Monday, May 4, 2015

"The Gentle Killer"

Back in 1981 when I was still in my twenties, John D MacDonald was still alive and writing, the JDM Bibliophile was being published twice a year, and Walter and Jean Shine had just published the most comprehensive bibliography of MacDonald’s writings to date. It was a major achievement, unmatched in its scholarship and abundance of new information. It is still the most important bibliographic work ever done on the work of JDM.

But The Bibliography wasn’t a perfect work, nor was it complete. There were omissions, mis-identified stories, a few typos, and works that could not be located. The latter problem was addressed on page 108 in an addendum listing ten stories that, according to MacDonald’s own records, had been sold but whose publication could not be verified. The majority of these titles were written and sold when the MacDonald family was living in Mexico in 1948 and 1949, and nearly all of them ended up in the pulps. The list included the story’s title, the publisher who paid for it and the beginning of the story’s first sentence.

Several months later Walter Shine issued a call for help in his JDM Bibliophile column. He needed someone within close proximity to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC to head down there and spend several days going through the library’s vast collection of pulp magazines in an effort to try and find any or all of these missing stories. I had a letter in the mail to Walter before the end of the day.

Walter had arranged for the library to have close to 40 boxes of specific pulp magazines transferred from their annex in Landover, Maryland to the Periodical Reading Room in the Adams Building in DC. Once they were there I showed up in my barely-running 1965 VW Beetle and began systematically going through the table of contents of every single pulp they had supplied. It took me several long days to complete the project and in the end I was not able to locate any of the missing stories. I wrote a long, dissapointed letter to Walter outlining all of my efforts, detailing everything I had canvassed and offering my services for anything else he needed me to do. It began an epistolary friendship between us which lasted for many years. Walter even forwarded a copy of my letter to JDM himself, who responded favorably, calling my letter “extraordinary” and writing “As I read it I kept hoping he would come up with something that is still missing.”

Fast forward to 2015, almost 35 years later, and another one of the stories has finally been located.

I say “another one” because, of that list of ten missing stories, several were located by others in subsequent years. One, which had been sold to Bluebook, ended up appearing in the magazine’s bastard step-child Bluebook for Men. One which was sold to Argosy somehow ended up being published in an early issue of Cavalier. But in the end there were six stories that were still missing in action. Until now.

A few weeks back I was looking around on eBay and came across an offering that at first made no sense to me. Some seller was trying to unload an issue of All Sports, an obscure (to me) pulp that was published by Columbia Publications. It was the November 1948 issue and was advertised as containing “The Gentile Killer” by John D MacDonald.

Well. After I finished laughing out loud I began searching my memory for any JDM story about David and Goliath, or perhaps a modern day spy story featuring a Mossad assassin. But the state of Israel had only just been founded by November 1948 and I didn’t recall MacDonald ever dabbling in biblical fiction. No, I soon realized that this must be one of the missing stories, correctly titled “The Gentle Killer.” I could scarcely believe my luck, and despite having an opening bid far in excess of one I would usually entertain, I bit the bullet and placed my offer. I won it, I now own it and I have read it. Walter Shine, wherever he is, is surely smiling.

The opening sentence, which was supplied to me during my long-ago search, has stuck in my memory all these years, its ringing vernacular singing like urban poetry.

We had hacked up the Cleveland purse, the short end of it, and a week later, after bailing out the convertible and paying the back alimony to Myrna, the leech, and catching up on my rent and adding a few necessary numbers to the wardrobe, I was down to a slim fifty bucks; the next bout for the Tailor was set up for three weeks ahead, and there was my other bum, Jo Zamatchi, eating off me while his busted hand knitted.

The first person narrator is one Danny Watson, a boxing manager and “the Tailor” is Tailor Rowe, one of Danny’s boxers. His next two sentences are as equally evocative of the boxing world’s milieu.

As a direct consequence, I was giving the Beach the jaunty ‘hello’ and making like I had an in on the sweepstakes which is standard procedure when you feel the wolf fangs, but usually fools nobody at all, at all. Every time I thought of the fifty bucks it seemed smaller and it seemed like every time I turned around there was fat Barney Gowdy clinging to my lapels and breathing in my face, indirectly advising me of what he had had for lunch.

