Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dead Low Tide

Dead Low Tide is John D MacDonald's first great novel.

Published in May 1953, it was his seventh book, his fifth paperback original, and his first non-science fiction work to receive contemporaneous reviews in the press of the day. Highly regarded by mystery writers such as Ed Gorman and editors Brazun and Taylor (A Catalogue of Crime), it takes the still-unformed template of middle-class-man-confronts-crime and perfects it. The novel is just as thrilling a read today as it must have been 56 years ago, its characters sharply and realistically drawn, its plot masterfully constructed, and its depiction of time and place (Florida) worthy of a first-rate historian. I remember reading the book for the first time back in 1975 and being struck -- I was reading the novels in chronological order -- at how quickly MacDonald had settled into the form that was to serve him so well and for so many years. Like the novel that preceded it (The Damned) it is a major leap forward in the author's progression as a craftsman.

Not coincidentally, it's also MacDonald's first confrontation with absolute evil, that "blackness for its own sake," in the form of a villain that was to become a hallmark of his writing. It would reach its perfection five years later in the person of Max Cady in The Executioners, but Roy Kenny in Dead Low Tide is no less diabolical or focused in his evil. He just has an excuse (sort of), something MacDonald would later dispense with as completely unnecessary. But even though JDM felt the need to offer an explanation, the fear that evil evokes is just as real.

The story takes place near Sarasota on fictional Horseshoe Key, at a time of great land development. Twenty-eight year old Andy McClintock is a typical JDM hero, a hardworking professional and a business administration graduate from Syracuse University (as was the author), looking to make an honest living and not hurt anyone in the process. For the past year he's been employed as a construction estimator with John Long Contractors, a small real estate development firm, and he seems to be going nowhere. "I'd started in the office, answering the phone and typing on two fingers. A year of it and I still answered the phone, typed on four fingers, and made estimates and chased materials and got twenty bucks more a week than a year ago." Andy is working late one hot night when he's paid an unexpected visit by the wife of his boss, Mary Eleanor Long. "She is one of those dark-haired Alabama girls, a kind of stringy little girl, dark, and if you look closely, feature by feature, you can see that she is not pretty. But her face is so alive all the time that afterward you would swear she is pretty." She's worried about her husband John, who is acting strangely and keeping secrets. She asks Andy if he would be a dear and try and find out for her what the problem is. Although not too happy with the request, he's afraid to say no. He accepts a ride home from her, with a quick stop at a roadside tavern along the way.

Home for Andy is a small cabin in a secluded part of town, one of ten "little bastard-Spanish houses" that make up what once was a bay front resort and has now become permanent living for the struggling working class. He's greeted by neighbor Christy Hallowell, a friend and onetime paramour, who is up late sitting on his front steps. Christy came to Florida following an ugly divorce, and she and Andy had a brief affair that ended after they realized "there was more profit to both of [them] in friendship than in love..." although it is obvious that something is still smoldering just below the surface. Christy is described in classic MacDonald fashion:

"She's a big brown slim-wasted blonde with a sturdy frame, extra-long legs, a face a bit too round for beauty, with the eyes being the best part. Eyes the shade of wine vinegar... She is a Midwest blonde and she is something they seem to be growing out there these last few years. Big girls who look smooth and tight and well fitted into their skin. Out there when three of them come down the sidewalk abreast there is something overpowering about them, and you feel that your masculine ego is being hemmed in by a thicket of long, long legs. And they all seem to have an odd, casual lack of any physical self-consciousness. Their splendid bodies are not something to be aware of. Just something they want to keep clean, tanned and at the proper temperature."

The two of them share a snack and Andy tells Christy about his strange encounter with the boss's wife.

The following day Andy drives out to Key Estates, the big bay front housing development being built by his company. There he finds John Long and makes a ham-fisted attempt to pry, ending in him tendering his resignation. He's taken by surprise when Long offers him a promotion and talks as if he won't be around for long. Andy assumes he has some sort of terminal illness and wants the project in the hands of someone who can finish it. He promises to hire Andy a secretary and gives him a raise.

Andy's visit to the construction project is also MacDonald's excuse to launch into his first great "aside" on the despoiling of his adopted state. Remember, this is three years before Murder in the Wind, 20 years before Travis McGee took a plane ride over West Florida in The Turquoise Lament, and 23 years before it all came crashing down in Condominium:

"Florida, particularly along the west coast, all the way from Cedar Keys to the careful monied smell if Naples, is constantly growing -- not in the normal fashion of other places, with more houses going up on existing land, but the land itself is growing. Shaggy dredges park in the bay flats, snarling and wheezing as they suck up mud and guck and shells and small unwary fish. The debris is piled moistly and it stinks for a time, then whitens in the sun. It is leveled and stamped down and then houses go up on it so fast they seem to appear with a small clinking sound -- the way Walt Disney grows flowers.

