Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Her Black Wings"

Pulp stories don't come with better titles than "Her Black Wings," a 1948 tale by John D MacDonald. It reveals so much to the reader, even before looking at the first sentence or turning the brittle page to view the story art. There's going to be an air of foreboding mystery, a bad, possibly supernaturally evil female, a hero who is helpless in her thrall, and strange, enigmatic questions at the end that never get answered. It has the ring of a story from the pages of Weird Tales, or from Willis O'Brien's classic radio series, Quiet Please. In the hands of a writer like MacDonald, it should be superlative fiction, even if this was a field he rarely ventured into. The student of JDM immediately thinks of the brilliant 1950 tale from Fifteen Mystery Stories, "Miranda." Is the protagonist telling the truth? Is he crazy? Is the female real? It's the epitome of great pulp fiction, the kind that keeps you up at night.

Except in this case, "Her Black Wings" was an editor's choice of title to replace the author's lame original, "Help Me Find Judy," a title that sounds like it belongs in the table of contents of an early issue of McCall's  or Woman's Home Companion. And as for the quality of the writing, well... I knew "Miranda," "Miranda" was a friend of mine, and "Her Black Wings," Senator, is no "Miranda."

The plot is interesting, containing all of the great elements listed above, but its execution is poor, marred in places by sloppy writing, careless characterization and the occasional turn of phrase that rings completely foreign to the ear of an experienced JDM reader. It seems rushed and overly formulaic, the kind of thing one could find in the pages of any number of pulps throughout the golden age. Still, it is a quick and enjoyable read, with a neat twist at the end, followed by an element completely out of left field that leaves the reader wondering if the protagonist is the king of all unreliable narrators.

The story appeared in the first issue of the pulp Shock, "The New Mystery Magazine," which hit the stands in March 1948. If you've never heard of Shock before, don't feel bad: it lasted only three issues before disappearing into the ether. The magazine's focus was on "Shock-Mystery" stories, a rather ill-defined category that could mean anything, since many existing pulps contained tales that could fit that description. Shock was published bi-monthly by New Publications, one of the many imprints of Popular Publications, Harry Steeger's vast pulp magazine empire. Shock may have been an attempt at reviving the shudder pulp genre, albeit in a form more acceptable to postwar readers, or it may have been a stab at combining that genre with mystery stories. It's hard to tell from the first issue, as it contains no editorial comment whatsoever, not even a masthead. The best indication of the tone of the magazine comes from the stories' taglines supplied by the editors:

"Homicidal Homestead" by Bruno Fischer: "Luscious Della's scarecrow husband bought a knife -- and brooded on slaughter."

"Death is a Dame" by Frederick C. Davis: "Was she really his wife? Or was she evil-souled Zelda -- biding her time until her next murder?"

"Nightmare Man" by John C. Harbaugh: "His hog-fat wife jeered little Herman's dream into a hideous nightmare."

Clearly there's a theme here...

John D MacDonald supplied stories for each of the three issues of Shock, one for the premier issue and two each for the second and third. His second stories in the subsequent issues appeared under the house name Scott O'Hara.

The tagline for "Her Black Wings" provides a good synopsis to the story's plot: "Three men had loved her -- and died violently. I was next..."

Told in the first person, the story opens as Joe Brayton, a World War II vet, is standing on the 34th Street subway platform in New York City, waiting for a train to take him up to Columbia University where he hopes to enter graduate school. As the train approaches the crowd moves toward the edge, followed by a sudden commotion.

"He didn't yell. I saw him go over the edge, half turning, his mouth wide open and silent, his fingers working fast on the empty air. His shoulders looked square and solid under the brown gabardine. They weren't solid enough. He hit the rails a split second before the steel wheels of the express ground him to blood and paste."

As the shocked crowd mills around the messy accident, Joe spies a girl standing next to him.

"She was tall, dressed in a sleek gray suit. Her pocketbook was a wardrobe trunk for the Singer midgets. Her black hair came down lush and thick on one shoulder. She had that city anemic look -- cheekbones pushing against the pale flesh; a thin, patrician nose. Not the lips. Full of life and vitality. Her eyes were gray with a strange unfocused look."

Joe's attempt at a casual remark goes unanswered, and he looks down at the girl's hand and sees blood. She's squeezing her wrist so hard her long nails have pierced her skin. When she finally speaks it's in a blank tone: "I told him he would die. I told him."

Joe wipes the blood off with his handkerchief and leads her away to a nearby drug store so he can treat her wound. Then it's off to a bar for a stiff drink. Joe orders the silent woman to down the slug of whiskey he had ordered, and once she does she seems to emerge from her catatonia and comes apart at the seams. Joe moves over to her side of the booth and comforts her, "murmuring a lot of nothing" until her hysterics cease. Then they talk.