Barney is a bookie and opportunist, a character who “had been pitching pennies at the cracks in the boxfighting profession ever since the days of John L.” He’s been trying to corner Danny for weeks in order to present a proposition to him. A fellow manager named Whitey Burd lost the rights to a boxer he owned to Barney in a poker game. Barney isn’t a manager and has no interest in owning this or any other fighter. He can’t sell the contract outright without attracting the unwanted attention of the IRS, and since this boxer is an “up-and-comer” his value in the black market is limited. His proposition: He and Danny trade fighters. Danny gets a younger contender with good chances and a longer career while Barney gets rights he can more readily sell. Danny asks for 24 hours to think it over.

He first visits the Tailor, who is home and indulging in his off-ring hobby, magic tricks. When he presents the idea Tailor says “Okay by me, Danny.” When Danny asks if he is sore at him Tailor looks at him blankly.

“Should I be? All I care is I got somebody who gets me fights. I figure I got maybe two more years, maybe three, before I get out. I’ll see you around, won’t I. Hey, watch this one. See here? I got a coin. A quarter. I hold it tight in my fist and I pass the other hand over it like this…”

He then goes to the other fighter, a young man named Spencer Leslie. He immediately likes the looks of the man, noticing his “thick, square hands with strong bones… He was one of those boys with a small head set close against his shoulders, a big chest, no hips at all and a springy way of walking… He had a snub nose, a nice grin, and cold grey eyes.” (One of these days I’m going to catalog every JDM character who has gray -- or grey -- eyes. It will be a very long list.) Danny notices that the table in the center of the room is covered with books and there’s a slide rule on one of them. When Danny asks what all of the books are for, Spencer replies that he is studying mechanical engineering, and that he had gone to college after the war to study it but was unable to concentrate and got tossed out. Now he studies on his own.

When Danny broaches the subject of the tradeoff, Spencer is fine with it, and when Danny asks if he really likes boxing, we get the following exchange:

Spencer: “That’s a toughie, Mr. Watson. I hate it until I get into the ring and get a glove in my face. The the only thing I want to do it drop the other guy; I hate him until I hear that ten count and then he’s just another guy.”

Danny: “That’s a good way to be, Spencer. If you haven’t got that, you never make much of a fighter. The press boys call it the killer instinct.”

Spencer: (Grinning) “That’s a harsh word.”

The deal is accepted and the fights begin. The duo travels from Toledo to Detroit to Chicago to Memphis, with Spencer winning every match. By the time they return to New York the press is “screaming about the boy,” and Spencer has earned so much money that Danny “nearly needed a suitcase to carry the dough in.” He gets out from under his alimony obligation by making a lump sum settlement with ex-wife Myrna, buys “eight or nine” new suits, pays the IRS and is still able to put several hundred into his checking account. “All was well with the world.”

Then he runs into Whitey, the manager who previously owned Spencer. When Danny commiserates that it “sure was tough losing that boy,” Whitey grins at him “in a nasty way” and tells Danny that he has been lucky. He reveals that the poker game loss was fabricated and that he paid Barney “five bills” to set up the smokescreen and broker the trade. Whitey now owns the Tailor. Danny asks Whitey what is wrong with Spencer and is told, “Why don’t you ask him, sucker? Or maybe you could try to fix him up to train at Stayman’s Gym.”

Whitey says no more, and when Danny asks Ike Stayman if he could arrange for Spencer to train at his gym, he is rebuffed. “You keep that crazy man away from here.” Danny is left to ask Spencer himself about this mysterious problem…

 “The Gentle Killer” is a solid, representative example of MacDonald’s work of the period, a seven and a half page story told with crisp, direct prose and a realistic first person narration that practically rings in the ear. Its evocation of the period and, especially, the marginal world of boxing, boxers, their managers and other hangers-on, is expertly done by a writer who had evidently studied this world well. Unfortunately the tale is marred by a glib ending that practically comes out of left field (if I may mix metaphors -- and sports) and was also representative of a lot of the author’s pulp work. Still, the overall work is commendable and well worth reading.

