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.

Monday, July 13, 2020

John D MacDonald: Travis McGee Does His Swashbuckling

In 1975 John D MacDonald enjoyed his first-ever success on the hardcover best seller lists with the Lippincott publication of the sixteenth Travis McGee novel The Dreadful Lemon Sky. It was, in fact, the second McGee to have its original appearance in hardcover and spent 23 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List, reaching a high of number three. It brought MacDonald much notoriety in circles he had not previously been considered and raised the expectations on the success of his future output, especially with his publisher.

But the author didn’t follow up Lemon with another Travis McGee adventure; he instead ventured forth with a standalone, his first since 1967’s The Last One Left. It would be his longest-ever novel, one sparked by his recent battle with a local land developer, and Lippincott pulled out all the stops. They planned on an initial run of 50,000 copies, with the novel included as a selection of The Book of the Month Club. And the author was required to do one of the things he hated most: help publicize the book, giving interviews to sundry newspapers and magazines throughout the country.

That novel was, of course, Condominium and it hit the bookstands in March of 1977. It had great success, lasting 27 weeks on the Times’ Best Seller List. A year later the paperback version was also a bestseller. One month prior to its initial publication, on February 20, the following article appeared in Florida Accent, the Sunday newspaper supplement to The Tampa Tribune. Written by reporter Rick Barry it trods familiar ground and contains a couple of glaring errors, but is worth reading for the few small surprises these kinds of interviews usually contain.

John D MacDonald: Travis McGee Does His Swashbuckling
By Rick Barry

It crouches at his right elbow, idle for a moment perhaps, but somehow suggesting the frenzy which could be unleashed by its master if the time were right.

They say his fingers fly about the thing, and its little silver ball whirls and snaps at the paper like a bionic woodpecker: The Incredible Sapphire Selectric. IBM Runs Amok.

Its handler is John Dann MacDonald, John D., graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance and Harvard's Graduate School of Business, author, societal analyst and "critic, semi-recluse and — with that typewriter – progenitor of Travis McGee, a name perhaps better known than his own.

True, that may change with the projected popular success of his latest novel, Condominium. But if it does, little change is expected in McDonald himself, a man who tenaciously homesteads his private niche, a literary hermit crab who emerges from his protective shell only when its necessity becomes painfully evident.

He lives in a square cypress beachfront house on stilts. Large panes of clear glass admit great trapezoids of sunlight and permit expansive appreciation of a lagoon and the Gulf of Mexico, and their all-but-uncivilized shorelines. Its angular tin roof suggests a Marblehead fisherman's cottage, but that of a very successful fisherman. It's "only" 50 feet by 50 feet square, he says, but has a 16-foot wide veranda extending around all four sides making it appear much larger.

It has a spacious living room with a panoramic view of sand, sea and sky, an ample kitchen, a loft-study where the typewriter is caged – and one bedroom. Why? Because "if you live in Florida and have more than one bedroom, you get company." Oh. Yeah. Stupid question.

He and Dorothy, his artist wife of 40 years, live there.

With MacDonald's background in organization charts and balance sheets, it is hard to correlate that training and apparent early interest with the creative person he's become. But it's a transition he explains simply.

"I was a failure in business," he says, without a modulating smile or visible regret. "I just did miserably in the two or three different businesses I tried."

He wrote - and his wife sold - the very first short story he ever wrote, during his last months in the service. It brought in $25.

When he was discharged in 1946, MacDonald spent four months hammering out at "least 800,000" words. None of it sold. But after another month he sold his second story, for $40. And by December of that year, his writing had earned him a respectable $6,000. He was 30, and a full time writer by profession.

Some 30 years, 500 articles and short stories, two books of non-fiction and 64 novels later, he is still a professional writer and works nearly as hard now as he did then.

Today, MacDonald is confident of his skills and sure of his place in the literary world. He says he "knows his limitations" and deems that achievement perhaps the essential bit of awareness for any successful writer.

MacDonald long ago traded pomposity and pretense for success. He even looks like those pictures of himself on the back cover of all those Fawcett paperbacks. They're not retouched graduation photos at all. There is snowy hair, the receding hairline, the utilitarian black-frame eyeglasses and blue work shirt. Jimmy Carter would be proud. MacDonald is bigger, probably about six-two, and somewhat burlier than those glossy likenesses hint. And except for his hair color, he looks much younger than his readily admitted 60 years. He is relatively untanned, but possesses a rosy, long-walks-on-the beach complexion. He does not smoke; he quit some years ago. He appears somewhat nervous during an interview with Accent.

