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MacDonald, John D. 1916–1986

MacDonald, John D. 1916–1986

(John Dann MacDonald)

PERSONAL: Born July 24, 1916, in Sharon, PA; died of complications following heart surgery December 28, 1986, in Milwaukee, WI; son of Eugene Andrew and Marguerite Grace (Dann) MacDonald; married Dorothy Mary Prentiss, July 3, 1937; children: Maynard John Prentiss. Education: Attended University of Pennsylvania, 1934–35; Syracuse University, B.S., 1938; Harvard University, M.B.A., 1939.

CAREER: Author. Worked for a time in investment and insurance. Military service: U.S. Army, 1940–46; served in India and Asia with Office of Strategic Services; became lieutenant colonel.

MEMBER: Mystery Writers of America (president, 1962), PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Explorers Club.

AWARDS, HONORS: Benjamin Franklin Award, 1955, for best American short story; Gran Prix de Litterature Policiére, 1964, for French edition of A Key to the Suite; Pioneer Medal, Syracuse University, 1971; Grand Master Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1972; Popular Culture Association National Award for Excellence, 1978; D.H.L., Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 1978, University of South Florida, 1980; National Book Award, 1980, for The Green Ripper.

WRITINGS:

FICTION

The Damned, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1952.

Cancel All Our Vows, Appleton (New York, NY), 1953.

Contrary Pleasure, Appleton (New York, NY), 1954.

The Deceivers, Dell (New York, NY), 1958.

Clemmie, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1958.

Please Write for Details, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1959.

The Crossroads, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1959.

Slam the Big Door, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1960, reprinted, Thorndike Press (Thorndike, ME), 1987.

A Key to the Suite, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1962.

A Flash of Green, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1962.

I Could Go on Singing, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1963.

Condominium, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1977.

One More Sunday, Random House (New York, NY), 1984.

Barrier Island, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.

MYSTERY FICTION

The Brass Cupcake, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1950.

Murder for the Bride, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1951.

Judge Me Not, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1951.

Weep for Me, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1951.

The Neon Jungle, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1953.

Dead Low Tide, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1953.

All These Condemned, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1954.

Area of Suspicion, Dell (New York, NY), 1954.

A Bullet for Cinderella, Dell (New York, NY), 1955, published as On the Make, 1960.

Cry Hard, Cry Fast, Popular Library, 1955.

You Live Once, Popular Library, 1955.

April Evil, Dell (New York, NY), 1956.

Border Town Girl, Popular Library, 1956.

Murder in the Wind, Dell (New York, NY), 1956.

Death Trap, Dell (New York, NY), 1957.

The Price of Murder, Dell (New York, NY), 1957.

The Empty Trap, Popular Library, 1957.

A Man of Affairs, Dell (New York, NY), 1957.

The Soft Touch, Dell (New York, NY), 1958.

The Executioners, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1958, published as Cape Fear, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1962.

Deadly Welcome, Dell (New York, NY), 1959.

The Beach Girls, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1959.

(Editor) Mystery Writers of America Anthology, Dell (New York, NY), 1959.

The End of the Night, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1960.

The Only Girl in the Game, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1960.

Where Is Janice Gantry?, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1961.

One Monday We Killed Them All, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1961.

On the Run, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1963.

The Drowner, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1963.

End of the Tiger and Other Stories, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1966.

The Last One Left, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1967.

SEVEN (short story collection), Fawcett (New York, NY), 1971.

The Good Old Stuff: Thirteen Early Stories, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and others, Harper (New York, NY),1982.

More Good Old Stuff, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.

"TRAVIS MCGEE" SERIES

The Deep Blue Good-By (also see below), Fawcett (New York, NY), 1964.

Nightmare in Pink (also see below), Fawcett (New York, NY), 1964.

A Purple Place for Dying (also see below), Fawcett (New York, NY), 1964.

The Quick Red Fox, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1964.

A Deadly Shade of Gold, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1965.

Bright Orange for the Shroud, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1965.

Darker than Amber, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1966.

One Fearful Yellow Eye, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1966.

Pale Gray for Guilt, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1968.

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1968.

Three for McGee (contains The Deep Blue Good-By, Nightmare in Pink, and A Purple Place for Dying), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1968, published as McGee, R. Hale (London, England), 1975.

Dress Her in Indigo, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1969.

The Long Lavender Look, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1970, reprinted, G.K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1986.