The girl is named Judy Dikes and the platform victim was Ralph Lortz, Judy's boyfriend. Although there is no reason to suspect any foul play involved in Lortz's death, Joe asks if anyone knew if Judy and Lortz were together earlier, and when told no, he checks with Lortz's place of employment to see if anyone there knows where he is. They don't.

Judy was "nice and easy to be with," and Joe begins to feel like "a boy scout on a mission." He comforts her, reassures her and gets her to cheer up. They spend the rest of the afternoon at the bar, then head up to the Village for dinner. By two in the morning Judy begins "to look like the nicest thing that had ever happened to me." But when Joe hints at a deeper relationship, he is warned away.

"'You're nice, Joe,' she said. 'Pick up your marbles and run, Joe. Run like hell... run while there's still time... Ralph Lortz was the third one in two months. The third. Bill Graff fell in front of a taxi. Stanley McQuade fell out of his apartment window. Get away from me, Joe. I like you. You don't want to be the next one, Joe. Do you?' She laughed and the sound of it was like small, sharp white teeth nibbling at my spinal cord."

Joe takes her home, where she collapses the minute they enter her apartment. He puts her to bed and upon exiting the place is confronted by a man who immediately throws a punch at him! The attack is clumsy enough for Joe to dodge and counterpunch "harder than I wanted." When the guy comes to Joe learns his name is Michael Burns and that he lives in the apartment across the hall from Judy. He claims to be an industrial designer who is in love with Judy, an unrequited love that he is waiting to be reciprocated. He's also "keeping her going until she gets a job."

Joe immediately suspects Burns of being the guy who is causing all of the "accidents" involving Judy's boyfriends. He questions him, then tries to trick him, but it seems as if Burns has an alibi for each mishap. Still, Joe is suspicious enough to begin carrying a gun with him, a "little Spanish automatic [he] had won in a crap game in Paris." He keeps it in his jacket pocket as he continues to date Judy, and as time goes on he begins falling in love with her.

It is here where MacDonald's prose goes off the deep end, as he writes some uncharacteristically bad and florid sentences that must have truly embarrassed him if he ever had the chance to re-read them later on:

"It was tough to take my eyes off Judy every few minutes and take a look around. There was color in her cheeks and her lips were made for laughing. Once when we got behind a stack of shrubbery, I pulled her close and kissed her. She was laughing at the time, but after the kiss she stood close to me and I looked down into her eyes and everything was very solemn between us -- like a chord of organ music you overhear as you walk by a church.

"'You better not see me again, Joe.' she said. 'I'm bad luck.'

'"It's too late, now. Isn't it?' I said softly.

"She didn't answer. She nodded her head quickly and lifted her face to be kissed again. It would always and forever be too late to ever leave her.

"May [is] the month to be in love in Manhattan. You can be in love almost any month anywhere else, but it's good to save it until May when you're in the big town. We went everyplace that people go and did everything that people do and there was nobody in Manhattan except the two of us...

"I tried to make plans for us, but Judy always steered me away, saying, 'Oh, Joe. Don't be dull. We've got a million tomorrows with sunshine every day.'"

Things seem to be going swimmingly in Loveland for several weeks, but then Judy starts to become 'jittery." She begs Joe to take her back to the place in the park where they first kissed, and Joe agrees. As they sit down on the same bench, a cool breeze blows and Judy shivers, shoving her cold hand into Joe's jacket pocket. "What on earth have you got in that pocket, Joe?" she asks...

MacDonald doesn't seem to know exactly how he wants the story to end, so he steers it one way, then another, and leaves the tale with an unanswered question. "Her Black Wings" contains the germ of a good, if overused pulp plot, but it would take the author a few more tries to perfect it. As these kinds of tales go, it's an enjoyable reading experience, as long as you aren't expecting too much from a writer who could do much better.

Friday, June 17, 2011

"A Dark People Thing"

In the first three or four entries I posted to this blog, over a year and a half ago, I went into the background of how I was introduced to the works of John D MacDonald. I wrote about how I sold his books when working in a department store, how I became a subscriber to the JDM Bibliophile, and ultimately how I became involved in the work of compiling a complete bibliography of the author's many published works. Although I came late to the party and operated on the extreme periphery of the real action, I was able to supply information that had not yet been obtained by MacDonald's many bibliographers. It was a minor blip in the history of JDM but a huge formative experience in my own life and it introduced me to the world of bibliographic research, a hobby I have loved ever since. It also introduced me to the vast wonderland of John D MacDonald's short fiction, an incredibly rich body of work that seemed to me to be a kind of Rosetta Stone that explained the singular skills he later possessed as a novelist. That experience is detailed in my third post.

