MacDonald is most famous for the creation of Travis McGee, self styled 'salvage consultant', a fresh and intriguing variation on the classic private eye. But the book I'd like to tell you about is not one of the McGee novels — although it is dedicated to him. (MacDonald also dedicated a book to his cats; a man after my own heart.)
The Last One Left is a powerful standalone novel about murder for profit. The cold blooded killings take place in the Caribbean and are carried out by Staniker, the hired captain of a pleasure boat. Meanwhile, back in Florida, Crissy Harkinson, the ice-hearted femme fatale who set the crime in motion, waits for her cut of the proceeds.
MacDonald writes strikingly about the "tumbling blue indifference" of the sea, and effortlessly conjures up mood and atmosphere, as when he evokes the "silence and emptiness of Sunday afternoon." The brilliance of his descriptions extends to everyday objects — an audio tape on fast forward sounds like a "nest of agitated mice."
Most powerfully, in this book, is the way he conveys the horror of the murders and their terrible psychological toll on the killer, who has to live with what he's done. After the crime Staniker is alone on the boat with the bodies of those he's killed. "They were all — making a silence," he tells his accomplice later.
In this regard MacDonald's writing is suggestive of the great French realistic novelists like Guy de Maupassant or Emile Zola (check out Zola's classic tale of murder, Thérèse Raquin)... This connection is natural enough, since the French writers influenced the likes of James M. Cain and the whole American school of hardboiled crime fiction.
Heartbreakingly, John D. MacDonald brings his various characters vividly to life before the murders so the reader feels their tragedy of their loss all the more keenly. And his gift for characterisation is of a very high order.
For example, MacDonald delves into the childhood of Crissy Harkinson in a brilliant sequence, and we learn where the book's title comes from — a childhood game, where the winner takes all — and we get an insight into what has made her the selfish killer we see today.
MacDonald has his faults, too. His British aristos in Nassau talk in phoney limey clichés ("Rather a fool then, what?") and one set of characters he keeps returning to, in this multi-viewpoint novel, really get up my nose as we limeys say.
This is the Cuban couple — Cristy Harkinson's maid and her journalist boyfriend, plucky little Raoul who fought heroically against Castro at the Bay of Pigs and is busy trying to single handedly expose the evil communists' attempts to take over Latin America.
MacDonald's efforts at espionage stories have always struck me as terribly phony — his one full-on spy novel Area of Suspicion is my least favourite of his books. On the other hand, The Last One Left was written around 1966 and the Cuban Missile Crisis would have still been painfully fresh in the author's memory. So maybe we should cut him some slack.
And in contrast to Raoul, one of the other major characters, Corpo, a brain damaged war vet is touching, expertly wrought, and simultaneously scary and delightful. In fact he's sort of a Bizarro World Travis McGee.
And there is one sequence which was so masterful it had me in awe. MacDonald stages a confrontation between Oliver, a teenage kid whom Cristy has seduced and is busy manipulating, and his mother.
Now, the mother is basically a narrow-minded, bible thumping bigot, so I found myself siding with the sulky Oliver against her... I was thinking, "Shut up, you sanctimonious old bat" — but then I suddenly realised, shit... she's absolutely right. "She's callous and vicious. She's just using you," says the mother about Cristy, and she couldn't be more correct.
In fact, it's tragic, because Cristy's plan involves cold-bloodedly killing Oliver, and throwing the blame for another murder on him. Which she does, hardly batting an eyelash. So this scene shows just how subtle and profound MacDonald's writing can be.
The book has other flaws, though. In the end Crissy is ultimately entrapped with the cooperation of her own lawyer in a manoeuvre which is arguably more evil than the crimes she'll be punished for.
And when I learned that the victims of Staniker's killing spree had been previously hunting dolphins — Jesus, did people do that? — suddenly their brutal murder didn't seem such a crime.
On the whole, though, if you can filter out the Cuban spy subplot, I still think this is something of a masterpiece. And it ends on a savage vignette of ecological disaster that makes me forgive any of the book's inadequacies.
(Image credits: The bulk of the covers are from Good Reads, except for the Fawcett with the white cover and green circle which is from the useful and informative John D. MacDonald Covers, the British Companion Book Club edition which is also from there, and the Doubleday hardcover which is from Amazon. Isn't the original British hardcover beautiful, with its Barbara Walton art of the girl's face against the deep blue background?)