A Tan and Sandy Silence, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1972.

The Scarlet Ruse, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1973.

The Turquoise Lament, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1973.

The Dreadful Lemon Sky, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1975.

The Empty Copper Sea, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1978.

The Green Ripper, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1979.

Free Fall in Crimson, Harper (New York, NY), 1981.

Cinnamon Skin, Harper (New York, NY), 1982.

The Lonely Silver Rain, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.

Five Complete Travis McGee Novels, Avenel Books (New York, NY), 1985.

(With Lewis D. Moore) Meditations on America: John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee Series and Other Fiction, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994.

Also author of Shades of Travis McGee, Doubleday (New York, NY).

SCIENCE FICTION

Wine of the Dreamers, Greenberg, 1951, published as Planet of the Dreamers, Pocket Library (New York, NY), 1953.

Ballroom of the Skies, Greenberg, 1952.

The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1962.

Other Times, Other Worlds (short story collection), Fawcett (New York, NY), 1978.

NONFICTION

The House Guests, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1965.

No Deadly Drug, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1968.

(With John Kilpack) Nothing Can Go Wrong, Harper (New York, NY), 1981.

(Author of introduction) Richard Riley, The Gulf Coast of Florida, Skyline Press, 1984.

A Friendship (letters written to Dan Rowen, 1967–1974), Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.

Film Classic: Cape Fear, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1997.

Work has been frequently anthologized. Contributor of over five hundred short stories, some under house pseudonyms, to Cosmopolitan, Collier's and other magazines.

ADAPTATIONS: Film options to several of MacDonald's novels have been sold; the novelette "Taint of the Tiger" was adapted into Man Trap, Paramount, 1961; the novel The Executioners was adapted into Cape Fear, Universal/International, 1962, and remade in 1991 by Martin Scorsese; some thirty Mac-Donald stories have been adapted for television, including "Condominium," released by Operation Prime Time TV in April, 1980, and "The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything," released by Operation Prime Time TV in May, 1980.

SIDELIGHTS: "Most things seem a little chancy while this 20th Century ebbs away," wrote Nick B. Williams in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "but of two things you may feel reasonably certain—(1) that a John D. MacDonald mystery thriller is destined to become a runaway best seller, and (2) that his protagonist, Travis McGee, will survive all bullets and all wild or wily women, remaining as fit as ever for whatever happens to him next."

Considered the heir apparent to such classic crime novelists as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald enjoyed critical and commercial success both as the author of the "Travis McGee" series and as a serious novelist with such books as Condominium, One More Sunday, and Barrier Island to his credit. While best known for his mysteries, MacDonald produced books in a number of genres during his lifetime; his foray into science fiction, for instance, earned him praise from Raymond Carney, who remarked in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that in Wine of the Dreamers and Ballroom of the Skies MacDonald "avoids entrapment by the various plots he creates. His writing depends on his ability to deploy and negotiate the intersecting technologies of law, bureaucracy, history, and memory more deftly and humanely than the best of his readers."

MacDonald began his career by writing mysteries for the "pulp" magazines popular in the 1940s and 1950s, and he soon graduated to paperback novels. Of the author's early days, Francis M. Nevins, Jr., related in Clues: "Several of MacDonald's earliest pulp crime stories were set in the China-Burma-India locales in which he had served during the war as an officer in the [Office of Strategic Services], but before long [his editor] persuaded him to take off his pith helmet and start writing about the United States. From then on the vast majority of his stories took place in postwar America. Indeed MacDonald portrayed more vividly and knowledgeably than any other crime writer the readjustment of American business from a war footing to a consumer-oriented peacetime economy which would soon be spewing out megatons of self-destructing plastic junk and incurring the wrath of the later MacDonald and his beach bum-philosopher-adventurer hero Travis McGee."

In 1962, after he had published a score of successful novels, MacDonald was approached by Fawcett Books senior editor Knox Burger to develop a new detective series. As the author later told Toronto Globe and Mail writer Patrick Hynan, he was not thrilled by the idea "because I didn't want to be locked into something that I would find hard to get out of if I didn't like it." However, MacDonald agreed to write three novels featuring a character then called Dallas McGee. While writing the first "McGee" book, The Deep Blue Good-By, MacDonald learned of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Convinced that the word "Dallas" had been given a bad resonance in the public subconscious by the slaying, he changed McGee's first name to Travis, after the California air force base.

