Friday, April 11, 2008

John D. MacDonald

Tonight Martin Edwards on his fine blog talks about the facts that 1) He's never read anything by Joh D. MacDonald or Ross Macdonald 2) That's he's reading a book about JDM written by Hugh Merrill called The Red Hot Typewriter. He's also reading David Geherin's book about JDM.

"The Red Hot Typewriter is the rather good title of a book published eight years ago by Hugh Merrill, an American journalist. It’s a study of the life and times of John D. Macdonald, of whom we are told: ‘He was a crime writer who managed to break free of the genre and finally get serious consideration from critics. Seventy of his novels and more than five hundred of his short stories were published in his lifetime. When he died in 1986, more than seventy million copies of his books have been sold.’


"Coincidentally, I’ve also picked up another book about JDM – this time by David Geherin – which again emphasises the author’s views on the way mankind threatens the natural world. He suggests that JDM was something of a polemicist, and I tend to think that using your books as a vehicle for expressing your opinions is tricky territory, unless you remember at all times that your first duty as a writer of commercial fiction is to please the reader. All the same, I’m keen to give Macdonald a try. It’s obviously long overdue."

Ed here: From what I can see JDM's career is falling into shambles. Or already has fallen into shambles. The McGees are among the few of his books to be found in the chains. The much better stand-alones have just about vanished in new editions.

I've mentioned here before that a few years after his death I put together a Collected Stories proposal with the help of his friend Walter Shine. Kent Carroll, then at Carroll and Graf, was very enthusiastic about it. He offered $25,000. I took this to his agent--a guy I like a lot actually--but he wasn't interested. For reasons I've never understood, JDM chose a movie agent to handle his estate. I'm pretty sure that to a movie agent 25K doesn't sound like big money. I contacted John's son, another guy I like based on a few brief letters, but he left it up to the agent.

I think the massive story collection Walter and I had in mind would have gotten JDM some serious notice. Reviewers need to remind their readers that he was a masterful storyteller. And he as as good if not better a short story writer than a novelist.

Given all the dead people whose new books are being ghosted (there's a Twilight Zone episode in there somewhere) John stands tall. He would have allowed no such foolishness. Just how many notes for future novels did V.C. Andrews leave behind anyway?

As for the two studies of JDM that Martin mentions, for me the Geherin is far superior to The Red Hot Typewriter. Better organized, better written and far more interesting as a take on the man's career.

Serious books about popular writers can be written and written well. The brilliant study of Ross Macdonald by Tom Nolan is the best example. JDM wasn't in the same league as Macdonald but I think his books had more of an impact on popular culture.

Any of you biographers out there care to write the book John deserves?


Vince said...

Hi, Ed. A book that gave me some insight into JDM was A Friendship, the collected letters between him and Dan Rowan from TV's Laugh-In. Two guys you wouldn't necessarily think of as hitting it off, yet they kept up a vigorous and engaging correspondence. Sad to think that both of their reputations have faded now -- and that books of that kind are a thing of the past in the email era.

Ed Gorman said...

Yes, that's an excellent book, especially the insight it gives into JDM's thunderous tendency to moralize. Yes Rowan did dump his wife for a young hottie but JDM turned on him without any attempt to understand him. I probably would've sided with Rowan's wife as JDM did but I think I would've tried a little harder to show some compassion for my friend. But that's the peril of being friends with two people are splitting up. Very difficult to not take sides.

David Jack Bell said...

RED HOT TYPEWRITER was a bit of a letdown for me. It felt rushed--like a summary of the books and his life with no real insights into the man or his work habits. (Beyond that he wrote a lot.) But I was interested in where the stories came from etc.

Anonymous said...

RED HOT TYPEWRITER was not one tenth the biography that JDM deserves. It offers few insights into the man, and spends almost no time examining his work. It is also riddled with distressing errors. For instance, it tells us that Donald Westlake wrote the Matt Helm novels- wrong Donald, Mr. Biographer. Also, Joe Millard is said to have written the books that Sergio Leone adapted into Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns. Nope, he or someone using what had become a house name novelized the films.
The biography falls shamefully short of the one that JDM and the world deserve.

John Hocking

Anonymous said...

I hadn't heard the JDM and Dan Rowan connection before. Or the unfortunate split.

Ed Lynskey

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. I adored the McGee books, but agree too many wonderful novels and stories have been allowed to fade away. Of course, I'm fading away too, I suppose...

Juri said...

Why does a John D. MacDonald biographer mention Joe Millard and his spaghetti western paperbacks? I haven't read The Red Hot Typewriter myself.

Richard Moore said...

I enjoyed the book of letters between Rowan and JDM. MacDonald's treatment of Rowan after the comic separated from his wife was very heavy-handed. JDM had a rather holier-than-thou side of him. The Merrill book was a disappointment but it does detail a very nasty attack MacDonald made on his one-time close friends Borden and Babs Deal (both good writers by the way).

JDM wrote a letter to Borden where he accused Babs of being in love with him and it was getting tiresome. He then proceeds to tell Borden that it is all his fault as he is such a lousy husband. It has to be read to be believed. Deal's response gave it back to him in kind.

The tone MacDonald assumes in the breakup letter to Rowan and Deal is very offputting but yet thinking back to those McGee novels, there are hints of the same attitudes in the pontificating sidetracks. I still like the non-series novels (and the short stories are wonderful) but the McGees are harder and harder to stomach.

Finally, I also agree with you that the Tom Nolan book on Ross Macdonald is the best of the breed.

GFS3 said...

All you really need to know and love John D. MacDonald is that he gave the world Travis McGee.

'Nuf said really.