The Brass Cupcake by John D. MacDonald

I am not an expert on crime fiction nor I am a big reader of classic pulp, but I am an eclectic reader and bargain book buyer. These two things came together recently on a visit to the local Half Price Books. I had noticed that Barnes and Noble and other bargain outlets had a number of reprints of classic mystery novels published by Tess Press which is a imprint of Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers (about which I can find very little online).

One that caught my eye was The Brass Cupcake by John D. McDonald. It just seemed like it would be a fun read. I mean, doesn’t a 1950s hardboiled detective story set in Florida sound like a good summer read?

For those of you as unfamiliar with McDonald as I was, the Wikipedia entry is a good place to start (obviously I can’t vouch for its accuracy):

[W]riting as John D. MacDonald, was an American writer best known for his series of detective novels featuring protagonist Travis McGee. MacDonald was named a grand master of the Mystery Writers of America in 1972 and won the American Book Award in 1980. Stephen King, who praised him as “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller,” dedicated The Sun Dog (a novella in his Four Past Midnight collection) to MacDonald’s memory; MacDonald had previously provided the foreword to King’s Night Shift.

MacDonald served in the OSS in the Far East during World War II. While still in the military, his literary career began accidentally when he wrote a short story in 1945 and mailed it home for the amusement of his wife. She submitted it to the magazine Story without his knowledge, and it was accepted. In the first four months after his discharge, he put his total concentration into writing short stories, generating some 800,000 words and losing 20 pounds while typing during 14-hour daily sessions seven days a week. It only netted him hundreds of rejection slips, but in the fifth month, a $40 sale to the pulp magazine Dime Detective set his career in motion, and he continued to sell to the detective, mystery, adventure, sports, western and science fiction pulps. As the boom in paperback novels expanded, he successfully made the jump to longer fiction with his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, published in 1950 by Fawcett Publications’ Gold Medal Books.

The plot revolves around the murder of a wealthy Boston heiress who is summering in Florida. The lead character, Cliff Bartells, is an ex-cop who works as a detective for an insurance company and specializes in getting back stolen merchandise. Bartells is no longer a cop because he was unwilling to participate in the mob corruption that rules the police force. The mod agrees to keep the town relatively clean and the cops promise to look the other way.

The “brass cupcake” of the title is Bartells term for his police badge. Cupcake is a prison slang for a gift you give to a flunky. For him the badge was no longer worth anything (ie brass instead of gold) because the force had thrown away their integrity. As you might imagine this does nothing to ingratiate him with his former colleagues on the force who are investigating the murder. This puts him in a tight spot as he tries to get back the stolen goods. The cops wold like nothing better than a chance to pin something on him and put him away. His employers, however, offer him a sizable bonus to get the goods back so they don’t have to pay out on the $750,000 policy.

Further complicating things is Melody Chance, the attractive but estranged niece of the victim. Bartells soon falls for Ms. Chance and finds himself in deep with the mob, the cops, and various other women in his life. He gets shot at, roughed up, and yanked around while trying to get the goods and keep from getting killed.

If you like hardboiled crime fiction this is indeed a classic. You can almost see the story playing out in black and white on the big screen. It has mobsters, crooked cops, beautiful women, and a classic setting in sensuous post-war Florida. Bartells is an interesting character – part tough guy, part romantic; stubborn and fiercely independent but also worried about being alone. This isn’t literary fiction by any means, but it is a good read and gives you a glimpse at the rise of pulp/crime fiction after World War II.

Does he retrieve the stolen goods and get the girl in the end? You will have to read the book to find out.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. I own The Brass Cupcake and about all of the Travis McGee books. Still enjoy rereading them from time to time, but I prefer the other MacDonald, Ross, and the Lew Archer series. Both are good, though.

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