MacDonald was well represented in the sports pulps of the postwar period, and if we add up all of them their totals are only eclipsed by his mystery and science fiction efforts, at least if we go by the type of pulp magazine they appeared in. His work appeared 26 times in various sports pulps from 1947 to 1952, and the fact that they are obscure, even in the world of obscure JDM short fiction, owes less to the quality of those stories than to the nearly ephemeral quality of the sports pulp magazine. With the possible exception of the love pulps, the sports pulps are one of the most ignored and least collected of pulp fiction magazines. John Dinan, in his excellent 1998 study Sports in the Pulp Magazines, points out that virtually none of the fiction historians -- pulp or sports -- have given any attention to this category of work. In his preface he notes that Ron Goulart in his Cheap Thrills “devotes a paragraph to the subject,” Andy McCue in his Baseball by the Books: A History and Complete Bibliography of Baseball Fiction “devotes not a word to pulp sports fiction in spite of the claim of ‘completeness,’” and Michael Oriard’s American Sports Fiction, 1868-1980 provided only “a few pages” to the sports pulps. He goes on to say,

If all this is not enough to demonstrate the absence of research into the sports pulps, one has only to look into the world of current-day collectors or researchers and their interests. What are their interests? The hero pulps, the rare titles (like Strange Suicide Stories or Civil War Stories), the outrĂ© weird menace or horror pulps, detective pulps with some of the big-name writers (Chandler, Woolrich, Hammett, MacDonald, et al.), or the early works of writers who later would earn a larger reputation than could be provided by writing for the pulps (like Louis L’Amour). Certainly not the sports pulps.

If All Sports magazine seems like an obscure pulp -- and it certainly did to me -- note that, according to Dinan, Columbia Publications produced an estimated 130 issues of the title from May 1940 to February 1951. The Adventure House Guide to the Pulps, published two years after Dinan’s work, expands that range from October 1939 to September 1951 but admit that they don’t really know when the magazine began or ended. For a magazine to be popular enough to have lasted for over 130 issues and to have become completely forgotten by all but a handful of collectors, well… that’s the history of sports pulp magazines in a nutshell.

When I discovered this title I was understandably elated. I had plans, after posting this essay, to contact both the University of Florida, where the John D MacDonald collection is housed (and where “The Gentle Killer” is still listed as appearing in an “unknown publication”), as well as the online database Fiction Mags Index, one of the most comprehensive collections of magazine contents anywhere, put together by volunteers who have indexed most of their magazine collections for posterity. I was astounded to find that this issue of All Sports had already been documented, by one Monte Herridge, who had listed the “missing” story in his entry of the issue. My chance at celebrity had been thwarted! Well, at least it’s out there. And thanks to my tech buddy J.J. Walters, it is now included in my now completely comprehensive JDM short story list, which you can access under the Trap of Solid Gold Resources in the right hand column of this blog.

Monday, April 20, 2015

JDM in Texas

When John D MacDonald began his writing career in October of 1945 he embarked on a marathon stay in front of the typewriter, working in a converted closet of a small, second story apartment in Utica, New York. He wrote 80 hours a week and produced 800,000 words of prose, most all of it rejected by the magazines of the day. Eventually, with the exception of two stories that were published without pay in a marginal periodical, his first real sale happened in February of the following year. It was also at this time that the MacDonald family -- John, Dorothy and eight year old Johnny -- made their first trip south for a brief stay in Florida. It was John’s first ever visit to the Sunshine State.

Back in New York and fearful of running out of money John took a day job with the Taxpayer’s Research Bureau, a decision he came to regret as his stories began to sell in greater quantity. As an excuse to quit he claimed that Dorothy’s health could not withstand another upstate winter and he needed to take her south. He quit the job and the family got in the car with a trailer in tow and headed for Taos, New Mexico. Although he’s never explained why Taos was the family’s destination, it was probably because of the location of the Taos art colony there. With both adult members of the family now expressing themselves artistically, it would only seem logical for them to commune with other artists. This same rationale led them to eventually move to a college town outside of Utica, then to the artists' community in Cuernavaca, Mexico, then ultimately to Sarasota.

