Studying the Masters of Detective Fiction II – John D. MacDonald

This post is the second in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

john-d-macdonaldPhoto Credit: http://www.nndb.com/people/076/000114731/

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 2 – John D. MacDonald

Just the name of his fabled character, Travis McGee, starts your imagination working overtime to picture this man. McGee was the opposite of Sherlock Holmes as described in my earlier post on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was more of a playboy who lived on a houseboat, bedded beautiful women, and took half of the profit from stolen goods that he recovered.

MacDonald himself was a well-educated man a degree from Syracuse University, my hometown, and an Ivy League MBA. He then entered World War II as a first lieutenant in the army.

MacDonald’s literary career started by happenstance. While away in the war, he mailed a short story to his wife who submitted it to Esquire Magazine and it was rejected. She then submitted it to Story Magazine and they accepted it for $25. When MacDonald found out about it upon his return, he spent the next four months cranking out 800,000 words of short stories and losing 20 pounds.

His eventual sale of a story to Dime Magazine was the first of nearly 500 stories to various magazines, some of which would fill an entire issue with only his stories under various names.

dbgbPhoto Credit: http://www.goodreads.com

MacDonald’s career flourished during the period from 1953 to 1964 during which he almost single-handedly crafted the hard-boiled detective genre.  His signature character, Travis McGee, made his debut in 1964 in the novel The Deep Blue Goodbye. This swaggering Florida figure who lived on a houseboat named the Busted Flush was the prototype for many private eyes that came after him like Jim Rockford, Thomas Magnum, and others.

MacDonald wrote 21 McGee stories over the next 21 years with every title containing a color within it.  Like Sherlock Holmes, McGee had an educated sidekick on some of his books named Meyer who was an economist and Ph.D. Most of the McGee stories took place in Florida.

cape-fearPhoto Credit: http://www.goodreads.com

MacDonald’s most famous film adaptation was from the Novel, The Executioners, which became the movie, Cape Fear which premiered in 1962 and was remade in 1991.

As I look at my own work, I see some unintended similarities. I have written private eye novels that take place in Florida. My detective lives in a trailer instead of a houseboat. He also has an educated attorney as a sidekick. I say that these similarities are unintended as I read my first John D. MacDonald book after I wrote my first novel. I must have had this blueprint internalized before I began my writing from adaptations of MacDonald’s model.

I have read many of Mr. MacDonald’s books since the first. You can see his prowess as a writer grow continuously throughout his works. I can now claim him as a role model due to the quality and prolific nature of his work.

Studying the Masters of Detective Fiction I – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This post is the first in a series that I will be writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters

arthur-conan-dolye Photo Credit:
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/how-dr-arthur-conan-doyle-cracked-the-case-of-the-tuberculosis-remedy/

Part 1 – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

When I look at crime/detective fiction, I view Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the pioneering architects in the genre. His novels and collections centered around his Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson characters are timeless.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born in Scotland in 1859. Like his Dr. Watson character, Doyle was a physician. After serving as a ship’s surgeon in West Africa, Doyle became an opthalmologist with a practice in London.

Like many writers, he had a hard time finding a publisher for his work, but finally was able to publish A Study in Scarlet, his first Sherlock Holmes Novel, in 1886 earning 25 pounds for the rights to the story. The publisher further abused their new client when the sequel was published, so he left them.

Sherlock Holmes was a character that was modeled after a professor that Doyle had studied with. As for Dr. Watson, as I read more about Doyle, I realized that this character is somewhat autobiographical. Watson is the first person narrator in most of the Sherlock Holmes tales. I believe this equates to Doyle telling the story himself through Watson.

What struck me as I made my way through the Sherlock Holmes stories is how masterful Doyle was at making the complex deductive process that Holmes employs seem simple to the reader and, by extension, Dr. Watson. He will make an observation about a character that is astonishing and comes across as a wild guess, but then deconstructs the process he went through to make the deduction making it sound so simple that anyone should have been able to deduce the conclusion.

