Thursday 13 December 2012

Travis McGee in The Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald (Pan Paperbacks, 1968)

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker. Featured as part of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Next in this series of posts on vintage softcovers, a pair of paperbacks I was basically badgered into buying by one of the regular commenters on Existential Ennui and The Violent World of Parker (where I'm co-blogger) – which is why I'm posting them over there as well as here (that and the fact that there's a certain amount of fan crossover between these books and Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker novels):

The first British paperback editions of John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink, both published by Pan in 1968 (and both originally published in the US by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1964, the former as The Deep Blue Good-by), with cover artwork by Sam Peffer – among the last covers that the prolific Pan artist must have created for that publisher (I believe he left Pan in 1967). They are, respectively, books one and two in MacDonald's twenty-one book crime fiction series starring finder of lost fings, Travis McGee, a series that EE and TVWoP regular David Plante reckoned I would find rewarding.

Now, I have tried a John D. MacDonald novel before – The Only Girl in the Game, which I liked a lot – but I'd never read any McGee. But given that Kingsley Amis was an admirer of MacDonald's, and I am, in turn, an admirer of Amis's; and that another writer I love, Elmore Leonard, put it on record that MacDonald was "the best first-person writer I've ever read", adding, "Travis McGee's 'I' was never intrusive"; and that David bloody Plante clearly wasn't going to give it a bloody rest or give me a moment's bloody peace until I relented and cracked the spine of a bloody McGee (figuratively speaking – because as we all know, cracking the spines of books – even ones already bloodied – is WRONG), there was nothing else for it but to dive in.

Of course, that begged the question: which editions of the early McGee novels (I'm not worrying about the later ones just yet) to begin collecting? The original Gold Medal paperbacks would be the obvious choice; not so easy to come by for someone living in the UK, but not impossible. In truth, though, those are in relatively plentiful supply if one can be arsed to order online from the States – and anyway, when have I ever plumped for the obvious choice? That left, to my mind, two options: the British hardback editions of the novels, published by Robert Hale in the 1960s and '70s, which, with their miniscule print runs and beautiful Barbara Walton dust jackets, are prohibitively expensive these days, running into the hundreds if not thousands of pounds per book; or the British paperback editions, issued by Pan, which, when you can find them (and I found these two copies online and on a table outside a secondhand bookshop in Brighton), are fairly cheap. Naturally, skinflint that I am, I opted for the Pan paperbacks.

And I'm pleased to report that David was perfectly justified in his persistent pestering, because The Deep Blue Goodbye at least – I haven't made it as far as Nightmare in Pink yet – is terrific: tough, but also surprisingly tender, especially once Travis McGee, who's been hired to trace a twisted sort named Junior Allen and recover the loot Allen stole, visits Allen's former mistress and, finding her in a dreadful state, casts aside his affected nonchalance and decides to stay and nurse her back to health. In his essay "A New James Bond", Kingsley Amis noted that MacDonald "is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels?", but on the evidence of The Deep Blue Goodbye – and indeed The Only Girl in the Game – I'd say that MacDonald could do "human-heart" as well as anyone – and he was no slouch at the thrills either, as demonstrated by a gripping and violent final encounter at sea.

Pan had largely switched to photographic covers by the late 1960s, and while the first Pan printings of The Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink could boast Sam Peffer cover art, subsequent printings, and subsequent McGees, sported photographic designs. So, having started collecting the Pan paperbacks, I'm not sure I'll stick with them... and serendipitously, just the other day I chanced across a different edition of the next book in the series, A Purple Place for Dying...


  1. I like John D. MacDonald's writing style and storytelling though I haven't read any of his Travis McGee novels, a couple of which I have in my collection. Thanks for the link to The Violent World of Parker—will check it out soon.

  2. No worries, Prashant – most of my blog posts over at VWoP are duplicated here, but there's plenty of other stuff to explore besides.

