Friday, October 02, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “The Last One Left,” by John D. MacDonald

(Editor’s note: This is the 65th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Portland, Oregon, novelist Bill Cameron. The author of Chasing Smoke and Lost Dog [both finalists for the Spotted Owl Award], Cameron has seen his short stories published in Spinetingler Magazine, The Dunes Review, the Killer Year anthology, and Portland Noir. His next novel, Day One, is due out from Tyrus Books in 2010.)

John D. MacDonald entered my life at age 13 via the Travis McGee novel, A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971). A woman is buried up to her neck at the shoreline as the tide comes in. The waves wash over her head and pull her long hair back across her face as they retreat, saving the bound and helpless McGee from having to watch her take her last breaths.

I’ve seen the case made that A Tan and Sandy Silence is one of the lesser McGee novels, and I don’t disagree. Still, after cutting my teeth on lighter mystery fare--Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Rex Stout--that book was my first taste of fictional darkness. With the gentle and deadly caress of the tide, MacDonald awoke in me a lifelong love of cynicism, battered idealism, and human corrosion. I devoured the Travis McGee series, then moved on to other purveyors of hard-boiled and noir fiction.

It would be years before I returned to MacDonald and discovered what I now consider to be his masterpiece, the standalone thriller The Last One Left (1966). Though not a McGee novel, MacDonald dedicates it to “Travis McGee, who lent invaluable support and encouragement.” Oh, that it took me so long.

The story centers around a bundle of cash, $800,000 assembled by a corrupt Texas businessman to bribe the board of directors of a Bahamian development company in exchange for a sweetheart real-estate deal. But the scheme goes horribly awry through the machinations of as cold-blooded a femme fatale as has ever graced the pages of crime fiction. Crissy Harkinson is an ex-call girl and professional kept-woman whose soul is so dark it crackles. Aware that her looks and power are finally fading, she sets out to make the big score which will keep her in Planters Punches and tanned sailing instructors well into her twilight years. She doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process.

MacDonald doesn’t limit himself, though, to the inner workings of a single malefic vixen. His distinctively terse prose brings to life a rich array of characters, from the attorney who’s seeking balance in his hyper-controlled existence (while also searching for his missing sister) to a damaged refugee from the Cuban Revolution who now works as maid for Harkinson. Everyone has a story, and all are painted in intriguing detail. As each new figure comes on to the scene, we gain insight into how they came to be who and where they are. Yet none of these background set-pieces slow the book down. MacDonald is masterful at weaving disparate histories into a single breathtaking tapestry.

In all of his work, MacDonald was an effective chronicler of the banal malevolence of wealth and entitlement, and The Last One Left is no exception. The casual indifference of characters for whom the term “villain” is too tame infuses the book. But MacDonald does not limit himself to the explication of evil. The novel covers a wide range of human experience. One of my favorite players is Walter Corpo, a brain-damaged veteran of World War II who finds a seriously injured girl drifting in a speedboat and cares for her. Even as Corpo struggles with memory loss and his sense of exactly who he is, he reflects a humanity not found in Crissy Harkinson and so many others in MacDonald’s grim world. He serves as an expression of a foundational idealism seen in much of MacDonald’s work. Travis McGee, the knight in tarnished armor, may not make an appearance in this book, but his essential character does.

I return to The Last One Left again and again. Complex and varied, each reading is a chance to see something new. With the inexorable pace of a beating drum, with the rich palette of an Impressionist master, MacDonald crafted a remarkable novel which draws you in and doesn’t let go until its stunning finish. At times introspective, at others harrowing, it’s all MacDonald at the top of his form. The Last One Left is a book you’ve gotta read.


Frank Loose said...

What a terrific review. I have a HB copy of this book on my shelf, along with a hand full of other JDMs i haven't yet read. Like you, my introduction to JDM was thru the McGee series. Interestingly (at least to me!) i re-read the series six or seven years ago, in order, alternating a McGee with some other book. Because the stories were so memorable, i had in my head the list of what i had originally viewed as the top McGee books. Well, the list changed during the re-read. The books i remembered as being my faves in the 70s swapped positions with other titles. The stories hadn't changed, but evidently I had, in terms of what i liked and felt was compelling fiction. I look forward to reading The Last One Left, which i am moving to the top of my TBR pile.
Thanks for the wonderful review.

Richard Robinson said...

Okay, I've found a used copy THE LAST ONE LEFT and it's on the way. Never read it, now I will. Thanks for once again pulling up an oldie and goodie that went under my radar, even though I've read every Travis McGee.

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks for sharing. I also read the Travis McGee series in high school and loved it, but I missed this MacDonald story. It sounds terrific.