The Pequod Review:
John D. MacDonald (1916-1986) was one of the great crime writers to emerge from the pulp publishing houses (in his case, Fawcett’s Gold Medal), and from 1946 to 1986 he was an incredibly prolific author of 65 novels and over 400 short stories. MacDonald’s books have straightforward crime plots, usually involving corruption or bad business dealings (and mostly based in his home state of Florida), but they are tight and well-written. More than anything, MacDonald is a great storyteller with a clear and determined voice; he has an economy with words, never using too many to describe a scene or character, and he pauses and digresses and makes in-jokes, all to add texture to the story. While he is most famous for his late-career Travis McGee series (which would begin in 1964 after he had already written 39 books), his pre-McGee novels are generally superior — more varied and less cliched.
The Damned is his seventh novel, a hard-boiled psychological noir about a group of Americans stranded in a line-up of cars on the Mexican side of the border due to a broken ferry. Despite having little in the way of a plot to rely on, MacDonald creates extraordinary tension through sharp observations, strong dialogue, and long interior monologues from the characters.
Here is the first paragraph of the book setting the scene:
The ice-blue Cadillac with Texas plates boomed across the wasteland. Darby Garon held it at ninety, brown hands lightly on the wheel. Enchiladas and beer in Victoria had been a mistake at midday. The meal was a sodden, unmoving weight in his stomach. Both side vents were turned to slam the superheated air in against him and the girl who sat beside him, her eyes closed. The girl had been the same sort of mistake as the meal; the difference existed only in degree. She too was highly spiced, completely indigestible. … [He] glanced over at her. The skirt of the yellow dress was bunched high, and her heavy thighs were slackly spread. Having eaten, the animal slept.
And here is MacDonald describing one of the murders:
And she had to leave the light on, because she was one of those who had to have a light on, and when she suddenly gasped and stiffened under him, Del turned his head and saw the bullfighter standing there, face twisted, eyes gone dead, aiming one of the guns they had used underwater. The short spear with the harpoon on the end fitted into a slotted tube, and fat rubber bands slammed it out of the tube. As the rubber bands mad their vicious whacking sound, Del threw himself up and back, and the thing made a quick gleam in the lamplight and chomped into Ampara with a sound that was both hard and wet. It hit right under her left breast and she half turned toward the bullfighter. She made the smallest of gasps and put both hands on the shaft and pulled at it very delicately, but the barbed head had turned inside her, precisely as it was designed to do. She coughed in a most delicate and ladylike way, and shivered just a bit, and died very quietly, as though to make by discreteness during he r last moments for twenty years of bounding lustiness.
Aided by a glowing blurb from Mickey Spillane spread across the middle of the cover (“I wish I had written this book!”), this would be the most successful novel of MacDonald’s career.