Monday, May 25, 2020

The Six Green Grand

The following article appeared in the August 1, 1965 edition of the Miami Herald, under the title "The Six Green Grand". John D MacDonald was still living on Point Crisp Road, Maynard was still called John, and Bright Orange for the Shroud was a month away from hitting the stands.

It's fairly straightforward as MacDonald articles go, but at the end there is a mention of The Blood Game, the novel he spent years working on and was ready to publish until... he didn't. I've never been able to find a reason why this work was mothballed, and done so at the last minute after the publishers has produced working galleys. The setting for the novels was the world of banking, and much changed in that industry in the 1960's, perhaps to the point where it made certain plot points untenable. Just a guess. Those galleys still sit, gathering dust in the John D MacDonald Collection at the University of Florida. Perhaps one day some enterprising publisher will take the initiative and bring out a "new" John D MacDonald novel.


The Six Green Grand
By Larry Devine

BY 1 p.m., the sun is beating down hard on the side street in Sarasota and the old Plaza Spanish Restaurant has its Venetian blinds closed.

From his manager's table just inside the front door, little Benny Alvarez bends down a slat with a crooked finger and peers out. The rest of his Friday regulars are already inside, but MacKinlay Kantor and John D. MacDonald are missing.

Kantor comes in a striped shirt and some pants that are too big for him since he lost all that weight. Kantor wrote his Pulitzer-winning Andersonville here and has lived here for 30 years. He is grousing about the increased traffic lately.

Now only MacDonald is missing, the prodigious selling author of 48 mystery novels, whose latest success is the brittle Travis McGee series. "Mac can't get here today," says Kantor. "He's down with one of those migraines he gets every three or four months. He called and said those horse-pills he takes for them has him a little groggy."

The group of authors moves into the back dining room. They have been gathering every Friday for the past 15 years at Benny Alvarez's restaurant. Everybody knows enough by this time to leave them alone and they sit around drinks and lunch until 3:30 and talk about anything else but writing. There is Joseph Hayes in a white short-sleeved shirt, the author of The Desperate Hours ... Ted Woltman, another Pulitzer winner for his 1947 series in the New York World Telegram on communism . . . Dick Glendinning, who is writing young people's books lately. Back in the high-ceilinged dining room with the drab green-and-cream wallpaper, they leave a chair because maybe MacDonald will show up after all. He never does, but he is talked of as a good friend.

About MacDonald's work, crusty Mac Kantor said "Sure, sure he's a good writer. I just wish to heaven he'd get off these books about those little girls with bikinis and sand on their legs, and write something serious like he could ..."

Next day, his migraine gone, the man a publisher's flack once dubbed “the best-selling unknown in America" is back behind his typewriter.

"Mac Kantor," he says resignedly, "has been saying that same thing for 15 years. He is not the only one.

"But I write now exactly what I feel like saying. I'm doing what I can do as well as I can do it. I don't do it with my tongue in cheek. I don't think there is anything reprehensible in entertaining people. I have my own vision of reality. I can express my individual reactions in the kind of book I write as well as I could in a more pretentious work.

"In doing this, I am certainly avoiding more profitable areas of fiction. I don't need to write 'the big book,' however." The "big book" kind of writing is what MacDonald calls “the Irvings"
- Irving Wallace, "Irving" Robbins,"Irving" Ruark — "and that woman, Ayn Rand." He shudders a little.

MacDonald for years has been many a mystery-story connoisseur's pet. He has been pouring them out since 1945. The latest count is more than 500 short stories and 48 books. Three more books are in the works now. His books carry what New York Times critic Anthony Boucher described as "a sense of sweet warm horror." More than that, however, a MacDonald book is marked with his own particular psychological insight, unstinting sex analysis, and recurring strong statements of his own philosophy about things he considers criminal in a way: housing developments, conventioneers, TV dinners, Miami Beach hotels, installment buying, and litterbugs.

Early last year, John Dann MacDonald wrote a book about a tall, tanned "reject from a structured society" named Travis McGee who lives on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale and engages in extra-legal sorties against crime for a living. MacDonald called the first of what he hoped would be a long series of McGee books The Deep Blue Good-By. It sold out its first printing within weeks and Travis McGee and MacDonald were on their way.

MacDonald is unknown no longer. "That hokey business about 'best selling unknown' was just something Simon and Schuster made up anyway," he snorted. McGee has sold over three million copies since last year in five books, the sixth is on its way. All the titles are colorful: Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, The Quick Red Fox.

"I can keep going until I run out of colors," MacDonald says with a grin. "I have yet to investigate the criminal possibilities of fuschia, puce or heliotrope."

HIS McGee lives on a 52-foot, barge-type houseboat called The Busted Flush. "McGee won it on a bare-faced bluff with two deuces in a stud poker game in Palm Beach. He docks it at slip F-18 at Bahia Mar in Fort Lauderdale.

McGee is what MacDonald wryly calls "a salvage expert."

"If X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back and you keep half. Is that it?" one of McGee's inevitable sun-tanned girls asks him in The Deep Blue Good-By. "It's a simplification," McGee drawls dryly, "but reasonably accurate... I am sort of a last resort."

McGee is a maverick, wary of plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits. savings accounts, trading stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages. miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, political parties, lending libraries, television, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny.

But he is a Lochinvar of sorts, on the comfy big houseboat with the pale blue four-by-seven foot sunken bathtub. He has yet to fail in his "salvage work." He does not always take his 50 per cent cut, because he is a sucker for a pretty girl who is sad about something or needs the cash herself.

McGee does not like cookouts, funny chef aprons, slacks on fat female picnickers, or meat burned on the outside and red in the middle. He does not think a big cigar is a sign of masculinity or success.

MacDonald never lets him get too overcome with philosophizing to bypass an opportunity to knock a few heads together (he weighs 212) and get back the rubies, gold idols, incriminating pictures or whatever the current "salvage" calls for.

The inescapable feeling, of course, is that McGee is an extension of MacDonald.

"No. Travis over-simplifies. He is less tolerant than I am. He is more inclined to see things in black and white than in shades of gray like I do. He wants some kind of security, but he's unwilling to pay the price. So he makes like he really doesn't want it."

McGee drives an incredible car. It is a 1936 Rolls-Royce, cut down by some former owner who made a pick-up truck out of it. It is weird blue, the color of McGee's old school teacher's hair.

MacDonald himself drives no such picturesque vehicle. A British Land Rover is parked outside on the road, but it is his 26-year-old son John's. Many authors write as if a man's car is a clue to his character. MacDonald's auto is a Ford station wagon, colorful enough in an outdoors way. It has heavy-duty springs and heavy duty shock absorbers, a giant, extra-cost 420-horsepower Thunderbird engine "and a couple of little gizmos on the carburetors."

