Category Archives: John D. MacDonald

She Doesn’t Like the Tough Guys*

But actually, a lot of people do. As this is posted, yesterday would have been Humphrey Bogart’s 119th birthday. As you’ll know, he was famous for playing ‘tough guys’ who were also smart and had layers to their characters. Whether you remember him as Rick Blaine from Casablanca, as Charlie Allnut from The African Queen, or as Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon, his characters are no-nonsense and tough, but at the same time nuanced. That’s not easy to do.

There are a lot of ‘tough guys.’ Some of them have more depth than others, but all of them add a hard edge to the genre. The best ones have layers to their characters, and they’ve made for some very interesting fictional characters.

And Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a really clear example. In that novel, we meet San Francisco PI Sam Spade, and his partner Miles Archer. They’re hired by a woman who calls herself ‘Miss Wonderly’ to follow a man named Floyd Thursby, who ran off with Miss Wonderly’s sister. When Archer is shot, Spade ends up getting involved in a web of intrigue involving multiple murders, theft, and an elusive, and very valuable, black statuette. This is the only Sam Spade novel that Hammett wrote, but, as you’ll know, he’s become an iconic ‘tough guy’ character. In fact, he’s mentioned in several other crime novels (I’m thinking, for instance of James W. Fuerst’s Huge.).

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is another fictional ‘tough guy.’ A war veteran, he now lives on a boat called The Busted Flush that’s housed at a marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He refers to himself as a ‘salvage consultant,’ but really, he does what amounts to private investigation. When people have been bilked, and have nowhere else to go, he helps them recover their property or money. His price? Half of the value of what he recovers. And his clients see his help as very much worth the money, since without it, they wouldn’t get anything back. On the one hand, McGee is tough. He’s not easily taken in, he’s seen combat, he’s not afraid to get into a fight if matters come to that. But he’s also not mindless; in fact, he’s somewhat philosophical. He also has a compassionate side to his nature and a soft spot for those who’ve been wronged and can’t get justice on their own.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is also famous for being tough. He’s a no-nonsense New York private detective whose main goal and concern is justice. One the one hand, he is rough, sometimes violent, and not afraid to flout the law. In fact, he often thinks that the law gets in the way of doing the right thing. He is very much the vigilante. On the other, he champions the ‘underdog,’ and he’ll take up the cause of the ‘down and out.’ In that sense, he’s not at all an elitist. He has a warmer side, but he’s not the philosopher that, say, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is.

Robert Crais’ Joe Pike is a former member of the Special Forces, and a former police officer. He’s got his own past ‘baggage;’ and, although he doesn’t wallow in it, he is impacted by it. Pike is a person of few words, but he’s smart, resourceful, and loyal. He’s an effective PI partner for Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole. Pike is definitely a ‘tough guy;’ he’s not afraid of a fight, and he’s skilled at using weapons. In fact, he has a gun shop, and almost always carries some weapons with him. But he has depths to his character, and he isn’t violent unless he has to be. He has a compassionate side, too. For instance, he’s the only one who can interact with the feral cat that lives with Cole. Even Cole hasn’t really established a relationship with the cat, but Pike has bonded with it. And he can be protective of those he’s trying to help. There is definitely more to Pike than just a man with quick fists and weapons.

The same is true of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. In many of the novels that feature him, Reacher is a tough, ‘lone wolf’ character. He doesn’t stay in one place for very long, and he doesn’t have a lot of permanent attachments. A former military police officer, he isn’t afraid to use violence if it’s necessary, either. But at the same time, he has a thoughtful side to him. He’s reluctant to get violent if he doesn’t have to do so, and there are people he cares about in the various novels. One the one hand, as the saying goes, you don’t want to mess with him. On the other, he’s not mindless.

Not all ‘tough guy’ characters are appealing. But those that are, combine courage and, well, toughness with some layers and nuances. Certainly, Bogart was able to portray those traits. Which fictional ‘tough guys’ have you liked?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s Tough Guys.


Filed under Dashiell Hammett, James W. Fuerst, John D. MacDonald, Lee Child, Mickey Spillane, Robert Crais

For I Found Release in a Lost Loophole*

Any good lawyer will tell you that defending clients sometimes means looking for loopholes and technicalities of law. And skilled police detectives know that they won’t as likely get a successful prosecution unless everything is carefully done ‘by the book.’ Loopholes can also be used to catch criminals.

