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John D. MacDonald

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John Dann MacDonald gained his fame as the creator of Travis McGee, but he should be remembered for a great deal more than this. Although he was one of the last pulpsters, he was also one of the first of them to successfully write mainstream crime fiction, capitalizing on the paperback publishing phenomenon of the 1950s. He learned to adapt the hard-boiled style, with which he had plied his early trade, into a form of mystery writing that earned critical acclaim, paved the way for future American authors such as Carl Hiaasen and Robert Parker, and, indeed, can be said to have influenced writers the world over. Along with Ross Macdonald (no relation, whom he never met), he was able to return crime fiction to the genre of literature, following the trail blazed by Hammett and Chandler, elevating the detective novel from the miasma of gratuitous violence,  and from the depths of the depravity to which it had been sunk by writers like Mickey Spillane.

MacDonald evolved from a prodigiously prolific writer of short stories into an accomplished yet still very productive novelist, who also wrote adventures, thrillers, romances and science fiction. The Ballroom of the Skies depicts the world after an atomic war, with India as the country that rules. His The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything is a well penned time travel story with romantic twists. Two of his novels, Murder in the Wind and Condominium, use hurricanes as the backdrop, and the descriptions are frightening as well as realistic. He also wrote some excellent non-fiction. No Deadly Drug is a true crime account of the hearing and trials of Dr. Carl Coppolino, accused of killing his wife and a neighbour. Nothing Can Go Wrong recounts the mishaps aboard the SS Mariposa, experienced by MacDonald and his wife, while on vacation. Ultimately, however, it is with crime fiction that MacDonald made his mark.
 

MacDonald in the late forties; a Brando look-alike?

  
MacDonald in the late seventies
Amazingly enough, MacDonald became a writer inadvertently. An MBA graduate from Harvard (Class of '39), he served in the Intelligence service during WWII, doing mostly mindless work, frustrated by bureaucratic bunglers and tedium. His disillusionment and depression were made apparent to his wife through his letters, and she suggested that he find some sort of “creative” release for his restlessness. Shortly thereafter he wrote a 2000 word story entitled “Interlude in India”, and sent it to his wife. Without his knowledge, she tried to get it published; Esquire refused it for being too short, but Story magazine accepted it. Upon his return home, she presented him with the $25.00 cheque, and a career was launched.

It was not to prove to be a smooth and easy cruise. He wrote upwards of 800,000 words in his first four months, working 80 hours a week, and he always had 20 to 30 stories in the mail to various publications at any one time. He received thousands of rejections, mostly from the slick publications, so he turned to the pulps. (These were carry-overs from the old dime novels, cheaply publishing fiction of all kinds on coarse paper in a large 10 X 7 format - and often publishing cheap and coarse fiction of all kinds.) Finally, he sold a 4500-word story, “Female of the Species”, to Dime Detective, for $40.00. At the time, pulp magazines were paying from one-half to two cents a word, with bonuses for established writers raising it up to three cents. MacDonald continued to plug away, and he eventually sold a story which earned him his “first cheque with four figures to the left of the decimal point”, in 1949, to Collier’s, entitled “Louie Follow Me” (about big-city gangsters).

MacDonald was a great storyteller. His short stories are replete with believable characters, and the backdrop is usually the unhappy realism of daily routine. His style was sparse, quick-paced and sometimes dark; his plots were invariably intense and well constructed. Unfortunately, he often had problems with endings, sometimes seriously detracting from otherwise excellent work. It sometimes seems that he grew tired of the tale, and other times that he was in a hurry to finish and start another one. He certainly did 'start other ones' - he wrote over 500 stories, crime fiction, adventures, mysteries, westerns, science fiction, romances and sport stories. It seems like everyone published his work - the pulps, from Black Mask to Thrilling Wonder Stories; the slicks, from Playboy to The Saturday Evening Post. He even wrote for Canadian readership,  in the Toronto Star Weekly. Often more than one story of his would appear in the same issue of a publication, under a pseudonym.  (Use the link to view a long, but incomplete list of his short stories.)

Despite this prodigious output, and after moving around from Mexico to Florida, MacDonald realized that he just wasn't making enough to support his family in the manner to which he aspired. He decided to get into the booming paperback business, to become an author who wrote strictly for paperback publication, not hardcover.
 
