4. Tough guys: Spillane, MacDonald, McBain, Macdonald, Willeford

4. Tough guys: Spillane, MacDonald, McBain, Macdonald, Willeford

Patrick Anderson

If the first great era of American crime fiction burst spontaneously from the primordial soup of Hemingway, Hammett, political and police corruption, tabloids, pulps, and the Depression, the next era was profoundly influenced by the Second World War. By the time the war was over, Hammett had fallen silent, Cain’s best work was behind him, and Chandler was preoccupied with film projects. The vacuum was soon filled by a new generation. Most were veterans and it showed in the violence and nihilism of their work. They had seen slaughter on a scale unimagined by writers who had only glimpsed it as reporters or Pinkerton detectives.

If many veterans came home and never wanted to speak of what they had seen, others wanted to bear witness. Writers like Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Irvin Shaw wrote powerful novels of war, and crime writers too drew upon their hard-won knowledge of man’s inhumanity. Some made violence explicit, and others kept it implicit, smoldering beneath the surface of middle-class life, but the war and its lessons were always there. 

Film noir emerged in the postwar years and it both inspired and fed off hardboiled American crime fiction. The growing popularity of paperback novels, selling for a quarter in every drug store and bus station, often featuring lurid covers that promised sexual revelations within, helped writers reach ever-larger audiences. Publishers were still wary of explicit sex or profanity, but writers pushed the limits and many readers were ready for more candor. The emerging writers exhibited a dazzling variety of concerns, from fun in Florida to generational mysteries in California to angst on the streets of New York. The first of them to gain fame wrote with the subtlety of a pair of brass knuckles – he named his hero Hammer -- and his overnight success announced a new day, both in terms of violence and sales.

Me ‘n Mick.

Frank Morrison (Mickey) Spillane was born in Brooklyn in 1918, an Irish bartender’s son. In high school, he played football and wrote his first fiction. After a brief fling at college in Kansas he returned to New York and started writing for comic books and pulp magazines. He was a pilot during the war and, after it ended, he wrote I, the Jury in nine days. The novel was rejected by four publishers as too violent, then appeared in 1947, introducing Spillane’s savage alter ego, Mike Hammer. Hammer is a descendant of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe but tougher than either. The war had happened and Spillane was in it and his man didn’t mess around with pretty words or knight-errant poses – he’d as soon kill you as look at you. Still, Spillane wasn’t a bad writer, sentence by sentence. Consider the opening lines of I, the Jury, when Hammer arrives at the scene of his best friend’s murder:

“I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room. Nobody said a word. They stepped back politely and I could feel their eyes on me. Pat Chambers was standing by the door to the bedroom trying to steady Myrna. The girl’s body was racking with dry sobs. I walked over and put my arms around her.”

A moment later, Hammer gazes on the body of the army buddy who had “stopped a bastard of a Jap from slitting me in two.” He gazes on his friend’s body and makes a solemn vow: “I’m going to get the louse that killed you. He won’t sit in the chair. He won’t hang. He will die exactly as you died, with a .45 slug in the gut, just a little below the belly button.”

“Just a little below the belly button.” Noir doesn’t get much better than that. Spillane was writing for men like himself who believed in the problem-solving value of violence and had zero interest in literary flourishes. His words grabbed you like a meat hook. Hammer eventually identifies his friend’s killer as a Park Avenue psychiatrist. When he confronts her, she starts to undress, trying to stop him from killing her. Instead, he shoots her in the gut – as he had promised – inspiring the famous final exchange:

“’How c-could you?’ she gasped.
“I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“’It was easy,’ I said.”

The Signet edition of I, the Jury, with a cover portrait of Hammer holding his gun on the woman as she unbuttons her blouse, won a huge paperback audience. Next, in a remarkable burst of creativity, Spillane published five more Hammer thrillers in 1950-52: My Gun Is Quick, Vengeance Is Mine, One Lonely Night, The Big Kill, and Kiss Me, Deadly. Great titles all. Other books followed and many movie and TV portrayals of Hammer, but Spillane’s importance rests on those early novels, which shocked America with sex, sadism, and raw violence, and made him one of the world’s best-selling writers. Spillane was a great primitive; his stories exploded off the page. He was denounced for corrupting America’s youth but he was, in fact, a revolutionary. Like Hugh Hefner, Elvis Presley, Alfred Kinsey, and Lenny Bruce, in their different ways, he challenged the pieties of the Fifties and helped create the anything-goes society that followed. 

