Created by John D. MacDonald
“The biggest hedonistic complex in the known world. One big nosy sunny cauldron of busy butts and ripe red mouths, rare steaks and guitars, skinny-dipping and party games, twisters and gin, kicks and tits, laughter and brass horns, oiled brown backs and tall teased hair. Wade in, guys. Welcome to the most concentrated, gut-wrenching loneliness ever devised by man.”
— Paul tries on his best McGee
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 dark and even nasty 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 few cops, journalists and other investigator types.
Hell, there was even one bonafide, licensed-and-everything private eye!
His name was PAUL STANIAL, and he was the tanned, tall and trim hero of The Drowner (1963), MacDonald’s last standalone novel before creating McGee.
When Lucille Hanson’s body is discovered at the bottom of a central Florida lake. The police immediately write it off an apparent accident. Or maybe a suicide suicide? Whatever — it soon rouses the suspicions of her grieving sister Barbara who immediately suspects foul play.
Seems Lucille was recently separated from Kelsey Hanson, her wealthy asshole playboy husband. Adding to Barbara’s suspicions is the fact Lucille was apparently in possession of over a hundred grand, which is nowhere to be found, and that her sister was apparently a very strong swimmer. So how could she have drowned? With nobody else to turn to, she decides to hire someone local to look into the matter.
Paul’s a former cop, now working as an investigator for Kippler’s small detective agency, and he’s chomping at the bit, sickened by the sleazy domestic cases he’s been working lately, anxious to do some real “cop work.”
Needless to say, MacDonald’s soon off and running, in a classic of twisty, turny double-dealing and deception. He dodges most of the standard P.I. tropes, and focusses instead on Stanial’s methodical and business-like investigation. Stanial, you see, possesses “a cool and watchful mind, full of measurements and dimensions.”
Not that this is some bone-dry narrative — MacDonald adds considerabler storytelling juice to everything with his finely rendered portrait of a hot, sweltering Central Florida full of rednecks, rampant corruption, real estate scams, roadside fleabag motels, small town ennui and enough sweaty, desperate sex to keep all those sputtering air conditioners working overtime. MacDonald then wraps it all up with a violent surprise ending that even now can still shock.
Or offend — some people really dislike the conclusion to this one.
Even I’m not sure what I think about the book. But I sure remember how I felt upon reading it at the time.
Not that any of that was enough to dissuade NBC from adapting The Drowner as an episode for Kraft Mystery Theatre. It aired in 1964 as “The Deep End,” and starred Clu Gulager as private eye DAN WALSH (Paul Stanial in the book), and also featured Ellen Burstyn, Tina Louise and Aldo Ray.
- “(The Drowner) was the last of JDM’s Gold Medal original standalone crime novels and, to me, it’s one of his finest… The protagonist is a private eye but JDM eschews the PI clichés. What makes it real — what made so many of his books real — is the description of the business world of both private investigation and the jobs of the suspects. As one reviewer wrote, ‘He showed us how the world really works.’ You want a knockout mystery, here you go.”
— Ed Gorman, Mystery Scene
- “One of his best… The Drowner is classic, distilled MacDonald… He exposes Florida for what it is now and was becoming at his time–a tidal pool and social experiment for the rest of the country.”
— Ace Atkins, The Rap Sheet
- KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATRE
Story editor: Anthony Boucher
- “The Deep End” (January 2, 1964)
Based on the novel The Drowner by John D. MacDonald
Adapted by Jonathan Hughes
Starring Clu Gulager as DAN WALSH (Paul Stanial in the book)
Also starring Ellen Burstyn (billed as Ellen McRae), Aldo Ray, Tina Louise
- “The Deep End” (January 2, 1964)