Travis McGee, 48 years after the release date

If you were reading light-weight thrillers between 1964 and 1985, you might have had John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels on your nightstand. He wrote 21 of them, each with a color in its title. I wasn’t reading about Travis McGee 48 years ago because I preferred the novels MacDonald wrote before McGee came along in his old houseboat called the Busted Flush (won in a poker game). The series is similar in depth to the late Stuart Woods’ Stone Barrington novels, though Barrington and McGee are very different personalities.

Nonetheless, McGee novels–told in the first person–had a lot of healthy snark, and many great turns of phrase that would work as the narrator’s voice-over in a noir movie. My favorite MacDonald novel was, in fact, used as the basis for my favorite neo-noir movie. His 1957 novel The Executioners was the basis for “Cape Fear” (1962). (Forget the 1991 remake that was more violent and less true to the novel.)

I’m among those who believe MacDonald turned out better stuff before he created Travis McGee even though he was probably better known for his Florida-based salvage consultant tho recovered lost property for a fee. In many ways, McGee is similar to Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike character who uses old-fashioned detective methods rather than computers to solve crimes Both Strike and McGee interview people and follow up leads.

I suppose my taste leans too much toward noir books and movies that I stayed away from the McGee series until my brother Barry and his wife Mary visited us several days ago and he lent me a copy of The Dreadful Lemon Sky.  Since I’m out of factory-fresh news novels, I decided to read it. I feel like a time machine has taken me back 48 years because the novel is anchored in the time in which it was written and–other than Strike–doesn’t fit into the detective genre as we find it today.

If you like told thriller novels, the colorful McGee series titles might be an interesting change of pace. Yet, I have a feeling that reading this one is an anomaly in the space-time continuum and that I won’t be heading out to Amazon to buy any more of them when I reach the end. Nonetheless, it’s held my attention.



What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story?

What’s the difference between a story and a narrative relating a series of events? Once upon a time, dear reader, I might have answered, “Causality.”Because it’s a basic truth I’ve discovered as a book coach and editor: if you have plot that’s basically episodic—this happens, then that, and then this thing over here—the single most effective thing you can do to make it feel like a real story is to introduce the element of causality in revision: this happened, and as a consequence, that happened, which then led to this. – (guest post by Susan DeFreitas.)

Source: What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story? | Jane Friedman

In a story, things happen for a reason. When they don’t, the narrative is often called a slice of life. Some writers specialize in relating a series of events that appear to have no relationship to each other. Some consider this avant-garde and sometimes it is and when it is the puzzle for the reader is finding the meaning in it.

I’ve never been a fan of an author’s random musings when they’re set down on a page and called fiction. DeFreitas suggests you really have a story, as opposed to doodling on a page, when the author includes “the protagonist’s internal issue or problem.” That’s basic, I think–what we learned in English 101 in college.

It’s worth bringing back into our conversations now because so many authors have run so far afield from the central parts of a story that they’ve lost the story. It may be cutting edge something or other, but it doesn’t answer the request, “Tell me a story.”


Briefly Noted: ‘Waltzing Montana’

Mary Clearman Blew grew up on a small cattle ranch in Montana, on the site of her great-grandfather’s 1882 homestead. Her memoir “All But the Waltz: Essays on a Montana Family,” won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, as did her short story collection, “Runaway.” – Author’s Website

Waltzing Montana, University of Nebraska Press, March 1, 2021, 294 pp.

A refreshing and original story by an author who knews the territory. Blew is a writing professor at the Univerfsity of Idaho.

From the Publisher:

Midwife Mildred Harrington is riding back home one evening after checking on one of her pregnant neighbors when she stumbles upon an injured stranger. She soon realizes it’s her old sweetheart, Pat, from country school—and he may not be telling the full truth about how he was injured.

Set in rural Montana in 1925, Waltzing Montana follows Mildred as she grapples with feelings for Pat while also trying to overcome the horrific abuse she suffered as a young teenager. Ultimately Mildred must decide whether to continue her isolated life or accept the hand extended to her.

Inspired by the life of midwife Edna McGuire (1885–1969), who operated a sheep ranch in central Montana, Blew has turned the classic Western on its head, focusing on rural women and the gender and diversity challenges they faced during the 1920s.

