travis McGee novel?  The series evolved over time, but viewed in its entirety it seems to me MacDonald's McGee adventures are comprised of the following base elements: 

The Busted Flush, as imagined
       First, the series is centered around an “off the grid” protagonist with an off-beat lifestyle and home. McGee is a self-described beach bum who occasionally comes out of his “installment” retirement to take cases as a “salvage consultant,” working for 50 percent of the value of the property recovered. He lives in his 52 foot cabin cruiser, The Busted Flush, won in a poker game. His detached and unburdened lifestyle, and his luxury to observe the world around him as an objective critic, captures the reader. He narrates his own stories with spot-on observations and critiques of the world in which we live. We, as readers, nod in agreement and become wannabes. 

       Second, there is the “best friend” buddy who provides an intellectual counterpoint, someone with whom the protagonist can spar during the course of the narrative. This companion must be colorful in his own right, intelligent, and equally detached, but must in some respects stand in independent contrast to the protagonist. McGee’s “buddy” is Meyer, an erstwhile economist, who lives on his nearby book-packed ship, initially The John Maynard Keynes, later (after The Keynes fails to survive an adventure) The Thorstein Veblen. 

     Third, the stories, at their heart, focus on the strengths, and the largely man-made weaknesses, of the state of Florida. Even when they do not take place there, each Travis McGee adventure displays a love of the natural Florida ecosystems, a disgruntled horror as to what is happening to them, and a matching disdain for those who are “developing” the state out of existence. A kind word is never said about a double wide, a condominium, a jet ski or a Hawaiian shirt.  As Florida author Carl Hiassen has written: "Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn. I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty." 

       Fourth, the adventures must be well written.  MacDonald often criticized what he viewed as "hack" writing, and his own works set a high bar with his clean and spare prose, his eye for detail, and his ear for dialog.  

       With these elements in mind, for those craving a Florida fix, or, more specifically, a Travis McGee fix, there are at least two series that work pretty hard to deliver: The Doc Ford series written by Randy Lee White, and the Thorn series written by James W. Hall. 

       Doc Ford, a retired NSA agent and marine biologist, has been the hero of 21 mysteries written by Randy Lee White, with a 22nd, Cuba Straits, due out this March. The similarities to the McGee stories are striking. Ford is decidedly “off the grid,” living in a stilt house above the water on the gulf coast of Florida and ostensibly making his living by peddling marine specimens to collectors and scientists. His best friend and sidekick (like Meyer, always referred to by a single name) is Tomlinson, a frequently stoned philosopher who lives nearby on a Morgan sailboat (also, in a direct nod to MacDonald, named The Thorstein Veblen).  And the Doc Ford stories invariably contain impassioned takes on the delicate Florida eco structure and the angry rants of a frustrated environmentalist protagonist as he witnesses what is happening to it. 

       Another take on the formula is James W. Hall’s series, featuring the loner Thorn. Thorn is also an environmentally-aware protagonist who lives in a Florida shack built above the water and makes his living tying fishing lures. He is an orphan and a maverick, and is usually aided by his (again, one-name) sidekick Sugarman, a Florida policeman (and, eventually, ex-policeman) who serves as Thorn's verbal sparring partner as they fight various injustices, including the abuses rendered to the Floridian land and sea. 

       Each of these series has its faithful followers, and each is well written. Randy Wayne White has authored over fifty books, fiction and non-fiction, under his own name and several aliases. James W. Hall is both a novelist and an accomplished poet. The reader expects well written prose from these gentlemen and the authors deliver. But having read most of White’s series and the first third of Hall’s, there is still something missing for a reader, such as myself, in search of Travis McGee. Maybe it is the fact that Doc Ford, and (I suspect) Randy Wayne White, at least for me, is a little too right wing for a steady diet. Maybe it’s the fact that entirely too many of the characters in Hall’s series end up dying, and in gratuitous ways unnecessary to the logical progression of the story. 

       But lets face it: criticism is easy. And, by the same token, concocting a riveting tale and telling the tale as well as MacDonald, by contrast, is hard.  It takes a real hand to pull off a Florida series that can be read as a steady diet.  I can’t even do that with Carl Hiaasen's novels. When I have read a few I feel the need to come up for air.  These books, and other Florida capers, are fine as far as they go, but they still pale when compared to the works of John D. MacDonald, in the words of Stephen King “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.” 