They never made it to Taos. They got as far as Ingram, Texas, located in the hill country northwest of San Antonio, fell in love with the surroundings and rented a cheap, off-season cabin on a hillside. They stayed there the winter and early spring before returning to New York. There is relatively little written about the family’s stay in Ingram. In The House Guests MacDonald himself gives the place all of one sentence, and both Merrill and Hirshberg are both just as brief. But in December of 1947 MacDonald wrote a more detailed account, in his weekly Clinton Courier column titled From the Top of the Hill. It appeared in the December 4 issue of the paper.

Last winter we followed the sun to Texas. It was in the nature of a gamble, because the typewriter we took along had to bang out enough saleable wordage to get us back. We were looking for a place that wasn't expensive. Believe it or not, we found such a place and we herewith recommend it to all who wince at the thought of Florida tariffs.

Go to the Hill Country, seventy miles northwest of San Antonio. It is a resort section used by the people from the Gulf cities when the summer heat down there becomes unbearable. During the winter it is pretty quiet and thus accommodations that, during the summer months, rent for two and three hundred a month can be obtained for fifty and sixty. And it is almost as warm as Florida.

We stayed at a place called Bon Aire Lodge six miles from Ingram, Texas, "the only all rock town in the U.S.." They stamp that on outgoing letters. Bon Aire Lodge isn't a lodge. The proprietor purchased the mess hall from a P.W. camp, cut it into pieces and sprinkled the pieces around on a rocky hill. He paneled the inside in Mexican pine and had local stone masons rock the outside.

We rented a cabin that had yet to be rocked. After we were there a week, a truck dropped great slabs of white and brown stone beside the cabin. A few days later some lean and dusty men showed up with chipping hammers and went to work. During the chill of early morning we furnished the coffee.

The men talked to each other in a very normal fashion. "Mistuh Lee, would you kindly hand me that rock?' They has worked together for years and it was still on a mistuh basis.

They sang while they worked. It was a song we'd never heard before. No words to it. A mournful chant, plaintive and haunting.

We were sorry when the cabin was all rocked and they moved on.

This summer, as the FM tower diagonally across the street from us was being built, we were walking near it. Suddenly he heard that same song. We found out the next day that the steelworkers who put up the tower came from Texas.

Last night we looked at the red lights blinking on the tower and thought of that plaintive song. We thought of the live oaks, the hillside goats, the Guadalupe River. We remembered sitting out in the sun in a swim suit while we hacked at the typewriter during February, March and April. We remembered the big-hatted, slow-talking men gathering, with their weathered-looking women at the stone schoolhouse during the evening to play dominoes.

If you get tired of ice and want to head down in that direction, let us know. We'll tell you whom to write to. That is, if you don't mind being envied.

The MacDonalds had planned to stay a bit longer but were forced to return home when Dorothy’s mother Rita became ill. The family’s trip home is briefly recounted in The House Guests:

We still had our little green prewar Ford convertible with huge mileage on it. We were towing a jeep trailer, an army surplus purchase. At anything over thirty-five miles an hour, the car gobbled both gas and oil. There had been a temporary lull in sales, and we were down to a hundred dollars and no credit cards. I estimated that if we kept it at thirty-five, and stayed on the road fourteen hours a day, and were circumspect about food and lodgings, we could make it in good season on the cash in hand. We arrived with a little less than ten dollars to find two substantial checks waiting [and] Rita on the mend…

Merrill writes that MacDonald produced only fifteen stories during the stay in Texas, and indeed when one looks at his chronological listing of published works it can be seen that there is a definate falloff in magazine appearances during this period, if not production. Assuming a one month lag, there were only two stories published in March, one in April, two in May and two in June. One of those stories was “The Pay Off,” sold to Cosmopolitan, only his second sale to a “slick” and probably the source of one of his “substantial” checks awaiting him in Utica.

The Bon Air Lodge was sold in 1951 and continued to operate for awhile before disappearing into history. The MacDonalds don’t seem to have ever returned there.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"The Big Contest"

Worlds Beyond was a monthly science fiction digest that began life in the relatively late year of 1950. Published by Hillman Periodicals and edited by the inestimable Damon Knight -- late from his stint as assistant editor of Super Science Stories -- the magazine made its debut in December with an issue that contained both new and reprinted stories. Knight's mission statement appeared on the inside of the back cover, where he proclaimed a different kind of sf: Science Fantasy Fiction.

