Non-Westlake Scores: John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink

NB: A version of this post also appears on Existential Ennui.

I’m in the midst of a series of posts on vintage softcovers over on Existential Ennui, and I’ve reached a pair of paperbacks I was basically badgered into buying by one of the regular commenters on both The Violent World of Parker and EE—which is why I’m posting them over here as well as there (that and the fact that there’s a certain amount of fan crossover between these books and the Parkers). They’re first British paperback editions of John D. MacDonald‘s The Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink, both published by Pan in 1968 (and both originally published in the US by Fawcett/Gold Medal in 1964, the former as The Deep Blue Good-by), with cover artwork by Sam Peffer—among the last covers that the prolific Pan artist must have created for that publisher (I believe he left Pan in 1967). They are, respectively, books one and two in MacDonald’s twenty-one book crime fiction series starring finder of lost fings, Travis McGee, a series that TVWoP and EE regular David Plante reckoned I would find rewarding.

Now, I have tried a John D. MacDonald novel before—The Only Girl in the Game, which I liked a lot—but I’d never read any McGee. But given that Kingsley Amis was an admirer of MacDonald’s, and I am, in turn, an admirer of Amis’s; and that another writer I love, Elmore Leonard, put it on record that MacDonald was “the best first-person writer I’ve ever read,” adding, “Travis McGee’s ‘I’ was never intrusive”; and that David bloody Plante clearly wasn’t going to give it a bloody rest or give me a moment’s bloody peace until I relented and cracked the spine of a bloody McGee (figuratively speaking—because as we all know, cracking the spines of books—even ones already bloodied—is WRONG), there was nothing else for it but to dive in.

Of course, that begged the question: which editions of the early McGee novels (I’m not worrying about the later ones just yet) to begin collecting? The original Gold Medal paperbacks would be the obvious choice; not so easy to come by for someone living in the UK, but not impossible. In truth, though, those are in relatively plentiful supply if one can be arsed to order online from the States—and anyway, when have I ever plumped for the obvious choice? That left, to my mind, two options: the British hardback editions of the novels, published by Robert Hale in the 1960s and ’70s, which, with their miniscule print runs and beautiful Barbara Walton dust jackets, are prohibitively expensive these days, running into the hundreds if not thousands of pounds per book; or the British paperback editions, issued by Pan, which, when you can find them (and I found these two copies online and on a table outside a secondhand bookshop in Brighton), are fairly cheap. Naturally, skinflint that I am, I opted for the Pan paperbacks.

And I’m pleased to report that David was perfectly justified in his persistent pestering, because The Deep Blue Goodbye at least—I haven’t made it as far as Nightmare in Pink yet—is terrific: tough, but also surprisingly tender, especially once Travis McGee, who’s been hired to trace a twisted sort named Junior Allen and recover the loot Allen stole, visits Allen’s former mistress and, finding her in a dreadful state, casts aside his affected nonchalance and decides to stay and nurse her back to health. In his essay “A New James Bond,” Kingsley Amis noted that MacDonald “is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels?”, but on the evidence of The Deep Blue Goodbye—and indeed The Only Girl in the Game—I’d say that MacDonald could do “human-heart” as well as anyone—and he was no slouch at the thrills either, as demonstrated by a gripping and violent final encounter at sea.

Pan had largely switched to photographic covers by the late 1960s, and while the first Pan printings of The Deep Blue Goodbye and Nightmare in Pink could boast Sam Peffer cover art, subsequent printings, and subsequent McGees, sported photographic designs. So, having started collecting the Pan paperbacks, I’m not sure I’ll stick with them . . . and serendipitously, just the other day I chanced across a different edition of the next book in the series, A Purple Place for Dying, which I’ll be showcasing on Existential Ennui shortly.