I read Spillane’s novels in my early teens, and if they corrupted me I was a willing victim. At a time when most boys that age were profoundly ignorant about sex, Spillane’s books, along with Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road, were treasured as a source of titillation and possible enlightenment. Actually, the novels were suggestive rather than explicit (“Her head nestled against my shoulder and she moved my hand up her body until I knew there was no marvel of engineering connected to the bra because there was no bra”) but they were more exciting than Doris Day movies. That the novels abounded in sexism and McCarthy-style politics was lost on me – those ladies with no bras were my concern. The good parts, as they were known to a generation of young Americans. 

I remember my shock at the end of Vengeance Is Mine, which featured a statuesque woman named Juno. Hammer was drawn to Juno’s beauty but there was something troubling about her that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. In the climactic scene, Hammer forced Juno to remove her clothes, which produced a mind-boggling revelation: “Juno was a man.” What? How could Juno be a man? Juno was a woman! Juno’s secret was more than my innocent mind could comprehend and I was left more confused than ever by the mysteries of sex. Happily, a girl named Patti, sweet sixteen and wise beyond her years, came along to elucidate those mysteries, and Spillane’s books were only a brief detour in my progress from the Hardy Boys to Hemingway. Still, Mick was there when I needed him and I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for him ever since, even though a woman I admire insists on calling him a trenchcoat fascist. I was thus saddened to read a novel he’d written in his eighties that was close to a parody of his early work. But no matter – the real Mick had made his mark a half-century before and there’s never been anyone else quite like him.

Gawain in Gator Country

John D. MacDonald was born in 1916, earned a B.A. from Syracuse University and an M.B.A. from Harvard, and served as an intelligence officer during the war. After the war, he moved to Florida and became a prolific writer for the pulps and then of paperback novels. In the early 1960s, he decided to build a series about one character. Thus was born the immortal Travis McGee, who first appeared in The Deep Blue Good-by in 1964 and returned in twenty more novels, until the series ended with 1985’s The Lonely Silver Rain. MacDonald died the next year. He wrote some forty non-McGee novels as well. 

Jonathan Yardley discovered MacDonald’s work in 1976 when he was book editor of the Miami Herald. MacDonald’s non-McGee Condominium was a Book of the Month selection and Yardley went to interview him. But first, he immersed himself in MacDonald’s work and: “I was bowled over. This man whom I’d snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed.” Yardley added: “For my money, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction – not crime fiction, fiction period.” 

I agree. Travis McGee is a great hero of popular fiction, a wonderful fantasy figure. We might admire the toughness of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer, but not many of us would actually want to be those guys, who are variously broke, drunken, semi-literate, and bedeviled by sexual hang-ups. But what red-blooded American male wouldn’t like to be McGee – big, bronzed, and rugged, living on a houseboat in Florida, adored by endless bikini-clad lovelies, working when he feels like it, and invariably winning his confrontations with evil men? 

McGee lives on the Busted Flush, his 52-foot houseboat. His address, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale, is as well known in some circles as Holmes’s address on Baker Street. He is a veteran of the Second World War, six-foot-five, and tough as an old boot, but with the fair sex, he is the most tender of lovers, even if he rarely lingers past breakfast. In a famous passage in the first McGee novel, he makes clear his scorn for the tentacles that doom most of us to mundane lives: “…credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, checklists, time payments, political parties…” Who would not second this manifesto?

MacDonald gave McGee a good friend at Bahia Mar, the “semi-retired economist” Meyer. Meyer is McGee’s Dr. Watson, although he doesn’t narrate the novels -- McGee does. He is not a clown, no Captain Hastings, but McGee’s more reflective older brother, a purveyor of advice and wisdom. McGee deals in what he calls salvage work, which means if you’ve lost something he’ll find it and take half. But salvage work can be defined to include missing persons. Such is the case in A Tan and Sandy Silence, first published in 1971. (All the McGee books have a color in the title, and several of the titles, including this one, refer to death, following the tradition Chandler started with The Big Sleep.) I read most of the McGee books for fun in the 1970s and 1980s, and recently picked up Tan at random for a closer look. 