The rush to buy Travis McGee does not impress MacDonald too much. "When I was poor as a church mouse, Universal one day suddenly paid $15,000 for a book of mine called Cry Hard, Cry Fast. A terrible title, they made it up, not me. There are enough of my books going at any one time to give me a little bit of a cushion. I know, somewhere, somehow, a little bit of dough will be coming in."

He treats very cautiously an offer from a screenwriter to collaborate on a movie of McGee. "I'd want a five-million dollar budget and my own choice of star. I'd like Jack Lord for McGee. His face sort of looks lived-in." But MacDonald is in no hurry to crack the silver screen again. He did it once before with his novel Cape Fear for Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. "Eventually Travis will have enough clout and then somebody'll come along and pick him up."

MacDonald writes his tremendous outrush of fiction in a big board and glass house out on Sarasota's Siesta Key. From the wide windows by his desk, there is a view of Little Sarasota Bay lapping up at the rough road outside his door on Point Crisp Rd. He writes on a big gray electric typewriter with bright blue keys that he leases from IBM for $200 a year. He writes so fast and so much that he wears out a ribbon in two days.

He writes and re-writes endlessly. A 70,000-word story will get up to 140,000 words before he is satisfied. "I write by throwing away," he said.

MacDonald is tall and his wavy hair is white. It has been that way, his friends say, ever since he first settled down in Sarasota 15 years ago. A long scar from birth digs through his forehead from hairline to left eyebrow. He is a voluble and cultivated man who has known few slim days since he gave himself over to the tenuous business of writing for a living.

Born in Sharon, Pa., the writer went to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and picked up a master's degree from Harvard's graduate school of business administration. He was married to Dorothy Prentiss in 1938 and still is.

Dorothy P. MacDonald, a talented artist, in 1945 sold a story her husband had sent from an Army post in Ceylon. MacDonald came home -- an O.S.S. light colonel - and worked three months in a business research bureau in Utica, N.Y. One day he chucked it to start writing full time and he has never gone to the office since.

"And I never regretted it a damn bit," he said about passing up the business world with his Harvard M.A. After the Army, I'd had it up to here with people telling me what to do. Most people who tell you what to do are idiots anyway. And by the end of 1946, I'd made about six grand."

HE now has had his books translated into 14 languages and has sold more than 25 million of them. He has an agent named Max Wilkinson he is making money for and a talented editor in New York, Knox Burger, who likes him and comes down to go fishing with MacDonald out in the Gulf.

Out there, at the end of the road beside Little Sarasota Bay, the creator of Travis McGee, the sensitive, sun-tanned worldly man, lights his pipe from a bowlful of kitchen matches and heads back for the gray IBM with the bright blue keys. He has work to do. He is half-way through the next McGee book, a quarter of the way through the next one after that and part way into a long novel called The Blood Game.

His credentials are impressive, but he discounts them. "I just get a great deal of pleasure out of saying things the way I want to say them."


Monday, May 4, 2020

Travis McGee Really is John D


In September of 1981 John D MacDonald, along with his wife Dorothy and paperback editor Leona Nevler, attended the Pacific Coast Independent Magazine Wholesalers Association convention, held that year in Honolulu. MacDonald attended these sorts of events because he had to, as most successful authors did, as it was typically part of the contracts drawn up between publishers and writers. This meant that JDM would have to sit for interviews, answering the same questions he was always asked by reporters who may or may not have had any familiarity with his work. Lois Taylor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin seems to have been in the know, or at least retained much of the pre-interview material supplied to her by Fawcett, but there is little here that is new outside of a few minor quotes.

When MacDonald talks about his two failed attempts at creating Travis McGee he characterized the second attempt as "too Shell Scott-y," a reference to the popular series character created by Richard Prather, an author JDM never failed to denigrate when speaking of the McGee origin story, mainly because of the author's politics. And toward the end of the interview he confirms something I had always wondered about: he asserts that he did no writing while on any of his many ocean cruises. This would certainly account for the drop-off in output toward the end of his career.

This article appeared in the newspaper's September 18, 1981 issue and is transcribed in its entirety below, including quotes from some of the novels. It carried the headline, "Travis McGee Really is John D.," something I'm sure JDM would have chafed at if he ever saw this piece.

By Lois Taylor... Star-Bulletin Writer

It was hot under the screened ceiling of the outdoor Sheraton-Waikiki coffee shop, and hotter still as the sun moved over the people eating breakfast there. Almost unnoticed, a waiter pulled a sunproof tarp across the area to shade it. "In Japan," said John D. MacDonald, "they'd have a heat-and-light sensitive mechanism that would automatically provide shade when it gets hot enough."

His editor, Leona Nevler of Fawcett Books, looked properly impressed by this random fact, but his wife, Dorothy, just smiled. The man whose Travis McGee adventure series has had more than 21 million copies in circulation has what he calls "a dustbin memory."

"I read, I listen," he explained. "A cab driver told me yesterday that if you are going to buy a Winnebago motor home, buy it in Canada. They're built to be better insulated for the cold weather there, and that means they're better insulated for hot weather, too. I'll take what he said as gospel -- I don’t have to prove it, and I'll drop it in somewhere."

Tequila anejo commemorativo is one of the world's more pleasant drinks. The anejo -- the "j" is pronounced like a guttural cough --means old. The commemorativo means a very special distillation. It is drunk straight, pale amber in color, strong, smooth and clean.
Dress Her in Indigo, 1969. 

MacDonald is in town as a guest of the convention of the Pacific Coast Independent Magazine Wholesalers Association, who are appropriately grateful for the tremendous sales of his paperbacks. Over a waffle, he talked about Travis McGee, a man who has come to mean a lot to MacDonald since he invented him in 1963.

A Master of Business Administration from Harvard, MacDonald might be up to his black knit tie in corporate problems instead of spending part of every year cruising around the world with his wife and the rest of the year in the job he enjoys most -- writing. He has written more than 70 books but it is the 19 published Travis McGee novels that have allowed him to do this.

“Travis is an amalgamation I arrived at very slowly," MacDonald said. "He really wasn't in shape until I wrote the third book, so I scrapped the first two. The third and two more were published in one month of 1964 with another one coming out four months later.

“I threw the first two out because I couldn't have lived with the series as they were written. The character was different -- heavy, solemn, Germanic -- in the first book, and then the second went too far the other way, too Shell Scott-y, filled with quips and pranks. In the third, he settled down to someone I could live with."

I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary… of plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, television, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny.
The Deep Blue Good-by, 1964. 

As originally written before publication, the hero of the series was Dallas McGee. But in November of 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and MacDonald's publishers insisted that Dallas was no name for a hero. So MacDonald looked through names of military camps and came up with an Air Force base northeast of San Francisco. "Travis sounded enough like Dallas. Since then, in traveling around the country, I've met a whole bunch of little boys named Travis."