The immediate acceptance of the "McGee" books led to some twenty more—all distinguishable by their rainbow array of titles, from Nightmare in Pink to The Green Ripper, The Scarlet Ruse, and Cinnamon Skin. The McGee character was embraced by literary scholars and mystery buffs alike. Described by the author as a knight-errant, and by the character himself as a "salvage expert," Travis McGee is a year-round resident of Florida, where he lives on his houseboat, The Busted Flush, which he won in a poker game. McGee rents himself out on occasion as a private detective, abetted by his friend Meyer, an economist by trade, who once had a houseboat, John Maynard Keynes, named for the noted English economist.

In his adventures McGee is endangered by all manner of professional killers, amateur psychopaths, and everyday villains, but his fans can rest assured that their hero will emerge unscathed. "Travis McGee can always get results, and that one ability probably sets him apart from most of us," found Wister Cook in a Clues article. "McGee's life is violent, simple and neat—in its broad outlines not one with which we can make much sympathetic identification. His nemeses do not return to haunt him another year, as ours do. For he survives beating, shooting, and bombing; he comes back to smash heads, terrorize and kill; he oversees the violent deaths of his principal antagonists. He calls himself a salvage man, and by the end of each novel he has indeed saved something important—a life, a reputation, a fortune, a friendship. Presiding over the action and ultimately controlling it, he achieves success—within the term as he defines it. He gets money, romance, self-esteem."

But McGee's life is not always satisfying. He is also a man tormented by what he sees as the decline of America in general, and his beloved Florida in particular. In his railings against the "junk" culture of fast food, bad television, and gross commercial over development, the detective is a stringent social critic, and MacDonald devotes much of each novel to chronicling modern ills as McGee sees them. "We cannot conclude just yet, however, that in his aversions Travis McGee is just like you and me," stated Cook. "We could, actually, make the case that McGee's concern for the general trashiness of everyday consumer life is merely window-dressing: it gives him a kind of spurious depth while filling the empty spaces between beatings, bombings, stabbings and shootings." But to Clues critic Edgar W. Hirschberg, McGee's musings serve a more important purpose. Although he acknowledged that the salvage expert's internal monologues often "stop the action dead," Hirschberg went on to say that "what these speculations do accomplish is to provide you with a much deeper and broader understanding of why McGee does what he does than you otherwise would have. Like his recent progenitors in the hard-boiled detective genre … he is a knight-errant riding into a crime-infested world, righting the few wrongs he can do anything about. But he does a lot more thinking about the people who commit them … than most fictional detectives do, and his penchant for speculations about the social evils which are the real reason why he never lacks employment adds substantial depth and significance to MacDonald's work, both as a teller of tales about violence and detection and as a serious novelist."

Women, as consorts, victims, and villains, play an important role in McGee's life. Scarcely a novel goes by without the detective involving himself with any number of obliging women; many of them, however, end up dead by story's end. In Free Fall in Crimson, drugs and pornography highlight the making of a film in Iowa, sending McGee to the Midwest and into an expected romantic foray. "The sex—steamy, but not unpleasantly graphic—and the violence and the violent death seem by now ritualistic, and in some perplexing way comforting in their predictability rather than arousing," declared Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Charles Champlin. John Leonard, writing in the New York Times, saw in this novel an opportunity for the author to allow his lady-killer hero "to raise his consciousness. Instead of the usual machismo rubbish of wounded bird and tender muscle and stifled sob, there are women in [Free Fall in Crimson] who might actually be able to cope with New York—two of them, only one of whom sleeps with McGee."

One critic who does not appreciate MacDonald's portrayal of female characters is Barbara Lawrence. In a Clues article, Lawrence decried McGee as "responsible for much of the suffering endured by the women, particularly psychological suffering. For McGee has such personal magnetism and attraction that women proposition him before the introductions are completed. An endless train of women bed down with McGee, and at first reading, it appears that this great lover truly admires and respects women…. But a closer examination of the novels belies this assumption and shows that he intensely dislikes successful women and has no use for any woman until she is totally submissive to him. He humiliates them and occasionally physically abuses them." MacDonald once answered this charge by responding that McGee "does not dislike successful women intensely or to any other degree. He wants no woman totally submissive to him. He neither humiliates nor abuses women." Rather, the author suggested, the misinterpretation lies with "readers who believe they see proof of their pre-prejudices in whatever they come upon."

