McGee Wannabes: Charles Knief’s Honolulu Tough Guy John Caine

May 14, 2016

Why most of the McGee-like protagonists who have come along since the mid-1980s haven’t caught on, I cannot say. I’m on record here noting that my particular favorite is Geoffrey Norman’s Morgan Hunt (four books and out). Yet another worthy contender is John Caine, the Honolulu-based tough guy/knight errant of Charles Knief. His four-book series started in 1998 and ended in 2001 with nothing further in evidence.

The first book, Diamond Head, introduces an ex-Navy Seal named John Caine. He lives aboard a sailboat and does odd-job investigations about town. He’s more of a proper gumshoe, with license and all, and not a “recovery consultant.” But it seems his predilection is far less for money and more for tilting at windmills and righting wrongs, à la Trav. He tells his story in first person—always a plus in my book.

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This debut tale begins when Caine is approached by an old Navy comrade, who is acting as an intermediary for a retired admiral they both served under. The admiral’s beautiful daughter, it seems, was murdered horribly some months earlier on Oahu. He wants Caine to look into the matter. The Navy comrade (the intermediary) makes it clear that the most important factor is keeping the beloved old admiral as free of scandal and shame as possible. Discovering the facts of the daughter’s dark ending is vital, but the deep-sixing of them is far more important.

Beginning with the help of a local power broker (think Chinese Don Corleone), Caine learns that the daughter was into some deep shit with another local gangster, a haole (Hawaiian for “white guy”) named Thompson. Coincidentally, the Chinese crime lord’s son is involved with Thompson, complicating matters for Caine. The upshot is that Caine learns Thompson is producing grimy, gritty porn. And not only porn, but snuff flicks. Rich Japanese men pay to have sex with innocent girls, then murder them on camera.

It turns out the admiral’s daughter was part of that operation. When she developed moral qualms, she herself ended up in a starring role. Job number one for Caine is finding the tapes of the daughter’s death scene and destroying them. Job number two: taking down Thompson with extreme prejudice. Along the way Caine allies with a lady police detective and even has an evening of rumpy-bumpy with her. But his agenda is rather different from hers.

At the heart of Diamond Head are three virtuoso action set pieces that would have done JDM and Travis proud.

In the first, Caine’s attempt to inveigle himself into Thompson’s graces goes rather spectacularly sour. Moreover, it goes sour out on the waves, where he witnesses Thompson toss a young lady (who happens to be a spy for the Chinese godfather) to the sharks. Then it’s Caine’s turn to take a dip among the Great Whites and Tigers. As sharks are circling, Caine takes a bullet in the butt. But the gun he’s secreted down his leg is used to good effect on a shark and the hull of Thompson’s boat.

In set piece two, Caine—still recovering from his bullet wound—tracks Thompson down to a house in the sticks, which is surrounded by cops, including the lady detective. Thompson and his thugs manage to decimate the cops, at which point Caine attacks with a big Ruger Magnum revolver. He’s chased into the cane field, which is lit afire. Singed fore and aft, he just barely stays alive. Along the way he collects a number of the snuff films and leaves them for evidence. The rest go up in flames.

Not least, in the third Caine pursues the bad guy onto the high seas, right into the teeth of an oncoming hurricane. Thompson has the lady detective hostage and now Caine’s top priority becomes her rescue. Much sailor-y derring-do ensues. However improbable, this whole action sequence is riveting stuff.

In the end, the admiral’s reputation is saved, but severe losses are sustained by our hero.

I have no idea whether it was Knief or his publisher who pulled the plug. But it’s a shame that the series didn’t continue in some form or other. It had real potential.

Diamond Head and Knief’s other three Caine novels (Sand Dollars, Emerald Flash, and Silver Sword) are widely available in used paper editions. They’re also available as e-books from a mainstream publisher—signifying, probably, that the rights are not in the author’s hands.

Travis McGee & Me Now in Paperback

April 25, 2016

 

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A couple of years ago I took my twenty-two blog posts about the adventures of Travis McGee and turned them into an e-book. I’m happy to note that it has been a steady seller ever since. Now I’ve put Travis McGee & Me into print. So, if you want to have a paperback copy for ready reference, near your McGee and JDM collection, you now can have it in the form of this slender paperback.

You can order it from Amazon here. To get the book from CreateSpace, click here.

