Perhaps that day will come in time, but that time is not now. With the publication of this handsome trade-paperback edition of the first of the McGee novels, Random House — a publishing Goliath not known for sentimentality in literary matters — is bringing not only McGee but almost the entire MacDonald oeuvre back to life with what can only be called a bang. Over the next couple of years, all the McGee novels will appear simultaneously as trade paperbacks and e-books, with “Nightmare in Pink” and “A Purple Place for Dying” arriving next month; a number of MacDonald’s other novels — notable among them “Cape Fear” (originally published in 1958 as “The Executioners”), “The Brass Cupcake,” “Dead Low Tide” and the 1977 blockbuster bestseller “Condominium” — will be published similarly; and some three dozen of MacDonald’s forgotten novels will be issued as e-books.
Yes, Random House probably feels some loyalty to MacDonald. Its subsidiary Ballantine acquired his original publisher, Fawcett Books, in 1982, and presumably MacDonald titles have brought in some welcome income since then. But for a large and, for the most part, resolutely commercial publishing house to take a step such as this on behalf of an author who has been dead for more than a quarter-century is rare indeed. The only comparable example that comes readily to mind is the commitment made by Overlook Press, a self-described “eclectic independent publisher,” to bring out a complete and uniform hardcover edition of the works of P.G. Wodehouse, an edition that is one of the glories of contemporary publishing. But Wodehouse is of course a perennial favorite, whereas MacDonald had seemed on the verge of disappearance.
Obviously the existence of e-publishing, with its flexibility and low overhead, is what makes this new MacDonald edition possible, but as one who still reads books only if they’re printed on real paper, I welcome the trade-paperback MacDonalds with gratitude and enthusiasm; e-book readers doubtless will be happy to pay $11.99 apiece for the titles. For some years it has been my conviction that, even as MacDonald’s reputation has risen considerably over the past few decades, he remains pigeonholed as a genre writer although there is far more to him than that: a fluid, economical prose stylist, a mordantly witty cultural and social critic, a sympathetic but clear-eyed observer of the human comedy — and a comedy, despite all the violence and human meanness that course through his work, is just what he knew it to be.
MacDonald, a purposeful and organized man, set the stage for Travis McGee in the opening pages of “The Deep Blue Good-by” and adhered to it throughout the series. Each of the books is similar (he color-coded the titles to help readers remember which they had and hadn’t read) in much the way that each Jeeves and Wooster novel is similar: In the latter it’s boy meets girl, girl chases boy, boy escapes by the skin of his teeth, while in the former it’s Travis at ease, Travis visited by someone who desperately needs help, Travis takes on the case, Travis rides to the rescue. But beyond that each novel is different, with twists of plot — and usually with one or more twisted characters — that invariably are surprising and often border on the hilarious.