The last Travis McGee novel
        It looks like those of us who wondered what ever happened to Scout and Atticus will get our answer this summer, fifty five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. And now we also have a new Sherlock Holmes story, thanks to that lost Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript.  MacDonald’s fans, of course, arguably have little to grouse about by contrast. The available MacDonald library is far greater than Harper Lee's two books, and McGee, on his own, weighs in with 21 installments. But, still, that has not stopped fans from wishing, and from searching out and then gobbling up similar Florida adventures.    

       For fans of these authors it is not so much how many books were written as it is facing the prospect that there will be no more.  It is that prospect that leaves us overjoyed at the unexpected promise of Go Set a Watchman or that final Sherlock Holmes story, and despairing over the fact that McGee's tale is apparently done.  The response of many of us to the fact that it is all over is a rift on McDonald’s three eternal words:

       “Please, not yet.”

24 September 2014

Lee Child's Personal


by David Edgerley Gates

PERSONAL is the nineteenth Jack Reacher book in the series, and Lee Child doesn't need my help to sell it. It opened at #1 on most national lists the first week it was out, and week two, it's still there.

This post isn't about promoting the book, which happens to be a knockout - Lee certainly hasn't lost his chops, and Jack keeps getting deeper as a character - but about P.O.V.



PERSONAL is told, appropriately, in first-person. This isn't a departure for the Reacher books, but more commonly, they've been told in the third. In other words, Jack is observedand doesn't share his confidences. This is true of thirteen books, so far. It's interesting to me why you'd decide to shift gears. Lee uses the first-person in KILLING FLOOR, PERSUADER, THE ENEMY, GONE TOMORROW, THE AFFAIR, and this book. Oh, you might think, work with the change-up pitch to keep yourself on your toes and avoid getting stale, or to keep your readers invested, over the course of a long and successful run of novels, but it seems to me there's a more calculated narrative choice involved.

Reacher's never been entirely generic - unlike, say, Travis McGee. John MacDonald, famously, never wanted to do a series character, but he got talked into it. McGee has his quirks, but he remains a flat character, until you get to THE GREEN RIPPER, and he steps outside of himself, the formula no longer able to contain him. The dynamic for Reacher, even at the beginning, allows for more expansion and contraction. Lee Child himself has said that he meant from the get-go to write books that would be accessible, and commercial, and that Reacher was a conscious construct, designed - not market-researched, but a means to an end.

He turns out to be more. This is something that happens, and not always by accident. There are other examples. We might start out to write one story, and then find it gets away from us, or a walk-on part suddenly takes center stage, and completely unexpected. But in Reacher's case, Lee Child might have intended a sort of empty vessel, a hero you could inhabit with your own devices and desires, and what he wound up with was somebody whose own devices and desires overtook the original template. 


Which brings us back to choosing a voice. In each of the books where Jack himself is speaking, he invites our confidence, and we become complicit. This is, I think, most true of THE ENEMY and THE AFFAIR, which take place in the past, when Jack is still active military. One of my favorite lines, in all of the books, is a throwaway, from THE ENEMY, a seemingly casual remark. Reacher's gone to Germany, and they're outside some big U.S. Army armor base, Baumholder or the like. In the early morning fog, they hear the tanks coming back from a live-fire exercise. The sound of tank treads on pavement, the sound of the 20th century, Reacher thinks to himself, the Wehrmachtthe Soviets putting down the Budapest revolt. One of the rare instances where Reacher is reflective. It's a very telling detail. Jack's not your average lifer.

Also, in THE ENEMY, we get to meet not just Jack's brother Joe, but their mom, with her own past history in the French resistance, something neither of the boys know about. Lee revisits this in PERSONAL. The real zinger in the book, for my money, isn't ninety pages in, with the Russian (no spoilers), but a hundred pages in, the scene afterwards, at Pere Lachaise cemetery, where Jack visits his mother's grave. This is the entire argument for using first-person. We hear Jack's thoughts. We see him revealed.

Vulnerability isn't the first word that comes to mind, with Reacher. Far from it. He's kind of a force of nature, a guy without visible weakness. Big, and certain. Nobody you want to mess with. People do, and live to regret it - or don't. Live, anyway. A hard guy, and unsentimental. A guy you believe in. A guy you want on your side.