... [it's] a blend of two forms of imaginative writing: science fiction and fantasy. Fantasy is as old as recorded history; science-fiction is a child of the industrial revolution.

For years these two branches of the field have been considered as separate, but the old standards no longer apply: a fusion has taken place. The "pure" science-fiction story is almost nonexistent; it has acquired the flavor and the freedom of fantasy. "Pure"fantasy is equally doomed by the new attitudes and knowledge that science has introduced; but at the same time the principles of science-fiction writing have give it new life.

The hybrid... is as strongly alive as any form of modern fiction. It's our aim to do everything possible to strengthen it further and to aid its growth.

You won't find "wiring-diagram" science-fiction stories here, or Gothic horror-fantasy either. But the whole field in between is our meat -- and, we hope, yours, too.

John D MacDonald has a story in the debut issue of Worlds Beyond, his only appearance in the magazine. “The Big Contest” appeared alongside reprints by luminaries like Philip Wylie, Graham Greene and Franz Kafka, along with other authors not noted for their sf or fantasy work. It also featured the first short story by Larry Shaw, a writer who went on to edit the magazine Infinity Science Fiction. MacDonald’s story is the perfect example of Knight’s Science Fantasy Fiction, a genre that really wasn’t really new and that blossomed in the national consciousness with the popular television show The Twilight Zone. “The Big Contest” feels like it could have been written for the Serling series, even though it arrived on the scene almost a decade earlier. Or, more accurately, it reads like a Ray Bradbury story from Dark Carnival (The October Country for you young folk.)

The setting is certainly Bradburyesque, a small Midwestern town on a bucolic summer evening.

 There was a blueness in the sharp-edged shadow cast by the Fire House, a blueness that hinted of dusk. There had been a piece in the Cardon Gazette about the man over in Chamber County who claimed to have seen a flying saucer. Through the heat of the long Saturday afternoon the front of the Fire House had been the focal point for the saucer discussion. Men came and went all afternoon and the talk at times grew as hot as the sun against the pavement and store front across the way.

As the day wears on and participants come and go, dusk begins to settle and the group is down to five men and a boy. Hobe Traik, one of the old timers, has been uncharacteristically quiet throughout this Saturday discussion, leaning back in his kitchen chair, “his belly resting comfortably against his beer-keg thighs, his store teeth clamped into the deep grooves of the pipestem, a mist of sweat gleaming on his bald head.” But when he does finally speak he commands attention as he recalls a Saturday from the distant past that began right in front of the same Fire House.

"Now I've heard a lot of fool talk today about these here saucers. Might be I'm a little tired of it. Me, I've been a-waitin' on them for just about forty years. Ever since Woolmutt left town..."

The year was 1911 and Traik was just a “sprout… full of sass.” It was a hot and very dry summer and the yellow dust of the unpaved streets just sat there on that windless day as Traik and his boyhood companions lolled about. One of them spat and they watched as it hit the dust and rolled. Another boy did the same and it rolled farther. “First thing you know we got us a line drawed and rules made and we're takin' turns.”

The spitting contest became a summer ritual, and it drew contestants from as far away as “Dunstan,” everyone vying to beat the two best spitters of Cardon, Fred Tunnison and Luke Amery. One day a young man named Woolmutt shows up, first to watch and eventually to compete. “One of those fellas, he was, you don't think once about. You don't see him come and you don't notice him leave. Little chunky fella with washed-out eyes, sort of a stupid look, and a big mouth.”

Woolmutt is shy about entering and elects to go last in the bout he eventually competes in. And of course, his spitting is nothing like rolling dust along a dry small town street.

"First thing I see, he sticks his tongue out. Now I tell you, boys, that was the biggest tongue I ever did see on anybody. He sticks it straight out, flat like, and then he curls it up from the sides to make a sort of tube. That tube is a good four inches out beyond the end of his stubby little nose. I see him take a breath. Big chest on the little fella... He goes whih-THOO! And something goes bang across the street..."

