Monday, January 25, 2021

MacDonald Had a Pen


The following brief review of The End of the Night was published in the August 28, 1960 edition of the Miami Herald as the opening section of Beatrice Washburn’s regular Books in Review column headlined "MacDonald Had a Pen". It contains some original JDM quotes on modern child-rearing that he believed led to the formation of characters like Kirby Stone, Sander Golden, Robert Hernandez and Nan Koslov, the four members of the fictitious Wolf Pack.

Up in Sarasota lives John D. MacDonald, ex-Army lieutenant colonel who turns out books almost faster than a tape recorder. This is not to imply he needs one. No mere machine could keep up with Mr. MacDonald's mind which has produced more than thirty books in the last ten years.

It seems as though every time a batch of books arrives on the doorstep there is a MacDonald—both paper and hard covers. His last one The End of the Night (Simon and Schuster, $3.50) is, in our opinion, the best of the lot.

It is the tale, expertly told, of four young people who whip across the country in stolen cars, murdering, destroying, kidnapping, killing right and left. The four have come together by accident, from different walks of life.

One is a college youth from a good family, social register background, nice manners. One is "a caricature of the brute in man." One is a youth with, sharp, shallow face, hopelessly talkative, nervous, restless. One is a girl of the sub-moron variety.

This is one of those violence books you can't put down because the author has gone deep below the surface, of ferocity and unmeaning malignity to try and find out what has sparked this wolfpack of apparently sane young people.

"Monsters?" asks MacDonald. "If this type is a monster we have created him. He is our son. We have been told by our educators and psychologists to be permissive with him, let him express himself freely. If he throws all the sand out of his sandbox he is releasing hidden tensions. We deprived him of the security of knowing right and wrong.

"We let sleek men in high places go unpunished for amoral behavior and the boy heard us snicker. We labeled the pursuit of pleasure a valid goal, and insisted that his teachers turn schooling into fun. We preached group adjustment, security rather than challenge, protection rather than effort.

"We discarded the sexual taboos of centuries, and mislabeled the result freedom rather than license. Finally we poisoned his bone marrow with strontium 90.. sat back in ludicrous confidence expecting him to suddenly become a man.

"Why are we so shocked and horrified to find a child's emotions in a man's body -- savage, cruel, compulsive and shallow?"

In crime-suspense, Mr. MacDonald cannot be equaled. This time he has produced a thoughtful novel. Incidentally, if you ask him for advice, he might tell you to take a business course to become a writer. He took his bachelor's degree at Syracuse University, a master's degree in business administration at Harvard

Monday, December 21, 2020

"Kids on Wheels"


It’s been over two years since I’ve written a piece about a specific John D MacDonald story, “So Sorry” back in August of 2018. I’ve moved away from doing these kinds of postings for two reasons: a general lack of interest in short fiction in general and the lack of availability of most of these tales. But every once in a while something comes along that merits talking about. And believe me, for a JDM fan, short story collector and aficionado and amateur bibliographer, this is something that merits talking about.

I’ve written often about my early days of JDM fandom, when I assisted JDM’s “official” bibliographer Walter Shine in trying to hunt down ten published short stories that could not be located. Specifically, these were stories that -- according to the author’s own records -- were sold to publishers but no record of where they appeared could be found. There were no notations in MacDonald’s records and he received no tear sheets from the publisher, and, after years of searching by any number of early bibliographers, no evidence of their publication could be uncovered. These were, for the most part, stories that were sold to pulp publishers, either Popular Publications or Columbia, and issues of pulps can be rare (especially in the case of Columbia). Since the publication of the JDM Bibliography/Biography in 1980 most of the titles have been located, either by Walter, other JDM fans, or by me (“Big League Busher” and “The Gentle Killer”). But ever since the Bibliography’s publication, there has never been -- to my knowledge -- the discovery of a JDM story that completely escaped discovery by MacDonald, Shine or any of his helpers. That just changed.

A few days ago I received an email from a JDM fan and Trap of Solid Gold reader who lives in Greece, Petros Papagiannidis, informing me that he had come across a short story that was not on my list, titled “Kids on Wheels” and published in the June 1954 issue of The American Legion Magazine. Now, MacDonald was no stranger to that publication: in 1951 his very best Christmas story, “The Cardboard Star,”  appeared in the December issue. But there was never even a whisper of a second story purchased by the Legion. The MacDonald records are a complete blank regarding “Kids on Wheels”.

I immediately went to the Finding Guide for the JDM Collection at the University of Florida and matched up the first sentence of the story in the listing of MacDonald’s unpublished works and there it was, originally titled by the author “The Most Terrible Time of My Life”, written in 1953 and containing 4,000 words. No indication whatsoever that it had ever been sold.

The story is told in first person by one Davie, no last name given, who is in his early teens. He pals around with four other same-aged kids from school and all ride bikes. Then, one by one, the others begin to acquire motor scooters. I don’t think it was legal for under-16 kids to ride motor scooters in Maryland where I grew up, but apparently it was in 1950’s Florida where the story takes place. Eventually every one of the five own their own motorbikes except Davie. He tries to get his parents to agree to let him get one but is met with refusal, especially from his father. 

“Davie, you are not going to have one of those damn things. Florida has got the narrowest roads, the craziest drivers and the fastest traffic there is. I am not going to mount any son of mine on one of those scooters so that some vacationing creep from Dubuque can bunt him off into the boondocks and mush his head against a palm tree. Let's have no more nonsense, Davie. My God, a bike is bad enough."

The scooters begin to distance the other boys from Davie, and they eventually exclude him from their group. He mopes and sulks and becomes essentially friendless, spending most of his spare time reading in his room. Eventually the father relents and a scooter is purchased, but not without a long list of rules from the father. So even though he is accepted back into the group, the rules he has promised to obey gradually cause him to be ostracized once again. 

