My Debt to John D. McDonald

Role Model for a Fledgling Writer

Matt Murdock, my detective hero, sprang from John D. McDonald, the prolific crime writer (1916-1986) who created Travis McGee. McGee, the hard guy protagonist, starred in a 21-novel series that ran from 1964 to 1985.

McDonald wrote 78 books. The titles of the twenty-one McGee books were coded with a specific color: The Deep-Blue Goodbye, Darker than Amber, and A Deadly Shade of Gold. The first Cape Fear film (starring Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, and Polly Bergen, 1962) was an adaptation of McDonald’s novel, The Executioners.

Like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (and later Robert B. Parker’s Spenser), Travis McGee narrates his stories from the First Person. He calls himself a “salvage expert,” which means he helped friends in trouble, friends who could get no help from cops or lawyers. For his fee, McGee took fifty per cent.

For thousands of male readers trapped in desk jobs and sedentary lifestyles (I was a college prof who sat around a lot, feet on the desk), Travis McGee offered a momentary escape. He was single, handsome, witty, and smart. He was the archetypal hero, St. George on a white horse, who slew the dragon and rescued the maiden. McGee was a smart guy, with a wry wit. He was a knight-errant who lived on a houseboat, The Busted Flush, that he had won in a poker game.

A hero needs a sidekick. Holmes had his Watson;  Spenser had Hawk. And Travis McGee’s sidekick was an alter ego named Meyer, a Ph.D. in economics, who took over the explanations, saving McGee from drowning in pages of exposition.

For each McGee book, a new lady-friend stepped onstage. When the book ended, the ladies exited, leaving the stage empty—except for McGee, Meyer, and The Busted Flush. When McGee needed motivating, McDonald the writer killed the lady-friend to stoke the fires of vengeance.

The Birth of Matt Murdock

When I wrote Bloody Murdock (1986), I was hoping for a series similar to the books starring Travis McGee. But I was not a fiction writer, not a teller of tales. I had no practice in character development or dialogue. I didn’t know about the need for an establishing shot to lock down location. I had yet to learn the importance of motivation, agenda, and core story. I had taught expository writing, guiding students through essay writing. I had read novels, but I knew nothing about writing one.

The questions still haunt me: How do you start writing your novel? What do you do first? Where do you open the story? How do you hook the busy reader? How do you get those characters out of cars, down corridors, through doorways, and into rooms?

When in doubt: imitate your betters.

I aped John D. McDonald. He had McGee. I had Murdock. McGee had Meyer, the brainy sidekick. Murdock had Wally St. Moritz, smart, well-read, educated, and sedentary. McGee’s home was his houseboat, The Busted Flush. Murdock had a bachelor’s apartment above a surf shop, The Silver Surfer, on the beach near the Newport Pier. McGee’s playground was Florida, with forays into Mexico and the Caribbean. Murdock’s playground was Southern California—Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Irvine—a rollicking source of money and power.

My hero needed a voice. I tried Murdock in Third Person—that voice, distant and authorial, morphed into a prologue—and then I settled on First Person, like McGee. Like Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s Los Angeles sleuth. And like Spenser, who operates with steady, brilliant success in Boston.

In my search for the right opening, I wrote hundreds of pages—and those were the days of the typewriter, carbon paper copies, and bottles of Whiteout. I wrote a dozen versions of Page One with Murdock waking up. It seemed logical and “natural.” The day starts, the book starts. But you can’t start your book where the first move is a yawn, and the next move is a weary stretch.

Desperate, I painted word-pictures of the Newport Pier. I sketched the ocean beyond the pier. I daubed in a sleek sailboat sliding across the horizon. Ahoy there, yon sailboat: Anything happening out there? Anything I can use to open my book?

I tried opening with dialogue—it sounded wooden—then with a masterful monologue from Wally St. Moritz. Nothing worked, and I was avoiding the important stuff: killer, victim, crime, crime scene, discovery of the corpse.