1950 was to prove a pivotal year for MacDonald: he lengthened a novella, The Brass Cupcake, and sold it to Fawcett Crest. At the time, a paperback writer would receive a $2,000 advance for an initial print run of 200,000 copies (up to $3,000/300,000), and residuals. 

Aside from being his first novel, he created his first PI, Cliff Bartells, an insurance investigator. He also  established his trademark of digressing from the story in order to make a point (or ten).

(For my review, click here.)

In 1950, he wrote 54 short stories and one novel; in 1951, he wrote only 29 short stories and four novels. He did write some stinkers (notably Weep For Me), and some were only so-so; most were guaranteed “good reads” however, without degraded characterizations, and with satisfying conclusions. English Critic Julian Symons called them “production-line efficient, fast-moving American thrillers”, but also said that MacDonald stood out because…

“behind the machined efficiency of the plotting…there are interesting ideas about the nature of corruption and the increasingly mechanical form of life in America.”
Most of his early crime novels are stories of men "in over their heads", caught up in and overtaken by events, taken in and tossed aside. Sometimes morbid, often dark and bitter, usually psychological, and always terse yet flowing, the pages of most of them seem to turn all by themselves.
 
He wrote his first hit in 1952. The Damned sold two million copies, and it is as hard-boiled as a nineteen- minute egg.
Drawing from his time in Mexico, it is the story of people waiting in line to cross the Mexico-USA border by ferry across the Rio Conchos, from Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas.

Perhaps the turning point of his career came during a regular meeting of a writers’ group in Florida. An ex-pulpster now writing novels, MacKinlay Kantor, chided MacDonald about his writing, and asked when MacDonald was going to write a “real” book, not just paperback trash. MacDonald made him a bet that within three months he would write a novel that would be serialized in the slicks, a book club selection, and made into a movie! In thirty days, MacDonald wrote The Executioners (reissued as Cape Fear) and although it was only an alternate selection of a book club, he won the bet.

(For a list of his stand-alone novels, please click here.)  (To return to the Main Menu, click here.)

This was his first novel about the suburbs. In the late fifties, America was becoming a suburban nation – everyone wanted to “start over”, to move away from the big, dirty city. What MacDonald showed us is the truth in the words of Joe Louis that “you can run, but you can't hide”. Max Cady is an ex-con, having served thirteen years in prison for beating and raping a thirteen-year old girl. Sam Bowden of Suburbia, a successful lawyer, was the prosecution's main witness against Cady. When Cady gets out, he vows to make up for the lost years by harassing and stalking and terrorizing the Bowden family. The novel is a psychological examination of Cady, but it is also an insightful take on the conflict between the forces of law and vigilante justice. (The novel was twice adapted for the big screen - see the section on films. The first version is a "must see" - Mitchum's portrayal of pure evil is simply non-pareil.)

In the early sixties, MacDonald’s novels were marked by a turn away from "production-line thrillers", concentrating on environmental concerns and the details of American life at the mid-century point. 
 
A Flash of Green was the prototype for the future novels in Florida, and some of his points began to hit home with a lot of readers. Carl Hiaasen wrote:
“Most writers are delighted to achieve, on that rare occasion, a true and full sense of place - whether it's a city, a country, a jungle, the bowel of a volcano, or the bottom of the sea. MacDonald wanted his readers to do much more than see Florida. He seemed to want them to care about it as deeply as he did, marvel at it, laugh about it, grieve for it, and even fight for it.”

A Key to the Suite is about the inner workings of a Miami hotel, and the intrigue of a major industrial convention held in Florida. It clearly marks the beginning of his trend away from simple digressions toward “teaching the reader”, which he would always do in future works, be it about stamp collecting, the weather, the economy, land developers, or any number of other subjects. About this time, Fawcett Crest Gold Medal Books were in financial trouble, having lost a “name” author. They wanted MacDonald to start a series that could be read in any order, and whose titles would reflect some sort of catchy pattern that would be easy to remember. After the third try, MacDonald found that he had created a character with which he could live, and he sent it in, asking them to hold it for a short while. He then proceeded to write two more novels, and “both Travis and I seemed to survive the experience”. Thus, in 1964, The Deep Blue Good-By was published, followed by two more books in the next two months, and Travis McGee was born.
 
