Friday, March 25, 2011

John D. MacDonald - The Crossroads

Anyone who's ever read a Travis McGee paperback has seen the long list of other John D. MacDonald novels that usually take up two tightly-spaced columns in the front. I read a lot of the McGee novels in my teens. They're action-packed mysteries with a cerebral touch, and they provided a slam-bang parallel reading experience as I also devoured Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels.

I wanted to read more of the non-series novels from those single-spaced columns in the front of the books, but they were hard to find. This was before Amazon or even Prodigy.

Weren't at the Waldenbooks, had often been published in paperback and weren't at the library, and they didn't even turn up at used book stores that much.

I found A Bullet for Cinderella on a paperback rack while visiting my mother's relatives in Camden, AR, as a rare exception. A first-person crime novel, it resembled a McGee and was a nice addition to my reading.

A discovery and a re-discovery
I thought of all that recently when I was browsing a local used shop that displays mostly nice used hardcovers. On one of the paperback spinners, I spotted some battered John D. MacDonalds. Took me back, and I grabbed a couple in spite of their tattered shape, excited to get the reminder of an author I hadn't experienced in a while.

The Crossroads is the first I cracked open, and it proved to be a rewarding excursion. It really anticipates those lauded literary novels that add a touch of crime to an otherwise character driven exploration.

There's a crime at the novel's core, but it's really a fascinating slice-of-life in one mid-fifties summer of an entrepreneurial family. It was great to imagine the characters in fifties fashions, occupying spaces decorated in mid-century modern.

The crossroads of the title is an intersection of well-traveled thoroughfares where the small business empire of the Drovek family has grown from the real estate acquisitions of their Polish-immigrant patriarch.

It's a son, Chip, who's the head of the business now, a cluster of leased gift shops, hotels, truck stops and restaurants. Chip's deteriorating marriage to a woman hopelessly mired in depression and alcoholism has driven him into the arms of one of the crossroads shopkeepers.

Others in the family are equally unhappy, including the irresponsible Pete, who's accidently entangled with Sylvia, former true crime magazine cover model. A Bettie Page perhaps?

A family so successful is not without enemies, and once the players and the playing field is established, MacDonald focuses on the revenge scheme of a fired employee. It's a seedy, brutal and realistic plan, and it unfolds at the novel's core.

Yet MacDonald keeps the family and their triumphs and foibles in the sharpest focus.

A few touches, that would be spoilers if revealed, suggest this might be a book that influenced Stephen King, who I believe is an acknowledge MacDonald fan. This book certainly weaves crime and character together much the way King has always melded domestic drama with supernatural incursions.

The Crossroads has reminded me what a joy a John D. MacDonald read can be, and it's a kick in the pants to find more used titles since the books are regrettably not available electronically. Except for one title that has perhaps slipped somehow into the public domain. Care to venture a guess which one that is? Yep, A Bullet for Cinderella. Get it in e-format here.

What writers should watch for:
  • MacDonald's flare for making the routine seem fascinating. 
  • The nuanced characters which suggest a keen eye for the human condition.
  • The slow-burn crime plot, a devilish strong arm crime enhanced by the dark players. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Frightened Man - A Victorian Mystery

The ties to Jack the Ripper are peripheral in Kenneth Cameron's The Frightened Man, despite its iconic cover, but it's still a compelling Victorian thriller with many Ripper trappings. Denton, the hero, spends a lot of time prowling foggy streets, clashing with wrong-headed Scotland Yard detectives and digging for answers in the darkest corners of poverty-ridden 1900 London.

The Ripper case is in the past, but the frightened man of the title--who draws former U.S. sheriff Denton into the twisting, violent investigation of a new killing--believes he's seen a man who might be Springheel Jack. 

He calls on Denton, who's given up the military and law enforcement for a career as a Poe-esque author and has growing reputation on multiple fronts. The request wraps Denton into the case so tightly he can't escape.

The Cast
Denton is a wonderful creation, tough yet reeling from a broken heart and driven toward the truth even at great personal cost. Cameron, author of numerous books, backs his central character up with some great supporting players:

Atkins: his humorous but tough and pragmatic butler who's as given to get-rich-quick schemes as Ralph Kramden.

Munro, a friendly police official who's helpful but not always able to override Denton's enemies. Think Rockford's Dennis Becker.

Janet Striker, a crusading advocate for downtrodden women with a complex past that's almost mythic. She's a strong and compelling match for the lead.

Denton struggles through some tough spots and endures dangerous attacks as he works toward the truth, even going to personal expense to track down minute details. A particularly rigorous scene involves him working through brutal obstacles to enter a locked dwelling.

A few personal facts from Denton's past seem to come a little late in the story, but that's a quibble, especially when the story reaches its action-packed climax.

If you like Victorian tales, The Frightened Man isn't a pure mystery puzzler, but it hangs together well and offers page-turning thrills. I've already added the sequel, The Bohemian Girl, to my to-read list and to my Kindle.

What writers should watch for: 
  • The deft creation of characters.
  • The blending of mainstream and thriller plotting

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Movies Worth a Look: Dolan's Cadillac

I know everyone's probably way ahead of me, but if not, here's a flick to check out.

I haven't read the Stephen King short story Dolan's Cadilac from the Nightmares and Dreamscapes collectionbut the title rang a bell a while back when the movie adaptation popped up as a Netflix recommendation. I added to my queue and settled in to watch it recently.

At first blush, the film looks like a standard issue crime drama. It centers on one of those happy middle class couples who run afoul of criminals. There's the intense Wes Bentley (Robinson), of American Beauty and Ghost Rider,  and Emmanuelle Vaugier, from the Saw movies and more. They're school teachers. She's trying to get pregnant.

Unfortunately, while horseback riding, Elizabeth (Vaugier) happens upon Dolan (Christian Slater) and his crime crew. They ride around in Dolan's black and ominous Caddy SUV.

Moving the plot
Dolan's chief criminal activity is smuggling young women for the sex trade. A failed ventilation system in a truck has caused deaths and leads to additional murders while Elizabeth is watching.

She's soon targeted by Dolan and his existential sidekick played by Greg Bryk, also of Saw films. Mild spoiler here: 

 They kill her, and the devastated husband sets out for revenge.

That's where the spoiling stops, and where the film, realizing what I suspect is the meat of the King source material takes off.

Soul searching, confrontation and the execution of an ingenious plan unfold with surprises and subtext that you don't find in routine crime dramas or many direct-to-video flicks.

Christian Slater is at his over-the-top best as Dolan, who's devilish and intelligent, and Bentley's capacity of deep darkness is perfectly utilized.

A couple of minor characters who play a role in Robinson's resurrection also add flavor, and Bryk's  complex lieutenant is much greater than a typical henchman walk-on.

Is it perfect? Meh. Is it without implausibility? Well no, but it's all well-executed and enriched by character and explorations of grief, torment and even spirituality.

If you're going in cold, it's particularly entertaining and probably worthwhile as a watch-instantly choice if you've read the story.

Watch the trailer below, but know it spoils some surprises before you click: 

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