The book will become available for order from other leading online booksellers in coming weeks and I will add a few of them here as they come on line. If your local bookstore has the capacity to order print-on-demand books, you will be able to buy the book there as well.

Darker than Amber: The Movie

April 6, 2016

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Almost two years ago, guest blogger Kevin Comer wrote about JDM and McGee and the silver screen. You can read his post here. He noted how JDM’s first encounter with Hollywood’s interest in McGee was not a happy one.

The McGee adventure chosen was Darker than Amber, the yarn in which Meyer has his first full co-starring appearance. You’ll recall that it involved a gang of villains and hookers that set honey traps for lonely single men on cruise ships and murdered them for their money. The victims are drugged and tossed overboard, no corpus delicti. The story gets under way when one of the hookers is dropped off a bridge, as Trav and Meyer are fishing beneath it. Trav rescues her and the story roars into action. You can read my take on the book here.

The thing JDM most disliked about the first script was how Meyer was portrayed as a buffoon. He objected and Meyer was improved. And JDM certainly was a little starstruck when he visited the set. But in the end, he detested the film and fulminated about never selling McGee film rights again. He said, “[the movie] was feral, cheap, rotten, gratuitously meretricious, shallow, and embarrassing.”

I finally got around to seeing the 1970 flick a few days ago. You can watch it for free on YouTube. It seems to be a cruddy VHS dub from a broadcast or cable channel in England. (The announcer has a Brit accent.) But it allows you to see the film in all its cheesy, cheap, late-’60s glory. It does not do Travis McGee much credit.

The performance of Rod Taylor as McGee is bland and forgettable. He’s a generic sort of tough guy hero with little of McGee’s true flavor. Casting Theodore Bikel as Meyer was a good choice. But if the role as written was an improvement over the original version, I can’t imagine how bad that must have been. Meyer here is simply a dull, uninteresting sidekick who scarcely earns his keep—not the treasured boon companion we know him to be.

Vangie—she who was dropped over the bridge—is portrayed by Suzy Kendall, a classic, innocuous 1960s pretty blonde about as threatening as a pussycat. The Vangie of the book was darkly exotic (part Hawaiian) with a predatory quality to her. Recall that McGee found her a little scary. He had no interest in romping her. The title refers to the dead eye of Vangie, seen by McGee at the morgue. As near as I can tell, Kendall’s eyes are blue. What? There were no dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned femme fatales available from central casting?

The main heavy, Terry, was nicely portrayed by the great William Smith—a mainstay of B movies whose first film credit was in 1942. He was one of the leads in my favorite TV western, Laredo (1965-67). He has the longest, most prolific IMDb listing I’ve ever seen, hundreds of credits. That’s him (left) and Rod Taylor (right) down below, having their final knock-down-drag-out in a stateroom.

William Smith and Suzy Kendall (briefly Mrs. Dudley Moore) are still with us. Rod Taylor and Theodore Bikel both died in 2015.

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JDM’s Writer’s Digest Interview

March 15, 2016

My epic project of cleaning out the basement recently turned up an item that might be of interest to JDM and McGee fans.

Sometime in the ’90s, Writer’s Digest magazine published a special edition that was called The Basics of Writing and Selling Mystery and Suspense. Most of it was comprised of mystery/suspense how-to articles. But a couple of august masters of mystery were interviewed. One was P.D. James. The other was our boy, JDM—who had passed away several years earlier. The interview is by Ed Hirshberg (author of a JDM biography, simply titled John D. MacDonald) and was originally published in 1979.

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In the article, JDM and Hirshberg cover the author’s beginnings as a professional writer, his taste in literature, the genesis of McGee, his work methods, and a lot more.

This is what JDM has to say about learning his craft.

After I got out of the service, I really worked, for the first time in my life. Really. Eighty-hour weeks. I turned out 800,000 unsalable words in four months. That’s the equivalent of ten novels. And I must tell you that a lot of those words were really dreadful. I kept 30 to 35 stories in the mail at all times… I’d send them out to an average of ten potential markets before retiring them. Thank God there were lots and lots of magazines then. I learned my trade in those four months, because you can’t hope to do the equivalent of ten novels without learning a great deal about writing.

Here’s JDM on writers who influenced him, or not.

