As any reader of this blog knows by now, I’m a longtime fan of Laurence Shames’s Key West capers series, which follows the wacky misadventures of various shady and/or clueless New Yorkers and New Jersy-ans down in that semi-tropical paradise at the southern end of U.S. 1. Larry is back with his 13th, One Big Joke. Here’s the story.
“What is with you lately?” Lenny’s wife would like to know. “You’ve been acting like everything is one big joke.”
And it’s true—unemployed TV writer Lenny Sullivan has been having trouble seeing his life and times as anything more than fodder for edgy wisecracks. But when he bolts to Key West to refresh his lighter side, things suddenly turn serious. Well, sort of serious. A bullying businessman in league with a pair of bumbling mobsters is plotting to burn down his best friend’s struggling comedy club. The pill-popping star of his last best chance at a hit show is under a death threat from a very sore loser in a love triangle. And Lenny’s staunchest ally in the fight to keep the club, the star, and the laughs alive happens to be a 90-something named Bert the Shirt. Fortunately, Bert has a soft spot for comedians and is the savviest if not the most grammatical guy in town…
Deftly balancing suspense and humor, mayhem and romance, Key West color and showbiz glitz, ONE BIG JOKE uproariously entertains while making a sly but impassioned argument for the saving grace of comedy in tough times.
The paperback is already available here. The Kindle e-book comes out on January 18, but you can get your pre-order in now by clicking here. I’ve already pre-ordered my Kindle copy and I’m looking forward to a few fun hours of laughs, grins, and guffaws.
At various times we’ve had discussions on this blog about the pros and cons of another author reviving the Travis McGee series. Some don’t like the idea and others do, including yours truly. Heaven knows there would be plenty of highly qualified writers who could undertake the job, including Stephen King, who once made the offer. Of course, it remains moot. JDM’s son has made it clear there’ll be no such thing as long as he’s drawing breath. The opinions of JDM’s grandkids are not known.
But it makes me kind of morose to think of no new McGees, when I consider the fine job Ace Atkins has done with the Spenser series. The Parker estate is perfectly cool with keeping Spenser and Jesse Stone in business. Anne Hillerman has done a nice job keeping Chee and Leaphorn in the detecting game. Guess she likes the idea of extending her father’s legacy. Although it ended after a few books, Vincent Lardo did a solid job of helping Archy McNally tool around Palm Beach in his little red Miata. Lardo’s style was a bit different from Sanders’—more bundt cake than souffle—but still enjoyable.
I guess I don’t understand the opposition to new stories by successor authors. Fans get more stories, the agent and publisher are happy, the estate gets mucho moolah. Everyone wins. Why shouldn’t we have a reboot with Trav and Meyer? Say, set back in the ’70s or early ’80s? If you hate the idea of new McGees, fine, don’t read them. Should it ever happen, the prime directive, naturally, is: Don’t f**k it up!
But at present, of course, the anti-reboot forces are in the ascendant.
I’m bringing this up again because there’s a thoughtful piece in The Guardian by Sophie Hannah, the author who has revived Hercule Poirot for the Agatha Christie estate, discussing the phenomenon. Here’s what she had to say about the delicate job she’s undertaken three times so far:
There’s a name for novels like my Poirots and others of their kind: continuation novels. Often, at my events, people tentatively ask me things like: “So, are you Agatha Christie now?”. They don’t know the correct term for what I’m doing. No, I’m not Christie, and so I decided very early on that I would not in any way try to copy her writing. No writer can or should ever try to mimic the prose style of another, unless they are writing a parody or a pastiche.
I soon realised that if I was to write real, proper Poirot, then I needed to write about Christie’s Poirot, not to change or add to him in order to “make him my own”. Absolutely not, I thought. He is not my own. He belongs to Christie and to her billions of fans. My task – should I choose to accept it, which I soon did, because concocting a baffling mystery for the brilliant Belgian sleuth to solve was the most exciting creative challenge I had ever faced – was to bring the Poirot we all know and love a new case that would frustrate and puzzle him right up until he worked out the solution.