  3. I read THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY two or three years ago for the first time and was bowled over by how modern it seemed. It could've been written ten years ago rather than almost 40 years ago. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. And that's quite a cinematic action thriller ending, isn't it? Only a week after I read DBG I managed to find a huge collection of John D Macdonald books at a book sale. I think there were ten Travis McGee books in that bagful. It was quite a coup. My plan was to read the series in order within a few months, but I got sidetracked. Goal for 2013 - to return to Travis McGee.

    P.S. For once I think the US edition covers trump the UK editions.

  4. Now I think about it, it is a cinematic ending. And I agree: the book holds up well today... although seeing as I mostly read old '60s and '50s books anyway, I may not be the best judge there. But I'll definitely be back for more.

    You may have a point on the US cover being better than the UK one; I suspect Sam Peffer's paintings of the women on Blue and Pink were inserted into that bullet/dollar photographic design by Pan's art team. I do like both paintings a lot though. And I'll have a more recognizably classic McGee cover in the next post.

  5. As a follow-up to the above comment, I've just spotted online the cover of the first Pan printing of the next McGee, A Purple Place for Dying, which uses exactly the same bullet and dollar photo, but coupled with a photograph of a girl holding a towel to her chin. So on Blue and Pink, Pan evidently took Peff's paintings – which may well have been sitting in the inventory pile – and stitched them to the bullet/dollar photo.

    Not that anyone on the face of the planet other than me cares about this stuff...

  6. YES! So now EE has officially covered my two obsessions! Parker and Travis McGee!

    It's fitting that the creators of these two iconic characters were great friends. McGee, as you probably know Nick, is name checked in a Parker... Can't remember which, I think one of the last four or so Parker novels.

    I envy you... To have 20 more Travis McGees to look forward to is literary pleasure on par with the strongest narcotic, but much better for your soul.;-)

    I apologize for being a bit giddy and geeky like a 12 year old when talking about either Parker or Trav--you have to understand these characters are literally obsessions of mine. You've already been hooked on Parker, now you've finally introduced some McGee into your bloodstream.


  7. I have that Pan Deep Blue.

    I'm an admirer of John D. Macdonald but Kingsley Amis is rather far off the mark when he claims that JDM is "by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow." Any?

    As Kingsley was an anti-semite, I wouldn't take anything he has to say about Bellow or other Jewish writers seriously.

    I'd encourage you to pick up a Bellow novel, Nick.

    Of course Amis Jnr would become a great champion of Bellow as the premiere American writer of his time.

    And here's a nice quote from Martin Amis that brings us full circle: "Saul Bellow and I agreed that for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard."

  8. Hi Nick. Firstly I might just copy over my last post from Violent World of Parker. Trent over there asked me to substantiate my claim that Kingsley Amis was anti-semitic. Here I go:

    I don’t find it at all annoying to be asked to back up that claim, Trent, but you do misquote me. I didn’t say a “strong anti-semite”. I simply said Kingsley Amis was an anti-semite.

    The main sources to back up this claim of anti-semiticism are Kingsley Amis’s private letters (published after his death), and his son Martin’s testimony.

    See, for instance:
    which quotes Anthony Julius’s ‘Trials of the Diaspora, A History of Anti-Semitism in England’ (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010):

    ‘[Kingsley Amis wrote] “The great Jewish vice is glibness, fluency … also possibly just bullshit, as in Marx, Freud, Marcuse.” Or, “Chaplin is a horse’s arse. He’s a Jeeeew you see, like the Marx Brothers, like Danny Kaye.” As for the cultural complexion of America, Amis had this to say: “I’ve finally worked out why I don’t like Americans. . . .Because everyone there is either a Jew or a hick.” Amis himself defined his anti-Semitism as being “Very mild.”‘

    Martin Amis discusses his dad’s “mild” anti-semiticism in this video around the five minute mark:‘ah-there’s-another-one’

    Although I’m loath to quote the UK Daily Mail on anything, they do provide a useful series of additional quotations from Kingsley Amis’s private letters:
    ‘There is a lengthy letter to [Philip] Larkin in 1957 about publication of one of [Amis's] books that had been cut, in which he writes: “To hear that you find it tolerable is a great relief. Book due before Xmas they said, only I’ve had a clipping from some trade paper that says Jan, filthy lying profiteering bugger-the-author Yids.”
    ‘Despite these jibes, he did write one letter, in 1962 when he was teaching at Cambridge, in which he declared: “It may be tedious and not with-it to say so, but anti-Semitism in any form, including the fashionable one of anti-anti-anti-Semitism, must be combated.”