I had answered a call for help from Walter Shine, a JDM fan and bibliographer who, along with his wife Jean, wrote a column in the Bibliophile. The couple had just published their first book, the most complete listing of all of MacDonald's writings to date, titled A Bibliography of the Published Works of John D MacDonald with Selected Biographical Materials and Critical Essays, a major event in the JDM world at the time. It was a huge expansion and continuation of Len and June Moffatt's JDM Master Checklist, which first appeared in 1969, and it remains to this day the single most authoritative source of information on the writings of MacDonald. Yet like any such work, it was imperfect and, more important, incomplete. There were a few errors that slipped through and numerous omissions, understandable when trying to track down the voluminous work of such a prolific writer. Specifically, there were ten short pieces -- nine of them works of fiction -- that MacDonald had sold, received payment for but whose actual publication could not be verified. The Shines hoped to publish a second edition of the Bibliography with these ten stories located.

It was -- and is, I suppose -- normal practice for the publisher of periodicals to supply tear sheets to the authors of works that had been published in their magazines. By definition, this happened after the magazine was actually published, when said sheets could be removed from the magazine and sent to the author as proof that the work had appeared. In the quaint old days before computers and the Internet, these tear sheets served several purposes, mainly as a way a writer could market him or herself when attempting to sell subsequent stories. MacDonald, a meticulously organized man, kept his tear sheets in a separate file, along with a "carbon" (photocopy, for those of you too young to understand that term) of the original manuscript, copyright information and any correspondence sent or received from the publisher or his agent regarding the specific piece. And while most magazines -- even the lowly pulps --followed the practice of sending these pages, occasionally they didn't, and for a writer as busy as MacDonald was in his short story days, I suppose it was easy to let something like that slide, as long as he received his check.

The finding guide for the JDM Collection at the University of Florida reveals that most publishers sent MacDonald tear sheets, but some were sloppy about it. This Week, for example, did not supply tear sheets for nine of the twenty-six JDM stories they published over the years. To a bibliographer, finding proof of publication for a story published in one of the largest circulation magazines in the world would not be hard work, even thirty years after the fact. But when a story was sold to a pulp publisher like Popular or Columbia Publications, the work of locating it could involve hundreds of man hours fingering through brittle old pulps, scanning tables of contents and even reading portions of each story. That is what was required of me back in 1981 and I jumped at the chance.

The list of the "missing ten" consisted of five sports stories, two or three mysteries, a mainstream work, a non-fiction work for the Author's Guild Newsletter, and the story I'll be talking about here. The sports stories were easy to look for, since Shine knew which publisher purchased each piece, thereby narrowing the list of possible venues to the sports pulps that particular publisher produced. The mysteries were almost as easy and the piece for the Author's Guild I wasn't going to look for. The last item on the list was known to have been sold to Bluebook, that venerable old fiction pulp that had been in business since 1905 and who had already published twelve MacDonald works of fiction. In 1960 they had purchased a JDM short story titled "Underwater Safari," but Moffat, Shine and the half-dozen other bibliographers who had worked on the Master Checklist had been unable to locate the issue featuring this story.

What these bibliographers apparently didn't know was that Bluebook stopped publishing in 1956. Four years later it was revived, not as a men's fiction magazine but as a men's action/adventure magazine, attempting to take its place among other successful ventures such as Men, True Men, Man's Life, Men in Adventure, Action for Men.... I think you get the picture. Fiction in general was gradually fading from all magazines and what was replacing it was non-fiction articles (in the general circulation magazines) and phony "true" stories that appeared in these rather tawdry men's mags. (Some were true, many were obviously not.) Bluebook for Men began publication in October 1960 and lasted until 1975, retaining its focus on fiction until it inevitably drifted into the sensationalistic "true" accounts of "Lust Orgies of Frustrated Wives" and "Bazooka Train-Buster!" In 1964 Bluebook for Men changed its title to simply Bluebook, and was still appearing on newsstands under that title when work on the JDM Master Checklist began. This may have been one of the reasons it took so long to identify the publication of this "missing" short story.

Walter Shine's plan for locating the "missing ten" was to go through the pulp magazines held in the Library of Congress, which  was (and, I suppose, still is) one of the great repositories of these crumbling, fading fiction magazines. And while the Shines had lived in Washington, D.C. for much of Walter's working career, in the late 1970's he retired and the couple moved to Florida. They didn't have the time or money to zip back up to DC to spend a few days combing the stacks. Walter and Jean issued a request through their column for anyone with easy access to the Library of Congress and with a willingness to work on a great cause to apply.

I was born in Washington D.C. and lived most of my life in its nearby suburbs, so I certainly had access. I had a passion for the fiction of MacDonald and would certainly be willing to spend some of my free time in the effort of helping the cause. I wrote Shine that I would be willing to do the grunt work and he responded with enthusiasm. He did all of the interfacing with the drones at the LOC (as a former council at the Labor Relations Board, I imagine Walter still had some pull in DC), so all I had to do was show up on an appointed day and begin going through the pulps.

