Collecting Moments of Pleasure,
Thanks To A Favorite Author

By PJ Parrish

It was going to be a tough crowd. They had gathered out on the docks of the Bahia Mar resort in Fort Lauderdale — a pelican-glide away from the Busted Flush’s slip F18, no less.

The plaque at slip F18 at Bahia Mar.

It was hot, and the audience was sweating under the October sun. But no one was sweating more than me. Because I was there as part of a panel of mystery writers to talk about what John D. MacDonald meant to me, and I had never read one of his books.

I could have lied. But I didn’t. I fessed up, and after the gasps died, I talked about the stuff I had read -– the good old stuff -– John D. MacDonald’s short stories.

I hadn’t read them all. He turned out nearly a million words worth of stories in his life, and many were lost to time. But I had read everything I could get my hands on because in those days, I was teaching myself how to write short-form fiction, and sticking to Carver, O’Conner, Oates just wasn’t doing it for me. I found a copy of MacDonald’s collection, The Good Old Stuff in a used book store in Fort Lauderdale. When I read those stories, it was like someone smacked me aside the head with an oar, forcing new synapses to fire in my writer-brain.

Most these stories were begun after MacDonald returned from the army as a way to support his family. He worked eighty hours a week, writing across a style spectrum that included crime pulp, westerns, sci-fi and fantasy, keeping as many as thirty-five submissions in the mail at all times.

He also wrote love stories for women’s magazines, usually about hapless husbands. I still remember this scene from “She Tried to Make Her Man Behave,” where a wife confronts her husband with this: “The marriage book said a good marriage is a case of both people making adjustments.” To which the husband relies, “That sounds as if I’m due to make one.”

Cheever might have liked that one.

In 1950, in “Breathe No More,” MacDonald gave us the McGee prototype Park Falkner, an eccentric sarong-wearing millionaire who lives on Grouper Island in Florida. Falkner’s gal-pal is Taffy Angus, who is the sun-kissed rough draft for every McGee woman who drifts off or dies horribly.

So, back to that sweaty day at Bahia Mar. I told the audience what I had learned from reading the good old stuff. I told them that these stories had everything — vivid characters in diamond-bright settings, elegance and economy, wryness and wit, and that sense of inevitability that I search for in all good fiction. And every one of them, even the flawed efforts, had that strange music, what MacDonald himself called “a bit of unobtrusive poetry.”

For my reward, the organizer of the event presented me with pristine copy of The Deep Blue Goodbye. I read it that night in one sitting and I didn’t look back as I made my way across the MacDonald rainbow. On my beside table now is The Scarlet Ruse. 

Maybe it is because I am getting old, but when I read this passage recently, it really got to me. It is classic Travis and undoubtedly classic MacD himself (who was a mere pup of 56 when he wrote it):

I collect moments of total subjective pleasure, box them up, and put them in a shed in the back of my head, never having to open them up again, but knowing they are there.

So what would be a gem in the collection?

A time when I am totally fit and I have just come wading through one the fringes of hell, have been stressed right up to my breaking point, have expected to by whisked out of life, but was not. I am out of it, and if there is any pain, it is too dwindled to notice. I am in some warm place where the air and sea are bright. There are chores to do when I feel like it, but nothing urgent. I am in some remote place where no one can find me and bother me. There is good music when and if I want it. There is a drink I have not yet tasted. There is a scent of some good thing a-cooking slowly. There is a lovely laughing lady, close enough to touch, and there are no tensions between us except the ones which come from need. There is no need to know the day, the month, or the year. We will stay until it is time to go, and we will not know when that time will come until we wake up one day and it is upon us.

The passage resonates with me because this past annus horribilis has made me cling ever more tightly to the few things in my life that matter. Like Travis, I am in a remote place (northern Michigan) where no one can bother me. I am happy with good music, a little drink of the locally distilled whiskey, perch cooking in butter, friends and family held close. Like McGee, I am comforted in the notion that I am lucky to have survived, hell, even thrived, for six decades and counting. That, and the fact that I as I slide into…ahem…the late autumn of life, I, too, am more determined than ever to “collect moments of total subjective pleasure, box them up, and put them in a shed in the back of my head.”