    ‘Unlike the other letters, which were written privately to friends, this one was to the editor of The Spectator and was for publication.’
    As such I would not consider credible any literary judgement Kingsley Amis exercised in regards Bellow, whose work often explored Jewish life in 20th Century America. He was clearly prejudiced.

  9. Excellent, was going to suggest either you or I posted that over here as well. I'm a bit pushed for time at the moment, but one further quick suggestion on why Kingsley picked Roth from among the literary ranks: "A New James Bond" appeared around the time of Colonel Sun, so circa-1968 (and was reproduced in What Became of Jane Austen in 1970), so on the cusp of Roth's wider commercial success with Portnoy's Complaint. So Kingsley had evidently read Roth, and Roth was very current at the time. Which isn't to say Kingsley's antisemitism didn't have anything to do with picking Roth; just that it's possible there were other reasons.

    And anyway, I still feel Roth is red herring in the wider context of Kingsley's point about genre fiction, which remains valid, even today. I don't agree with everything Kingsley said or wrote, but I do agree with him there.

  10. Now in response to your latest comment, Nick.

    By the way it's Bellow, not Roth!

    Look, genre writers, 'lit fic' writers, whatever - all that matters is good writing. Full credit to KA for attacking the hibrow/lowbrow thing back then when it certainly wasn't fashionable (these days the debate is kind of dead in the water, don't you think? No shortage of critical love for genre writers.)

    But for Amis to state "a clumsy dissection of the heart is so much worse than boring as to be painful" in reference to lit fic and then pick as his example Saul Bellow is ridiculous. The author of 'Augie March', 'Seize The Day', and 'Herzog'? They're masterful novels that have stood the test of time. 'Augie', in particular, is a feast, a tour de force. I have an essay on the novel coming out in the next issue of the Saul Bellow Journal.

    Of course that could have just been Amis's opinion. Fine, he doesn't like Bellow. But knowing Amis's prejudices, I detected something else there. I figure Bellow epitomised a certain type of cerebral Jewishness (and literary success) that Amis hated. So I don't think it's clear-headed literary judgement.

    By the way, I should make note that I actually like the fiction of Kingsley Amis. I don't need political correctness and strength of character in my novelists (that attitude would cull my library rather significantly). I just objected to Amis's rather revolting bigotry clouding his literary judgement.

  11. Ha, oops – dunno where I got Roth from. My mistake – and I've corrected my comment on VWoP accordingly. But actually, the point still stands: Bellow's wider success came with Herzog in 1964, so again, the fact that he had become a bestseller might have had something to do with Amis singling out Bellow. Like I say though, you may well be right: it could have been Amis's antisemitism (which, for the record, I don't share) colouring his judgement. I haven't read Bellow (or Roth!), so I can't really comment on his work versus JDM's.

    As for the highbrow vs lowbrow argument being dead, well, I wish you were right. But a couple of years ago we had that Edward Docx screed, and more recently there was this:

  12. Figured I'd repost this here as some EE readers may not be following the discussion over at VWOP:

    Mr. Asprey: I never knew the elder Amis was an anti-semite. But your sources seem pretty genuine. I never read an Amis novel. Nor a Saul Bellow novel, but I may give one a shot sometime soon, since you so favorably compared him to JDM. Would you have a specific novel to recommend starting with?

    I don’t know if Bellow was a better writer than JDM, obviously, yet, but a large part of the appeal of JDM is in his Travis McGee character. It’s hard to put into context just how refreshing and unique this character was when the first books hit the stands. The McGee series went on to influence a multitude of writers and more specifically the way writers develop an ongoing series of novels featuring the same protagonist.

