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by Bamber Gascoigne

John D(ann) MacDonald (1916-1986)


American mystery writer, one of the great names of the genre, who establish his name in the pulps. MacDonald created his famous series character Travis McGee in his forty-fourth novel The Deep Blue Good-by in 1964, and went on to write twenty-one books about the most "colorful" of all unlicensed private detectives – each novel in the McGee series contains a color in the title. The awarded mystery writer and critic H.R.F. Keating selected MacDonald's The Green Ripper (1979) in 1987 for his list of the one hundred best crime novels.

"Once upon a time I was very lucky and located a sixty-five-foot hijacked motor sailer in a matter of days, after the authorities had been looking for months. When I heard through the grapevine that Billy Ingraham wanted to see me, it was easy to guess he hoped I could work the same miracle with his stolen Sundowner, a custom cruiser he's built in Jacksonville yard. It had been missing for three months." (The opening of The Lonely Silver Line by John D. MacDonald, introduction by Lee Child, 2013)

John D. MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, the son of Eugene Andrew MacDonald, a treasurer of the Savage Arms Corporation, and Marguerite Dann. When he was twelve.the family moved to Utica, New York. At school MacDonald was a voracious reader and played with the idea of trying to write something. Funded by his father, MacDonald made a long European grand tour before college studies.

After graduating from high school MacDonald attended for a year the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. He worked in New York in small jobs and then went to  Syracuse University, receiving his B.S. degree in 1938. MacDonald earned a Harvad M.B.A. in 1939.

While at Syracuse, MacDonald married Dorothy Mary Prentiss, a fellow student; they had one son. During World War II, he served in the Office of Strategic Services (1940-46), the forerunner of the CIA, and in the China-Burma-India theatre. MacDonald was discharged as a Lieutenant Colonel in January 1946. His first short story was published in Story magazine. Originally he wrote it to his wife.

Instead of seeking work, MacDonald decided to support his family by writing. He  sold all kinds of stories – sports, science, adventure, fantasy – to a number of magazines. The Brass Cupcake (1959), MacDonald's first novel, was published by Gold Medal Books. (John D. MacDonald is not to be confused with Ross Macdonald who wrote his first Lew Archer novels under the name John MacDonald. Next four books he issued as John Ross MacDonald dropping finally the John.) MacDonald once said that writing is learned only by writing. "I work long each day, and usually have at least three books in various stages of clumsiness, letting the subconscious mind untie the knots of the ones on the shelf while I work on the one in front of me. I revise by throwing out whole chapters, sections, even whole books, and starting again – a device which seems to enhance freshness." ('MacDonald, John D(ann),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 904)

In his spare time, he liked to watch pro football, ice hockey, and bullfighting. MacDonald himself enjoyed many sports, including skiing, fishing, and sailing. He was also an ardent poker player, but gave up bridge and golf because they took too much of his time.MacDonald was six feet tall and wore glasses since childhood. When interviewed by Ed Gorman a few years before his death, and asked what he was reading, MacDonald mentioned some titles of the books on his nightstand and on the table by the couch: John Updike's Hugging the Shore, Charles Willeford's Something about a Soldier, John le Carré´s A Perfect Spy,  Jimmy Breslin's Table Money, William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways, and Stephen King's It. ('John D. MacDonald' by Ed Gorman, in The Big Book of Noir, edited by Ed Gorman, Lee Server, and Martin H. Greenberg, 1998)

"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 an infinitely wider range. But it is Dickens the novelist of feelings, of sentiment, and of sentimentality, that MacDonald brings to mind." (Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating, foreword by Patricia Highsmith, 1996, pp. 195-196)

An example of MacDonald's early tales is 'In a Small Motel' (1955), in which he shows his skills in composing believable characters. Everyday details are depicted carefully, but they do not only give a sense of realism but are just those small things that his characters find in their own lives suppressive. Mr. Brown has taken a large sum of money from his employer and hides himself in a small motel. He believes he's being watched all the time, and without his gun he is helpless. Three other persons must decide what to do with him and the money. MacDonald creates suspense from the different moral stands of his characters. Ginny is a young widow, who alone tries to take care of the motel and has problems with mortgage payments. Johnny, who runs a gas station, and Don, a cunning lawyer, are her rivals. Johnny could buy new cars with the money and Don has business plans.

Since 1949 MacDonald lived in Florida, where he set most of his tales. Like Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald, he often he used fiction to comment such moral or social issues as ecological dangers, racism, political corruption, real estate scams, infidelity, and the drug culture. Before MacDonald's McGee appeared in the scene of the mystery ficion, he had already written over 40 books and several hundred short stories. His publisher pressured him to create a regular series character when Richard Prather, who wrote highly popular books for Fawcett, left for another publisher. MacDonald planned to call his hero Dallas McGee, but the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas made him to change the name, he picked it from a US Air Force base.

