Mr. Marlowe, Mr. McGee; Mr. McGee, Mr. Marlowe

Mr. Marlowe, Mr. McGee; Mr. McGee, Mr. Marlowe

Some stories are timeless, and some stories stay firmly rooted in their era. 

It’s not an either / or proposition, where one is always preferable to the other.

Two of my favorite series of crime / detective novels are the Philip Marlowe books by Raymond Chandler and the Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald.

They are, at first blush, somewhat similar.  Insofar as Chandler defined the modern private eye character (although he never laid claim to creating that archetype), MacDonald has to be acknowledged as following Chandler’s lead.

No matter, there’s plenty of room for both.

Virtually all private eye stories, particularly those narrated by the detective in question, filter their worldview through that character (and, obviously, through the author as well).

As much as I love both author’s series, the advantage seems to fall to Chandler.

The Big Sleep was Chandler’s first Marlowe novel in 1939; prototypes of the character had appeared in various short stories published prior to that but The Big Sleep was the first time the character appeared by that name.

Marlowe is a philosophical private eye, with a penchant for poetry and chess and a literary, almost lyrical look at the world around him.  Like most fictional PIs, he finds solace in alcohol, but not to the point of oblivion, only to ease the pain of being human.  To quote “The Simple Art Of Murder” (Chandler’s classic essay on detective fiction):

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it…the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”

By comparison, Travis McGee inhabits a brighter, more spacious, more airy world, but not one that’s any less dangerous or debased.

Unlike Marlowe’s Los Angeles milieu, the McGee books typically start in bright, sunny Florida among tanned and trim beautiful people.

MacDonald, like Chandler, was another veteran of the pulp salt mines and though he’d already achieved success as a writer (Cape Fear among many, many other books), the McGee novels were pitched as paperback originals, intended to be churned out like clockwork, filling a particular publishing niche of that era.

As such, the series gets off to a flat, unimaginative, and for the genre, typically gimmicky start:  McGee is a “salvage specialist” who recovers stolen or embezzled money and property through extra-legal means, he lives on a houseboat called The Busted Flush (so named because he won it in a poker game), drives an electric blue Rolls-Royce converted into a pick-up truck named Miss Agnes, has a brilliant economist friend named Meyer who helps out, a colorful cast of background characters, and speaking of color, a linking theme in the titles of all the books (The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, etc.)

In short, pretty typical fodder for the male oriented paperback original action market.

And had the series continued in the vein of The Deep Blue Good-by, we wouldn’t be discussing them.

But MacDonald was too good a writer to just crank stuff out, and while the first McGee novel isn’t what the series would become, it gives MacDonald a voice that wasn’t in any of his other books, and by the second novel he had a firm grasp on what made a Travis McGee story.

Chandler took his time with the Marlowe books, supplementing his income by scripting for Hollywood (Chandler wrote the screenplay for James M. Cain’s book Double Indemnity, William Faulkner wrote the screenplay for Chandler’s The Big Sleep; all that’s missing is Cain adapting a Faulkner story to the screen…).  He wrote seven novels over a period of 19 years, though his focus remained resolutely on character and literary style as opposed to plot (famously when Faulkner and co-screenwriter Leigh Brackett couldn’t figure out who killed a minor character in The Big Sleep they called Chandler and asked him; there was a long pause on Chandler’s end followed by “…damn…”).

MacDonald, conversely, wrote 21 McGee books in 20 years:  Four in 1964, two in 1965, two in 1966, skipping a year, then two in 1968 before settling down to a yearly pace through 1974, another break then the last five books over a six year period.  (Rumors of a final McGee novel, A Black Border For McGee, involving the character’s death and narrated by Meyer appear to be just the wishful thinking of fans.)

What’s shocking about the McGee books during their primo run is just how good they are.  MacDonald through McGee proved to be a sharp and perceptive observer of not just the larger world around him but of American culture in particular and even more tightly focused on Florida. 

Before Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaason began offering their unique take on the criminal eccentricities of Florida, MacDonald had thoroughly mapped the territory.  Others may have done it better, but he certainly did it first.

It shows in the McGee books, with MacDonald’s garrulous narrator making philosophical asides and observations on every topic imaginable.

McGee (i.e., MacDonald) was concerned with human impact on the environment long before most novelists began picking up on the topic (the exception being science fiction writers, who did see looming problems, but hey -- surprise! surprise! – before he settled into crime fiction as his oeuvre, MacDonald also wrote for the sci-fi pulps and penned two exceptional sci-fi novels, Ballroom Of The Skies and The Wine Of Dreamers).

MacDonald through McGee connected the dots between rapacious human greed and the rape of the environment and the society we live in.  While not all the books touched on ecological problems, they all acknowledged terrible and disastrous change was in the air, change brought about by greed and stupidity.