The next decision for MacDonald and his publishers was to find a theme for the titles of the series. "We sat around and we talked about how you name a series. We thought of musical terminology. You want to keep people from buying the same book twice, something that annoys them."

They settled on color coding -- The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying -- and eventually 16 more. The latest, Free Fall in Crimson, has been a best-seller in hardback and will be available in paperback in December. One million copies are being printed by Fawcett. In the works, half-finished, is Cinnamon Skin. “Now nobody can keep the colors straight because there are so many," MacDonald said.

MacDonald's legion of fans know Travis McGee as a sort of a Florida samurai who calls himself a "salvage consultant," locating money and property that often weren't acquired legally in the first place and righting wrongs with a fair amount of violence and sex. He lives aboard The Busted Flush, a houseboat he won in a poker game, at Bahia Mar at Fort Lauderdale.

We had something together once, Carrie Milligan and I, but it was long gone. She came to me now looking years older and used and very scared. She had a lot of money with her. Over $100,000. She wanted me to keep it safe, and no questions please -- for old times sake.
The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974.

For land transportation McGee drives Miss Agnes, an electric blue Rolls-Royce converted into a pickup truck. His Dr. Watson is a portly economist called Meyer, which is either his first or last name, who lives aboard the neighboring John Maynard Keynes.

Meyer's role, MacDonald explained, is made necessary because of the first-person concept of the series. “Everything has to be described through the eyes of McGee, only how he sees it. It's a restricting form. Without Meyer, there would be too much interior monologue.

"There has to be a vehicle of getting information to the reader, and Meyer's conversations with McGee serve to do this. It's clearer and more entertaining than long paragraphs of what goes on in Travis' head." He added that Meyer also serves as McGee's conscience.

"A guy at the University of Alabama, an expert on computer testing, asked me to take the MMPI (Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality Inventory). I answered 540 questions as I would, as Meyer would and as McGee would. His findings were that McGee is my good side, who I'd like to be. McGee is violent, almost but not quite psychopathic, with a touch of paranoia -- much more suspicious. He won't publish this without my permission."

Is Travis aging, slowing down as the years pass? "Sure he's aging," MacDonald answered, “but at one. third the rate you are."

I needed a slob summer. The machine was abused. Softness at the waist. Tremor of the hands...A heaviness of muscle and bone, a tendency to sigh. Each time you wonder: Can you get it back again?
Bright Orange for the Shroud, 1965. 

Asked about the possibility of making a television series based on the Travis McGee novels, MacDonald said, "I have an arrangement with Warner Communications -- I think they're misnamed because I haven't been in communication with them. Warner bought the rights (to a McGee series) on a reverting basis. If they don't do anything with it in a certain amount of time, I get it back. They've written a two-hour pilot with one-hour shows to follow, but then the writers' strike came along and I don't know what has happened to it since.

"I don't know a diddley about making movies, they don't know anything about writing books. Nothing is more ridiculous than a writer trying to interfere with movie making. Look at (Joseph) Wambaugh. He made a lot of money on the books he wrote and it all went out when he tried to make a movie."

Dorothy MacDonald added. “We thought that Jack Lord would have been a perfect McGee."

"But this was before he was in the 5-0 series," MacDonald said, “and he wasn't considered bankable -- they couldn't borrow money to go ahead. I thought that was a dumb thing.

"Lord really isn't McGarrett, he's a totally different man. McGarrett is a humorless guy and Lord isn't. Jack has his first officer's papers, is very boat-oriented. We were disappointed, and so was Jack, but then 5-0 opened up."

MacDonald said that he doesn't watch much television, but he's a reader. “I read my betters. Vonnegut I like very, very, very much. One of the best we've got, though he keeps wasting himself, is Norman Mailer. I like Cheever, and Updike. For suspense, Ross Thomas and Robert Parker.

"I once wrote Ross MacDonald that as long as there is some confusion about our names -- people buy his books thinking they're mine and buy mine thinking they're his, it's a handy thing we both can write. He took it in a kindly way.

"Everybody lives as well as he can, and every writer writes as well as he can. Comparisons are invidious. I have great admiration for Dashiell Hammett, but if you want to drive a college writing class crazy, ask them to outline Hammett's plots. They're nonsense, but he had great persuasive force."

MacDonald paused. "A lot of mine would sound like nonsense if you outlined them."

They weren't ordinary stamps, no indeed, they were rare stamps. $400,000 worth. Even so, McGee was not all that turned on until a generously endowed amazon named Mary Alice McDermit made her grand entrance. She was a 6 foot knockout who knew a helluva lot about rare stamps and the ways of a boat bum's vulnerable heart. Back-cover blurb.
The Scarlet Ruse, 1973. 

He said that he was less than satisfied with a recent Travis McGee book, The Green Ripper. "It was a deviation from the pattern, and it was not really successful. It was not as solid a book as the others. It is hard to sustain a given quality over such an extensive thing -- when I finish this one, the 20th McGee book, it will be one-and-a-half-million words.

"Time passes, one is not unchanging day to day, month to month. I was a little afraid of whether I could sustain the life of the series within the existing pattern, so I went outside the pattern in The Green Ripper." (The book, more violent than most of the series, is an assault on the religious cult movement. McGee, rather than working out a subtle plan to overcome the group, simply goes in and wipes them out.)

"There are enough easy targets around, so that religious cults are no more reprehensible than the U.S. Senate is reprehensible. What's reprehensible? Taking so much money from the inner cities. What is to replace it? I wonder if they know what they're doing.

"We are on our third or fourth generation of welfare people. Right or wrong, you've led people to expect it. What have they done, they will ask, to deserve that it be taken away? I see a lot of inner-city violence in the next year, in May, June and July -- the restless hot weather."

New York is where it is going to begin. I think...one day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. They will stop and stare and then leap at each others' throats in a dreadful silence. The infection will spread outward from that point.
Nightmare in Pink, 1964 

In the meantime, MacDonald will have finished not only Cinnamon Skin, but a non-fiction book on the final cruise of the Mariposa, the last long trip of the last American passenger ship. It is titled Nothing Can Go Wrong, and is written with the ship's captain.

"Dorothy and I were on that last cruise and the captain said to me, ‘You ought to write a book about this.' He had done 16 tapes about the trip, so I told him, 'You do it.’” MacDonald said. The result was a compromise by which Harper Row, the publishers, will print MacDonald's comments in one typeface and the captain's in another. Fawcett will bring the book out in paperback next year.

The MacDonalds live on an island off Florida's Gulf Coast near Sarasota, and spend several months a year at their camp in the Adirondacks. At either place, he spends eight to 10 hours a day at his typewriter while working on a book, a process that takes about four months. He talks about retiring, but not much.

