Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Hard Cases

Mystery writer John D. MacDonald had a long career behind him when he finally agreed with a publisher in the early 1960s to write a series character. He wrote the first batch of novels together before they were released, calling his Florida-based adventurer "Dallas McGee" before thinking the assassination of President Kennedy in that city might bring negative association to the character. Renamed "Travis McGee," the cover blurb-described "big, loose chaser of rainbows" bowed in 1964 in The Deep Blue Good-by. Even though it appeared the very next year, A Deadly Shade of Gold was actually the fifth McGee novel and written to be about twice as long as the others.

An old friend of McGee's has reappeared at his Florida boat slip, talking about making a final score and perhaps reuniting with his lost love. He asks McGee to broker the reunion, but before that can happen the buddy is murdered and whatever he was using to make the score is the only clue McGee has to the death. He commits himself to finding the killer and unraveling his friend's "big score," planning on making the guilty pay as many ways as possible.

Although almost exclusively a pulp writer in several genres, MacDonald infused his stories with philosophical speculation on a wide range of topics, as well as being an early voice in environmental awareness. Gold is not different, touching on questions about whether a collector has more right to a people's ancient artifacts than do those for whom they represent ancestral history. The intelligence and introspection of McGee, combined with the insightful kinds of questions MacDonald asks about human nature, put the Travis McGee series on a par with most literary fiction that's designed to examine the same issues.

Gold does suffer from the weaknesses of the rest of the series. Ostensibly a hard-boiled detective/adventurer/crime thriller "updated" for the 1960s, it doses the genre's bent for misogyny with some early Hefnerism (in another novel, McGee "saves" a female character from being "frigid" and hating sex by inviting her to his boat and sleeping with her regularly) and maintains the tradition of disposable female characters (women wanting a long life had best steer clear of that big, loose chaser of rainbows) and McGee himself gets a little tiresome the seventeenth or eighteenth time he talks about what a sack of rat bastards these mortals be.

It's also a little too long and disconnected, with almost two separate novels housed under one cover. But anyone wanting to see how the hard-boiled quick-talking flatfoots and dames of the 1950s became the Spensers, Pragers, Robicheauxs, Milhones and Warshawskis of the modern world should explore the McGee series, and A Deadly Shade of Gold is a pretty good sample to use.
When he debuted in 2011's The Killer, Victor the assassin was using a Russian mobster as a sort of "agent" in setting up his carefully planned jobs. That mobster betrayed him and Victor cut ties with him, but now he's called Victor for help, The mobster has a stepdaughter who was never a part of his criminal enterprise but who has been targeted by those seeking revenge of their own, and he wants Victor to protect her until he can unravel the tangle of who has come after him and deal with the matter. Victor isn't a bodyguard, but he's spent a long time thwarting their efforts and has picked up a trick or two. So when he agrees to help protect the young woman, he counts on success. Once he can find her, that is. And once he can figure out whether her enemies want her so they can get to her stepfather, or because of something she knows.

No Tomorrow is Tom Wood's fifth novel of his assassin and the first to give Victor something or someone other than himself in which to invest. It's a wise choice, because in the previous four books he's already fully painted his anti-hero as an obsessively paranoid, hyper-violent, super-observant killing machine who every now and again grasps at a tattered rag of humanity and honor. Yet another novel on those lines would probably start digging a rut Wood might not be able to dig out of. He continues to excel at generating and maintaining tension and writing explosively gripping action sequences and fight scenes. He drizzles wry humor into the interludes but doesn't lay on the sang-froid too thick.

But Victor isn't Superman; his wins come at a cost physically and emotionally and Wood does not shy away from them. The descriptions of his elaborate security and protection measures give a clear sense of the overwhelming energy it takes Victor just to stay alive another day. Victor's daily - or maybe hourly -- struggle is not to win, but just to survive. The only difference is that for him, survival is winning, and you get a picture of a man who would fight to draw one more breath than his opponent for no other reason than doing so means he won.

No Tomorrow might be a place where Wood changes directions or begins to add some layers to Victor's story. If he does, it will be a very welcome development in a series that was still operating at a high level but may have done about all it could do along its former path.
Before Jeff Bridges re-envisioned him, before John Wayne established him and before Charles Portis introduced him, there was a real "Rooster Cogburn" in the Arkansas of the late 19th century. He was never a lawman, had two good eyes and was actually named Franklin instead of Reuben, but he was real and was part of the blend that Portis used in creating the character in his novel True Grit. And now his great-great grandson Brett is telling some of his own tales of the Old West, beginning in 2012 with Panhandle.

Cowboys Nate Reynolds and Billy Champion are as rootless as the herds they work for the ranchers of the Texas panhandle. Supplementing their pay with an occasional scheme of their own -- which includes liberating horses from the Cheyenne now and again -- neither can imagine himself settling down or trading their lives of adventure for anything even remotely sedentary. Then they meet Barby Allen, and the competition for her favor drives a wedge between the friends. Billy seems to have the upper hand with his smile and smooth ways, but could Nate's solidity and devotion be preferable?

Cogburn gives his novel a little of the wry tone used by Portis in creating the fictional Rooster. Nate describes the cowboy's life clearly and explicitly, only now and again he uses the kind of semi-Victorian circumlocutions necessary to speak of matters polite people didn't speak of. Cogburn uses an old Nate reminiscing on his youthful cowhand days and adopts a longing tone for bygone and simpler times. But he doesn't settle for a simple atmospheric recreation of a Wild West wrangler, offering a fascinating contrast between the two friends, Nate and Billy, who will both aid and compete against each other over the years. It echoes the kind of ambivalence John Knowles gives to Gene and Fin in A Separate Peace and it gives significant weight and depth to the sadness which colors Nate's recounting.

Cogburn has two more Westerns in print and Amazon shows him scheduled for a gangster novel release next year. So far, he's doing well at measuring up to many of the expectations his surname might bring those who love the Old West as it appears in its Western novels with a strong dose of historic reality mixed in.

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