Boxes of them. Oh, my God, I couldn't believe the amount of work I had ahead of me. Year after year of titles such as Sports Novels, Fifteen Sports Stories, New Sports Magazine and Sports Fiction. Two years of Argosy. Eight years of Detective Tales. And, the last seven years of Bluebook from its original run, up to 1956. I had a list of the stories with JDM's original titles, the date sold, a list of known pseudonyms ("house names") and the first sentence from each story.

It took me two full days, from nine in the morning to closing at five or six, working straight through with no lunch break. Unfortunately I was unable to locate a single missing story. I wrote a six page letter to the Shines, outlining my efforts and listing each and every issue I researched. They passed the letter on to MacDonald, who responded (to Walter), "Thanks for sending me that extraordinary letter from Steve Scott. That is a lot of time to spend in the stacks. As I read it I kept hoping he would come up with something that is still missing." Needless to say, MacDonald's comments on my efforts went a long way to assuage my disappointment over being unsuccessful. Walter, ever the encouraging one, told me I had been quite successful, as he now knew where not to look.

Over the next couple of years a few of the missing titles surfaced. A mystery story titled "Devil-Head" and sold to Popular Publications turned out to have already been identified and listed under the title "Three Strikes -- You're Dead!" which appeared in the June 1949 issue of All-Story Detective. "A Good Judge of Men," which was supposedly sold to Argosy, was in fact sold to Cavalier. Then, in 1984, a librarian at the University of Florida named Carmen Russell was reading a listing from a Santa Barbara book dealer and spotted a 1961 issue of Bluebook for Men which purported to include a John D MacDonald story featuring the unfamiliar title "A Dark People Thing." She reported this finding to Walter, who was equally confused. He knew there was only one missing story that was sold to Bluebook, so he pulled out his copy of the original manuscript and, toward the end, read these sentences, spoken by a French ex-patriot:

"In some places of the worl' is called gris-gris. Some is voodoo. Some is hex. A dark pipple t'ing."

"Underwater Safari" had been found, and Walter wrote about it excitedly in his JDM Bibliophile column. Yet when he attempted to locate a copy of the magazine he was unsuccessful. He tried the bookseller but the issue had been sold. He tried several others, but Bluebook for Men was not a big collector's item at the time. He even wrote a plea in a subsequent column asking anyone who had a copy to sell it to him. To my knowledge he never did see the issue.

And neither did I, until recently, when I found an online merchant offering a copy of the issue for sale. I grabbed it and was happy to add it to my collection of old magazines featuring the work of JDM. Another one down.

So how is it? "A Dark People Thing" is a very readable, enjoyable story, a late period MacDonald tale that harkens back to his earlier work with a distinct flavor of the old pulps. It's told in the first person by a man named Joe Connolly, a Unit Manager for a television production company, and while Joe is not exactly a peripheral character, the focus of the narrative is on another person and Joe is the observer. Plus, "A Dark People Thing" contains an element of the supernatural that, while somewhat ambiguous, is definitely strong enough to place this story among MacDonald's other works of speculative fiction. The tale would be comfortably at home in an issue of Weird Tales.

The story is told in flashback, as Joe recalls how his employer, El-Bar Productions, began work on a television series to be titled Safari. Shot on location in the Belgian Congo it was to have starred Kirk Morgan, the popular, handsome and dashing star of Gunner's Mate, a series he had ended to begin work on Safari.  Forty half-hour episodes were shot but never saw the light of day, because Morgan died while shooting the last episode, and El-Bar went bankrupt. The viewing public mourned and the newspapers wrote about how heroically Morgan died, but Joe is telling his story in order to set the record straight, before the "tub-thumpers" make Morgan into some sort of folk hero. For while the public loved the man, off screen he was a decidedly different person.

"I don't want to malign the deceased. But you can't get the whole picture unless you understand I despised him. In that I do not stand alone. I stand shoulder to shoulder with everybody in the movie and television industry who ever had to work with him. Also in this group you can find a couple of hundred of beautiful women who got too close to him."

As Unit Manager Joe heads to Leopoldville along with most of the crew to begin setting things up. He enlists the aid of a local Frenchman named Rene du Palais to help him deal with the locals, and things go smoothly while they await the arrival of the actors. Along with Morgan, there's Nancy Rome, the love interest who is a "shrewd, tough, talented broad" and who has already spurned Morgan's predictable advances. There's the comedy relief, Sam Corren, "a fat whiner who is scared of germs and heart trouble," and there's the actress playing The Other Woman, Luara ("no typo") who is slinky and sexy but who is also a "devout reader of the scriptures."

Morgan immediately begins wooing the clueless Luara, but when he makes his move she slugs him with a heavy historical novel and "told him to watch his language when in the company of ladies." So early in the shooting Joe knows there is going to be trouble, because tomcat Morgan "needs a conquest to mend his self-esteem." He doesn't think there will be much trouble finding some local talent for him, but he doesn't anticipate what happens next. Rene du Palais shows up on location with his 19-year old daughter. Her name was Therese, she had been educated in a convent and was engaged to be married. Her mother was was a woman of "complex racial mixtures" and the union of her parents had given Therese an ethereal beauty that MacDonald conveys masterfully:

"Therese was slender, shy, innocent, with smoky hair, huge gray eyes, skin of velvet, ivory and gold. The agents of kings used to search for just such women."

