Rediscovering John D. MacDonald

Recently I added “A Purple Place for Dying,” by John D. MacDonald to my kindle queue. One of several books featuring iconic Florida detective Travis McGee, I originally bought it as a pleasant diversion for a long plane ride, you know, the kind of pulpy crime novel that you read and then instantly forget about. I hadn’t read a McDonald novel in decades and had quite forgotten that he was far more than a grinder of pulp fiction.

In the novel, Travis is out west on a potential job when his would-be employer is shot and killed in front of him. This character appears only on a scant four or five pages, but consider his description:

I read female characters from sterns. Hers was hefty, shapely rich and  unapproachable. This one, I decided, would consider any gift of her favors a truly earth-shattering event, to be signaled by rare wine, incense and silk sheets. And she had the look of almost being able to live up to her own billing.

Lest you think McDonald’s narrative is limited to cops and femme fatale types, consider his description of college students that Travis observes as they scurry to and from their classes, noticing, but uninterested in, a middle-aged beach bum who is on campus following up on a lead.

The kids hustled to their ten-o’clocks, little and young, intent on their obscure purposes…They were in the vivid tug and flex of life, and we were faded pictures of the corridor walls-drab, ended and slightly spooky.

And the final blow, in which Travis imagines how life will eventually turn out for the young, unsuspecting coeds.

They were being structured to life on the run, and by the time they would become what is now known as senior citizens, they could fit nicely into planned communities where recreation is scheduled on such a tight and competitive basis that they could continue to run, plan, organize, until, falling at last into silence, the grief-therapist would gather them in, rosy their cheeks, close the box and lower them to the only rest they had ever known.

Mind you, at its core,  this is a crime novel, the type of popular fiction that is all too often derided as unsophisticated fodder for the masses. But I’ve read a lot of prize winning literary fiction that can’t hold a candle to the voice in this book.  I was struck by how well the story and characters hold up in today, where someone with a cell phone and Facebook could have probably untangled the complex family dynamics at the heart of the story.  Yes, there are outdated bits, and as far as some of the women characters, well, we’ve come a long way baby. But the writing is so good, Travis McGee so compelling a hero, that the reader can settle in as if it’s still 1964 and enjoy the ride.

My apologies for overlooking you for so long, Mr. MacDonald, who was also a Floridian, albeit a transplant. You will have a permanent place on my actual bookshelf from now on.


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