There’s a hole in the plate glass front of Winkelhauer's Merchandise Mart. The crowd roars, and some are suspicious. He is checked to make sure there is no foreign object in his mouth, and when none is found, a second round commences. This time Woolmutt hits the wall just below the store window. The third and final round ends with Woolmutt hitting one of the pine blocks used to mark the contestants’ places in the dust, sending it reeling across the street.

The celebration of Woolmutt's amazing talent eventually involves alcohol and he is taken through the streets of Cardon displaying his accuracy and distance, hitting cats, horses and -- almost -- the backside of a lovely young eighteen year old. But a member of the crowd has not imbibed and seems to take more interest in Woolmutt himself than the results of his powerful expectorations. John Chase is on a break from the hospital where he in interning, and he sees something in young Woolmutt that the other’s haven’t noticed…

“The Big Contest” is run-of-the-mill John D MacDonald and run-of-the-mill JDM science fiction, a fairly predictable tale with a surprise ending that will surprise no one, and a style that proves that MacDonald was no Ray Bradbury. The homespun dialogue comes off as overly arch and his evocation of a rose-colored past is told with none of the poetry that Bradbury did effortlessly. MacDonald was the master of a different kind of poetic prose, one that expressed itself in what it didn’t say, in brief sentences and dialogue that allowed the reader’s imagination to take over and fill the void. Of course I have no idea if MacDonald was channeling Bradbury in this story, but he certainly was a fan of the writer, even going so far as to have his first-person character in Dead Low Tide make a direct reference to him.

Judith Merrill liked “The Big Contest,” however, and included it in one of her early anthologies, Human? in 1954.

Several of the authors featured in this first issue of Worlds Beyond got brief biographies on the inside of the front cover, MacDonald included. (Except for the back cover there was no advertising in the magazine.) It is fairly typical of the bio he supplied all of the magazines who requested one during this period.

John D MacDonald, tall, bifocaled, 34, lives winters in Clearwater, Fla,. summers at Piseco Lake, N.Y., with wife and boy, 11. His background of Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration and the wartime O.S.S. has not contributed much to the whodunits, science-fiction and adventure yarns which have enabled him to keep eating since 1946. He can't save money, lay off smoking or stop falling hair. He has a detective novel soon to be published.

That novel was his first, The Brass Cupcake, which had already hit the stands in October.

The magazine itself was not so lucky. According to Michael Ashley in his 2005 study of science fiction magazines in the middle part of the last century (Transformations: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970), Worlds Beyond was a victim of its publisher’s “fickleness”. Ten days after the first issue was published Hillman Periodicals decided to kill the title, and although Knight had prepared two subsequent issues and those issues were published, they “received hardly any backing or distribution.” Ashley concludes that “...There is no doubt that had Knight been allowed to continue he would have had much to contribute to the development of science fiction in the early fifties. The saving grace is that he became one of the best writers and critics of sf during the fifties and returned to editing, with considerable effect, in the sixties.”

“The Big Contest” also appears in MacDonald’s own science fiction anthology, Other Times, Other Worlds, which is out of print and still not available as an eBook. Write your congressman!

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Chronology of the Travis McGee Novels

My introduction to the works of John D MacDonald occurred back in the early 1970’s when a friend of mine insisted that I read a book he had just finished and found enthralling. It was April Evil and it began for me a long love affair with the author’s writing. I was aware that MacDonald had a series character with at least fifteen titles and decided to tackle them next. I read them in the order they had been published, and when I finished I started on the “stand alone” novels, beginning at the beginning and carefully obeying the proper publication order (which was not easy then) until I had finished the appropriately titled The Last One Left. I’m that kind of reader and I suspect there are many of you out there who are similarly afflicted.

But just as my presumed order of the stand alone novels was probably in error, so too was my reading of the Travis McGee books, at least in relation to the world and timelines established within the works themselves. We readers presume that McGee’s adventures in, say,  Mexico (Gold) took place before his dangerous stay in Naples (Orange) because Gold was published before Orange. But that is not necessarily the case. Peppered throughout all of the McGee books are dates and clues in the form of references to other events that date these adventures within their own little world. And, in the early novels at least, the chronology is much different than the publication order. It took the painstaking work of a Travis McGee fan named Allan D Pratt to get it all right and place the stories in their proper order. Using identifiable dates used in the books and references to various characters and real-world events, Pratt put together a new chronology, complete with the timelines within each novel, placing them in a new and unique context. He published his work in the Spring 1980 issue of The Armchair Detective and called it “The Chronology of the Travis McGee Novels.”