I think that when you get into relationships with other writers, who influenced you and that sort of thing, that’s kind of an academic sort of reflex. I wouldn’t be such an ass as to say that I wasn’t influenced by anybody, but the thing is this: If you have read 10,000 books you are going to be influenced in your choice in the sense that you are going to learn which kind of book tends to please you most. I read everything I could find by Hammett, Chandler, Poe, Dickens, Collins, Doyle, Conrad, Stevenson, Georges Simenon, Ferdinand  Seline, Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Alex Woolcott, Jack London, Marquand. I don’t have to continue the list much further to make the point I want I make, which is this: I discovered along the way that certain aspects had to be present in books in order for me to enjoy them

First, there has to be a strong sense of story. I want to be intrigued by wondering what is going to happen next. I want the people I read about to be in difficulties—emotional, moral, spiritual, whatever, and I want to live with them while they’re finding their way out of these difficulties.

Second, I want the writer to make me suspend my disbelief. I do not want him stepping in and making me aware of the fact that I am reading a book. I want to be in some other place and scene of the writer’s devising.

Next, I want him to have a bit of magic in his prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases really sing. And I like an attitude of wryness, realism, the sense of inevitability.

I’m pretty sure that successfully writing and selling novels is just as hard now as it was in JDM’s heyday. But here’s his advice for wannabe novelists from the late ’70s.

Most beginners think that writing is a quick ticket to some kind of celebrity status, to broads and talk shows. Those with that shallow motivation can forget it. Here’s how it goes. Take a person 25 years old. If that person has not read a minimum of three books a week since he or she was ten years old, or 2,340 books—comic books not counted—and if he or she is not still reading at that pace or preferably, at a greater pace, then forget it. If he or she is not willing to commit one million words to paper—ten medium-long novels—without much hope of ever selling one word, in the process of learning this trade, then forget it.

And if he or she can be discouraged by anyone in this world from continuing to write, write, write—then forget it.

I think, perhaps, that the mathematics of successful novel-writing has changed since JDM’s day, now that anyone can upload a Word document and photo to Kindle and have an e-book a short time later. And writing ten books remains a great education for a writer. But it’s that last bit that’s most important. If anyone can discourage you, you have no business even trying.

Here’s a PDF of the scanned pages of JDM’s Writer’s Digest interview for those who are interested:

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New Larry Shames Key West Caper

December 5, 2015
As readers of this blog know well, I’m a big fan of Laurence Shames, whose Key West caper novels are some of the funniest crime stories going—second only to Carl Hiassen. I just received an e-mail from Larry about his newest Key West tale, called Key West Luck. I’ll definitely be getting this for my Kindle this Xmas, and I’m betting many of you will, too. Here’s what Larry had to say, with links to Amazon and his video:

Dear Friends–

Winter blues? Holiday blahs? Please allow me to suggest an antidote: My new novel, KEY WEST LUCK. It’s got sunshine and salt water, comedy and mayhem, romance and suspense; and, oh yeah, an old man and a chihuahua. I think it will raise the spirits of even the most confirmed curmudgeon. (I say this with some confidence, since it worked for me.)

The book is available both for Kindle and in print. If you can’t wait one more minute to order it, here’s a link:

http://www.amazon.com/Key-West-Luck-Capers-Book-ebook/dp/B018UZ0RBI

Or, if you’d like a sneak preview before taking the plunge, please take a look at the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mjD121Pv_A

Either way, I thank you for your interest and support, and I hope you’ll spread the word to friends, family—anybody who could use a laugh and some distraction. Love to hear what you think, and, as ever, timely Amazon reviews are extremely helpful and much appreciated. I wish you happy reading and all best for the holidays and a healthy and fulfilling 2016.

Cheers,
Larry

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From Steve Scott’s Trap of Solid Gold: On the Background of Travis McGee Part II

October 19, 2015

Last week I posted John D MacDonald’s remarks, made after a reading of the paper “Travis McGee as Traditional Hero,” at the first John D MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detection in November 1978. Written by Erling B. Holtsmark of the University of Iowa, the paper opined that McGee was a descendant of a long line of ancient, Indo-European heroic types, a monster slayer who rescues maidens, eradicates the corruption and corrupt monsters that besiege the community, and wins the treasure. MacDonald eventually wrote a longer and more thought-out response which was published, not in the Journal of Popular Culture as originally intended, but in the inaugural issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection. As before, the author provides lots of interesting details on the genesis of the series and its two main characters.

Though I have had a certain amount of exposure to the classics, I certainly did not try to adapt ancient patterns to my contemporary fellow. It just came out that way. And maybe, for those ancient tellers of tales, it just came out that way too. Maybe we are dealing with a Jungian concept of the symbols mankind must have in his fireside tales of heroism.