Illustration by Leslie Herman, The New Yorker
When I was growing up, my folks subscribed to two magazines—Time for my dad and The New Yorker for my mom. Once I headed off to college, I continued to get The New Yorker and have subscribed ever since. I figure that’s over two thousand issues full of leading-edge journalism, humor, fiction, criticism, poetry, essays, and those peerless cartoons. I’ll be the first to confess I don’t read everything. It would be akin to a part-time job. What I do is cherry-pick my New Yorker reads, then stack up old issues for a later look-see.
I was just going through a stack of them—headed for the recycling bin—when I ran across Adam Gopnik’s June 2013 essay “In the Back Cabana,” in which the jack-of-all-trades essayist/critic tackles the subject of Florida crime fiction. JDM figures in the essay as a kind of granddaddy of the genre, in the form of the McGee adventures. Gopnik doesn’t address JDM’s earlier one-off Florida crime novels, nor Brett Halliday/Davis Dresser’s Michael Shayne. His main focus is Karl Hiaasen, whose Bad Monkey had just come out.
Gopnik lays out the lineage of Florida crime fiction by first going back to the progenitors and masters of California noir—Hammett, Cain, Chandler and Ross MacDonald. His thesis is that California noir was all about the corrupt connections between the players in the story, from hookers and lowlifes to the millionaires and corporations at the top of the food chain. The sleuth uncovers these webs, usually with some shameful sexual element, and shines the light on them.
In contrast, Florida crime fiction of recent decades, he writes, is more about the unlucky coincidences that bring together the good guys and the bad. That certainly describes Hiaasen—where virtually every character, if they didn’t have bad luck, would have no luck at all. And sexual hi-jinks are not shameful or extortion-worthy. Not a bug but a feature.
That may be a bit of overgeneralizing on Gopnik’s part, but there’s some truth to it, particularly in terms of whack-job, satirical Sunshine State crime fiction—Hiassen, Shames, Dorsey and others. However, I tend to think that JDM and Brett Halliday (Dresser’s pen name), not to mention newer proponents such as White and Hall, partake more of the California lineage reborn in a fresh new setting.
Nevertheless, it’s enjoyable when a major league literary critic takes on our favorite genre. Gopnik’s opinions at the end of the essay—though written four years ago—resonate particularly. They tie the Hiaasen type of tale in presciently with the current socio-economic situation in America.
“This is a society without basic repressions. There are no dirty secrets. The movement is not from the center of the country to the edge, from rural to urban, but from south to north: emigration from South America and Cuba, bringing with it clan manners and, of course, a steady run of cocaine. Corruption begins to have a Third World quality; people barely try to conceal it. Not movies but television—in particular, tabloid reality television—hangs over everything, as an aspiration and a model of life. The cop or, more frequently, the reporter isn’t trying to restore chivalry to a world gone corrupt. It’s too far gone already. He is merely trying to assert ordinary decency in a world gone crazy…”
I have little doubt that JDM, if he were alive today, would find much merit in Gopnik’s argument. Indeed, our favorite author—America’s greatest writer of crime fiction—almost certainly saw it coming and was warning us in the voice of a rough-and-tumble salvage consultant.
You could reasonably argue that our man Travis came out of a lineage of fictional tough guys that got its start in southern California. It was the stomping ground of two of the great originals of hard-boiled detective fiction—Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. Currently the redoubtable PI Elvis Cole does his sleuthing there, as does the peerless police detective Harry Bosch. It seems to me, though, that those two don’t much resemble Trav. Cole cracks wise Spenser-style while Bosch stews and ruminates over existential questions. And there’s not much in the way of semi-tropical heat in the dour post-WWII worlds occupied by Marlowe and Archer.
That’s not to say that authors don’t come along with California settings who try to capture the McGee vibe. A year and a half ago I wrote about Ron Ely’s efforts in that direction, with Santa Barbara tough guy Jake Sands. (That’s right, Ely the ex-Tarzan actor. Unfortunately, he wrote only two books in his promising series. It’s not easy, getting a genre fiction series established.) And this time around I’ll take a look at another southern California series. Jeff Shelby’s McGee wannabe is surfer sleuth Noah Braddock, who has had five outings so far.