And to not fret about the future, to just “stay until it is time to go, and we will not know when that time will come until we wake up one day and it is upon us.”

I love the fact that I can still mine nuggets like this from old books. I love the fact that I can count on certain writers to still make me laugh, teach me things, inspire me, and reaffirm what is important when it is easy to forget. I love the fact that the MacDonald rainbow remains ever green.

TKZ hive: What books or writers do you return to again and again? What writers tickle your brain and enlarge your heart?

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

35 thoughts on “Collecting Moments of Pleasure,
Thanks To A Favorite Author

  1. It’s funny, I’ve only read MacDonald’s stand-alone crime novels, and they’re great. My favorite is A Bullet For Cinderella.

    Ray Bradbury is someone I find very re-readable. His stories make me feel like a kid again. That childlike fascination can be great energy during my own writing.

    • Funny, I remember reading a little Bradbury in high school but then never going back. Might be time to revisit. It’s never too late to be young again.

  2. Kris, I hope you will forgive me for (over)stating the obvious, but your piece this morning is beautifully written. It’s derailed my day in all of the best ways.

    My answer to your question is James Lee Burke. His prose, whether describing the beauty of a south Louisiana morning or the dark manifestations of the human soul, shimmers and sings long after its read. Dave Robicheaux, his best-known protagonist, was also ultimately one of my inspirations to stop drinking over thirty years ago.

    Thanks for a terrific start to the day, Kris.

    • Wow, thanks for a high compliment, Joe. Yeah, I worked through many early Burke books when I was just starting to write and their beauty discouraged me for a while. 🙂 But he is definitely one of a small band that deserves revisiting.

  3. Ah, Kris, the great John D. You’re singing my song (which I have written about HERE). I have a complete collection of his 50s paperback originals, including the science fiction.

    All of these hold many gems of “unobtrusive poetry.” For some reason I really love his novels about the angst of the 1950s working stiff, and what that can lead to (crime, adultery, usually both). My favorite is Cancel All Our Vows. I’ve read it at least three times, and now you’ve made me want to read it again!

    Thanks, Kris, for the thoughtful post about one of the greats.

    • Haven’t read Cancel All Our Vows! Just looked it up and it says it is about “lust and seduction.” Will have to order it. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Great post, Kris. Smooth and comfortable, powerful and poetic. The Deep Blue Goodbye was the first of John D MacDonald’s books that I read, after a post by JSB. I was immediately impressed with the style and the pleasure of reading, like comfort foods.

    Knowing now your thoughts on MacDonald’s work, explains why I felt the same pleasure when reading Dark of the Moon. I have many of your books sitting on my Kindle, but a hardcover of Dark of the Moon sits on my shelf with my favorite books.

  5. What a poignant, beautiful post, Kris. You and John D. reflect the longing many of us felt during this last year-plus of isolation from loved ones.

    There is a lot of comfort in authors we read when we were younger, back when we didn’t know what catastrophes were going to befall us. But now, as the birthdays pile up, we reread with different eyes b/c we’ve come through on the other side. The first time we read those timeless stories, we caught a glimmer. But now we really understand what those great ones were writing about.

    Raymond Chandler is my fave but John D. is close on his heels.

    • Funny thing about MacDonald’s work. When I first started reading them, I heard mainly the wit and humor. Now I also hear the more elegaic notes. That’s partly what makes for a great book, that you can come to it from different angles at different times of your life.

  6. Neat post. For me I would say Stephen King. That’s not original, but I’m a kid of the 80’s.

    I’m envious with his character development as the stories progress. As an adult there’s a lot to go back and read and rediscover.

    One book I’ve read a few times was Eye if the Dragon. Not a well known King book, but it was amazing how he switched his genre.