I will try to explain as honestly as I can, how the characteristics of the McGee stories, as underlined by Holtsmark, came to be.

During the first few books of the series, there was no Meyer. As I began to work ever harder to try to obviate the need for endless internal monologues on the part of McGee, I began to realize that there had to be some middle ground between achieving all exposition through show rather than tell, and achieving it through all tell. I invented Meyer out of fragments in the vast scrap basket in the back of my head, vowing that I would not have a clown on scene, nor would I have someone dependent upon McGee emotionally, financially or socially.

I worked with Meyer, throwing away paragraphs and pages and chapters until he finally emerged, nodding in hirsute satisfaction, little wise blue eyes gleaming with ironic amusement, amused at himself and at my efforts, proclaiming like the bottle genie that he had been there all along, waiting for someone to perform the magic spell of rubbing the right words together.

Holtsmark tells us that the classical hero is a loner. Be that as it may, it is also a neat solution to the problem of a diversity of plot and situation. If one is enmeshing a hero in but one adventure, then it would not matter were he encumbered by wife, kiddies, tax consultant, bowling team and his very own Siamese twin. But to lug the whole emotional-personal environment along into further events involves more arrangement and manipulation than all that baggage is worth. I added Meyer only because the problems of tugging him along into the ensuing dramas was an effort overbalanced by his usefulness in establishing atmosphere and physical detail through dialogue.

We can find analogies in the television theater. Gunsmoke depicted Marshall Dillon as the classic hero, tough, moral, laconic and fearsome. Even with his retinue –Kitty, Doc, Chester (long ago) etc.– he was the loner, often roving far. There was always the hint that long ago he had been a more pure loner, unencumbered by town and badge, or by the hints of a liaison with Miss Kitty. There, in a kind of outdoor theater, the world was brought in as evil people, and presented to the classic hero through the words and actions of his retinue, begging violent solution.

That long-departed series The Fugitive is a purer example of the loner as hero, seeking his own absolution, smiting evil along the way.

Without attempting an impertinence, my guess is that those tellers of tales about “Odysseus, Herakles, Philoctetes, Ajax and scores of others” were solving plot problems by making their heroes loners. And when he is a loner, he must have standards of behavior variant from the norms of his culture, otherwise the evil he goes out to correct would have already been taken care of by society.

As to the next characteristic, that of the lack of information about McGee’s early years, I must confess that here I was guided by instinct rather than guile. It just did not feel right to me to be specific about McGee’s early years, family, education and so on. If I were forced to conjecture about my probable reasons for this reluctance, I would have to say that by giving him a specific background, I would have thus related him in time and space to a very small percentage of the populace. This way, he could have been brought up in your development, gone to your schools, served in your battalion, dated your sister-long before life sent him off at an ever-diverging angle from the rest of us. There are the hints of the war service, the brief pro ball episode as a tight end, death of a brother. If we do not know the specifics in detail, then we can fill in our own. I am careful to also keep the physical image just a bit blurred, so that except for dimension, you can fill in your own ideas of him.

Curiously enough, when Otto Penzler was compiling a collection of biographies of detective heroes written by their creators, I thought about it for a long time and then said I did not want to do it. I suspect he was somewhat miffed, but I feel my instincts were right. Too much depiction would corrode the magic.

The next characteristic, the strong erotic element shared with the ancient heroes, is once again related to making a plot compelling. The constant reader is going to know, subliminally, that no matter how grievously I endanger McGee, he will survive-at least until I do a book with black in the title. The reader does not know whether or not a person for whom McGee has formed a strong attachment will survive. When there is nothing to lose, there is no menace. McGee’s emotional attachment must be to someone who can capture the reader’s fancy as well as McGee’s. The casual roll in the hay, though it would not in our age especially devalue the damsel, would not elevate her to the status of object of great value either.

The hero must always be deeply, emotionally, tragically involved, or the novel of suspense becomes merely a string of set scenes of a meaningless violence. If the hero’s motivations in a story are trivial, interest sags. The kind of strong motivation depends on the structure of the series. I have forfeited the chance in the McGee structure to have him struggling to avoid imprisonment for life for something he didn’t do, or to regain a lost reputation, or to save his blood relatives from disaster, or to recover his own courage, or to save his own soul. So it must always be a threat of ugly disaster for himself and for those he holds near and dear, close friends or lady loves. The element of sensuality must depend upon the mores of the culture in which the hero appears. In times gone by the same effect might have been attained by his having been given a fragile scarf to tie to his lance before going into combat.