MacDonald used the first-person narrative, but he did not like its limitations. The author himself called the figure of McGee in a television interview a "tattered knight on a spavined steed." Travis McGee is a Korean War veteran and a 200-pound drop-out from conventional society, a former football player, who has sandy hair and ice-blue eyes. Usually he wins his fistfights but he don't like brutality. He drives a 1936 Rolls Royce pickup, and lives in Fort Lauderdale on a houseboat named 'The Busted Flush', after the poker hand that won it for him. As the characters in Steinbeck's pleasure-loving Mexican-Americans in Tortilla Flat (1935), McGee has chosen an alternate life style. His best friend and neighbour is the brilliant, chess-palying retired economist Meyer – the relationship has much literary connections to Rex Stout's heroes Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. Typically McGee is drawn into a situation through some obligation from his past, or he is helping his friend or a relative. In Cinnamon Skin (1982) McGee's friend Meyer lends his boat to his niece Norma, and her new husband Even. The boat explodes and Meyer enlists his friend McGee to investigate the case.

After spending some time in Mexico, MacDonald offered readers details based on his experiences in The Damned (1952) and Border Town Girl (1956). Satirical Dress Her in Indigo (1971), set in Oaxaca, Mexico, brought on the stage American hippies and with them the obligatory drug culture. Nightmare in Pink (1964) already featured an early fictional use of LSD. The story took McGee in New York. Usually private detectives consume heavily liquor and smoke only cigarettes.

MacDonald's device to unite his detective series with a color was perhaps inspired by Lawrence Treat (1908-1998), who named his mystery novels with alphabets. McGee began his adventures under the color of deep blue (The Deep Blue Good-by) in 1964, referring to a mood and of course to Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953). In the story McGee goes after a thug who has ruined a woman's life. In The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968) McGee wraps the dead Maureen Pike in brown paper. The title of The Green Ripper (1979) came from his son Maynard: at a dinner party, a friend had mentioned the Grim Reaper, but what Maynard had heard was green ripper and was terrified of it for weeks. (Danse Macabre by Stephen King, 1983, p. 118)

MacDonald's science fiction novels include The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything (1962), a romance about time travel, and Ballroom of the Skies (1952), a story about an atomic war that leaves India world ruler. Murder in the Wind  (1956) and Condominium (1977) were realistic descriptions of hurricanes. The author published also non-fiction. The House Guests (1965) focused on animals, principally on felines – the favorite sidekicks of private eyes, as Robert Altman proved in his film The Long Goodbye (1973), an updating of Chandler's novel. (MacDonald's paperback The End of the Night from 1960 was dedicated to "Roger and Geoffrey, who left their marks on the manuscript" – they were his cats, not editors.) Deadly Drug (1968) was an account of the hearing and trials of Dr. Carl Coppolino, a doctor accused of killing his wife and a neighbor. Nothing Can Go Wrong  (1981) told about the mishaps on the SS Mariposa the MacDonalds experienced on one of their cruises.

The Lonely Silver Rain (1984) was the last in the Travis McGee series. MacDonald never used the color black – or white – in the title, and it was rumored for a long time that there was a final, "black" McGee story. MacDonald died on December 28, 1986. Among his awards were Grand Prix de Littérature Policiere (1964), Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (1972), and American Book Award (1980). The first John D. MacDonald conference was held in 1978 and subsequent followed in the 1980s and 1990s.

Several of MacDonald's stories have been filmed. J.Lee Thompson's Cape Fear (1962), starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, was based on The Executioners (1958). It was remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese, with Robert De Niro (as Max Cady) and Nick Nolte (as Sam Bowden). "What I like about you is you're rock bottom. I wouldn't expect you to understand this, but it's a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower." (Barrie Chase to Robert Mitchum, playing the psychopath Max Cody) The plot of the novel revolves around the idea, that to stop an unstoppable monster, in this case a psychopath rapist, the protagonist must abandon all idealism and become a monster himself. Sam Bowen is a lawyer, who does not believe in vigilantism, but when his family is constantly harassed by a clever ex-convict, Max Cady, Sam tells his wife. "I want to commit a murder, and I think I know how it can be done." At the end, as Cody tries to escape from a trap, he is wouded fatally by a nearly accidental shot by Sam, who afterwards feels satisfied. "All the neat and careful layers of civilized instincts and behavior were peeled back to reveal an intense exultation over the death of an enemy."