“I'm taking my retirement in chunks," he concluded. “I like the ship thing. Dorothy and I are going around the world in the fall on the Royal Viking Sea. No one can get hold of you without an extraordinary amount of effort, and I have found that I can't work at sea. That's a vacation."

It was named Odalisque II, and it was the splendid playtoy of Lady Vivian Stanley Tucker of St. Kitts. It was a 53-foot Magnum Maltese Flybridge cruiser...paneling, radar, recording fathometer, ice-maker, tub and shower, huge master stateroom...Lady Vivian and I had been out for about two weeks. provisions were running low, and soon we would have to decide whether to put into Nassau or run on over to Miami.
The Green Ripper, 1979.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Author Speaks

A transcription of an article published in the January 2, 1967 issue of Publisher's Weekly, reprinted in an anthology compiled in 1978 titled The Author Speaks: Selected PW Interviews, 1967-1976.

A TELEPHONE CALL caught John D. MacDonald, who has to be near the top of practically anyone's list of the best contemporary American writers in the mystery-suspense genre, in New York en route from Freehold, N.J., to upstate New York and thence to Florida. Mr. MacDonald was headed upstate to spend Christmas with relatives after having covered the murder trial of Dr. Carl A. Coppolino in Freehold (verdict: acquittal) and to rest up before covering the Coppolino murder trial in Florida, now scheduled to start in February.

Mr. MacDonald, needless to say, is at work on a book, maybe two books-about the Coppolino affair, which, to put it mildly, has incited the moral fervor for which Mr. MacDonald is well known by his fans. The job may require two books, Mr. MacDonald told PW, because the New Jersey and the Florida cases are quite different: different victims, different courtrooms, different casts of characters, and so on. Whether two Coppolino books by Mr. MacDonald are viable commercially is a matter still to be resolved. Publication plans are still up in the air, Mr. MacDonald indicated, but publication will be probably by Doubleday in hardcover, Fawcett in paperback. The working title for one or both books is No Deadly Medicine, an illusion to the Hippocratic Oath, which Dr. Coppolino may or may not have violated. Also still to be resolved is which will come first: hardcover or paperback publication. One thing certain, however, is that Mr. MacDonald will be in court when Dr. Coppolino's trial begins in Florida: perhaps in Sarasota, where the action was originally brought; perhaps in another part of the state, if the defense is successful in its effort to gain a change of venue. Mr. MacDonald said he rather hoped that the debate on change of venue would take a while, giving him a chance to finish the New Jersey part of his book(s) about the case.

"Even if I never publish a word about the Coppolino case -- and that's not likely -- just being associated with it as a spectator has given me ideas for at least two novels about the dilemma between personal and professional decisions: if you do one thing, you harm yourself; if you do another thing, you harm your best friend." It's the kind of theme which Mr. MacDonald has been working on for a long time.

Meanwhile, he reported, announcement is imminent on a movie deal involving his hot-selling Travis McGee detective series, published by Fawcett. A television project is in the works for one of his earlier novels, The Crossroads, which Fawcett will reissue. One of the few full-time novelists with a graduate degree from the Harvard Business School, Mr. MacDonald these days is rarely unoccupied.

By Roger H. Smith. From Publishers Weekly 191, no. 1 (January 2, 1967), p. 21.



Monday, March 30, 2020

"Night Ride" and Interview

Black Mask Magazine, the storied detective pulp of the last century, began publication in 1920, created by H.L. Menken and George Jean Nathan for publisher Pro Distributors. After a period of great and growing success in the 1920’s and early 30’s, circulation began to decline and the title was sold -- in 1940 -- to Popular Publications, joining other great crime titles there such as Dime Detective and Detective Tales. Black Mask’s final issue was published in July 1951. John D MacDonald, whose first attempts at fiction were published in 1946, had seven stories in its pages.

In 1985 Matthew J Bruccoli and Richard Layman revived the title, and began publishing The New Black Mask as a quarterly trade paperback. It was a mix of (mostly) new short stories by contemporary authors, along with some classic reprints, but it lasted only until 1987 (eight issues) when some kind of trouble over the use of the magazine’s name caused the editors to end the endeavor. Issue Eight contained a “new” John D MacDonald story.

MacDonald had, of course, passed away in December of the previous year, but this issue had obviously been put together many months prior to his fateful trip to Milwaukee. The story JDM provided, “Night Ride,” was, the author explained in an introductory paragraph, an old one written “twenty-four years ago” (1962) and had never been finished or submitted.

“I came upon it last year when I was grubbing around in the old files, looking for something else. I wondered why it had not been published. I cannot remember who thought it needed more work, my agent or I. I suspect that some other project got in the way and it fell through the cracks. So, I gave it a quick polish and sent it in, pleased to find it was not dated."

The story is a good one, concerning a down-on-his-luck man who accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian while he is driving home from a losing late night poker game. The only real problem, apparently unknown to all concerned, was that the story HAD been published before. Walter Shine, in his regular column in the JDM Bibliophile, revealed that it was, in fact, a reprint of MacDonald’s excellent “In a Small Motel,” which appeared in the July 1955 issue of Justice, a crime digest of the era. For years I took this as gospel and, because it was only a reprint, never bothered to hunt down a copy of The New Black Mask.

Now I have, and I can corroborate Walter’s assertion that the story was published before its appearance in The New Black Mask, but it is not “In a Small Motel,” it’s one titled “Scared Money,” which also appeared in Justice, in the October 1955 issue. He got the magazine right but not the story title, which compounds MacDonald’s own error as to both the prior-publication and the date he wrote the story. Also, note that JDM writes that he “polished” the story for its new publication, much as he did for the Good Old Stuff stories. Happily I can report that the changes are minimal.

This was not the only time MacDonald pulled out a story from his files that he thought hadn’t been published and submitted it for publication. In the very same issue of the JDM Bibliophile where Walter Shine called out “Night Ride,” editor Ed Hirshberg published a short story MacDonald had given him for the fanzine a week before he left for Milwaukee. Hirshberg quoted MacDonald as telling him, “Here’s one that was never accepted, but it isn’t too bad and you might as well use it in The Thing. [JDM’s appellation for the JDMB.] There are more in my files, and I will let you have these as time goes on, when the need for copy arises.” This one was titled “The Killer,” and it should have been obvious to everyone involved, since it had been published under that very title in the January 1955 issue of Manhunt. There must have been something askew with JDM’s 1955 sales to crime digests.

Along with the submission of “Night Ride,” MacDonald agreed to a short interview for The New Black Mask. By this time in his life most of the interviews JDM agreed to do were by mail only, answering a set of pre-written questions submitted by the interviewer, and he only answered the questions he felt like addressing. Without the give and take of an actual conversation MacDonald often comes across as impatient, condescending and, at times, outright angry. This interview has such moments, and I’ve transcribed it below.