The fifth aspect, which Holtsmark covers in some detail, is the necessity of having a monster handy, a Junior Allen or a Boone Waxwell or a Paul Dissat. Here we deal with one of my own beliefs, that there exists in the world a kind of evil which defies the Freudian explanations of the psychologists, and the environmental explanations of the sociologists. It is an evil existing for the sake of itself, for the sake of the satisfactions of its own exercise. In our real world we have, for example, a two hundred and thirty pound teenager who roams the streets, mugging children for the pleasure of gouging out their eyes. For me it is less satisfying to say that this is the action of a sad, limited, tormented, unbalanced child than it is to see that this is a primordial blackness reaching up again through a dark and vulnerable soul, showing us all the horror that has always been with mankind, frustrating all rational analyses.

I admit to the primitive and superstitious aspects of my belief. But it does make it easier for me to depict a villainy that is without mercy or scruple, that grows strong through its own pursuit of evil, that is as heartstopping as the sudden breaking of the glass of the bedroom window a little before dawn. Blackness for its own sake is ever more difficult to deal with than quirks and neuroses.

This paper intrigued me and will continue to do so, while at the same time it has made me a little bit edgy. I do not want to give McGee the flavor of being contrived within a pattern laid down in pre-history. If he does work some subliminal magic in creating reader response, that is all to the good. But he has become a person. When I try to manipulate him, to take him outside his established patterns of thought and behavior, the book in process falls apart. In the past he has had no specific protest. He has just stood there. From now on, I suppose, he will shake his head and say, “John, that is not the way an ancient hero would act.”

From Steve Scott’s Trap of Solid Gold: On the Background of Travis McGee Part I

October 12, 2015

Back in 1978 Ed Hirshberg, a University of South Florida English professor and editor of the JDM Bibliophile, arranged the first ever Conference on the Works of John D MacDonald. It took place in November in Tampa and was, primarily, a one day affair preceded by an evening of cocktails and dinner. (Plymouth Gin was served.) Scholarly papers on both the works of JDM as well as other mystery writers were read by their authors and commented on by the guest of honor, none other than John D MacDonald himself. MacDonald’s comments were off-the-cuff, as he had not read or heard the papers prior to their presentation at the conference, and the intention was to have him eventually produce more lengthy and thoughtful responses in writing and have them published, along with the papers themselves, in a future issue of the Journal of  Popular Culture.

One of the papers, titled “Travis McGee as Traditional Hero,” and written by Erling B. Holtsmark of the University of Iowa, postulated the idea that McGee was a descendant of a long line of ancient, Indo-European heroic types, a monster slayer who rescues maidens, eradicates the corruption and corrupt monsters that besiege the community, and wins the treasure. The paper was interesting not just for what Holtsmark had written, but for MacDonald’s responses, which reveal how he began the series with a full biography of the hero, how he developed the character of Meyer, and how he turned down a request to publish McGee’s bio in Otto Penzler’s 1977 The Private Lives of Private Eyes: Spies, Crime Fighters and Other Good Guys.

Below are MacDonald’s initial comments made after the reading. Next week I’ll post his long, written response that appeared a year later.

What was to me the most interesting thing about that paper was that it illuminated something to me that had been puzzling me a bit. When I first started the series I had a pretty well organized biography of McGee, from early childhood, family relationships, even to the occupations of his grandparents on both sides, where he grew up, where he went to school; also the emotional and psychic trauma of his early years. I had intended to imbed these biographical facts here and there in the books as the series proceeded.

As I went on, I found a reluctance to do that, which I did not understand. I just didn’t know why I felt so reluctant. So I didn’t do it. It sort of came to a head last year when Otto Penzler wrote to me and he said that I’m putting together a book; all of these people are going to write a biography of their protagonists. So-and-so is going to do so-and-so, and so on. We want you to do a biography of McGee. I dug out my old records on that and looked them over and I would have had to turn it from outline form into a sort of an essay. I wrote back and I said, “I don’t want to do this.” He wrote back and said, “Everybody’s doing it. Why not? Why the reluctance?” And I said, “I don’t know why I’m reluctant, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I think people should use their own imagination to try to figure out in their minds what the background of this contemporary American character is.”

