The first John D. MacDonald I ever read was “The Empty Copper Sea,” a late entry in his series of books about Travis McGee.
I was in high school. I am long since past high school, but I remember where I was when I finished that book. It was a warm summer afternoon. I was in a lawn chair, sitting outside on the carport at my home. I distinctly remember shutting the book and telling myself, “Jesus, this guy knows how to write.”
I soon learned there were lots of novels featuring Travis McGee — beach bum, unlicensed detective, knight in slightly tarnished armor, cynical yet romantic, hopeful despite all the times life had shown him hopeful was, perhaps, not the winning hand. I consumed these books as quickly as I could find them. Since then, I have read most of them at least three times.
I loved these books. Hard-boiled, yet poetic. They conveyed a strong sense of justice, even though Travis operated outside the law. Each book painted a picture of a time and place. Each one offered characters etched in acid. Each one was tightly plotted, suspenseful, eminently readable.
Imagine my surprise when, later, I encountered critics who lamented that MacDonald was known, in their words, for his “worst books.”
These critics were looking down their nose at the serial character. It made money for MacDonald, it made him famous, but, to some critics, it was slumming. They wanted MacDonald to keep writing standalone novels, not to create a commodity character.
I see, in a way, what they meant. One of the problems of the serial character is that the reader pretty much knows the hero is going to survive. Hell, even after Arthur Conan Doyle repented of his serial character Sherlock Holmes and killed him, he brought Sherlock back and wrote his way around the finality he’d tried to create. It is tough to build suspense when the reader knows the good guy is going to win.
I will not knock the Travis McGee novels. I love them. I’ll re-read them until I am dead. But I will agree with the critics on one point; MadDonald’s non-McGee books are pure dynamite, and explore dimensions unavailable to an author when writing about a serial character.
Case in point, “The Only Girl In the Game,” a 1960 dissection of Las Vegas, gambling and mob life. The prose will seem familiar to any McGee fan, even though this one is written in third person and from multiple points-of-view, unlike the serial stories told strictly in Travis’ world-weary-yet-romantic first-person narrative.
But the plot itself is the difference in this book. This one is hugely suspenseful, and you read along wondering if justice can ever emerge from such a tawdry, sordid environment. The decent folk are revealed to have dark secrets. The good people yield to temptation and self-delusion. The bad people prove to be three-dimensionally human. You read along as MacDonald ratchets up the tension. You know things are going to go bad, and you know who you want to prevail and who you want to lose. But you don’t know who it’s going to go bad for, and you don’t know if anyone will be able to make justice happen once things do go wrong. You read along knowing the bad guys might win, and that this might be one of those books that points out the inequities of the universe, as opposed to a hero story.
Once things do go horribly wrong, you find yourself binge-reading to see what will happen next. This is a page-turner, make no mistake.
Parts of the book seem dated. The women, for one thing, seem to exist primarily to be used by men. MacDonald, in his McGee series, makes a habit of female characters who provide the hero with lots of sex without actually compelling him to commit to anything. These books are, in many aspects, male fantasy.
But in “The Only Girl in the Game,” MacDonald also paints a vivid portrait of the underbelly of Vegas and the gambling world. It may be accurate, it may not be accurate, but it sure as hell feels real while you read it. And while it has a very strong early Sixties vibe to it, the story could easily be told about the Vegas of today.
And his female characters do get used, but they have their own strengths and independence, too.
MacDonald is a master suspense writer. He was prolific, too, and I continue to pounce on his work whenever I find it. I think you ought to do the same.
This is the good stuff, friends.