Editorial Review:

“What we need most right now are stories that are down-to-the-bone authentic, and Mary Clearman Blew gives us one with her new novel, Waltzing Montana. The women and men in this book are not only resilient but find their true meaning in forging through challenge: drought, war, and the Spanish flu pandemic. And yet Blew artfully nods to their limits too. There’s only so much brutality a person can endure, and the ravages of pain and abandonment Blew portrays in these pages stir acts of forgiveness, patience, and abiding friendship, which allow the deepest wounds to finally heal.”—Debra Gwartney, author of I Am a Stranger Here Myself

The book has an apt and lovely cover; my only concern here is that the title and author’s name need to be more visible.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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Available on Nook from B&N



Some books go nowhere fast

“I’m currently reading a book published by one of the major companies, and nothing happens. Well, that’s not exactly true. Stuff happens. Then more stuff happens. And even more stuff happens. But I am now three-quarters of the way through the book, and all I’ve gleaned from the story is that a lot of stuff happens.” – Pat Bertram

Years ago, we might have labeled such books as “nowheresville” and said that their authors had it “made in the shade” financially speaking because readers were being lured into their novels with catchy titles that never delivered the goods. For one thing, there probably weren’t any goods. Or, if there were, they (the goods) went bad in the first draft and got worse during the revision process where the introduction of lovely scenery, philosophical debates, backstories about characters with no substantive roles in the story, and sex scenes in flea-infested cat houses failed to turn up a storyline. Reviewers could at least say, “All the smoke and mirrors were pretty.”

As it turns out, somebody dropped a gun in a bunch of finger paint.

Recently I’ve been reading novels with seductive titles like When the Grim Reaper Smiles, The Quantum Murder Syndrome, and Terror Strikes in The Old Familiar Places, and I’ve discovered that when the author doesn’t have a clue about a plot, he fills the books with backstory bios of all the bad guys, apparently to impress us about just what the good guys are up against. What they (the good guys) are up against appears to be the fact that they haven’t done enough significant stuff to merit a Wikipedia page, much less a starring role in When the Grim Reaper Smiles.

Perhaps they say something snarky like “ask not for who the grim reaper smiles, it’s just gas.” Well. I really don’t want to pay $14.95 for a novel where that’s the high point of the story. Using my best Jack Nicholson impression from “A Few Good Men,” I want to say (to the author), “Please tell me you have more to offer your readers than a few lines that are so lame they can’t even walk with crutches.”

In the old days (whenever the hell they were) prospective authors were told to create a list of characters and write down a list of physical attributes and a résumé of their lives prior to the beginning of the novel. Somewhere along the line, authors started sweeping all these notes into the manuscript without adding “the goods.” Sometimes the authors added a lot of statistics about military hardware and what the bad guys might do with it should anything happen in the novel.

Look, I read novels to escape from the sins of the world. When they don’t help me, even during a lost weekend, I feel cheated and want to leave a -5 star review on Amazon. After becoming an addict to one drug or another, I want to sue the author for creating my need to escape the sins of his or her novel. Now, suddenly, I’m going nowhere fast and can’t find a book to save me.

Frankly, I want to read novels that go somewhere and tempt me to come along for the ride.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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One reviewer said that while the book was funny, it was just an excuse for a lot of sex and booze. No kidding!

A rare interview with Malcolm R. Campbell

We found the reclusive Mr. Campbell at a mostly forgotten Bandit’s Biker Bar that fell on hard times when Hell’s Angels switched over to IHOP. Wearing his traditional Levi’s and a navy blue polo shirt, Campbell was halfway through a bottle of Talisker Distiller’s Edition Scotch when we arrived. He consented to talk to us as long was didn’t ask why he left the gigolo business for the low-paying career of a writer.

Newspaper: Do you come here often?

Campbell: It’s my second home.

Newspaper: You’ve done wonders with the place.

Campbell: My designer loves the concept of belligerent neglect.

Newspaper: Now that we’ve gotten the ambiance of our setting out of the way, do you have any secrets you want to tell us?

Campbell: I’m not the same guy who raced cars in the U.K or the guy who wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Newspaper: We didn’t think you were. Got anything else, something that will make a scandalous headline?

Campbell: I was an Eagle Scout.

Newspaper: Good Lord, are you serious? You’re such a badass, nobody would suspect you once worked on merit badges and gone on camping trips.