When I read Mr. Holtsmark’s paper, it was sort of a justification of my reluctance. Then I began to wonder, “How about these people who were devising initially these classic heroes of the past? I wonder if they had the same reluctance to go into the background of their people?” My classical education is very spotty. I was in the Wharton School of Finance and in Business Administration at Syracuse University and then took a Master’s from Harvard Business School. So when I should have been studying classical heroes and monsters I was studying double-entry book-keeping and what insurance companies can do to you and for you. I don’t know whether that particular aspect of it has been studied before, but it just intrigued me.

Why should there be a reluctance for me to tell the readers what my knowledge of the background of McGee is? I just don’t know. But I begin to see, through that paper, a sort of possible justification for it.

McGee Wannabes: Ron Ely’s Santa Barbara Sleuth Jake Sands

August 29, 2015

Down in my basement I have stacks of way too many books that I will never read. Lately, I’ve been culling dozens of volumes and sallying forth into the hood to leave them in Little Free Libraries here and there. When I’m done, I hope to have cut the mass of tomes by half or two-thirds. What remains will be my essentials, including my collection of JDM titles—somewhere north of sixty now. Another, smaller collection is dedicated to various McGee Wannabes. I intended this late summer to write about Bob Morris or Charles Knief or John Lutz. But instead my eye settled on something a little more obscure.

Back in the mid-’90s an author named Ron Ely published two mystery novels with Simon & Schuster, featuring a sleuth named Jake Sands who operated in Santa Barbara, north of L.A. Oddly, there was never a third book—three-book contracts being customary for authors of debut series. The two whodunits by Ely were subsequently reissued in paperback by Worldwide Library. If the author’s name seems vaguely familiar, it means you’re of a certain vintage. Because Ron Ely is an actor best known as TV’s Tarzan in the mid-’60s. (He’s apparently acting again, after a long hiatus.) Here’s the young Ely in loincloth.

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There’s plenty enough about Jake Sands to call him a McGee Wannabe. He’s kind of a salvage consultant, kind of a sleuth. He operates in a gorgeous, semi-tropical setting on the ocean. He’s tall and tough. His story is told in first-person and he has plenty of opinions (though not as many as Trav). He’s suffered terrible losses, including the murders of his wife and son. He doesn’t work a regular job. He’s tenacious and quickly bounces back from injuries and hard knocks. He has an old, eccentric friend with whom he talks things over. He doesn’t live on a boat, but he has a fancy condo right across from the beach, on top of the commercial building he owns. He sallies forth to avenge and find out the truth about dark matters.

In his second and final adventure, East Beach, Jake becomes entangled in a whodunit. As part of his daily rounds, he stops at the beach volleyball courts at East Beach, where he runs into a young woman named Julie who waitresses at a breakfast joint he’s fond of. They know each other slightly. They exchange some banter, even some flirting—it happens she looks awfully good in a bikini. And Jake encounters an Aussie volleyballer who appears to sense him as moving in on Julie, whom he seems to be claiming.

Well, as any young lady who becomes close to a Trav-like hero can tell you, it’s a dangerous place to be. And so it proves for Julie the waitress. Soon she turns up murdered. But who would want to kill such a nice, pretty girl? And why?

As a retired investigator and former military special ops guy, Jake determines that he’s going to get to the bottom of things, with Julie’s desolated parents as his informal clients. At about the same time, someone locally had bought a lottery ticket that would pay out 40 million smackers. And that winner, of course, was Julie—who had been picking the same six numbers for quite some time. The ticket isn’t in Julie’s effects, so the motive for murder becomes clear. Jake sets to sleuthing around the diner where she worked, her apartment, the store where she bought her lottery tickets, the night club where she hung out, the beach volleyball scene. It’s the latter locale that he focuses on, to the point of getting himself back in shape to play with the beach’s big boys. One of them is the Aussie, known to be strong and dangerous. He’s the one Ely wants us to focus on; though, of course, it’s not that simple.

From there Jake follows a Byzantine route to enlightenment, ID’ing a whole raft of suspects and accomplices—including some folks involved in drug smuggling—as the body count keeps mounting.

Jake has a couple of brushes with disaster along the way. First, a car sideswipes him in the street. An accident, a warning, or a failed murder attempt? And when he comes home late one night and stands out on his balcony, leaning on the rail, an interloper in black attacks him and heaves him over the edge. Fortunately for Jake, a canvas awning just above street level breaks his forty-foot fall. Of course, a couple of broken ribs do nothing to stop his campaign.