If Condominium is his big shot at making John D MacDonald a household name, it has been Travis McGee who has freed him and his wife to take off for Mexico, a remote New York state lake or a Caribbean island almost at will, and helped them to buy that secluded gulf front lot and build that home to his wife's design.

Private detective McGee is a durable sort of guy, surviving well those 16 forays into the netherworld of violence, crime and intricate corporate subterfuge, stooping only occasionally to mimic the methods of his adversaries.

His foes are rarely his own. His quest for the return of cash or something else of value is typically on behalf of a beautiful and vulnerable woman – he is no stalwart of women's liberation - and involves a healthy slice of the loot.

The physical and sexual prowess that marked McGee's advantage over men and women respectively in the earlier novels is ebbing, but his wits and greater dedication to planning and caution have assured him (and his creator) extended years of success in his self-styled "salvage" business.

As it is, "McGee ages about one year to our three," MacDonald says of his hero. "There was one clue printed that could pretty well pinpoint his age (McGee was in the Korean conflict). I won't make that error again."

Second banana to McGee is Meyer, his paunchy, retired economist friend, who lives aboard another boat at Bahia Mar, a real Fort Lauderdale marina (where, incidentally, tourists have appeared asking to see the houseboat McGee won in a poker game, "The Busted Flush'') and with whom MacDonald admits "I probably have more in common" than McGee. Meyer is a rock of logic and a foil for MacDonald's own economic theories.

Travis McGee novels are not really all that similar one to the other, although the casual reader might assume so and argue the point. But there is a skeletal similarity and one persistent formula.

The scene typically opens aboard the "Flush" and ends there, with the "salvage" forays made in the houseboat, its launch, or in his properly aged and unlikely hybrid Rolls Royce-pickup truck. And there are always a "good number of new characters and a comfortable leavening of old friends," as MacDonald puts it.

That commonality supports well MacDonald's attack plan when it comes to taking finger to typewriter key: "I know where I'll begin. I know where I'm going. What comes in between is uncharted territory."

When he's working on a book -- any book -- MacDonald adheres to a rigid work schedule. Monday through Thursday, he sits down at his IBM at 9 a.m. and finishes at 5:30 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, he spends half a day from 9 a.m. to noon, sometimes repeating the schedule on Sundays.

He says he attempts to make one of every three pages a keeper the first time he writes it. He may have to rewrite the second two to four times. And the third may undergo five to 12 rewrites.

Then there's the formula:

Take one middle-aged roughneck named Travis McGee, endow him with a keen mind, a soft heart and an overwhelming sense of moral outrage. Bind him hand and foot and place him astride a Trojan horse filled with nitroglycerine in the middle of a minefield during a hailstorm.

Then, discourse for eight to 10 pages on the kind of person who would strip mine a national park or drop 10 tons of some persistent pesticide on courting ladybugs in a pelican rookery. Move on an easy, ambling pace as McGee contemplates all this. Wrap it all in a flavorful turn of phrase but state the message emphatically.

Only then do you detonate the minefield, save the battered but repairable McGee who has by now located the loot and returned to collect his salvage fee from the raven-haired beauty in the diaphanous peignoir.

And therein lies a large difference between MacDonald's McGee and other series heroes. They all tend to be successful in dark alleys and double beds. But MacDonald sprinkles his tales with excursions into the world of self-perpetuating governmental bureaucracies, the complex machinations of big business and organized crime, polluting industries, their lobbyists and the elected officials they corrupt.

He's taken obvious slams at bigtime polluters, by name, and gotten away with it, so well documented are his facts and those first-person monographs are so much an integral part of the "why" and "how" of it all, that it goes down quite easily.

But if some of his readers, and he gets a lot of mail, want to know "why in hell he can't just get on with the story," an equal or larger number would turn up their noses at such fiction were that "redeeming" and well-researched social comment absent.

And for Floridians, the setting of at least part of each novel is in some sense as familiar as the inevitable presence of a color in the title.

Oh yes. The forthcoming McGee title would have been in the color ginger, had MacDonald not learned during a recent trip to London that the English associate it with homosexuality. He has a large number of loyal readers there and such an association would be anathema to McGee.

MacDonald makes no esoteric justification for his color-titles, saying it just became a means of identifying McGees from the others. "I just write the book, write the title, then go back into the text and try and find someplace to insert the color where it won't distract from the narrative." So much for someone's doctoral thesis.

