By 1950 John D MacDonald had been writing for nearly four years and had published over 200 short stories and novellas in the pulp magazines of the day. He had gone from composing unsellable stories about "dying blind musicians" to becoming a respected author of primarily mystery stories. He was also writing excellent science fiction, sports stories, and even a couple of westerns. But the paperback market was growing, mainly reprinting work that had originally appeared in hardcover. One company, however, began publishing paperback originals. Gold Medal Books was the imprint of Fawcett and, according to Hugh Merrill in his 2000 biography of JDM (The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D Macdonald), it was a contract restriction that forced Fawcett to begin commissioning new titles. "For the most part," writes Merrill, "Gold Medal Books were category titles -- westerns, thrillers, and mysteries. For the westerns, [they] found Louis L'Amour. For mysteries and thrillers, [they] discovered John D MacDonald."
MacDonald had an already-written novella titled "The Brass Cupcake" and intended it for publication in one of the pulps. His agent made the suggestion that JDM lengthen it and shop it to Fawcett as a paperback original. Rather than simply padding the original work, MacDonald rewrote it and it became his first published novel, 1950's The Brass Cupcake.
Told in a typically hard-boiled style (and in the first person), The Brass Cupcake is the story of Cliff Bartells, a cop who has come back from the war to his hometown of Florence City (a thinly-disguised stand-in for Clearwater, where MacDonald and his family had moved to the year before), only to find it corrupted with "a smear of big city dirt. Inevitable, they said. You've got to play ball with one group of criminals, one syndicate, they said. That's the way to keep the city clean, they said. Treat 'em right and they'll do their mischief out of town." It takes very little time for Bartells to be confronted with a moral dilemma, and his decision leads to his leaving the police force, labeled a "Christer" by his former colleagues. He's now an insurance adjuster, working for the Security Theft and Accident Insurance Company. The brass cupcake is his derogatory term for his police badge. As he awakens from sleep at the beginning of the novel he muses, "On a morning when you are at last positive that nothing has ever happened to you and now, at the advanced age of thirty-three, it is pretty evident that nothing ever will..."
If that's not the cue for the story to begin, I don't know what it is...
A rich tourist has been murdered in her hotel room and her jewelry, insured by Bartells' company and valued at $750,000 (serious money in 1950), has been stolen. Cliff is assigned to buy back the stolen goods once an offer is made, and to do it quickly and quietly. The murder has hit the national media and the town powers-that-be are anxious to get the case solved quickly before it affects the tourist trade. The victim's niece, wonderfully-named Melody Chance, has been in town and is now stuck with the task of tying up the estate. Cliff falls for her and together they work the case. A typical hard-boiled detective plot.
Only this is MacDonald, and the writing is very good, even for a first effort at long fiction. His description of Melody seems to aspire to Chandler:
"Wide, slim shoulders tapered down to a small, slim waist and tender concavity before the convex flaring curve of hip. .. A sheaf of the long ripe-wheat hair was across her face and she threw it back with a quick motion of her head...Her voice was low and husky-hoarse, the kind of voice that Bankhead and Dietrich have. In it was a thin trace of finishing schools and Beacon Hill. Her face was long and oval, with good and well-pronounced bone structure of brow. The mouth was hers alone. The lip shape had that odd squareness which looks harsh and bold. But at the same time it hinted at vulnerability. The sun glare had diminished the pupils of her eyes, and their smallness emphasized the shifting gray-green of the irises."
MacDonald the Storyteller is in fine form here, even if some of the scenes are a bit over-the-top and the language a bit florid in places. The plot is finely constructed and shows no evidence of its beginnings in a shorter form. It remains a highly entertaining read with hardly a dull moment within its 174 pages.
If The Brass Cupcake is written about today, outside of mentioning it as MacDonald's first novel, it is usually to point out the vague beginnings of the Travis McGee personality, MacDonald's famous series character who came to life in 1964. Outside of MacDonald's distinctive voice and writing style, I really don't see it. There are two places, however, where the fan of McGee can be forgiven for recalling him to mind. First, there's a scene where Bartells and Kathy, a secretary from work with whom he's engaged in months of playful sexual banter, find themselves alone in Bartell's apartment and where Kathy suddenly becomes wildly passionate. Bartells complies but, in the midst of ripping each other's clothes off, realizes that nothing would ever be the same between them afterward, the game and banter would become "something else, in which there would be sadness, and she was a girl who would not let the sadness show, no matter how it hurt, no matter how far from her it placed that ever present dream of marriage." (Hey, this is 1950, after all...) Bartells, fighting "against that voice in my mind that told me it was too late to stop," pushes her away and leaves the room to calm down. That's a kind of nobility Travis McGee displayed.
Second, there is the first of MacDonald's trademark social digressions, where the hero ruefully opines on the sorry state of mankind or, in this particular case, Florida:
"Before the war Florence City was a quiet, middle-class resort. But the war expanded the field of endeavor. Gambling houses, breast of guinea hen under glass, seagoing yachts from Havana, seventy dollar night-club tabs for a quiet dinner for two -- with the appropriate wines of course. The bakers from Dayton and the shoe clerks from Buffalo still came down, but the high rentals had shoved them inland off the beaches, in as far as the swamps and the mangroves and the orange juice factories.
"A new group had taken over the beaches. Middle-aged ladies with puffy faces and granite eyes brought down whole stables of hundred-dollar call girls, giggling like a sorority on a social welfare trip. But the rate was bumped to two hundred to cover the higher cost of accommodations and the traveling expenses. Sleek little men with hand-blocked sports shirts strolled around and made the Bogart gestures.
"Boom town, fun town, money town, rough town. Lay it on the line. You can't take it with you. Next year comes the H bomb. Put it on the entertainment account."
Quintessential, powerful, breathtaking MacDonald, fourteen years before anyone ever heard of the Busted Flush or Slip F-18.
The Brass Cupcake is out of print, but used copies are easy to find.