Then one day a policeman stops him while riding home from school, and later that evening another one comes to the house…

“Kids on Bikes” is a good story with a surprisingly adult ending, and one wonders why it appeared in The American Legion Magazine. This was almost certainly not the first market MacDonald’s agent sought to have the story published in, and he probably didn’t get paid anything near what he was getting from some of the other magazines he sold to in 1954: Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, Argosy, This Week, and even Bluebook. I’m sure this is a case of a story getting rejected multiple times and MacDonald mistakenly filing it away as unpublished. 

The good news is that my friend Petros discovered this story on the Internet Archive, where anyone with a computer or smartphone can read it for themselves. You can get there from here:

Now I have to wonder about any other stories that may be out there and undiscovered. Maybe that oversized claim of 500 stories might be true… or not.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Everybody Knows Something is Wrong


This article appeared in the October 15, 1967 issue of the Miami Herald, between Yellow (and The Last One Left) and Gray, and was featured in the newspaper’s Sunday supplement Tropic. Titled “Everybody Knows Something is Wrong,” it reads like a McGee aside, and in fact features McGee prominently. It’s interesting to note that this was written only three months prior to that annus horribilis, 1968.

John D. MacDonald of Sarasota is one of America's master mystery writers. His 55th book, Three for McGee, will be published Nov. 17 by Doubleday - a hardcover edition containing the first three books in the Travis McGee mystery series, The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink and A Purple Place for Dying. Novels 56 through 61 are in varying stages of completion.

Everybody Knows Something is Wrong

By John D. MacDonald

There is a fellow named Travis McGee who lives aboard his houseboat, The Busted Flush, in Fort Lauderdale, and manages to sidestep the processors and go his own way at his own pace. I used to have the illusion that he was a fictional character, and that I had invented him and thus, in the nine novels I have thus far written featuring him, I could make him do whatever I happened to think of.

My illusion dropped dead a month ago when I met with a pack of frighteningly bright high school kids from Tallahassee who came to Sarasota by bus to go to the Asolo Theater and the Ringling Museums. At their teacher's request I met with this experimental group in the gardens of the Ringling Museum for questions and answers about writing, about McGee and so on.

They got onto the reality and unreality of fictional characters, and one staunch girlchild said firmly, “I know Travis is real." And, bemused, I asked her what made her so sure. She said, “Because, if you didn't believe he was, Mr. MacDonald, you couldn't make me believe it either.”

And in my moment of reluctant revelation I realized how many times my books about Travis McGee have come to a sickening halt when I attempted to make him take certain actions inconsistent with his private and personal beliefs. He plants his feet. “No sir, boy. Not me."

McGee resents being processed, programmed, fed through the machinery by experts trained in handling people rather than persons.

He knows that the dentist, the post office, the county, the IRS, the airline hostess, the librarian, the highway engineer, the supermarket, the city government, the census bureau, the banker, the advertising agent, the automobile agency, the hospital and the mortician are all intent upon using him as a statistic, as one atom in a manageable mass, and then studying him, weighing him, measuring him, predicting his actions on some huge probability table.

They use manuals and trade journals and computers and statistical methods and psychological testing devices to predict mass reaction, and handle mass demand on a totally impersonal and totally efficient basis.

It irritates him to have society take away his face and dump him into the great hopper labeled Standard Operating Procedure.

But don't try to tell him that in a densely populated urban culture it has to be that way, that people must be turned into a commodity, or we would have chaos. Don't try to tell him that if the processors tried to measure the uniqueness of each human personality, the wonderful specialness, the delicious inconsistency of every one of us, all the memory banks would start smoking, the sorters would spew out a snow-storm of punch cards, and all the complex technology of our culture would grind to a sickening halt.

McGee knows that. But he reserves the right to resent being sorted and graded on the basis of "sameness" rather than on the basis of uniqueness. It makes him feel degraded, and he reserves the right to do his little bit here and there to startle the processors out of their compulsion to flatten and deaden all human contact, thereby creating a cumulative indifference and unawareness, as well as a truly frightful boredom.

The other day he had to go over to the Courthouse to get his two-year Florida driving license renewed. The girl behind the window was a pallid, colorless, competent mouse who took the old license without glance or greeting, put it beside her typewriter and rolled the new license blank into the machine. As she typed flawlessly and speedily, McGee studied her, thinking that about 24 years ago a nurse had announced her arrival to a nervous daddy.

There had been for her the enormous and frightening adventure of kindergarten, first grade, high school, first kiss. Everything she had on was the result of her going into a store and making a selection, evaluating appearance and price. And every morning she looked at her quiet little face in her mirror and brushed those teeth, and God only knows what myths and despairs, fantasies and hopes, depression and joy moved through that subdued and secret mind.

So as she finished the typing, pulled the duplicates and put his copy on the ledge for his signature he said, “That blouse is a very good color for you.”

The eyes that looked at him were like recording lenses in some kind of equipment. The blink was an electronic click. They saw a thing standing there renewing a bit of paper.

“What, sir?"

"I said the color of your blouse is becoming. It's a good color for you, Miss."

She looked down at herself and then back at him in a kind of blank astonishment, a transition stage from processor to person, and blushed, and the eyes were the eyes of a person then, and the mouth became a girlsmile instead of a slot in the machinery. “Thank you," she said, in a barely audible voice. McGee paid the renewal fee and walked away, aware of having struck another small blow in the war against regimentation. He knows that the sterility of mass methods degrades the dignity of the processor as well as the processed.

I think that the readers who are so hearteningly flocking to the banner of T. McGee are expressing a hunger to escape the irritation and boredom and humiliation of being just another commodity in a commodity-oriented society.

But what IS it within us which is so affronted by the benign paternalism of the computer? Any exercise of simple logic must excuse the necessity for increasing amounts of regulation and order in a land where we grow at the rate of ten thousand new souls a day, a Laredo a week, a Toledo a month, a Chicago a year. Regimentation is good for you!

The resentment is not intellectual. It goes deeper. It is way down in the roar of the blood, flex of muscle, steaming of glands. This is because the urban capture of mankind is a contemporary phenomenon.