John D. MacDonald: An Interview

John D. MacDonald was born in Pennsylvania and attended the University of Pennsylvania, Syracuse University, and Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. He served six years in the army in World War II. He is married and has one son and five grandchildren residing in New Zealand. Since he began writing in 1946 and has published seventy-five books and over six hundred short stories, novelettes, and articles. His work has been translated into sixteen languages, and his books have sold over ninety million copies worldwide.

New Black Mask: You began your writing career producing stories for the pulps, a large writers' market that no longer exists. How important was your pulp-writing apprenticeship, and how has the demise of the pulps affected genre fiction—especially the mystery?

John D MacDonald: I began my career writing stories for the pulp magazines as well as the so-called slicks. In the first years-1946 to 1950—I had stories published in American Magazine, Argosy, Collier's, Cosmopolitan, Story Magazine, Liberty, This Week, and the Toronto Star Weekly, in addition to a wide range of pulp magazines. I do not think that the demise of the pulps has affected the quality of today's fiction writing as much as has the demise of those slick-paper magazines, which used so many pieces of fiction each year. In the case of The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, and Liberty alone, a market for seven hundred pieces of fiction a year at quite good rates disappeared seemingly overnight. Thus in the general field of the novel, in all categories, some very clumsy work is being published. There is no training area. The university courses lean so heavily on subjectivity that the prose becomes muddy and pretentious. I am sent many sets of bound galleys in hopes I will make some useful comment for public purposes. I rarely have to read beyond page ten.

NBM: You were trained as a businessman at Harvard and used your business skills to become one of the most successful novelists of your time. To what degree have the instincts and mindset of the businessman affected your fiction?

MacDonald: I can see only a very remote relationship between my formal education and my writing. I have the instincts of the businessman only when I am involved with the problems of everyday life. I am often shocked at the gullibility of some of the members of my peer group when their innocence in investing in tax shelters is revealed in the press. I do not have the mindset of a businessman. Their scope, like that of doctors and lawyers, is for the most part quite narrow.

NBM: There is a trend now, demonstrated by recent novels of Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard, for writers of mysteries to attempt what Parker calls the “Big Book” -- the novel that will transcend the bounds of genre fiction and attract attention as a mainstream work. Are you concerned that because of your success as a mystery novelist your works will be neglected over the long haul and categorized by critics as ephemeral?

MacDonald: I think that trying to puff a small story into a big book is a mistake. Books and short pieces of fiction should be permitted to find their own proper length. My most recent novel, Barrier Island, is not long. Knopf expressed dismay that it was not a thicker book. I did the story the way it felt right to me. Puffing it would have upset the rhythm of it. I must confess to being a little distressed by your patronizing tone in categorizing me as a mystery novelist. We Americans feel more comfortable with categories and filing systems, and butterflies pinned to the board in proper order of species, I guess. I am pleased to write novels of mystery and suspense, of course. But at the risk of boring you, here is a list of my published novels which do not fall into that category: Wine of the Dreamers (1951), The Damned (1952), Ballroom of the Skies (1952), Cancel All Our Vows (1953), All These Condemned (1954), Contrary Pleasure (1954), Cry Hard, Cry Fast (1955), A Man of Affairs (1957), The Deceivers (1958), The Executioners (1958), Clemmie (1958), Please Write for Details (1959), The Crossroads (1959), Slam the Big Door (1960), The End of the Night (1960), A Key to the Suite (1962), A Flash of Green (1962), The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything (1963), I Could Go on Singing (1963), The House Guests (1965), No Deadly Drug (1968), Condominium (1977), Nothing Can Go Wrong (1981), One More Sunday (1984), Barrier Island (June 1986), A Friendship (November 1986).

Insofar as "being neglected over the long haul and categorized by critics as ephemeral," I could not care less. It has been my personal observation that those members of my peer group who get terribly earnest about their literary immortality are the ones least likely to achieve any. And, of course, any writer who pays attention to critics is an ass. I write because I enjoy the hell out of it, and if I couldn't ever sell another word, I would keep right on amusing myself with it.

NBM: You are known as a writer with a social conscience, concerned about environmental issues, corporate greed, economic abuses, immorality on a large scale. Do you consider yourself a social evangelist?

MacDonald: What a dreadful phrase that is: "social evangelist!" I would not invite one of those into my kitchen for a beer. Any intelligent person who is indifferent to the environmental issues, indifferent to the corporate greed which pried unearned billions out of NASA and the defense program, indifferent to a lethargic, self important bureaucracy which spends two dollars on itself out of every five appropriated for social programs, that person is not living in the world. He is not experiencing life. He is as dead upstairs as he soon will be in toto.

NBM: Are you interested in politics as an active participant?

MacDonald: I have supported a few -- a very few -- politicians I respect. But only with donations. I am not a group person. I like to be alone, work alone, so that both blame and praise are undiluted.

NBM: Writers' organizations are in the news lately -- The American Writers Congress and the PEN conference, for example -- largely due to their interest in national and international political matters. As a former president of MWA, do you have any observations on the role of a writers' group and the matters writers' organizations ought to address?

MacDonald: Historically, all autocratic governments oppress writers. The dictator does not want to be told he is wearing no clothes. A lot of very good work has come out of such oppressions. I suppose it is reasonable for organizations of writers to complain as loudly as possible about their fellow writers in the gulags, prisons, and asylums. Sometimes it seems to do some good. But I far prefer the sort of activity the Authors' Guild undertakes when they publish model contracts with publishers and recommend the abolishing of traditional unfair clauses therein. The Screenwriters' Guild has used the strike weapon successfully to pry loose a share of the income from sale of tapes.

NBM: Early in your career, you wrote science fiction. Why did you stop?

MacDonald: I will probably write some more science fiction some day. I will come upon an idea which cannot be expressed as well in another form. Science fiction is particularly useful in making social comment without being dull.

NBM: A turning point in your career was your introduction of Travis McGee, who has now been the protagonist of some twenty novels. Does the time come when, despite your best intentions, you find that you have exhausted a character's possibilities and you become bored with him?

MacDonald: Are you serious? How could I know if a time will come when I will become bored with McGee? I am not bored now.

NBM: You will be seventy in July. Have you contemplated retirement?

MacDonald: I haven't given it a thought. I'd hate to have to pack it in. It's too much fun.


Monday, March 16, 2020

Short Story Update

The June 1946 issue of Doc Savage
The task of compiling a complete and definitive listing of John D MacDonald’s published short stories began back in 1965 when Len and June Moffat published the first issue of the JDM Bibliophile, a single sheet printed on both sides containing MacDonald’s books printed up to that point in time. In the pre-internet age where little if any indexing of pulp magazines existed, this was no small task, but as the JDMB began to circulate, fans, researchers and fellow bibliophiles started contributing information for what would become The JDM Master Checklist. MacDonald himself was contacted and became interested, as he was in the process of renewing the copyrights on these works, and he provided much valuable information from his vast files. Finally, in early 1969, the work was published: a 56-page mimeographed, stapled, stenciled work that contained everything known -- up to that point -- on the works of JDM.