One of the first impressions of Noah—who tells his tale in brisk, agile first person—is of a hero very comfortable in his own skin. While he may live to surf the beaches of San Diego, he likes nothing better than fighting the good fight, with lots of his own skin in the game. Just as Florida is a full-fledged character in most of the McGee yarns, San Diego and its environs are central to Noah’s story; he and the author clearly love the place, especially the surfing beaches. He has a sidekick who bears no resemblance to Meyer in look, style, or braininess—an even bigger surfer dude/tough guy called Carter. But Carter is as loyal and intrepid as they come and even takes a few bullets for his pal. There’s also a former girlfriend, a police detective, who’s in the cast.
The first book in the series, Killer Swell (2005), sees Noah take on a missing person case. Only this one is personal. The lost woman is his old high school girlfriend, Kate. He hasn’t seen her since they broke up toward the end of senior year, but he’s clearly carried the torch for her ever since. Her stuck-up, rich mother is the one who hires Noah; even though she hated him when he was dating her daughter. It turns out that Kate married a successful surgeon and they had what seemed a solid, prosperous marriage. Noah heads out to trace her known movements around San Diego before she disappeared. But his brief search ends tragically, when he finds Kate Crier in the trunk of a car, brutally murdered.
Bit by bit, Noah peels back the layers of deceit that had covered this supposedly golden girl. It turns out that she and her husband were both heroin addicts; though on and off. When Kate was pulled over by the police, they found dope in the car belonging to the husband. With a horrid deficit of chivalrousness, he let his wife take the very hard fall. And with that leverage, the DEA dragooned her into the investigation of a Mexican drug kingpin, for whom she ended up serving as a very unlikely mule. The natural conclusion is that the kingpin found out she was a traitor, had her killed, and stuffed into that trunk.
But when Noah—at great risk to life and limb—arranges a meet with said kingpin, the man delivers a surprise. Yes, he learned that Kate was collecting evidence for the DEA. And yes, he certainly would have killed her, given the chance. In his line of work, it would have been a professional necessity. But someone else got to Noah’s old flame before he did. He didn’t do it. And Noah believes him.
So, who killed Kate Crier and why?
In the meantime, Noah has to negotiate some secondary issues. He falls into the sack with Kate’s big sister, complicating his investigation. He also falls into the sack with the police detective, who needs him to stop interfering in her murder investigation. He has to deal with his friend and sidekick Carter, wounded in a shootout protecting Noah.
But, being stubborn and bent on vengeance, Noah bulls ahead and yet again almost gets himself killed, when he helps to take down the very unexpected murderer.
IMO, Killer Swell is more a straight PI mystery than something from McGee’s wheelhouse—despite some reviewers proclaiming Noah a new Trav. If McGee is a big turf ‘n’ surf dinner with a Boodles Martini, Noah Braddock is a akin to a nice beach-side hors d’oeuvre plate with an Amstel Light. There’s just not the substance and character that McGee brings to almost every situation he’s in. Noah, when it comes down to it, is kind of a superficial dude.
Don’t get me wrong. Shelby delivers a smooth, easy, entertaining read and I enjoyed it. If you’re in the market for a warm, semi-tropical crime story with a laid-back, free-spirit, first-person protagonist—and what reader of this blog isn’t?—you could do a lot worse.
While Shelby’s series is not bounteous, at five titles, it appears that he’s still adding to it. The most recent book was published just a year ago. The other four in the series are Wicked Break, Liquid Smoke, Drift Away, and Locked In. They’re all available as e-books.
I was nineteen years old in 1965 and was working in San Francisco. As I was departing a bus on Market Street, right at the Del Webb Townhouse Inn, I looked over and saw a familiar face. I didn’t recognize the man immediately, but knew the face. So I waved, as it is rude (where I was raised) to ignore an acquaintance. He was an older man, wearing a smashed up hat, and had a very penetrating gaze.In later years I read a Travis McGee book and he mentioned a tall, good-looking girl, climbing off a bus, a white skirt foaming about her knees. “She smiled and waved at me, then danced off down the street, the sun following her.” ( I am paraphrasing the text I remember.) I realized then that I must have seen Mr. McDonald. He was one of the first writers I’d ever encountered who liked tall women, and I certainly was in that category!Sadly I don’t remember the name of that book, but I am hoping you can help me to find out which it is so I can get a copy.