Imagine that the whole pre-recorded and recorded history of the race during the past two million years were condensed into one year.

For eleven months and three weeks we roamed a savage world, hunting and running, fighting and breeding. Last week we began to build our own shelters and stay in one place and plant crops.

It is now midnight. At lunch time today some nut began to write down the first words. At eight o'clock this evening Christ was born and died. At quarter to midnight we began to power clumsy machines with fossil fuels. Within the past five minutes have come the miracle drugs, atomic fission and fusion, aerospace, television, transistors, computers. In the last five minutes our world population has increased by one billion.

So are we in revolt against a computerized society, or have we merely hustled ourselves into an ordered, artificial, constricted environment too rapidly for our natural bodies (so admirably designed and so long used for flight, attack, climbing, digging, hiding, slaying) to accept the safety, the inertia, the little cubicles and politenesses and repressions of our urban removal from the savage urgencies of two million years?

When we look at ourselves as individuals, caged by our own cleverness, each of us as out of time and place as a tiger on a raft, it is easy to see how desperately hard it is to contain and subdue the wildness in so brief a time.

We call it "the tension of modern life.” Chain the primitive part, tie it down, and then it breaks out in despairing ways: heart attacks, ulcers, nervous breakdowns, addictions, all the psychosomatic woes, perversions, depravities, ugly mischief.

When we form groups, this same sickness of the caged creature takes other shapes.

I find it very wry and entertaining to translate group efforts into these same terms.

The legions of Birch, who demand a return to the rigid moralities of pioneer America, and a stunting of the federal government, and an end to "the erosions of our freedom," are saying: Let's put an end to this stifling regimentation!

The hippies, with their mind-changing drugs, flashing strobes, body paint, deafening music, and their demands that we make love, not war, and that we dig the flowers, are saying: Let's put an end to this stifling regimentation!

The bands of young Negroes burning the guts of the old ghettos, sniping at cops and firemen, declaring war on Whitey, demanding equal opportunity and freedom and color television for all are saying: Let's put an end to this stifling regimentation!

Communists blame capitalistic oppression for all the urban miseries of man. The Nazis blamed the Jews. The democracies blame the Red conspiracy. The first Hearst blamed the yellow races.

Everybody knows something is wrong, and everybody has an eerie and formless nostalgia for something he has never known. And because we have no choice except this neon jungle, this asphalt wilderness in which we have entrapped ourselves, when we get together in groups we pick out something or someone specific we can safely blame, and we whomp up a group hate and a group action, and then we have a chance to use those ancient muscles and ancient glands and ancient reflexes in some imperfectly rationalized way.

It does no good for Whitey to say to the Detroit rioters, “Look, man, being on this side of the fence doesn't change a thing. There's just as much frustration, just as much despair, just as much formless longing, just as much envy. And when you get sick and miss your payments, they grab back your wheels just as fast.”

No matter what group or class or category any one of us is in, we find that we are a part of the hated symbol of somebody else's unfulfilled longing.

And the more we find ourselves being “processed," being measured and managed, counted and administered, placed in numerical groups and sociological categories, protected from old diseases and newly invented ones, the more serious and desperate and compulsive becomes the urge to bust out.

There are a great many imitation ways of busting out, ways that make the demands on muscle and reflex that the savage planet made on us when we were the wild roamers.

Sky diving and skin diving. A long solitary voyage in a small sailboat. Riding giant waves on little plastic boards. Racing big noisy beasts on wheels, on water, or airborne. Fighting small wars in far places. Knocking over banks and gas stations. Picking fights in bars. Learning judo. Bullfighting. Wire walking. Triple somersaults on the high trapeze. Lion taming. Hunting Cape buffalo with a handgun. Pro football.

But the imitation ways are, each for its own reasons, limited to a percentage few.

So a man, without ever moving out of the same office building, puts up a desperate battle to capture the elusive promotion. In his veins is the same blood, right down to the last fractional analysis, which flowed in his ancestor of a million years ago who put up the desperate battle to capture the plump young gazelle. And when the heart blows up, it is blamed on the tension of working under a sadistic boss.

This is not a paen to exercise, per se. There is a considerable difference in glandular secretion and emotional involvement between a man jogging around the block before breakfast out of a sense of duty, and a man jogging through thickets wondering if the sabertooth tiger has circled and is crouched waiting for him somewhere just ahead. Waiting for a tennis serve has not the same total effect on the organism as waiting for a sharp stone to be hurled at the head.

This, I suspect, is the vicarious fascination which Mr. T. McGee holds for many people. Amidst all the clickey-tick of the memory tubes and print-outs and data recovery, McGee has found the sabertooth tiger and the sharp stone. He has managed a bust-out which makes the regimented man wistful because his response to it is deep and primal.

McGee is a boat man, so he is not constrained to stop at the red lights and never cross the double yellow line. He is "processed” only when he permits it as a necessary part of some far more interesting pursuit. And though he likes things, he is not possessed by things. And his love life - one of those last bits of the original and primitive life experience which has not been blurred and perfumed and anaesthetized into forgetability, as with birth and pain and dying - is not overburdened with any responsibilities except the emotional.

McGee, as a loner, conducts his own kind of wry and bemused little revolt against the processors and the programmers. To fold, bend or spindle the punch-card bill which is in error would be crude, and probably ineffective. McGee finds it more useful, and more fun, to take the corner of a razor blade and cut out a few more oblong holes similar in spacing and identical in size to the ones already in the card. Then he writes his complaint on the card itself, in the comforting knowledge that the sorting machine will spew it out and an actual human being will pick it up out of the reject slot and read the message.

He keeps a box of fairly heavy, envelope-sized steel plates in a storage locker. When junk mail gets too voluminous, he puts these plates in the First Class Permit envelopes along with a polite card which gives his name and address and asks that he be removed from the mailing lists.