Morgan's reaction was "as predictable as tossing a fat grubworm into a hen yard." Joe reminds the reader that, despite his comic ending with Luara, Morgan was an expert seducer, and he goes into overdrive. Rene, who he had previously ordered around like a house servant, now became a personal guest of the great star, and though he had shown absolutely no interest in Equatorial Africa before, he "suddenly  became a tourist in need of a guide." Therese was chaperoned by an elderly female relative, but that didn't matter in the beginning, during the set-up. Joe and others on the crew could see what was happening, but their warnings to Rene were dismissed. Therese was a "good girl" and Mr. Morgan was being very kind to her.

When a piece of film equipment breaks down and requires a three day halt in production, Morgan makes his move. He and Therese manage to ditch the chaperone and they vanish. When a frantic Rene comes to Joe in order to ask Morgan about his daughter's whereabouts, he is told Morgan is missing as well. He leaves, looking "sick, tired and old." Then three days later, Morgan reappears, casually walking into Joe's room without knocking. When asked where he has been for three days, he informs him that he has been in Goma, at the Hotel du Grand Lac. When asked about Therese, he responds, "Tasty. Very tasty. But three days does it, men. A dull child at heart, you know. Once the bloom is off the blossom, they tend to get emotional." He informs him that he left the girl at her garden gate, "blubbering and snuffling." He yawns and leaves the room.

The next morning Rene appeared at the hotel to offer his resignation. He brought with him a replacement, another Frenchman named Jules Boudreau. Joe tells him how sorry he is and Rene blames himself for not heeding Joe's warnings. Yet when he leaves he refuses to shake Joe's hand.

A few weeks later Therese put on "the wedding gown she would never wear," slipped out of her house before dawn, got on her bicycle and rode down to the quays along the Congo River and jumped in. It took rescuers a half an hour to recover her body. When Morgan is told, he looks "mildly astonished."

"He licked his manly lips, fingered his sculptured throat, swallowed hard and said, 'A hell of a silly thing to do. The kid mist have been missing some marbles. She wasn't what you call real bright.'"

Surprisingly, the film company isn't attacked by the locals or kicked out of the country by local officials. Taping of the show continued, and it wasn't until they were on episode 20 that one of the actors remarked about Morgan's "strange... subdued and remote" acting. The director complains to Joe that Morgan is "going dead on me," and a producer observes that "...I get the feeling  he's sort of fading away. You know what he does when he isn't working, eating or sleeping? He sits and stares at the wall, hour after hour." And later after a few drinks together, the same producer wags his finger drunkenly at Joe and slurrs, "It's a hex. Deepest Africa. Witch doctor stuff. Revenge, Joey. For the dead girl. For Therese..."

"A Dark People Thing" works well within the context of the magazine it appeared in, and it's a good, enjoyable read. After all those years of searching for it, It's nice to know that it was worth the effort, even if it isn't a lost JDM classic. The author's ability to maintain narrative and establish character with as few words as possible is evident throughout, as well it should be at this point in his career. The supernatural element was a bit of a surprise, especially coming at a time when MacDonald had long given up on science fiction (and he never did much horror), but it is handled in a way that ... well, I don't want to give away the ending, in case anyone wants to embark on their own search for "Underwater Safari."

Incidentally, this particular issue of Bluebook for Men doesn't look all that different from the earlier versions of Bluebook that appeared in the 1950's. It hadn't yet morphed into a real sweat magazine yet, featuring torturing Nazis and bikini-clad machine gun-toting babes. That would certainly come later, but in 1961 the new incarnation looked pretty much like the old. The interior is, for the most part, black and white, and what little color is employed is their characteristic use of various shades of blue, from arresting bright tones to a nearly slate gray. The artwork is uneven, to say the least, but given the budget Bluebook worked under, it's pretty good, even if it doesn't come near to Cosmopolitan of Collier's standards. The illustration for "A Dark People Thing," by Jim Infantino, for example, isn't much to get excited about, but turn one page and -- if you're a lover of magazine art like I am -- I think it's safe to say that your breath will be taken away. "Ordeal in Paradise"  by Tom Bailey is a "true" story, complete with a affidavit labeled "Verified Authentic" and signed by the subjects of the story. It's the tale of a South Pacific shipwreck where only a man and a young girl survive, and after floating on wreckage in shark-infested water for over a week, end up on a desert island, where they are eventually... shot at by a Japanese soldier left over from World War II! True or not, it's an interesting and well-written piece with a somewhat predictable ending, but what I'm sure led many a reader in 1961 to bother with it at all is its incredible illustration by Ted Lewin. Done in the usual Bluebook two-tone, it is a work of art that seems to belong in another magazine. Its composition, it's limited use of light, and its astounding lifelike depiction of the female form all make it worth reproducing here, even if it has nothing at all to do with John D MacDonald.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Difficult Birth of Travis McGee

Just as John D MacDonald began his writing career relatively late in life, so did he embark on the creation of a series character late in his career. MacDonald was 46-years old when he first started putting together the ideas that would eventually lead to the creation of his most enduring literary legacy. He was already the author of 38 novels, had published over 350 works of short fiction in American periodicals and had seen several of his stories adapted for both television and film. He was a success by every measure of the word and had earned -- and spent -- over half a million dollars from the sales of his work -- serious money back in the 1950's.