 
“He's a good vehicle for relieving my frustrations and irritations about the current scene…Travis is my mouthpiece, depending on what areas we're talking about. Every writer is going to put into the mouths of the people he wants you to respect opinions that he thinks are respectable. It's that simple. Suppose we're talking about a social, ecological ruin – the environmental area. For example, in The Turquoise Lament, he is flying into Sarasota and he remarks on the stacks of the mighty Borden Company up in Bradenton, and he says it's known locally as the place where Elsie the cow coughed herself to death. Why not? That's my comment as well as his. As long as I'm making him a hero, it would be grotesque for me to give him an opinion at which I was at odds.”
(To read some of his opinions, visit The Musings of McGee.)

Travis McGee is a Korean War veteran, an ex-football player, a wiry, rugged, good-looking 200-lb dropout from conventional society. He has sandy-coloured hair, deep blue eyes, and he's a beach bum. He lives on a houseboat, The Busted Flush, which he won in a poker game, and ties up at the Bahia Mar marina, Ft. Lauderdale. He drives, only when he has to, an electric blue Rolls Royce, Miss Agnes, that some previous owner had converted into a pick-up.

The climate is great, the scenery is fantastic, and the women are available; and when they're not, all he has to do is walk over to the Alabama Tiger’s perpetual floating beach party, and climb aboard. Best of all, he only works when he has to. He is NOT a PI. He has no office, no secretary, no business cards, and no clientele. He IS a self-described salvation consultant, but not the deep-water kind. In essence, the format of the novels, written in the first-person narrative, seldom changes: someone comes to McGee, or he is referred to them, with a problem, and as a last resort, McGee tries to help. His friend Chookie McCall, the dancer, explains it best:

“…if X has something valuable and Y comes and takes it away from him, and there's absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and you keep half. Then you just live on that until it starts to run out.”
McGee likes to call it taking his retirement in chunks as he goes along, as opposed to waiting until the age of sixty to retire. All guys want to be like McGee, at least part of us, part of the time! (For a list of the novels in the series, please click here.)

McGee is unlike any of the other great PI types that preceded him: Sam Spade, the Continental Op, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Lew Archer (although he does have certain commonalities with the latter). First, he is not a loner, even though he works alone. He enjoys good company, has friends like Meyer and Chookie, and doesn't drink himself into oblivion out of boredom or self-loathing.. He is also not an ex-cop, failed or otherwise, and he certainly does not trudge into an office everyday. While he does have a bit of the Galahad-complex, he's not imbued with it, nor does it control his life.

Quite tellingly, he treats women a whole lot better than any of those other guys did. Spade used them and then threw them away; the Op stayed away from them; Marlowe hated them; Archer didn't quite trust them; Hammer killed them. McGee not only loved them, but he liked them, and listened to them; occasionally, he even turned down sexual overtures! When he did visit the Tiger, or otherwise cavorted and frolicked, for the sake of cavorting or frolicking, he never really liked himself much afterwards. Still, he was a man of the time, and cavort and frolic he did.

Most importantly, what separates McGee from the others, and elevates him above them (except Archer), is the multi-dimensionality of his character; he is complex and even paradoxical, and very seldom is he smug. He knows that he often engages in exercises of self-justification, but deep down, he doesn't really take himself too seriously. He hates credit cards and all they represent, but he sometimes uses one because of expediency, because he has to. Despite the dropout mentality, McGee acknowledges that he cannot be a self-contained island in the big, bad world, and he understands that, little by little, he is being co-opted into it:

“I get the feeling that this is the last time in history when the offbeats like me will have a chance to live free in the nooks and crannies of the huge and rigid structure of an increasingly codified society. Fifty years from now I would be hunted down in the street. They would drill little holes in my skull and make me sensible and reliable and adjusted.” (The Quick Red Fox). 
Meyer is his economist friend, living aboard the houseboat John Maynard Keynes. He only comes alive as a character in Pale Gray for Guilt, even though he is referred to in some of the earlier novels. It is Meyer, not McGee, who is MacDonald. MacDonald once took a Multiphasic Personality Inventory test at the University of Alabama, three times over three days, as himself, McGee and Meyer. He stated that he tried to respond as he thought the other two would have. The result was that MacDonald was shown to have more personality kinship with Meyer than with McGee.

