In which we look at origins.
By Kevin Comer
Set in Florida and containing definite hints of the McGee to come, JDM’s first novel, The Brass Cupcake, falls well within the conventions of hard-boiled crime fiction. The narrator, Cliff Bartells, is an insurance adjuster, who is tasked by his employer, Security Theft and Accident Insurance, with buying back stolen jewels insured for $750,000. The case offers more than the usual measure of danger because the thieves have already proven they’re capable of murder. Making things even more difficult, the local mob and Cliff’s former colleagues at the Florence City Police Department are in cahoots, and they’re eager to get Cliff off the case. With a big bonus at stake and because he won’t be pushed around, Cliff is willing to do whatever it takes to recover the jewels, even if he sometimes hates himself in the morning. Surviving a shooting attempt and a savage beating, he recovers the jewels and turns the tables on his adversaries.
While Cliff is not a private investigator per se, he is a former police officer. (You’ll recall that Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer was a former cop; and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe had been an investigator for the Los Angeles District Attorney.) Cliff left law enforcement because he couldn’t tolerate the corruption he found. He’s a tough cookie. He’s a chick-magnet. He lives alone, sleeping on a sofa bed, in an efficiency apartment. Experience has taught him some bitter lessons—lessons he’s taken to heart. But he still has a code. In short, Cliff is a near classic first-person protagonist of the mainstream hard-boiled school.
The Brass Cupcake was published at the dawn of the golden age of paperback originals. Due to a number of factors, including television and even cheaper and more lurid competitors entering the market, this era was already coming to a close by the early ’60s, when John D. MacDonald was imposed upon to try his hand at a series. By this time, he’d published nearly forty novels. He was most renowned for his suspenseful thrillers, but he’d produced a variety of other sorts of stories as well, including some science fiction. Meanwhile, the author of Gold Medal’s best-selling series, Richard S. Prather—whose protagonist was the laughably hard-boiled Shell Scott—jumped ship to another publisher for a handsome deal. Gold Medal needed a new series and the publisher thought JDM could produce what they wanted. Despite the pressing economic concerns of Gold Medal (sales were down) and the rewards on offer, JDM did not lightly step up to the challenge of a series.
JDM had long maintained he would not do a series. He’d taken a stab at it a couple of times early in his career with the pulps, but was unable to sustain the effort beyond a couple of stories each time. He found sitting down and trying to write a story around an established character caused writer’s block. He was also concerned about becoming typecast: Unable to sell anything else and, like Conan Doyle, unable to free himself from the character.
By his own estimation, JDM wrote a million and a quarter words in the process of creating McGee. He wrote The Deep Blue Good-by twice, but in each case he was unhappy with the central character. There are a number of problems with each version, but essentially, he felt the first was too dour and the next was too silly. Third time was the charm for Blue—the version we all know and love.Feeling he was onto something, he wrote the first five McGee novels before he allowed a single one to be published. He wanted to make sure that Travis McGee was a character he could live with; a character who would not constrain his creative impulses by boxing him into a limiting formula.
As I mentioned in my first post, noir fiction is a subgenre of hard-boiled fiction. Since I haven’t read all of JDM’s pre-McGee fiction, I can’t say with certainty whether he ever tried his hand at anything that would qualify today as noir fiction, although if The Executioners (a story famous as two movies entitled Cape Fear) were written first person from the point of view of Max Cady, he’d be in the neighborhood.
Nonetheless, I can declare, definitively, that none of the McGees, not even The Green Ripper, is anything close to noir fiction for the simple reason that McGee is not a noir-fiction protagonist. He is neither a victim, a suspect, nor a perp.
At this point, however, I would have to concede that McGee has many of the traits of a mainstream hard-boiled protagonist. To quote from Dashiell Hammett’s description of Sam Spade:
He is a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander, or client.
And, yet, there is more to McGee than this.
Stay tuned for Part Three, where we find one of the great bromances in American fiction.