The novel begins with McGee kneeling in eight inches of oily water in Meyer’s cabin cruiser, the John Maynard Keynes, repairing the automatic bilge pump. We get the details; MacDonald often shows us how things work – condos, smuggling operations, boats – to ground his novels in reality. McGee goes back to the Busted Flush and is met by an obnoxious businessman named Harry Broll. Broll’s wife Mary has left him and he’s convinced she’s with McGee. He pulls a gun and starts shooting. McGee escapes with a minor wound, disarms Broll, and sends him on his way. Meyer arrives and warns McGee that he’s getting careless. The two men proceed to a party given on the yacht of Gillian (Jilly) Brent-Archer, a rich widow of uncertain years. She is beautiful and sexy, and in bed, she and McGee have exchanges like:

“Are you going back to sleep, you wretch?”
“Not with you doing what you’re doing.”
“This? Oh, it’s just a sort of reflex thing.” She adds, “A nice rain always makes me very randy.”

The problem is that Jilly wants more than recreational sex. She wants McGee to come live with her but he resists. He digresses on the kind of kept man he despises, although no one can really imagine McGee being such a fellow. When Jilly begs him for just one week of his time, he tells her he has to go look for a friend. That’s Mary, the missing wife, and the rest of the novel is his search for her. 

McGee continues to agonize about rich Jilly and delivers a mock-Hemingway hymn to her charms: “I like the textures and juices, spices and rhythms of her, all her tastes and tastings. We truly climb one hell of a hill, Papa, and when we fall off the far side together, it is truly one hell of a long fall, Papa…” This goes on for three pages and it’s not MacDonald at his best. McGee concludes that he’s gotten soft and must test himself: “Get out there on the range and go down to the pits and stand up for a moment and see if they can pot you between the eyes. If they miss, maybe you’ll get your nerve back, you tin-horn Gawain.”

Tin-horn Gawain? McGee is too modest. Gawain was King Arthur’s nephew, a good and brave knight, but overshadowed by Sir Lancelot. McGee is a Florida knight-errant, at least as brave and formidable as those in Los Angeles, and much more deft with damsels than Sir Philip of Marlowe or even Sir Sam of Spade. McGee is no tin-horn but a Gulf Coast Gawain in dazzling armor. 
McGee’s advice to himself was to get back onto the field of battle, and he does. He and Meyer are taken captive by a psychopath named Paul who has already killed Mary and others. Paul forces McGee to wire Meyer’s wrists and ankles and then his own. The situation is dire but fortunately, as crazed killers do in books, instead of killing his prisoners the villain raves on about why and how he’s going to kill them. Meanwhile, McGee is working on the wire that binds his wrists and finally it breaks. (“By happenchance, he’d made a bad choice of wire.”) Thus, it is the psychopath who dies a horrid death, not our heroes. 

The novel came out when America was in turmoil over the war in Vietnam but it is of no concern to McGee. One night he watches the news and it’s all bad – inflation, murders, drugs, body counts -- but McGee is not interested: “News has always been bad. The tiger that lives in the forest just ate your wife and kids, Joe. There are no fat grub worms under the rotten logs this year, Al. Those sickies in the village on the other side of the mountain are training hairy mammoths to stomp us flat, Pete. They nailed up two thieves and one crackpot, Mary.” In short, the world is mad and a wise man retires to Florida and cultivates his houseboat.
Let us note that Paul was one of the first serial killers we’ve encountered. In the drawing-room mysteries of the 1920s, one murder was proper, two could be tolerated, and more than that was bad form. Today people are shot and strangled, gutted and broiled, sliced and diced by the scores. Probably it was Ted Bundy, whose murders began in 1974, who did most to popularize serial killers. These days, it often seems that half the novels published are about them. The thought of all those writers, holed up in their musty little rooms, conjuring up new methods of mass murder, boggles the mind. In real life, most serial killers are cretins, but in novels they are increasingly geniuses: this fantasy achieved its zenith in Dr. Hannibal Lecter. MacDonald was one of the first novelists to feature psychos like Paul and he was good at them. Often they are thuggish rednecks with names like Junior and Joe Bob, the sort of narrow-eyed, no-neck Neanderthals too often encountered in dark corners of the sunny South. 

So what is the verdict on John D. MacDonald? My view is that, in terms of sheer male-fantasy entertainment, McGee is the grandest character since Sherlock Holmes. If MacDonald were a rock band, he’d be the Beach Boys, blasting out fun, fun, fun, ‘til daddy takes the T-bird away. Still, there is a certain sameness to the McGee novels: sexy ladies, curbstone philosophy, and last-chapter heroics. It is pointless to criticize the McGee books for not being “serious” – that wasn’t MacDonald’s intent, except in his heartfelt scorn for our increasingly regulated society. Certainly, I have enjoyed the McGee books; reading one is like downing a few rum-and-cokes with an old friend. 