    • I wouldn’t apologize for loving King. He’s a master. Because I am not deep into “horror” I haven’t read him widely. But I was blown away by “Lisey’s Story.” It broke my heart. It is being made into a series, starring Julianne Moore and written by King. Will be very interested to see it.

    • Loved Eyes of the Dragon.
      I’ve read everything King has put out up until 2019/2020 (mainly because the hubs collects him & we like to compare notes on new books.) but, honestly, I like it better when he’s writing fantasy that just happens to be horror, like the Tower series. He seems to relax a bit in that genre.

  7. Nice & heartfelt piece, Kris. Good timing for me as I’m currently on a hardboiled detective fiction genre research trip. Two weeks ago I’d never heard of John D. MacDonald. Then I found out he was a master of the HB trade (among other genres) and on Saturday I stumbled upon a 7-book JDM Travis McGee bundle at a used bookstore. I snapped them up and your post this morning has moved them to the top of the TBR pile. BTW, enjoy the butter fried perch. I grew up in Manitoba eating those little beauts. 🙂

  8. Great post. I can’t imagine how brave it was to confess to a group of fans that you’d not read a single one of the man’s novels. It’s a wonder the shock waves didn’t deposit you in the water next to the famous slip.

    My first John D was The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything. I read it probably 40 years ago. It was a fun read but suspect I was too young to cull his brilliance from it. I didn’t read another until a few years ago when I picked up The Quick Red Fox. Since then I’ve read half a dozen—some Travis McGee, others his stand alones. All have a poignancy to them too many writers struggle to find but comes naturally for John D.

    My go to author has almost always been Louis L’Amour. He’s a wonderful storyteller with a down to earth feel about him.

    • My dad was a HUGE L’Amour fan. I have memories of him sitting in his red chair, puffing on his cigar and reading those paperbacks. I haven’t read him and probably should.

  9. Wonderful post, Kris! I read “Empty Copper Sea” by MacDonald years ago, not long after starting work at the library, as well as some of his short fiction, and his SF novel, “The Girl, The Goldwatch, and Everything,” but I really need to read a lot more McGee.

    One of my all time favorite comfort reads is Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings,” which I’ve read many times, though it’s been probably a decade since my last read, so I’m due. Tana French and Kate Atkinson are both writers who are so evocative in their narratives that I find myself completely immersed, my brain tickled and heart enlarged, as you so well put it 🙂

    Thanks for a brain tickling, heart enlarging post!

    • I know I should read the Rings, but I am not a fantasy reader by choice. Have read only the first French book and ashamed to say nothing by Atkinson. This reminds me to move her to the top of the TBR pile after I’m done with Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America.” Which must be read slowly. I started the Meachum book LAST YEAR and had to put it down, I guess because politics was just too toxic to deal with, even our historical politics. This spring, I am in the right mind to try it again. But will be looking for a good fiction palate cleanser. Atkinson will work well.

  10. Oh my, this is a gem of a post. Promptly downloaded The Good Old Stuff because I’ve never read MacDonald. It’s time.

    And to not fret about the future, to just “stay until it is time to go, and we will not know when that time will come until we wake up one day and it is upon us.”

    This is where I am. This sentence pierced my soul. I love my life right now. Spent 30+ years in the medical field, before that in law enforcement for a tiny bit, and before that rearing some of the best humans on the planet.

    Now, I get to be anonymous, living with the man and the dog on our measly 5.5 acres of mostly weeds, and never want to be anywhere else. Once in awhile make a trek to the town to buy grub and see my Dad. It’s a distinct pleasure to wake up here each morning and not somewhere else.

    Thanks for hitting my heart this morning with an armor-piercing bullet, Kristee. This one’s going in my file, and I can’t wait to get started on the good old stuff.

    • Oops! Forgot to answer the question!

      Agatha Christie is one of my faves; of late, though, is Charles Martin. Sometimes I read a sentence or a paragraph chock full of truth surrounded by beautiful prose and just have to close the book and think. 🤩

    • Deb, sounds like we are in similar places. I, too, take daily delight in husband, dogs, my small circle of friends, growing tomatoes and such. I feel blessed.

