The Brass Cupcake

The Brass Cupcake (1950)

The Brass Cupcake, published by Fawcett in 1950, was John D. MacDonald’s first published novel. Although he had already published something on the order of two hundred short stories, this was his first full-length novel. MacDonald is most well-known for his Travis McGee series and for his book, the Executioners, which was the basis for two major motion pictures entitled Cape Fear. This is a stand alone novel, not part of his McGee series, but like many of MacDonald’s other books, this one takes place in Florida.

Cliff Bartells has a “brass cupcake,” a sardonic description of his former badge. Bartells came home from the war and returned to Florence City, Florida, to work as a cop. As luck would have it though, Bartells is just about the only honest cop in the town. When he came back, he found that “with the growth had come a smear of big-city dirt.” The town was now controlled by the syndicate and either you played ball with them or you’ll find yourself all alone. After blowing the lid on corruption, he became the “only cop on foot in the whole city” and found that his gold badge now seemed to be bronze. When they took it away, it didn’t seem to be a badge anymore. “Just another cupcake.” He was forced to resign as the one honest cop in the town and found his way to work for an insurance company and charged with buying back stolen goods from fences. “But slowly and surely [he] was going sour.”

Bartells is asked to recover a huge amount of jewelry after a widow is murdered and her jewels stolen, but the whole thing stinks big time and he is warned off the case by everyone and anyone. With the local mob warning him off and the police out to nail him for anything they can, Bartells doesn’t have an easy time of solving this case, but he plunges in with his fists and his charm.

The actual mystery element is not unique, but what makes this book exceptional is the excellent descriptions that MacDonald gives of the people and places. On the way, he meets a troubled heiress, Melody: “Wide slim shoulders tapered down to a small waist and tender concavity before the convex flaring of hip.” “Her voice was low and husky- hoarse, the kind Bankhead and Dietrich have.” He also flirts with his secretary, a young, innocent, farmer’s daughter-type and a witness. There are brawls in parking lots and murders plenty and crosses and double crosses. The intense descriptions of the lengthy beating he takes as someone tries to beat a confession out of him are well-done.
All in all, this book is a fantastic introduction to the world of John MacDonald and leaves the reader eager to start another such book.

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