Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Books That Grab Me: John D. MacDonald's Darker Than Amber

I wish someone had clued me into John D. MacDonald a long time ago. I just finished reading Darker Than Amber and am still blown away.

A quick plot outline for those who haven’t read the story. Travis McGee is on his boat with his friend Meyer when a woman is thrown off a bridge into the water below, a concrete block wired to her feet. She survives, thanks to McGee, but not for long. She’s a woman in a very dangerous line of business. McGee, a man who retrieves money and valuables for people who’ve lost them (like a private eye who has no office or official permission to do what he does), digs into the sordid story out of guilt.

If that doesn’t sell you on the book, you may not want to finish this review. Of course now that I’ve read this book I can see the genesis of characters like Jack Reacher and every tough in a modern spy thriller. Characters that mix wit with physicality to survive and prevail.

Here’s the first thing I loved. Every time I thought I’d guessed where the plot would lead, I was wrong.

The tale spent its words in the right places, too. It felt like a long, luxurious read even though there weren’t many more than two hundred pages. Even the (small amounts of) filler in this book were excellent.

McGee spends time hashing over what he sees. He has an imagination and an ability to live through words. He has some sparkling conversations with characters critical to the story and some who are there just to drop a single hint. For example, he gets pretty far afield from his mystery when he elicits from a black maid, “I don't want to integrate. I just don't want to feel segregated.”

The characters are working for the plot, but they also feel like they could be real people. I won’t spoil the particular evil conquered in this book other than to say you should dig in and enjoy it yourself. Invest a few hours and see if Travis McGee is your hint of reluctant hero.

The plotting is great. The attention to language and description is better than most of what I’ve read in the category literary fiction. For example, he's talking about seasonality in the hotel business as "a June problem that usually mends itself in July." At another point, after an altercation, he comments about "my macaroni legs." Not wobbly, not any other adjective. Macaroni legs, that’s the product of a clever man being clever.

It turns out there’s even a film version of this novel and only this novel of the Travis McGee series. I will have to make some effort to find a copy. After I start at the beginning of this series. I just picked one off the library shelf that had an interesting title. Now I know. I hope you do, too.

1 comment:

  1. The common theme of defensiveness – why is it there? Well, we most assuredly know that the literati and the cognoscenti dismissed Macdonald as a hack. Prolific beyond words, he churned out novels and stories at a mind blowing pace his entire life. In the old school reference work World Authors 1950-1970 (published by H.H. Wilson) he says that when starting out as a young writer he kept thirty to forty stories in the mail at all times. What a fine example of self confidence and determination!