MacDonald was immensely popular and deservedly so. He fathered a school of Florida writers that has included Charles Willeford, Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, and James W. Hall, and McGee was the model for John Sandford’s equally popular Lucas Davenport. The McGee novels are marvelous entertainment but in terms of realism, they do not approach the series created by MacDonald’s equally prolific contemporary Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain.

The Urban Jungle

In 1954 a young writer who called himself Evan Hunter seized national attention with his first novel, The Blackboard Jungle, a story of a teacher’s battle against teenage louts in the classroom. In 1956, writing as Ed McBain, he published his first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater. McBain died in July 2005, at 78, with another 87th Precinct novel, the 55th, Fiddlers, set for fall publication. Writing as McBain, Hunter also published 13 novels about lawyer Matthew Hope, plus eight stand-alone novels. As Evan Hunter, he has published another twenty or so novels, plus two collections of short stories, children’s books, and assorted screenplays and teleplays. Call it a hundred books in fifty years and you’re not far off. 

The amazing thing, beyond the Herculean volume of McBain’s work, is the quality of it. He won every major prize available to a crime writer. The 87th Precinct novels, upon which his reputation will rest, are as impressive a body of work as exists in his chosen genre, the police procedural. That term, incidentally, was coined by Anthony Boucher, the esteemed reviewer of crime fiction for the New York Times in 1951-68, and McBain didn’t like it. He thought he just wrote novels about cops. 

Insofar as McBain has been overshadowed by Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald, there may be two reasons. First, it is easy to take someone so prolific for granted – and the output of anyone who averages two novels a year will be uneven. Second, the 87th Precinct’s Everycop, Detective Steve Carella, is not a larger-than-life warrior/lover/philosopher like Spade, Marlowe, or McGee. Nor is he angst-ridden like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch or Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Carella is a relatively sane fellow who loves his wife and kids, pays his bills, and is as much a bureaucrat as an action hero. His normalcy may be a weakness in terms of commercial fiction, but in terms of what police work is really like he is probably closer to the truth than any other American writer, at least until Michael Connelly came along. 

We learn that in college, Carella liked to quote lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” to impressionable coeds. As a detective, Carella is a melancholy poet of urban crime, trying to bring order to the wasteland of Isola, his fictionalized New York City. Isola, Italian for island, suggests isolation, which abounds in McBain’s urban jungle. One of McBain’s late novels moved Marilyn Stasio, the reliable crime reviewer of The New York Times Book Review to write, “Years ago, I thought Ed McBain's books were sexy love songs to a cold, violent city. Now, I think they are sad, slow dances in a city where everyone dances alone.”

McBain was born Salvatore Lombino in 1926 in East Harlem, the only child of Charles and Marie Lombino. His father worked for the post office and played the drums in a band. While serving in the Navy in 1944-46, young Lombino read Hammett, Hemingway, and Cain, and started writing short stories and sending them to magazines. All were rejected. After the war, he entered Hunter College on the G.I. Bill and took all the writing courses he could, as well as writing for the school newspaper and starting a drama club. He wanted to go to Paris and write, like Hemingway, but when his wife became pregnant he instead took a job teaching at a vocational school in the Bronx. The students, he once said, “didn’t give a rat’s ass” about literature; he immortalized their surliness in The Blackboard Jungle

In 1950 he quit teaching and was selling lobsters when he answered an ad in the Times and was hired as a reader/editor by the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, which handled, among others, Mickey Spillane. For forty dollars a week he read short stories and decided which might be sold. Soon he was writing his own stories for the pulps. After earning $2500 for writing a science-fiction novel, he quit his job and wrote The Blackboard Jungle. He used the name Evan Hunter, which he later made his legal name, because an ethnic name like Lombino was thought to be a handicap. Following the novel’s success, an editor at Pocket Books, hoping that McBain could duplicate the success of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books, urged him to attempt a series of paperback originals about the police. Thus was born the 87th Precinct series, under the name Ed McBain. 