In fact, violence toward women is only one aspect of the total picture of McGee's savage world. Champlin pointed out that the detective "has been kicked, hammered, beaten, flayed, drugged, immersed, stabbed, jabbed, bent, thrown, and shot at so often he has more entry and exit signs than a shopping mall. He has spent more time unconscious than most men have spent waking." Time's John Skow compared McGee to "a Robin Hood among chattel rustlers who steals loot back from thugs and swindlers and returns it, minus a 50 percent commission, to the widows and orphans from whom it was taken."

Most critics have agreed that, the appeal of sex and violence not withstanding, the real pleasure of a "McGee" mystery lies in MacDonald's crisp, hard-hitting prose style. In his study of the author, John D. MacDonald, David Geherin called his subject "a gifted storyteller…. Neither as byzantine as Ross Macdonald's nor as loose and desultory as Raymond Chandler's, MacDonald's plots are well-woven, artfully constructed arrangements of action sequences. They are neither needlessly complex nor do they exist simply to obscure the identity of the villain until the final chapter. A master at creating and sustaining mystery, suspense, tension, and drama, MacDonald understands all the tricks of readability; turning the pages in one of his novels is always a pleasure, never a duty."

In a review of Cinnamon Skin, Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley said that one of MacDonald's "most admirable qualities as a novelist is that he almost unfailingly manages to deliver precisely the pleasure that his readers anticipate—a quality too-little noticed and remarked upon among writers whose principal business it is to entertain. But also as usual, MacDonald provides a good deal more than mere diversion. He is a tinkerer in the grand old American tradition, a man who loves to learn how things work and a writer who loves to pass that knowledge along to his readers…. He also takes pleasure in tracking the continuing emotional adventures of Travis McGee, the loner who would love to be a husband and father except that he couldn't stand it." And Skow defended the author against the stereotype of mystery novels as empty escapism; in MacDonald's examinations of his hero's complex character, Skow remarked, "let no man say that this is escapist claptrap. MacDonald offers something far more profound, the claptrap of no way out."

The series' final installment, 1985's The Lonely Silver Rain, was published a year before the author's death. In this novel, critics noted glimpses of a hero who was finally showing signs of old age. The plot revolves around a drug ambush that leaves three people dead on board a stolen yacht. When the family of one of the victims has the owner of the yacht murdered in retaliation, McGee springs into action to defend the yacht-owner's attractive widow. During the course of the novel, he survives a bloody drug war involving the Mafia and Peruvian drug lords. In between musings on the decadence surrounding him in south Florida, McGee ponders his aging body and the surprising discovery that he has a college-age daughter. Summing up the "Travis McGee" series and MacDonald's many virtues, New York Times Book Review contributor Robin W. Winks characterized the author as "spare, wryly amusing, [and] conveying a sense of moral outrage that is calculated to precisely the right nuance. He writes to be read, bought and remembered, and he believes what he says."

In 1977 MacDonald took one of his ongoing "Travis McGee" themes and developed it into a non-mystery work that eventually attained best-seller status. Condominium, according to Stephen Zito, "is a brief against the rape of Florida." In a Washington Post Book World piece, Zito explained that the author "writes with outrage about what the developers and quick-buck artists have done to his adopted state where condominiums litter the white beaches, freeways cut across the wilderness, the air and water is fouled, and there is a cheapening and coarsening of life everywhere."

"Essentially a cautionary tale, Condominium is intimately concerned with the balance of nature and thus with death," noted Knox Burger in the Village Voice. "The story concerns the developers and the inhabitants of a high-rise building designed for retired people. Badly designed. It is set on piles driven into the fragile subsurface of a sandy island just off the west coast of Florida. After numerous convincing portents, a hurricane blows in and washes everything away." The novel received mixed reviews, with the negative notices focusing on the contention that in this book MacDonald, as Michael Mewshaw put it in New York Times Book Review, "seems to have lost sight of what he learned from the detective genre—economy, taut structure and pace." However, critic John Leonard, while not a fan of the "McGee" series, did have praise for Condominium. "Those who know [MacDonald] only through the [mystery novels] are missing him at his story-telling best," stated Leonard in the New York Times. "Outside the series and its formulas, the wounded women and the macho rubbish, he breathes. His appetite [for issues] is enormous." "Condominum is, in many ways, a remarkable achievement," added Zito. "In a novel peopled by perhaps 25 major characters, MacDonald has structured a book which is compulsively readable and coherent, building from the small disturbances of domestic life to the hurricane which comes with the force of the Apocalypse."

