Book Review : John D. MacDonald - Nightmare in Pink (1964)
Nightmare in Pink is the second novel in the Travis McGee series, written by iconic American storyteller John D. MacDonald. It's possible you've never heard of him, but he's influenced several high profile contemporary authors such as Stephen King, Lee Child and countless mystery writers. He also wrote the novel a little terrifying movie titled Cape Fear was based on. MacDonald is still important and his influence on mainstream American literature can still be felt today, but it will be thirty years since he passed on December 28 this year and time is starting to catch up to his memory. So, I decided earlier this year to start exploring his legacy and I really liked what I found. Travis McGee is worth remembering for still being the most unique and timeless American detective today.
The sequel to The Deep Blue Good-By begins with McGee checking up on his old friend Mike's little sister Nina, who's fiancé Howard was recently murdered in a mugging gone wrong. The poor chap had been antagonizing his employers at the real estate firm he was working at and met his demise shortly after being bought off with a generous severance package. McGee has little to win and a lot to lose in this case, which began as a follow up on a promise he made to his old friend from the army. He'll have to face entitled one percenters, doctors and scientific triumphalism only to make it out alive. The antagonist in Nightmare in Pink isn't just a man but two powerful institutions.
The reader consensus on Nightmare in Pink is that it's slightly inferior to The Deep Blue Good-By. There is an explanation to this sentiment. The novel's themes are considerably dated. Nightmare in Pink is a reaction to the triumphalism of mid-century mental health scientific breakthroughs: Walter Freeman, transorbital lobotomy, experimental medication and the focus on quieting down patients rather than heal them, things like that. The point John D. MacDonald is making in Nightmare in Pink has already been made and socially accepted, but it doesn't make it any less pertinent: mental health requires a complex balance of scientific and humane input and whenever this balance is thrown out of wack, it leads to considerable amounts of suffering.
So, what makes Travis McGee more interesting than other American detectives? It's a valid question because there is a lot of material out there, especially from mid-century. Why should you care about McGee more than Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer? What makes Travis McGee different is that he's not an idealist. Lots of detective characters will tell you they aren't yet will strive to defend the harmless, fight injustice and make the world a better place in general. McGee isn't like that. His motives are either opportunistic (his trademark 50% cut on recovered loot) or personal. He takes interest in the people he meets. Gets to know them, understand and appreciates how they think and it leads to interactions and confrontations that crackle with life. The characters of Travis McGee novels feel real. They're the furthest thing from the blunt embodiment of banal ideas too often vehicled by detective novels.
There has been a movie adaptation of The Deep Blue Good-By slogging away in production hell for several years now. It means the movie will probably suck, but it'll help John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee's legacy to go on. He's a cut above the great majority of mystery writers and believe me, I've read a lot of them. I'm considering dedicating an entire month to MacDonald's writing in 2017 myself. Most of you know I'm a huge mystery fan and from my reading of The Deep Blue Good-By and Nightmare in Pink I can tell you this kind of body of work is few and far between. If you like detective novels, you know how much of a gold mine mid-century American fiction is, but if you choose to read only one of them, make it John D. MacDonald. He's the man and hopefully he can live forever through his work.