Monday, February 25, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 15: January 29, 1948

Here's the next installment of John D MacDonald's 1947-1948 Clinton Courier newspaper column, From the Top of the Hill. Here he continues his rant on the low quality of commercial radio in the United States, obviously needing to get in the last word on the subject. His mention of the "race-destruction potentialities of the atomic bomb" is interesting, in that he had just seen his novella "And the World Will Die" published in the November-December issue of Doc Savage Magazine. It's very early JDM science fiction about nuclear proliferation in the early 1950's.

The Battle of the Airwaves

We've got another letter from that Friend of American Radio -- Bill Sykes. Sorry, Bill, but we can't use the letter. You see, in that conversational column we split the conversation between us. You had your say and we had ours.

In the latest letter of yours, you give both sides of a conversation, inserting a mythical Britisher in there to talk to you. Thus you put us on the side of being a Friend of the BBC. We're not. We think it's terrible.

You make the assumption that if we criticize American Radio, we must want government operation of radio. That's pretty fancy logic, Bill. We think it's up to American Radio, as free enterprise, to prove its right to lease the air waves by cleaning its own house.

So let's leave the BBC out of this. Neither of us like it. Okay?

Now to get to the additional points you bring up in your letter -- points which bear on our original argument.

You say that the British, or any foreign listener, is thrilled to hear J. Benny, F. Allen, Lux Radio Theatre. Agreed. So would anyone else be, if they were hearing it for the first time. It's novel, and, being novel, has a certain vitality.

But, on the basis of a decade, the same old formula gets a little tiring. Benny is right up there on top, but is his supremacy challenged by anything fresh, novel? No. The kids that try to steal from Benny's Hooper Rating do it by trying to copy Mr. Benny.

I gather that you want the dissatisfied listeners to gripe to the Federal Communications Division. Not with our complaint, Bill. That system is set up to handle gripes against individual stations and individual programs. We just feel that the broadcasting industry, as a whole, has too condescending an attitude toward the intelligence of the average listener, and could improve quality of programs. You can't send that sort of gripe to your Congressman or to the FCC. That kind of gripe has to be aired in something like the public press. The program quality will improve when listeners boycott the products of the companies who subsidize mediocrity.

You wonder, Bill, why we should complain when, as you say all we have to do is just "twist the dial". Twist it to what? Look back at our previous conversation.

You state that the broadcasting industry had sampled the public and found a strong preference for "Soap Operas" during the daytime hours.

We think that we could sample the third grade and find a strong preference for bubble gum chewing instead of arithmetic.

Not that we feel the public should be bound hand and foot and have "culture" fed to everyone with a tin spoon. No indeed!

But we do feel that the broadcasting industry should shoulder a small portion of our perpetual problem of adult education. Bill, a lot of the brightest men in this country are deeply concerned because the public cannot be awakened to the race-destruction potentialities of the atomic bomb. If, as a nation we are to survive, it must be through a constant, slow, steady increase in awareness and this awareness can only be achieved though education. All of us must become just a little smarter and a little better informed.

Radio can shoulder its share of the burden by raising its sights a trifle and making the average program of every variety a bit more mature.

It is so obvious that nothing will be gained by a perpetual maintenance of the insipid, flavorless and unrealistic antics of the soap operas.

Continue to have soap operas, Bill. But make them better, Make their little two dimensional pasteboard characters face honest and adult problems. This cannot be achieved by the mass-production writing methods used by the soap opera teams, It could be achieved by taking the strong, mature novels of the past and present, and presenting them in soap opera form, adapted for radio.

Take Ross Lockridge's recent novel, Raintree County. A soap opera on that could run two years five days a week.

Incidentally anyone who wants to inject their two bits in this little radio squabble is welcome to do so by writing us a letter.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Shades of John D MacDonald

The year 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Deep Blue Good-By and the introduction of Travis McGee. To help celebrate the event, the Washington Post included a John D MacDonald/Travis McGee-centered crossword puzzle in their Sunday magazine supplement, requiring knowledge of all of the colors in the Travis rainbow. To even the most casual reader of McGee, this was not much of a challenge, but it proved to be a lot of fun. If you feel like giving it a try I've created a download link to a PDF that you can print on standard 8½x11 paper. I'll post the solution tomorrow.

Shades of John D MacDonald Puzzle

Monday, February 11, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 14: January 22, 1948

Here's another installment of John D MacDonald's weekly 1947-48 newspaper column From the Top of the Hill, published in the Clinton Courier.

Battle Royal

Sunday the Town Team carries the fight to Syracuse.

