Book Review: The Brass Cupcake, by John D. MacDonald

The Brass Cupcake was published in 1950, sixty-seven years ago as I write this review and fifteen years before I was born. It is not on any current bestseller list.

I think I picked up this hardcover edition a few years ago (in my language, “a few years” can be anything from five to twenty years) from a bargain table at Barnes & Noble. Not a first edition. I was not familiar with the title, but I was familiar with the author, John D. MacDonald.

I became a MacDonald fan after discovering my first Travis McGee book in my dad’s duffel bag. I’ve since read all of the McGees, most of them more than once. I still have a complete set of the series—that’s 21 novels, all told—most in paperback. I’ve read a few of MacDonald’s other works, including Condominium, The Girl, the Gold Watch, & Everything, and One More Sunday, and I’ve liked them all. But, I loved the McGee novels.

The Brass Cupcake predates the first McGee book by 14 years and is credited as his first novel, although he had been writing short stories for the pulps for several years prior to its publication. The following year, 1951, saw the publication of five additional novels. To call him prolific may, perhaps, be an understatement.

I approached reading this novel from the perspective of a long-term fan. MacDonald has been dead for more than three decades now. At this point, I no longer expect any new JDM releases, but he still has a significant backlist, most of which I have not read. This was my first time reading The Brass Cupcake.

I liked it.

Of course, I liked it. Even in his first novel, John D. MacDonald wrote like John D. MacDonald. And all of the familiar MacDonald themes are present. Florida, tough leading man with an eye for the ladies, crime with a business angle, and well-wrought, damn-near-poetic violence. What’s not to like?

But, I didn’t love it. Not like I love the Travis McGee series.

This wasn’t a surprise either, though. MacDonald was nearly fifty years old when he published his first McGee novel (and three others the same year), and nearly seventy when he published the last. The writer I discovered had already been working at his craft for a couple of decades and was an acknowledged master of the form. The MacDonald who wrote The Brass Cupcake was a writer of pulp short stories up to that point, and the novel reflects the hardboiled, noir traits of that genre.

This is not a true criticism, especially if you love noir. The novel has more in common with Raymond Chandler or Ross Mcdonald than JDM’s later work, with a strong-jawed protagonist who fits the stoic, tough-guy role more exactly than the affable, seemingly easygoing Travis McGee. There’s a marked difference in tone, even with the familiar settings and situations. That doesn’t make it a bad novel at all, just not a Travis McGee novel.

And this earlier MacDonald is a good writer, but not the great writer he will become. While reading this book, I was constantly reminded that it was written by someone who had grown accustomed to getting paid by the word. Many of the passages could have used a little more judicious editing.

There is, however, some evidence for the argument that the florid wordiness is part of what makes this novel shine. Case in point:

Once upon a time the Coral Strand, with its white stippled finish, must have looked like a bride’s cake. Now it looked like a dirty shoebox that had been crumpled and straightened out again. It was even devoid of neon, an oversight in Florida amounting to heresy.

And, this was one of the more subdued examples I could have used. This poetic flourishing style demands that Humphrey Bogart play the lead in the movie version. I’ll admit that I sort of like it, even though this kind of writing draws too much attention to the author and takes something away from the fictive dream with its “look,Ma, I’m writin’” approach. Later on, MacDonald learned to achieve the same effects with an economy of words.

There’s little point in getting into the story here. There’s a murder and accompanying mystery. The protagonist works as an investigator for an insurance company, trying to get back jewelry stolen even if he has to solve the crime while doing so. There is a part for a young Lauren Becall, and your standard rogues gallery of bad men and women. The story is neatly resolved, and there are intimations of happily ever after. What more could you want?

I recommend this one. But, I suggest you take the same route I did. Read all 21 McGees first so that you can enjoy The Brass Cupcake in the proper context.

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