For the endgame, Jake finally corrals the murderer—who’s just made his last kills—and engages with him in brutal hand-to-hand combat in the dark, on an embankment over a railroad track. Just as he sent Jake over the edge, our killer goes over, too. As the bad guy lies paralyzed and helpless on the rails, Jake leaves him to the tender mercies of Julie’s father.

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I’m on record here noting that my favorite McGee Wannabes are Geoffrey Norman’s Morgan Hunt (four books) and Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford (at 22 books and counting). They come closest to the superb writing and storytelling that JDM brought to bear in the McGee adventures. Ron Ely’s two Jake Sands novels just aren’t in that league.

But, like other McGee fans, I can never get enough of books that aspire to telling Travis-like tales. If I see something with a tough-guy/sleuth hero who operates in a tropical climate and is a rugged individualist with lots of strong opinions and preferably tells his story in first-person… Well, I’ll give it a try. So I’m happy to have read these books.

I see that Ely hasn’t put out e-book or POD editions. If he’s reclaimed the rights, he ought to do so. And if he’s feeling particularly energetic, he ought to even consider reviving his Santa Barbara sleuth. I know that I would gladly buy Kindles of new Jake Sands stories.

P.S. Even though there are no e-book versions of Ely’s yarns, I just noticed (a few days after my original post) that Amazon has audio book versions read by Ely himself. You can listen to samples for free. As befits a seasoned actor, he does a really nice job. No idea if these are recent or older.

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Jonathan Yardley on JDM & McGee

July 14, 2015

Just recently I decided it was time to excavate some of the stacks of papers that had accumulated in my office over the last year or two, and recycle what wasn’t needed anymore. The stuff was mostly edited hard copy and research from several of my novels. But squirreled away toward the bottom of a stack was a copy of a newspaper piece I printed off our work-group printer, back when I was cranking out verbiage in a Fortune 500 cube farm over a decade ago. I had already been a McGee acolyte for many years.

It was an article from the Washington Post, by Jonathan Yardley, the Post‘s Book Critic until his retirement last year. The piece was called “John D. MacDonald’s Lush Landscape of Crime,” and it provided one of the best brief overviews of JDM’s work that I’ve ever seen. It was written as a “Second Look” column, in which Yardley addressed a book he believed had deserved a new look-see. For this column, he picked Lemon, but addressed JDM and McGee at large. He talked about his discovery of JDM back in the ’70s.

“I mainlined a couple dozen of his novels, from early mysteries to McGees to Condominium itself. I was bowled over. This man whom I’d snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was — no other word will do — breathtaking.”

Yardley ultimately interviewed JDM for a feature story, and here’s a great quote from our favorite author:

“I just cannot read people like Leon Uris and James Michener. When you’ve covered one line, you can guess the next one. I like people who know the nuances of words, who know how to stick the right one in the right place. Sometimes you can laugh out loud at an exceptionally good phrase. I find it harder and harder to find fiction to read, because I either read it with dismay at how good it is or disgust at how bad it is. I do like the guys like John Cheever that have a sense of story, because, goddammit, you want to know what happens to somebody. You don’t want a lot of self-conscious little logjams thrown in your way.”

If any of you have a copy of Yardley’s story from a 1970s edition of the Miami Herald, let me know. I’d love to read it and write about it here.

You can read Yardley’s Post column by clicking here.

From Steve Scott’s Trap of Solid Gold: On Writing a Series Character

July 7, 2015

Four years ago I wrote a lengthy piece for this blog about the genesis of John D MacDonald’s most famous creation, Travis McGee. The primary research tool for that article — which I called “The Difficult Birth of Travis McGee” — was a 1964 essay MacDonald wrote for the magazine The Writer titled “How To Live With a Hero,” where he recalled the step by step process of creating the character and the series. Published in September of that year, “How To Live With a Hero” saw print only a few months after the first three McGee’s hit the stands and a month before the fourth entry arrived.

At that early point in the life of McGee it was too early to tell if MacDonald could sustain the series beyond the handful of titles he had published or had already written and were waiting in the wings. He was philosophical about the possibility of failure, claiming that after writing more than a million-and-a-quarter words of McGee at least he had “learned just that much more about my profession, learned skills and attitudes and solutions which will inevitably be valuable in other areas.” But, as we all know by now, McGee was a success beyond the imagination of both the writer himself and his publishers. The fact that we are still reading him, writing about him and waiting patiently while a major film version of one of the novels is produced, is a testament to that success. In my own case (which admittedly is not the best example) I can honestly state that I have completely lost track of the number of times I have re-read the series, but I think ten would be a conservative figure.

