Donald MacKenzie (1918–1993) is one of those authors who, if you're into classic and vintage crime fiction and you frequent secondhand bookshops, chances are you'll have come across at some point, and yet about whom there is scant information online – this despite, in MacKenzie's case, having published three dozen novels and two volumes of autobiography over the course of a four-decade career. (The Canadian-born MacKenzie does have a Wikipedia page, but it's in French.) So far, so unremarkable: there are scores of crime writers who, like MacKenzie, have largely slipped from the collective consciousness.
What makes MacKenzie unusual among his crime-writing brethren is that he genuinely knew of what he wrote. Those aforementioned two volumes of autobiography, Fugitives (1955, US title Occupation: Thief) and Gentlemen at Crime (1956), published at the start of his literary career, detail his prior career: as a convicted criminal – initially a confidence trickster, then a share-pusher and finally a robber.
The back of the dust jacket of the British first edition of MacKenzie's debut novel, Nowhere to Go (Elek, 1956) – which, incidentally, was made into a film by Ealing Studios in 1958 (the novel, not the dust jacket) – offers synopses of both of MacKenzie's non-fiction titles (click on the image above left to read them), while the back of the dust jacket of the British first edition of his third novel, The Scent of Danger (Collins, 1958) – the first of two books to star burglar Macbeth Bain – features an amusing potted biography (widely quoted online, invariably unattributed):
Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1908 and educated in England, Canada and Switzerland, for twenty-five years MacKenzie lived by crime in many countries. "I went to jail," he writes, "if not with depressing regularity – too often for my liking." His last sentences were five years in the United States and three years in England – and they ran concurrently. He began writing and selling stories when in an American jail and says, "I like writing and hope to keep at it till I die. I like travel, kippers, American cars, Spanish suits, ice hockey, prize fights, walking, flowers, sun, dogs, Brahms, horseback riding, settling old scores, people who like me. I don't like meat, cocktail parties, Spanish gin, policemen, most judges, talk about things I don't understand, pompous people, good losers, or writers who 'spell it out' for you.
"I try to do exactly as I like as often as possible and I don't think I'm either psychopathic, a wayward boy, a problem of our time, a charming rogue, or ever was."
MacKenzie's canon can be divided roughly into two strands: those novels which feature as their leads criminals or former criminals, including two short series (the Macbeth Bain series and the Henry Chalice/Crying Eddie series, which comprises three books); and an extended series of crime/spy thrillers starring ex-copper turned international troubleshooter John Raven. MacKenzie's writing is characterised by a noirish sensibility, an economical style and clipped, deadpan sentences.
I guess you could call him a stylist, except that he's not (in my opinion) quite up there with the likes of, say, Richard Stark or Elmore Leonard. From the little I've read of him and the contemporaneous review excerpts I've seen – where comments range from "One of the few British crime writers who investigates the psychological make-up of his characters in a convincing way... smacks not a little of Graham Greene in its mild pessimism and pathos" (Books and Bookmen on The Scent of Danger) to "The action is splendidly developed... and the climax breathless" (the Oxford Mail – probably Anthony Price then – on Night Boat to Puerto Vedra) to "A craftsman's job" (The Sun on Dead Straight) – I'd say MacKenzie was a sharp, stylish writer, but not an easy one to warm to, his novels as likely to be penned from the perspective of an unsympathetic recidivist as from that of a policeman.
For me that makes him a more interesting writer – that and his colourful background – but I suppose it might be one reason why he's less celebrated than some other classic crime writers; certainly he merits more coverage online than has heretofore been the case – hence this post and its bibliography, the most detailed and accurate yet assembled for the web (to my knowledge). Still, MacKenzie can at least claim to be currently in print, courtesy of Orion's Murder Room imprint, although the dust jackets illustrating this post are actually taken from first editions of the novels, a stack of which I acquired from book dealer Jamie Sturgeon and some of which boast handsome jacket designs by, variously, Ionicus (alias Joshua Charles Armitage; The Lonely Side of the River, Hodder, 1965), William Randell (The Scent of Danger, Collins, 1958) and Edward Pagram (Nowhere to Go and The Juryman, Elek, 1956/57; some more of his work can be seen here). I've added all three of those artists' MacKenzie wrappers to Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s, which marks the debut of Ionicus and Pagram on that page. (I've also added Pagram's wrapper for the 1965 Hodder edition of Patricia Carlon's Crime of Silence, which I suddenly remembered whilst writing this post that I had sitting on my shelves.)