A healthy rivalry is a fine thing. The desire to win makes for good contests. But the payoff is in goals, not in Bandaids and iodine.

Last fall's football warfare between Columbia and Syracuse was a black eye for college football. A good, hard, clean, tough game is a wonderful thing. That game last fall drew penalties for everything except biting the ears off the opposition. It was on the same level of sportsmanship as a barroom brawl where a busted bottle is better than a chair leg.

The last Clinton - Syracuse hockey game had its free-for-all, too.

Seems odd, when you remember that the payoff is on the scoreboard, and it isn't measured in the size of the lump that can be put on somebody's head.

For our money, if the game degenerates into the sort of fracas that the last one did - nobody wins.

A little tangle between players is expected in the fine, wide-open game of hockey. But not a mob scene. Not a deal where a young kid with the flag is trounced for trying to do his job.

* * *

Cicero Makes a Movie

Once upon a time there was a joker named Cicero Bugwilder, who, between writing the comic book sequences for Doc Destruction, managed to get the novel done that his wife had been needling him about for lo these many years.

To Cicero's intense astonishment, the prominent publishing firm of Hardesty and Snood took the book and appropriated enough advertising so that Cicero's book, The Breeze Across the Woodwind, poked a cautious nose up over the bottom line of type in the best seller lists before sinking down into eventual oblivion.

Snood, being almost as smart as Hardesty, manages to put the bite on Magnifico Films to the extent of one hundred and ten thousand bucks for the movie rights to Bugwilder's novel, even getting them to agree to take Bugwilder on the Magnifico payroll to work on the screen treatment of The Breeze Across the Woodwind.

Cicero Bugwilder, wondering what Wilshire Boulevard would do for his asthma, packs a bag, kissed his wife and spent a long time on the Super-Chief watching small dark men play gin-rummy, before climbing down into the arms of the agent recommended by Snood.

Within an hour Bugwilder had been located in the small damp room in the small damp hotel on the small damp street, and had been dragged off to Magnifico and installed in a small, anemic office with a typewriter and three reams of paper.

His secretary was an amphibious looking little creature with a face like a child moose, and, within the hour she announced a Mr. Wenesly Gnud. Mr. Gnud, a solid man with hair, muscles and a cerise sports shirt came breezing in, contemptuously tossed a book onto Bugwilder's desk and said, "Weep for us, pal. Lookit the turkey they gave us to make a picha outa!"

Bugwilder fingered the book, looked carefully at Gnud, and said, "I... I wrote it."

Gnud looked at him with barely disguised contempt and said, "Cheer up. Mabe there's a picha in it. I doubt it. I had to read it last night... Got too much labor stuff. No music. No young love. No nothing. Anyway, we got a month to think it over. The producer is Ben Rustle, great guy. He wants Hillary Grainway as director. Great guyt. Grainway won't be off Spring Angels for maybe a month.

It turned out to be two months before Grainway was ready for The Breeze Across the Woodwind. During those two months Cicero Bugwilder gradually became accustomed to going about without a hat and necktie. He found that he enjoyed the circus excitement of watching pictures made, and he spent many happy hours roaming around the lot.

When Grainway was ready, Magnifico, distressed by the low gross of Grainway's last two pictures, let him go.

The day before the second director was selected, Bugwilder's three month option came up and wasn't renewed. His agent was, at the moment, re-marrying in Mexico, so Cicero Bugwilder, fit and tanned and reasonably affluent, went back to New York by train.

One year later, most of the money was gone, and two days after Hardesty and Snood sent back the manuscript of his second novel with sincere regrets, Cidero Bugwilder and his wife went to the movies.

Cicero was disturbed out of his usual sound sleep by the sound of a familiar name. One of the characters on the screen was being called Henry J. Thyme. Cicero stayed and saw the picture twice and then went to see his lawyer.

"Joe," he said, "They stole the name of a character out of my book and used it in another picture. I want to sue."

Joe sensed a certain nuisance value in the suit which, in contingency, might net his some small change, so he investigated.

Thus it was with considerable regret that he called up Cicero a week later and said, "Old man, I'm afraid we haven't got a leg to stand on. You see, that picture you went to -- the one called Love Dawning -- is the picture they made from your book. They didn't like your title, the plot, or the action -- but they did keep the name of one character. Hey! Bugwilder! Anything the matter?"

For, over the line he had heard a soft muffled thud. For several minutes Joe sat listening to the dense silence, frequently shaking the phone as though that would somehow help.