Because they’re so important to the real-life criminal investigation process, it’s little wonder that loopholes and technicalities play a role in crime fiction, too. Whether it’s in the courtroom, in gathering evidence, or something else, loopholes can make a big difference. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of others.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hercule Poirot is living in the village of Styles St. Mary. He is drawn into a murder investigation when Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. Poirot is especially determined to catch the killer here, because Mrs. Inglethorp was responsible for helping him escape wartime (WW I) Belgium and sponsoring him in England. When he works out who the killer probably is, Poirot is faced with a particular loophole that the killer is planning to use. And once he knows what that technicality is, Poirot is able to use it against the murderer.

In David Dodge’s Death and Taxes, we are introduced to George MacLeod, a San Francisco tax accountant. He’s been very successful, and a big part of the reason for that is that he’s skilled at finding all sorts of loopholes to save his clients money. One day, he gets a new client, Marian Wolff. She wants him to help her avoid charges of tax evasion, and get a tax refund, although she hasn’t filed the necessary paperwork. She offers MacLeod an irresistibly high fee if he’ll take on the job, and he agrees. But it’s going to be a major challenge. So, MacLeod asks his business partner, James ‘Whit’ Whitney, to come back early from a trip to Santa Cruz and help in this client’s case. Whit comes back as asked, but by the time he gets there, MacLeod’s been shot. Now, Whit is going to have to figure out who killed his partner if he’s going to stay alive himself.

In John D. MacDonald’s Pale Gray For Guilt, ‘salvage expert’ Travis McGee gets involved in the case when an old friend, Tush Bannon, is killed. Before his death, Bannon was under a great deal of pressure to sell his small marina/motel business to make way for a large new development. He resisted, and his opponents did everything they could to ‘convince’ him. Now, he’s dead, and McGee wants to know why. The trail leads to land speculator Preston LaFrance, and high-powered businessman Gary Santo. Both of these men are highly skilled at taking advantage of all of the legal technicalities and loopholes that will allow them to do what they want to do. So, McGee’s up against formidable opponents. But he has his economist friend Meyer on his side, and together, the two of them come up with their own scheme…

There’s a different sort of loophole in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Jack McGuane and his wife, Melissa, are, among other things, the loving adoptive parents of baby Angelina. Everything in their lives is working until one day, McGuane gets a shattering call from the adoption agency trough which they adopted Angelina. It seems that her biological father, Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. And now, he wants to exercise them. At first, it seems like just a horrible mix-up. But it isn’t. Moreland really does want to take advantage of that loophole. What’s worse, his father is a powerful judge who is in full support of what his son is doing. Together, the Morelands visit the McGuanes. They start by asking for Angelina, and soon move to trying to bribe the McGuanes. They even offer to pay for another adoption. But the McGuanes are unwilling to give up their daughter. Soon enough, Judge Moreland uses his position to get what he and Garrett want. He issues a court order requiring the McGuanes to surrender Angelina within twenty-one days. They refuse and resolve to do whatever it takes to keep their child. That decision leads to all sorts of consequences that neither had anticipated.

And then there’s Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case. Caspar Leinen is a newly-qualified Berlin lawyer who’s taking his turn on standby duty for legal aid when he gets a new case. It seems that Fabrizio Collini, who’s lived quietly in Germany for many years, went to the Hotel Adlon, found the suite occupied by Jean-Baptiste Meyer, and shot him. This isn’t going to be an easy case for Leinen. For one thing, there is no question of Collini’s guilt. He even admits as much himself. For another, Collini does nothing to defend himself. In fact, he even says he doesn’t want a lawyer. But German law requires that all persons accused of crimes have legal representation. So, Leinen gets to work. As a part of his research, he goes back into history, and to finer points of the law. There, he finds a technicality of German law that he is able to use.

Loopholes may be small and obscure. But they can make all the difference in a court case or an investigation. It’s interesting to see how fictional sleuths (and criminals) use them.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Everything is Better Now.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, David Dodge, Ferdinand von Schirach, John D. MacDonald

But This is Where I Start*

Many people might like (or even prefer) to read a series in order. But there are plenty of good reasons one might not do that. For example, the first novel(s) in a series might be out of print. Or, might not be translated into a language a reader speaks. Or, a reader might have been gifted a book that falls later in a series. Or, a reader might try a later book because it’s conveniently available in a library, and the reader wants to sample the author before buying a book. There’s also the issue of geography and publishers’ decisions about where to make books available.