(Actually, more than one contemporary literature student has taken MacDonald serious enough to address a thesis to his fiction. And a California couple periodically publishes a newsletter for MacDonald fans, The JDM Bibliophile. (Fanatics may join the mailing list by writing Len and June Moffat, P.O. Box 4465, Downey, Cal. 90241. Mail sent to McGee's slip at Bahia Mar will be forwarded to MacDonald. Really.)

Other tips for addicts: Look for McGee to give up his long-time favorite gin, Plymouth. (It's bottled in this country now and has reportedly lost its special qualities of "crisp" dryness) and perhaps switch to MacDonald's new favorite, Boodle's, although the author more regularly drinks vodka these days.

But don't hold your breath for number 17. MacDonald reports he is somewhat bogged down on it, somewhere near the 60 percent completion mark. It's something about the distraction resulting from the possibility that Condominium might be a very major popular success, he says. It could also be related to MacDonald's agreeing to take on minimal promotion chores for this one.

"I always feel uneasy when they first come out," he says. "It's usually quite a while until I get over it and get some perspective on them."

He really needn't be, with 41 paperbacks still in print and statistical surveys showing newsstand paperback audiences change every 12 months.

McGee could retire to a commune in Baltimore and raise chinchillas and it would barely crack the smile on the face of MacDonald's banker.

As his agent puts it: "As long as John keeps writing, a whole lot of people are going to keep on eating."

Pass the caviar, please.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Violence on Violet Nights

The following article appeared in the March 17, 1985 edition of Inquirer, the Sunday magazine supplement to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Written by William Ecenbarger, it’s a lengthy, boilerplate piece on MacDonald and McGee, featuring all the usual questions and MacDonald’s pat answers. Still, these are fun to read just to seek out the occasional JDM comment one has never heard before. There are a few of those scattered among the paragraphs.

Violence on Violet Nights
By William Ecenbarger

TRAVIS McGEE IS sprawled on a deep curve of the yellow corner couch aboard his houseboat, staring into the dregs of his scattered thoughts.

“This is the last time in history when the offbeats like me will have a chance to live free in the rocks and crannies of the large and rigid structure of an increasingly codified society," he says. "Fifty years from now I would be hunted down in the streets. They would drill little holes in my skull and make me sensible and well-adjusted."

McGee, a rebel with many causes, has declared independence from "plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, checklists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, Junior Chambers of Commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny."

He lives alone aboard the Busted Flush, a 52-foot barge-type houseboat that is docked in Slip F-18 at Bahia Mar Yacht Basin in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The vessel's name is derived from the fact that McGee won it from a Brazilian playboy during a 30-hour poker game with "four pink ones and a stranger down." The boat is equipped with a special security system that alerts McGee the instant anyone steps on board.

On land, McGee drives Miss Agnes, which is a Rolls Royce converted into a pickup truck. “She is vintage 1936, and apparently some previous owner had some unlikely disaster happen to the upper half of her rear end and solved the problem in an implausible way. Some other idiot had her painted a horrid electric blue. When I found her squatting, shame-faced, in the back row of a gigantic car lot, I bought her at once and named her after a teacher I had in the fourth grade whose hair was that same shade of blue."

At 6-foot-4, McGee is a full foot taller than Hercule Poirot. He buys his clothes from L. L. Bean, not on Savile Row like James Bond. He's gentler than Mike Hammer, and he charges more than Sam Spade. Like Philip Marlowe, he plays chess, and he used to smoke a pipe like Sherlock Holmes.

THERE REALLY IS A BAHIA MAR YACHT BASIN in Fort Lauderdale on Florida's Atlantic side, and people come there looking for Travis McGee. But McGee lives only on the pages of 20 best-selling novels by John D. MacDonald, who lives on the gulf side of Florida and today is widely considered to be one of America's best mystery writers.

About 7,000 people are crowded on Siesta Key, a seven-mile, white-sanded strip in the Gulf of Mexico just offshore from Sarasota. Condominiums, like ice cube trays standing on end, line the beach. The main road is illuminated day and night by nervous neon boasting of high interest rates, large salad bars and free movies with every room. Traffic lights bite off huge chunks of traffic, and impatient drivers lock horns.

An unmarked, gravelly lane escorts invited visitors to the home of John D. MacDonald. The wooden rectangle of the house is supported, stork-like, by 12-foot pilings as thick as telephone poles and laced with huge wooden crossbeams. Two vans, an old Ford and a new Toyota, are parked beneath the house. There is a wraparound veranda with a profusion of hanging plants. A sign on the wooden stairs leading to the veranda warns that the house is protected by an electronic security system.

