Fans of the Travis McGee series are, no doubt, aware of the twenty-one books that make up that fine collection, from Blue to Silver. Some of them may even be aware of the "twenty-second McGee," the posthumously-published monograph titled Reading For Survival, which is basically a long treatise on the importance of of the written word in modern society, presented as a conversation -- Meyer does most of the talking -- between McGee and his pal. But how many of you are aware of the fact that there exists a Travis McGee short story? It was published in the October 3, 1977 issue of New York Magazine (between Lemon and Copper), was called "Terminal Cases" and runs a mere 2,000 words. But before you get too excited about a McGee you may never have read, know this: "Terminal Cases" is not a narrative in the strict sense of the word, but another opportunity for Meyer (read: MacDonald) to get up on his soapbox and rant knowingly about a particular ill of the modern world.
It was September 1985 when John D MacDonald, while being interviewed for a television show called Library Edition, agreed to write Reading for Survival. The show's host, Jean Trebbi, was the Executive Director of The Florida Center for the Book (which was the local chapter of the Library of Congress' national Center for the Book), and a post-interview conversation between her and MacDonald sparked the idea to have the author pen a monograph on the importance of reading. Five years earlier historian Barbara Tuchman had written a similar monograph for the Center titled The Book, and MacDonald was a huge fan of Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. His agreement to tackle this assignment may have been influenced by this and the promise of joining such august company.
But things did not go well. MacDonald had trouble with the work from the beginning, and couldn't find a proper approach for the subject matter. Finally, a year later in the summer of 1986, his manuscript arrived at the desk of John Y. Cole of the Library of Congress, with the following apology: "The mountain has labored and brought forth a small, mangy, bad-tempered mouse of 7,200 words." He went on to explain why the project gave him such trouble:
"I could not make the essay work and I could not imagine why. I must have done two hundred pages of junk. Then Jean Trebbi wrote asking me why I didn't use the device of a conversation between McGee and Meyer. Why indeed? I am very sorry for taking so damn long."
This quote from MacDonald's letter (which appears in an Afterword to Reading for Survival) doesn't reveal if Trebbi's idea came from the previous "dialogue" between the two fictional characters, but I'm guessing that it must have. Beginning as far back as The Deep Blue Good-By, MacDonald used the character of Travis McGee to pontificate on the ills of society, and this device only became more pronounced with the introduction of Meyer, an intellectual's intellectual if there ever was one. Reading for Survival reads like a section straight from one of the latter-day McGee books, and so does "Terminal Cases." The problem with this kind of writing is that, without any story or reference to ground it, the works come off sounding like the exact things they were: the author's opinions voiced through the character of an intellectual, which -- when you think about it -- is pretty brazen.
The (very) thin framework of "Terminal Cases" consists of Trav and Meyer in New York City, there to bury a friend (one Morrie Fox), who died when a van, stolen by two Puerto Rican kids, jumped a curb and "punted" Morrie through a plate glass window. The funeral takes place on a rainy autumn afternoon and afterword, while purchasing a bottle of wine, Meyer becomes philosophical.
"McGee, all the activities of man if continued long enough have a 100 percent mortality. Living in the Russian mountains and downing yogurt will kill you after 120 years or so. We are all terminal cases."
His thoughts turn to guns, in general, and in particular to a gun "slogan": "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." He cites an example of two business partners, one of whom becomes engaged at the other during an argument, pulls a revolver from a drawer and shoots him dead.
"Old partner takes it in the skull. It slams him back against the wall and he drops onto his face. Heavily. There is blood and brain tissue on the wall. Old partner breathes twice more and stops. All the sphincters relax. Hydrostatic pressures have bulged the skull hideously. There's a stench of urine and fecal matter. And a horrid stillness. And the man who did the shooting suddenly realizes he has ended his own life too."
To which Meyer then asks the question: "What if he yanked the desk drawer open and took out a club?" The point being that anything requiring more effort than simply " crook[ing] one finger against a curved piece of metal and giv[ing] a little pull" would likely not result in death.
The subject then turns to overpopulation, a possible cause of people "getting... angrier lately." Meyer opines that perhaps murder is mankind's instinctive response to "numbers which have grown too big."