There are lots of other reasons, too, for which readers don’t follow a series in strict order. So, if an author wants to win (and keep) fans, it’s wise to be aware of this, and try to welcome readers wherever in a series they start.

One way to do that is not to include information later in a series that spoils an earlier novel. Much as I am a fan of Agatha Christie (and anyone who knows me, knows that’s true!), I must admit she’s done that a couple of times. I try to warn people, for instance, not to start their explorations of Christie with Dumb Witness or Cards on the Table. Both contain spoilers to other novels. Now, to be fair, Christie doesn’t specifically, say, refer to someone as a killer (e.g. ‘X, who killed Y.’). But at the same time, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to join the dots, especially if you happen to remember those two books later when you read the earlier ones. Avoiding spoilers can be a challenge if one writes story arcs. But it is worth the effort.

It’s also worth the effort to remind readers of the major characters’ backstories. For instance, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee know that his boat, The Busted Flush got its name because he won the boat in a card game. Those who’ve followed the series don’t need the full-length version of that game. But new readers who start later in the series might not know anything about The Busted Flush’s history. MacDonald addresses this by mentioning the card game in later novels. But it’s said more or less in passing, without going into all of the details. In this way, new readers are told about it, but those who’ve followed the series aren’t told the same story again and again.

We see that in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne Shreve series, too. She is an academician and political scientist (in later novels, she has retired from her university work). She’s also the mother of four children. The youngest, Taylor, is adopted, and Bowen tells the story of her adoption in Murder at the Mendel. The story is referred to in later novels, so that new readers can ‘meet’ Taylor properly and can understand some of the things that happen in those later novels. But Bowen doesn’t go into full details in each book. That series provides a balance between welcoming new readers, wherever they start a series, and keeping existing fans interested.

If I may say it, I’ve done a similar thing. In my first novel, Publish or Perish, my sleuth, Joel Williams, works with the police to solve the murder of a promising graduate student. At the end of the novel, Williams inherits the victim’s dog, Oscar. And Oscar makes appearances in my other Joel Williams novels, too. From time to time I mention that Williams adopted Oscar after the dog’s prior owner was killed. But I don’t go into the details about who the person was, how he was murdered, and so on.

Sometimes, it only takes a few words to welcome new readers. For instance, fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels and of his Mickey Haller novels will know that those two men are half-brothers. Their father was a prominent attorney, and they had different mothers. Later in life they meet, and occasionally work together. The Black Ice tells the story of how Bosch discovered his father’s identity, and about his meeting with his father, and a few other details. Later novels refer to the fact that Bosch and Haller are half-brothers, but Connelly doesn’t go into long descriptions in each novel about how the two men met, what their father was like, and so on. Fans already know that information, and new readers get enough background to engage themselves in the story and, perhaps, go back to an earlier novel if they wish.


Programming Note

All of this thinking about the structure of a series came about because of something that happened to me quite recently. If you’re kind enough to follow my ‘In The Spotlight’ series, you’ll know that I had planned to spotlight Paul Thomas’ Inside Dope tomorrow (Monday, 13 August). It’s the second of Thomas’ Tito Ikaha series, and it’s one that I didn’t have myself, so I ordered it (it’s not as easy to get as you’d think!). Without going into the details of it, it was hard to find the title, and it proved far more complicated to get than I thought it would. I didn’t receive it until far, far too late to go over it properly and spotlight it. But….I still wanted to share Paul Thomas’ work with you. So… I decided to spotlight Thomas’ Death on Demand, which I already had, instead. It’s the fourth in the series. My apologies in advance for any annoyance and/or inconvenience. Fortunately, Thomas welcomes new readers to his series wherever they start, so I suppose all’s well that ends well. But it just goes to show that there might be any number of reasons that a reader might start a series with a later novel. And readers appreciate it when the author welcomes them wherever they start.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John D. MacDonald, Michael Connelly, Paul Thomas

I’ll Take Your Part*

Classic and Golden Age crime fiction includes quite a few ‘gentleman detectives’ such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. And it can be expensive to hire them. Poirot even admits a few times that his work does not come cheaply. Fans know that he is also sometimes compelled to investigate by compassion, but still,  hiring him can be costly.