I don't think, though, that you believe in Jack Reacher simply because he's an unstoppable force. I think what Lee Child has done, in the course of the books, is to pull off a real hat-trick. You get used to Reacher in some diner by the side of the highway, hoping he's going to get a decent cup of java, or head-butting some asshole cop who gets in his face, just being Jack. What takes you off-guard is the occasional, and sudden, moment of clarity. He assesses the background, his immediate environment, the threat potential, how not? What makes Jack different, what gives him depth, isn't that he examines himself. He doesn't. But he knows who he is.

You could say this is one in a long line. Spade, or Marlowe, Lew Archer. Spenser, and Travis McGee. Kinsey Milhone, for that matter. Lone wolves, who stake out their turf, and make it their own. I beg to differ. Reacher is somehow on another plane. I don't know how to explain it to myself. Not even Bob Lee Swagger - and I bow to none in my admiration for Steve Hunter - but Lee's done something else. He's reinvented the character, he owns Jack Reacher. he speaks with his voice.

We identify with our characters. I do with mine. Lee seems to have actually inhabited Jack. This is a gift, or a kind of magic. I think it's astonishing. We don't all manage it. Not even. Lee got a gift. It wasn't handed to him, by any means, but we take it when the tray is passed.



29 April 2013

I Found My Thrill (but not on Blueberry Hill)


by Fran Rizer
The original title at the top of this was simply "Thriller."  When my grandson stood behind me and saw that, he asked, "G-Mama, are you writing about Michael Jackson?"  I'm not, so I changed the title though I'm not writing about Fats Domino either.  (BTW, my grandson is the ONLY person who can stand behind me while I write without igniting my wrath.)
Somehow I don't believe this photo really
needs a cut line.

As some of you know, my Callie Parrish Mystery series is so close to cozy that I don't object to being classified as a cozy writer.  I wrote the first one following what I thought were the guidelines for cozies, but Berkley Prime Crime thought not and  marketed them as Mainstream Mystery.  I've also done some writing under pen names because I didn't want to offend or upset those wonderful people who read about Callie and Jane nor disillusion any of my former students that Ms. Rizer might say something that wasn't "nice."

I'm presently trying to find a publisher for a new thriller, and when I do, it will be published under the name Fran Rizer.  I've decided I'm too old to try to protect my reputation any longer, and the students I last taught are now grown. It's not going to hurt for my readers to realize that while Callie Parrish doesn't use profanity, Fran Rizer knows how to spell those words!

Since my genres sometimes cross, I researched genres again when I finished this book to see what I'd written. Yes, there are several murders (way more than the maximum of  two  allowed in a cozy), but I wasn't quite sure what  to call this book.  After all, I researched cozies before the first Callie book, and didn't hit the target. My agent helped me.  He calls this a southern mystery thriller.  Everyone knows the meaning of southern and mystery, but what exactly IS a thriller?

I'll share my findings with you, but please don't think I'm comparing my thriller with the ones mentioned in this article.

First off, I don't believe in writing "formulas."  There is no formula for writing a thriller, but there are shared characteristics.  The biggest one is obvious:  thrillers "thrill."  The plots are scary with great risk to the characters, making the reader either eager to turn the page or scared to turn the page and see what's next.

Thrillers cross many writing genres and can be divided into different categories:  action thrillers, military thrillers, psychological thrillers (like Hitchcock's Psycho), romantic thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, spy thrillers, and even more.  The stories begin with a major, generally life or death, problem and a protagonist who attempts to solve it only to find the threat grows bigger and bigger and more and more dangerous.  The confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist is dramatic, and the book ends with a short wrap-up.

Recognize these people?
The thrillers that most interest me are the thriller murder mysteries. Some are classic "Who-done-its?" Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs is that kind of thriller.  We don't know who committed the murder(s) until the end.
.
Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle and Peter Benchley's Jaws are "How-done-its?"  The readers (or movie viewers) know who the bad guy is from the very beginning.  The tension and thrill is in the question, "Will they catch him/her/it before more people are killed?"  Note that the bad guy doesn't have to be human.  It can be an animal like in Jaws.
Dick Francis died in 2010.  He had
received numerous awards including
three Edgars, the Crime Writers'
Association Cartier Diamond Dagger,
 and the MWA Grand Master Award.




Not all murder mysteries are thrillers.  Many are puzzles that are interesting and entertaining but don't sweep the reader into a thrilling action-filled ride. Dick Francis's works don't fit that category.  He was a master of the mystery thriller.

