John D. MacDonald

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John D. MacDonald
JohnDMacDonald.jpg
Born (1916-07-24)July 24, 1916
Sharon, Pennsylvania, United States
Died December 28, 1986(1986-12-28) (aged 70)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States
Occupation Novelist, short story writer
Nationality American
Period 1945–1986
Genres Detective fiction

John Dann MacDonald (July 24, 1916 – December 28, 1986) was an American writer of novels and short stories, known for his thrillers.

MacDonald was a prolific author of crime and suspense novels, many of them set in his adopted home of Florida. His best-known works include the popular and critically acclaimed Travis McGee series, and his novel The Executioners, which was adapted into the film Cape Fear. In 1972, MacDonald was named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, and he won a 1980 U.S. National Book Award in the one-year category Mystery.[1] Stephen King[2] praised MacDonald as "the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller." Kingsley Amis said, MacDonald "is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels?"[3]

Early life[edit]

MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, where his father worked for Savage Arms. The family moved to Utica, N.Y. in 1926, where his father was now Treasurer of the Utica branch of the Savage Arms Corporation. In 1934, Young John was sent to Europe for several weeks, and this whetted his appetite for travel and for photography.

MacDonald enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, but was not doing well and dropped out during his sophomore year. He worked menial jobs in New York City for a short time and then was accepted at Syracuse University. While there, he met Dorothy Prentiss and they married in 1937.

MacDonald graduated from Syracuse the following year. In 1939, he received an MBA from Harvard University. MacDonald was later able to make good use of his education in business and economics by incorporating elaborate business swindles into the plots of a number of his novels.

In 1940, MacDonald accepted a direct commission as a First Lieutenant in the Army Ordnance Corps. He later served in the OSS in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations during World War II. He was discharged in September 1945 as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Writing career[edit]

Early pulp story[edit]

MacDonald's literary career began accidentally; in 1945, while in military service, he wrote a short story and mailed it home to his wife. He had grown tired of trying to write when everything had to pass the military censors. She submitted it to Esquire magazine, where it was rejected, and then she submitted it to Story magazine. It was accepted for $25.00. He was informed of this just after disembarking from the ship home.

After his discharge from service, MacDonald spent the next four months writing short stories, generating some 800,000 words and losing 20 pounds (9.1 kg) while typing during 14-hour daily sessions, seven days a week. This effort netted him only hundreds of rejection slips, but in the fifth month, a $40 sale to the pulp magazine Dime Detective (magazine) set his career in motion, and he continued to sell close to 500 short stories to the detective, mystery, adventure, sports, Western, and science fiction pulps.[4] In a couple of instances, MacDonald's stories were the only ones in an issue of the magazine, but hidden via pseudonyms.

Hardboiled thrillers[edit]

As the boom in paperback novels expanded, MacDonald successfully made the jump to longer fiction with his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, published in 1950, by Fawcett Publications' Gold Medal Books.

His science fiction included the stories "Cosmetics" in Astounding (1948) and "Common Denominator" in Galaxy Science Fiction (1951), and the three novels Wine of the Dreamers (1951), Ballroom of the Skies (1952), and The Girl, the Gold Watch, & Everything (1962), which were collected as an omnibus in Time and Tomorrow (1980).

Between 1953 and 1964, MacDonald specialized in crime thrillers, many of which are now considered masterpieces of the hardboiled genre. Most of these novels were published as paperback originals, although some were later republished in hardbound editions. Many, such as Dead Low Tide (1953), were set in his adopted home of Florida, and were effective in suggesting a sinister aura lurking beneath the glittery surface of that state. Novels such as The Executioners (1957) (which was twice filmed as Cape Fear, first in 1962 and again in 1991) and One Monday We Killed Them All (1962) penetrated the minds of psychopathic killers. As MacDonald honed his craft, he developed his narrative "voice," one of the most distinctive in the suspense fiction field.

He is credited with writing about the effect of the building boom on the environment, and his novel A Flash of Green (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962) is a good example of this effort. Many later Florida crime, detective and mystery writers, such as Randy Wayne White, James Hall and Jonathon King, have followed suit.

Travis McGee[edit]

MacDonald's protagonists were often intelligent and introspective men, sometimes with a hard cynical streak. Travis McGee, the "salvage consultant" and "knight-errant," was all of that. McGee made his living by recovering the loot from thefts and swindles, keeping half to finance his "retirement," which he took in pieces as he went along. He first appeared in the 1964 novel The Deep Blue Good-by and was last seen in The Lonely Silver Rain in 1985. All titles in the 21-volume series include a color, a mnemonic device which was suggested by his publisher so that when harried travelers in airports looked to buy a book, they could at once see those MacDonald titles they had not yet read.

The McGee novels feature an ever-changing array of female companions, some particularly nasty villains, exotic locales in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and appearances by a sidekick known only as "Meyer," an economist of international renown and a Ph.D. As Sherlock Holmes had his well-known address on Baker Street, McGee had his trademark lodgings on his 52-foot (16 m) houseboat, the Busted Flush, named for the poker hand that started the run of luck in which he won her. She is docked at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar marina, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Death[edit]

MacDonald died at the age of 70, on December 28, 1986, at St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from complications of an earlier heart bypass operation.[5]

Media adaptations[edit]

Thrillers and science fiction[edit]

MacDonald's novel Soft Touch was the basis for the 1961 film Man-Trap.