MacDonald is standing on the gulf side of the veranda, being scolded by a blue jay. He wears blue running shoes, athletic socks, khaki pants and a lemon shirt with epaulets. Both hands are thrust in his side pockets in a diffident gesture. “The pilings underneath are hurricane insurance," he explains. "We could lose maybe five feet of soil here and still be OK.”

Fencing, palm trees and shrubbery afford seclusion for MacDonald. The house is exposed only to the water, and the view is relentlessly picturesque. A gentle surf spreads white lace on the sand, and faraway sailboats inhale the wind. “Privacy is so damned valuable for a writer. How can you observe anything when you're observed yourself?

“We spend our summers at a camp in the Adirondacks on land that we bought with money I won in an overseas poker game," he says. "We still like Sarasota, but it's not like it used to be. The air used to smell like orange blossoms. Now when the wind is right, it smells like a robot's armpit.”

SINCE HE BEGAN WRITING FOUR DECADES ago, the 68-year-old MacDonald has turned out about 600 stories and 75 books - all but two of which are still in print. His books have sold 90 million copies, and it is estimated that 8,000 MacDonalds are sold every day.

In addition to the McGee series, MacDonald has written dozens of suspense novels, such best-selling non-suspense books as Condominium, One More Sunday, and The House Guests, a tribute to his cats; and No Deadly Drug, a nonfiction account of the Coppolino murder trial in New Jersey that for several years was required reading at the Harvard Law School.

MacDonald is one of the few American mystery writers to win France's coveted Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, and he is the recipient of the Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America (others are Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner and Graham Greene). MacDonald is probably the first mystery writer since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to have an active fan club, and his admirers have included Norman Mailer, Orson Welles, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marlene Dietrich, Ian Fleming and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who predicts that "to diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald will be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.” Carol Brener, owner of Murder Ink, the mystery specialty bookstore in New York, says MacDonald is her best-selling author. "We keep every one of his titles in stock, and I'd have to say that John MacDonald helps pay the rent around here."

But despite his prodigious sales and the continuing popularity of Travis McGee, MacDonald's name is not instantly recognizable by most Americans. Fate conspired in this by naming him MacDonald (other contemporary mystery writers are Gregory McDonald, Philip MacDonald and the late Ross Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar). John Dann MacDonald eschews celebrity by being as devious as any of his fictional villains in preserving his privacy. He avoids New York City, interviews and talk shows. He dislikes being recognized by strangers (he has been known to appear in public with a sign reading TYPHOID CASE), and he deliberately has out-of-date pictures published with his books.

For most of his career, MacDonald was ignored by the critics and labeled a mere purveyor of drugstore fiction. But recently many of his early paperback works have been reissued in hardback, two volumes of his vintage short stories have been published, and he has begun to receive the serious attention that is warranted by the bearer of a torch lit more than 60 years ago by Dashiell Hammett.

THE TROPICAL HEAT AND THE AIR CONDITIONING are battling to a draw aboard the Busted Flush, and McGee reaches into the stainless steel cooler for a beer. "I always buy the brands with the pull tabs," he explains. "You stare at the tab, think deep thoughts about progress, advertising, modern living, cultural advances, and then turn the can upside down and open it with a can opener.”

McGee, as portrayed in MacDonald's mysteries, is an intense physical fitness buff and a moderate drinker. His spirituous tastes now center on martinis made with Boodles gin. During much of his career, he favored England's Plymouth gin, but he gave it up after they began bottling it in New Jersey and changed the taste.

"There is something self-destructive about Western technology and distribution. Whenever a consumer object is so excellent that it attracts a devoted following, some of the slide-rule and computer types come in on their twinkle toes and take over the store, and in a trice they figure out just how far they can cut quality and still increase the market penetration. Their reasoning is that it is idiotic to make and sell a hundred thousand units of something and make a profit of 30 cents a unit, when you can increase the advertising, sell five million units, and make a nickel profit a unit. Thus, the very good things of the world go down the drain, from honest turkey to honest eggs to honest tomatoes."

McGee, who is wearing ratty old woolen slacks and a Norm Thompson flannel shirt faded to a sky blue, fixates on a Syd Solomon painting hanging on the wall of the stateroom and is asked whether he considers himself a private detective.

"Me? No. Those people have to have licenses and be bonded and carry insurance and report to the law people wherever they go. They charge fees and have office phones and all that. I just do favors for friends. Sort of salvage work."

