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John D. MacDonald Before Travis McGee

The Travis McGee series made John D. MacDonald famous, but the books he churned out earlier were darker — and better.

Book review, Sept. 23, 2013

There’s a special kind of poignancy — amounting at times to pure excruciation — in seeing a great writer get famous for his worst books. When people bring up John D. MacDonald, they are almost always thinking of the dopey series of adventure stories he wrote about a Florida beach bum named Travis McGee. Ignored and forgotten are his early novels, 40 of them, which he poured out in one decadelong creative rush in the 1950s — thrillers, crime dramas, social melodramas, even science fiction — that taken together make him one of the secret masters of American pop fiction.

There is some hope that the situation may be about to change. Random House is engaged in a major effort to make almost all of MacDonald’s work available again. Inevitably, pride of place is being given to the McGee series, now reissued in spiffy trade paperbacks — all 21 of them, written between the early 1960s and MacDonald’s death in 1986, identifiable by their cutesy color-coded titles (“Darker Than Amber,” “Dress Her In Indigo,” “Pale Gray for Guilt”) as though they were a noir-inflected line of designer paint chips.

They were meant to be commercial products, and their main appeal today is nostalgia. They’re a kind of mausoleum of postwar American machismo. McGee is the classic wish-fulfillment daydream: an idler on a permanent vacation, who lives on a houseboat on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He is tanned, ruggedly handsome and muscular; irresistible to women (something about his rueful romantic melancholy and his preference for athletic, commitment-free sex); and intimidating to men (in the late and feeble “Free Fall in Crimson,” where McGee should by rights be filling out membership forms for AARP, his superior masculinity awes and humbles a motorcycle gang).

In novel after novel, nobody ever bests McGee, nobody ever seriously challenges him — though the bad guys do sneak up behind him and knock him unconscious so many times you wonder if he needs a neurologist on speed dial. Meanwhile, the action keeps grinding to a halt so McGee can vent his opinions on contemporary life: the best power tools, the perfect cocktail, the proper way to set up stereo speakers, the menace of air conditioning in grocery stores. These opinions are notable mainly for their unconscious philistinism — as when the perfect dinner menu proves to be this staccato bark: “medium rare, butter on the baked, Italian dressing.” No real man in those days ever ate anything but steak, potato and salad.

But then there’s the rest of MacDonald’s oeuvre. Random House is issuing these in a jumble of paperback reprints and e-book exclusives, but at least they’re there, and no longer need be scrounged out at ruinous prices from the secondhand market. These are the books MacDonald did before he invented McGee, when he was trying out every conceivable pop genre of the postwar market, from soft-core sex comedies to psychological horror.

These books were popular, and a few of them sold to the movies — most prominently “The Executioners,” which was turned into “Cape Fear.” But it was still a brutal way to make a living. The publishers’ advances were tiny, and royalty payments nonexistent. MacDonald had to turn out three or four novels a year to stay afloat. It’s no wonder that, after a decade, he gave it up and turned to the idea of a series character like McGee, betting it would be more lucrative. (He was right — the McGees were a hit from the beginning, and he only had to write one of them a year). What’s so impressive is that in a situation that virtually guaranteed hasty and slapdash work, MacDonald managed to write with discipline and even artistry. Take 1959′s “The Beach Girls” (e-book, $11.99), a book that appears to be dismal froth, but in fact is a subtle character study set in a Florida marina and told by a chorus of sharply-individualized voices (the title girls festooning the cover in their bikinis are barely mentioned).

But MacDonald’s particular mastery came with the crime story. Its peculiar formal requirements — the constricted space (paperback originals rarely ran longer than 150 pages), the need for rapid action in plain language, the obligatory scenes of sex or violent crime that could be exploited on the cover — proved to be spurs to his imagination. He was able to work effortless variations and fantasias around the stolidly immovable subject, like Scarlatti over the four-minute stretch of a harpsichord sonata. The narrowest theme — a murderer’s self-justifying worldview — spins out into the weird disintegrating paranoia of 1958′s “Soft Touch” (e-book, $11.99) and the chillingly affectless sociopathy of 1961′s “One Monday We Killed Them All” (e-book, $11.99).