So if anyone recognizes that passage, please leave a comment for Lynn. I’m eager to know the answer, too.
As you all know, I’m a huge fan of Larry Shames’s Key West Caper novels. And I thought I’d share the good news that he’s coming out with a new one later this month. It’s called One Strange Date and it’s available for presale on Amazon right now. If you buy it, it will upload to your Kindle on January 23. Here’s what Larry has to say about it, including a link to the Amazon page:
Happy new year! I hope 2017 is off to a great start for all of you.
I’m writing to let you know that my new Key West Caper—somehow or other I’ve made it to number 12!–has just become available for pre-order as an e-book. The release date is January 23, but you’d be doing me a big favor by ordering now, as pre-sales have a crucial impact on Amazon rankings, and Amazon rankings are what draws attention. The book will magically appear in your Kindle at midnight of the release date and you can be the first kid on your block to read it!
And review it? That would be very much appreciated…
Please note that ONLY the e-book can be pre-ordered. But in the next couple of weeks, a print edition and an audiobook (performed by the superb Jem Matzan) will also become available. I promise you I won’t be shy about sending reminders.
As ever, I thank you for your support and enthusiasm, and I wish you happy reading.
P. S. The paperback is now available for order through Amazon. Just click here.
Earlier this year I noted JDM’s 100th birthday. Today, I thought I would call attention to another JDM anniversary: It was 30 years ago today that our favorite author died in a Milwaukee hospital, after a heart bypass procedure. Here’s the obit from the next day’s New York Times.
JDM went into St. Mary’s Hospital in September 1986 for his operation, developed pneumonia, and spent the last month of his life in a coma. The bypass was apparently sold to him as relatively low-risk of 5 to 8 percent. But afterwards his doctors alluded to JDM being higher risk because his heart disease was more severe, with regard to the arteries that had to be bypassed.
Gone at seventy years old—not that old. What a shame. To quote myself in a wishful mood (from my piece on Cinnamon), if he had lived: “Think! Another eight or ten adventures. Emerald and Fuschia. Jade and Maroon. Black and Ochre. Coral and Beige. Plum and Salmon.” But twenty-one McGees are still a treasure for the ages. Something for us to savor again and again and again.
D. R.’s note: Walter Abbott recently wrote up a review of JDM’s Deadly Welcome. And it so happened that I had a review of my own that I wrote a few years ago. So, here are both of them. First, Walter’s view of the 1959 novel.
There are only twenty-one Travis McGee novels. So we all have to make do with substitutes – Randy Wayne White, Carl Hiasson, Charles Knief, Paul Levine. Then there are the other JDM stories and books that will do when one wants to space out re-reading the McGees.
It’s been a good many years since I systematically read all of JDM’s other works, but I still have them stacked in my bookcase, ready for use. Sometimes, you can see in them JDM’s ideas for the characters that are later fully developed in the McGee series.
That night, when he was ready for bed, he carefully inspected the stranger in the bathroom mirror. The sandy hair had been cropped short and the gray at the temples was now practically invisible. The eyes were a pale gray-blue. It was a long face, subtly stamped with the melancholy of lonely tasks. A big nose and stubborn shelving of jaw. A sallow facial structure that took a deep tan and kept it. Twisty scar at the left corner of the broad mouth. A flat, hard, rangy body, with big feet and knobbed wrists and big freckled hand.
The female lead is Betty Larkin.
She was a girl of a good size and considerable prettiness, and she came swinging toward him, moving well in her blue-jean shorts and sleeveless red blouse with white vertical stripes and battered blue topsiders. She had been endowed with a hefty wilderness of coarse blond-red hair, now sun-streaked. She was magnificently tanned, but it was the tan of unthinking habitual exposure rather than a pool-side contrivance of oils and careful estimates of basting time.
Betty, in contrast, seemed o handle herself in a way that, through long habit, seemed to negate her bounties, to underplay her charms. She seemed to have no body awareness, no iota of consciousness of self. So there was bluffness in the way she moved, an asexual indifference. It was a big lovely body, with good shoulders and strong breasts, delicately narrow waist, and long strong shapely legs. Yet when she had sat on the porch she had propped her heels on the railing just inside the screening, and crossed her ankles with neither coyness nor seemingly any awareness that she was good to look upon.