He divides people, regardless of race, creed, color, age, background or status into two groups, the very small group he is happy to spend time with and the very large group he isn't. He believes you get that one lap around the long track, and each one has to run his own race in his own way for his own reasons, and it is absurd to spend your time, while running, criticizing the other people on the track for their style of running, or how they take the turns, or how slowly or quickly they get up when they trip and fall.

McGee is a non-conformist in only a limited sense. Sometimes he finds it simpler and easier and quicker to accept the processing than to resist it. He thinks obstructionism for its own sake is a waste of good time, and when you waste time you are wasting life itself if you are not wasting it in a way that pleasures you.

He believes that any human endeavor which requires more than two people to consummate is not worth attempting. The reluctant exceptions are some theater, some ballet, some music. He does not believe in committees, will not sign petitions, and would not stand in line for any award, spectacle or bonus he has ever heard of.

There must be a great yearning among men to live in this same way, yet too many reasons why they cannot. We ride our inevitable assembly lines past those who study and measure and process us, and never find a way to hop off, never find the ways to use ourselves up as we used to, for hundreds of thousands of years, before our clever monkey-brains found the machines to make everything easier and safer.

I do not promulgate the myth of the Noble Savage. In all the centuries of wandering, and for most of the 40,000 years of village cultures, life was cruel, dirty, oppressive and very abrupt. Until a few moments ago in time, the life expectancy of those who survived the infant years was only 30 years. Starvation brutalizes. Untreated disease brutalizes. Superstition degrades.

So here we are in the bright morning of civilization, heading inevitably toward the elimination of all monotonous labor. Guaranteed food and shelter for all. Further prolongation of life. Ever-increasing leisure. By means of little tapes, the machines are now making machines. A bright, flip-top, disposable, asceptic world, safe for all.

We could walk around smiling, were it not for the lurking primate, the unused creature electric with survival reflexes, demanding terror, anger, hate, violence and victims. So, blocked off from the jungles and plains where we bred and roamed, we compensate with gas ovens for people, napalm, the battered child syndrome, conspiracy born of the fear of conspiracy, labor camps and thought police, rape and riots, drugs and despair.

The computer came along before we were really ready for it. It can think, in a very limited and simplistic way. It will get better at building structures of logic. And because we control the computers, we will have them enforcing these very logical concepts upon ourselves. It would work if the mind of man were logical, but it is not. We have toted along all our barbaric centuries with us, and we carry all the past in our heads in the form of strange dreams and magic, fantasies and confusions, yearnings and images.

Our logic consists of making a sudden violent emotional judgment, and then thinking up a list of sober, sedate, objective reasons for the opinion already arrived at.

The more often the computer refutes these visceral judgments, the more we will resist it. But it, like all targets of hate, is without blame. We were enticed into all these sterile areas with all primitive passions intact, seduced by our intellectual selves into believing man could be transformed into urban man overnight - sedate, wise, considerate and gentle.

The temptation, of course, is to seek refuge in these sterile relationships, to use the imposed mechanics and regulations of our over-ordered culture as a way to hide ourselves from one another, or a way to deny the hang-up we suffer. For example...

I was on a scheduled flight several years ago, coming back to Florida from a trip to New York to dicker about a book. It was an off day in an off week in the off season, and it was a prop-jet aircraft. I would guess there were no more than 11 passengers aboard. I was alone at a window seat on the starboard side to the rear of the passenger section, well behind the wing.

At dusk over the Carolinas, the sunset was fantastic and unreal, a broad band of deep hot red from one edge of the horizon to the other.

There was no one in the double seat in front of me. One of the hostesses, a pretty dark-haired girl who looked of Italian or Spanish heritage, stopped and knelt with one knee on the aisle seat in the double vacancy just in front of me, and, with one hand on the back of the seat in front of me, and the other on the back of the seat in front of that, she bent over and stared out at that sunset.

Her face, in profile, was visible to me over the back of the seat. The furnace-red light shone through the port onto her gentle young Mediterranean face.

She remained that way far longer than the cursory inspection most people give sunsets. Her expression was somber and thoughtful, and then she began to smile to herself. It was a small, soft curve of parted lips, a smile that reflected an intimate memory of some kind, or an anticipation.

I had the feeling of an inadvertent invasion of her privacy, as when you happen to see the face of a sleeping stranger. But I watched her, and she turned her head quickly enough to catch me watching her. The softness of look and mouth faded, and she backed up briskly and stood in the aisle, and gave a few assertive little pats to her uniform. She looked at me again, this time with the bright social smile of her training, and with eyes that looked at me but did not see me. She saw Commodity, Job, Training, Processing, Routine.

“May I get you a drink, sir?"

Yes, Mediterranean girl touched by a sunset's beauty, you may get me a drink which in some specialist's electronic computations, allowing for direct costs plus a percentage of service overhead and allowance for space and weight aboard, cost the airline 32.758c.

Maybe it means nothing, or everything. If everybody went around trying to relate to everybody on a totally personal basis the result would be total chaos, and a complete nervous and emotional exhaustion for everyone.

But lately it seems that even the fragments of empathy and identification grow ever more rare.

It is easier to deal with people as commodities.

And safer.

He (she) might be some kind of a nut. I (we) might get involved.

Charlie, you aren't safe on the street in broad daylight any more, I swear.

Wonder why.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

His Whodunits Keep All of America Guessing

The following is a brief article that appeared in the April 7, 1962 edition of The Miami Herald, titled “His Whodunits Keep All of America Guessing”. That headline isn’t the only inaccuracy in this piece, written by staff writer Beatrice Washburn: The Brass Cupcake a “runaway bestseller”? All his paperbacks published by Crest? Its a quick read, written at a time when JDM emerged from his office to help publicize the film Cape Fear.


Herald Staff Writer

It is difficult to escape John D. MacDonald.

His name, his picture loom forth from 40 books - books you'd find in any airport, drug store, book store or supermarket from Key West to Seattle. In both paper and hard back versions.

This handsome author of whodunits is director of 1,200-member Mystery Writers of American Association.