Man-Trap (1961), directed by actor Edmond O'Brien, was based on a novelette. Travis McGee appeared in Darker Than Amber (1970), directed by Robert Clouse and starring Rod Taylor as McGee. In Andrew V. McLaglen's television film Travis McGee: The Empty Copper Sea (1982) Sam Elliott played McGee. A Flash of Green (1984), Victor Nuñez's adaptation of MacDonald's 1962 novel, was acknowledged by Roger Ebert for its real sense of place (Florida): "We feel the moist heat of the long summer nights, the cynical ways in which everybody knows everybody else's business, the urgency of unfulfilled people who can smell money, and think it means success." ('A Flash of Green' by Roger Ebert,, January 01, 1984) I Could Go on Singing (1963) was MacDonald's novelization of a screenplay, written by Mayo Simon. MacDonald hated the work so much that he bought back the rights of the book and refused to allow it to be reprinted. The film, directed by Ronald Neame with Judy Garland and Dirk Bogarde in the main roles, told about an American star, who is torn between her career and her old lover and their illegitimate son.

For further reading: 'MacDonald, John D(ann),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); John D. MacDonald and the Colorful World of Travis McGee by Frank D. Campbell Jr. (1977); A Bibliography of the Published Works of John D. MacDonald by Jena and Walter Shine (1981); John D. MacDonald by David Geherin (1982); 'MacDonald, John D(ann)' by James Gindin, in Twentieth-century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly (1985); A Special Tribute to John D. MacDonald (1987); Meditations on America; John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee Series and Othrer Fiction by Lewis D. Moore (1994); The Red Hot Typewriter by Hugh Merril (2000)

Travis McGee novels:

  • The Deep Blue Good-by, 1964
    - Vaarallista kiiltoa (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1966)
  • The Quick Red Fox, 1964
    - Vaarallista leikkiä (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1967)
  • Nightmare in Pink, 1964
    - Vaarallinen voitto (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1966)
  • A Purple Place for Dying, 1964
    - Vaarallisen lähellä (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1967)
  • A Deadly Shade of Gold, 1965
    - Vaarallinen saalis (suom. J.V. Ilkka, 1967) / Kullan kimallus (suom. Kari Lindgren, 1987) / Kulta on kuolemaksi (suom. K.O. Harri, 1982)
  • Bright Orange for the Shroud, 1965
    - Vaarallinen suunta (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1967)
  • Darker than Amber, 1966 (screen adaptation)
    - Film 1970, prod. Cinema Center Films, Major Pictures Production, dir. Robert Clouse, screenplay Ed Waters, starring Rod Taylor (as Travis McGee), Theodore Bikel, Suzy Kendall, Ahna Capri, William Smith.
  • One Fearful Yellow Eye, 1966
  • Pale Gray for Guilt, 1968
  • The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, 1968
  •  Dress Her in Indigo, 1969
  • The Long Lavender Look, 1970
  • A Tan and Sandy Silence, 1972
  • The Scarlet Ruse, 1973
  • The Turquoise Lament, 1973
  • The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1975
    - Jotkut tappavat monta kertaa (suom. Petteri Suvanto, 1977)
  • The Empty Copper Sea, 1978
    - Television adaptation 1983, prod. Hajeno Productions, dir. Andrew V. McLaglen, starring Sam Elliott (as Travis .McGee), Gene Evans, Barry Corbin, Richard Farnsworth, Vera Miles.
  • The Green Ripper, 1979
    - Pitkä hiljaisuus (suom. Kari Nenonen, 1986)
  • Free Fall in Crimson, 1981
  • Cinnamon Skin: The Twentieth Adventure of Travis McGee, 1982
  • The Lonely Silver Rain, 1984
  • The Lonely Silver Rain: a Travis McGee Novel, 2013 (introduction by Lee Child)
  • The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper: a Travis McGee Novel, 2013  (introduction by Lee Child)
  • The Empty Copper Sea: a Travis McGee Novel, 2013 (introduction by Lee Child)
  • Dress Her in Indigo: a Travis McGee Novel, 2013 (introduction by Lee Child)
  • Darker Than Amber: a Travis McGee Novel, 2013 (introduction by Lee Child)

Other works:

  • The Brass Cupcake, 1950
    - Joku on tuomittava (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1965)
  • Judge Me Not, 1951
    - Älä tuomitse minua (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1965)
  • Murder for the Bride, 1951
  • Wine of the Dreamers, 1951 (as Planet of the Dreamers, 1953)
  • Weep for Me, 1951
  • The Damned, 1952
  • Ballroom of the Skies, 1952
  • Dead Low Tide, 1953
    - Sinä tiedät liikaa (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1967)
  • The Neon Jungle, 1953
  • Cancel All Our Vows, 1953
  • All These Condemned, 1954
  • Area of Suspicion, 1954
  • Contrary Pleasure, 1954
  • A Bullet for Cinderella, 1955 (as On the Make, 1960)
    - Kuolleen miehen viesti (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1971)
  • Cry Hard, Cry Fast, 1955
  • April Evil, 1956
    - Tuomion päivä (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1965)
  • Border Town Girl, 1956 (novelets, contains Linda; UK title: Five Star Fugitive, 1970)
    - TV movie 1973, dir. Jack Smight, starring Stella Stevens (as Linda Reston), Ed Nelson. John McIntire, John Saxon; TV movie 1993, dir. Nathaniel Gutman, with Virginia Madsen (as Linda Cowley), Richard Thomas and Ted McGinley.
  • Murder in the Wind, 1956 (UK title: Hurricane, 1957)
  • You Live Once, 1956 (as You Kill Me, 1961)
  • Death Trap, 1957
    - Peli on lopussa (suom. J.V. Ilkka, 1965)
  • A Man of Affairs, 1957
  • The Price of Murder, 1957
  • The Empty Trap, 1957
  • Clemmie, 1958
  • The Executioners, 1958 (as Cape Fear, 1962)
    - Films: 1961, dir. by J. Lee Thompson, screenplay James R. Webb, starring Robert Mitchum (as Max Cady), Gregory Peck (as Sam Bowden), Polly Bergen (as Peggy Bowden), Lori Martin (as Nancy Bowden), Martin Balsam. "The worst of life has been put on the screen to terrorize, to horrify, to make a buck... Sy Bartlett, who produced, should reflect on how socially irresponsible this picture is." (Arthur B. Clark, Films in Review, May 1962) Remade in 1991, dir. by Martin Scorsese, screenplay James R. Webb and Wesley Strick, starring Robert De Niro (as Max Cady), Nick Nolte (as Sam Bowden), Jessica Lange (as Leigh Bowden), Juliette Lewis (as Danielle Bowden), Robert Mitchum (as Lieutenant Elgart).
  • Soft Touch, 1958 (UK title: Man-Trap, 1961)
    - Film: Man-Trap, 1961, prod. Tiger Productions, dir. Edmond O'Brien, screenplay Ed Waters, starring Jeffrey Hunter, David Janssen, Stella Stevens, Elaine Devry.
  • The Deceivers, 1958
  • The Lethal Sex: The 1959 Anthology, 1959 (ed.)
  • The Beach Girls, 1959
  • The Crossroads, 1959
  • Deadly Welcome, 1959
  • Please Write for Details, 1959
  • The End of the Night, 1960
  • The Only Girl in the Game, 1960
  • Slam the Big Door, 1960
  • One Monday We Killed Them All, 1961
  • Where is Janice Gantry?, 1961
    - Vaarallisilla vesillä (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1964)
  • A Flash of Green, 1962
    - Film 1984, prod. American Playhouse, dir. Victor Nunez, screenlay Victor Nunez, starring Maggie Beistle, Blair Brown, George Coe, Jean De Baer, Ed Harris.
  • The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything, 1962
    - TV movie 1980, prod. Fellows-Keegan Company, Paramount Television, dir. William Wiard, with Robert Hays, Pam Dawber, Zohra Lampert, Ed Nelson, Maurice Evans. Sequel 1981: The Girl, the Gold Watch and Dynamite, dir. Hy Averback, with Lee Purcell, Philip MacHale and Burton Gilliam.
  • A Key to the Suite, 1962
  • I Could Go On Singing, 1963 (screenplay novelization)
    - Film 1963, prod. Barbican Films, dir. by Ronald Neame, story by Robert Dozier, screenplay Mayo Simon, starring Judy Garland (as Jenny Bowman), Dirk Bogarde (as David Donne), Aline MacMahon, Jack Klugman, Aline MacMahon.
  • The Drowner, 1963
  • On the Run, 1963
    - Pakene, pakene... (suom. Uolevi Maajärvi, 1964)
  • The House Guests, 1965
  • End of the Tiger and Other Stories, 1966
  • The Last One Left, 1967
  • Three for McGee, 1967
  • No Deadly Drug, 1968
  • Seven, 1971
  • Condominium, 1977
    - TV drama, prod. Universal TV, dir. Sidney Hayers, starring Barbara Eden, Dan Haggerty, Steve Forrest, Ana Alicia, Richard Anderson.
  • Other Times, Other Worlds, 1978
  • The Good Old Stuff, 1981
  • Nothing Can Go Wrong, 1981 (with John H. Kilpack)
  • The Good Old Stuff: 13 Early Stories, 1982 (edited by Martin H. Greenberg and others)
  • Two, 1983
  • More Good Old Stuff, 1984
  • One More Sunday, 1984
  • Five Complete Travis McGee Novels, 1985
  • Barrier Island, 1986
  • A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald, 1967-1974, 1986
  • Reading for Survival, 1987
  • Condominium: a Novel, 2014 (introduction by Dean Koontz)

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