Sunday, May 08, 2022

Weighing MacDonald’s Works

Here’s an unenviable task for you: Massachusetts novelist Peter Swanson (Every Vow You Break, Nine Lives) put together, for CrimeReads, a ranked list of John D. MacDonald’s 21 books starring Florida beach bum and “salvage consultant” Travis McGee. No matter how Swanson had ordered those crime novels, readers were inevitably going to argue for a rearrangement. I’m no different; a couple of the yarns among Swanson’s top 10 would have been seriously demoted, had I been judging. But you’ve got to give the guy props for having the guts to make his opinions on this matter so well known. And I certainly agree that The Quick Red Fox (1964) and The Long Lavender Look (1970) are two of MacDonald’s best.

Having re-read at least a couple of McGee’s adventures over the last decade, I can also relate to these observations by Swanson:
One thing is sure: the quality of these books is pretty damn consistent. If you like one of them, you’ll probably like all of them. That made ranking them less than ideal. I was pretty sure about my favorites, and my least favorites, but it gets a little slapdash in the middle. When ranking, I thought about the flow of the story, the scariness of the bad guy, the complexity (or lack) of the heroine, and the quality of the writing (always very high). What I didn’t think about while ranking was the casual sexism and racism that pervades these books, and that I see more as an expression of the time than what seems like any real hostility or agenda on the author’s part.

Travis loves women, and there are some good, strong female characters in these books. But Travis also loves to save a damaged damsel, so that many of the females that show up are victims for Travis to put back together. He is a white knight, a man beholden to no one, constantly swept up into great adventures, and into the arms of fascinating bedmates. In other words, a male fantasy.
I wasn’t so aware of the incidental racism and sexism back when I was a college student first sampling the McGee tales. Decades later, however, both are rather evident, standing in contrast to modern norms. I like to believe the tendency of people today to presume guilt on the part of a Black man, simply due to the color of his skin, is less commonplace than it might’ve been during MacDonald’s heyday. And though there are still far too many white males living under the misapprehension that women exist principally to provide them with base amusements (“Grab ’em by the pussy!”), or that women need to in some fashion be saved or protected by men, that’s not the predominant viewpoint in early 21st-century America.

MacDonald and McGee were endowed with the prejudices and blind spots of their era. The stories they conspired to create remain enjoyable. But like a good deal of older crime fiction, they must on occasion be read as coming from a slightly alien society.

Again, you can find Swanson’s rankings here.

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