Specifically, McGee is a salvager of private property, on land and sea, and works on a 50 percent contingency fee, which he has been known to waive or reduce if the client is an attractive woman. McGee tracks down villains by a process of elimination – sometimes cerebral, sometimes actual.

TWO OVERWEIGHT CATS PROWL the gymnasium-size living room of the MacDonald home. A large picture window is filled with the emerald meadows of the gulf, and the walls are covered with paintings by Syd Solomon and Dorothy Prentiss MacDonald, the author's wife of 45 years. “The living room is so big because we only have one bedroom." MacDonald says. “You have more than one bedroom in Florida, you get house guests."

Off the living room is a downstairs office, where MacDonald does most of his writing. It holds a beige IBM word processor, a printer with a paper tractor feed and silencing cover, and hundreds of books.

"Simenon, that old master, had it right, you know. He said that if people want to know about me, they ought to read my books. And then if they want to know more about me, they should read more of my books.

"I enjoy the hell out of writing because of the rare times when it really works good. It's like an Easter egg hunt. Here's 50 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.' People who claim to endure agonies during the process of creation should find other lines of work.

“I start work every day around 9 with scut stuff like letters and bills just to get my head cleared. After about 45 minutes of that, I start writing and go through to about 6 with a short break for lunch. I am a news junkie, so I watch the evening news, and then Dorothy and I have a quiet dinner.”

The 21st book in the McGee series, The Lonely Silver Rain, will be in bookstores this month and is a Literary Guild selection. MacDonald is working on McGee No. 22. Other simultaneous projects are a novel about two Florida real estate partners who break up and suffer postpartum depression, and a possible book involving a long exchange of letters that MacDonald had with Dan Rowan, the comedian. “I'm not sure this will make a book that has an audience, but some of the stuff is real funny, and a lot of it is interesting. One of the classics is me writing to him and saying, 'Dan, I don't think a weekly Laugh-In Show is going to work at all.'"

MacDonald admits to a certain uneasiness over living and working in an area where most people his age have retired. "All these old people are irritating to me in a sense. It used to be that Sarasota had lots of writers and artists. It still does, but they're a much smaller percentage of the total community. Here I keep working while all around me, the place is filling up with geriatrics. I went to the movies last night, and the girl in the ticket booth assumed I got the senior citizen discount. I told her, 'Hell, no! I'm an old man, but I'm not a senior citizen.'

“The truth is that 95 percent of the world is pretty dumb, but when you're young you can hide it with your clothes, your job and just sort of knowing the right things to say and do. But after age 60, you've got no way to conceal it."

MacDONALD WAS BORN IN SHARON, PA., NEAR the Ohio border, but his father, a businessman, soon moved to Utica, N.Y. At the age of 12, MacDonald suffered a lengthy bout with scarlet fever and developed an avocation that he would practice nearly every day for the rest of his life – reading. Today he is scornful of nonreading Americans. “They sit with their minds turned off, so they won't have to use any mental energy decoding those black marks on the paper, and watch some picture on TV that gives them the story minus work. But there is no growth without effort."

He entered the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business in 1934, but he dropped out in his sophomore year because he was uncertain about what he wanted to do with his life. Three months later, he enrolled in Syracuse University and received a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1938. He graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in 1939. MacDonald was fired from jobs with an investment house and an insurance company ("apparently, they didn't size me up as a future member of the board of directors"), and his rapid descent in the business world was interrupted when he joined the Army in 1940.

He became a member of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) and was assigned to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he says his duties were more housekeeping than cloak-and-dagger. He lived in a bungalow, had eight servants, two chauffeured cars, a motorcycle, a converted B-25 bomber for air travel, several secretaries, and a liquor ration. In 1944, he mailed a 2,000-word story home to his wife, Dorothy, who did some editing, typed it and mailed it to Story Magazine, which bought it for $25.

He was discharged as a lieutenant colonel in 1946, and armed with four months of Army pay for unused leave time, he began writing 14 hours a day. He estimates that he churned out 800,000 words in short stories, lost 20 pounds and collected 1,000 rejection slips. In the fifth month, he sold a story to Dime Detective for $40, and for the next three years he published an average of a story a week - some in such magazines as Esquire, Collier's and Cosmopolitan, but mostly in the "pulps, such as Dime Detective, The Shadow and the legendary Black Mask, which decades before had been launching pads for Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. MacDonald's first novel, The Brass Cupcake, was published in 1950, and since then he has written everything except a rubber check — though he is, of course, most famous for fathering Travis McGee.

