As an avid collector of Gold Medal's crime and mystery books, I was thrilled.
Well, what did I think?
Hard to say. MacDonald has been described by others as a literary writer writing thrillers and that's a very good description. I'd almost say these two novels aren't crime novels, but rather crime-adjacent literary novels.
Let's start with THE EMPTY TRAP.
It purports to be about the sleazy, hidden goings on behind closed doors at a fancy resort casino, but that's only a relatively small part of it. It's a well-written, but strangely structured novel. It starts about halfway through the story: we're given no background, just a taught, fraught-ridden scene with mobsters and murder. It's a great start to a novel really. But where most novels would then flash back and give us the beginning of the story, THE EMPTY TRAP continues on from there. The book is only 144 pages (about 55k words, since Gold Medal typically put 300 to 350ish words per page instead of the more standard 250ish), and the first 53 pages are about the main character, Wescott, struggling to survive in the desert, severely injured, then his recovery with the help of some friendly Mexican mountain folk. It's not that it's not necessary information for the story (it is), but it's a pretty boring way to fill up the first third of the novel. After that, we're given the beginning of the story in a flashback (finally), that takes up more than another third of the novel, before we finally get back into some action. Even that, though, is lacking something. It's hard to describe without having read it, but there's a real feeling of reluctance, as if MacDonald knew the book needed it, but didn't really want to add it in. It's a standard revenge novel, but twisted into an unusual shape.
Was it a good novel? It kept me turning pages and I didn't not enjoy it, but I don't think I'd read it again nor really recommend it.
So how about THE NEON JUNGLE?
This one almost isn't a novel. Rather, it's a series of related vignettes about various people living in this big, old house, all working in a family grocery store, seeming a wonderful, loving family - but of course, each has dark secrets. The first two thirds of the novel is devoted to individual chapters about each of the characters (and there's a lot of them. 9? 10? I lost count), before the stories start to entwine. The way MacDonald entwines them is skillful, but predictable. It's one of those books where, despite the author's ability to assemble the words in a meaningful, adept way, the story itself is too thin to benefit from it.
Again, was it a bad novel? No, but it also wasn't a very impactful one. You aren't supposed to like most of the characters, but the ones you are supposed to like are too one-dimensional for them to be of any interest. While THE EMPTY TRAP at least kept me interested in what was going on, halfway through THE NEON JUNGLE (which was a rather poor title for this work, by the way, as it implies an urban setting, and this was more or less a corner of a small city that was more like a small town), I just wanted to be done with it.
Am I disappointed in my first exposure to John D MacDonald? Yes, I have to say I am, if I'm honest. But I'm not giving up on him just yet. A lot of people have recommended the Travis McGee novels to me, and I still want to read THE EXECUTIONERS, and I plan to check out both - it'll just be a while, I think.