The Arresting Image

If you are a writer, you pray for the right image—a trigger for your writing brain—and so one day my wife Margot and I had lunch at the Blue Beat on the Newport Pier and when we came outside I saw the figure of a girl walking along the pier, quick steps, medium heels. She had red hair like Brenda Starr, girl reporter from the comic book pages of my youth. She was willowy, the writer’s code for young and perhaps innocent. That unnamed girl with her skirt pressed tight to her legs by the wind, her hair flying like a TV ad for L’Oreal, that distant vanishing girl turned into a character named Gayla Jean Kirkwood, a Hollywood starlet wannabe, fresh off the Greyhound from Texas.

I costumed her in a party dress, rushed her to a fancy party deep in Laguna Canyon, where she hooked up with a small-time film star who was making a deal with the killer. Back then, I had a Ph.D. in literature—but I didn’t know that when you write mysteries you better create the killer first.

Killer First

When Jack Remick and I wrote The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, our first lesson was: create your killer first. By then, I had written five Murdocks. And with Jack’s analytical eye, I saw, at last, that the key to each book was the killer.

To get to the killer in Bloody Murdock, I followed the trail of the victim. Gayla Jean lusted for stardom. She took up with a man who promised to help her. He was a rich man with a big house in Laguna Canyon. His name was Philo Waddell and the opening scene-sequence takes us inside Philo’s house, into the heart of a hot party where the entertainment is a series of cockfights. Philo’s guest list is an eclectic mix of people from Hollywood, people from the rich beach cities, and Mafia people from Las Vegas. To find out why Philo kills Gayla Jean, you need to read the book. But for me, Philo was the key. I stumbled on him. With each page, his evil grew. By the time readers reach the climax, they want Philo dead.

Having Fun Quoting Myself

When you write a blog about your writings, there is a great temptation to quote yourself at length. But when I read my writing in those early books, I wonder: Who wrote this?—because the images that landed on the page were not the images I conjured in my dreams. Reading my early writings, I am reminded that when you are a writer, you do your best with the words.

You hold your breath as the image in your brain morphs into the word-picture on the page, and then you suck in a quick breath as the word-picture gets squeezed by syntax. English syntax is elastic—it expands, it contracts, it writhes when you fling it into the face of the world.

You keep writing: the right word, the best sentence, the perfect paragraph. You do your writing practice, writing under the clock a la Natalie Goldberg, and some days you are hot and other days you are cold, but you keep writing because writing is what you do.

The quote below comes from the early pages of Bloody Murdock. Murdock has a gig. His client is Ellis Dean, who hires him to look into the death of Gayla Jean Kirkwood. Dean is a passive no-action guy. His function in the book is to act as a contrast to Murdock.

Quote: “Back at my place, Ellis Dean sat on the edge of a director’s chair, watching me strap on the leather shoulder holster. For him, this was the action big time. The first couple of dozen times, strapping on a shoulder holster can be an exacting ritual. The smell of leather and mansweat. The flat emptiness before you insert the pistol. The knowledge that this is a harness of death. I don’t like shoulder holsters, especially in summer heat, when society forces you to wear a jacket to hide the straps. But they are the way of civilization. I knew an old Chinese dude in Saigon who put everything into symbolism. Politics was the dagger up the sleeve, he said. Government was the gun beneath the armpit. The gun I chose was a .357 Magnum, six-inch barrel, with half a box of extra ammo.”

Analysis: The passage opens with the character contrast I mentioned above. Ellis Dean is a passive man, brainy and sedentary. Murdock is all action. Murdock needs money; Dean has money. Money from puts Murdock on the trail of Gayla Jean. Once Murdock gets going, once he starts questing for revenge, the money loses its importance. That’s what makes him a white knight.

The heart of the passage is the warrior girding himself with armor. Instead of a sword or a battle-ax, Murdock straps on a .357 Magnum. When I was writing Bloody Murdock, I had sage advice from a gun-guy in one of my writing classes. To be a writer, you need to know the right people.

When in doubt: ask an expert.

My thanks to Catherine Treadgold, the publisher of Camel Books, who is reprinting all five Murdocks, who has thereby engineered the rebirth of my detective hero, and who launched me onto this handy blog.

Thanks, Catherine.

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