Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
Intriguing Diversions, in Florida or in England
Thursday, January 11, 2018 -- In my long-ago youth, I fed my ever-growing appetite for thrillers and hard-nosed potboilers by turning to the incredibly prolific John D. MacDonald.

Among his other achievements, MacDonald wrote the acclaimed and popular Travis McGee mystery-detective series as well as an endless conglomeration of novels and nonfiction. The recipient of a national book award in the mystery category, he was also named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America.

I enjoyed the ambitious 21-book Travis McGee series and a couple of other MacDonald books including The Neon Jungle and Condominium. And I certainly am not alone. MacDonald, who died in 1986, was a favorite of other well-known and successful writers.

"The late John D was arguably the greatest author of popular fiction in the 20th century," wrote Deane Koontz, who penned the introduction to a recent audio edition of MacDonald's Slam the Big Door. "His work is better than most of what passes for 'literary' fiction.

Slam the Big Door, first published in paperback in 1960, is a good introduction to MacDonald and his extensive catalog.

An intriguing study of conflicting personalities, Slam the Big Door is unlike MacDonald's traditional output featuring murder, crime and violence galore. But there is an explosive episode that would be right at home in his traditional oeuvre. MacDonald pulls off this atypical story, which lacks palpable suspense and is clearly not a mystery thriller. As the plot moves along, I found myself more and more admiring MacDonald's writing skills and his unexpected insight into the human psyche.

The story is simple enough. The main characters are ex-Marines and wartime buddies: Mike Rodenska, a former journalist and New Yorker whose wife has recently died; and Troy Jamison, who asks Mike to join his family at their Florida Keys resort to recuperate. Mike heads for the Keys and immediately encounters a galling sense of snobbery that may be pervasive among the upscale retirees populating the warm weather haven. He also encounters a situation involving Troy, a former adman who's now an aspiring real estate developer; Troy's sympathetic and sensitive wife; his spoiled and seductive stepdaughter; and a cluster of good-old boy entrepreneurs who know how to make a local land deal pay off.

The deal in this case is a resort project that has caused serious financial and emotional problems for Jamison and his family. I won't go into detail here, but it soon becomes clear that Troy is the one in need of psychological rescue and Rodenska will be deeply involved.

Slam the Big Door is an engrossing character study that may pleasantly surprise those who have only read the McGee series. It may also serve as a further enticement to explore MacDonald's numerous other creations.

I am also a fan of historical novels and that led me to Clare Clark's We That Are Left. The setting is the World War I era and that conflict's impact on the Melvilles, an upper-class British family whose focus for more than 300 years is the perpetuity of Ellinghurst. A declining faux-medieval castle, Ellinghurst is who they are and who they see themselves as. The lengths to which the family will go to preserve their ancestral home is the heart of the matter.

At the outset of the story, the patriarch, Sir Aubrey, and his now estranged wife, Eleanor, share three children. All are young adults: the bookish Phyllis; the beautiful and somewhat flighty Jessica; and the idolized heir, charismatic Theo, who dies in France early in the war.

This unfortunate reality initiates a series of subplots that eventually come together in a decidedly dramatic revelation. For one, Eleanor embarks on a weekly spiritual quest that allows her to believe she has an otherworldly connection with her dead son, an obsession that alienates her from her daughters and worsens her relationship with Sir Aubrey.

Then there is Oscar Greenwood, a contemporary of the Melville siblings. He and his mother have close ties to the Melville family and Ellinghurst. Socially shy, but with seemingly brilliant prospects due to his skills in math and science, Oscar breaks out of his shell by way of a steamy, clandestine affair with Phyllis. Jessica ends up in a slow-paced dalliance with a London publishing tycoon who's probably three times her age.

With the death of Theo, the only male Melville heir is a distant cousin. His sole interest in Ellinghurst is to sell the estate once it is in his grasp.

Isn't there something that can be done to keep Ellinghurst in the control of the immediate family?

We That Are Left sometimes approaches the realm of soap opera but, much like Downton Abbey, that's not necessarily a negative. And the quality of Clark's prose is both likeable and laudatory. Another reviewer praises her for having the "eyes of a historian and the soul of a novelist." Those qualities have drawn attention to Clark's prize-winning literary output.

Clark is "one of those writers who can see into the past and help us feel its texture," says Hilary Mantel, the Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall.

First published in the United States in late 2015, We That Are Left did not make the bestseller charts, but it's a worthwhile diversion for your business trip, winter beach vacation or anytime you're in the mood for some entertaining and diverting fantasy.

This column is Copyright 2018 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.