I also took off Jamie's hands three signed and inscribed copies of MacKenzie first editions:
Two Raven novels – Raven and the Paperhangers, published by Macmillan in 1980, dust jacket photograph by Bill Richmond (whose work also appears on the covers of books by Victor Canning, Elmore Leonard and Patricia Highsmith), and Nobody Here by That Name, published by Macmillan in 1986, dust jacket illustration by Martin White – both of which may well have been inscribed to the same two people (I can't quite make out the names; suggestions in the comments please), and:
The Kyle Contract, published by Hodder in 1971, dust jacket design uncredited but which may well be by Gordon King. A solid, compelling but sober (and sobering) standalone novel, set in California, about two ex-cons, one a failing screenwriter, attempting to put the screws on a wealthy Hollywood director who framed the screenwriter for the murder of the director's wife, the inscription in this one is rather intriguing:
It reads: "I loved her but she never knew it – Donald May '71". I wonder who the recipient of that one was...? Anyway, I've added the jackets of all three of those signed books to British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s.
NB: This post linked in the 30/10/11 Friday's Forgotten Books round-up.
Donald MacKenzie Bibliography
Nowhere to Go (Elek, 1956); US title Manhunt
The Juryman (Elek, 1957)
Dangerous Silence (Collins, 1960)
Knife Edge (Collins, 1961)
The Genial Stranger (Collins, 1962)
Double Exposure (Collins, 1963); US title I, Spy
Cool Sleeps Balaban (Collins, 1964)
The Lonely Side of the River (Hodder & Stoughton, 1965)
Three Minus Two (Hodder & Stoughton, 1968); US title The Quiet Killer
Night Boat from Puerto Vedra (Hodder & Stoughton, 1969)
The Kyle Contract (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971)
Postscript to a Dead Letter (Macmillan, 1973)
The Spreewald Collection (Macmillan, 1975)
Deep, Dark and Dead (Macmillan, 1978)
The Last of the Boatriders (Macmillan, 1981)
Macbeth Bain Series
The Scent of Danger (Collins, 1958); US title Moment of Danger
Dead Straight (Hodder & Stoughton, 1968)
Henry Chalice and Crying Eddie Series
Salute from a Dead Man (Hodder & Stoughton, 1966)
Death Is a Friend (Hodder & Stoughton, 1967)
Sleep Is for the Rich (Macmillan, 1971); paperback title The Chalice Caper
John Raven Series
Zaleski's Percentage (Macmillan, 1974)
Raven in Flight (Macmillan, 1976)
Raven and the Ratcatcher (Macmillan, 1977)
Raven and the Kamikaze (Macmillan, 1977)
Raven Feathers His Nest (Macmillan, 1980); US title Raven After Dark
Raven Settles a Score (Macmillan, 1979)
Raven and the Paperhangers (Macmillan, 1980)
Raven's Revenge (Macmillan, 1982)
Raven's Longest Night (Macmillan, 1984)
Raven's Shadow (Macmillan, 1984)
Nobody Here by That Name (Macmillan, 1986)
A Savage State of Grace (Macmillan, 1988)
By Any Illegal Means (Macmillan, 1989)
Loose Cannon (Macmillan, 1991)
The Eyes of the Goat (Macmillan, 1992)
The Sixth Deadly Sin (Macmillan, 1993)
Fugitives (Elek, 1955); US title Occupation: Thief
Gentlemen at Crime (Elek, 1956)
NB: Some sources credit MacKenzie with another two novels: Harrier! (Granada, 1983) and Thunderbolt! (Panther, 1984); however, according to Steve Holland those were actually penned pseudonymously by Christopher Priest.
Remarkable… and much appreciated! I'd never heard of Donald MacKenzie, though I now see that there is a fleeting mention - very fleeting - in The Canadian Encyclopedia. I just did a bit of digging myself and see that he was the son of a farmer in the Glengarry area of Ontario (not far from where the Ottawa meets the St. Lawrence).ReplyDelete
I note also that Canadian journalists and other ne'er-do-wells are common in his novels. Would you know if any actually take place in Canada?
I don't think any of the MacKenzie books I own are set in Canada, Brian, although The Kyle Contract does feature a (n'er-do-well) Canadian. Beyond that I couldn't say.Delete
Thanks for this post, Nick. Really great to know there are some other Donald MacKenzie fans out there. I stumbled across MacKenzie a few years ago while watching Nowhere to Go on late-night TV. I jotted down MacKenzie's name as the credits rolled by, and went online to find more – there's precious little, as you say. I did find a couple of bibliographies (not as organized as yours) and started reading his work chronologically, including the two autobiographies, while at the same time reading the Raven series from the beginning. The books are relatively easy to find, although I'm not particularly looking for collectible copies (although some of the dust jackets you show above are really fantastic).ReplyDelete
The two general themes that continually come through for me are his acute power of observation and detailed descriptions of his surroundings, coming I suppose from hours and hours of staking out houses to be robbed or marks to be conned. The other is fear – the fear of getting caught, found out or busted, sent back to jail, being broke and so forth. This latter one isn't as prevalent in the Raven series, of course, but seems to be a powerful motivator both for MacKenzie as a writer and his reformed, or not-so-reformed, protagonists.
I recommend both Fugitives and Gentleman at Crime as excellent starting points for anyone interested in reading MacKenzie. As you work through the canon, you'll see many traces of his self-described criminal behavior and modus operandi in the novels which follow.