There are mystery/thriller writers whose works surpass the genre and become serious art.  Examples are:

Raymond Chandlers Phillip Marlow novels, James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice; John D. McDonald's Travis McGee novels; and Ross McDonald's Lew Archer novels.  They all make serious social commentary and have existentialist undertones. Somehow, I don't think I'll fall into that category, but I'm pleased enough with my new southern mystery thriller under my own name.

Wish me luck finding a publisher for this new venture.

Until we meet again… take care of you.

12 February 2013

Gone South (with Travis McGee)


by Dale C. Andrews
Sunset, Gulf Shores Alabama

    Just like last year, this month finds my wife and me transplanted from Washington, D.C. to the sunny south.  February, despite those limited number of days, is clearly the longest month in the year when spent in North Eastern climes, a fact that Boston has recently seen underscored.

    It always seemed to me that whoever made February the month with the fewest days was on to something.  Better still, it should have had 21 days – allow it three weeks and no more.  Then slip that extra week into June where it would be  appreciated instead of cursed.

    Anyway, when Pat and I retired back in 2009 we vowed to never spend February in the District of Columbia.  That is why on this “Shrove Tuesday” (or “Fat Tuesday,” as it is more popularly referred to) we find ourselves ensconced in a rented condo unit on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. 

John D. MacDonald
    As in the past I try to keep my every-other-Tuesday from becoming a travelogue simply because I am away from home.  But I also try to find inspiration in locale, and that is particularly easy to do as I look out onto the Gulf and think one state (and one shore) to the left.  What first got me thinking about the Florida Atlantic shore this year was an article by Jonathon Yardley that appeared in the Washington Post back on January 13 reporting (joyously) that virtually the entire John D. MacDonald library is being re-issued this year.  This includes all 21 of MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, each of which is being offered by Random House in brand new, handsome trade-paperback editions. 

    Two weeks ago in my article on Francis Nevin’s new Ellery Queen work The Art of Detection I quoted Mike Nevin’s observation that as a general matter “when the author dies, the work dies.”  In a similar vein, Jonathan Yardley’s article in the Washington Post noted that while
[t]he McGee novels have remained in print in mass-market editions . . .  most of the other books by this prodigiously proficient writer long ago vanished. . . .  To be sure, some characters in suspense fiction have long outlived their creators – think Lord Peter Wimsey, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Philip Marlowe – but mostly they just fade away, a fate that surely seemed in store for Travis McGee.

What a shame that would have been.  Kurt Vonnegut once predicted that  “[t]o diggers a thousand years from now . . . the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.”

    And what has been the catalyst for this MacDonald (and McGee) revival, saving us (at least in the near term) from such excavation?  Well, according to Random House it is (counter-intuitively) the blooming e-book market.  The anticipated new appetite for e-book versions of the McDonald library is projected to be strong enough to propel new issues of e-books and paper versions as well.  So this rising tide appears to be enough to lift all boats.

    And that happily  includes the Busted Flush.  For any of you unfamiliar with the series, the Busted Flush was Travis McGee’s 52 foot houseboat, on which he resided at Slip F-18 in the Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The ship’s name is derived from the poker hand that allowed McGee to win the Busted Flush from its previous unnamed owner.

    And Travis McGee?  Well, McGee advertises himself as a “salvage consultant.”  He recovers otherwise hopelessly lost property for a fee of one-half the value.  As McGee explains it in The Deep Blue Good-by, the first volume in the series, “I like to work on pretty good sized [projects].  Expenses are heavy.  And then I can take another piece of my retirement.  Instead of retiring at sixty, I’m taking it in chunks as I go along.”  As McGee also explains, there is always a need for the services he offers.  We live, McGee notes, in “a complex culture . . . .  The more intricate our society gets, the more semi-legal ways there are to steal.”  His simple role is putting things back to right.

    What made these novels such great reads?  Well, principally the taut writing and prolific imagination of John D. MacDonald.  The books follow a formula, but a pretty wild one.  All the reader really knows is that the hero, our friend Travis, will prevail and will still be around by the last page.  This is also true of his sidekick, Meyer, an economist who lives (first) on his neighboring ship the John Maynard Keynes and later on the successor vessel, the Thorstein Veblen.  But aside from those two compadres, all bets are off, and virtually every other character struts and frets the pages in danger of extinction.   