"People who bought water-front land and admired their view of the bay find themselves three blocks inland. Incantations are said, in which strange words appear. Riparian rights is a good word. It sounds stentorian and nobody knows exactly what it means. It means turning water into land and putting houses on it. And standard procedure, along with the houses, is to stuff some palm trees into the made land. They have a nasty habit of taking a long time to die, so you can usually sell the house before the palm turns to a rich tobacco brown. Also, you have to have a sea wall, or the bay will reclaim its own. And you put about seven-eights of an inch of topsoil on the shells and plant rye grass. And a hedge of Australian pine that grows so fast you can hear it.

"And you pray, every night, that the big one doesn't come this year. A big one stomped and churned around Cedar Key a couple of years back, and took a mild pass at Clearwater and huffed itself out. One year it is going to show up, walking out of the Gulf and up the coast, like a big red top walking across the schoolyard. And the wind isn't going to mess things up too much, because people have learned what to do about the wind. But that water is going to have real fun with the made land, with the sea walls and packed shells and the thin topsoil. It's going to be like taking a good kick at an anthill, and then the local segment of that peculiar aberration called the human race is going to pick itself up, whistle for the dredges, and start it all over again."

Andy calls Mary Eleanor to report his findings, but she insists on coming out to his place late that night to hear it in person. She doesn't take the bad news quite the way Andy expected, and as she is leaving he senses a strong animal magnetism emanating from her: "...she had that weird knack of making you overly aware of her femininity, aware of a thin urgency in her body, a sort of prehensile inventiveness. I had the crazy feeling that I could kiss her once, pick her up and carry her -- burning in my arms -- right back into the house."

He doesn't.

The following evening he comes home and surprises an unseen intruder who is able to escape into the night. The only thing he can see that is missing is a harpoon gun he had hanging in the garage. Probably some kid.

The next morning, however, John Long is found dead out at Key Estates, and the harpoon is sticking in his throat. The police initially surmise he killed himself, but eventually decide it was murder, and once the harpoon is discovered to be Andy's, he is jailed and charged with the crime. In addition to owning the murder weapon, he's been seen out late with Long's wife, and there's a contract hastily drawn up leaving John Long Contractors to Andy. Add to that, Mary Eleanor is claiming that she and Andy were having an affair. Andy's been set up, and he knows it. Stuck behind bars, he asks Christy to "pry around" in order to get some information to clear him. Things don't turn out well for Christy, and Andy is freed to begin his own hunt for a murderer.

In The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction (1987) editor Ed Gorman wrote about Dead Low Tide in the Introduction: "... anybody who wants to write mysteries should buy a copy of Dead Low Tide and memorize it,” he said. “It is without flaw and filled with sensational observations about America circa 1953." I don't know about the book being without flaw -- there is one glaring coincidence that sticks out and is nearly apologized for at the end -- but Gorman is certainly correct about the observations. Here are a few:

"[It] was a frame house that looked as if it had been picked up bodily out of some small Indiana town in 1914 and moved to Florida. Two stories and two stunted gables, and a deep front porch with rocking chairs, and brick front steps. That happens sometimes. People retire, and distrust the unfamiliar. So they come down here and duplicate the awkward living they have endured during all the years of working and saving. Tired boxlike rooms and overstuffed furniture with crocheted dinguses on the backs and arms of the chairs. Ferns in pots, and two floors and an attic. There is a way to live in Florida -- a way of turning a house inside out, so there is no real transition between outdoors and indoors. Glass and vistas and the good breeze coming through... But they come down and build their high-shouldered houses with the tiny windows, and thus what should be a good life turns into one long almost unbearable summer in Indiana."

"I tip-toed... down the creaking Indiana stairs and across the lemonade porch and back into Florida, out of the world of knitted things, and out of that sweet warm horror that Bradbury seems to know so well."

"There can be beauty in the coupling of man and woman, but only in the hearts and souls of the participants. It is not, as one can understand, a spectator sport. We are the hairless beasts, and in our spermatic strainings there is, from a spectator standpoint, only that sort of curious interest felt by men with big bellies and tiny minds -- the men who attend smokers and compensate thus for their own nocturnal inadequacies."

"The local hospital is inadequate. It seems as if everybody and his brother have been moving to Florida and bringing the kids. It's getting so you have to line up for everything. Schools, roads, lunch, room to fish off a bridge. It shocks you a little when you go inland about five miles and find it looking as though SeƱor de Leon hadn't taken his trip yet."

"I guess every state in the country is infected with them -- greasy-spoon restaurants on the fringe of town. Red imitation leather, badly cracked, on the counter stools. Weary pie behind glass. A stink of frying grease in front, and tired garbage in back. Sway-backed, heavy-haunched waitresses with metallic hair, puffed ankles, and a perennial snarl. A decent toss of one of the water glasses would fell a steer. A jukebox and plastic booths and today's special is chicken croquettes with fr. fr. pot. and st. beans -- ninety-fi' cents. And the coffee is like rancid tar."

