Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Brass Cupcake by John D. MacDonald

It's about time I followed up my previous post on John D. MacDonald. (And in case you're interested, here is an even earlier one where I explained why that middle initial is so important.)   

I recently discovered a useful little book about John D. by crime fiction specialist David Geherin and that has launched me on a project of re-reading many of MacDonald's novels. A project which is proving both fun and educational...

First up, appropriately enough, is The Brass Cupcake, his very first work of book-length fiction, published in 1950. This novel has a couple of flaws, which I won't be able to resist slagging MacDonald off for later, but a fair person would have to concede it's actually a very impressive debut.

Clearly MacDonald's apprenticeship writing short stories for the pulp magazines — he sold over 200 between 1945 and 1950 —  paid off spectacularly in terms of giving him command of his craft.

The Brass Cupcake — the title refers to a worthless prize — tells the story of Cliff Bartells (good name), an insurance investigator on the trail of a fortune in stolen jewels. But, crucially, Bartells is an ex-cop, squeezed out of the local police force for refusing to knuckle under to the pervasive corruption.

Cleverly, MacDonald uses the jewel robbery as leverage for his hero to ultimately get even with the cops, politicians, and indeed the entire corrupt system which wronged him. The setting is Florida, a favourite John D. MacDonald location, mostly in the imaginary municipality of Florence City but also in the very real Ybor City (which recently featured in the film Live By Night). 

The locale is intensely and convincingly evoked, with a lovely touch of cynicism: "Florence City met the hot February sun with a wide financial smile." And elsewhere the writing is of an equally high standard, whether he's describing a murderously vengeful woman — "her eyes were like broken stone" — or the experience of suddenly being awakened from deep sleep "the dream split across the middle and blew away like smoke."  

Even everyday objects are brought to life with deft intensity, as when he talks about the "thin sharp teeth of the zipper." And, as always, MacDonald writes about the sea and maritime things with great acuity and allure: "the drone of the approaching launch separated itself from the deep voice of the waves." 

MacDonald also scores strongly on characterisation, he has sharp and witty observations of people and social mores, as with two men who don't really like each other but are routinely civil when they meet, whom he compares to "rival car dealers."  And the bad guy in this story is the onlie begetter of many a plausible and charming psychopath in the Travis McGee novels.

On the debit side of the ledger are the sex scenes, one of which is so decorous ("I got out of the car and walked down to the surf line...") we're not even sure it's happened, while another is disastrously overwritten ("a wild shout thrown upward at the stars in crescendoed apex...").

Indeed, the sexual attitudes of the book are sometimes quite alarming. But then, it was written in 1950.

On the whole, though, this is a small, intermittent masterpiece which shows clear signs of the great work which was to come. 

And it features a scene where the police beat the hero which is so savage, concise and vivid that I found myself expecting physical after-effects just from reading it. 

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from Good Reads, where there is rather a good selection. The exceptions are the earliest Gold Medal paperback (number 124) from Vintage45's blog, the nice 35 cent cover, from Pinterest, the one with the brandy and the automatic, from ABE.)

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