    The success of the series also rests on the likeable shoulders of the characters MacDonald created.  Some writers leave their central character to the imagination of the readers (Ellery Queen, for example, unraveled mysteries for decades virtually un-described; Bill Pronzini’s hero doesn’t even have a name.)  By contrast, we know a huge amount about Travis McGee, including what he looks like and how he thinks..

    McGee, we are told, is a shambling brown beach bum with a 33-inch waist, who wears a size 46 long jacket, and a shirt with a 17½" neck and 34" arms.  He is likely to rail against anyone abusing the fragile ecosystem of his beloved Florida, and he wears his views on his shirt sleeve.  MacDonald, writing for the first-person narrator McGee, describes our hero’s views as follows in The Deep Blue Good-by:
 I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.
I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.
. . . .
I am also wary of all earnestness.
We get the picture.

    The Travis McGee series spanned 21 volumes, beginning in 1964 with The Deep Blue Good-by and ending in 1985 with The Lonely Silver Rain.  Each volume sported its own color.

     Rumors persisted for years that a final volume, usually titled A Black Border for McGee, had been completed and that the book would kill off McGee.  MacDonald himself alluded to the volume in several interviews, saying that it would be published following his own death.  Almost certainly no such volume was ever written, and McDonald stated in later years that he would never kill off McGee since this would create a brooding ending hanging over the heads of new readers discovering the series.  We do know, according to letters written by McDonald to Mickey Spillane and to Stephen King that at the time of MacDonald's death following heart surgery in 1986 he had completed four chapters of what was to have been the 22nd Travis McGee adventure.  MacDonald also said that the story would be in two parts, spanning twenty years, and that it would end with with McGee still very much alive but slipping the lines off the pier and moving the Busted Flush to new moorings.  The completed chapters alluded to by MacDonald have never been found.

    Since MacDonald’s death in 1986 various offers to otherwise end the series, including one from Stephen King, have been rejected by MacDonald’s heirs.  Just last year MacDonald’s son Maynard explained this decision to leave the series at the 21 volumes written by MacDonald:
[T]he offers to extend my father's work have run from a tacky, blatant, commercial knock-off to a respectful, professional postscript to his work by a true friend [i.e., King]. And between those extremes there have been many well-crafted manuscripts that were done with warm regard and sincere admiration for my old man.
As these offers and manuscripts continued, and the enthusiasm from Random House snowballed, I was forced to finally define and face my own personal resistance to the idea of a sequel.
Given that I am not immune to the money, why refuse?
It is because I have never seen a really good imitation, be it art, literature, or music, that carries that poignant echo of the original artist- as a man. Even if the work itself is excellent, there is an inevitable flatness on that most intimate level, the level where the artist reveals himself.
To me, a work of art is a souvenir of the artist. It is a reflection of his inner and outer experience. It represents who he is and where he has got to at that moment of his life. In this sense, the creative process defies copying. I enjoy my father's work immensely. Part of him is still there, present on each page. Trying to echo that by imitating it is like trying to paint like Van Gogh by cutting off an ear. It also strikes me as a question of fairness. The dead cannot answer back and I feel it is presumptuous and disrespectful to play with their work.
    As someone whose published mystery output consists solely of pastiches I have some perhaps understandable quibbles with Maynard’s view.  But hey, it’s not my decision.  So while we can expect no new McGees, we, in any event, will soon have new editions of all 21 existing McGee novels.  As for what might have eventually happened to McGee, we are left to our own musings and those of others, including Carl Hiaasen:
Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale
[P]ossibly the old houseboat is tied there still; McGee on deck, tending to fresh bruises, sipping his Boodles; watching the sun slide from the sky over Las Olas Boulevard.  Anyway, that's what I want to believe. If he's gone, I prefer not to know.
Welcome back, McGee! 

24 September 2012

Childhood Memories


Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

This week I opened a quart carton of orange sherbet. Yum. I've had orange sherbet through the years yet, somehow, this time my childhood memories flooded back (maybe old age kicking in, who knows?) I suddenly felt as if I were eleven again, visiting my dad for the summer in Fort Worth, Texas. My parents divorced when I was young. Both parents remarried and during the whole school year, I lived with my mother, step-dad and two little sisters, out on the high plains of Texas, forty miles from Lubbock in the small town of Post, TX. Post then had a population of about three thousand folks and this was back in the olden days when ice cream was only available in grocery stores and drug stores. The most flavors I remember were vanilla, chocolate, Neapolitan, and strawberry. In the summer, when I went to visit my dad in the big city of Fort Worth for a couple of weeks, one of the first things we did was to drive over to Baskin Robbins where, at that time, they offered thirty-one flavors of ice cream. I'd look at everything they had and every single time order the same thing...orange sherbet, served in an ice cream cone. I have no idea why. They had banana nut, peppermint, chocolate mint, cherry vanilla, regular vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, peach, Neapolitan, and something with nuts, maybe butter pecan. They also had orange, lime and pineapple sherbet. I don't remember any of the other thirty-one flavors but for some strange reason orange sherbet really seemed like the best of the best to me and that's what I'd buy.