Pratt presumed that it was quite likely that MacDonald had his own chronology, constructed “to avoid trapping himself in contradictions,” and that does seem quite likely. But since the author never revealed this working aid and, in fact, never mentioned having invented one, it fell on Pratt to go through each of the novels and, using all of the calendars from the 1940’s through 1980, specifically date each of them, not only when they took place but when each one began and ended. His one assumption in the dating of these books was that the action in any of them could not have begun after the novel’s actual copyright date. Only a handful of them end in a year following the copyright.

He begins at the beginning, and in fact Blue is indeed the beginning, but the date is a bit of a surprise. On page 56 of the paperback original McGee calls a Mrs. William Callowell looking for a pilot who flew with Cathy Kerr’s father in World War II. Thinking he is looking for her husband (who died recently) he is told that the pilot he is looking for is in fact her son, who is out of town at the moment. She tells McGee “... he will be at the convention in New York City through Tuesday the ninth.” The very next page in the book informs the reader of the specific month of the year with a classic JDM sentence: “Manhattan in August is a replay of the Great Plague of London.” So it’s August ninth. A check of the calendar reveals four possible matches: 1949, 1955, 1960 and 1966. The first year is way too early and the last violates Pratt’s copyright rule, leaving 1955 and 1960 as the two possibilities. He eliminates 1955 based on an extensive reconstruction of McGee’s life between the Korean War and Blue (he would have been in college in 1955) leaving 1960 as the year Blue takes place.

But when exactly in 1960 and how long did the action of the novel take? Here’s Pratt, giving you an idea of the amount of detail he studied to come to his conclusions:

The call to Mrs. Callowell was made on August third (p. 56), which was the day after McGee returned with Lois Atkinson to find “nine days of mail” (p. 49). Counting back from August second (Tuesday), nine mail-delivery days brings us to Saturday, July 23. This in turn leads to some uncertainty regarding the actual starting date of the story. The adventure begins some unspecified evening, with Chookie McCall working on dance routines on the Busted Flush. The next evening McGee goes to the nightclub to see Chookie’s friend Cathy. This cannot be a Monday, as the club is closed Mondays (p.23). the next day he goes with Cathy to visit her sister, and the same day begins his ministrations of Lois. If this day is assumed to be Saturday, July 23, per the “nine-days-of mail” calculation, Chookie must have been to visit him on Thursday, July 21. However, the visit takes place during what would be performance hours at the club, as it is unlikely that there would be no show on a Thursday night. The only night which Chookie would have been free to visit McGee would be the Monday of that week, July 18. Blue ends “On the late November day when I left…” Candle Key after spending from late September to November with Cathy (pp. 140, 143).

And you probably thought Blue took place in 1964…

Although Nightmare in Pink was published the same month as The Deep Blue Good-By, Pratt firmly establishes the fact that the action in the novel takes place several years after that of the first adventure. The reader is informed on page six that Nina Gibson’s fiance was murdered  on “Saturday, August tenth.” This date falls in 1957, 1963, 1968 and 1974. The last two violate the copyright rule and 1957 is eliminated for a couple of reasons. One, Pratt surmises that use of hallucinogenic drugs in the story strongly suggests 1963 over 1957, as “knowledge of such drugs [in 1957] was fairly uncommon, and the use of them in a story would have been unclear to many readers.” Subsequent revelations about the CIA’s experimentation with the drug as a possible mind-controlling agent during the 1950’s put this theory in some doubt now, but it is impossible to know if MacDonald was aware of this in 1964. I’ve always felt that Pink read like an older novel than Blue, so I wouldn’t be adverse to placing it in 1957 except for Pratt’s other reasoning: it conflicts with McGee’s biography (as surmised by Pratt) that in October of 1957 McGee would be a rookie on a never-named professional football team.

