So, on a lazy, windy Sunday afternoon, furnace fixed and the heat back on, I settled down with MacDonald and Travis, with The Quick Red Fox.
How well did it hold up? Well, the plot is improbable -- blackmail, a movie star, a wounded woman for Trav to try and heal. No Meyer. In these days, if somebody came up with photographs of a big-name movie or rock star with a pitbull, four midgets, and a donkey, everybody would shrug it off. Probably develop a publicity campaign around it. Remember Tommy Lee and Pamela's home porno movies? Went out on the web, and now Pam supposedly gets a cut of revenues ...
Makes old-fashioned B&W photos of an orgy seem positively quaint.
Who did it is never as important in these books as why, though Trav does figure it out. There's a nasty twist at the end that wraps loose ends up neatly -- maybe a bit too much so, but it's biter-bitten and clever enough.
Book came out in 1964, I would have been a junior in high school. I don't remember exactly when I started reading McGee's adventures, but I remember for sure having the first few books on my brick-and-board shelf in the fall of 1966, so I wasn't too far behind.
Fox is 148 pp long. Half the length of an average mystery these days, if that, and twice as rich as most.
I've been doing this a while, writing books. If you go by word counts, I've written and sold more than the late John D, and I sometimes fancy myself not-too-bad at the craft. But MacDonald?
No two ways about it, he was a Master. He does more with a throwaway line than most of us do with a chapter. The book is replete with well-formed oddball characters, drawn like a Musashi painting of a bird on a reed -- spare, beautiful, perfect.
Sixty-five pages in before a punch is thrown, and then only two are necessary. The punched guy is scared into giving up what he knows off-screen, and Travis feels bad about doing it. Three more people get dead along the way, two of them off-screen, as well, and Trav gets to dance with a couple of bull dykes in what could have been an ugly scene in Las Vegas, but was instead amusing. Funny at the time, and still -- in these PC days -- funny.
Recently, I worried that I didn't have enough action in the book upon which I was working. What I should have worried about was not having enough skill so that wouldn't matter. A good storyteller can keep you turning the pages describing the scenery. (How necessary is plot if you are a great writer? Two words -- Lonesome Dove. Action? Same thing. If you can grab a reader by the ears and make him come long with you? There is a gift.)
Of course, I wasn't two paragraphs into the story before it started coming back, and once again in awe of Travis McGee, the Competent Man. He's not perfect, he slips up now and then, and when it does, it always costs him dearly, but Lord, he does shuffle loose-jointedly through his adventures with a skill and grace I couldn't help but envy.
Derek Flint was the guy I wanted to be at seventeen, but John D. MacDonald was the writer I wanted to be, once I started down that road.
And in a lot of ways, he still is the writer I want to be when I grow up.