* * *

Post Script to the Radio Argument

In the Sunday, January 18th issue of the Herald Tribune, B.H. Haggin, in his column "Music on the Radio," points out that by virtue of the principles established by Congress, the people own title to the wave lengths of the air which private persons and commercial companies may use as leasees for a limited period, provided they operate in the public interest, convenience or necessity.

Then he said something which reminded me of the letter we got last week which spoke of the "kindness of sponsors in giving us these wonderful programs with their "modicum of advertising."

We quote Mr. Haggin: "That is something for radio listeners to keep in mind when they are asked to be grateful to the broadcasting industry for what they receive from it. It is the broadcasting industry that owes radio listeners something for the privilege of using their property to make a lot of money. And it can be held to account for its failure, out of sheer greed, to give music lovers what it owes them."

The letter we received last week was obviously the result of indignation that someone, who knows as little about radio as we do, would dare to criticize it.

We not only dare to criticize, but, in absolute fairness we fail to see how any of the data contained in that letter had much bearing on the point. Thus, it is only fair that we request of him an additional letter. Surely there must be more convincing arguments on the side of the broadcasting industry!

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Welcome Back, John MacDonald

Back in 2009 when I first started writing The Trap of Solid Gold, the works of John D MacDonald seemed all but forgotten. Outside of The Executioners (Cape Fear) and the McGee titles none of his standalone novels were still in print. The Travis McGee books that were in print were mass market paperbacks with truly godawful covers featuring huge block lettering which probably did little to sell the things. And outside of a few websites like The Thrilling Detective and Cal Branche’s JDM Homepage, there was little to discover about the author. The year before I started, the late author Ed Gorman had written on his own blog, “From what I can see JDM's career is falling into shambles. Or already has fallen into shambles.”

Then, in early 2013, Random House -- the rights owner of nearly all of MacDonald’s novels thanks to its 1982 acquisition of Fawcett Books -- began a massive reissue campaign, reprinting the Travis McGee series in handsome trade paperback versions, and making most of the standalone titles available for the first time as ebooks. This happy event was celebrated in the pages of The Washington Post’s “Book World” section by Jonathan Yardley. I’ve transcribed his article below.

Yardley was one of the great JDM champions of his day, one of the few literary critics working in a major publication who truly “got” MacDonald. (I write “was,” as Yardley retired from the Post in 2014. Happily he is still with us.) His quote in the right hand column of this blog -- one I’ve had up since I began this project -- reveals his deep understanding of his subject. He wrote several long columns on JDM over the years -- both during his stint with the Post and his prior employment with crosstown rival The Washington Star -- that are well worth hunting down and which may appear here over time. I lived in the DC area most of my life and read Yardley every time he appeared in print. His tastes in literature were spot on and I discovered many great authors over the years -- especially through his “Second Reading” column -- thanks to his writings: John P Marquand, Isabel Colegate, Thornton Wilder, Irwin Shaw and Eudora Welty, to name but a few.

This column appeared in the January 13, 2013 edition of the Post. The headline, “Welcome Back John MacDonald” probably shows just how out of the mainstream JDM was at the time: the headline writer probably thought the middle initial extraneous and an editor didn’t pick up on it either.

Welcome Back John MacDonald

Nearly half a century ago, John Dann MacDonald, a successful writer of paperback mysteries little known within the larger reading public, quietly published "The Deep Blue Good-by," the first of what by MacDonald's death in 1986 had turned into a series of 21 novels featuring the cynical yet idealistic freelance salvage operator Travis McGee. The novel was yet another paperback original to which the literati paid absolutely no attention, but though no one could have guessed at the time, it marked a momentous change in MacDonald's career. Over the years McGee attracted what became a huge and ardently loyal following, and MacDonald not merely began to be published in hardcover but to appear on national bestseller lists.

But that was yesterday, a century ago in this radically altered new world of e-books and tablets. The McGee novels have remained in print in mass-market editions, but most of the other books by this prodigiously prolific writer long ago vanished. Among the non-McGee novels, only "Cape Fear" has remained more or less steadily in print, no doubt because of the deliciously terrifying 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum and the somewhat less successful 1991 remake with Robert De Niro and Nick Nolte. To be sure, some characters in suspense fiction have long outlived their creators - think Lord Peter Wimsey, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Philip Marlowe - but mostly they just fade away, a fate that surely seemed in store for Travis McGee.