This nostalgic trip got me thinking about my childhood memories of reading. I honestly don't remember not liking to read and really not sure when I began reading. A little before first grade and then from first grade on I read and still read as much as I can now. I lived with my grandmother in Houston for my first grade and then my mother remarried and I moved to Post, TX when school was out. I spent a lot of the summer playing outside, but I also spent a lot of time reading...sometimes reading outside. My parents bought me books. Post didn't have a library then but there was a small library at our church. Most of the books at the church were biographies but written for children. So I learned about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, and George Washington Carver from these bios. At home mother bought, Heidi, Black Beauty, Grimm's Fairy Tales and Bible Story books. I loved the Bobbsey Twins and a series called The Sugar Creek Gang, which was about a boy and his pals but I liked adventures and the boys were always having those.

I probably started reading Nancy Drew when I was nine or ten years old and devoured those. I think I tried the Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belton, but Nancy was my idol. She had a really cool dad, an even cooler convertible and she solved mysteries. But my big love for mysteries really grabbed me totally when I was twelve and my father handed me a stack of his paperback books: Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, Richard S. Prather's Shell Scott and Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason and his Bertha Cool and Donald Lam detectives, and John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. I thought Private Eye books were awesome and Perry Mason was so exciting by the revelation of the murderer in the trial.

Soon I matriculated to high school and devoured as many of their mysteries as I could find...Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christi, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammet, Rex Stout. I could go on and on but you get the idea. I still read spies and thrillers, Ian Flemming, John le Carre, Alistair McClain and I soon discovered John D. MacDonald wrote other books besides the Travis McGee series. In the meantime, Post TX got a public library and my mother became one of the volunteer librarians and when they were able to hire a librarian full time, my mom got the job. She had only gone to the 8th grade in school but she had gotten a GED and she took some college classes by correspondence. She took many of the continuing education classes the library offered. That was her dream job and also helped add to my "have read" growing list of books. Is it any wonder that I wound up writing mysteries and owning a mystery bookstore?

In exploring my childhood memories which I decided to share with each of you I reveal how I managed to fall in love with mysteries and private eyes in particular. What about you?

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to the kitchen to have a bowl of orange sherbet.

27 September 2011

Re-writes?


by Dale C. Andrews

Francis Nevins, courtesy of St. Louis University
      This past Saturday I drove up to Baltimore, Maryland in a pouring rain in order to enjoy a lunch with one of my favorite authors, Professor Francis (“Mike”) Nevins who had travelled to the east coast for a nostalgia convention.   Mike, as all fans know, is the author of six novels, two collections of short stories and several books of non-fiction. He has edited more than 15 mystery anthologies and collections.  Mike was a close friend to Frederic Dannay, one half of the Ellery Queen collaboration.  (Mike refers to Dannay as the “closest thing to a grandfather that I ever had.")  Mike also wrote one of the definitive Ellery Queen pastiches – “Open Letter to Survivors.”

       I know, I know.  At this stage you roll your eyes and think to yourself, “here goes Dale off on another Ellery Queen tangent.”  So, like any other mystery writer, let me attempt to pull the rug out from under your feet.  What caught my interest, among other things, was Mike’s ruminations on another favorite author of mine, John D. MacDonald.

John D. MacDonald
       Mike was one of the editors who oversaw the collection of MacDonald’s early stories that comprise the anthology The Good Old Stuff.  (Actually, as reported in a review by Bill Pronzini there were too many stories for one volume, and the rest were collected in More Good Old Stuff.)   What was particularly interesting about Mike’s recollections of working with MacDonald was the fact that the author was adamant that the stories needed to be updated in order to be re-published.  For example, references to radio shows became references to television shows.  “This is always,” Mike admonished from across our salads as we chatted, “a bad idea.” 