The story is set on the Florida Gulf Coast town of Ramona, south of Sarasota. Doyle was raised there, and was forced to enlist at eighteen after he was framed for a robbery he didn’t commit.
He has spent the past 15 years trying to forget Ramona and his early years there. Going back “home” is the last thing on his mind.
The Pentagon has other ideas for Doyle. They’ve “borrowed” him from State, and as he’s shown to be a clever, resourceful, and persevering fellow, they want him to go back and convince a medically discharged Air Force Colonel Crawford McGann to come back to work on a limited basis.
McGann, it seems, has been deemed to be nearly indispensible to the nation’s missile program. Remember, the story is set in 1959, the hottest part of the Cold War, and during the Space Race with the USSR.
McGann’s wife, Jenna, was Doyle’s very first love interest at age eighteen. And she’s been murdered, with the unsolved case weighing heavily on Col. McGann’s soul.
Doyle is reluctant, but is made an offer he can’t refuse.
Add to the mix Betty Larkin, the younger sister of Jenna. She had a crush on Doyle, back when Doyle and Jenna were briefly seeing each other.
There is the obligatory sadistic cracker sheriff’s deputy who runs that part of the county as he sees fit, and some local types who commiserate with Doyle about his railroading fifteen years ago.
So will our reluctant McGee-type character solve the murder and convince the colonel that his country needs him badly?
John D. MacDonald is rarely in better form than when he occupies himself with the dark and dastardly doings of small-town Florida. These places—back in the ’50s and ’60s, when JDM wrote the vast majority of his novels—were still very much of the Old South. Forget the glitz and glamour of Florida’s tourist coasts. Forget shiny Ft. Lauderdale and Bahia Mar (home of Travis McGee). For JDM these little burgs were dicey places for outsiders, with racism right up front; with corruption and lust and violence always lurking just under a lazy, placid surface. JDM used variants of the setting in a few McGee adventures and in many of his one-off crime novels. Deadly Welcome (1959) is a solid example. Written in third person, this story has a few pre-echoes of McGee.
Alex Doyle grew up in a little coastal town called Ramona Beach, somewhere between Ft. Myers and Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. A “swamp cracker” (poor white trash), Doyle left town at eighteen—too late to see action in WWII. Framed for burglarizing a local store and arrested, he’d been given the choice of a trial and jail, or pleading guilty and a stint in the Army. He chose the latter. He went to college on the GI Bill and then served in the Korean War. By the time Ramona Beach heaves up again, he’s been working as an investigator for the State Department. And someone in the Pentagon needs him to return home for a vital confidential mission: Luring an ailing military scientist living in Ramona Beach out of retirement. Doyle’s history there is the perfect cover.
Of course, you can go home again, but it’s not always fun—especially since you left it 14 years earlier in utter disgrace. Doyle meets with puritan disapproval from some locals. And the deputy sheriff—a Barney Fife from hell, a stock JDM character—gives Doyle an unprovoked, brutal beating. He don’t want the convicted criminal t’ git all uppity, now he’s back in Ramona Beach. But some folks are happy to see the disgraced native son. Chief among them is Betty Larkin, co-owner of the town’s marina. Just a kid when Doyle left, she had had a huge crush on him. Her big sister Jenna—a “goer,” to use Monty Python parlance—had once done the dirty with Doyle, as well as with most every other young buck in town.
But some months prior to Doyle’s arrival, Jenna had been murdered. Coincidentally, she too had vamoosed, then returned home, with an improbable husband. As Doyle knew all too well from his Pentagon briefing, that husband was none other than Colonel Crawford M’Gann, the ailing scientist.
Doyle starts earnestly juggling several balls. Getting reacquainted with—and falling for—Betty, now a splendid, good-hearted young woman. Running the gantlet of the Colonel’s protective sister, in order to make a pitch for a return to duty. Staying out of reach of the toxic deputy. Investigating the unsolved murder of his old one-night stand, the lovely, randy Jenna. And digging through ancient history for the legendary lost treasure of the sisters’ deceased daddy.