He had never wanted to write a series character, although he made a couple of half-hearted attempts at it in his pre-novel days. The first was done in MacDonald's first year as a writer at the behest of Doc Savage editor Babette Rosmond, resulting in two short stories that are now long forgotten. Benton Walters was a (surprise!) ex-army officer who was having trouble settling down back in the States and managed to get into a few adventures. MacDonald quickly tired of the effort and wrote Rosmond, "Honest to God -- I'm never going to start another series. They are limiting and I hate them."

Yet only four years later he tried again, creating the very Doc Savage-like hero Park Falkner, a fabulously wealthy playboy and resident of his own island off the coast of west Florida. Falkner relieves his constant boredom by digging into the pasts of people he believes have done some great wrong and are hiding it, then devises some clever and complicated ruse to smoke them out. But like Benton Walters, Falkner appeared in only two stories before disappearing forever. MacDonald didn't even remember creating Falkner until the two stories were collected for the 1982 anthology The Good Old Stuff, and he wrote:

"[These stories] intrigued me because they dealt with the same hero, one Park Falkner, who in some aspects seems like a precursor of Travis McGee. And in other aspects he foreshadows the plots of a lot of bad television series which came along later."

Once MacDonald began writing novels in 1950, it didn't take long for his editors to start hounding him to jump on the series character bandwagon, suggesting that the hero of The Brass Cupcake -- Cliff Bartells -- would make a mighty fine version of a Philip Marlowe or a Sam Spade. MacDonald said "no" and he kept saying "no" throughout the 1950's as his publishers -- Fawcett, Dell and Popular Library -- kept at him, desperate for a marketable new hero from a writer who was already a proven seller.

MacDonald said "no" for a couple of reasons, reasons he wrote about in a fascinating article published in the September 1964 issue of The Writer titled "How To Live With a Hero," only a few months after the first three Travis McGee novels were published. As a still relatively-green author, MacDonald feared the limitations of a series character -- especially in the almost mandatory use of first person narrative -- and he feared being unable to sustain a story line, but most of all he feared being typecast and, as a result, becoming unable to sell any other type of fiction. He wanted "the maximum latitude in creative invention," something he enjoyed to the fullest extent, as any review of his publishing history will reveal. He wrote for every kind of magazine that published fiction, and did it all well. He has said that when he sat down to try and write for a particular kind of market, "the words died." He worked on whatever idea came into his head, from crime to science fiction, from sports to mainstream, and the thought that he could be limited to writing about only one particular character must have struck real fear in him.

Also, MacDonald knew enough about the problems of some other authors who had been lured into the series character snare. In a 1979 interview he explained,

"I was too aware of the sad stories of people who had gotten trapped in series characters. Editors would buy nothing from them but stuff about the series character, and I did not want to dig a grave that early. I was aware of the difficulty Marquand had shedding the Mr. Moto bit. I was aware of the fact that one man wrote a series of stories for The Saturday Evening Post. He did very well with them too. But every time he tried something else, they wouldn't buy it, and finally the poor guy killed himself. I wanted to escape from that kind of emotional trauma. Everybody is familiar with Conan Doyle and his dreadful attempts to shed Sherlock, all to no avail. So I refused absolutely."

Yet in 1962 he changed his mind.

A lot had changed by then. He had already written nearly 40 novels and 95 percent of all of the short fiction he would ever attempt. Clearly no publisher would now be capable of "typecasting" MacDonald, or forcing him into only one kind of story. Any writer who could publish a book about his two cats, or who could take a year off to cover and later write about a murder trial had freedoms few other writers did. But MacDonald was used to a fairly comfortable living and a pretty good income, and that was in danger. Even great writers back then, before the Internet and the explosion of small press publishers, were subject to the whims and caprices of the people who ran the book world. Any writer, no matter how successful, could be dropped in the twinkling of an eye, for whatever reason. Just ask Harry Whittington.