He was brought up in Sharon, Pa., and got an M.A. from of all places, Harvard Business School.

"I don't think they are too happy about it," he admits ruefully. "I destroyed the image."

After six years in the Army, he decided to try a typewriter instead of a rifle and the result was The Brass Cup Cake, which became a runaway best seller almost on appearance.

MacDonald's work appears frequently in magazines. In fact you can hardly pick up a paperback or a magazine without seeing his name - but he prefers books. He explains that magazine editors like to tailor you to fit the taste.

His paperbacks have all come out in Crest editions; most of his hard backs, in Simon and Schuster.

MacDonald doesn't think there is anything special about writing mysteries -- so don't ask him. It's a question of people, he declares. Catch your people live and then see what happens to them,

Violence? No, we're not teeming with it, he says. Many of us are gentle as doves.

His movie, Cape Fear, taken from the novel The Executioners, makes its world premiere in Florida State Theaters this Thursday - and it is NOT gentle.

MacDonald didn't follow his book to Hollywood. He let the experts have their way and thinks they made a fine job of it. No complaints - especially of Robert Mitchum who is the hero, or you might say the protagonist.

It's a story of psychotic revenge - take that how you will - but all of MacDonald's books aren't revengeful. Some of them are just good novels.

I put my foot deep between the teeth by saying I thought women made better mystery writers.

Predictably, he doesn't agree.

MacDonald is always two or three books ahead. When he gets tired of one plot, he turns to another. He uses a typewriter, works about six hours a day and has enough novels teeming in that busy brain to last until he is over 100.

His son, John P., attends Cranbook Academy (an art school) and his daughter-in-law is a Mount Holyoke graduate. The MacDonalds have lived in Florida about 12 years, specifically Sarasota.

There are no rules for mystery writing, says MacDonald. To some people life IS a mystery and maybe they get the most fun out of it. The plot, the narration is difficult to learn, he admits. It is best to be born with the knack.

Once in my callow youth, I asked Mischa Elman how he slanted his bow to get that tone. Since then I've learned. Elman didn't know.

And neither does MacDonald. Like most successful people, he can't tell you how he does it.

Monday, September 7, 2020

'Saint' MacDonald Praised, Probed at Tampa Fest


In November of 1978 the University of South Florida held the first ever John D MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detective Fiction, organized by Professor Ed Hirshberg and sponsored by the college’s English Department and the Popular Culture Association. MacDonald himself was there and dutifully sat through the readings of several scholarly papers on his writing, and he responded to each paper, both at the time and a year later in the first issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection. The press was there as well, and I’ve transcribed the Miami Herald’s version of the event. It’s short but worth reading for the last three paragraphs.

This appeared in the November 20, 1978 edition of the paper.


Herald Staff Writer TAMPA – John. D. MacDonald, the author who made writing paper. backs a respectable profession, the Harvard graduate whose Travis McGee character is South Florida's favorite beach bum, the environmentalist who scared the plaid burmudas off high rise dwellers with his best selling Condominium, stood before his audience Saturday as bemused as a saint listening to his own eulogy.

"A situation like this, is enough to make any author pretentious," MacDonald said with a touch of modest wonder in his voice. "I have to go home and cure myself of you all."

THE SITUATION was a two-day McDonald fest, Friday and Saturday at the University of South Florida in Tampa, an easy drive from his winter home near Sarasota. More than 150 people in business suits and blue jeans, evening gowns and halter tops, paid $20 apiece to chat with him at a cocktail party in his honor, dine with him at an awards dinner, and listen with him to literary analyses read by scholars who came from as far away as Iowa.

"I neither encouraged nor discouraged all this academic attention," MacDonald confided to a reporter, "It has just sort of grown, and it is damned amusing."

All this academic attention was a product of The Popular Culture Association, a national group of professors and students whose athropological study of the seemingly mundane of modern American life has grown in a decade from an object of scorn into scholarly respectability.

“If you call a course a classics, then the kids won't come," explained Charlie Sweet, a professor at Kentucky University. “However, if you call it the History of the Detective Story, you can give them Edipus Rex, Hamlet and Crime and Punishment."

Sweet argued that the study of popular culture - which can be anything from MacDonald's novels to the evolution of gas station architecture — requires students to use the same critical faculties needed for dissertations on "the blue-eyed imagery in Beowolf."

ECHOED RAY BROWNE, a professor at Bowling Green University in Ohio, “Our major purpose is to alert students to the complexities of modern life.

It may be academic, but it's also fun, and MacDonald's insightful observations of the Florida of the last 25 years – sprinkled into tight plots peopled with entertaining characters - have made his large body of novels and stories a favorite grist for the popular culture mill.

The association's attention, in turn, leaves MacDonald on the verge of becoming the next Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories a half century ago have been raptly dissected for decades by such organized admiration societies as The Baker Street Irregulars.

That level of intense interest was evident at the Tampa conference. For instance, take Peggy Moran, a professor of English at Purdue University in Indiana, who delivered a paper on women in the Travis McGee novels.

Cataloging more than 100 female characters in the 17 McGee books, she analyzed how MacDonald had faceted a serious character who is deeply introspective about his relationships with women. The hero who, despite his macho life of action and conquest, thinks there is more to love than a Playboy Club key.

"The male-female roles in the McGee novels," concluded Moran, "are MacDonald's answer to the loneliness of the one-night stand."

FRANCIS NEVINS, a law professor at the St. Louis University Law School, researched MacDonald's earliest works, the more than 160 stories he wrote for the now largely extinct pulp magazines that died out in the early 1950s.

"John is the last of the great story tellers, who honed his skill in the pulps, the training ground of all the great, hard-boiled writers," said Nevins.

MacDonald glanced to the sky occasionally when some of the papers contained phrases like "Manichean dualism" or "socialistic relativity," but took the whole experience right down to the long line of autograph seekers and the man in the green Hawaiian print shirt who insisted that MacDonald's wife Dorothy photograph him with her husband - in good humor.

