/ Literature /
I was around college age when I learned that fans classed mystery novels into two types: English or American. Think Agatha Christie vs. Dashiell Hammett. Think “civilized” vs. “brutal”. Think “all will be well despite …” vs. “original sin is permanent, indelible”. In the English mystery Sherlock Holms defeats evil by sheer intelligence; in the American hardboiled mystery there is no intelligence, no salvation, nothing to hope for … except! Sam Spade proves to be not quiet as corrupt as he pretended.
When I was a kid my sister loved the “English” mysteries. She’d test her wits against Hercule Poirot: as though all the information were there, as though it were a puzzle, as though it were a fair puzzle. I never believed it was fair, I never believed that the information had been given: the author was controlling the disclosures, the author was practicing a sleight-of-hand that pretended to an honest deal: the publisher insisted that the reader be misled: stage magic rules. My mother couldn’t read much, not and also feed us, but when she read that’s what she too liked: the civilized English trickery. Not me, I liked the hardboiled noir. I thought Sherlock’s deductive logic was full of shit: I liked Sam Spade telling Brigid O’Shaughnessy that he’d wait for her, but he was sending her over: there wasn’t much integrity in existence, but there was some.
(One time in the late 1950s my sister was watching a Perry Mason show. I’ll lived my life till then with Beth’s entertainments filling the house: she listened to the radio, The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, I heard it from my room. Beth is carefully absorbing all the evidence before the court, she knows I’m not even in the room, I can’t be following all the facts. I walk through the living room, some guy’s puss is on the screen. “He did it”, I announce: and keep walking. Five minutes later Beth wants to know how I solved the puzzle when I couldn’t even know what the puzzle was: I was right, of course. I explained that I’d noticed that the show held the camera on the guy for an unecessary extra second: the producers were setting him up, grooming the audience not to like him. QED: guilty!)
I’ve never read as many mysteries as my friends did, as my family did. What I did read tended to be the American type. I was up to here with Sherlock, much as I liked Arthur Conan Doyle in general. I read Hammett, or Chandler. Then some others too: Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald … My son went for the same sorts in a big way. bk so wanted to grow to over six foot: because Philip Marlowe was presented as six-foot-and-one-or-two. We all had a bunch of macho anti-heroes fed to us. But if you’re adding it all up, if quantity counts, then there’s an extra dimension to John D. MacDonald’s output, isn’t there?
Travis McGee, Travis McGee, and more Travis McGee: in a lot more colors than I can ordinarily name. We know Sam Spade more than ordinarily well, we know Philip Marlowe better yet, but what reader deosn’t know a substantial litany of Travis-data? His size, his house boat, the Busted Flush with its story, his Rolls pick-up with its story, his hairy friend Meyer …?
First (next that is) let me say that I love John D. MacDonald, respect him. Condominium is my favorite. Indeed it’s one of my favorite contemporary American novels! I think Condominium is great, so does my beloved Jan: though we each would have read it long before meeting each other. But: I hadn’t read many from the Travis series before I was up to here with the Travis gimmicks.
Here’s it is 2013 01 21: why am I suddenly talking about John D. Mac? I’m old, time’s running down, running out: don’t I have more important things to scribble? no matter how well I know, from how-long experience, that no one ever understands a word I say, let alone why I say it? ‘Cause I have a perception that I believe is probably rare, and I want God to be able to prove at Judgment that I was one who tried: that the un-saved went out of their way to become un-saved.
Even after the McGee touchstones began to annoy me I still read an awful lot of MacDonald. Then, decades passed, I read none: till last night. I launched myself into Bright Orange for the Shroud. Almost instantly all my annoyances were duplicated. I’ll try to develop only one point, maybe the hardest one:
Speaking of hard-boiled, I’ll lead in through an American, noir, hard-boiled association:
Hammett! watcha think of, imejiatly? Sam Spade! Bogart! Maltese Falcon! maybe also John Houston, maybe also Robert Mitchum …
Bogart! what else j’a think of? Casablanca! the one movie nearly everyone can replicate almost verbatim. Except: it isn’t hard-boiled Bogie, it’s pseudo-hard: Bogie here is a sentimental sap. Falcon establishes Bogie as the tough guy when he manhandles poor Wilmer in his ridiculous gansta overcoat, pins his arms, takes his guns. How does Casablanca establish Bogie’s Rick?
With a Hollywood type sign! The plane flies into Casablanca: what’s the first thing we see? “Rick’s Place”! Big, in lit letters. That’s like the movie that’s supposed to feature a “genius” showing you his report card to open. It’s cheap, it’s phony. It’s Hollywood, it ain’t tough, it ain’t noir. It ain’t art. It’s a chick-flick, pretending to be tough.
OK. Now: Travis.
He’s a tough guy, he’s a loner, he palms himself as an independent. But he moors his house boat in Fort Lauderdale, in a marina, among the playboys, the dance girls, the party girls. With his own personal market theorist, to translate American commonplaces into Wall Street jargon.
Bright Orange for the Shroud opens with Travis alone, planning to stay alone. He has his one friend, he doesn’t want any one else. Right away some dud shows up on the dock: “Hey, Trav!”
Trav knows the guy. Trav psychoanalyzes the guy. Trav tells you thing after private and embarrassing thing about the guy. Trav never knew the guy well, he just knows him better than his shrink, better than his mother, better than his wife … Like Sherlock he deduces the guy’s become strung out, he can sniff the heroin in his life. Trav then goes and visits a dozen marina party animals: he knows all of them better than their mother, better than their spouse … Which is it? is he a loner? or a party animal?
This is fiction: he’s both.
And no one knows how smart he is, except everybody.
some editing to do