Then it's on to junk food ("additives addling the wits"), lack of stimulus in the developmental stages of life ("not enough hugging"), then finally... television(!), which he posits has become the new "peer group" of modern youth, replacing the built-in safety features of a small-town society. It's all a lot to process in 2,000 short words. The "narrative" -- if you can call it that -- consists simply of McGee and Meyer wandering around New York City, on their way to Pearl's to dine on some bitter melon, window shopping and avoiding the "predatory hookers."
MacDonald was not a fan of New York City and dreaded his trips there to meet with his publishers. He and friend Dan Rowan referred to the place as "dog turd city." The New York of 1977, when this story was written, was a very different place than it is today, with an ever-increasing crime rate and having just endured the Son of Sam killing spree. The very month this story was published a fire broke out in an abandoned elementary school in the Bronx while the Yankees were playing the Dodgers in the World Series. As the television cameras were pointed at the raging inferno (visible from the stadium) Howard Cosell intoned dramatically, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning." The incident seemed to sum up everything that was wrong with the city and had an air of apocalypse to it. I remember watching the game from my home in Maryland thinking the end of the world was nigh.
Of course, MacDonald's views on the city were well known to his fans by 1977. As far back as 1964, in Nightmare in Pink, Travis McGee makes the trip to the city to meet with Nina Gibson and he makes this memorable observation:
"New York is where it is going to begin, I think. You can see it coming. The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts. Until locust population reaches a certain density, they all act like any grasshoppers. When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world. We're nearing a critical point. One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. But this time they won't snarl and go on. They will stop and stare and then leap at each other's throats in a dreadful silence. The infection will spread outward from that point. Old ladies will crack skulls with their deadly handbags. Cars will plunge down the crowded sidewalks. Drivers will be torn out of their cars and stomped. It will spread to all the huge cities of the world, and by dawn of the next day there will be a horrid silence of sprawled bodies and tumbled vehicles, gutted buildings, and a few wisps of smoke. And through that silence will prowl a few of the most powerful ones, ragged and bloody, slowly tracking each other down."
As far as I can tell, "Terminal Cases" has never been reprinted.
Friday, January 28, 2011
Saturday, January 8, 2011
In August 1956 John D MacDonald published Murder in the Wind, his eighteenth novel and his third that year. The book is a return to one of the author's favorite structures, the multi-character story centered around a single incident or calamity. It was a structure he had first used in his 1952 blockbuster The Damned and one he returned to often in his non-first person narratives. In The Damned the focal point was a disabled ferry in Mexico, in Cry Hard, Cry Fast it was a multi-car pileup on a busy highway, and in All These Condemned it was a weekend party at an upstate New York lake house. Murder in the Wind uses an infinitely more dramatic device, a Florida hurricane, that causes a group of disparate characters to seek shelter together in a remote and abandoned house somewhere north of Tampa.
MacDonald was born in Pennsylvania but lived most of his early life -- from age ten onward -- in upstate New York, and most of his early novels and short stories take place in a sometimes-thinly disguised version of that locale. It wasn't until the fall of 1949, when MacDonald was nearly 33-years old, that he and his family decided to make Florida their home, first in Clearwater and later -- permanently -- in Sarasota. Before Murder in the Wind MacDonald had set only three of his seventeen novels in Florida -- The Brass Cupcake, Dead Low Tide and April Evil -- and while the setting of the Sunshine State adds to the flavor of those earlier novels, Murder in the Wind is the first JDM work that could have been set nowhere else. The fictional Hurricane Hilda is as much a character in the story as any of the human participants, and the author spends many words on the science and destructive force of this particular storm. It also serves as a very obvious metaphor for the various crises in the lives of the protagonists, but thankfully MacDonald doesn't spend a lot of time on this literary device. He seems to have grown from the obvious use of weather to reflect conflict, as in Cancel All Our Vows and Area of Suspicion, and his use of "the storm" has been included more organically here: in Murder in the Wind the weather is an actual mover in the plot, not simply a literary reflection of emotion.
What the regular reader of John D MacDonald would have noted in 1956 with Murder in the Wind is an author whose talent was now firing on all cylinders, one who had left behind a lot of the occasionally tentative writing found in his earlier work and who now wrote confidently and with a unique voice. If April Evil showed he could do it in a crime novel, Murder in the Wind was evidence he could be master of a more mainstream effort, albeit with some crime elements included. When Anthony Boucher called MacDonald "the John O'Hara of the crime novel" he was referring to April Evil, and that characterization certainly fit in that novel, but Murder in the Wind really makes that statement obvious, almost as if MacDonald took it as a challenge. From this point forward MacDonald's writing was uniformly excellent and he began a long string of superb but nearly forgotten novels, gems like Death Trap, The Price of Murder, The Empty Trap and Soft Touch, to name only a few.
