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Wednesday
Aug122009

1980

The Green Ripper

By John D. MacDonald

Original Publisher: J.B. Lippincott and Company
Current Publisher: Fawcett Books (Random House, Inc.)

Glen David Gold writes:

The Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald, ostensibly the deadly adventures of the ultimate salvage consultant, are also an arc describing the evolution of masculinity in America, circa 1964 to 1985. Beginning as a "what kind of man reads Playboy" hero, McGee evolves into a much more pleasurable companion, whose tales each pose an ethical and/or moral quandary about how to live as a caring person in a hostile world. The plots are happily serpentine, the attitude engagingly hardboiled, but what brings the reader back is McGee's increasingly involved -- and heartbroken -- asides about the state of humanity. These books aren't just mysteries, they're investigations into the soul.

They start getting good around Pale Grey for Guilt (1968), and they are firing on all cylinders by A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971), in which McGee meets a psychopath so frightening he actually cries. If you happen to pick it up first, The Green Ripper (1979) is fine on its own, but its incredibly violent final act shocks those of us who started from the beginning. It takes someone we know and it pushes him so far beyond his known limits that it's breathtaking.

Now, that said, if you do know MacDonald's work, and if McGee fascinates you, I highly recommend something only the most obsessed fans have bothered with: A Friendship, Letters between John D. MacDonald and Dan Rowan. Rowan, star of the TV show Laugh-In, had a perfectly blind male friendship with MacDonald, something so flawed and so obviously doomed that Travis McGee would never have gotten within a hundred yards of it. Neither man understands the other, and each offers up a concise philosophy of life (MacDonald: Hard work in the struggle against indolence; Rowan: Drink up!) that the other manages to pretend he hasn't heard. It ends disastrously and embarrassingly, and there really is no better counterbalance to the graceful ruminations of Travis McGee than to see how even his creator stumbled in understanding how to live like a man among other men.

After The Green Ripper, the McGee novels continued to be a wonder. It's just an urban legend, a good one, that MacDonald had a final novel in his desk drawer, A Black Border for McGee, that killed off the hero. Instead, the stakes got higher, characters who seemed immune to danger found themselves compromised, and the elegiac final book, The Lonely Silver Rain (1985), has perhaps the best ending of any American detective series. In fact I can think of no better way to spend late summer than indulging in McGee, finishing perhaps in the chill of fall with the last pages of the last book, which will, I guarantee, raise goosebumps and leave you with the best of all possible questions: What if?

Glen David Gold is a novelist whose most recent work is Sunnyside (Knopf, May, 2009).

ISBN: 9780449224816

Fiction (Mystery, Hardcover) Finalists that Year:

  • Lucille Kallen for Introducing C.B. Greenfield
  • William X. Kienzle for The Rosary Murders
  • Arthur Maling for The Rheingold Route
  • Lawrence Meyer for False Front

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:

  • The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • The Green Ripper (a play on “the Grim Reaper”) is the eighteenth of John D. MacDonald’s twenty-one Travis McGee novels.
  • MacDonald’s literary career began accidentally in 1945 when he wrote a short story and mailed it home for the amusement of his wife. Unbeknownst to him, she submitted it to the magazine Story, and it was accepted.

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