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. 


Charles Gramlich said...

the slice of life stuff and the just great character studies make JDM a thrill for me. I've read just about everything he's ever written.

Sidney said...

Found Barrier Island at a used shop today, not a hard one to get ahold of. Reminds me I need to prowl for more of his earlier work.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

I LOVE MacDonald. I discovered him about five years ago, and have been burning through his catalog. His style is dark, spare, with fantastic dialog and multifaceted characters. These are great novels.

Sidney said...

Yeah, definitely so. I grabbed his last non-McGee novel, Barrier Island, at a used store over the weekend.

Steve Malley said...

Ooh, haven't read Crossroads in years, but the memory of it comes flooding back. Like yourself, I cut my teeth on those books! :)

And thanks for pointing me to Munseys-- now I'm eating up bandwidth as I pulp up the Kindle...

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