       I suppose that there are legitimate contrasting views on that point, although I side generally with Mike.   Reflections of the world as it existed at the time a story was written can become anachronistic, rendering a story “dated” in the eyes of some readers and therefore contributing to its demise from published literature.  As an example, it has become increasingly difficult to find John D. MacDonald titles in bookstores (and you might as well forget about finding any newly published volumes by Ellery Queen).   But Mike’s observation is certainly correct from a purist perspective – short stories and novels help us to understand the times during which they were written.  We cannot (as the philosopher Heraclitus observed) step into the same river twice, but historical context in the writings of a time get us as close as we can get to that river. 

        All of this is perhaps a minor issue when we are talking about John D. MacDonald’s insistence that a story should be rewritten substituting a television for a radio.  But the significance grows when we begin to slide on down the slippery slope. 

        Last January it was announced that a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, updated by Twain scholar Alan Gribben of Auburn University, would eliminate a now totally unacceptable noun that was used 219 times by Mark Twain to describe Huck’s companion Jim during the course of the narrative.  In the new edition that word would be replaced with “slave.”  I can certainly understand the problem and sympathize with the solution.   I would never use the deleted word, even in quotations, even in an “historical” novel that hearkens back to a time when the word was lamentably acceptable in everyday speech.  But Twain’s use of the descriptive noun nevertheless  shapes the novel because it reflects the time in which Twain wrote it.  Commenting on this, USAToday on January 4, 2011 quoted Jonathan Turley, a legal blogger, who calls the editorial decision an "offense against the original work." 
The editing of a classic raises very troubling questions from the right of an author to have his works remain unchanged to the integrity of literary and historical works. Like all great works, the book must be read with an understanding of the mores and lexicon of its time.
Aside from the fact that MacDonald was editing his own work, the MacDonald example and the Mark Twain example delineate what might well be opposite ends of a spectrum.  MacDonald’s updates seek to remove anachronistic references in the hope of making a story more modern.  The Twain example, however, seeks to supplant the admittedly unacceptable racial views of Twain’s present with the (hopefully) more correct approach of ours.  Is it right to do this, to take a book that was ultimately instrumental in fighting racial prejudice and revise it in a manner that suggests that some of the manifestations of that prejudice did not historically exist?  Is it right to apply present standards in a way that pretends to alter the past?

      Well, there is another recent median point on that same spectrum, an example more socially tinged than MacDonald’s re-write of his stories but less so than Twain’s.   The Washington Post reported last week that the Albemarle Virginia public school system has removed from the required sixth grade reading list at one middle school a Sherlock Holmes novel because a Mormon parent complained about the way it portrayed Mormons.  The book at issue is A Study in Scarlet, which first introduces Holmes and Watson.  And the “offending” paragraph reads as follows:
 [John Ferrier] had always determined, deep down in his resolute heart, that nothing would ever induce him to allow his daughter to wed a Mormon. Such marriage he regarded as no marriage at all, but as a shame and a disgrace. Whatever he might think of the Mormon doctrines, upon that one point he was inflexible. He had to seal his mouth on the subject, however, for to express an unorthodox opinion was a dangerous matter in those days in the Land of the Saints
 I mean, really.  Is this a reason to remove A Study in Scarlet from a reading list?

Colin Cotterill
        And what awaits us at the bottom of the slippery slope if we follow and apply the approach of the Albemarle Virginia public school system?   When I attended the Bouchercon mystery writers’ convention in St. Louis 10 days ago one of the panels I listened to featured Colin Cotterill. Cotterill, for those of you unfamiliar with his works, lives in Thailand and has written a series of mysteries featuring Dr. Sin and the Peoples’ Republic of Laos.  Cotterill explained at Bouchercon that while there is complete freedom of the press in Thailand, such is hardly the case in Laos.  In order to maximize his chance to have one of his books actually published in Laos, where it is set, he and a friend went through the mystery eliminating all pages that might conceivably be deemed objectionable by the Laotian government.  When they were done they were aghast to find that they were left with only 10 pages.  On a lark they sent these off to whatever Laotian governmental office oversees such things.  That office responded with a formal letter concluding that regrettably only 3 of the 10 pages could be published. 

     That, I think, is a good recent example of the bottom of the slippery slope.

A note to readers -- Next week my Tuesday partner in crime Susan Slater, well known author of Southwestern Mysteries, will be signing on to SleuthSayers with a multi-part article.  After Susan takes a few weeks in this spot I will be back, so see you in October!