Eleven years later Walter Shine, a retired attorney living in Palm Beach, along with his wife Jean, expanded on the Checklist with their invaluable reference work John D MacDonald: Bibliography Biography, at 209 pages the most comprehensive JDM bibliography ever published and my primary reference for writing this blog. But even that was a work in progress, as there were ten stories that had been purchased by publishers but could not be identified. Throughout the 1980’s we (I myself worked with Walter in hunting down these stories) managed to find a few, such as “Underwater Safari” (Published in the February 1961 issue of Bluebook for Men as "A Dark People Thing"), “Devil Head” (retitled “Three Strikes -- You’re Dead!” for the June 1949 issue of All-Story Detective), “A Good Judge of Men” (Cavalier, March 1953), and, supposedly “That Old Grey Train,” which was said to have appeared in the March 1947 issue of Super Sports, a Columbia title with a very spotty publication history. (More on that later.) In 2015, years after Walter Shine had passed away, I discovered another title, “The Gentle Killer,” which was published in the November 1948 issue of All Sports.

There were also a few entries on the official list that were deemed as questionable, most notably “A Handful of Death”.

It was published in the June 1946 issue of Street and Smith’s Doc Savage, the first of many JDM stories that would appear there. It was included in the Master Checklist, but MacDonald himself could not locate a copy of his original manuscript (which was unusual for him) and he had received no tear sheets from the publisher. More unusual than that, the story was published under one of his “house names,” Peter Reed, a practice usually reserved for the occasion when an author had two or more stories in the same issue of a magazine. There was no other JDM story in the June issue, and it simply made no sense that the author’s very first story published for Street and Smith would appear under a pseudonym. Still, Shine included it in his Bibliography.

I recently re-read the story and am confident enough to state that it does not appear to be a John D MacDonald story. The story takes place in a mid-western Feed and Grain mill and its protagonist -- a Bluebeard by the name of Emil Kranz and who goes by the title Count Emmanuel -- is unlike any other I’ve encountered in JDM’s fiction. Most of the author’s early work had settings in Ceylon or India, or a New York-like city, not in an obscure small town where MacDonald had never visited. Most damning is the style: quite obviously not MacDonald’s, which was characteristic even in his very early stories. I think it’s high time to remove this title from the official list, and I will be doing that with my own version of that list shortly.

That’s one less short story of a count that was, at times, said to be over 600 titles but which, in reality (if you exclude magazine versions of his published novels) comes in short of 400. But it may be replaced by another title, one I can’t at this time verify but which seems like a good candidate for one of those five remaining “missing” stories.

Adventure: April 1953
A while back a copy of the April 1953 issue of Adventure showed up on eBay, claiming to contain a John D MacDonald story titled “The Sinner of the Saints”. This title does not appear in either of the JDM bibliographies and I myself had never heard of it. The seller was asking $65 for the issue, far more that I was willing to spend on a story that may have been nothing more that a reprint of an older story under a new title. Still, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that it could have been a sports story (if “the Saints” of the title was a sports team) and one of those missing stories -- one MacDonald titled “Big League Busher” and was sold to Popular Publications (at that time the publisher of Adventure) in 1951. The issue is still for sale, now priced at $71.50, but I’m still unwilling to pay that kind of money, even to answer a question I’ve been asking for years. Perhaps one day…

Finally, back to “That Old Grey Train”. It was one of the original ten, but soon after the Bibliography was published Shine claimed that it has been located in the March 1947 issue of Super Sports. There is a file for it in the JDM Collection at the University of Florida, but it contains no tear sheets or publication information. Most curious of all is the fact that there doesn’t seem to have been a March 1947 issue of Super Sports.

The Adventure House Guide to the Pulps (2000) is considered to be the bible of pulp magazine publication history, and it lists no issue of Super Sports between September 1946 and June 1947. That was later to be proven incorrect when a February 1947 issue showed up, counted as Volume 6, Number 1. I recently purchased cheap copies of both the February and June issues and can confirm that the June issue is counted as Volume 6, Number 2, making a March issue impossible. I also own the September and December issues of that year, and they are Number 3 and Number 4 respectively. The only issue out of these four that contains a John D MacDonald story is the December issue, which has “Big John Fights Again”. So “That Old Grey Train” wasn’t published, right? Not so fast: the title page of “Big John Fights Again” contains the blurb: “Author of “That Old Grey Train”.

So we are left with a mystery. Either Columbia’s numbering of its Super Sports issues was in error (unlikely), the story was sold but never published (perhaps unknown to whoever wrote that blurb), or it appeared in Columbia’s other sports title of 1947, Sports Fiction. If that last possibility is correct it would have had to have been published in that title’s June or September issue. No listing of the contents of either issue is available online.

An ongoing mystery, and I'll leave it on the list for now.


Monday, March 2, 2020

Afloat, But Not at Sea

S.S. Mariposa
In 1981 John D MacDonald published a non-fiction book titled Nothing Can Go Wrong. It was an account of his and Dorothy’s 77-day journey from San Francisco to Leningrad and back, aboard the cruise ship S. S. Mariposa, a trip that had taken place in the spring and summer of 1977. At this point in time the MacDonalds were veteran cruise ship passengers, having logged thousands of miles on over half a dozen trips. According to Hugh Merrill in his JDM bio The Red Hot Typewriter the couple's maiden voyage took place in 1975, but this is incorrect -- any reader of Darker Than Amber (1966) or his This Week story “A Touch of Miss Mint” (1964) would have guessed correctly that the author had had experience aboard a cruise ship. In fact, the couple’s first voyage took place in May of 1958 on a relatively short trip around the Bahamas.

Nothing Can Go Wrong was published in hardcover and enjoyed only a single printing. The following year a paperback edition came out that had two editions, October 1982 and March 1983. Then, in October of 1983 he wrote a newspaper piece on cruising that appeared in the October 9 edition of the New York Times Magazine, titled “Afloat, But Not at Sea,” which is reprinted below. Special thanks to Trap of Solid Gold reader David Blankenhorn for transcribing this.

Afloat, But Not at Sea

JOHN D. MacDONALD is the author of the Travis McGee novels, of which the most recent is Cinnamon Skin (Harper); he has also published, with Capt. John Kilpack, a book about a long cruise, Nothing Can Go Wrong (Harper). 

