Cliff Bartells

Created by John D. MacDonald

“A new group had taken over the beaches. Middle-aged ladies with puffy faces and granite eyes brought down whole stables of hundred-dollar call girls, giggling like a sorority on a social welfare trip. But the rate was bumped to two hundred to cover the higher cost of accommodations and the traveling expenses. Sleek little men with hand-blocked sports shirts strolled around and made the Bogart gestures.
Boom town, fun town, money town, rough town. Lay it on the line. You can’t take it with you. Next year comes the H bomb. Put it on the entertainment account.”
— Cliff indulges in a little McGee-like philosophizing

Just as the pulps were dying out, John D. MacDonald was able to catch the rising wave of the paperback boom. From 1950 until he released his first Travis McGee novel in 1964, he published over forty PBO’s, all stand-alones. His crime novels of this period are masters of the form–spare, tight, often noirish tales of desperate men in way over their heads; taut morbid fables with psychological underpinnings and a burgeoning environmental awareness, often set in his adopted state of Florida. The protagonists were often simple working joes and harried businessmen, tripped up up by bad choices and bad luck, but there were also several cops, journalists and other investigator types.

Certainly, one of the most notable of these almost-eyes was CLIFF BARTELLS, who appears in the powerful The Brass Cupcake (1950), MacDonald’s first full-length novel, expanded — at the suggestion of his agent — from an unsold novella. Some have suggested it’s the closest he ever came to writing to writing a standard private eye yarn.

A former cop, Cliff is scratching out a living as an investigator for the Security Theft and Accident Insurance Company, Inc., in the rapidly expanding Florence City on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He’s doing okay, working cases for them and taking the occasional freelance job on behalf of the big national insurance companies that don’t have a local man.

As a detective, Cliff’s pretty much par for the course for that era–cynical as hell, and hard-boiled enough to get the job done; drinking too much, developing a fine line of chatter and worrying that he was going sour.

And then wealthy touriist Elizabeth Stegman is murdered, in an apparent jewel heist gone bad, and Cliff’s company is on the line for over $750,000 for the missing jewelery…


  • Florence City is supposedly a thinly-disguised version of Clearwater, Florida, where MacDonald (and his family) had moved the previous year.


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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