"It is rather strange to be examined in this fashion," he noted, saying he felt somewhat like Early Man being disinterred by a paleontologist. He acknowledged his use of what he termed "folk dance aspects” of formula detective fiction, but spoke of conscience as being what can make detective stories something more than hack writing.

"AS A WRITER, I still feel like an imposter," he confessed. "It is like someone's given me a license to steal. It's wonderful to work at something you love and get paid for it."

The fact that MacDonald isn't an imposter content to make an easy buck by combining formula writing with static characters came out in a discussion of his next McGee novel now under way.

Moran had asked for a hint of how McGee's romance with Gretel, chronicled in the recent Empty Copper Sea, is progressing and MacDonald revealed: “ At this moment her ashes are in a bronze urn waiting for McGee to take them back to California for burial next to her brother."

With a small groan, Moran cried out: "But you should have spared her."

MacDonald, with a helpless shrug of an author whose characters now have lives -- and deaths -- of their own, replied: "I tried to".

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Golden World of Travis McGee

Back in 2015 I posted an article on John D MacDonald that had been published in my then-hometown newspaper The Washington Post, titled “The Man Who Writes Those Travis McGee Stories”. It was a reprint of an article that originally appeared in The Miami Herald, one I had never seen, nor did I know what the original title was (hoping that it wasn’t the same clumsy and unimaginative one the Post dreamed up). I’ve now acquired a copy of the original and am happy to report that 1.) it did have a different title, and 2.) it is quite a bit longer than the version published in the Post. So here it is, as originally written, “The Golden World of Travis McGee.” Some of the excised bits are quite interesting, especially (for me) his comments on his 1970 short story “Dear Old Friend” (a masterpiece). They nicely describe exactly why MacDonald’s writing is so brilliant, so superior to all of his contemporaries.

The article appeared in the December 14, 1969 issue of Tropic, the Herald’s Sunday supplement and was written by Mike Baxter.

The tugboat captain was saying that he'd seen a ghost ship, and in the context, it seemed not only possible but inevitable. The context was Bahia Mar marina in Ft. Lauderdale, which on most days has a look-dad-no-cavities gleam. Today the sky was overcast, a movie company was filming a John D. MacDonald mystery on Pier B, and MacDonald arrived on time, but it was the wrong John MacDonald. The search for the right MacDonald led to a nearby hotel bar -- and the tugboat captain.

"A couple of weeks ago I read one of those mystery stories,” he said. "Travis McGee, it was called. In the book he had this houseboat, the Busted Flush. So this morning we were walking down the pier here. Saw this boat called the Busted Flush. I couldn't believe it...."

"Amazing,” his friend said.

"And there's this guy going shhhh — they're making a movie out of it!"

"I'll be damned."

John D. MacDonald, the real MacDonald, was delighted. Told about the tugboat captain, he laughed happily, the laugh of a man who can race typewriters and adding machines with
equal speed. By this time the next day, after a long wait for MacDonald, going shhhh seemed a good idea. MacDonald, however, roared at malicious intervals.

There were more roars as Australian actor Rod Taylor jack-in-the-boxed out of a small Starcraft trailer on to the pier. He and MacDonald exchanged polite bellows.

“Hi, John, how's my man?” The rugged Aussie face concealed any dismay at MacDonald's larger entourage. Taylor had only his bodyguard, paid to protect the star from his public.

“I'm taking over now," Taylor boomed. "He's my responsibility.”

“At last, they'll no longer confuse me with him," MacDonald said. “Now you'll be McGee and I'll be MacDonald.”

"Him” was Travis McGee, a creation of MacDonald's fiction, master of the Busted Flush, and holder of the producers' $2 million stakes in the box-office sweepstakes. To watch Taylor and MacDonald was to witness a ceremony of exorcism. With each forward frame of 35mm film the Aeroflex cameras of Cinema Center Studios were stripping the fantasy figure of McGee from MacDonald and his books, and cloaking it around the wedge-shaped and willing shoulders of Taylor.

When the movie, Darker Than Amber, makes its M-rated debut next year, both Taylor and millions of Mature Audience voyeurs can be McGee, for all MacDonald professes to care. "I hate to disappoint people," he said, and laughed easily and loudly, the sound like gravel rattling on cardboard. The writer known to friends as “John D" was in a sportive mood.

"I hope they make a dozen of them," he said, watching Taylor, Jane Russell, and lesser names with greater talents - Theodore Bikel, for one -- turn Amber into gold. Movie rights are earning a "sizeable five-figure sum” and a box-office percentage, and he has also sold options on the other McGee books at pyramiding rates.

This alone should forgive him his excesses. "It so happens, man, I stay pretty loose," he said as he arrived at Bahia Mar, and he certainly looked loose enough in a pastiche of Miami Beach styles: Swedish nautical cap, canary slacks, a rose-bowled pipe propped in the corner of a grin, dark glasses despite the overcast day. It was as if something in him were reluctant to surrender the role of McGee's alter ego. But despite innate acting talent he never succeeded at making the role seem reality. A MacDonald friend later dismissed his costume and roleplaying as protective coloration for a sensitive man facing the Cinemascope egoes at Bahia Mar.

McGee was born in 1964 as a full-grown six-foot-four, 212-pound freelance adventurer. In five hectic years, he has piloted the Busted Flush through Gulf and Gold Coast waters and 11 bestselling paperbacks. Gifted with a Rod Taylor physique and a John MacDonald intellect, McGee salvages private property in extralegal situations for half its value which, he tells Victims of Injustice, is better than nothing. For both of them. But sometimes, a rampant sentimentalist, he forgives the fee. In a McGee book, the victim is usually attractive.

That McGee is not MacDonald does not lessen the utility of contrast, instantly apparent on flipping over a paperback from a blue-eyed, gold-skinned McGee line-cut on the front cover to the photograph on the back of a bespectacled, balding writer.