For McBain to undertake a series of novels about big-city detectives was by no means the obvious move after the success of The Blackboard Jungle. If he wanted to write crime fiction, private-eye novels were the tradition. Or he might have undertaken mainstream novels, as in fact he did, as Evan Hunter, along with his police series. Not long before his death, I asked McBain about his choice and got this reply:

“I thought I could do both. I've always been blessed (or cursed) with being a fast writer. (A damn good one, too, he added modestly.) So I knew I could handle the additional work load of a mystery series. In 1956, for example, I published the first three McBain mysteries, plus an Evan Hunter novel titled Second Ending. (After the success of The Blackboard Jungle, it sold perhaps twelve copies, six to my mother.) In 1957, there were just another two McBains, no Hunter at all. But in 1958, I published an Evan Hunter novel titled Strangers When We Meet -- a New York Times bestseller -- plus three new McBains. And so on through the years. In 1961, for example, I published another Evan Hunter bestseller, Mothers and Daughters, plus one McBain. It wasn't until later that I realized the ‘qual lit’ community was dismissing me as a ‘serious’ writer because I also wrote mysteries, and the mystery community didn't fully accept me into that clan because they thought I felt I was slumming by writing mysteries. In 2001, I published Candyland, by Evan Hunter and Ed McBain, to show the difference between the two writers' styles and subject matter. The critic for the daily New York Times thought it was a stunt. If so, my entire writing career has been a stunt.”

I recently read two 87th Precinct novels at random, Ten Plus One from 1963 and Long Time No See from 1977. Ten Plus One begins with a businessman walking out of his office one spring evening and being shot dead by someone on a nearby roof. Carella arrives a few minutes later and reflects that it was too early in the season for flies but there they were, “feeding at the open hole between the man’s eyes.” 

Carella returns to his office and makes a recurring point: that police work is a team effort and the detective is an organization man. Yet, a page later, McBain reminds us of the human side of the job. The detective, he says, seeing endless human violence, sometimes becomes an observer, “a visitor from somewhere far in space studying a curious race of insect people, who rip each other apart, who tear each other limb from limb and drink each other’s blood; he stands appalled, a civilized human who momentarily renounces his citizenship, unable to believe such cruelty can exist in men who have almost reached the stars.”
A few days later, when a second man is shot on the sidewalk, Carella and his colleagues fear the possibility of a sniper. Snipers terrify them because they are often skilled marksmen, with army training, who strike at random. The third sniper victim is a prostitute who had once attended a local college. They visit the college and learn that the woman was active in the school drama club and they learn that the first victim also attended that college. The fourth victim is an Italian fruit peddler with no apparent connections to the others. 

The next victim is an assistant district attorney and all hell breaks loose. This inspires a truly ugly scene. Although his novels mostly admire the police, McBain knows the underside of police work. When the prosecutor’s slaying brings intense pressure to find the sniper, two tough cops – bulls, they are called – interview a young ex-convict who might know something. The young man has a job and is trying to go straight, but that does not impress the bulls, who beat him to a pulp and then accuse him of attacking them. He is sent back to prison. 

Finally, Carella figures out that the first six victims were all in the eleven-member cast of a college production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home. From there it is simply good police work to find the five others, to figure out who had a motive for murdering the others, and to catch him before he kills again. Along the way, McBain tosses in a nice digression. Carella and his partner Meyer go see a gag writer named Cohen. He starts telling them about the gag-writing business and soon Meyer and Carella forget about the murder case and are simply two professionals who are fascinated by the details of another man’s work. McBain was, of course, himself the consummate professional, able to appreciate both Carella’s craftsmanship and that of the gag-writer. 

On the surface, Long Time No See resembles Ten Plus One. Someone is killing blind people and Carella has to find out why. But Long Time No See (an unpleasant title, in context), written fourteen years later, is a more complex, sophisticated work. It opens with this: “He thought of the city as a galaxy. A cluster of planets revolving around a brilliant sun. Asteroids and comets streaming through the blackness of space.” 

These are the thoughts of Jimmy Harris, age 30, a black man who was blinded by a grenade in Vietnam and makes his living begging on the streets of Isola. We spend five pages getting to know Jimmy and then someone slits his throat. Carella interviews Harris’s wife, who is also blind, and arranges to pick her up the next morning to identify the body. Before he does, someone cuts her throat too.