Like his previous "thrown together by adversity" novels, the plot of Murder in the Wind is simplicity itself. Six carloads of people -- two driving solo while the rest in cars of twos, threes and fours -- are driving north on Florida Route 19 above Tampa, all on business, personal or otherwise, that will take them out of the state. They are a random group who are still strangers to each other, and like MacDonald's previous novels with a similar structure, all are moving by automobile. The "adversity" here is Hurricane Hilda, which is forming itself into a storm of historic strength far out in the Gulf of Mexico, a fact nearly unknown to all in the pre-weather satellite days of 1956. By the time they have reached the Waccasassa River the bridge there is out and they are directed down a remote bypass road that passes an old, rambling and now deserted house. With the storm increasing in strength and passing directly over them, they can go no further and all seek shelter in the abandoned house.
MacDonald is at pains to prove the plausibility of such a strong storm, years before names like Donna, Andrew and Katrina were written in history, providing a brief "Author's Note" at the beginning of the book and interspersing the narrative with omniscient updates on the track and power of the storm. And while it is obvious to the reader that the hurricane and the characters will eventually "meet," Murder in the Wind is primarily a suspense novel, with the tension provided by the deep characterization created by the author. I've written endlessly in this blog about how MacDonald's apprenticeship as a short story writer made him the perfect author for these kinds of multi-character tales, and nowhere is that more true than in this novel. All of the characters -- roughly ten in all -- are each given a history and background as interesting and as engaging as any in his best shorter works, and it is through this incredibly detailed characterization that MacDonald drives narrative, that attribute of fiction he held in the highest esteem.
We first meet the Dorn family, Hal and Jean and their two young children Stevie and Jan. Hal Dorn is a rare MacDonald character, a failed businessman whose attempts to establish a consulting practice in Florida have led to little and is slowly draining the family's savings. Previously a successful accountant with an engineering firm in New York, the family moved to Florida two years ago because of the severe asthma attacks suffered by Stevie. Accustomed to lifelong success born of intelligence and a dogged work ethic, Hal took it for granted that he would have no trouble getting started all over again at the age of 31. But he has had to admit defeat. The morning of the hurricane is also the morning the Dorns are heading back to New York in their loaded station wagon.
Interestingly, MacDonald begins telling the story of the Dorns through the eyes of wife Jean, almost as if he is unable or unwilling to explore failure through the character of the failed, although later he will. The family's plight is poignantly told and will have strong echoes four years later in the author's great short story, "The Trap of Solid Gold." Jean, who is several months pregnant with the couple's third child, is up first that morning and it gives her (and the author) a chance to establish the family's situation.
"Defeat was a very bitter thing. They had never suspected that it would happen to them. They were the golden ones. The undefeated. Accustomed to the warm bright smile of good fortune... They had been so certain that they could make it, that they would never fail. Hal, with all his tireless energy, could not be defeated. But he had been. Soundly whipped. He had picked up some small accounts. Some bars, a few neighborhood stores, a small boat company. But not enough. He had given up the office to cut expenses. He worked at home. It did not help enough. [Jean] cut every possible penny from their expenses, but it was not enough. The meager reserve dwindled as their fear grew. There was no one to turn to, no one in all the world.
"And she had to watch Hal tearing himself apart. That was perhaps the worst part. He found a full time job in a warehouse and he would work in his accounts at night, often falling asleep at his desk. He became thinner and more silent and he became irritable with the children... A month ago they came to the end of the line."
The bags are packed, the house sold, and after a bleak breakfast the Dorns are in the car and heading north. It is then that MacDonald gets inside Hal's head, as he navigates through the driving rain, nursing his defeat. He reasons that his failure was one of chance, "a loss like on a crap table, or taken by somebody who forced a window. But there's the other loss. Esteem. Husband who couldn't make it. Father who dropped the ball." He recalls his own father, a mining foreman who lost his job when Hal was still in school.
"Laid off. When you found out that those were the words they had a funny sound. Not laid down. Or laid away. Laid off. Off in a far place."
Hal's father got a few temporary, poorly-paying jobs but eventually faded away to nothingness, leaving his now-teenaged son with little more than shame. His own situation now causes himself to make a mental apology to his long-dead father. "Old man, forgive me. I stood at your grave on that bright warm day. I felt affection, and regret and contempt. Forgive me for the contempt."