MacDonald also takes on religious hypocrisy with One More Sunday. A behind-the-scenes look at the corruption rampant in the popular Church of the Eternal Believer, One More Sunday was compared to a classic of the genre, Elmer Gantry, by Yardley in a Washington Post piece. MacDonald's work, in Yardley's opinion, "is no mere knee-jerk [criticism] of the evangelicals. He realizes that they can often be ruthlessly exploitive—'they rope in their supporters by playing on their fears and on their hatred and their loneliness'—but he is also quick to acknowledge that they seek, out of whatever motive, to fill a genuine longing among their followers."

Moving from evangelical corruption to white-collar crime, MacDonald produced Barrier Island in 1986 to praise from Los Angeles Times Book Review writer Stephen Vizinczey. Explaining that the story is about a "fraudulent deal in the making"—an unspoiled island off the coast of Mississippi is about to be purchased and resold to the government at an unfair profit—Vizinczey remarked that MacDonald "has the gift of moral vision, which is to say he portrays actions in the light of their consequences. This is an almost revolutionary approach in an age when every other book or film is romanticizing cruelty and unscrupulousness by concentrating on the charm of criminals rather than their crimes, and by making villains sympathetic and their victims repellant. In 'Barrier Island' there is never any doubt who hurts whom and how. Nor are readers conned into loving the sort of characters who endanger their survival."

With the acclaim for his non-mystery novels reflecting the acclaim for his Travis McGee series, MacDonald made the case for Geherin that he was a writer of worth. As Geherin concluded in his book about the author, "Whether for the sake of convenience one categorizes his works as mysteries, adventures, or thrillers, it is clear that such labels are inadequate in conveying the full extent of his accomplishment. By creating a substantial body of thoughtful and provocative entertainment for an enormously diverse and widespread audience, MacDonald has justly earned for himself the right to be considered a serious American novelist worthy of the highest distinction."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 27, 1984, Volume 44, 1987.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 8: Twentieth-Century American Science-Fiction Writers, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1986, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.

Geherin, David, John D. MacDonald, Unger, 1982.

Landrum, Larry, Pat Browne, and Ray B. Browne, editors, Dimensions of Detective Fiction, Popular Press, 1976, pp. 149-161.

MacDonald, John D., One More Sunday, Random House (New York, NY), 1984.

PERIODICALS

Armchair Detective, spring, 1980.

Booklist, May 1, 2001, Bill Ott; Brad Hooper, review of A Tan and Sandy Silence, p. 1600.

Chicago Tribune Book World, June 27, 1982; November 27, 1983.

Clues, spring, 1980; fall-winter, 1985; spring-summer, 1986; spring-summer, 1990.

Detroit News, June 7, 1981.

Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel, February 15, 1987.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 25, 1984; May 5, 1984.

Long Island Newsday, December 29, 1986.

Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1986.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 4, 1980; April 19, 1981; July 4, 1982; March 4, 1984; April 28, 1985; June 1, 1986.

New Republic, June 26, 1975.

Newsweek, March 10, 1975; April 22, 1985, p. 61.

New Yorker, April 29, 1985, p. 134.

New York Times, January 1, 1974; April 5, 1977; April 17, 1981; August 3, 1983; March 12, 1985; December 29, 1986.

New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1974; February 23, 1975; March 27, 1977; October 7, 1979; May 3, 1981; August 22, 1982; April 8, 1984; March 17, 1985, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly, July 29, 1983; January 18, 1985, p. 64.

Time, December 3, 1973; July 4, 1977; October 15, 1979; April 27, 1981; February 16, 1987.

Times (London, England), August 9, 1984.

Times Literary Supplement, May 28, 1976; February 10, 1978.

Village Voice, April 11, 1977; October 4, 1983.

Washington Post, June 23, 1982; July 15, 1983; March 14, 1984; December 29, 1986.

Washington Post Book World, March 27, 1977; September 10, 1978; May 17, 1981; September 9, 1984; March 24, 1985.

OBITUARIES:

PERIODICALS

Chicago Tribune, December 30, 1986.

Detroit Free Press, December 29, 1986.

Detroit News, December 29, 1986.

Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1986.

New York Times, December 29, 1986.

Publishers Weekly, January 9, 1987.

Time, January 12, 1987.

Times (London, England), January 2, 1987.

Washington Post, December 29, 1986.

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