    I’ve read a fair amount of JDM’s standalones and although some swear they are his best work, I beg to differ. The McGee series, taken as one huge saga, is simply groundbreaking in it’s attention to detail, character development, quality of prose, sense of moral justice, sense of obligation to the enviornment, etc.

    One of the main things I love about the books is McGee’s frequent comments on being a non-conformist, and not playing the 9-5 game with the wife and kiddies, the stationwagon, golf handicap, stock dividends, and the obligatory Myocardial Infarction which is often the result of juggling all the above. I found great solace and enlightenment as a 13 or 14 year old upon discovering JDM’s (through McGee) observations that being a rebel and not going with the stream just because everyone else is doing it is not neccessarily a “bad” thing, and in it’s own way quite noble and brave. These sentiments were not being made known to me in my family life, school or culture at the time.

    I know some may say that this wasn’t exactly a brand new sentiment at the time JDM was espousing it, but it was in the context and style in which it was conveyed that reveals it’s brilliance.

    Some of the drawbacks would be JDM’s women characters, mainly in the early books, were portrayed as quite weak and dependent on Trav for everything from psychoanalysis to theraputic sex, and the novels do tend to play to a certain formula. Another thing I noted is how hypocritical McGee is to his own sexual philosophy. Many times in the books McGee states “life is not a candy store” and sex without emotional bonds is meaningless, and even degrading. But time and again he hops into the sack on a moment’s notice with one nubile female or another. In Frefall in Crimson, however McGee acknowledges his hypocrisy in this area.

  13. Nick: Yeah, that New Yorker piece was awful. But, who really cares what some guy writes in an op ed?

    The real problem is middle-brow, Oprah's Book Club 'lit fic'. My motto is 'down with middlebrow - or up!'

    Mr Plante: Well, Bellow and MacDonald don't have a great deal in common. It was Amis who brought the two together. But I heartily recommend both.

    My advice on Bellow. If you want a quick taste, get 'Seize The Day'. It's just a novella. If you want the whole cavalcade, get 'Augie March'. As Philip Roth pointed out, Bellow alternated between lean, rather grim studies of modern life and huge sprawling carnivalesque comedies.

    'Augie March' is about Chicago in the Depression. It's a picaresque, which means it chronicles its narrator’s adventures from an impoverished childhood through a range of apprenticeships, occupations and schemes. As itemized by Martin Amis, Augie is successively “a hand-bill distributor, a paper boy, a dime-store packer, a news vendor, a Christmas extra in a toy department, a flower deliverer, a butler, a shoe salesman, a saddle-shop floorwalker, a hawker of rubberized paint, a dog-washer, a book swiper, a coal-yard helper, a housing surveyor, a union organizer, an animal-trainer, a gambler, a literary researcher, a salesman of business machines, a sailor, and a
    middleman for a war profiteer."

    It's a hoot.

    And if you only have half an hour, I recommend a short story from 1989 called "Something To Remember Me By". It's in the Collected Stories.

  14. Rats, I just accidentally deleted my earlier comment, the one I also posted on VWoP. Sigh. For posterity's sake, here it is (with the Bellow/Roth mistake corrected):


    OK, here’s the full relevant paragraph from “A New James Bond” for context:

    “I lament this – I mean I lament what I take to be a trend against the genres. It might well be agreed that the best of serious fiction, so to call it, is better than anything any genre can offer. But this best is horribly rare, and a clumsy dissection of the heart is so much worse than boring as to be painful, and most contemporary novels are like spy novels with no spies or crime novels with no crimes, and John D. MacDonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels? And, whatever abject mess he might have made of everything else in the story, no self-respecting television dramatist would have brought Desdemona momentarily back to life after Othello had smothered her.”

    Amis picked Bellow as an example – you suggest perhaps because of his antisemitism, Matthew, although it looks to me like a straightforward criticism. Either way, it’s beside the point: it was ‘literary’ fiction in general Amis was taking aim at, suggesting that writers such as MacDonald are as good as, and sometimes better than, literary writers.