Unlike McGee, whose self-expressions are physical and often pontifical, the six-feet-nothing MacDonald just writes: books, magazine articles, short stories. Anything, it seems, but a bad check. In five years he has written into third place behind Perry Mason and Mike Hammer in the suspense league, and third place is still big money.

MacDonald was a struggling lieutenant colonel in the Office of Strategic Services, nearly 30 and without a line in Who's Who, when he sold his first story. That was 59 novels and 37 million readers ago. Except for the Bible, there is not much left to catch up with. With prudish disavowal of its literary importance, MacDonald produced a clipping that said only four living authors have outsold Fawcett Publications' “paperback king."

One is Mickey Spillane, father of Mike Hammer. Spillane visits MacDonald's Gulf Coast home at intervals, and both write mysteries. As craftsmen, however, they are as close as Eldridge Cleaver and Sam Spade. Even Spillane can recognize the gulf. "I am a writer; you are an author,” The Mick once told MacDonald. There is more in that than semantic nonsense.

MacDonald writes on a beige IBM Selectric as if Doom were about to unplug it in the last great denouement. A MacDonald week in his adopted home town of Sarasota has three fixed points: The Plaza for lunch Friday, his color television set on Mission: Impossible nights, and the Selectric. He devotes a businesslike seven-to-nine hours a day writing, doing it until the lunch hour, then doing it again until the cocktail hour. Fast subtraction shows that this leaves “too little time, dammit" for other pursuits.

Travis McGee's debut in The Dark Blue Goodbye (sic), first of a rainbow of titles, was hailed by Saturday Review as “a publishing event." The late Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, automatically bought each new McGee as it appeared, high praise in anyone's mystery book.

According to his 18 lines in Who's Who. MacDonald won the 1955 Benjamin Franklin award for the best short story of the year, and in 1964 the Grand Prix de Literateur Policiere. In non-fiction, his No Deadly Drug account of the Coppolino murder trial became required reading at Harvard Law School.

MacDonald the crime writer “never lets the customer down,” the Review said, choosing the word “customer” with deliberation. The tribute interlocks with an often-echoed MacDonald quote: “I feel that the man who pays 35 cents for your books is as worthy of as much bitter effort as the man who pays $3.50. And he is much more numerous."

In its latest edition that quote was updated to “50 cents” and “$5.50,” an increase unequal to inflation. The paperback books today cost 60 to 75 cents.

Yet customers for them are more numerous than ever, with about six cents a copy sold ($75,000 on a million sales), going to MacDonald.

Godot could have been found earlier and easier than MacDonald that day at Bahia Mar. Waiting for him caused embarrassment for every white-haired man of about 53 who wandered near the pier, and constant phone calls to the room of another John MacDonald staying at the Bahia Mar hotel. A call to MacDonald's Sarasota home could have ended the mystery of his arrival time. This suggestion was offered to MacDonald acquaintances on the set. To a man, they shuddered. They spoke of The Writer's privacy with the reverence a movie publicity man had said: “And he does all his own typing."

Once arrived at Ft. Lauderdale, MacDonald shrugged permission to visit him at his eight month-old hideaway on Siesta Key. He affirmed, however, a fondness for privacy.

Smiling, he described his moat, barracuda, cross-beamed lasers and a wife who patrolled with a Whammo slingshot.

In their place were found only two aging Fords and, on stilts above them, an airy “Early Fish House”, design-built big and modern. The house does have an elaborate security system, however, and privacy in a glass-walled house is assured with curtains of outdoor lights turning the glass into one-way mirrors. It is a privacy not even Travis McGee is allowed to violate.

"You know," MacDonald said, "when I originally started the McGee thing, I was apprehensive about that. He could have been based in Sarasota. But if successful it would have been right in my own backyard. So I put him in Ft. Lauderdale."

Before moving in April to his hideaway, MacDonald said, his work was interrupted by a recurring incident: “You'd see some man stop, having an argument with his wife, nod his head, then shuffle up to the house with a couple of books. It'd be immoral not to sign them. Then you chat five minutes, come back and wonder where in hell you were."

He admitted his vanity would be piqued if no one came to interrupt him with praise or questions, an admission that would have arched reportorial eyebrows when MacDonald met the press at Bahia Mar. A Ft. Lauderdale reporter had not read MacDonald's books but said he would.

“Moving your lips?” MacDonald had asked.

"He was going to get at the core of you in three and a half minutes and leave,” a guest said:

“He probably did,” MacDonald had replied, and laughed loudly. Now, at home, his manner was more subdued. He seemed hesitant to immediately enter a structured question-and-answer interview. He answered calls in his study, lit a pipe, showed color transparencies from a Mexican vacation. He was missing the Friday luncheon at the Plaza, but said nothing about it at the time. Talking about the house and the movie, he became more animated and his manner progressively warmer. The movie-set kibitzer in clothes that would have turned a Brazilian admiral's head was now wearing chino slacks and sleeve-rolled shirt. The guise of hearty-beer can-crunching outdoorsman was clearly left far behind in Bahia Mar.

Though he finally resigned himself to answering questions, the longest answers were for questions that were not asked. He began talking about ego and introversion. "I'm an ambivert,” he said. His eyes glazed in introspective thought and his gaze swiveled slightly toward the Gulf beyond the veranda. He found the thought he searched for, and looked back. “That's the way I think of myself. A very introverted kid with moments of manic extroversion.”

There is also in MacDonald an ambivalency toward sentiment. Few novelists write with his power of violence. And few writers have his weakness for chain letters, for inside jokes (he named an Amber character after his agent) and for pets. Living with the MacDonalds are two half-Abyssinian cats, one cross-eyed; a goose, “Knees”; and a duck, “Trampis,” nee “Travis" but rechristened in a manner compatible with the accent of a 28-year-old Honduras woman who lives with them.