His 1957 novel The Executioners was filmed in 1962 as Cape Fear, a dark thriller of strong suspense and menace starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. Martin Scorsese directed the 1991 remake of Cape Fear.

The novel Cry Hard, Cry Fast was adapted as a two-part episode of the TV series Run for Your Life in November 1967.

The novella "Linda" was filmed twice for television, in 1973 (with Stella Stevens in the title role) and 1993 (with Virginia Madsen).

The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything was adapted for a 1980 TV movie. It led to a 1981 sequel, The Girl, the Gold Watch and Dynamite.

The 1980 TV movie Condominium, based on MacDonald's novel, starred Dan Haggerty and Barbara Eden.

The 1984 A Flash of Green with Ed Harris.

Travis McGee[edit]

When Travis McGee arrived on the big screen in 1970 with Darker Than Amber, starring Rod Taylor, the film received favorable reviews from Roger Ebert and other critics, but there was no follow-up into a series. The 1983 TV movie Travis McGee: The Empty Copper Sea starred Sam Elliott.

Influence[edit]

Various writers have acknowledged the trail that MacDonald and McGee blazed, including Carl Hiaasen in an introduction to a 1990s edition of The Deep Blue Good-by: "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." Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., wrote another memorable tribute: "To diggers a thousand years from now . . . the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."

Most of the current crop of Florida-based mystery writers acknowledge a debt to MacDonald, including Randy Wayne White, James Hall, Les Standiford, Jonathon King and Tim Dorsey.[6] Lawrence Block's New York-based fictional hero, Matthew Scudder, is a character who makes his living doing just what McGee does—favors for friends who have no other recourse, then taking his cut.

Homage to MacDonald was evident in the 1981-88 CBS-TV series Simon & Simon with scenes showing Rick Simon's boat docked at Slip F-18 in San Diego.

Stephen King stated in the book Faces of Fear: "John D. MacDonald has written a novel called The End of the Night which I would argue is one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. It ranks with Death of a Salesman, it ranks with An American Tragedy."

The science fiction writer Spider Robinson has made it clear that he is also among MacDonald's admirers. The bartender in Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, Mike Callahan, is married to Lady Sally McGee, whose last name is almost certainly a tribute to Travis. In a recent sequel to the Callahan's series, Callahan's Key, a group of regulars from the former saloon decide they've had enough of Long Island, so they move to Key West, Florida, in a colorful caravan of modified school buses. On their way to Key West, they stop at a marina near Fort Lauderdale specifically to visit Slip F-18 (where Busted Flush was usually moored) and meet a local who was the prototype for McGee's sidekick Meyer. The slip is empty, with a small plaque mentioning Busted Flush.

The popular mystery writer Dean Koontz has also acknowledged in an interview with Bookreporter.com's Marlene Taylor that MacDonald is "(His) favorite author of all time... I've read everything he wrote four or five times."

Bibliography[edit]

Travis McGee novels[edit]

Non-series novels (excluding science fiction)[edit]

Anthologies[edit]

Short story collections[edit]

  • (1966) End of the Tiger and Other Stories
  • (1971) S*E*V*E*N
  • (1982) The Good Old Stuff - A collection of updated pulp magazine short stories
    • "Murder for Money" - Detective Tales (magazine), April 1952 as "All That Blood Money Can Buy"
    • "Death Writes the Answer" - New Detective Magazine, May 1950 as "This One Will Kill You"
    • "Miranda" - Fifteen Mystery Stories (magazine), October 1950
    • "They Let Me Live" - Doc Savage Magazine, July–August 1947
    • "Breathe No More" - Detective Tales, May 1950 as "Breathe No More, My Lovely"
    • "Some Hidden Grave" - Detective Tales, September 1950 as "The Lady is a Corpse"
    • "A Time For Dying" - New Detective Magazine, September 1948 as "Tune In on Station Homicide"
    • "Noose For A Tigress" - Dime Detective, August 1952
    • "Murder In Mind" - Mystery Book Magazine, Winter 1949
    • "Check Out At Dawn" - Detective Tales, May 1950 as "Night Watch"
    • "She Cannot Die" - Doc Savage Magazine, May–June 1948 as 'The Tin Suitcase"
    • "Dead On The Pin" - Mystery Book Magazine, Summer 1950
    • "A Trap For The Careless" - Detective Tales, March 1950
  • (1983) Two
  • (1984) More Good Old Stuff

Science fiction[edit]

Non-fiction[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-08. (With essay by Glen David Gold from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  2. ^ King, Stephen. On Writing (Hodder and Stoughton, 2000, ISBN 0-340-76996-3)
  3. ^ Amis, Kingsley (1971). "A New James Bond". What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 69. ISBN 9780151958603. 
  4. ^ Jonathan Yardley, "John D. MacDonald's Lush Landscape of Crime", Washington Post, Nov. 11, 2003
  5. ^ Fraser, C. Gerald (1986-12-29). "John D. Macdonald, Novelist, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-06. 
  6. ^ Mystery Readers International: Florida Mysteries, Volume 15, No. 4, Winter 1999-2000

References[edit]

External links[edit]