  11. You hit another home run today, Kris. Thanks for the reminder about the great John MacDonald. I had never read any of his works until I read about him here on TKZ. I started with “The Deep Blue Goodbye” followed by “Nightmare in Pink.” He’s one of the authors who can make me stop skimming and re-read paragraphs or pages to just soak in the prose. I haven’t read any of his short stories, however, so I’m going to grab a copy of “The Good Old Stuff” today.

    Obsessed as I am with mystery, I have to name Agatha Christie as one of my favorites. “And Then There Were None” is an amazing puzzle. I would add Raymond Chandler and Dorothy Sayers to make up my top three.

  12. Angie Fox is a competent craftsman, and her mysteries are flawless, but so are so many other writers, but her “The Southern Ghost Hunter Mysteries” make me so dang happy by the end of each book. Her heroine Verity is a true Southerner of good family in a small Deep South town, but she’s the most under-dog of under dogs. The toxic town matriach hates her, has destroyed her financial stability, and continues to destroy anything good that comes into her life. Verity has the fortune and misfortune to fall in love with the good son from this woman’s poisonous family tree so the abuse has gotten worse.

    Verity washes out an urn she finds in her attic. It’s a burial urn, and she has the dubious honor of now being haunted by a gangster ghost straight out of a noir novel. Frankie is a nasty piece of selfish work, but Verity sees some tiny bit of light in him. They team up as ghost hunters to help humans with truly scary hauntings and accidentally solve a few real life murders along the way. Verity has such a huge heart that, by the end of each novel, she’s given peace and happy endings to every worthy human and ghost in each story. She warms my cold Grinch heart with each book.

    • Ha! Love the urn angle. It’s a twist on rubbing an old lamp and getting a genie.

  13. Great post. Two of the writers I go back to again and again are poets. Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin. They never fail to both enlarge my heart and my vision. I have bought several copies of Merwin books because my daughter has taken them with her to college, to NY for grad school and to her own home. Can I borrow this, she’d ask. Yes, take it. read it. I’ll get another copy. In fiction, I would cite THE GREAT GATSBY. Nothing else of Fitzgerald’s ever did it for me besides a few short stories, but I have read Gatsby once a year for forty years. And “The Dead,” by James Joyce. Again, I have not read all of Joyce or even most, but that story I read whenever I am discouraged by my writing or even by life. And finally, two books by Denis Johnson-JESUS’ SON, and THE STARS AT NOON. because they both confirmed for me years ago that writing was my path and that it was worthwhile.

    • I can see how Gatsby remains evergreen for you. I think I first read it in high school and it was then a chore. The second visit was college and I could begin to see what the fuss was about. But it wasn’t until I started writing novels myself and re-read it (about the time the first movie came out and I wanted to compare) that I began to appreciate the writing itself. Have never heard of the Merwin books. Will have to check them out. Thanks.

  14. Another MacDonald fan raises her hand here. It’s like taking a vacation every time I re-read his novels. I revisit the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz as often as possible. But that goes for many of his books. And the earlier Sharon Sala novels always provide an emotional outlet. The latest series I’ve added to my “must read again” list are the Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear, and the Will Thomas’ Baker and Llewelyn mysteries.

    But my shelves can always expand to include new friends.

  15. Short stories are the stepbrother of novels, too often neglected. Yet the underlying principles are exactly the same. Whom do I read repeatedly? Not much. Asimov. Heinlein. Any author with two middle initials, especially if they are “R.R.” M.C. Beaton. John Irving.

  16. This is a gorgeous commemorative piece, Kris!
    I laughed out loud at Douglas’s reply. Sounds like you handled it skillfully. Kudos!
    I, too, have never read MacDonald, but he sounds amazing, if that passage you included is any indication. I might have to check the local library for some of that short fiction.
    I return again and again to Mary Gentle, specifically her .Ash: a Secret History series and the Ancient Light duology.
    There’s something about those two characters and their tales that soothes me, even though they’re both dark.

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