Friday, January 22, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Drowner,” by John D. MacDonald

(Editor’s note: This is the 78th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Mississippi novelist Ace Atkins. He’s the creator of the Nick Travers series [Crossroads Blues, etc.] and the author of Devil’s Garden [2009], which found Pinkerton detective and future writer Dashiell Hammett investigating the infamous 1921 Fatty Arbuckle scandal. Atkins’ next crime thriller, Infamous, is due out this coming April.)

Had John D. MacDonald been less prolific, perhaps he’d be better known today. The author, best remembered for his iconic “salvage expert,” Travis McGee, was a manic genius, producing more than 70 novels in his lifetime, from noir to sordid love tales to science fiction. He even wrote the novelization of the 1963 Judy Garland movie I Could Go on Singing. But it was at writing crime stories where he excelled, leaving an amazing backlist of classic crime fiction.

Maybe it’s easier for publishers to package and promote a small canon of work by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or even the 18 Lew Archer novels by Ross Macdonald, than to wrestle with the backlist of someone like John D. MacDonald.

A decade ago, Random House made a poor effort to repackage the Travis McGee series for modern readers. The editions included an outstanding foreword by Carl Hiaasen, wrapped in terrible, uninspired jackets. Had John D. not been known for his fascinating, sexy, and sometimes lurid covers, it wouldn’t have been such a sin. One of the highlights of being a teenager was discovering old John D. paperbacks with impossibly curvy women in small bikinis.

Many titles outside of the McGee series--most notably Where’s Janice Gantry?, A Bullet for Cinderella, and Dead Low Tide--are terrific novels that have unfortunately not been in print since their original run in the 1950s and ’60s.

One of his best is The Drowner, published as a paperback original by Fawcett in 1963. The novel has everything that became a hallmark of a MacDonald story--high social commentary mixed in with kinky sex, wild immorality, and the victims cast aside in the wake.

This story takes place in central Florida, the setting of most of MacDonald’s work, making the Sunshine State look far more deviant and dark than any of the happy images spread by local chamber of commerce men. MacDonald’s landscape includes forgotten cracker towns, roadside motels, and endless orange groves waiting for the developers’ bulldozers. Even the steady drip and hum of overworked air conditioners add a sense of despair.

The novel’s private investigator, Paul Stanial, is hired to look into a suspicious suicide by the victim’s sister. Soon, we’re into a small-town society of swinger’s parties, where a blackout summons the pairing off of new sexual partners, crooked business deals, and most importantly, the disappearance of a hidden stash of money that is lost with the girl.

The Drowner is classic, distilled MacDonald populated with many recognizable stock characters: the world-weary investigator with a moral compass, a woman used up by a male-dominated world, a sluggish doof of a playboy with his pants around his ankles and his hand on a bottle, a Florida native as rugged and stalwart as a cypress, and a femme fatale who possesses freakish physical powers. (That same sort of female killer, as sexy as she is strong, has appeared in several MacDonald books.)

Like the victim, pretty much all of the characters in this novel are drowning in some form or another: Barbara Larrimore is drowning in grief over her sister’s death and from a recent cheap motel affair. Kelsey Hanson is drowning from the swingers’ parties and booze. And Sam Kimber, the roughneck Floridian, is up to his neck in tax trouble with the government.

Stanial (one of the few licensed private eyes in MacDonald’s tales) comes to the central Florida town drenched in disgust for what south Florida has become: “The biggest hedonistic complex in the known world. One big nosy sunny cauldron of busy butts and ripe red mouths, rare steaks and guitars, skinny-dipping and party games, twisters and gin, kicks and tits, laughter and brass horns, oiled brown backs and tall teased hair. Wade in, guys. Welcome to the most concentrated, gut-wrenching loneliness ever devised by man.”

MacDonald mastered this kind of camera eye turned upon the sleaziness of the ’60s scene, more complex than Los Angeles during Chandler’s day. All the Travis McGee books were pretty much big, fat morality plays, pulling no punches on the violence and anguish left in the wake of a good time.

As Stanial’s investigation drains the lake, he exposes each level of depravity caused by too much sex, or in one case, not enough of it. He exposes Florida for what it is now and was becoming at his time--a tidal pool and social experiment for the rest of the country.

The Drowner packed a hell of a wallop when it hit paperback racks at 40 cents a copy. Like most of MacDonald’s work, it’s long overdue to return. And MacDonald has every right to sit on the shelf besides Hammett, Chandler, David Goodis, and the rest of the pulp masters who wrote terrific lit for pennies per word.

No one should be forgotten for leaving such a legacy.

READ MORE:Who Is Travis McGee?” by Dr. Gonzo (To Be or Not to Be ...); “Interview with John D. MacDonald,” by Ed Gorman (Mystery*File).


Ed Gorman said...

Thanks, Ace, for such a well-written argument on behalf of John D. MacDonald's work. You made a point I've never considered before. How do you neatly package and promote somebody as prolific as JDM? His estate has been badly managed and you're right in saying that his publishers did him no favor with those insipid McGee covers. I'd say there are an even dozen of the Gold Medal originals that could be successfully brought back with the kind of covers you're talking about. There should also be a large volume called The Collected Stories of John D. MacDonald. I put one together several years ago, took it out, got a nice offer but the estate wasn't interested. I can't believe that John himself would have turned it down.

Frank Loose said...

Thanks for the great review. The Drowner is a MacDonald that i have not read but sits on my shelf sandwiched between many MacDonalds that i have read and enjoyed immensely. Re the uninspired covers of the Fawcett reprint editions of the mid 90s: I can't help but think that "political correctness" figured into the design and the lack of any female form connecting to the original covers. I have to say, i did buy each of the new editions; something about holding the books anew inspired me to read the series again in order from first book to last. The covers may have been limp, but the stories are still great! It would be wonderful to see some of his early Gold Medals available again. Until then, the good thing is they were so popular in their day that it is easy to track down old copies to read.

Chris said...

You'll be pleased to know that "A Bullet for Cinderella" is available again in paperback and ebook at Amazon. Wonder of wonders, they even used the original artwork!

I, too, lament the the deplorable decline in the quality of paperback covers. I believe that this decline is directly responsible for the low moral standards of today, the rise of casual profanity, the looming trade deficit, child pornography, high unemployment, the political polarization of our country, the demise of bellbottoms from sartorial acceptance, anchor babies, the inability of the French Navy to build a reliable aircraft carrier, and my failure to play the Sicilian Dragon with flair and panache (or even win).

Thanks for a well-reasoned review.