MacDonald ends each introductory chapter with a unique literary gimmick, much as he did in his earlier multi-character novels like All These Condemned (the "before" and "after" chapters for each character) and Cry Hard, Cry Fast (citing the exact time at the beginning of each chapter). In Murder in the Wind each beginning chapter ends with the next-to-be-introduced character's car spotted by the character of that particular chapter. It's written in a segregated section, complete with parentheses and italics. Each device references the current strength of the storm and is a handy way of moving on to the next character while reinforcing the fact that they are all connected and that the storm will be the cause of that connection. Like all such devices the author came up with, he used it once and then abandoned it. By the time he wrote his magnum opus of multi-character novels, Condominium, he was done with gimmicks, having grown to the point where he didn't need them any more.
The Dorns are followed by Bunny and Betty Hollis, newlyweds returning from their honeymoon. Driving a sleek new Mercedes coupe, the Hollises are not your average newlywed couple. Bunny is a 35-year old tennis bum and Betty is a 21-year old heiress to a fortune. Bunny, who has always managed to end up on the short end of the stick, in both his personal and professional life, has maneuvered himself into this marriage to a former tennis student. Betty is a plain, overweight and intensely shy young woman, the product of every good thing money could buy. Bunny had little trouble making the impressionable girl fall in love with him and through patience and planning, managed to wed her, even over the formidable objections of her industrialist father. MacDonald's development of these people will take an interesting -- if not entirely unsurprising -- turn over the course of the novel, as we learn that Betty is not as complacent as her husband thinks her to be, and Bunny turns out to be less of a heel than the reader is initially led to believe.
The best part of this introductory chapter is Bunny's backstory, a tale of a promising young tennis player who, in a single fell swoop, squanders all of his training and potential. Taken under the wing of a crusty old coach at a very young age, Bunny develops over the years into a very promising prospect. But when he travels to his first out-of-state tournament the coach is unable to accompany him so Bunny must go alone. When he arrives at the club he finds that a member has arranged to board him in her home. As she pulls up to pick him up, the woman is given a memorable introduction by the author.
"She was a smallish woman. He could not guess her age. She could have been thirty or forty. She had a tanned pretty face, but so heavily lined that it made him think of a small brown monkey. She wore a low-necked blouse and her breasts were large and it made him feel uncomfortable to look at the front of her. She drove very briskly and competently. Finally they went up a ridge road and turned through big iron gates and up a private road to a house that looked like a president had lived there. A polite man came and took the racket case and suitcase. She said he might as well look the place over and then she would show him where his room was... He saw that she had a nice figure.
"That night at dinner he met [her husband], a man who looked about eighty. His head shook all the time and he had white hair. Things kept dropping off his fork and he didn't seem to be able to follow the conversation very well."
It doesn't take long for the inevitable to happen, that first night when the monkey-woman slips into virgin Bunny's bed after the lights are out. The next day he plays poorly and loses, and when he returns home his coach kicks him out of his own club and abandons him. It's a tale of squandered trust that is very similar to that of Dil Parks' New York errand in April Evil. From then on it was a typical life of a mid-level tennis amateur, moving around from one tournament to another, "never top man, but a credible showing." He also learned to spot the "monkey women" of the tennis world and he learned to respond to them, collecting gifts and valuables along the way. But after getting drafted and a very brief stint as a professional, Bunny ends up teaching tennis as the pro at Betty's club.
Johnny Flagan is driving a new Cadillac on the same road, a car containing two more characters in Murder in the Wind. Johnny is another familiar MacDonald "type," an up-from-his-bootstraps wheeler-dealer whose amiable appearance and easy smile belie a deeply competitive and focused personality, and a man whose lack of morality allows him to stop at nothing to get what he wants.
"Johnny Flagan would look over his glasses at you and grin wryly about his morning hangover and you would never notice that the grin did nothing to change the eyes. The eyes were small and brown and watchful and they could have been the noses of two bullets dimly seen in the cylinder when you look toward the muzzle of a gun."