In "How to Live With a Hero" MacDonald goes to lengths to convince the reader that his motive behind the change of mind was not solely economic, yet that is clearly the impression he leaves, assuming that his ability to continue to enjoy the freedoms he did as a writer was ultimately economic. He wrote:

"In 1962, it became apparent to me that the market for my work was changing. The reduced number of magazines published less fiction. Small book sales on newsstands were being diminished by three factors: New titles in excess of rack space resulted in smaller average print orders; intensive promotion of reprints of bestsellers caused a squeeze from the top; semi-pornography by off-brand houses with larger retail margins caused a squeeze from the bottom."

He went on to explain that his primary focus at the time was a trilogy of novels that would be released in hardcover, "interrelated in the sense that they are variations on the same theme," and that his continuation as an author of paperback originals needed to offer a monetary return "consistent with the effort involved." He would embark on the creation of a series character only if he could be reasonably assured it would be successful.

"'Successful' to me meant two things. Not just a public acceptance, which would lead to substantial reissues of the titles in the series, but also a format which would give me the chance to continue to do paperbound originals as satisfying to me as A Key to the Suite, The Deceivers, Slam the Big Door, The Only Girl in the Game and The Drowner. Only in this approach could I fulfill my responsibilities to all the people who had formed the habit of looking for my name and buying the books. If I dogged it with dreary, predictable formula, I might pick up a more numerous and less demanding audience, but it would require a cynicism that would diminish my other work."

The article doesn't mention the actual impetus for MacDonald's change of mind, but he talked about it in that 1979 interview. His old friend Knox Burger, who as a fiction editor at Collier's back in 1949 had paid MacDonald his first four-figure sale for the wonderful short story "Looie Follows Me," and who pulled MacDonald over to Dell in the mid fifties and then back to Fawcett in the Sixties, needed a big favor.

"... in 1963... Richard Prather... was writing a series of [extremely successful] books about a hero named Shell Scott... Knox Burger...was his editor at Fawcett Gold Medal, and Prather, a Californian, had some extremely strong right-wing political tendencies. He saw socialism and communism crouched behind every bush, and in fact he went so far as to name one of his dire Red villains Horatio Humberts, which would indicate Dick's warped vision of Senator Humphrey. At any rate, Knox Burger infuriated Dick Prather, whose novels were selling well, by telling him to take out all that political junk and stay with the story. At that moment in time Herb Alexander, the head of Pocket Books, approached Prather... and made an offer of a million dollars to him for a ten year contract... Prather plunged at it like a hungry carp, probably figuring that he would run into an editor at Pocket Books who would be so in awe of the million dollars that he would let the political commentary stay in the stories."

[This rather fanciful story is belied by Prather's own recollections, which can be read here.]

Burger, who MacDonald claimed was singularly blamed for letting Prather go, then begged MacDonald to try a series character, " help [him] out of this jam."

And so he began.

This being John D MacDonald, it involved an awful lot of hard work before he arrived at a character he was happy with, one he could "live with." Remember, this is the guy who began writing by working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week for four months before selling his second story, and who, even after he was an established force to be reckoned with, worked every day at the typewriter, from morning to evening with a single lunch break, and who took little time off. MacDonald would not settle for something he didn't consider his best effort.

He worked for several months, churning out 150,000 words he later trimmed down to 70,000, and ended up with a book he "could have sold." Could have, but didn't, because ultimately MacDonald was not happy with the person he had created.

His name was Dallas McGee, named after a personal friend of MacDonald's named Dallas Dort. He loved the use of a "geographical" name like Dallas, calling it "fun" and "easy to remember, like Tennessee Williams or Vermont Royster..."

"My man [Dallas McGee] was somber, full of dark areas, subject to a moody violence. And he was fixed so firmly in a locale [not revealed] that moving him about in later books would be an additional implausibility affecting the desired suspension of disbelief."

In later interviews MacDonald referred to this first version of Travis McGee as "... very heavy handed, somber and Germanic. He was very moody and very gloomy and he had a lot of drab observations about the world..." MacDonald shelved the effort and began a second attempt, retaining a few "useable parts and fragments."

A month later he had Version Two done.

"Wary of the somberness I did not feel he could sustain over a series, I swung too far the other way and ended up with a jolly, smirking jackass for my 'hero.' Oh, he had plenty of mobility, but he was a silly fellow. The book, as a one-shot, stood up well enough and I could have sold it, but again there were useable things which I wanted to save for the man who was beginning to take shape in my mind, the man I would find it possible to live with over the life of the series."

So the third attempt was the charm, and by the middle of 1963 MacDonald had produced The Deep Blue Good-By, starring Dallas McGee, a 60,000-word novel featuring a hero with "some of the man in the first book, some of the man in the second... but all the rest of it was McGee, an individual, recognizable, independent, feisty, wry, articulate and, bless him, reasonably mature."

So after nearly 400,000 words, MacDonald finally had a hero he "thought [he] might be able to go on with."

He sent it off to Fawcett and told them to wait. Not to publish it but to wait. He wanted to to be sure he could really do this.