Another entry that falls way out of the publication chronology is Orange. Although published in 1965, Pratt “firmly” places the action of the book in 1962. The fifteenth chapter begins with “On Thursday at high noon, on the last and most beautiful day of May…” which produces candidates in 1951 (way too early), 1955 (conflict: McGee was in college), 1962 and 1973 (copyright rule). This leaves 1962 as the only possible candidate.

Gold also falls in a different order, based mainly on “internal evidence” that places the action in 1963. Without any specific dates being linked to specific days of the week, Pratt uses McGee’s conversation with Cuban expatriate Raoul Tenero and his involvement with the Bay of Pigs invasion to eliminate some years and focus on others. At one point McGee remarks that bad guy Carlos Menterez y Cruzada fled Cuba “nearly five years ago” and Betty Borlika’s contention that he was “very close to Batista” allows one to use Castro’s ascension to power in January 1959 as a starting point. This leaves 1963, as it is highly unlikely that anyone “close to Batista” would have wanted to hang around the island, especially one with the collection Menterez y Cruzada owned.

It is the first seven novels in the McGee series that fall wildly outside of their publication dates, and from Yellow on the action in them pretty much match the years the books came out. Three of the early novels -- Purple, Red and Amber -- have questionable dating, since there is a lack of focus points, but Pratt uses other means to attempt to date them. Purple takes place in late 1961, as the action spans from October to January, and assuming that Purple does not predate Blue, it leaves only one year without conflicts from other novels: 1961. The same problem occurs with Red. It begins in February and ends in March, but what year? Again, eliminating years that conflict with other books, Pratt concludes that the action takes place in early 1961. Finally, Amber lacks specific day-date references, although it does specify the month it begins (June) and the month it ends (July). Eliminating conflicts, it could take place in either 1964 or 1965. Pratt chooses 1965.

The later books all contain dates that are easily identifiable, closely matching their publication dates, but several contain internal errors that Pratt attempts to rectify, mainly by way of a character (McGee or otherwise) making a mistake in recollecting past incidents. There is only one error Pratt identifies as being “irreconcilable,” and that is found in Turquoise. He begins by concluding that Howie and Pidge Brindle left on their honeymoon cruise from Bahia Mar in November 1972. But this date conflicts directly with the previous novel, The Scarlet Ruse, where during this month McGee was in Candle Key with Cathy Kerr recuperating from his nearly fatal injuries sustained in that book. There seems no way of explaining this away by any other means than Pratt’s assertion that MacDonald “slipped up.”

It’s not surprising to me that the early novels fall all over the map chronologically. Anyone familiar with the creation of the character of Travis McGee knows that the series began with a couple of discarded attempts at Blue, a major problem with Red and earlier novels beginning out of their published order. Red was actually the third McGee attempted, but it fell apart and he had to come back to it later. Also, Gold was written before Purple, but published afterward. (See “The Difficult Birth of Travis McGee” for the full story.) So here is Pratt’s new chronology, and it’s one that works well for me, with the possible exception of Pink, which I believe could predate Blue, but not enough to quibble with the excellent research done for this article. The next time I tackle the canon (which I do every couple of years) I think I’ll do it in the following order. Recall that this article was written in 1980, so the chronology only goes up through Green.

The Deep Blue Good-By
1960 (July 24 thru November)
The Quick Red Fox
1961 (February thru March)
A Purple Place for Dying
1961 (October thru January 1962)
Bright Orange for the Shroud
1962 (May 15 thru July 5)
A Deadly Shade of Gold
1963 (February thru July)
Nightmare in Pink
1963 (October thru April 1964)
Darker Than Amber
1965 (June thru July)
One Fearful Yellow Eye
1966 (December 8 thru April 1, 1967)
Pale Gray for Guilt
1967 (October thru February 14, 1968)
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper
1968 (October 7 thru January 1969)
Dress Her in Indigo
1969 (August thru September)
The Long Lavender Look
1970 (April 23 thru May)
A Tan and Sandy Silence
1971 (April 14 thru May)
The Scarlet Ruse
1972 (September 19 thru January 1973)
The Turquoise Lament
1973 (December thru January 1974)
The Dreadful Lemon Sky
1974 (May 15 thru June 15)
The Empty Copper Sea
1977 (May 17 thru July)
The Green Ripper
1978 (December 7 thru June 1979)