Murder in the Wind, by John D. MacDonald (Dell, 1956).
Illustration by George Gross.
You should have no difficulty guessing what inspired this week’s “Find.” That’s right, it’s Hurricane Joaquin, the 10th named storm of the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season. As I compose this post, Joaquin has pretty much stalled over the Bahamas, battering those islands with gales and downpours, but it still threatens America’s East Coast with “heavy rain and potential flooding” in days to come.
John D. MacDonald’s Murder in the Wind (1956, also printed as Hurricane) is set in Florida, and it’s one of several novels he wrote about people thrown together by adversity--with dangerous results. Steve Scott, who writes the exceptional MacDonald blog, A Trap of Solid Gold, outlines the book’s plot this way:
Six carloads of people--two driving solo while the rest [come] in cars of twos, threes and fours--are driving north on Florida Route 19 above Tampa, all on business, personal or otherwise, that will take them out of the state. They are a random group who are still strangers to each other, and like MacDonald’s previous novels with a similar structure, all are moving by automobile. The “adversity” here is Hurricane Hilda, which is forming itself into a storm of historic strength far out in the Gulf of Mexico, a fact nearly unknown to all in the pre-weather satellite days of 1956. By the time they have reached the Waccasassa River the bridge there is out and they are directed down a remote bypass road that passes an old, rambling and now deserted house. With the storm increasing in strength and passing directly over them, they can go no further and all seek shelter in the abandoned house. …All of the ingredients for reader engagement are here, including murder. But Scott says Macdonald set himself a bigger challenge with this tale than simply driving readers to the edges of their seats.
In virtually all of MacDonald's multi-character novels there is a criminal element, and Murder in the Wind is no exception. Among the author’s little group of cars heading north is a stolen panel truck containing three young bad guys, two males and a female.
MacDonald is at pains to prove the plausibility of such a strong storm, years before names like Donna, Andrew and Katrina were written in history, providing a brief “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book and interspersing the narrative with omniscient updates on the track and power of the storm. And while it is obvious to the reader that the hurricane and the characters will eventually “meet,” Murder in the Wind is primarily a suspense novel, with the tension provided by the deep characterization created by the author. I’ve written endlessly in this blog about how MacDonald’s apprenticeship as a short-story writer made him the perfect author for these kinds of multi-character tales, and nowhere is that more true than in this novel. All of the characters--roughly ten in all--are each given a history and background as interesting and as engaging as any in his best shorter works, and it is through this incredibly detailed characterization that MacDonald drives narrative, that attribute of fiction he held in the highest esteem.Three years ago, Deep South Magazine, an online publication, posted a list of “books to read during a hurricane.” It included a better-remembered MacDonald work, Cape Fear (originally published in 1957 as The Executioners). The editors could just as well, though, have selected Murder in the Wind, which acclaimed author and critic Ed Gorman has named as one of his “10 Favorite John D. MacDonald Standalone Novels.” (Topping Gorman’s list is 1953’s Dead Low Tide; Murder in the Wind ranks fourth.) And had they been in possession of the 1956 original-edition paperback of Murder in the Wind, MacDonald’s 18th novel--shown at the top of this post--they might have been persuaded to do exactly that. It certainly boasts a striking cover, with an attractive brunette obviously at risk from escalating currents. Responsible for the illustration was George Gross (1909-2003), about whom I have written before on this page, and whose range of paperback artistry can be enjoyed here.
BONUS: Over the last several decades some other noteworthy illustrators have taken cracks at creating captivating covers for Murder in the Wind. The front on the left, for instance, was painted by Robert K. Abbett and appeared on the 1960 Dell edition, while the one shown on the right, from the 1965 Fawcett edition of MacDonald’s novel, features an illustration by Robert McGinnis.