Fast forward to 1983 and McGee was as established as any series hero could be, at least for one in print. Beginning with entry number 15 (Turquoise) the books were published in hardcover and beginning with 16 they unfailingly appeared in the Best Seller lists of the day. Number 20 had appeared the year before and the author had signed a contract to write two more titles in the series. (Of course he only wrote one more before he died. For the few bits of information known about that final, never-written, McGee, see my piece titled A Black Border for McGee.) In August a college professor who was writing an article about private detectives wrote MacDonald, asking the author what it was about the type of character in general, and McGee in particular, that made it interesting for MacDonald to continue writing these books. A month later JDM answered him and his response was printed in the JDM Bibliophile.

First, I think it important to note that there are perhaps thirty published attempts at a continuing series hero for every one that manages to endure. The ones that endure meet certain ancient prerequisites for the mythic hero. One must not know too much about his past. Just a hint here and there of past deeds of greatness. He must be an honorable man without being a prig, moral without pretense to sainthood, brave without being a damned fool. And he must be in opposition to the authority of his times. A loner. Most of all he should be likeable, with the ability to scoff at his own pretensions.

The writers most likely to stumble upon that useful pattern are the ones reasonably well educated who consciously or unconsciously borrow from the writings about the mythic heroes of the past. People of all times have much the same tastes in heroes.

Now to take it from the reader’s point of view – the reader brings to the reading of a new book about his friend a whole fabric of past association. He knows the man. He does not have to work his way very warily into a book, wondering if he is going to like this new dude, if the man is going to do the right things at the right time. If he wins too big, the hero is too heroic. If he loses too much, he is depressing. Even in the anticipation of the events which have not yet unfolded in the new book, the reader has a sense of familiarity with what will probably happen – not the specifics, but the general outline of trial, error and conflict.

Now back to the writer’s point of view. I have done twenty books about Travis McGee and I am under contract to do two more. If there will be any more after twenty-two, I do not know. It is restricting and difficult to work in the first-person mode. One cannot cheat. Everything must be seen, appraised, evaluated through the eyes of McGee. This keeps the writer out of the hearts and minds of the other characters. As a novelist I get a great deal more creative satisfaction out of doing such novels as Condominium, The Last One Left, The End of the Night, Slam the Big Door and the upcoming One More Sunday, which Knopf will publish in May.

The second distressful aspect of writing the McGee books is the chore of maintaining freshness while dealing with a fairly rigid structure. One is involved in a folk dance which must necessarily be concerned with a limited number of ingredients. They must be arranged in a way which is genuinely fresh, not a simulated freshness. In other words, I must enjoy what I am writing, and not give an imitation of enjoyment.

On the other side of the ledger, I like McGee and I like Meyer, and I have spent more time with them than I have with any other friend I know. Consequently, when I try to force them to do and to say things that are not within their characters as they have been drawn, then they turn puppety, and the structure of the book sags. I know in my gut when this is happening and so I have to then go back and identify the place or places where I pushed them into uncharacteristic behavior, and scrap everything that happened after that deviation, then give them a chance to act like themselves-which they are ever anxious to do.

If I force them into contrivance, they not only disappoint me by making my book sag, they disappoint the reader. “What the hell happened to McGee?” they ask in angry letters.

I believe that series characters, after three or four successful books founder because the author becomes restive working within that framework and tries to alter the basic structure – the way 007 was screwed up by a change of viewpoint in one of the later books. Some writers try to add new components that do not belong in the genre – political opinions, science fiction and fantasy, lady or tiger endings. One or two bummers and you are out of business, just like the movies.

It would be less than honest to leave out the money part. The money part of a successful series is nice. It enables me to live in the style to which Travis McGee is accustomed. But, beyond sustenance, I have never written for money alone. I have written to please myself, and would keep on doing it even if there were no markets left at all. The only change would be that I would probably do less of McGee and more of the multi-viewpoint novel. Aiming at the money is the primary way of creating a weak book.

If you haven’t yet visited The Trap of Solid Gold—the best JDM blog online—get over there now. Just click here.


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