Sunday, December 09, 2007

JDM Redux from Fred Blosser


You made an interesting observation a couple of weeks ago, "I was shocked when I saw how quickly John D. MacDonald started to fade after his death. I've given his books to several thirty-somethings and to a person they find him 'slow.' " I've been thinking about that reaction. I was big into MacDonald when I was 19 or 20. His books could be easily found in any newsstand, corner drug store, or bus station, kept perpetually in print (or so it seemed at the time) by Fawcett. I never thought of him as slow; far from it. I generally ran through each book in no more than a couple of sittings.

I had hoped for more reaction to your comment than it received. Maybe in itself, that's a measure of how much MacDonald has slipped below the radar, even among crime fiction buffs. If newer readers find him slow going, could it be for these reasons?

--He didn't write in the pared-down, dialogue-driven style now employed by James Patterson, John Sandford, and John Grisham, whose names are as ubiquitous on bookshelves today as JDM's once was. At random, I recently picked up one of MacDonald's Gold Medals, DEADLY WELCOME. At 160 pages, it should be as much of a fast read as they come. Nevertheless, MacDonald devotes as much space to describing his sleepy, stagnant Florida backwater setting as he does to finding out whodunit. For a reader who comes to the novel from Patterson, there may be too much sensory description, not enough straight-ahead action.

--The familiar conventions of today's crime fiction -- serial killers, female sleuths, self-loathing police officers, wacky petty criminals or colorful Mafia goons, detectives defined by vocation (forensic examiners) or ethnicity (Navaho tribal cops) -- are largely absent from JDM's fiction. Could "slow" mean that these younger readers had difficulty adjusting to a novel that lacked those kinds of touchstones? Maybe. Along the same lines, fans of Carl Hiassen, Elmore Leonard, or Tim Dorsey are likely to be disappointed that DEADLY WELCOME, the Travis McGees, and JDM's other novels set in the Sunshine State lack the off-the-wall wackiness and demented characters of the modern Florida crime novels.

--And then there's the fact that society as a whole has changed so much since MacDonald's heyday. How much is the average, thirty-something reader likely to identify with the mindset that generally informs JDM's novels, in which a capable male protagonist drives the action, female characters are usually subsidiary, and crime is an aberration in a generally orderly, forward-looking society?

You compared JDM's relative slide into obscurity with Ross Macdonald's resurgence. Ross benefitted from the fact that, toward the end of his career, he picked up some acclaim and recognition from the academics. That may have helped Ross to keep going in recent years, if at a lower level of commercial success than in his high-water period between THE UNDERGROUND MAN and his death. To my mind, the current incarnation of the Archer novels, in the Vintage trade pb editions, is more likely to appeal to the cult, scholastic crowd than to the casual surfer of popular fiction.

Fred B.


pattinase (abbott) said...

It really is sad if we can't appreciate the pace, ambience and concerns of another time. I just loved him thirty years ago.

mybillcrider said...

I think Fred makes some good points here. Just look at JDM's paragraphs and you can see the difference between his style and that of the biggies of today.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading some Travis McGees recently. JDM pauses not only to catch the milieu, but also the deep sadness of life. And McGee is involved in an ongoing dialogue that ranges into the realm of philosophy. In short, JDM's novels reach deeper and last longer in my mind than most modern ones. Also, they are character-driven, which makes better fiction than most contemporary ones.

Richard Wheeler

Unknown said...

As a recent 30-something, I have to say that I do find some of his books slow. MacDonald can be slow to get to the point, or he can suddenly ramp the action down when it's going along at a good clip. Of course MacDonald was prolific, and I find that his quality tends to vary, even within his Travis McGee books, which tend to follow the same formula. Some of them, like Nightmare in Pink, rip right along, and others, like Pale Gray for Guilt, take a long time to ramp up and get bogged down in details about business and real estate.

Anonymous said...

I recently read "Painting The Invisible Man" a fiction novel based on the gangland slaying of the writer's father. You may want to explore this one. Crisp writing style,a powerful storyteller

Anonymous said...

JDM could lecture, particuarly as the McGee series went on, though never so tiresomely as, say, Heinlein or Rand. But, yes, more rumninative than most folks today, even those, such as Marcia Muller, who still do have a tendency to do that.

Juri said...

As one who's 35 but very capable of reading stuff of many kinds, I still find MacDonald pretty boring. I don't think it's due to him being slow, it has perhaps something to do with him showing off. I've never found McGee a real person, more like a caricature of a real man.

Certainly he's preachy. That's never worked for me, and those who know me know that I appreciate sociological notions very much. Just don't do in the dialogue.

Then again, my observations can be wildly off, since I've read only three or four McGees and only one or two one-offs by MacDonald. I have dozens of his novels, though.