Sunday, April 16, 2023

Classic crime

Five Books interviews an author about "The Five Best Classic Crime" novels. The interviewee, a British crime writer, Stig Abell, points out that the crime genre is only about "120 or 130 years old" and yet the selection of only five wasn't easy. He makes good recommendations, although any reader of the genre might well (almost certainly would) choose others. Only one of his authors was an American:
The author is an American called John MacDonald and you’ve chosen Darker than Amber, which is from 1966. Tell me about him and this book.

I love him. He’s not read very much in this country, but he sold millions of copies in his day. He wrote Cape Fear under a different title, The Executioners, so some people may have half-heard of him because of that.

I would definitely advise getting into his books. The only warning is that they were written in the 1960s and 70s and, especially with a male author writing a male protagonist, the sexual politics is not great. .... I don’t know what you think, but I feel fairly comfortable with that, if you’re able to read these books critically. I wouldn’t get rid of it, I wouldn’t rewrite it, I wouldn’t whitewash it. I’d just accept that it’s there and have a critical engagement with it. And you have to do that with John D. MacDonald.

But beyond that, they’re brilliant novels. The conceit behind the central character is magnificent. He’s called Travis McGee and lives in a boat called the Busted Flush in Florida. He wants to have his retirement while he’s still young enough to enjoy it. He’s this charming knight errant. People who have things stolen from them, who can’t get legal recourse, come to him. He says, ‘I’ll get it back for you, but I’ll take half the value.’ That’s how he earns money, and that enables him to live this beach bum lifestyle.

Each book has a colour in the title and each one is an attempt to recover something. ....

One writer who loves these books is Lee Child—and you can see a little bit of Jack Reacher in Travis McGee. He’s much more gregarious than Jack Reacher. It’s the idea of a man who goes into the uncharted, small-town badlands of America, where there are some pretty rough people. He’s really rough as well. He’s six foot five and good at fighting. He kicks ass and gets stuff back. But he also thinks about things.

If you like 60s Americana, there’s loads of it in the book. I think for people who’ve read lots of crime books but have never heard of John MacDonald, it’s quite nice to find a whole unexplored avenue. If you can just have a critical engagement with some of the sex side they’re brilliant. Darker than Amber is a really good tale. A woman is dropped with a cement block into a river where they’re fishing. Then they go after the people who went after her. ....
Interview by Sophie Roell, "The Five Best Classic Crime," Five Books, April 16, 2023.

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