When we finally get to meet the bad guy we are introduced to a completely amoral villain. MacDonald was rarely equivocal about the nature of pure evil. He believed it existed, and didn't necessarily feel it needed to have a visible cause. Ronnie Crown, Max Cady, Junior Allen and Boo Waxwell all have their antecedents in Roy Kenny, and the paragraph describing Andy's first encounter with him will be echoed again and again in JDM's writing:

"He was almost a normal-looking guy. But he brought something strange into the now-familiar office. I know I felt it... He gave me the feeling that I was carrying excess baggage --- that I was burdened down with self-doubt, and moral conjectures and vague fragments of philosophies. He made me feel that my normal soul-confusion, all the inward turmoil of merely being a human being, was actually a bit silly -- a lessening of efficiency. He was not burdened thusly. He looked as specialized as a knife blade. He brought something chilly and alien into the office, something you felt instinctively, something he compounded by a stillness which at first I did not understand. It took me a moment to see that it was a complete lack of mannerisms, of any of the useless movements we indulge in."

As I noted above, Dead Low Tide was the first of MacDonald's paperback originals to receive notice by book critics. This could have possibly been due to the unprecedented success of his previous effort The Damned (and the original cover to Dead Low Tide certainly didn't want you to forget that) but the reason most often cited is the interest taken in MacDonald by William Anthony Parker White. Writing as H.H. Holmes in the New York Herald Tribune, he was that paper's science fiction critic and had made note of MacDonald's first hardcover release Wine of the Dreamers in 1951. White assumed a different identity for another newspaper of the day, and as Anthony Boucher he reviewed mystery novels for the New York Times. It was in the Times where Dead Low Tide was mentioned. Boucher said of the author "...[his] writing is marked by sharp observation, vivid dialogue and, to quote the author, a 'sense of sweet warm horror.'" Boucher became a champion of sorts for MacDonald's writing and reviewed nearly every subsequent book he wrote.

Dead Low Tide was also mentioned in the New York Herald Tribune, where James Sandoe said "John D MacDonald has managed here a highly readable book, thick with tensions moving in a nicely mannered plot and all of it reported with sardonic pungency."

The novel has been remembered often since it was originally published. It was singled out of all of JDM's novels in Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Tailor's mammoth survey of mystery fiction, A Catalogue of Crime in 1980 ("One of his best stories of sex and violence in Florida"), and Jonathan Yardley quoted passages from it in a 1992 piece about Hurricane Andrew for the Washington Post. I've personally revisited it many times over the years and it never grows stale. As Ed Gorman suggested, it is a template for the perfect crime novel.

The setting for Dead Low Tide is fairly easy to guess, at least for anyone knowing JDM's biography. When he first moved to Florida in 1949 he and his family settled in Clearwater Beach, which, according to biographer Edgar W. Hirshberg, was "as yet unspoiled by traffic jams and high-rise hotels and condominiums." After two years there the family moved south to Casey Key, which would seem to be the inspiration for Horseshoe Key. They lived there in a rented house for a year, which, again, may have been the model for the houses Andy and Christy live in. Then, in late 1952 -- around the time MacDonald would be writing Dead Low Tide -- the family became homeowners, purchasing a home on Point Crisp Road on Siesta Key, at the end of a small bayside peninsula, a location that looks remarkably similar to Key Estates. It is more likely, however, that Key Estates was based on the houses built along Casey Cove Drive in 1952, as both the date and location fit.

Finally, an amusing bit of trivia: MacDonald's novels were translated into dozens of different languages and reprinted throughout the world, often with curious results. The McGee series, for example, when translated into Finnish, abandoned the color scheme in the titles and replaced them with the word "Dangerous" (The Deep Blue Good-By = Dangerous Glow; A Deadly Shade of Gold = Dangerous Loot). Some simply sound clumsy, such as the Dutch translation of Free Fall in Crimson (A Soft Red Landing) or the Czech title for A Purple Place for Dying (To Die in a Purple Place), but a few read like something out of an Andy Kaufman routine. The Czech version of The Drowner is called To Agree With Sharks, The Executioners became the Dutch The Night of the Maniac and the French version of Free Fall in Crimson is called Hot Balloons!, complete with the exclamation mark. The best new titles, however, seem to have been reserved for Dead Low Tide. In Dutch it is called The Beheaded Photo, in Finnish it is You Know Too Much and in Spanish it is known as Death with the Low Tide.

The Grand Prize goes to the Germans, however, who call it Moskitos stechen meistens nachts, or Mosquitoes Sting Mostly at Night.


  1. Dead Low Tide is one of the few JDM's not to make it onto the Kindle yet. I wonder if it's owned by somebody different?

    1. Richard, I believe it is. Check here:


  2. Ah, thanks Steve. Doesn't seem to be available in the UK but hopefully won't be long.

    1. You're right, Richard. Sorry about that. Interesting that it isn't available there yet, as all of the Kindle versions of JDM seem to have been struck from the Hale (UK) editions.

  3. Many a lead character in John MacDonald's early books have a building and construction background, like in Dead Low Tide, and at least one does later on in Condominium.

    The early ones are often building contractor workers overseas, such as https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2881871-murder-for-the-bride or https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2176825.Deadly_Welcome (only as a cover story for the protagonist's official investigation) for example. These guys often go down to Latin America or where ever and work their tail off for a year, then blow it all in a few weeks.