VERY LITTLE IS KNOWN ABOUT TRAVIS McGee's past, except that he sold cars as a youth, served as an NCO in the Korean War, and played college and professional football until a linebacker for the Detroit Lions named DiCosola ended his career by injuring him. McGee had a brother who was swindled out of his money and committed suicide - a trauma that appears to have motivated McGee to devote the working part of his life to rooting out greed, corruption and social putrescence. Like his counterparts, McGee seems to age at about one-third the normal rate, and since he was created 20 years ago, he has remained somewhere between 40 and 50.

“I retire whenever I can afford it,” says McGee. "When the money is gone, I go back to work. Salvage work. Retirement comes when you are too old to enjoy it completely, so I take some of mine whenever I can. What good are beaches without beach bums?"

McGee does well by doing good, and the Internal Revenue Service would be interested to know that he keeps his money, all in cash, in a secret water-filled compartment below the water line of the Busted Flush. From time to time, McGee has also been known to bring aboard for extended periods of time female visitors - almost all of whom are astonishingly attractive and tall and therefore appreciative of one of the Busted Flush's most unique accoutrements — its 7-by4-foot pale-blue bathtub.

“I happen to think they are people," McGee says, a trifle defensively. "Not cute objects. I think that people hurting people is original sin. To score for the sake of scoring diminishes a man. I can't value a woman who won't value herself. McGee's Credo. That's why they won't give me a Playboy card. I won't romp with the bunnies. If there's no pain and no loss, it's only recreational, and we can leave it to the minks.

"The biggest and most important thing in the world is to be together with someone in a way that makes life a little less bleak and solitary and lonesome. To exchange the I for the We. In the biggest sense of the word, it's cold outside. And kindness and affection and gentleness build a nice warm fire inside."

McGee is interrupted by the appearance of his closest friend, Meyer. ...

THERE IS A SECOND OFFICE UPSTAIRS in the MacDonald house, and it has more books, including Waterways Guide and Boats and the Law. MacDonald humps his shoulders like a roosted bird and says that when he decided to write the McGee series, he agonized over a name for his hero.

"I liked McGee for a last name, and I have a fondness for geographical first names, like Tennessee Williams and Vermont Royster, so I originally chose Dallas McGee. But then there was an assassination in Dallas, and the name acquired a certain unpopular resonance, so I dropped it. The late Mackinlay Kantor, who lived in Sarasota and was my friend, said he liked the names of Air Force bases, and so I named him after the base in California.

"I wrote two McGees and shelved them because they weren't right. The third one worked."

The first Travis McGee adventure appeared in 1964 under the title of The Deep Blue Good-Bye, and each of its 20 successors has had a color in its title - a device that MacDonald says helps readers avoid buying the same book twice, which is a common error among serial mystery fans. “I don't decide on the color and the title until I'm finished writing. Then I go back and look for an appropriate passage to hang it on.” McGee originally was a paperback hero, but his popularity has been so great that the latest books have been issued first in hard-cover, and all of the early volumes now have been reissued in hard-cover.

MacDonald says that when he begins a mystery, he doesn't know how it will end, "and the book becomes an adventure for me as well as the reader.” MacDonald likens writing a series to creating a folk dance, "where you have to invent new steps without changing the basic pattern."

His plots are more concerned with whydidit than whodunit, and MacDonald takes great care in developing minor characters. The McGee series is packed with editorials and instructional material, ranging from the treatment of chigger bites to open-heart surgery. As one would expect from a Harvard MBA, there is a lot of business intrigue in the McGee books. They are filled with expert descriptions of chess, stamp collecting and photography - all of which interest MacDonald in his personal life. Many of the McGee plots turn on traffic accidents, and MacDonald's descriptions are detailed and horrifying. He studies police accident files
and goes to universities where research is being conducted on traffic fatalities.

"I do not write cheesy little potboilers, phony dragnets with nothing in them but action,” says MacDonald. “It's got to have some bonds, some basic human relationships. That's my last ethical stand.”

MacDonald has had a bittersweet relationship with Hollywood. He liked the Gregory Peck / Robert Mitchum film Cape Fear, which was based on his 1958 novel, The Executioners. But he pronounced the film version of his Darker Than Amber to be "feral, cheap, rotten, gratuitously meretricious, shallow and embarrassing."

Because the McGee series is written in the first person, the character of Meyer, McGee's best friend, is important because it keeps to a minimum McGee's internal monologues.