Campbell: You’re the first person I’ve told other than my mother.

Newspaper: So, now that you’ve finished Fate’s Arrows, what are you working on now?

Campbell: A tell-all about how to use time travel for fun and profit.

Newspaper: Aren’t you afraid most people will think it’s another contemporary fantasy being released under the fiction that it’s really nonfiction?

Campbell: Most of the world’s nonfiction never happened. Most novels are true. So in this case, readers who think the book is really fiction are ahead of the game.

Newspaper: What game?

Campbell: The game we’re playing right now where you ask me questions, I tell you lies, and you print them in the feature section of your newspaper as God’s honest truth. 

Newspaper: So, when it comes down to it, this interview is a farce.

Campbell: Pretty much. But it serves a need. The readers think they know more about me than they did before even though they suspect they’re being played for suckers.

Newspaper: One is born every minute.

Campbell: More than that, I think.

Newspaper: Are you this messed up in “real life”?

Campbell: If there were such a thing as “real life,” I would hope so. But there isn’t, so I’m not. Readers who suspect “real life” isn’t real are drawn to my books because they want to know why everything is always in a mess, so the best I can do is offer them a way to escape the illusion of the daily news.

–Stargazer News Service



Writing some books feels like destiny

A note from the sponsor (yep, still me).

I wrote my first novel (The Sun Singer) in 1980, found an agent who liked it, left the agent when she said a few weeks later that I’d have to wait until she finished working on Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, and then couldn’t find another agent for it and finally self-published it in in 2004. Maybe I shouldn’t have left that agent, but if you know Jean Auel’s work, you know it’s been highly successful, so I’m not sure the agent would have ever finished working on it.  (I taught Auel a lesson: I never read any of her books.)

The story I told in The Sun Singer had been messing with my dreams since I was in elementary school. Then, in 1963 when I worked as a seasonal hotel employee at Glacier National Park, I found the perfect place for my prospective contemporary fantasy.


I don’t really believe n destiny, not as an outside force seeking to run my life. But the persistent dreams about this young man named Robert Adams wouldn’t go away until I wrote the book. This endless prompting made me wonder if I was wrong about destiny or perhaps that destiny came from within and became something we were bound and determined to do.

Glacier National Park quickly became my favorite place on the planet. It still is. So my dreams went from being precognitive about all manner of things to a new prescient focus about the mountains, lakes, and trails in the Montana park. I think I wrote the book in self-defense. Knowing things in advance is a bit awkward unless you want to open a fortune teller booth at the circus. I didn’t, mainly because I don’t believe the future is engraved in stone.

Like the novels in my Florida Folk Magic Series, The Sun Singer was also a joy to write, partly because (as a Florida boy) I was so stunned by the beauty of the mountains, partly because the story was fun, and partly because the writing of it was getting all those dream-state glimpses of the future off my back–or, at least, out of sight and out of mind.

After it came out and surprised me by being a book of the year finalist, publishers started asking me about it. But they were slow in deciding what they wanted to do because they specialized in nonfiction. Yes, I finally found a publisher and the book did fine until many of that publisher’s authors began seeing things we didn’t like. So, like the agent many years ago, I left that publisher and the book is now self-published again.

Wikipedia Photo

What a strange road writers often follow. The road began when I saw the famous Sun Singer statue at Allerton Park in central Illinois, became a dream journey, and ended up with the published novel. Now I’m a senior citizen looking back on it all and wondering if on this path the truth is stranger than the fiction.


Glacier Park Novel

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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The Hunt for Red October – Finally Read the book

The movie was great: plenty of action, great cast. I’ve seen it multiple times. Since I was low on factory-fresh recent books and/or waiting for those prices to go down, I picked up a copy of the paperback and read it out of curiosity. It’s well written and was a fun read.

I had to work to keep from seeing the movie in my mind’s eye while reading the book. I’d rather let my imagination create “what things look like” as I read, but that’s difficult to do when you’ve already seen the movie. So, I kept seeing Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin.

Needless to say, the book had a lot more going on in it than the movie. Yet, I can see why they cut what they cut (to avoid a four-hour film).  In general, I liked the book’s plot more than the movie’s plot because it gave the reader a much better picture of what might really happen as the (seemingly) entire Russian navy suddenly approaches the U.S. in search of their rogue sub, leaving the powers that be in our government having to respond in case all those Russian ships out there are an invasion.

