Friday, 11 April 2008

The Red Hot Typewriter

The Red Hot Typewriter is the rather good title of a book published eight years ago by Hugh Merrill, an American journalist. It’s a study of the life and times of John D. Macdonald, of whom we are told: ‘He was a crime writer who managed to break free of the genre and finally get serious consideration from critics. Seventy of his novels and more than five hundred of his short stories were published in his lifetime. When he died in 1986, more than seventy million copies of his books have been sold.’

These are very impressive figures. Yet – call myself a crime fiction fan? – this is where I have to confess that I have never read anything by John D. Macdonald. Ross Macdonald, yes, Philip Macdonald, certainly. But so far the work of the creator of salvage expert Travis McGee has eluded me. Or more accurately, I’ve never got round to giving it a try.

One of the points made in the blurb of Merrill’s book is that JDM was one of the first writers whose passionate environmentalism was woven into his mysteries. Even if the mysteries themselves were nothing special, this alone would make his work worth considering. But my impression is that JDM was also a pretty good entertainer too. Seventy million people can’t be wrong, can they? (Well, I know there is debate about the merits of certain best-sellers, but even so…)

Coincidentally, I’ve also picked up another book about JDM – this time by David Geherin – which again emphasises the author’s views on the way mankind threatens the natural world. He suggests that JDM was something of a polemicist, and I tend to think that using your books as a vehicle for expressing your opinions is tricky territory, unless you remember at all times that your first duty as a writer of commercial fiction is to please the reader. All the same, I’m keen to give Macdonald a try. It’s obviously long overdue.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I read all of John MacDonald's novels in the seventies. He had the sort of breezy style that went well with that era. Travis McGee, living on his boat, was a Rockford/Magnum kind of character. I wonder if they hold up at all.

Bill Crider said...

I've read all of MacDonald's novels, some of the more than once. The McGee titles are all preachier than the others. A FLASH OF GREEN is not a McGee, despite the color in the title, and it's one of the better standalones in the environmental vein.

Shuku said...

Funnily enough, I -have- read a Travis McGee story - I don't recall the title, except that the story was a short one - and it was humourous enough to make me cackle. I don't recall the name of it, but JDM definitely held my interest even as a 14 or 15 year old. He's worth a look, certainly.


Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. Bill, how do you rate the mystery/puzzle element of the books? And do you think that the stand-alones hold up better than the McGees, or vice versa?