The two, as McGee / MacDonald frequently notes, go hand in hand.

These philosophical asides were what endeared Travis McGee to us when we discovered him as paperback originals in the 1960s and early 1970s.  The books offered more meat and substance than most books in that genre. 

MacDonald grasped how much his fans enjoyed McGee’s running commentary and began including more and more asides, running longer and longer.

They proved fascinating and entertaining and informative and none of us buying the books back in the day objected…

…but in the end they date the McGee books rather severely, and have probably prevented the character from finding success outside of publishing.

Marlowe, while waxing philosophical himself, knew a little bit goes a long way and held his ramblings in check.

And as a result, he edges ahead because his world, his Los Angeles, remains timeless.

This is not to say there aren’t elements that mark the Philip Marlowe books of a specific time and place, but those are details that can be easily discarded when adapting the stories to film or TV or radio or any other media you desire.

Case in point:  Robert Mitchum made his version of Farewell, My Lovely in 1975 as a period film set just before World War II, then followed it up three years later with The Big Sleep set in Los Angeles of 1978 and nobody saw anything odd about it.

The Marlowe stories transcend specific time even though they stay rooted firmly in Los Angeles and Southern California.  The same cast of con men, aspiring actors, phony psychics, melancholy millionaires, and desperate delirious dreamers have inhabited Los Angeles since before the turn of the century -- the 20th century.  You could set a Philip Marlowe story any time between 1920 and today and save for minor cosmetic details the key elements do not change.

But McGee…ah, McGee is a prisoner of his era.

Mind you, that’s a big hunk of his appeal.  What the Travis McGee books do is offer a running commentary on America-specifically-Florida-specifically-riproaring-capitalist-Florida from 1964 to 1984.

Unlike Marlowe who deals with eternals, McGee deals with the here and now.  His stories all reflect specific slices of time and do a damn fine job of it.

But you can’t take him out of his era.

Sherlock Holmes used to be locked in cobble-stone-hansom-cab-gaslit 1880s London until the recent Sherlock and Elementary series broke him free, but truth be told, that cobblestone imprisonment was a late invention of Hollywood.

Most Holmes stories take place after World War I and he rides in automobiles, flies in airplanes, talks over the telephone and radio, and does any number of technologically advanced things.

The earliest Holmes movies were always set in contemporary times, involving him in fights against Nazi spies in WWII.  It wasn’t until the 1950s that films and TV shows began pushing him back into the late Victorian era.

While some Marlowe films have put him in 1940s L.A., far more have set him in contemporary times.  Marlowe (1969) captures late 1960s L.A. perfectly (and features Bruce Lee as an office destroying thug, replacing the white guy who did the same deed in the source novel, The Little Sister); The Long Goodbye, my personal favorite of all the films based on Chandler’s novels, is resolutely set in 1970s Los Angeles (and features a young and uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the bad guy’s heavies).

And if you think there wasn’t a world of difference between 1969 Los Angeles (pre-Manson) and 1973 Los Angeles (post-Manson), guess again.  The fact that books written literally 20 years earlier in both instances could be easily adapted into contemporary films marks Marlowe’s timeless nature.

McGee has not fared so well.

Mind you, I would recommend the McGee books to anyone who’s interested in how American culture progressed during the 1960s / 70s / 80s:  They give a lot of first hand in-the-now information.

But they remain trapped in their era/s. 

Case in point:  The plot of The Quick Red Fox centers on McGee trying to find who’s blackmailing a Hollywood movie star with incriminating photos.

The story hinges on the actress’ career being destroyed if the photos are made public.

That was a big deal in 1964, but in 2017?  The Internet has inured us to such things.

But by 1967, a scant three years after The Quick Red Fox’s publication, societal norms had already shifted to the point where such behavior and photos would no longer have a devastating impact on a person’s life, especially a show biz celebrity.

In contrast, the blackmail scheme in The Big Sleep does not target the mentally ill victim, but rather her father, a frail and dying elderly man wracked with shame and guilt over how he has failed his family.  The plot works regardless of when the story takes place because it doesn’t hinge on how society judges the victim’s sexual behavior but rather how one specific character does, and for reasons unique and particular to that character alone.

McGee (read MacDonald) typically was spot on with his observations, but they are too much a part of the character and the stories to enable them to escape their time.