I also like that Doyle’s characters have flaws. Both Holmes and Watson were prone to depression. Holmes was also a drug addict. It resonates with me that Doyle made Holmes a musician. This is something that I’ve done with my own private detective character.

hobPhoto Credit: http://manybooks.net/titles/doyleartetext02bskrv11a.html

Doyle was not always enamored with his Sherlock Holmes character and threatened to, and actually did, kill him off in one of his works. Outraged fans, however, convinced him to resurrect Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of Doyle’s most famous works, in 1901.

tlwPhoto Credit: http://www.goodreads.com

Doyle also penned other notable non-Sherlock Holmes works including The Lost World, and his Professor Challenger stories.

Doyle’s life away from writing was fascinating as he was a political activist, good friend to Harry Houdini, follower of spiritualism and an intermittent Freemason who resigned, rejoined, and resigned again from the society.

As I look at the life of this fascinating man and pioneer in the genre of crime/detective fiction, I am amazed at how his work holds up today and how the standard that he set for writers in this genre is still valid nearly 150 years after his era. This is not necessarily true of other authors of that time period.

Please look for upcoming posts on other authors that I consider masters in the crime/detective fiction genre.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction – Joseph Wambaugh

This post is the thirteenth in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 13 – Joseph Wambaugh

Joseph Wambaugh, Jr. was born in Pittsburgh in 1937. He is known for his fictional and non-fictional accounts of police work. Much of his work is set in Los Angeles as he was a member of the LAPD for 14 years. After serving in the Marines from 1954 to 1960 and earning a college degree. His father was also a police officer. Wambaugh made it to the rank of detective sergeant while he was on the police force.

Wambaugh’s first of 16 novels, The New Centurions, was published early in 1971 This successful book was published while he was still a working detective. It was so popular that criminals were asking him for autographs. He soon became a full-time writer following up with such works as The Blue Knight, The Choirboys and The Black Marble. He also wrote non-fiction crime-focused works such as The Onion Field and The Glitter Dome, both of which were adapted into screenplays.

Wambaugh’s police characters were far from perfect. His writing style was realistic and he often used humor and epic incidents to show how dangerous urban police work can be. He was also known to criticize the LAPD leadership through obvious characters and incidents in his books.

Wambaugh also liked to use his works to shine a light on things particular to Southern California including politics, the porn industry, dog shows in Old Pasadena and even the process behind the research necessary to win a Nobel Prize. He loved to skewer the rich and famous even after he became one of them.

Many of Joseph Wambaugh’s works were adapted for television and movies. Among the most famous was the NBC series, Police Story (1973-1978), which covered the different aspects of police work (patrol, detective, undercover, etc.) in the LAPD with story ideas and characters inspired by off-the-record conversations with police officers.

Wambaugh wrote the screenplays for the film versions of The Onion Field (1979) and The Black Marble (1980). In 1981, he won an Edgar Award for his Black Marble screenplay. There was also a film adaptation of The Choirboys film which received poor reviews and attendance. All three films featured actor James Woods.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction – Mickey Spillane

This post is the twelfth in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 12 – Mickey Spillane

Frank Morrison ‘Mickey’ Spillane born in Brooklyn in 1918. He wrote several novels featuring his detective character, Mike Hammer which have sold more than 225 million copies internationally. He also received an Edgar Allan Poe Grand Master Award in 1995.

Spillane was in the Army Air Corps (predecessor of the Air Force) during World War II and became a fighter pilot and a flight instructor. Spillane, an active Jehovah’s Witness, was married three times.

Spillane started as a writer for comic books. While working as a salesman in Gimbels department store basement in 1940, he met tie salesman Joe Gill, who later found a lifetime career in scripting for Charlton Comics. Gill told Spillane to meet his brother, Ray Gill, who wrote for Funnies Inc., an outfit that packaged comic books for different publishers. Spillane soon began writing an eight-page story every day. He concocted adventures for major 1940s comic book characters, including Captain Marvel, Superman, Batman and Captain America.

In 1947 Spillane decided to boost his bank account by writing a novel. He wrote I, the Jury, his first Mike Hammer tale, In 19 days, which sold 6 1/2 million copies in the United States alone. Spillane’s Mike Hammer character originally started out to be a comic book character.

Although not very shocking by today’s standards, Spillane’s novels featured more sex than those of his contemporaries. Interestingly, the violence was more subdued than most detective novels of the time.