By JOHN D. MacDONALD

One time, off the North Cape of Norway, we stood amidships at the port rail of the promenade deck of the old Mariposa and watched the sun slant at a weird flat angle toward the horizon. We stood in a wind so cold and so strong that the tassel on the Norwegian wool cap that Dorothy had bought stood unwaveringly out behind her as if frozen into position. The bottom of the sun touched the horizon, moved along it, and then began to slant up again, in an Arctic parody of dawn.

I laughed, because at that moment the world was so strange it was grotesque. Laughing let the cold wind in. It blew my cheeks fat and stung my teeth. You know the feeling of unreality: What on earth am I doing here? At this moment in time, at this spot on our ball of mud.

If you are jaded by traveling by land or air, the thought of a sea voyage may amuse you. I myself have traveled 156,000 nautical miles on ships, and, if time permits, I will run up as many more again. I am fond of this mode of travel because, primarily, it saves a lot of packing and unpacking and allows one to avoid the broad, plastic, glassy squalor and the institutionalized anxiety of international airports, along with the drugged ennui of jet lag.

But there are also frustrations, limitations and random idiocies connected with cruising that the habitue will wearily endure and the newcomer will observe with disbelief and dismay. In what follows, I shall describe some of these. And, if you are a newcomer to cruising - and particularly if you are thinking about a long cruise on several oceans - I shall try to answer some of the questions you forgot to ask your travel agent.

The first rule for newcomers: If you can afford longer than a three-day cruise, do not try to find out what cruising is all about by going on a three-day cruise. The people who go on them are almost all uniformly young (except for the kindly uncles who take their nieces on vacation), loud, energetic and determined to go without any sleep at all for the entire cruise. They drink and sing and go barefoot. These are not crimes. Trying to use the same dance floor with them, however, is like trying to slip, unnoticed, into the Los Angeles Rams backfield. They butt their cigarettes into the rugs, engage in occasional fisticuffs and take 500 photographs a day of each other in front of ship fittings and slot machines that have just paid off.

Passengers and crew need at least two weeks to settle into the routines of shipboard and get used to each other's eccentricities. On three-day cruises the dining-room waiters are harried, sullen, insolent and unlikely to bring you what you ordered; the waiters and captains and barmen and deck stewards are all obviously wishing they had been on leave when this job was scheduled.

A two-week cruise is really the minimum for learning whether or not you like cruising. You can go from San Francisco to Glacier Bay and back - or from Copenhagen to the North Cape and Spitzbergen and back - or one way to London and Copenhagen, or Fort Lauderdale to Athens, or Athens to London, or Los Angeles to San Juan, or, in a little more than two weeks, from Rio de Janeiro to Fort Lauderdale. Most lines now have a return air-fare allowance, which deadens, somewhat, the sting of paying for the cruise tickets.

What kind of a stateroom should you get? The cruise ships, with the exception of the Queen Elizabeth 2 (and that only on trans-Atlantic crossings), are one-class ships. Whether you are in a penthouse suite or an inside cabin on D deck, you have access to all the public areas, order from the same menu and are provided with the same entertainment. And pay the same amount for your drinks. The QE2 discriminates only to the extent that people in the most expensive staterooms and suites eat in a different dining room.

Otherwise, everyone is treated almost the same. It is simple logic that the stewards and stewardesses become less experienced the closer you get to the waterline. And the chap in charge of the dining room is going to know which cabin you have when he makes the table assignments - and some areas of every seagoing dining room are less desirable than others. But these are minor differences. Whatever kind of room you have, you can get room service day and night. You will not be coddled the same way people were on the great old ships - the Queen Mary, the Bremen, the Normandie - but you will get more personal attention than you could expect in a first-class hotel.

It is silly to generalize about nationalities, but after cruises that add up to about seven circumnavigations of the globe, we have found that, on balance, the people who wait on you in any capacity, from deck steward to barmaid, and do so with a certain amount of pleasure, and who are aware of you as individuals, are the Italians, Latins, Portuguese, French and Turks. On our most recent cruise our two table waiters were Italian, and once we were acquainted, the four of us were in some pleasant conspiracy to find the very best of food and drink in spite of the whims of the galley chefs and hotel managers.

But too often the potential passenger thinks of life on cruise ships as being an unspeakable elegance of Champagne, caviar and ballroom dancing. It isn't. Take Champagne. Unless you have the wine steward bringing the stuff to your table at $24 to $35 a pop, all you get is what you can take on at one of the captain's receptions, where too few harassed waiters try to serve too many thirsts. If you have the agility of a broken-field runner and the voice of a hog caller, you might get one of those little shallow glasses filled enough times to give you a remote little buzz.

The most dubious item on any cruise menu is the so-called fresh fish, which appears soon after leaving a port. Seldom do the purchasing people buy fish ashore, especially if the ship visits the port rarely. The fish that you get aboard ship is generally something from Scandinavia, deep frozen for so long that it can vie with glacial mastodon meat, and has the same taste as kitchen curtains.

The sheer quantity of food stowed aboard affects the quality of preparation. The Royal Viking Star, for example, is not a giant ship: 28,000 tons, 674 feet long. On its 1983 Pacific cruise, it left California with 480 tons of food; after 30 days cruising, the executive chef's computer printout showed that, among other things, the passengers had already consumed 3,870 dozen eggs, 19,700 pounds of meat, 18,600 bottles of beer, 1,330 bottles of Champagne and 680 pounds of peanuts. For those of mathematical bent, there were about 500 passengers aboard.

Some rules for surviving meals at sea: Avoid ethnic foods when the ethnic is other than the kitchen staff. Don't order anything you can't pronounce. Don't eat everything in sight just because you have paid for it. Clothes that have ceased to fit take the pleasure out of dining. Ask your waiter what looks good. When something is in too short supply to be put on the menu, it is often very good indeed. Like papaya.

A long cruise gives you a chance to observe the strange fads and fancies of the human condition. Think of this: You are part of a group of 600 people, most of whom have come aboard in pairs, as on Noah's Ark. They have come from all over the world. Now that long cruises are increasingly segmented, you can have 150 Australians getting on in Sydney, or 100 Germans in Hamburg. But the majority of the passengers on almost all cruises will be your fellow Americans. In the shoreside terminals where you wait to come aboard, you look at all these strangers with the same curiosity and suspicion with which they regard you. You look at the clothes, the deportment, the carry-ons, the demeanor. You listen to the accents. You wonder what most of them are doing on the same cruise you selected.

Cruise passengers are separated from the artifacts of their identity - house, car, circle of friends, club membership - and dumped into an unlikely environment that attempts to amuse them even as it glides from here to there. There is a useful word in Spanish that refers to the habit of a certain kind of bull in the ring: This is a bull that has begun to feel uncertain, and so he will locate his querencia, a space in the bull ring where he feels most secure. He will make his stand there, and when the matador manages to dislodge him from this station, he will make a single charge and then return to the querencia.