The strength he brought to the genre was a matter-of-fact realism. Unlike Jim Thompson and Philip K. Dick, the wild men of the 1950s paperback original, he didn’t unleash any inner demons onto the page. In fact, it’s hard to make out from his life whether he even had inner demons: What he did have was an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and wartime service in the OSS (he rose to lieutenant colonel). His mind was always practical, his prose scrupulous, his take on his subjects lucid and his plotting invariably to the point. When he wrote about murder, he never provided an arbitrary corpse and a bunch of fanciful clues. He wrote about murders as they happen in the ordinary world, for mixed or garbled motives, or for no good motive at all, just because somebody thought for a fleeting moment that it was an easy solution to a problem. His murders were most often the work, as one character observes, “of some stumbling jackass that didn’t mean it to come out that way, and he wakes up in the night and thinks on it and he gets sweaty and he hears his heart going like mad.”

Few writers in any genre, fiction or nonfiction, have described the workings of white-collar crime with such clarity and precision. Novels like “A Flash of Green” or “A Key to the Suite” (both 1962 novels being republished in paperback and e-book next year) could be used in graduate-level seminars on corporate malfeasance and shady real-estate practices. He was particularly fascinated by people on the margins of a corrupt enterprise. In 1960′s “The Only Girl in the Game” (e-book, $11.99), a desolate novel about the operation of a Las Vegas casino, he writes with equal sympathy about the manager who wants to get something unpleasant done and isn’t fussy about the details, and the underling who knows all too much but thinks he can stay in his job and keep his own hands clean. The result is a portrait of American business so unsparing it makes “Mad Men” look like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

Not that MacDonald was some anticapitalist radical. (He was ferociously, even hysterically, at odds with the counterculture of the 1960s.) But he had a deep understanding of how business worked and a moralist’s obsession with the ways it could go wrong. I think this is what pushed him, in books like “The Only Girl in the Game” and “A Key to the Suite,” to do work that made him not just a good pulp writer but a significant American artist.

He had in fact a grand theme, which he nibbled at in book after book: the ruinous postwar overbuilding of Florida’s Atlantic Coast. (It even runs, much subdued, through the McGee series.) MacDonald knew the landscape well; it was where he lived for most of his adult life, and he was horrified by what he saw happening to it. He wasn’t a passionate environmentalist, and he spared his readers any laments for drained swampland. He had no objection to sensible development as such. But he saw the mechanics of the Florida land boom from the inside; he was able to write knowledgeably about county boards and real-estate investment trusts, building codes and rezoning applications. He was fervently certain that the countless petty instances of greed and corruption and fecklessness and indifference and incompetence were sooner or later going to add up to a disaster, and he was right. When Hurricane Andrew destroyed a large swath of Florida in 1992, six years after MacDonald’s death, the catastrophe was multiplied several times over by the astonishing shoddiness of the housing there, of whole communities constructed in open defiance of the building codes, almost exactly as MacDonald had described.

George Orwell once observed that Kipling’s pro-imperialist politics gave him something that every other British writer of his time lacked: a sense of responsibility. MacDonald occupies a curiously similar position in the literature of the American ’50s. When you search through the serious fiction of that era (or later eras, for that matter), you can barely find a hint of curiosity about how or why the American landscape was being transformed. Mailer, Bellow, Salinger — they could hardly even bring themselves to acknowledge that ordinary Americans lived and worked in a new world of subdivisions and shopping malls and freeways, much less wonder how it had come to exist. But John MacDonald did; working on the margins of literature, he built up in a remarkably brief time an unforgettable, encyclopedic portrait of American development and blight — a Balzac of the exurban fringe.

A version of this article appeared Sept. 21, 2013, on page C10 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Making of a Pulp Master; and online at WSJ.com on Sept. 23.