Perhaps that day will come in time, but that time is not now. With the publication of this handsome trade-paperback edition of the first of the McGee novels, Random House - a publishing Goliath not known for sentimentality in literary matters - is bringing not only McGee but almost the entire MacDonald oeuvre back to life with what can only be called a bang. Over the next couple of years, all the McGee novels will appear simultaneously as trade paperbacks and e-books, with "Nightmare in Pink" and "A Purple Place for Dying" arriving next month; a number of MacDonald's other novels - notable among them "Cape Fear" (originally published in 1958 as "The Executioners"), "The Brass Cupcake," "Dead Low Tide" and the 1977 blockbuster bestseller "Condominium" - will be published similarly; and some three dozen of MacDonald's forgotten novels will be issued as e-books.

Yes, Random House probably feels some loyalty to MacDonald. Its subsidiary Ballantine acquired his original publisher, Fawcett Books, in 1982, and presumably MacDonald titles have brought in some welcome income since then. But for a large and, for the most part, resolutely commercial publishing house to take a step such as this on behalf of an author who has been dead for more than a quarter-century is rare indeed. The only comparable example that comes readily to mind is the commitment made by Overlook Press, a self-described "eclectic independent publisher," to bring out a complete and uniform hardcover edition of the works of P.G. Wodehouse, an edition that is one of the glories of contemporary publishing. But Wodehouse is of course a perennial favorite, whereas MacDonald had seemed on the verge of disappearance.

Obviously the existence of e-publishing, with its flexibility and low overhead, is what makes this new MacDonald edition possible, but as one who still reads books only if they're printed on real paper, I welcome the trade-paperback MacDonalds with gratitude and enthusiasm; e-book readers doubtless will be happy to pay $11.99 apiece for the titles. For some years it has been my conviction that, even as MacDonald's reputation has risen considerably over the past few decades, he remains pigeonholed as a genre writer although there is far more to him than that: a fluid, economical prose stylist, a mordantly witty cultural and social critic, a sympathetic but clear-eyed observer of the human comedy - and a comedy, despite all the violence and human meanness that course through his work, is just what he knew it to be.
MacDonald, a purposeful and organized man, set the stage for Travis McGee in the opening pages of "The Deep Blue Good-by" and adhered to it throughout the series. Each of the books is similar (he color-coded the titles to help readers remember which they had and hadn't read) in much the way that each Jeeves and Wooster novel is similar: In the latter it's boy meets girl, girl chases boy, boy escapes by the skin of his teeth, while in the former it's Travis at ease, Travis visited by someone who desperately needs help, Travis takes on the case, Travis rides to the rescue. But beyond that each novel is different, with twists of plot - and usually with one or more twisted characters - that invariably are surprising and often border on the hilarious.

McGee lives aboard the Busted Flush, a "52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale," (3) and works only when he needs the money or can't resist a victim's pleas, the latter being the case in "The Deep Blue Good-by." As a salvage operator, he has a simple if often dangerous system, as described by a friend: "You said that if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you just . . . live on that until it starts to run out." Or, as McGee himself puts it: "I like to work on pretty good-sized ones. Expenses are heavy. And then I can take another piece of my retirement. Instead of retiring at sixty, I'm taking it in chunks as I go along."

As that makes plain, McGee is in tongue-in-cheek mode much of the time. He is (in his own words; he narrates all the novels) "that big brown loose-jointed beach bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl- seeker, that slayer of small savage fish, that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, argufier, that knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society," and his list of dislikes fills the fat part of a paragraph: "plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny."

Variations on that list appear in other McGee novels, but the sense of alienation from the worst of the modern world is a constant. As has been noted elsewhere, he is a knight errant, though somewhere along the line he remarks that his armor is on the rusty side. He isn't exactly a Don Quixote, since he wins more jousts than he loses, but there's more than a little that's quixotic about him, and it adds to his appeal, especially his appeal to the ladies, to whom he's catnip pure and simple, not least because he's "an incurable romantic who thinks the man-woman thing shouldn't be a contest on the rabbit level." (130-1) This is said to Lois Atkinson, a woman who has managed to get herself into a very large batch of trouble thanks to a creature named Junior Allen, a perpetually smiling monster, one of those "men in this world who are compelled to destroy the most fragile and valuable things they can find, the same way rowdy children will ravage a beautiful home." (67)Junior is a classic MacDonald twisted creep, and lives hang in the balance as McGee tries to bring him down.
So what a grand way to begin the new year: with a bit of the "Good Old Stuff," to borrow the title of a collection of early MacDonaldiana, a title soon to be available in an e-book, and with the promise of a great deal more of it in the months to come. Every once in a while, against all the odds, justice rears its lovely head in the world of books, and a publisher does itself proud. Thanks, Random House.