Johnny's behind the wheel only because the hurricane has caused all air traffic in the area to be canceled. He's heading to a small town near Waycross, Georgia to try and fix a deal that has been seriously queered by his nominal assistant Charlie, an elderly retiree who is possibly the most interesting character in the book. Charlie works for Johnny only because the two men's wives are friends and because Johnny's wife asked him to help out. When Charlie was up in Waycross he talked a bit too loosely to some would-be fellow investors in a land deal, and his talk may have not only scuttled the deal but could bring down Johnny's little business empire in quick order. Johnny is ready to fire Charlie and as the two drive together Johnny eventually explodes and rains a blistering string of words down on Charlie.
"I'll tell you what you are, Charlie. You're a damn clerk. You never were anything but a clerk in your life. You had to have somebody standing over you telling you exactly what the hell to do. I should have seen that before I sent you up there alone. You get an office of your own and you think you're some kind of big shot. You weren't a big shot and you aren't a big shot, Charlie. I sent you up there to keep in touch and let me know the developments. But you had to prove you can sit at a desk. So you open your mouth and start talking policy. You don't know anything about policy. But you have to hear the sickening sound of your own voice. You have to tell all those people up there exactly how important you are... I wouldn't keep you up there after the charter comes through if all you had to do was sweep the floor... Jesus Christ! You up there acting like a big expert, and all the time you were as far out of your league as... Hell, you were a kitten up there, and those are big hungry dogs. You aren't worth a poop, Charlie. Not one little poop in a whirlwind. and when you aren't padding around gumming things up, you're a God damn bore."
(Yes, MacDonald really wrote "poop." This was 1956, after all.)
We don't get to go inside of Charlie Himbermark's head until late in the book, but when we do we find a beautiful job of character creation, a timid ex-clerk who worked most of his life in the trust department of a large northern bank. Charlie is a bore, an oblivious, banal talker who is obsequious to a fault. He constantly looks back with nostalgia on the life he led before moving to Florida, working for "The Bank," handling accounts, married to Georgiana, his wisp of a wife who suffered from constant migraines and who -- apparently -- didn't go in much for the physical side of marriage. It's all about "dignity," to Charlie, and he smarts after his dressing down from Johnny.
"It certainly was a comedown in life to have to take the punishment that came from Johnny Flagan's mouth. To have to sit meek as a lamb and say yessir and nosir, and never contradict. Flagan with his stinking little deals. Flagan couldn't possibly know what the big time was like. He'd never be able to understand a business that was conducted with dignity and purpose and understanding... Flagan had no feeling for dignity. He had no style. It was laughable to think of Flagan ever trying to hold a job at The Bank. Grossinger would have fired him during the first week. The Bank was no place for loud talk, flamboyant clothing and a whiskey breath. There was tradition there. Quiet sound tradition."
MacDonald was nothing if not a master of limited third person point of view, a practice he employed often in his multi-character novels, especially in the expositional chapters. As can be seen from this example, it is so internalized as to verge on the first person P-O-V, and it allows the author the freedom to switch back and forth as the narrative requires. It's also a perfect method for revealing not only the voice of the character, but the blind spots in their personalities. This is done beautifully as Charlie describes his second wife, the very-different Agnes. We only see her through Charlie's brief descriptions, but seen through his eyes the reader develops their own image, one that is different and probably more accurate than Charlie's.
They met through Charlie's work, the job he got when he first came to Florida, employed in a small investment firm. Agnes came in to check on her positions and Charlie's recollection of that day gives us a telling portrait of a person.
"She was a rather nice looking woman of about fifty-five. She was tanned a deep brown and wore an orange blouse and what seemed like quite a lot of costume jewelry. She had a rather deep laugh, and sparkling dark eyes. She looked almost, that first day, as if she were some kind of a gypsy."
The two started seeing one another and eventually, "without his ever quite knowing how it came about," they married. Charlie's state of oblivion goes into overdrive when he describes the sexual nature of the new union, in a nearly comic series of paragraphs that reveal Agnes to be quite a character. Here's one of them:
"There certainly was a great difference between the first wife and the second. Georgiana had always been so sensitive and rather shy. She had never talked about the sexual side of marriage. When he had married Agnes he had not thought very much about the sexual aspects of it. He had even hoped that Agnes would agree that they had both outgrown that sort of thing -- outlived it, rather. But buxom, earthy Agnes had other plans. At first it made him feel quite ridiculous, but soon he began to take a peculiar pride in being able to respond almost as well as when he had been a very young man. Agnes distressed him with bawdy comments about the food she bought for him, and he had been very reluctant to go to a doctor for those injections. But when you overlooked that side of Agnes, she was really a wonderful person to be with, and he felt lucky to have married her. Except when he thought of Georgiana, and then he felt guilty about marrying again."