MEYER'S FIRST NAME IS RARELY MENTIONED, and MacDonald says it will never be mentioned again. Only the most unbalanced of McGee fans know it's Ludwig. Meyer lives 70 yards away from McGee at Bahia Mar. For the first 19 McGee adventures, Meyer's cabin cruiser was named the John Maynard Keynes, but it was blown up by the villain of No. 20, Cinnamon Skin, and now Meyer lives aboard the Thorstein Veblen. Meyer says he chose to name his boat after the economist-sociologist, who developed theories on conspicuous consumption, because "it will be utterly meaningless to everyone who graduated from high school in the past 20 years."

By training, Meyer is an economist, and he invests and writes articles for incomprehensible journals. On his business cards, Meyer lists himself as a "certified guarantor.” But he spends most of his time accompanying McGee on his salvage operations and occasionally rescuing him from certain death.

McGee marvels at Meyer's hairiness (little thatches of black hair between every knuckle, a blackbird's nest at the neck of his T-shirt, and a blue sheen on his jaws after a close shave) and his ability to get along with people. "You can watch the Meyer Magic at work and not know how it's done,” McGee says. "He has the size and pelt of the average Adirondack black bear. He can walk a beach, go into any bar, cross any playground and acquire people the way blue serge picks up lint, and the new friends believe they have known him forever. Strangers tell him things they have never told their husband or their priest."

While McGee is a practical intellectual - a sort of hard-boiled egghead – Meyer's cerebral edges are more rounded and complete. Meyer picks up where McGee's intellect leaves off — as when he corrects McGee's statement that someone who died in an explosion "never knew what hit him.”

"Nothing can happen so fast that there is not a micro-instant of realization," says Meyer. “Each nerve cell in the brain can make contact with three hundred thousand other cells, using its hundreds of branches, each branch with hundreds of terminals, and with electrical impulses linking cell to cell. Ten trillion cells, Travis, exchanging coded information every instant. The brain has time to release the news of its own dissolution, time to factor a few questions about why, what, who ... and what is happening to me? Perhaps a month of mortal illness is condensed into one thousandth of a second, insofar as self-realization is concerned. We're each expert on our own death."

A favorite topic of commiseration between the two friends is the great terrain robbery in Florida by developers.

“The rivers and swamps are dying, the birds are dying, the fish are dying," laments McGee. "They're paving the whole state. And the people who give a damn can't be heard. The developers make big campaign contributions. And there isn't enough public money to treat sewage."

Meyer agrees and takes it further. "Florida can never really come to grips with saving the environment because a very large percentage of the population at any given time just got here. So why would they fight to turn back the clock? It looks great to them the way it is. Two years later, as they are beginning to feel uneasy, a few thousand more people are just discovering it for the first time and wouldn't change a thing. And meanwhile, the people who knew what it was like 20 years ago are an ever-dwindling minority, a voice too faint to be heard."

Meyer believes that the eighth deadly sin is to be boring, and he defines a bore as “a person who deprives you of your solitude without providing you with company."

A MOUNTED SCALE MODEL of Miss Agnes sits on the bookshelf in MacDonald's upstairs office.

"Two guys from California, brothers, I think, sent that to me a couple of years ago. They did a great job on building, but a terrible job packing it, and it arrived here in about 64 pieces. We managed to patch it up."

MacDonald often gets letters, forwarded to him by the Fort Lauderdale Post Office, that are addressed to Travis McGee, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar Yacht Basin. Graduate students write theses on MacDonald and McGee, and collectors try to amass copies of MacDonald's books and his many magazine short stories.

"I'm a little bemused and flattered by all this attention," says MacDonald, "and I'm not sure I understand it."

The fictional detective approaches the status of an institution in America and England. Edgar Allan Poe is widely hailed as the father of the mystery genre with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in 1841. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle popularized the form in 1887 when he created Sherlock Holmes. Dashiell Hammett spiced the form with reality in the 1920s with the creations of the Continental Op and Sam Spade.

W. Russel Gray, a communications professor at Delaware County Community College in Media, recently delivered a paper to the Midwest Popular Culture Conference on the detective genre. “McGee, perhaps the very best of the private eyes still operative," he wrote, "offers us an illuminating corollary to dark reality: Society resists reform, and its corruption is never completely eradicable; the hero wins by not succumbing to it."