And, yet, it’s not just the wealthy who are in need of an advocate. Sometimes those without any money get themselves into legal trouble or need a PI. Crime fiction also includes plenty of characters who help those without a lot of money or ‘clout – even if they’re not required to take such cases pro bono. And those stories (and characters) can be at least as compelling.

One of the most famous such characters is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ whose specialty is helping those who have had money or property stolen from them and have nowhere else to turn. McGee’s needs are relatively few, and he’s not greedy. His arrangement with his clients is usually that he will work on their behalf to get back what was taken from them. In return, he claims half of the value of that money or property. On the one hand, it sounds like a lot. On the other, his clients know that they have no chance of recovering their property without help. McGee is straightforward, good at what he does, and willing to help even destitute and desperate clients. So, in general, the arrangement works well for all. It helps, too, that he has a compassionate side, and feels a need to get justice for those who have no other chance of getting it.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has also been known to work on behalf of those who have nowhere else to turn. For example, in Eight Million Ways to Die, he meets Kim Dakkinen, a sex worker who wants to get out of the business, and free of her pimp. She’s going to need help, and for that, she turns to Scudder. He agrees to do what he can to protect her, but it isn’t successful. Kim is found brutally murdered, and Scudder feels a sense of responsibility. His first thought is that Kim’s pimp, an enigmatic man who calls himself Chance, is the killer. But Chance claims to be innocent, and, in fact, hires Scudder to find out who the real killer is. And it turns out that Kim’s death is more than a case of punishing a sex worker for trying to leave the business.

In Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People, we are introduced to Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin. He works for a seedy firm, and does most of his business representing sex workers, drug users, and down-and-out people who don’t have much hope of getting legal help. In the process, he’s become familiar with the city’s underside, and that turns out to be useful to him. For instance, in I Remember You, Devlin becomes suspicious when a fire destroys the shop of tattooist Finar Rogan. Then, a bomb goes off under Rogan’s car. It’s clear now that someone wants to kill him. As Devlin himself thinks:

‘He knew the folly of becoming too closely involved with his clients and their misfortunes, yet it was a mistake he could never help making.’

It’s that fascination for his clients, and his determination to do the right thing, that makes Devlin a formidable ally.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski has a strong social conscience. More than once, that means that she works on behalf of those who can’t pay (or who can only pay a little). For instance, in Burn Marks, a visit from Warshawski’s Aunt Elena alerts her to a fire that took place in the seedy SRO hotel where her aunt lives. It’s a run-down place, occupied mostly by people who can’t afford anything better. Although Aunt Elena’s unexpected visit triggers Warshawski’s interest in the case, it’s her concern for the well-being of the people who live in the building that keeps her involved. And that interest turns out to be dangerous, as she goes up against well-placed developers and ‘backroom politics.’

Several of John Grisham’s protagonists take on the cases of those who have nowhere else to turn. In The Client, for instance, we are introduced to Memphis attorney Regina ‘Reggie’ Love. She gets involved in a very dangerous case when she meets eleven-year-old Mark Sway. He and his brother Ricky were sneaking a cigarette when they witnessed a suicide. That death is connected to another notorious murder and a missing body. Ricky was deeply affected and is in a sort of catatonic state. Mark is smart enough to know that the two boys are in real trouble. So, when he meets Love, he wants her help. The Sway boys and their mother can’t afford a lawyer, but Love wants to keep the boys safe, so she charges the family one dollar for her services. By getting involved in this case, Love goes up against some very dangerous people, including Mafia thugs and highly-placed people who are connected to the Mob. The Sway family fares little better, since the Mafia is convinced that Mark knows more than he is saying. And Love fears that the FBI won’t be of much help protecting the family. So, she will have to do what she can to keep the family as safe as possible. Fans of Grisham’s Gray Mountain will know that it also features a lawyer who works for those who don’t have much of a voice of their own.

Of course, lawyers, PIs and other professional investigators have to earn a living. But that doesn’t always mean that they don’t work on behalf of those who are ‘down and out.’ And it’s interesting to see how this theme comes through in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.