Finally, MacDonald gives Agnes the novel's funniest line, for me at least. Charlie recalls:
"Georgiana had always treated him and his work with respect. But Agnes was always puncturing his dignity. 'Please, I beg of you, don't start telling me again about that mausoleum of a bank you once worked in. [My first husband] Carl used to say all big city bankers are disappointed undertakers. If you must keep dithering around looking for a job, let me see what I can do, dear.'"
As an ex-banker myself, that was the book's one laugh-out-loud moment.
In virtually all of MacDonald's multi-character novels there is a criminal element, and Murder in the Wind is no exception. Among the author's little group of cars heading north is a stolen panel truck containing three young bad guys, two males and a female. We first meet Billy Torris, an eighteen year old chain gang fugitive who has fallen under the spell of another escapee, Frank Stratter, a twenty-three year old. Billy is described as "thin, wiry, with a weak troubled face -- the fading honey color that was all that was left of the deep tan he had acquired on the road job, working under the watchful shotguns of the guards." Billy's descent into the criminal world is expertly recalled by MacDonald: a night driving around with friends that led eventually to a gas station robbery, the maiming of the attendant there and the shooting death of one of his friends by the police. Only a few days past his eighteenth birthday, Billy is charged, tried and sentenced as an adult and sent to the road gang, where he meets fellow-inmate Frank.
If Billy is an accidental criminal, Frank Stratter is a born one, a quintessential soulless sociopath that MacDonald frequently peopled his crime novels with. He is part of a long line of "blackness-for-its-own-sake" villains that began with Roy Kenny in Dead Low Tide and continued on in novels such as All These Condemned, You Live Once and April Evil. Frank's true character is revealed gradually and it isn't until late in the story that the reader realizes exactly what kind of person he is, but the seasoned JDM reader surely will spot it in Billy's recollection of his first meeting with the man.
"It made [Billy] feel good to be Frank's friend, because Frank wasn't the kind to be friendly with just anybody... He was tall and blonde and had one of those builds like a cowboy -- big wide shoulders and real little hips... He had pale eyebrows and pale lashes and the eyebrows were white against the deep road-camp tan. It gave his face a sort of funny naked look. He never changed expression much. He moved easy and lightly and he always somehow looked cleaner and neater than the others, even after one of the real stinking hot days... Nobody pushed Frank Stratter around..."
After their escape from a gang detail near Lakeland, they hijack a car and eventually make their way to Miami, where they hole up in a motel and support themselves by robbing liquor stores. Eventually Frank leaves for a couple of days to go pick up an old girlfriend. Billy imagines "a real smooth dish, with silky legs and one of those wet red mouths and wise eyes," but is shocked when Frank returns with Hope Morrissey.
"She was just a plain country girl in a cotton dress and evidently not a damn thing else, standing there barefoot in the apartment, and she didn't look over fifteen or sixteen. She had a kind of wide face and sleepy-looking eyes and she was built a little heavy, but she was really stacked, She pushed out on all parts of that cotton dress... She had a thin country-sounding voice and she wasn't at all like Billy had thought she would be. She couldn't walk within five feet of Frank without him grabbing her, but she didn't seem to mind or even hardly pay any attention. She'd brush on by like he wasn't there. Anyway, it was good to have somebody do the cooking, even if she couldn't cook very good. She wasn't very clean or very good about picking up around the place. Her ankles always looked sort of grubby and she never combed her hair much. Frank got clothes for her, but she liked to pad around in that old cotton dress, barefoot, humming to herself in a funny tuneless way."
It isn't until later in the chapter, when we get inside Frank's head and hear the story of his trip to pick up his girlfriend that we learn that Hope was not the object of his errand but is, in fact, his girlfriend's younger sister.
The three of them live together in an apartment for several weeks until it all comes crashing down. Somehow they are discovered, but are not at home when the police arrive to surround their building. They steal a truck and make their way toward New Orleans, where Frank has promised new living quarters but in fact has secret plans to abandon the two somewhere along the way.
The two most uninteresting characters in Murder in the Wind are the ostensible main characters, a solo man and a solo woman who, you can tell from the beginning, are going to somehow end up together. The man is Steve Malden, a typical MacDonald hero whose physical description is nearly interchangeable with many others he created:
"... he was big with that special quality of hardness that looks invulnerable. Square hard jaw, thick neck, gray-flecked hair cropped close to the round hard skull, beard shadow under the tight skin of the face. His eyes were brown and very deeply set. He smiled readily and often, and the smile seldom reached to the eyes."