One of the best scenes of the submarine Red October racing along the seafloor in a dangerous area doesn’t even happen in the book. I was disappointed in that.  Yet, intercepting Red October is much more complex in the book. I appreciated that because it seemed closer to what would happen in “real life.”

I missed the scene from the movie in which Red October travels up a river or estuary with Baldwin (CIA) and Connery (submarine captain) talking about the fact that the area has some great fishing. Both men liked fishing and Connery was hoping he’d be able to do it in his new country. It was a nice scene.

But, I’ve come to expect this, the simplification of movie versions to fit into a manageable running time. So I end up liking both the book and the film versions for what they were within the constraints of the presentations. For those who have read the book and seen the movie, there’s a decent comparison here.

If any of you have read the book and also watched the movie, I’d be interested in your impressions of the two versions of the story.


I’d like to see a movie version of Conjure Woman’s Cat.

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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‘Firefly Lane’ by Kristin Hannah

Best I can tell, we really escaped 2020 and are now slogging our way through 2021. If this true, then I’m 12 years behind the times reading Firefly Lane.

It’s a well-written story about two schoolgirls who, though opposites in many ways, become close friends and make a pact to remain best friends forever. One  (Tully) becomes a rich and famous news anchor. The other (Kate), who showed a lot of promise as a writer, ended up having a busy family life as a stay-at-home mom.

There’s a lot of realistic push-me/pull-you between Tully and Kate because their lives unfold quite differently, leading to differences of style and opinion, including the question of whether or not Kate is overprotective when it comes to her daughter. Tully and the daughter think so.

If you read Hannah’s afterword, you probably understood why she ended the book as she did. She handled it well. Nonetheless, I didn’t like it. I saw it as adding insult to injury insofar as Kate’s role in the story was concerned. Kate’s life was rather that of the Biblical Job and the ending made her a tragic character rather than a gracefully aging mother contentedly watching her children grow into adults partly in spite of Tully and because of Tully.

Worth reading,  but it needed something different and less predictable in the final chapters. I haven’t watched any episodes of the Netflix series.


Some readers wanted a bombastic ending to “Sarabande.” I chose a minimalist approach that reflected, in my view, who the character was and how she had changed.

‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’

In the hoodoo tradition, good magic is best performed between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, and evil magic is best performed between midnight and 12:30 a.m. Hence we have the rationale behind the title of John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the inspiration behind the 1997 feature film.

When the book came out, I refused to read it. The odd thing now is that I no longer remember why. Perhaps it was the hype. Perhaps it was the mix of fiction and nonfiction. Or perhaps it was because I was always more of a Charleston person than a Savannah person. The film didn’t do well, a surprise since Eastwood generally does fine work. Had it been a success, I might have seen it. But it wasn’t so I didn’t.

Here’s what seems to have happened. Somebody or something has put a hex on me forcing me to read the book. Okay, that’s enough of an incentive. Makes no sense, though, but who am I to question the origins of hexes or even to ask my Tarot cards about which side of midnight the hex was cast. So, the book is now on order.

If lightning strikes one of the two ancient trees in the front yard on the day the book arrives, I’ll destroy the book.

The same if crows or raven gather in nearby pine trees and raise one hell of a ruckus.

If you read the book and suddenly went over to the dark side, please warn me.

Since this may be a bumpy ride, I’ll need a volunteer to hold my beer.


Maybe after writing four hoodoo novels, I can safely read the book I have a notebook filled with spells including protection spells.

Panic Grass – a writer’s dream name

Wikipedia photo

I love double meanings. That’s why I like the name “panic grass.” It has nothing to do with panic–that comes from Panicum–but the use of the word when describing an environment where (in your story) things are going wrong is a nice subliminal trick.

The common or regional names of many plants will help you create the kind of ambiance you want. Perhaps that’s cheating.  But I don’t care as long as the name is factual and also likely to be used in the place where my story is set.

If you have a good plant or wildflower guide for your state or region, you’ll find a lot of “local color.” I have these guides for both Florida and Montana. They not only help me describe the location but support my addiction to puns and words with double meanings such as “spurned panic grass.”

The guidebooks also ensure that the flowers in your stories are blooming at the time of the year when they bloom in “real life.”