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April 1, 2012
  • Title: –– •– •–• ––– ––– –• • –•• •• –• –– ––– •–• ••• •
  • English Title: Marooned in Morse
  • Language: American Morse Code
  • Country: USA
  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: Fawcett
  • Collection: Gold Medal
  • Cover Price: $0.40
  • Cover Artist: Ron Lesser, John McDermott

Undoubtedly the least known John D MacDonald book of all time, Marooned in Morse was a disaster from the start. Originally intended to be the fourth Travis McGee yarn, Maroon tells the tale of Trav falling for a girl at an amateur radio swap meet, whose evil husband (a CB-er, of course!) finds out and maroons McGee on an uninhabited island. Travis uses his ham radio knowledge to McGyver a simple Morse code radio transmitter from his reel-to-reel tape recorder and a cigarette lighter, taps out a rescue call, and ends up electrocuting the hubby after a climactic fight in an electrical closet.

John D was dissatisfied with almost everything about the manuscript — plot, characterization, and dialog — so in a fit of masochistic self-punishment, he stayed up one entire night retyping the whole thing in Morse code before staggering off to bed. Let John’s wife, Dorothy, tell the rest in her own words:

 I awoke early as usual the next morning and couldn't rouse him. I knew what must have happened. He stayed up all night drinking that damn Plymouth again and holding imagined arguments with Meyer. I was sick of it, and when I saw what he had done to that manuscript, I thought I'd finally teach him a lesson. I mailed it off to Fawcett right away.

I would love to have seen the face of the Fawcett editor when that thing arrived, but anything MacDonald was golden, so he had Maroon in print within days. When JDM found out, he pleaded with Fawcett to pull it from circulation, and respecting his wishes as they did with Weep for Me and I Could Go On Singing, they complied. Johnny D knocked out The Quick Red Fox as a replacement in short order. The few copies still extant command astronomical prices.

Personally, I kind of like it. It is a difficult read since Morse code is intended to be heard, not read, but the title forms a clever pun and Ron Lesser does his usual bang-up job on the cover. The man can draw women, can’t he? Placing the action in the Keys demonstrates MacDonald’s detailed research and dry sense of humor.

You can always tell a “good” JDM woman (my translation):

Dot had sensitivity and a well-modulated voice that propagated harmonics all over the spectrum when she dashed barefoot from the shack in one of her childish phases. I could gauge her mood by the way her gray eyes would beam when I would spark her interest and coax her back, once, twice, 73, 88 times.

And you can always tell who is the bad guy:

Elmer Rettysnitch was a ham-fisted man whose tendency to ether squelch all arguments or refuse interference with his designs were filtered by what passed for his eyes, a twisted pair that were all lid. He set down his homebrew, uncoiled, and the punch came at me like a driven element with the power of a California kilowatt.

Of course, no Travis McGee story would be complete without the usual social comment on man’s slow destruction of Florida:

As I drove onto Straight Key through the current pileup of Hertz rentals and cycles choking the road, I saw that the developers had a field day committing battery against the land. Propagating a continuous wave of strip malls. Revolting fast food joints popping from the ground every meter with a shocking frequency unrectified by a community's inability to resist financial gain.

Although I’m more sympathetic to MacDonald’s feelings about the dialog, there are some true gems in this book, especially when Trav turns on the charm. They lose a lot in translation, but fairly sing in the original at 13 words per minute:

"– –• –••– ••–• • •–• ––•– ••• ––– ––– –– –•••– ••– •–• •–• ••• – ••••• –• –• –•••– ––•– – •••• ••–• – •–•• •– •–– –•• –••• –•–"
"•–• •–• –– • – ––– ––– –•–– •–•• –•••– ••– •–• ––•– – •••• ––– •–• –– •• –• • ••––•• •••• •• •••• ••"

This is the work of a master!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Freiler permalink
    April 1, 2012 8:48 am

    I actually read this one not too long ago, and while some of the prose seems a bit stilted, the Morse makes for some hilarious typos.”Banana slugs versus a wombat” in the climactic battle? Classic!

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