Steve is an agent with the FBI and he is a counter-intelligence expert in rooting out communist spies, although nether the term FBI or the word "communist" is ever used. He's down in Florida finishing up a five-year hunt for the last member of a spy cell that he exposed in New Mexico and who retaliated by blowing up his wife of two years. After locating the commie rat in St. Pete, he has notified his superiors and is heading home. Steve is hardnosed and stoic, a demeanor that belies the deep pangs of loss he feels over the death of his wife. It's a situation nearly identical to that of another character in another MacDonald multi-character novel, Dev Jamison in Cry Hard, Cry Fast. And while MacDonald treats the widowhood of Charlie Himbermark with humor, the pain Steve Malden feels is realistically portrayed.
Virginia Sherrel is the last main character and the third who has been widowed, although for her it has been a very recent event. The young wife of a New York City ad agency writer, Ginny has the obligatory good looks, tall slim frame, pale eyes and intelligence to be a typically attractive JDM heroine (albeit a rare brunette), but her story is fairly lame and her character way too predictable to make the reader care much about her. Her husband David -- tall, slim, blonde and shy (and gay? Perhaps, but JDM doesn't even come close to going there) -- was prone to wild swings in mood, a bi-polar personality that in the seventh year of their marriage had become permanently stalled in the perigee of its arc. Unable to bring him out of his depression, Ginny tries everything but without success. It comes as quite a shock to her when he tells her that he is going away -- alone -- for a period of time to try and get himself adjusted. But she accepts and he goes, eventually ending up in Sarasota, where he kills himself in his motel room.
Ginny goes down to Florida, has David cremated, stays awhile herself spending the long days sitting on the beach, and is now on the road home, with David's urn in the trunk of her car.
Ginny Sherrel is reminiscent of the other love interests in prior JDM novels, and there are traces of Linda Gerrold (The Damned) and Kathryn Aller (Cry Hard, Cry Fast) in both her character and situation. Like Gerrold, she was married to a less-than-perfect man who was possibly homosexual (although it was pretty clearly spelled out in The Damned) and like Aller she is at the tail end of a seven year relationship, all alone in the world and ready to begin again. All three women are MacDonald paragons and ripe for the picking, and all end up in their respective novels as the primary love interest. But there is little to hold the reader's interest in the internal monologues of Ginny, as plucky and as independent as the author attempts to make her. Her life is seen almost entirely through the prism of her dead husband and, frankly, he's not that interesting either. MacDonald often struggled when writing realistic females, as he did with the character of Alice Furman in Contrary Pleasure, and here he has resorted to using previous characters as his template. Ginny may work as a beautiful, desirable love interest for Steve Malden, but as a character in her own right she is the weakest in the book.
So all of these various people end up on the same highway, are stuck at the same bridge (blocked by a tractor trailer driven by a character who gets his own terrific backstory chapter), are diverted to a side road and end up in the abandoned house. Enter the real force of the hurricane, which passes directly over them.
MacDonald's working title for Murder in the Wind was The Hurricane and there is evidence that he submitted the novel under that title, only to have it altered by the editors at Dell. The story's simultaneous appearance as a (very) abridged novel in the August 1956 issue of Redbook was titled "Hurricane" and the British hardcover edition published by Hale also used that designation, the only such case of alternate titling among the Hale releases. All paperback editions printed in the UK were titled Hurricane. It wouldn't be the first time MacDonald endured an editor changing his title.
Dell's first printing was a relatively modest 200,000 copies, significantly less than the three previous JDM Dell First Editions. The book was well received and reviewed in a variety of newspapers throughout the country, including the Boston Globe ("Author's command of the medium is awesomely good, his people memorable"), the New York Herald Tribune ("a very skillful piece of work... one of those infrequent books from which it's difficult to detach yourself"), as well as the always reliable Anthony Boucher in the New York Times ("a powerful piece of storytelling"). Other reviews appeared in the Montreal Star, the Detroit News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and even in Saturday Review ("first-rate performance all through"). It made it into Barzun & Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime, one of only four non-Travis McGee titles to do so. It's a curious selection, as there is so little crime in the novel -- a point made clear in their brief write-up, while at the same time spoiling part of the ending.