Four years ago MacDonald wrote a book about his life with pets, The House Guests. He offered this as the closest book to an autobiography he has written. In it he described the writing of more than 200 manuscripts and 800,000 words between his first and second sales:

“This is the equivalent of ten average novels. Writing is the classic example of learning by doing. Had I done a novel a year, it would have taken me ten years to acquire the 'precision and facility I acquired in four months. I could guess that I spent eighty hours a week at the typewriter. I kept twenty-five to thirty articles in the mail at all times, sending each of them out to an average of ten potential markets before retiring them.”

The attitude may represent a business background more than the traditional desperation of the starving artist. MacDonald was born on July 24, 1916, the son of Eugene MacDonald, who "was in financial stuff with small corporations” in Sharon, Pa. and Utica, N.Y. John earned a degree in business administration at Syracuse and a master's from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. Until he sold his first story in 1946 as an Army officer in Ceylon, writing fiction because censors redlined all meaning from letters home to his wife, he planned a business career. Vestiges of business training appear in his home office.

His study faces the Gulf. Alongside objects d'art are objects d'artiste: A 60-power Sears telescope through which he can see a neighbor's telescope aimed at him, another inside joke; a Random House dictionary he sometimes finds himself reading for 15 minutes; a Xerox 660 copier used in his voluminous researches; an adding machine, and Travis McGee in the unfinished twelfth manuscript.

He admits that McGee, now rich and famous, may be near retirement.

“I said I'd do 10 when I started," MacDonald said. “I really screwed up Indigo (the 11th). So now I'm doing 12 - as a matter of personal pride, to have it real solid. After 12, I'm not going to arbitrarily say again that I won't do anymore. If I come across an idea I think could work into a McGee, I'll do it in some other form. I like to write. I don't want to foul my own nest by turning writing into a dogged chore.”

In Indigo, MacDonald transported McGee from South Florida to Mexico, the locale of MacDonald's most recent vacation. McGee indulged in his customary editorializing, but too clumsily, MacDonald said. According to MacDonald, McGee is “a separate, entirely distinct individual. He has opinions that are far more black-and-white than mine. In some basic areas I don't agree with him. I think he's flawed in ways I'm not. He has not really accepted the necessities of being a grown-up boy.”

A middle-aged reporter in Ft. Lauderdale had told MacDonald he still felt young, but he thought McGee was nearing his golden years, geriatrically as well as commercially. The reporter learned that even reading MacDonald's books was no sure defense: MacDonald abruptly told him that McGee wasn't, but the reporter was.

"I'm trying to change McGee imperceptibly," MacDonald explained later, “in line with what I think would normally happen. But you can run into trouble and change a guy too much, like John Creasey did with the Gideon series.”

McGee will never die like Sherlock Holmes; money has bought him that much. “I wouldn't want to accept the commercial stupidity,” MacDonald said. “Once he's dead, all the other books become history. Anyway, before I could kill him I'd have to go up to New York and kill all the people at Fawcett Publications who have anything to do with it."

MacDonald can pension McGee off without affecting his workload. While completing McGee No. 12, he is working on three other novels in his unorthodox way, moving from one to another at the first outbreak of boredom.

He writes without outlining, weaving intricate plots and large casts into the empty middle separating a known beginning and a known climax.

He writes on expensive 25-pound bond paper. "I think the same situation is involved as with painting and sculpture. If you use the best materials you can afford, somehow you have more respect for what you do to it.”

He seldom edits with pencil. “I rewrite by throwing away a page, a chapter, half a book, or go right back to the beginning and start again."

He is also a happy writer, another unorthodoxy. "I enjoy the hell out of writing," he said, “because of the rare times when it really works good. It's like an Easter egg hunt. Here's fifty pages, and you say, 'Oh, Christ, where is it?' Then on the 51st page, it'll work. Just the way you wanted it to, a little better than anything in that same area ever worked before. You say 'Wow! This is worth the price of admission'.”

His wife of 30 years, Dorothy Prentiss MacDonald is an artist whose predominantly blue oils cover much of the house's whitestained cedar walls. While we talked, she emerged from the kitchen with Tuborg and Heineken beers and, for MacDonald, a Bloody Mary, which he chased with milk and an untipped Gaulois cigarette. There is a faint but noticeable deference in her attitude towards her husband.

MacDonald observed that the interview had cost him his Plaza luncheon: “Now don't you feel bad?”

Current magazines litter the coffee table, a backdrop for a thin manuscript and an acceptance letter from Playboy. The magazine had just bought “Dear Old Friend,” an ironic short story, for $2,000, twice its normal rate. The editor said it was to encourage MacDonald, who once had a study wall papered with rejection slips, to write more for them.

The story had been cubbyholed in a closet filled with other unpublishable material. “I wrote it about four years ago and it didn't work. It was too fancy. I had it lying around, and thought of it sometimes, and last month I did it again and did it real flat.”

Flat? “I'm talking about trying to achieve more simplicity, so you give the reader really more of a chance to relate his own emotional climate to what you're writing. I feel like I'm still within my learning period. I haven't flattened out yet.”

Like Simenon, Doyle and others, MacDonald is an intellectual, or perhaps a pop-intellectual, who quotes The Lonely Crowd and Games People Play. But he writes without pandering in a genre that is known more for its surrender-or-die dialogue than Travis McGee's rough eloquence.

“Suspense is like a mental exercise,” he said. “Once you accept the limits of what you're doing, you try to do the best you can within those limits. And you're not going to be patronizing anybody. The only patronizing for anybody would be the decision to accept those limits.”

In a written interview with a French doctoral student, MacDonald invoked examples from Camus to John Updike, dichotomized the Judeo-Christian ethic into a pair of neat dilemmas, and questioned the classifying of "suspense" novels as distinct from “straight” novels.

"If all this sounds as if I am being all too terribly artsy about crime fiction,” he wrote, “I ask just one question: How much of the great Faulkner trilogy could be so categorized?”

So MacDonald writes, and Travis McGee rights wrongs. The lingering after-vision from Sarasota is double: the twain shall never meet. McGee, who may be retiring, is not MacDonald, who will never retire. After all, there is still Perry Mason and Mike Hammer. And the Bible.