You always find somebody like the characters in the Marlowe books in Los Angeles, but a lot of McGee’s characters have faded with history:

”Without my realizing it, it had happened so slowly, I had moved a generation away from the beach people. To them I had become a sun-brown rough-looking fellow of an indeterminate age who did not quite understand their dialect, did not share their habits -- either sexual or pharmacological -- who thought their music unmusical, their lyrics banal and repetitive, a square fellow who read books and wore yesterday's clothes. But the worst realization was that they bore me. The laughing, clean-limbed lovely young girls were as bright, functional, and vapid as cereal boxes. And their young men -- all hair and lethargy -- were so laid back as to have become immobile.” (The Lonely Silver Rain)

There have been two attempts to bring McGee to the screen, and while both are serviceable and entertaining as movies, both are failures as McGee films.  Darker Than Amber (1970) featured Rod Taylor as McGee and failed because it lacked McGee’s philosophical voice; Travis McGee (1983, based on The Empty Copper Sea) with Sam Elliot failed because it included that voice.

McGee’s narrative musings, while fascinating on the printed page, do not translate well in cinema.  There may be a way of striking a just-right balance, but the two efforts to date didn’t succeed.

In one way it’s a pity:  Sam Elliot would have made a perfect McGee…in 1973. 

If you want a perfect example of why the McGee books are virtually unfilmable, consider the greatest narrative hook ever written, the opening line to Darker Than Amber“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody threw the girl off the bridge.”

Boom!  You’re already in the middle of the story; the key has been turned, all eight cylinders are firing, the pedal is slammed all the way down.

And it’s McGee’s voice that informs us of this.

The movie shows the unfortunate young lady being tossed off the bridge, and what McGee and Meyer were doing to put them in a position to observe same, but showing this takes too damn long .

By the time she actually is thrown off the bridge, all the impact has been dissipated.

That was MacDonald’s genius…and his curse.

Chandler, showing much more restraint, gets more done even though he does it in (seemingly) a more conventional manner.  There have been awkward adaptations of Chandler’s books, but the fault lays in production decisions, not the actual underlying material.

The crucial difference is that Chandler did not let Marlowe age or otherwise pass through time.

The brilliance of MacDonald’s work is that it traces a long arc through the heart of the 20th century; the brilliance of Chandler’s is that he ignores what is going on around him to focus on foundational issues.

There is also this:  While Chandler faced emotional and physical problems that marred his latter years, he never voiced that pain through Marlowe --  at least not clearly enough to be picked up by his fans.

But following a heart attack in the late 1960s, MacDonald allowed McGee to become more fatalistic, more morbid, more morose, more aware of his own mortality.

His first post-heart attack book, A Tan And Sandy Silence, had fans actively worrying that he was set to kill McGee off; it is certainly as despondent a tale of failed knight errancy as one might hope to find.

The series briefly bounced back to form with The Scarlet Ruse and The Turquoise Lament (though they, too, offer their notes of grim finality; more so than one would expect in a series crime novel), then dipped irretrievably with The Dreadful Lemon Sky (the weakest of what I consider the “real” i.e., original run of McGee novels), followed by a four year gap and then the mediocrity of The Empty Copper Sea.  

I remember reading it when it came out and thinking -- hoping! -- that it was just a temporary setback, that MacDonald would get the McGee series back on its feet and running great guns again.


The quality started faltering badly after that, and though fans tried to convince themselves through The Green Ripper and Free Fall In Crimson that these were still good stories, by  Cinnamon Skin and The Lonely Silver Rain there was no doubting the old magic was gone.

MacDonald died two years after The Lonely Silver Rain was published. 

A lot of us feel it would have been better if he had hung up McGee’s spurs with A Tan And Sandy Silence.

McGee drops back further and further in the rearview mirror; the day will eventually arrive when you will need to be a historian of some kind in order to fully appreciate MacDonald’s sharp writing and observations.

Marlowe will be with us always, even as technology and social changes alter the landscape.

I love Marlowe, I love McGee; 
I love Chandler, I love MacDonald.

But only one of them is going to be read by my grandchildren.

. . .

The Philip Marlowe novels of Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep (1939)
Farewell, My Lovely (1940)
The High Window (1942)
The Lady in the Lake (1943)
The Little Sister (1949)
The Long Goodbye (1953)
Playback (1958)

[Poodle Springs is based on four chapters written before Chandler died in 1959 and finished by Robert B. Parker in 1989; as they are not purely Chandler’s work I don’t consider it canon]

. . .

The Travis McGee books of John D. MacDonald

The Deep Blue Good-by (1964)
Nightmare in Pink (1964)
A Purple Place for Dying (1964)
The Quick Red Fox (1964)
A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965)
Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965)
Darker than Amber (1966)
One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966)
Pale Gray for Guilt (1968)
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968)
Dress Her in Indigo (1969)
The Long Lavender Look (1970)
A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971)
The Scarlet Ruse (1972)
The Turquoise Lament (1973)
The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974)
The Empty Copper Sea (1978)
The Green Ripper (1979)
Free Fall in Crimson (1981)
Cinnamon Skin (1982)
The Lonely Silver Rain (1984) 

ode to an imaginary god

ode to an imaginary god