There is a third murder of a blind person and an attempt on a fourth. We see Carella’s methodical investigation. We meet cops who aren’t very bright and cops who are bigots. Sex is central to the novel. Harris’s wife was having an affair with her boss. When Carella meets another woman while examining Harris’s army records, she suggests they have drinks and stresses that her husband is out of town. He declines. Carella interviews a young woman who works in a massage parlor because she wants a Mercedes-Benz. (“I give really good blowjobs.”) He stretches this scene to fifteen pages, perhaps to give us relief from the grim story of blind people being murdered. Later, Carella studies a brochure that describes in detail various sex toys, including a life-sized doll complete with breasts and “vaginal pocket” and an “autosuck vagina” that operates from a car’s cigarette lighter. As he puts down the brochure, “Carella suddenly had the feeling that he could hack his way through the dense undergrowth of this city forever and still not reach a clearing where there was sunlight.” 

McBain had a healthy ego and he makes clear his disdain for his competition. He writes scornfully of television shows in which every crime is logical --- missing “the purely accidental nature” of much violence. Cops knew that Sherlock Holmes and his brilliant deductions are bullshit, McBain declares. Most pointedly, he tells us that Carella didn’t agree with the theory that all homicides were rooted in the distant past: “He would leave such speculation to California mystery writers who seemed to believe that murder was something brewed in a pot for half a century, coming to a boil only when a private detective needed a job.” The California writers McBain had in mind were clearly Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, whose stories were often rooted far in the past. The irony is that to solve the murders of the blind people Carella must go back ten years to Jimmy Harris’s military service. 

These are not cheerful novels. McBain could be hilarious but most often the crimes in his novels are terrible. A decade ago, I reviewed Privileged Conversation, an Evan Hunter stand-alone that was one of his darkest novels. It concerns a psychiatrist who has an affair with a younger woman while his wife is at the beach. Problems arise: the woman is crazy and someone is stalking her. I wrote:

“The other striking fact about Privileged Conversation is its exceedingly dark view of the human condition. A casual affair between two attractive people swiftly spirals into a panorama of deceit, rape, incest, murder and madness. Chapman, a decent enough fellow, is quick to betray his wife. Kate’s family background proves to have been a chamber of horrors. One of Chapman’s colleagues is having an affair with a 19-year-old patient. The stalker is evil, mad and lethal. Even Chapman’s wife proves not to be the saint she at first appears…Virtually everyone in the book is weak at best and monstrous at worst, and no one escapes unscathed.”

In 2000, McBain published The Last Dance, the 50th novel in the 87th Precinct series. Reflecting his lifelong interest in the theater, it told of the murder of a man over the rights to a Broadway musical. Then came The Frumious Bandersnatch, to remind us how easily McBain could move between comedy and tragedy. Bandersnatch concerns Tamar, a 20-year-old who has a hit song by that name, words by Lewis Carroll set to a hip-hop beat. Her record company gives a launch party on a yacht and McBain has a lot of fun with the music-world culture – how could he not? Tamar is so young she doesn’t know who Mick Jagger is, and the music moguls have never heard of Lewis Carroll but love the song “Bandersnatch” because it sounds dirty. Then three intruders, armed and masked, arrive by speedboat and abduct Tamar. 

Carella is on the case. So is Detective Oliver Wendell “Fat Ollie” Weeks, a capable detective but otherwise a buffoon and bigot who earlier had his own novel, Fat Ollie’s Book. Fat Ollie is a great comic character, McBain’s Falstaff. He’s an aspiring novelist and would-be ladies’ man who at one point tells a woman he’s trying to impress:

“Take a truly great master of literature like James Patterson, are you familiar with his uv?” 
“His what?” 
“His uv. That’s French for ‘body of work,’ an uv, they call it.”

That’s McBain again having fun with other writers – this time, one who wasn’t fit to empty his wastebasket – and also reminding us that his own uv (or, dare we say, oeuvre?) is among the finest in American crime fiction. 

Bandersnatch is mostly McBain in an antic mood, but it suddenly turns dark. Tamar’s captors are two men and a woman. One of the men wants to rape the girl but the woman, Kellie, has protected her. Then things go sour, the kidnappers fear capture, and Kellie is left to guard the frightened singer:

“’You can describe me.’”
“’Lots of girls look like…’”
“’Lots of girls didn’t kidnap you,’ Kellie said, and raised the AK-47 onto her hip. The three shots blew off the back of her skull and splashed gristle and blood all over the radiator behind her.” 
“Wow, Kellie thought.”

Thus McBain, near the end, still casting a cold eye, not giving an inch. He was a master and his tales of the city are timeless.

