Wednesday, November 27, 2013

John D. MacDonald

There's a lot of Florida-based crime/detective fiction out there, some of it good, some of it bad, some of it seemingly written by people who've never set foot in the Sunshine State in their life. Some of it bends over backwards to make Florida seem like an insanely dangerous hell-hole, which I obviously can't get behind. Others simply hint at the wackiness that makes our state so great without making the sensationalist tail wag the dog.

In fact, "Florida Crime Fiction" has literally become a genre unto itself, and I must plead this isn't what I had in mind when I wrote The Bartender and then subsequently moved to Florida, but hey, who am I to argue with the way the Matrix is programmed?

This genre of Florida detective-noir goes back to the grandfather of it all, John D. MacDonald, who penned twenty-one Travis McGee novels for two golden decades between 1964 and 1984, as well as a slew of other novels and stories including some science fiction and even westerns. Like the best of the classic "quantity is quality" pulp fiction authors, ol' J.D. was all over the place with his all-seeing eye.

His literary career began when his wife, unbeknownst to him, submitted a story he wrote to a magazine and it was published. MacDonald then threw himself into writing, conjuring up a word-hoard of 800,000 words, typing 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for four months straight. In the process, he lost 20 pounds and probably much of his sanity as well. But in the fifth month, he made a sale to the pulp magazine Dime Detective and so began a long career in the pulps which led to an even longer career in the paperbacks. Perhaps his biggest inroad into popular culture came when his novel The Executioners was made into the classic film Cape Fear starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck.

MacDonald's real literary claim to fame, though, is Travis McGee. He's a private investigator who lives in Ft. Lauderdale, on a houseboat called The Busted Flush, which he won in a poker game. Unlike some hard-boiled detectives who are bored, bitter, callous and world-weary, McGee is very outspoken about his own philosophical ideals and causes - especially preservation of the environment. An example of McGee's ahead-of-his-time thinking, from the 1965 novel Bright Orange for the Shroud:

"Now, of course, having failed in every attempt to subdue the Glades by frontal attack, we are slowly killing it off by tapping the River of Grass. In the questionable name of progress, the state in its vast wisdom lets every two-bit developer divert the flow into drag-lined canals that give him "waterfront" lots to sell. As far north as Corkscrew Swamp, virgin stands of ancient bald cypress are dying. All the area north of Copeland had been logged out, and will never come back. As the glades dry, the big fires come with increasing frequency. The ecology is changing with egret colonies dwindling, mullet getting scarce, mangrove dying of new diseases born of dryness."

Carl Hiassen, another notable Florida writer who followed in JDMD's footprints in the sand, said MacDonald was "the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise and breath-grabbing beauty."

The Crescent Club, located on the southern end of Siesta Key near Stickney Point, was an especially beloved joint of MacDonald's, to the extent that almost every Florida dive-bar depicted in his books was a thinly veiled variation of it. It's dark, it has no theme or gimmick, it's neither seedy nor straight-laced. It's not filthy but it's not spotless either. It's not aimed at raucous youth, nor is it aiming to be an "old man bar". It's just.... a bar. But MacDonald saw in the Crescent Club a certain archetypal specialness that continues to resonate today.

According to Sarasota P.I. Bill Warner:

Nobody understood a place like the Crescent Club better than famed mystery writer John D. MacDonald; and, indeed, he used some version of it over and over again. It appears most prominently in his great Sarasota novel "Condominium". Here's his description of the Crescent Club: "Inside the ceiling was hung with nets, with glass and cork floats. Harpoons were chained to the walls. The low-power wall sconces held orange bulbs with orange shades. Overhead prisms shone puddles of white light down on the black Formica bar. The front edge of the bar and the barstools were upholstered in red Naugahyde, spotted with cigarette burns and old stains." With just a few minor changes, MacDonald's description still fits. The nets have been replaced with banners from various colleges, but they still hang from the ceiling. During the day two shafts of lights stream in from the open doors -- to me that's always been the mark of a real, old Florida place: doors open with the air-conditioning on -- and there's a drive-up window to purchase liquor, another old-timely touch.

3 comments:

  1. “The stars, McGee, look down on a world where thousands of 4-H kids are raising prize cattle and sheep. The Green Bay packers, of their own volition, join in the Lord’s Prayer before a game. Many good and gentle people have fallen in love this night. At this moment, thousands of women are in labor from the fruit of good marriage.
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  2. John D. was instrumental in creating my desire to move to Florida from Chicago.

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