On August 26 of this year of the John D MacDonald Centenary, a second edition of the JDM biography The Red Hot Typewriter by Hugh Merrill will be re-published by Stark House Press. Stark House is a small, independent California publisher of mainly reprints of long out-of-print mystery and suspense novels from the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. With used copies of the original hardcover Red Hot Typewriter readily available, and a digital version for sale for a mere $7.99, why should anyone bother with a new paperback version priced at $19.95?
The Stark House edition represents a significant improvement over Merrill’s original work, with additional material added and many of the author’s original errors corrected. I know this because I was involved with the editing of the new edition and made many of the corrections myself, in addition to editing and amending the book’s bibliography. I came late to the project but, thanks to the miracle of this age of computers, was able to get my contributions included just under the wire. This will be a book that everyone interested in the life and works of John D MacDonald should own.
I’ve been acquainted with Stark House for several years now and have been a member of their Crime Club book club since 2010. Their handsome editions -- usually two or three novels per volume -- line the shelves of my office and have introduced me to many of the authors of crime and suspense who were MacDonald’s contemporaries during his stand-alone era. Writers like Gil Brewer, Margaret Millar, Orrie Hitt, Day Keene, Peter Rabe, Frank Kane, Dan J Marlowe, Wade Miller and Harry Whittington were, for the most part, just names to me before I had the opportunity to actually read their works, novels written in the prime of their careers. Thanks to Stark House I now have a greater understanding of the literary world MacDonald grew up in, the kinds of books he was expected to produce, as well as just simply enjoying the hell out of reading many of these forgotten works.
I first became aware of the upcoming publication of The Red Hot Typewriter back in April, when I read about it in the monthly Stark House newsletter. I immediately contacted Stark House publisher Greg Sheppard to inquire if this was going to be a straight reprint or if additional material would be added. He informed me that the new edition would include two essays, one new and one a reprint, as well as a reprint of a JDM interview conducted back in 1984. The new essay would be written by former JDM Bibliophile editor Cal Branche and would attempt to add some literary understanding to MacDonald’s work, an element sadly lacking in the Merrill original. The other essay was Ed Gorman’s 2013 Mystery Scene article titled “My 10 Favorite John D MacDonald Standalone Novels.” The interview was also conducted by Gorman.
I also learned that Merrill, who had approved of the reprint, passed away from a heart attack in December 2015.
Through some back and forth between me and Greg I eventually ended up offering to reread the biography and provide him a list of the many errors that existed in the original text. I also offered some additional material for the bibliography of the novels and, eventually, an extensive listing of MacDonald’s short stories, something that had been completely ignored in the original. Greg was open to all of these suggestions, so I immediately set about preparing this information. Luckily I had a couple of postings for The Trap of Solid Gold already prepared and ready to post, otherwise the amount of time I spent on this project would have meant complete silence here for the past couple of weeks.
Longtime readers of this blog are no doubt aware of my many criticisms of The Red Hot Typewriter. Merrill wrote the book conducting little original research outside of mining the holdings of The John D MacDonald Collection at The University of Florida. He doesn’t seem to have read any of MacDonald’s vast short story output and relatively few of his novels. Which may have been a good thing, for when he does attempt anything close to literary criticism the results range from the superficial to the downright awful. He makes little attempt to understand or communicate the reason MacDonald’s prose was so timeless and unique, and he never bothers to delve into why JDM’s work holds a special place in the fiction of his time. The many errors that peppered the original reveal a complete ignorance of the finer points of MacDonald’s work, from citing titles incorrectly to discussing plots that have nothing to do with the story he’s talking about. There are Wikepedia-like backgrounds on subjects ranging from the history of pulp magazines, to the early history of Sarasota, to the American thriller, to the 1952 congressional hearings on pornography in paperbacks and comic books. Most of these are several pages long and bring the narrative to a dead halt, illuminating little about John D MacDonald.
On the other hand, The Red Hot Typewriter offers the most complete, exhaustive and detailed story of the life of MacDonald, his family, his business contemporaries and friends to be found anywhere outside of a university library. Much of this story is brought to life through the thousands of letters MacDonald wrote and received throughout his lifetime, revealing his inner thoughts, hopes, ambitions and fears, so the reader gets to hear this through JDM himself. Many periods of his life, which beforehand were presented in a necessarily cursory fashion, are fleshed out and brought to life by Merrill’s research. This includes his early life, his time in the military, his sometimes-touchy relationships with family members (his sister’s story is a real tragedy), and a mid-sixties fatal attraction that may or may not have happened. My own knowledge of MacDonald’s life and background was pretty extensive after 40 years of fandom, but I learned much about the man by reading and re-reading The Red Hot Typewriter.
I wrote in my 2009 piece on the biography that, despite its shortcomings, The Red Hot Typewriter was “the single most complete story of [MacDonald’s] life and, as such, belongs in every MacDonald fan’s library.” I’ll repeat that claim here and double down on it thanks to the additional material Stark House has added. While the two Ed Gorman entries are both readily available to anyone with an internet connection, the excellent essay by Cal Branche and the additional bibliographic material, not to mention the correction of the errors found in the original, all make this an edition that really should be on every MacDonald fan’s bookshelf.
The Red Hot Typewriter can be purchased, on or after August 26, through the publisher’s website, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and even at your local well-stocked bookstore (they still have those, don’t they?).