Darkness in California

Ross Macdonald, the pen name of Kenneth Millar, wrote eighteen novels between 1949 and 1976 that moved some critics to call him the finest American crime writer. His novels often dealt with tormented families with secrets buried deep in the past, and his admirers find echoes of Freud and Oedipus in his work. I read one of Macdonald’s novels years ago, didn’t much like it, and didn’t return to him until a recent reading of two of his most highly regarded, The Chill, from 1964, and The Far Side of the Dollar, from 1965. I found him awfully grim and convoluted. 

David Lehman, in his book The Perfect Murder, praises Macdonald for endowing the private-eye novel with “a degree of high-mindedness it had never known before.” He says Macdonald’s novels are “gothic psychodramas,” have a tone of “weary resignation” and an atmosphere “heavy with guilt.” I agree. The question is whether Macdonald is too high-minded, too weary, too heavy. Reading him, I yearned for Fat Ollie Weeks to swagger in for comic relief.

Macdonald (1915-83) came by his angst honestly. He survived a difficult childhood, took refuge in books, and became a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan and a student of literature. After service with the Navy during the war, he married another writer, endured a difficult marriage, and saw his only child succumb to drug addiction. Lehman declares that “Macdonald’s stroke of genius was to transform the hard-boiled romance into a species of what Freud called the family romance.” In other words, Macdonald took crime out of the world of petty criminals and put it into the middle-class world, where every crime is wrapped in long-hidden secrets. 

That is certainly true of The Chill. Its plot is far too complicated to explain, but I will suggest a few highlights. A young man approaches Macdonald’s private detective, Lew Archer, in Pacific Point, a fictional city south of Los Angeles. The young man is honeymooning but his bride has run off after a man with a beard visited her in their hotel. Archer discovers that the man was the bride’s father, recently released from prison after serving ten years for killing her mother. 

Archer visits the local college the girl attended and meets Helen, a member of the faculty, who tells him that someone has threatened to kill her. That night someone does kill her and the missing ex-convict is suspected, as is his daughter, the runaway bride. Archer learns that twenty years earlier, Helen’s father, a policeman in the Midwest, covered up the murder of a rich man named Luke Deloney. Archer is soon convinced, without much evidence, that all three murders – that of Helen, in the present, of the bride’s mother, ten years earlier, and of Luke, twenty years back -- may be the work of one killer. 

Women play a central role in all this. Two have been murdered, a third is suspected of at least one of the crimes and another five or six are wandering about who are the mothers, widows, sisters and ex-lovers of various characters, and are all but impossible to keep straight. In the end, the plot turns on the fact that a middle-aged man’s supposed mother, with whom he lives, is in fact his wife. This may have been suggested by Chandler’s marriage to a woman eighteen years his senior. 

For me, The Chill (another title that means death), raises questions about just how much complexity I am willing to put up with. Readers must to some extent accept the plots that are put before them. But at some point the reader has a right to say, “What the hell is going on here?” A lot depends on the context. We tolerate Chandler’s plots for the sake of his characters and his prose. My problem with The Chill starts with the fact that it is extremely hard to follow, and when you do decipher it you have to accept that the same woman would kill three people over a twenty-year period. Moreover, this baffling series of events is embedded in an extremely dry account of some exceedingly unattractive people. 

The Far Side of the Dollar is more straightforward. A young man is missing, perhaps kidnapped, and Archer is trying to find him. The plot takes us into the past – one couple gave the boy up for adoption, another couple raised him – but most of the action is in the present and it moves along crisply, with some nice descriptions and writing. My problem with the novel is Archer himself. Macdonald’s main device for advancing his plot is for Archer to talk to people who invariably blurt out everything they know. He can’t buy a pack of gum without the clerk giving him some vital clue. He’s an insufferable busybody. People say “I shouldn’t be telling you this” or “I ought to order you out of my house” but they keep on spilling their guts. Wives and husbands have violent arguments, revealing horrid secrets, as he stands by contentedly, all ears. Most crime novels feature a cop or PI who asks a lot of questions and worms the truth out of people, but Macdonald milks this device to the point of absurdity. 

Archer is not only a busybody, he’s a moralist, forever telling people how they should live their lives. Everyone else is weak, crooked, and hypocritical; only Archer is wise and good. He tells the rich man he’s working for, “You don’t know how sick it makes me to sit here and listen to you while you dabble around in your dirty little warmed-over affairs.” (He then adds that he was “astonished” that he’d said such a thing. I wasn’t.) For all his Calvinism, Archer can be weird about sex. Macdonald introduces a sweet, virginal girl of sixteen and three times has Archer comment on her breasts: “…the bud-sharp outlines of her breasts…her little breasts…Her small breasts brushed my shoulder like a gift of trust.”

