Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Forgotten Books: A Purple Place For Dying by John D. MacDonald; Charles Runyon

Forgotten Books: A Purple Place For Dying

Of all the Travis McGee novels, this strikes me as the one that would have been right at home in Black Mask magazine in its prime. This is McGee just before he goes all Iconic Hero on us. Here he's a little grittier, a little humbler and a lot angrier for a good sound reason--the buxom blonde rich woman who hires him to get some dirt on her husband (she suspects he's embezzling her money) is blown away before his eyes in a grim stretch of Southwestern desert.

I mention Black Mask because as all of those boys (and those few girls) knew you had to keep twisting and turning your tales to keep audiences interested. And this book has enough surprises, blind alleys and shocks to rival the most calculated beach book. Plus it's interesting to watch how McGee has to outwit not only the mysterious people who killed the woman but also the law. You have to go all the way back to Erle Stanley Gardner's fine Whispering Sands series to find a novel where the desert is as much a a character as most of the people in the book.

JDM also shows us a slice of desert life, how so many aspects of daily life are calibrated to compensate for the troubles and dangers of living here. As always his portraits of people are spot on. He was one of the first crime writers I read who was able to create characters who were a mixture of bad and good. And here we meet people we shouldn't like much but are forced to because of circumstances.

I've never been sure why A Purple Place For Dying is rarely mentioned in the McGee honor role. To me it's a fine, grim take on the classic desert story as seen through the eyes of a weary, nearly broke, often perplexed McGee.


I mentioned the other night that I (and others) assumed the fine writer Charles Runyon was dead. Well Steve Lewis sent me a phone number to try and I ended up talking to Charles for fifteen minutes. He's teaching writing at a college in Texas and has finished two novels that he's sending me to read. He's one of the good ones, man and writer alike. I'm happy to report that I was wrong.


Richard R. said...

Ed, a year ago or so I decided to reread the McGee books and started them, in order. Read right through Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink and got about 30 pages into this one and just hit a wall. I put it aside and never got back to it, and I'm not sure why. One reason may be I was already looking forward to the next one, Quick Red Fox, which I recalled I liked a lot the first time I read the books. But that doesn't really explain it. Once things are unpacked I'll have to pick this one up and give it another go.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

The early Travis McGee books were def the best ones in the series.

Judi Rohrig said...

I just completed a rerun through the McGee books, but read them in my own weird order, for whatever reason. So I started with A DEADLY SHADE OF GOLD because, even though it was written before PURPLE, it seems to me to be where McGee puts his real boots on. I read straight through until FREE FALL IN CRIMSON, where I stopped to reread THE QUICK RED FOX, since the lovely actress Lisa Dean appears in both. Then onto the rest until THE LONELY SILVER RAIN. I immediately began DEEP BLUE GOODBYE. (Wow. That was a trippy thing!) Which means PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING came last. Trav in BLUE, PINK, and PURPLE still seems to have a bit of innocence about the world. If that makes sense. But reading them this way gave a whole new sense to McGee. Still great stuff!

Steve Lewis said...

Re Charles Runyon. Credit Where Credit is Due Department: Al Hubin, Victor Berch and I spent yesterday morning swapping emails back and forth trying to track him down until Al decided that the direct approach was just that. was all it took!

In any case, I'm glad you're back in touch again. Good to know he's still around.

-- Steve

Peter Farris said...

A Purple Place For Dying is one of Dad's favorite MacDonald novels, Ed...and Pops is President of the JDMcD fan club (one look at the bookshelves in his office will attest to that). In fact, when I got serious about writing I asked him (much to his delight) which MacDonald I should start with. Without batting an eye he told me Purple Place For Dying and Darker Than Amber. The latter, by the way, has Dad's favorite opening sentence of any novel EVER.

Dad also has a funny story about his editor trying to coax a blurb from MacDonald for The Fury way back when. MacDonald apparently wrote his editor a rather testy letter for sending such a "nihilistic" novel is way.

As the story goes MacDonald did acknowledge The Fury as genius but refused to blurb it so go figure...haha.

Ed Harrison said...

That's a good take on "Purple." I've been thinking about it for a few days. I've only read "Purple" once and as I recall two things really bothered me about it - the insults yelled back and forth between McGee and the killers, and the rattlesnake part. Neither seemed very realistic to me - I had to go too far with the suspension of disbelief. But I'll go back and read it. I recall that I thought that the main female character/ McGee love interest was well-drawn.

Anonymous said...

"Too true. There has been, of one has been paying attention, plenty of warning about this. In one of the John D. MacDonald Travis McGee novels from the late 60s or early 70s, McGee's economist best friend Meyer opens the book musing about the global debt crisis.

I've been trying to find which book this was so I could quote it and post it exactly with the date, but so far my Googling has let me down."
part of a comment by "Paranoid Pessimist December 20th, 2010 9:47 pm"


Can someone help?

Anonymous said...

Try the green ripper. Have it on audio book so can`t site a page number. I believe the concern was about 4 billion people and a world debt that was less the current us total,