The various covers to the many editions of the novel are varied and interesting. The best was the one that appeared on the first edition, created by George Gross, an artist whose only other JDM cover was the terrific girl-in-the-crosshairs illustration for the earlier A Bullet for Cinderella. It depicts a bare-shouldered woman (Ginny Sherrel, I presume) looking out a blown-open door at the hurricane as a window shutter sails by. It has a distinctive yellow background and may look more like the cover to a romance novel, but it is beautiful paperback art nonetheless.
Dell published one more printing of the novel, four years later and confused everyone by calling it a first edition (a frequent practice by Dell). Artist Bob Abbett penned his only JDM cover for this edition, a depiction of Ginny, far more buxom than she is described in the novel, sitting in a corner of the ramshackle house. Another nice cover.
Dell published one more printing of the novel, four years later and confused everyone by calling it a first edition (a frequent practice by Dell). Artist Bob Abbett penned his only JDM cover for this edition, a depiction of Ginny, far more buxom than she is described in the novel, sitting in a corner of the ramshackle house. Another nice cover.
When Fawcett purchased the MacDonald catalog in the early sixties they published their own first edition in January 1965, featuring a new cover by Robert McGinnis. It depicts Steve and a now-blonde Ginny on the porch of the house looking out at the hurricane. This illustration would be featured in one form or another on the first five Fawcett editions, through November 1972. In November 1974 the publisher issued a sixth edition, featuring another McGinnis cover showing the solitary figure of a very un-1956 Ginny wearing a mini skirt and go-go boots, looking out the window of the house from the stairway landing.
Finally, in March 1982 the eleventh edition of the novel was published, featuring a new cover by artist William Schmidt, the man whose work appears on nearly all of the last editions of the non-McGee MacDonald paperbacks. It is nothing more than the image of a solitary window, seen from the inside looking out, with a man in a raincoat pointing a flashlight and looking in.
Twenty-one years after the publication of Murder in the Wind MacDonald would revisit both the multi-character novel and the subject of Florida hurricanes in his blockbuster best seller Condominium. With almost three times the number of characters and over twice as many pages, Condominium would take what is basically the same situation and turn it into a sprawling jeremiad lamenting the state of overdeveloped Florida, retirement in America and the shoddy building practices that were common to easy development. The ramshackle house is replaced by a new but cheaply-built retirement high-rise on the west coast of Florida and, again, MacDonald imagines what a killer hurricane would do to both the lives of his characters and to Florida in general. It was an older, far more jaded MacDonald who wrote Condominium, one who had largely given up on any hope of retaining the pristine nature of the state he had called home since 1949, and his Hurricane Ella did what MacDonald could only imagine doing.
Author Stephen King, who became friends with MacDonald a few years before the latter's death, has often cited JDM as one of the three writers who inspired him to become an author. He famously called MacDonald "the great entertainer of our age" and frequently had the characters in his books making reference to JDM. MacDonald reciprocated, even having Travis McGee reading King's Cujo in The Lonely Silver Rain. After MacDonald died in 1986 King wrote a brief appreciation of the author whose writing he loved, published along with similar remembrances by many other fellow writers, in a special issue of Mystery Scene Reader. King was recalling the time he told his agent he wanted MacDonald to write the introduction to his first collection of short stories, Night Shift, and how he felt it was presumptuous, nearly blasphemous, to even wish for such a thing. He recalled what made MacDonald's work so special and singled out Murder in the Wind.
"I had read my first MacDonald novel, Murder in the Wind, at the age of twelve and had been knocked cockeyed by it... and both while reading it and afterward, I went around in a state of exhilaration, thinking 'So it can be done. It can be.'
"By 'it' I suppose I meant telling the truth about life even while you were writing for the popular market, so often regarded by those self-esteeming English profs as a market made up of closet sadists, lowbrow truck-drivers, and bored housewives. But even at twelve, with no more experience of life than a rural upbringing could afford, I knew the feel of the real when it touched me in that book. How could I, or anyone, not feel it? Murder in the Wind did not reach out and touch you; it grabbed you, jerked you into a dark alley, and assaulted you.
"MacDonald was writing about people I knew, about smells I had smelled, and I thought, about the way I would feel under certain circumstances. It was like seeing your first color movie after a lifetime of black-and-white."
Murder in the Wind, like most all of the author's non-Travis McGee novels, is out of print but easily obtainable for a couple of bucks through any online used book seller.