Filed under Agatha Christie, John D. MacDonald, John Grisham, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, Sara Paretsky

I’ve Always Listened to Your Point of View*

Humans are, by nature, social animals. That makes sense, too, when you consider how we depend on each other for so much – sometimes even for survival. Because people depend on one another, there’s often pressure for group consensus. That’s part of why, for instance, we ask for others’ opinions about things (e.g. ‘Which outfit should I wear,’ or ‘What do you think? A Honda or a Nissan?’). For many people, it’s important to have group approval, so looking for a consensus is logical.

We see that effort to get consensus in a lot of fiction, including crime fiction. And that shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s such a human quality. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode. She owns and heads Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. She and her business partner and colleague, Miss Chadwick, have built the place into one of the most sought-after schools in England. Everything changes, though, when the new Games Mistress, Grace Springer, is shot one night. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another death. Now the school is at real risk of having to close. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, knows of Hercule Poirot through her mother, and visits him to ask his help. And, in the end, he finds out the truth behind the events at the school. In one sub-plot, Miss Bulstrode is considering whether it’s time to retire and name a successor. She has a few possibilities in mind, and wants to get input on her decision. So, she asks various people what they think She’s an independent, strong-minded person, but she still wants some sort of consensus on the school’s future.

John D. MacDonald’s short story, The Case of the Homicidal Hiccup takes place in the small town of Baker City, where Johnny Howard and his gang run everything. Nothing happens without their consent, and every business pays for ‘protection.’ Then, Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. He wants to run a ‘clean’ business, so he refuses to have anything to do with Howard or his associates. At first, no-one really believes that Maybree will be able to stand up to Howard, but he does. Soon, other business owners feel the proverbial wind shifting, and join Maybree in refusing to work with Howard. Soon, the consensus against the crime boss builds. Now, Howard is afraid that he’ll lose respect and support in the underworld if he doesn’t do something about Maybree. So, he and his girlfriend, Bonny Gerlacher, devise a plan to kill Maybree. Everything is set up, and Gerlacher goes to the drugstore to carry out her part of the plan. But things don’t go quite the way they were intended…

Many times, when police teams are working on cases, they try to achieve consensus on what probably happened, and on the direction their investigations should take. We see that, for instance, in Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss stories. We also see it in Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, the first of her Anna Travis novels. In the story, Travis, who’s recently been promoted to Detective Sergeant (DS), joins the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. The team is facing a baffling case, too. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been found, and in several ways, her murder fits the profile of a group of six other women who’ve also been killed in exactly the same manner. But there’s one major difference: the other victims were older prostitutes. Melissa was young and not a prostitute. Now, the team has to establish whether Melissa’s murder was the work of the same killer, or there’s a different, perhaps ‘copycat’ killer. Among many other plot threads in the novel, this one includes the thread of establishing what the police really think happened. And that requires trying to find out what everyone thinks, and establish a consensus and a plan for moving forward.

One plot thread of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels concerns four children growing up in a small Welsh town in the early 1960s. These four children, Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards, have very little in common. But it’s a small town, so the children tend to spend a lot of time together, especially in the summer, when there’s no school. This particular summer, the children learn about some dark secrets that some people in the town are keeping. And they stumble on some truths that people would much rather keep hidden. Because they’re so different, the young people don’t always agree. But, they only really have each other. So, there are several scenes where they try to sift out all of the opinions and get some sort of agreement.

In collectivist cultures, group consensus, and having one’s opinion supported by the group, are very important. We see that, for instance, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner, Rajiv Patel, are taking some time off at Krabi. They’re both very much upset when they learn of the death of Chanida Manakit, also known as Miss Pla. The victim actually led a tour that Keeney and Patel took, so they have a special interest in finding out what happened to her. The official police report is that she drowned, but Keeney doesn’t think that’s likely, since Miss Pla was an expert swimmer. And, as it turns out, she’s right. As they work through the case, Keeney and Patel learn that Miss Pla worked with an environmental group. Her task was to attend village meetings with a development company called Apex Enterprises, and articulate the villagers’ concerns about Apex’s development plans. The company has determined that getting support and positive opinions from the villages was the best way to go ahead with their plans. What’s more, Thai law requires the consent of villages for development. So, Miss Pla was involved in helping to build, or at least assess, consensus. And that played a role in her death.

Most people want the support of others for what they do and think; some need it more than others. And it’s interesting to see how that process and human need work in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Blue Morning, Blue Day.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Helene Tursten, John D. MacDonald