In the Chandler tradition, the cold-blooded killer proves to be a rich woman. When her guilt is clear, she tries to buy Archer off with money but of course, he can’t be bought. In the final scene, when the woman proposes to kill herself, Archer plays god, telling her she must face justice. Then, having established Archer’s nobility, Macdonald has it both ways by letting the woman kill herself in a wildly melodramatic fashion before our eyes. 

Macdonald’s writing is cool, crisp, and unrelieved by humor. One could praise its purity or damn it as mind-numbing. He seems to be exorcising his own demons with the psychodramas he inflicts on his characters. I respect Macdonald’s narrative skill, his seriousness, and his willingness to probe the dark secrets that torment even the best families, but he’s too grim, pious, and demanding to be one of my favorites. Not to put too fine a point on it, Lew Archer is a colossal pain in the ass.

Kiss Your Ass Goodbye

During his lifetime, Ross Macdonald was the most critically acclaimed of these Fifties writers. Probably this was because he was the most serious of them -- high-minded critics who were loath to enjoy John D. MacDonald or Ed McBain could find it respectable to admire the austere Macdonald, who adorned his novels with references to Shakespeare, Eliot, Tennessee Williams, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and many more literary figures. He was the thinking man’s crime novelist. Charles Willeford (1919-88) was more or less the opposite. His hardscrabble career brought him little financial or critical success until shortly before his death, but his reputation has grown steadily since then, while Macdonald’s has declined. 

Willeford was born in Arkansas and orphaned at eight. He lived with his grandmother in Los Angeles for a few years but the Depression had begun and she had no money, so at twelve he struck out on his own. He rode the rails, held odd jobs, and at 16 lied about his age to join the army. During the war, he was decorated for his service as a tank commander in Europe, and he retired as a master sergeant after 20 years. While still in the military he began publishing poetry and writing novels.

His first novel, High Priest of California, was published in 1953. It concerned an ill-starred, three-way romance between a car salesman, a dance-hall girl, and her ex-boxer husband. Willeford thus began twenty years in the jungle of paperback originals, where the pay was low and publishers changed the names of his books and sometimes misspelled his name on the cover. His second novel, Pick-up, was published in 1955 and concerned a doomed love affair involving a failed artist who’s working as a short-order cook. In 1960 he wrote The Woman Chaser in a month to earn money for graduate school. 

Cockfighter, from 1962, examines the world of cockfights. Roger Corman’s 1974 film version, starring Warren Oates, became a cult classic. Willeford wrote the screenplay and played an aging referee. By the 1970s, Willeford was living in Florida and being published in hardback. His popular success began when St. Martin’s published Miami Blues in 1984. (He wanted to call it Kiss Your Ass Good-Bye.) A psychopath named Freddy Frenger is released from San Quentin and told to get out of California. He mugs some people in San Francisco for air fare and flies to Miami. Arriving in the airport he breaks the finger of a Hare Krishna. The fellow goes into shock and dies, whereupon homicide inspector Hoke Moseley gets on the case. Frenger has by then begun a one-man crime wave. At one point, he steals Moseley’s gun, badge, and false teeth. Here and elsewhere, Willeford mixes broad humor with serious violence. 

After the success of Miami Blues, which was made into a nice little movie, the publisher asked for another Hoke Moseley novel, and a series was born: New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, and The Way We Die Now followed. The last earned Willeford his first six-figure advance and was published in March 1988. Willeford had just received advance copies of the novel, and signed a few for friends, when he died on Palm Sunday. 

Early in the new century, Willeford’s 1955 Pick-up, was included in the Library of America’s collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, which called it a “nihilistic early novel” that “follows the pilgrimage of two lost and self-destructive lovers through the depths of San Francisco.” Others in the collection include Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, a searing study of a psychopathic sheriff; Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, about a charming American psycho adrift in Europe; and Chester Himes’s The Real Cool Killers, which features Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. The recognition of these writers by the Library of America, some fifty years after they were first published, mostly as two-bit paperback originals, is a nice reminder that today’s cheap thrills can be tomorrow’s classics.

Patrick Anderson. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. Random House, 2007.