Friday, June 17, 2016

FFB: The Brass Cupcake -- John D. MacDonald

Now and then I like to read a book by John D. MacDonald just to remind myself of how good he was.  The Brass Cupcake was his first novel, and while it's not as strong as some of the later ones, it's still topnotch.  I have a couple of editions, and the one pictured on the left is the one I read this time.

Cliff Bartells was a cop in Florence City,  Florida, until the corruption became too much for him.  It's 1950, but already the syndicate is in town and things are starting to change.  So Cliff resigned (the "brass cupcake" is a derogatory term for his badge), and now he's an insurance adjuster.  It's not an exciting life, but it's something he's good at.

And then things get exciting.  A wealthy tourist is murdered, and her jewelry is missing.  It's expected that the killer will make an offer to sell the jewelry (worth $750,000) back to the insurance company, and Cliff is assigned to make the buy.  As a result, he meets the tourist's beautiful niece, Melody Chance, who's a real MacDonald woman (beautiful, hearty appetite, great figure, independent [up to a point]).  You can guess what happens between them, but along the way there's another woman, Letty, and we see how far Cliff will go to get the jewelry and solve the murder.  Cliff is the first-person narrator of the novel, and some of his descriptions of Letty are, well, let's say not as flattering as those of Melody.  There's a third woman, too, the one who wants to marry Cliff.  She's needy and clingy, and the descriptions of her aren't flattering, either.  Another guy at Cliff's office loves her, and Cliff's advice to him at the end of the novel will set feminists' blood to boiling.

This might be MacDonald's first novel, but the writing is swell, the pacing is great, there's some convincing action, and a lot of things that made his work so appealing in the later novels are there.  If you think his environmentalism was something that came along later, you don't have to read any further than this book to learn that it was always there.  

John D. MacDonald is the writer who inspired me to begin collecting paperbacks 50 years ago.  Reading this book again reminds me of why I was so powerfully affected.  JDM has a lot to answer for.

16 comments:

Todd Mason said...

Did he "modernize" any of his novels? And, of course, he was a several-years' veteran fiction writer before starting to publish novels...not that the skill-set for short stories is exactly the same as for novels...nor either's the same as novellas'...

How many of his had you read, and was it that some were getting scarce even by '66 or so?

http://thetrapofsolidgold.blogspot.com/2009/11/brass-cupcake.html was a while back, as is only likely (nah, let's hold off on his first novel on the tribute site).

August West said...

In the early 80s he published some of his excellent early short stories in hardcover volumes. The Good Stuff & More Good Stuff. In the forward he mentions that he edited some parts to reflect more present times. That is the only case I know of his works being "modernized.

Bill Crider said...

He didn't modernize the novels, and his books sure weren't scarce in '66. They were everywhere in those days.

Deb said...

I've always enjoyed MacDonald's work--especially the theme of the gradual destruction of Florida by forces within and without which thread through all of the Travis McGee books--but you put your finger squarely on the element that makes him so problematic: for a great writer, he sure has an extremely limited palette when it comes to women. And some of the first-person narration of sex scenes (especially as the years went by and times became more permissive) are so cold and clinical they're almost creepy. Of course, he wouldn't be the first writer of his era to apparently be flumoxxed by (or indifferent to) complex women, but for a writer as good as he was, MacDonald had a real blind spot when writing about women.

/Dismounting soapbox now.

August West said...

Correction: The volumes are titled THE GOOD OLD STUFF & MORE GOOD OLD STUFF. They contain some of his best SS that were published in magazines in the 50s and 60s.

George said...

Now I want to drop everything and read some John D. MacDonald! What an extraordinary writer JDM was!

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

I found the updating in the collections that August mentioned to be jarring and wrong-headed.

Back in '89 I set out to read a bunch of the early stuff I hadn't read before and this one was one of them, at least according to my database. I say that because I really don't remember much about it at all, though it sounds like a bunch of his other books. I think I still have a few sitting on the shelf yet to be read.

Todd Mason said...

Deb's plaint is perhaps why I still like, among the two dozen or so I've read, THE EXECUTIONERS the best of the JDMc novels...the female lead is an equal (and as reluctantly murderous a) partner in what they Need to Do, as rather opposed to what the films loosely based on the novel show us.

But the McGee novels at their most blunt still are miles ahead of nearly all of Hemingway, much less Mailer or Spillane (or...)...not that those are high bar settings.

Todd Mason said...

Yeah, I definitely had the sense that he was very much #2 in sales in crime fiction, or at least US crime fiction, behind only Spillane in those years...I wondered if his sparking you to collect paperbacks was because a (very) few of the titles were falling out of print...

Bill Crider said...

Well, what happened was something like this: I was reading Anthony Boucher's reviews in the NYT, and he often praised paperback originals. I enjoyed JDM's work immensely, and one day in a used book store I found a first printing of MURDER FOR THE BRIDE. I loved the cover, and it occurred to me that maybe paperback first editions would be fun to collect for the covers and also for the contents. After that, the deluge.

Kent Morgan said...

I have mentioned before that I filled out my father's collection of JDM books that were on a shelf at the family cottage. I still need to find a copy of Weep for Me. When I come across some JDM books that are usually in a group at a book sale, I check to see if any of them are older editions with different covers than the ones I have.

Richard Robinson said...

I've read all of the McGee novels, and re-read some of them. I started out to re-read them all but got bogged down somewhere after the 3rd or 4th and haven't yet gone back to that plan. I have read only a couple of the non-McGee books, this not being one. Sounds good, though, and no surprise, that.

When you had that initial epiphany, how much shelf space did you have at the time?

Bill Crider said...

Judy and I lived in a small apartment with almost no shelf space. Little did we know.

Charles Gramlich said...

Same with me. I've got about 12 of his books left to read. I read about one a year in order to drag them out. Of course, I guess I could always just start over. The Brass Cupcake was a good one

Don Coffin said...

I read The Brass Cupcake about 10 years ago, and I could see that it was a promising book. But I don't think one could reasonably foresee the success he had later, either.

Mathew Paust said...

Patti's blog of late launched my interest in debut novels, altho I'm only flirting with obsession over them thus far. I've never been an obsessive fan of JDM's novels, either, but I've read a few McGees and a couple non-McGees--A Flash of Green is the only one that comes to mind, and I really enjoyed it--and now I'm thinking The Brass Cupcake would be a natural step forward in my debut-novel flirtation.