In all, Spillane wrote 45 novels, 11 of which were completed or are being completed by Max Allan Collins between 1947 and 2016. At the time of his writing, critics were tough on him because of the amount of sex in his work. This later became tempered and his work has since gained a great deal of respect in the crime/detective genre.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction Part 11 – Dashiell Hammett

This post is the eleventh in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 11 – Dashiell Hammett

Samuel Dashiell Hammett, an American author, wrote hard-boiled detective novels and short stories. He was also a screenwriter, and political activist.

He is best known for the characters Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man). Many regard him as the best mystery writers of all time.

Hammett worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency for seven years with a break during which he served in World War I.

Like many writers of his time, Hammett became an alcoholic before working full-time as a writer inspired by his work with the detective agency. He was first published in a magazine in 1922.

Raymond Chandler (see Part 4 of this series) is often considered to be Hammett’s heir apparent. He spoke of his mentor in the following quote:

“Hammett was the ace performer… He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of, The Glass Key, is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before”

Hammett was also known as a left-wing activist and a member of the Communist Party USA. Despite this in early 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hammett enlisted in the United States Army. He served as a sergeant in the Aleutian Islands, where he edited an Army newspaper.

After the war, Hammett’s activism led to him serving time in prison and being blacklisted as a result of McCarthyism.

In the 1950s Hammett became reclusive until his death in 1961.

Hammett wrote four novels during the period of 1929-34. He then wrote related screenplays from 1936-43. His short fiction spanned nearly 40 years from 1922-61.

He was truly an architect for the hard-boiled detective fiction genre.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction Part 10 – Michael Connelly

This post is the tenth in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 10 – Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is best known for his Bosch series. Heironymous “Harry” Bosch is a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. He has been featured in 19 novels by Connelly, who has also written nine novels not featuring Bosch along with several short stories. His Bosch character was adapted into a series for Amazon. His novel, The Lincoln Lawyer, was adapted into a well-known film.

I resonate with Connelly based on his approach to writing. He doesn’t always know where his story will go, although he has a general idea. Also, his characters are influenced by world events and change as his own life changes.

Connelly has won every major mystery writer award. He is a graduate of the University of Florida and having lived in Florida since age 12. After graduating, Connelly worked with newspapers in Daytona and Fort Lauderdale covering the crime beat.

The success of his Bosch series is, in part, attributable to publicity he received when President Bill Clinton was photographed coming out of a bookstore holding a copy of The Concrete Blonde. The two later met in Los Angeles.

Connelly continues to enjoy success with his Harry Bosch series as well as his standalone work.

 

 

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction Part 9 – Stieg Larsson

This post is the eighth in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 9 – Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson is best known for his trilogy that started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I’m including him in my ‘Masters’ series because of the worldwide success of these books and because of his death at the relatively young age of 50. Actually, he died before the first book was published, so he never realized the success that his work would achieve.

In another example of an author that wrote what he lived, Larsson was an activist and journalist much like his character, Mikael Blomkvist, a mainstay in his trilogy. His other very notable character is Lisbeth Salander, a combination hacker, punk, emo, nearly autistic woman who has created herself based on her early experiences of abuse from a criminal father, witnessing violence against her mother, and abuse in the public child welfare system.

Larsson’s books demonstrate his expertise in the areas of Swedish politics, business, and finance. This could sometimes make his books difficult to read in spots. The intrigue and the spirit of his characters, however, mad the books well worth the effort.

One thing that I particularly enjoy about Larsson’s characters is their flaws. Blomkvist is a bit of a womanizer, whose main love interest is a married colleague. Their affair is carried out, however, with the full knowledge and consent of her husband. Salander is flawed because of her past and, even though she is the ultimate heroine of the book, she never rises above those flaws completely.

A fourth book in the Lisbeth Salander/Mikael Blomkvist series has been released by another author, David Lagercrantz. The book, while not terrible, does not contain Larsson’s spark that he gave his characters, especially Lisbeth Salander, who appears sparingly in this book.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction Part 8 – Harlan Coben

This post is the eighth in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 8 – Harlan Coben

Like many, I discovered Harlan Coben from his book, Tell No One. The book, written in 1995 is a mystery that grips the reader from the first pages. I have since become a fan of Coben’s, reading every book that he publishes. Like some authors in his genre, he has hits and misses.