  15. Oh, and Dave: ta for the insights on MacDonald/McGee. When I deleted my earlier comment, I realise I also deleted the line addressed to you, which makes it look like I'm completely ignoring you in the comments now. So, for the record: thank you! If not for you, I don't know if I'd ever have got round to trying a Travis McGee.

  16. I love addicting other people to the things I'm addicted to, Nick. I think we share that disease.

    Now when are you gonna try one of James Crumley's Milo Milodragovitch novels?;-) lol

  17. Matthew: Augie March is available on Kindle and I just downloaded it.
    Looking forward to--hopefully--discovering a great writer.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  18. Dave: Gah! Will you NEVER be satisfied, man?!

    Matthew: Interesting that that New Yorker piece ends with a reference to (among others) Elmore Leonard, who, as you point out, is admired by Martin Amis and Saul Bellow. To say that, by inference, Leonard's books lack either "characters whose imaginary lives have real consequences" or "worlds complicated by surface and subterranean feelings, by ambiguity and misapprehension, and by the misalliance of consciousness and perception" to my mind demonstrates a marked ignorance of Leonard's work. Mind you, it's usually ignorance that fuels articles like that. (Says the man who's never read Bellow.)

  19. To give the McGee series a big push, Gold Medal published the first two books in the series at the same time, followed a month later (if I remember) by the third.

    McGee was a breath of fresh air in the mystery field an a character who could only be created in the Sixties. I was one of many who grabbed each book in the series as it came out. As much as I love McGee, I think too much of him at one time could be a little wearing; a little nobility can go a long way. Although McGee turned out to be MacDonald's money-maker, I think JDM's standalone books are much better.

    After JDM's death, there were rumors of a "final" Travis McGee novel -- a la Agatha Christie's CURTAIN, which put paid to Poirot. My understanding, alas, is that this book does not exist; I would not have minded reading one last McGee.

  20. Thanks for that, Jerry – always interesting to get the perspective of someone who was reading novels like these at the time they were published. And glad to see your note about Gold Medal publishing the initial McGees in quick succession: I mentioned that in today's follow-up post, so it's nice to have that confirmed.

  21. There's something of a tradition in literary circles of picking a sort of pet writer in the crime genre and saying "He's so much better than such and such". Raymond Chandler was an early example of this. For a short while Ian Fleming was being groomed by critics as Chandler's successor, but I think he eventually got too mainstream for them, so he was dropped.

    To my way of thinking, a writer is a writer is a writer. There are many realms in fiction, and certainly some of them feature more carefully wrought prose, more complex ideas and characters--and generally lower sales.

    Crime fiction (unlike science fiction) has always been what you'd call half-respectable--crime writers are the people literary types invite to the soiree to add a soupcon of danger to the mix (even though actual crime writers are usually the furthest possible thing from being dangerous).

    Sometimes the borders get blurred--did Graham Greene write 'crime' fiction? Or 'serious' fiction? Greene himself tended to slot his own books into categories of his own devising--some were mere 'entertainments'. Still damned well written. But where do you draw the line? Are we supposed to infer that his other books were NOT supposed to be entertaining? Shall we read them with a studied frown, and take notes? Why is "The End of the Affair" (a turgid romance with a good Catholic moral at the end) a more serious book than "A Gun for Sale"? They both got made into movies.

    I've read very little of MacDonald OR Bellow. What I have read hasn't really appealed to me much. But that's got nothing to do with anything, because I'm looking for the writer who speaks to me--who asks the questions I want asked, and gives me answers I can at least consider. Who tells me stories I need to hear, shows me people I'd like to meet (or perhaps watch from a safe distance).

    I enjoy a well-crafted paragraph, but I'm not really looking for a 'writer's writer', because I'm a freakin' READER. :)

  22. Seriously, I've had at least a dozen spam comments from you now, all along these lines and presumably excerpting from your blog. At first I was just deleting them, but now I'm marking them as spam, apart from this one, which I've let through to point out that if you'd bothered to do some research rather than just reading Wikipedia, you might have learned that that quote is indeed legit, and is taken from Kingsley Amis's essay "A New James Bond", which I've referred to (and attributed) repeatedly, including in this very post.