So it is with cruise ship passengers. The cruise is nothing like what they expected. They cannot readily identify the social, financial or educational status of their fellow passengers. And so they find corners where they feel safe. Whole groups find places they like better than other places, and they use hats, scarves, purses, books and programs to save the nearby chairs for their chums. In this manner they create a smaller society in which they can feel secure - a society small enough to be comprehended.

Pecking orders are established, bores identified, boors avoided. The booze people stake out the bar stools they like best, and the deck walkers circle endlessly around the promenade deck, past the deck-chair people, the ones who have brought a thick book to read and the ones who sleep, jaw agape, looking uncomfortably dead.

On a long cruise, or on a middle cruise in a series of short ones, expect several things to be broken, and in that way you will not suffer disappointment. On a recent cruise on a five- star vessel (in both the Fielding and Fodor ratings) three out of the five automatic washing machines in the laundry room gave up the ghost and the waffle machine quit early on, so that though they had waffles on the menu every morning, there were in fact no waffles at all. The air-conditioning system went quite mad for a time, creating areas of stifling heat and tooth- chilling cold. A pressure hose broke and all the toilets quit and could be flushed only by filling wastebaskets with water in the tub or shower and upending them into the bowls.

And so on.

What you have to remember is that a large ship is a very complicated mechanism. When it is trying to be a ship and at the same time be a hotel, a chain of saloons, a lecture hall, a health farm, a country club and a flock of nightclubs, only extraordinary pre-planning and superb management can keep the whole top-heavy thing running like a $1,000 watch. Pre- planning and good management are a couple of the things they don't have too much of. Docking presents its own problems. At last your ship comes into port. It is made fast to the long pier, lines taut, tin rat- guards in place, gangways lowered. The big engines are turned off, and it is dead against the pier, like some huge slain animal. It is now at the mercy of the ant-swarms of bureaucrats, the customs and immigration officials, the port agents, the vendors of this and that. The big ship is far from home and helpless - it is at the mercy of the venal, the greedy and the mischievous.

The leverage is, of course, clearance. ''Be very very nice to our civil servants, Captain, or it will take a long long time to clear this ship and your passengers are going to get very angry at you.''

On short cruises in limited areas, such as the Caribbean and the Greek Islands, these matters tend to get worked out because the particular ships are in port so often. There are many ports in the Caribbean area, from Nassau down to La Guaira, and if one port gets too greedy and obstructive, it is crossed off the list, and the merchants ashore whip their officials into line.

Recently we left a cruise ship in Kowloon, Hong Kong, tied up to the big pier there that adjoins a glossy shopping center of hundreds of shops offering treasures from all over the world. The officials had mixed emotions. They didn't want to clear the ship so quickly they'd lose their self-respect, but they were under pressure from the shopkeepers to let the buying begin. The solution was to delay clearance for a long unnecessary time but let the passengers wander off regardless, unstayed by gangway guards.

The compartmentalization of ships services is another point at issue. On all large passenger ships you will usually find a shore tour office and a shore tour director. You will find a cruise office, to advise you about future trips, make reservations and so on. You will find a purser and a hotel manager and various other people behind the big counter where you put your goodies in locked boxes, ask for cabin phone numbers, buy stamps and cash checks.
All of these people have a home office counterpart, and apparently the home office people do not keep each other informed any more than do the ones afloat.

Because of this strange lack of communication, a year and a half ago a well-known passenger vessel went on a cruise around Africa, arranged in such a way that the shore tour people could not book a shore tour to an African game farm. And so the cruise was a failure, the ship traveling far below capacity. Such stupidity has to be seen and experienced to be believed.

Actual physical layout is another area in which lack of communication within the cruise lines shows plainly. For example, the Royal Viking Star was ''extended'' a few years ago, an additional 93 feet added so that up to 720 passengers could be accommodated at one sitting. The advertisements speak of all the wonderful big windows in the main dining room - which for some obscure Norwegian reason they call the ''restaurant.'' In all of that dining room, the layout provided for only eight (8) window tables for two. And the ship boasts 19 very expensive suites, usually occupied by couples who can afford them and who expect, after presenting themselves with a green handshake to the maître d'hôtel, to get one of those tables as their God-given right. Whoever designed the layout could not have conspired more effectively to create manic-depression among the dining-room staff.

One thing cannot be blamed on the lines, the ships or the people. But it can be a disappointment. Unless you go far from any land mass - such as from Honolulu to Yokahama - you will be sailing on a gray-green sea under an oyster-colored haze. Paul J. Weitz, the commander of the first flight of the Challenger, reported that, ''Unfortunately, this world is rapidly becoming a gray planet.''

And, near the land masses - such as through the canals, the Mediterranean, along all coasts - there is no longer pure blue sky and dancing blue sea, the way it looks in the posters and the cruise pamphlets. In some places - Bombay harbor, Hong Kong, Venice, Amsterdam - you begin to get the feeling you are in a kind of eternal twilight, no matter what time of day it is. This twilight has an odd brassy sheen to it, a look of chemicals and a smell of fuel and solvents. Perhaps it is the twilight of a world, a winding down of our time and our place in the history of the galaxy.

But, so what, you can still get a sunburn on deck, perhaps an even more violent one than you would get had you the direct sunlight to warn you. I am not an expert on tan. My skin turns red, blisters and falls off. I am a hat person.

Finally, when you take your cruise, do not expect to be told very much by those folks up there who run the ship. On every ship they have a public address setup so designed that a message can be sent to every area of the ship, or to the public areas only, or to the crew areas only.

A good and rare captain will break in now and then and say, ''This is the captain speaking. We are coming up on some gray whales, a pod of them a mile or so off the port bow.'' Or: ''That ship passing to starboard is a new Russian container ship on her first voyage.'' Or: ''Off the starboard bow you can begin to make out the first sight of Cabo San Lucas. We'll stay close as we can to give you a good look.'' But no captain has ever told us enough. There were always things we saw that puzzled us which were never explained.

As I said, however, we will take more cruises in the years ahead. We will complain bitterly about the broken doohickeys, the rotten weather, the singer who can't carry a tune in a bucket, the drinks that seem to get tinier and more expensive every trip we take . . . But we will keep on boarding because it is the last good game in town.

Why? Not many months ago, Dorothy and I walked forward into a stiff, warm wind, up to the bow rail of the promenade deck of a cruise ship heading through the Torres Strait en route from Australia to Bali. The moon was almost full, the sea luminous. We could see all the navigation lights, near and far, and we could watch the small lighted buoys appear quite suddenly after having been far away for a long time, sweeping by us, bobbing astern. It was a magical two hours traversing tricky seas explored by brave men long ago. That warm night lasts forever in memory.

And so we shall see you aboard. You and I will regard each other with deep suspicion, circle like new kids in the schoolyard and maybe end up friends. Some of the very best we have, we found on the white ships.