Actually, none of MacDonald’s characters are cardboard cutouts. Even though the novels are not long by today's standards, MacDonald created real, credible and deep characters, exhibiting a wide range of personalities, all the while using a parsimonious yet descriptive writing style. His ability to see both the very best and the very worst in human nature, and to portray this succinctly and believably, lends both a life assuring and a cynical tone to his writing.

The McGee novels are more often about discovering the true character of a cast member than about the actual crime; they are really “whydunits” and not “whodunits”, with an emphasis on Travis exploring for the character flaws in the other participants in the novel. Often he “solves” the mystery by tempting the culprit with a morally corrupt but irresistible offer, the acceptance of which parallels the original crime and seals the culprit’s fate. However, some of MacDonald’s characters have a higher value of their souls, and sometimes the temptations are resisted.

At best, this series is a classic, in that it is the first series to portray the PI type as both macho and introspective, AND to include humour, AND to emphasize lifestyle, AND to be actively socially conscious. At the very worst, the series is great escapism. The noted critic H. R. F. Keating, who included Pale Green for the Ripper in his list of the one hundred best crime/mystery novels of all time, saw the series this way:

“The twenty-odd McGee books…are, in fact, perhaps our best example of the crime story as a novel of feelings. In this it is not unfair to compare MacDonald to Charles Dickens, although Dickens had of course on infinitely wider range. But it is Dickens the novelist of feelings, of sentiment, and of sentimentality, that MacDonald brings to Mind.” (Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books, 1987)
Carl Hiaasen has openly acknowledged the literary debt that he owes to MacDonald. He wrote an introduction to The Deep Blue Good-By for a 1994 edition published after MacDonald’s death. He describes the impact of the novels perhaps better than anyone else could:
"Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn. I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty...For me and many natives (of Florida), some of McGee's finest moments were when he paused, mid-adventure, to inveigh against the runaway exploitation of this rare and dying paradise. If a cypress swamp got plowed to make way for another shopping mall, he took it personally: "This was instant Florida, tacky and stifling and full of ugly and spurious energies." Every McGee saga guarantees such splendidly mordant commentary. The customary targets are greedhead developers, crooked politicians, chamber-of-commerce flacks, and the cold-hearted scammers who flock like buzzards to the Sunshine State. For John D. MacDonald, these were not just useful fictional villains; they were villains of real life. When he passed away unexpectedly in 1986, millions of fans worldwide wondered what would become of Travis McGee. Not me. I wondered what would become of Florida without him...."
In 1972, the Mystery Writers of America named John Dann MacDonald a Grand Master. But, like Rodney Dangerfield, he still got no respect. He had worldwide sales, a large and loyal following, and a style of writing and a body of work that were critically acclaimed by his peers; yet, the powers that were withheld their stamp of approval. In 1973 Lippincott published The Turquoise Lament, and the critics practically fell over themselves singing his praise. That's what it took, pure and simple – a hardcover publication, and this was not even among his best works. In 1975, The Dreadful Lemon Sky topped the bestseller list, and his detractors were finally silenced.

The Lonely Silver Rain was the last McGee novel, and the last of his work. By this time, the author was in ill health and growing slightly tired of McGee. He stated that the 22nd McGee novel would be the last, and that McGee would literally sail off into the sunset, moving to a new marina in the Panhandle. MacDonald apparently did work on the novel, but nothing has been, nor will be, published. There is a consistent rumour of a final McGee novel with “Black” in the title; indeed, MacDonald used the threat of terminating the series more than once when faced with various problems with his publishers. It does NOT exist. 
 
The musings of McGee of his own mortality in The Lonely Silver Rain are reflections, not predictions. When asked about killing-off McGee, MacDonald once said that
“…there will never be one called “Black” where he is killed. It wouldn't be fair to the people who are just discovering the fellow.”

Fairness was important to him. MacDonald and McGee and Meyer were men of honour. They fought a world that was becoming too impersonal, the world of credit checks, identification cards, lives on file, computers, land developers, asphalt jungles, shopping malls. But, it was a battle that could never be won, a cause that could not prevail. They never had a chance.


 
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Site last updated: 03 October 2003