Coben has a 10 book series featuring the character Myron Bolitar. He’s not your typical hero. He is a Jewish attorney/sports agent who was a basketball star in college only to have his dreams dashed by suffering a career ending injury in his first NBA game. Although he has a day job, he is often enlisted to solve mysteries. Bolitar has a partner/sidekick named Win Lockwood. Lockwood is a cross between Christian Grey and Chuck Norris.

The books in the Bolitar series are entertaining and have decent plots. They have spawned a YA series featuring Myron’s nephew Mickey Bolitar. These are definitely not as well written as they are virtually Myron Bolitar books with differently named characters. The pop references are not anywhere near contemporary teenage culture.

Coben’s standalone novels range from incredibly good, with Tell No One, to mediocre, with Missing You. Tell No One is a captivating mystery that starts out quickly and never lets up. Missing you, written from the point of view of a female, is a poorly crafted book with a chauvinistic perspective of how a female police detective would act.

Coben is critically acclaimed having won Edgar, Shamus and Anthony Awards. His style for most of his books is to have unexpected twists and turns that are rarely predictable.

My brush with his greatness is limited to being blocked by him on Twitter. I had followed and connected with other famous authors and received encouragement from them on my own writing. I tweeted a book announcement to Coben’s Twitter account and found myself blocked. I’d like to say that this was enough to convince me not to read his books, but that would be a lie.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction Part 7 – Jonathan Kellerman

This post is the seventh in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

 

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 7 – Jonathan Kellerman

 

Jonathan Kellerman is a classic example of writing what you know. He has written a series of novels where the main character is a California psychologist that treats children. This mirrors his own life. He is a trained psychologist and has written 48 fiction novels to date along with 5 non-fiction works on psychology, crime reporting, and guitars (he’s also a musician).

Jonathan Kellerman has been a huge influence on an aspect of my own writing. Kellerman has developed two characters, Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis that have stood the test of time. He takes these same characters and puts them in various situations where Sturgis is a Sherlock Holmes type homicide detective with the LAPD and Delaware is a consultant that often helps Sturgis solve crimes with his insight. Delaware is a more active ‘Dr. Watson’ type character and the 31 novels in the Alex Delaware series are told from his perspective.

Over the course of these stories, Delaware and Sturgis actually age and go through relationship changes. Another wrinkle is that Sturgis has gone from a closeted to an openly gay member of the LAPD. This was a source of oppression for him in the early novels. The more recent novels, however, much like our modern culture, has allowed him to be openly gay and successful.

One of the things that is different about Kellerman’s writing when compared to other writers in his genre is that his characters are not the story. The cases are the story and his characters react to them. You can take these two strong characters and put them in any crime situation and watch them react. I can relate to this as a writer. I have developed similar characters and I enjoy writing books that put them into new situations so I can watch how they react.

Besides his Delaware and Sturgis series, Kellerman has also branched off into another series with a strong female detective named Petra Connor. He has also collaborated on novels with his wife, Faye Kellerman, and his son, Jesse Kellerman.

Kellerman is also a strong advocate for more effective treatment of the mentally ill.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction Part 6 – James Patterson

This post is the sixth in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 6 – James Patterson

James was born in 1947. In the area of crime fiction, he is mostly known for his novels Alex Cross series. His books have sold more than 300 million copies and he is the first person to sell 1 million e-books.

Through his success, Patterson has become a benefactor for many universities, teachers colleges, independent bookstores, school libraries, and college students in the form of millions of dollars in grants and scholarships with the purpose of encouraging Americans of all ages to read more books.

James Patterson is a book writing factory. His most famous series, the Alex Cross books, number 23 so far. He also has penned 12 solo fiction works. He is really more of a brand than an author.

Besides these aforementioned books that he has written on his own, Patterson has co-authored numerous books in the Women’s Murder Club, Michael Bennett, Private, and NYPD Red series. This co-authoring or branding of the Patterson name has earned him some harsh criticism. There are those that say he is only in it for the money. Stephen King referred to him as a terrible writer that is also terribly successful.

For my part, I think that some of Patterson’s standalone crime fiction, and some of the early books in his Alex Cross series are very good. Others of his more recent work are not up to the same standard. Nonetheless, there are those that will read whatever he writes. He is now hawking writing classes and offering to have a contest winner as his next co-author. This is a double-edged sword. While I would love the sales numbers that being under Patterson would bring, I would not want to live under the stigma of people buying my books only because they were co-branded by Patterson.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.