Naturally, this concoction of lust and greed explodes in the final pages, as JDM brings together the key plot threads and weaves a dramatically violent conclusion.
Fans of Travis McGee may be a little disappointed in the slightly treacley, sentimental final pages. But you have to remember that this story first appeared (in a truncated version) in a popular women’s magazine of the ’50s—Cosmopolitan, of all places. And authors of popular fiction were required to follow a central dictum of the era: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes…” Well, you know the rest.
And even JDM was not exempted.
Two or three years ago, there was a spate of discussion on this blog about fictional heroes who, for one reason or another, were given the chance to outlive their creators. Commenters and I talked about recent resurrections of this famous sleuth or that. I recall Poirot, Archie McNally, Philip Marlowe, as well as Chee and Leaphorn. Here’s the first post, with various comments. Here’s the second. Later on I wrote about Anne Hillerman’s take on her father’s stories. Of course, our discussions were with regard to Maynard MacDonald’s lack of interest in allowing anyone—even Steven King—to revive his father’s great fictional hero.
The reason I bring the subject up again is that I finally got around to reading the first of the new Spenser books by Ace Atkins. I know I’m pretty late to the game on this, and you’re all probably way ahead of me. But after Robert Parker died in 2010, I simply finished reading the last few Spensers that he wrote and figured that was that. I just sort of automatically assumed the new guy—handpicked by the Parker estate—wouldn’t quite nail it. Because, let’s face it, some authors-for-hire who tackle famous sleuths don’t get it right. It’s not easy, recreating those very special voices.
Ace Atkins’ first Spenser, Lullaby, crossed my path a few weeks ago purely by accident. I was out on a walk and, as is my wont, checked out a Little Library in the middle of our community garden. And there the book sat, ripe for the taking.
The story has a bit of True Grit and Leon: The Professional to it, as Spenser is hired by a teenage girl of South Boston to track down who really murdered her mother several years before. The guy in the slammer, she insists, didn’t do it. Spenser takes the case and is soon up to his ears in a complicated criminal conspiracy that seems to involve the son of his old gangster nemesis, Joe Broz. Of course, Hawk is at Spenser’s side. And the very feisty girl complicates things by insisting on being in on the action.
(Considering that Spenser served in the Korean War, he’s in awfully good shape to be doing the tough-guy shtick c. 2012. He’d be about eighty. But despite Parker’s error in tagging him with that history—a lesson to series writers—we’re happy to look the other way because we love Spenser. I guess if Bart Simpson never ages, why should Spenser?)
As a good friend of mine might put it—when he gives his imprimatur to something he particularly approves of—this tale’s “as slick as snot on a doorknob.” Atkins has done as nearly a perfect continuation of a creator’s voice and style as I’ve ever seen. If I’d read Lullaby, say, ten years ago, I wouldn’t have had any reason to question that Robert Parker wrote it. And because of Atkins’ masterful writing chops, Spenser remains alive and kicking, and in hearty good health. Spenser is all here, full of his trademark wiseass-ery. And that is a wonderful thing: Robert Parker may have died, but Spenser lives.
I should note, though, that while the book collects predominantly five and four star reviews on Amazon—I gave it five—down in the scarcer two and one star reviews, many folks think Ace Atkins missed the boat and/or screwed the pooch.
Maynard MacDonald may own Travis McGee and all his father’s other literary properties. He clearly has some deeply held belief that McGee should never again be heard from, absent his dad. And he has every right to prohibit new McGee stories from being developed.
But the Parker estate and Ace Atkins make an awfully good case for at least attempting to resurrect Mr. McGee. You might reasonably argue that the prose that constitutes McGee is of a richer and more thoughtful weave than that which makes up Spenser. And you would have a good point there. Still, why not give it a shot?
As I wrote here a few years ago, the JDM estate could secretly audition a group of strong candidates and see how close they can get to the original’s quality. If no one’s good enough, well there you go. But if someone pulls it off, then why not pick a new color, haul the Busted Flush out of drydock, and set ol’ Trav loose on some new malefactor?
But even if Maynard MacDonald sticks to his guns and remains unpersuaded, there can always be hope that some day JDM’s grandchildren might feel differently.