Like Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars, there is a Travis McGee Fan Club, whose members get a “Me and Travis McGee" button and a subscription to the JDM Bibliophile, which has been published since 1965 and has a subscription list of about 3,000. Each issue contains reprints of articles on McGee and MacDonald from other publications, a classified section for collectors, at least one new article by MacDonald himself, and a plethora of McGee arcana (a recent offering was a 2,000-word memoir by someone who knew the "real Travis" – that is, Brig. Gen. Robert F. Travis, for whom the Air Force base is named)

The JDM Bibliophile comes out every six months and costs $5 a year. It is edited by Edgar Hirshberg, a professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa (ZIP code 33620), whose biography of MacDonald is scheduled to be published in September by the Twayne U.S. Author Series.

Hirshberg, a close friend of MacDonald, has no doubts about why McGee is so popular: “He's the kind of guy every man wants to be but can't - an impossible combination of sex appeal, strength, intellect, freedom and tenderness.”

What kind of a person reads Travis McGee? When Harper & Row published Cinnamon Skin in 1982, the publishing house included in 100,000 copies a questionnaire seeking information about the buyers. It got 40,000 responses, and it turns out that McGee fans had an average family income of $40,000 (a third were more than $50,000), most of the readers were between the ages of 30 and 50, and there was a high percentage of educators, lawyers and doctors.

The question most asked of MacDonald, and the most pointless, is whether McGee is his alter ego. “I'm not going to have McGee say something I disagree with totally,” he says. “We're going to be on the same side of the street, but not walking at the same pace. McGee sees the world in black and white. I see more grays."

MacDonald gazes out the window at the scrawling signature of the shoreline and says that another part of his hero's appeal is believability. "When I started writing the series, there was one editor who insisted that McGee ought to win more often than he does. I fought him on this and finally won. He's also believable because he feels out of place with the modern world. If McGee wants to park his car, I have him drive around a while looking for a space, ruminating all the time on why he shouldn't have to do this. This sort of thing strikes a resonant chord with a lot of people."

MacDonald often is criticized by his fans for having McGee's loves die at the end of the book. “But if I didn't kill off the ladies," he says, "the Busted Flush would sink under their weight.”

ABOARD THE BUSTED FLUSH, McGee is listening to the Columbia recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Shostakovich Fifth, and his Fisher amplifier is driving the two AR-3 speakers very nicely. The music makes him pensive.

"If I were king of the world, I would roam my kingdom in rags, incognito, dropping fortunes onto the people who are nice with no special reason to be nice, and having my troops lop off the heads of the mean, small, embittered little bastards who try to inflate their self-esteem by stomping on yours. I would start the lopping among post office employees, bank tellers, bus drivers and pharmacists. I would go on to checkout clerks, bellboys, prowl-car cops, telephone operators and U.S Embassy clerks. By God, there would be so many heads rolling here and there, the world would look like a berserk bowling alley. Meyer says this shows a tad of hostility."

Will the developers ever drive him from Florida? "Tacky though Florida might be, its fate uncertain, too much of its destiny in the hands of men whose sole thought is to grab the money and run, cheap little city politicians with blow-dried hair, ice-eyed old men from the North with devout claims about their duties to their shareholders, big-rumped good-old boys from the cattle counties with their fingers in the till right up to their cologned armpits - it is still my place in their world. It is where I am and where I will stay, right up to the point where the Neptune Society sprinkles me into the dilute sewage off the Fun Coast.”

McGee, ever close to danger and death, ponders them both often.

"It is my fate and my flaw to have learned long ago that this is what I am about. This is when I am alive and know it most completely. Every sense is honed by the knowledge of the imminence of death.

"My luck will run out. Maybe not this time. Or the next time. Sometime, though. And like everybody else, I will go down with that universal plea blazing in the back of my mind. 'Not me! Not yet! Wait!”

BUT IT APPEARS THAT Travis McGee will go on righting wrongs as long as John MacDonald goes on writing books, getting wizened and wiser in the process. It has been widely reported that MacDonald keeps in his safe an unpublished manuscript, titled Black Border for McGee, in which his hero dies. MacDonald, raising his eyebrows and forgetting them on his forehead for a moment, says it's not true.

"I promulgated that idea some years ago because I found it useful in bargaining with publishers. I haven't killed off McGee. On the other hand, it wouldn't take me a hell of a long time to make such a book exist.

"Given the fact that all McGee is written in the first person, there would be certain problems in getting rid of him, though. I guess I'd have to have him say, 'They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist. ...'

"Besides, why would I kill him off?" MacDonald asks, placing his feet on the desk and lacing his fingers behind his head. "He's allowed me to live in a style to which Travis McGee is accustomed."