"I was still not certain I could make it work. Would subsequent adventures dull him down to a formula, destroying freshness? Would the quality of his observations become trite through repetition? Was my attempt to give him reasonably meaningful emotional relationships within the accepted practices of our social order, and consistent with his character and needs, a valid novelistic dimension, or would it seem a rancid device to jack up the sales?"

The only way to find out, MacDonald reasoned, was to try another one. He began work of what would become Nightmare in Pink, and it seemed simple work. It fell together easily and the result was a compelling continuation of the character, out of his element and in real danger. MacDonald sent it to Fawcett and told them to... hold on. He still wasn't sure.

His attempt at a third McGee adventure seemed to prove all of the foreboding he had been feeling about working on a series character. The unnamed novel quickly "fell apart badly" and he shelved it. Admittedly "disturbed," he began work on a fourth McGee novel, "a long one, 125,000 words," which "held together" and which he eventually titled A Deadly Shade of Gold. Before sending it off he began work on a seventh McGee adventure, which came together nicely and which eventually saw light as A Purple Place for Dying. Buoyed by two successful attempts, he returned to the fifth novel, the one that "fell apart badly," in an attempt to pull something useful from it. He "did it over, without salvaging a single page" and ended up with an acceptable novel he titled The Quick Red Fox.

But there would be one more bump in the road. On November 22, 1963 President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, leaving that city's name with a "distaste" that would stay with it for years, at least until 1978, when the eponymous and incredibly successful television soap opera made people think of something different when they heard the name. But in 1963 "Dallas" would no longer do, and MacDonald began searching for another name for his hero. His friend, fellow writer and Sarasota drinking buddy MacKinlay Kantor suggested that MacDonald use the name of a US Air Force airbase. MacDonald perused a list of names and instantly lighted upon Travis Air Base in Fairfield, California. MacDonald's hero had a new name.

So, before the first Travis McGee novel was even published John D MacDonald had already written the first five entries in the series and had scrapped two novel-length "failures." He had, by his own account, written approximately a million and a quarter words about this hero. As MacDonald wrote, "It takes brute effort to achieve the illusion of effortlessness."

The Deep Blue Good-By and Nightmare in Pink were published simultaneously in April of 1964 and A Purple Place for Dying followed in June of that same year. By the time The Quick Red Fox hit the stands in October (four McGee's in a six month period!) the author already had two more TM adventures blocked out and ready to begin writing. A Deadly Shade of Gold eventually saw the light of day in February of 1965.

I have argued on this blog that John D MacDonald was, if anything, an insecure writer, made so by his curious belief that writers were born knowing that that is what they were meant to do and that all other hopefuls (such as himself) need not apply. He lived for years thinking himself an imposter, a "fraud," but it was that basic insecurity, I believe, that made him the superior writer that he was. He worked like a dog and wasn't afraid to shelve work he thought unworthy of reading, no matter how much time and effort he had put into it. This was a trait most evident in his early years while working in the lowly pulps, but it was present in nearly every phase of his career, whether he was attempting a series character, producing journalistic non-fiction or even re-publishing his own earlier work. He never though he was good enough and was consistently "abashed" when confronted with early work he thought inferior. "How To Live With a Hero" illustrates this to some degree, when he admits that of the 40 novels he had written by 1964, he was proud of only a few of them, ashamed of an equal few, and had "no strong opinion" of the remaining 30. When I re-read works like Dead Low Tide, or April Evil, or The Price of Murder, or The Damned and think that the author of these incredibly readable works of narrative fiction might have been indifferent toward them, or even dissatisfied with them, it blows my mind.

In September of 1964, when "How To Live With a Hero" was published, Travis McGee was far from a sure thing. The first two novels had sold well and the returns on the third were not yet complete. MacDonald was philosophical about the future, a luxury only a long-successful writer could afford. Yet his final paragraph in the piece reveals a lot about the man, and a lot about the writer, one to whom the act of writing was clearly more important than the act of publishing, even though he once pined that writing was like "dropping feathers down a well... one is thankful for any response one gets."

"... I am keeping an eye on McGee, and checking up on his progress. What if he doesn't make it out there? At least I shall be able to stop wondering if it was wise to attempt a series. And through 1.2 million words I have learned just that much more about my profession, learned skills and attitudes and solutions which will inevitably be valuable in other areas. No matter what I write from now on, McGee will, in one limited sense, be staring over my shoulder, pleasantly skeptical, waiting for the times when I try to make my fictional people do things inconsistent with their identities, and suddenly find them dragging their feet. His smile will be ironic.

"After more millions of words than I would care to estimate, I am still learning. And it helps to have a teacher like Travis McGee."

The original September 1964 issue of The Writer is nearly impossible to find these days, but the magazine is still being published and in July 2008 they reprinted this excellent article. The issue can be purchased from their website for a mere $6.95 (plus shipping). Well worth the expense for any lover of the craft of writing fiction, of the works of John D MacDonald, or of his most famous creation, Travis McGee, who most assuredly did "make it."