John D. MacDonald

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John D. MacDonald
BornJohn Dann MacDonald
(1916-07-24)July 24, 1916
Sharon, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedDecember 28, 1986(1986-12-28) (aged 70)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
OccupationNovelist, short story writer
GenreDetective fiction

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

MacDonald was a prolific author of crime and suspense novels, many set in his adopted home of Florida. One of the most successful American novelists of his time, MacDonald sold an estimated 70 million books.[1] His best-known works include the popular and critically acclaimed Travis McGee series and his 1957 novel The Executioners, which was filmed as Cape Fear (1962) and remade in 1991.

In 1972, the Mystery Writers of America bestowed upon MacDonald its highest honor, the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement and consistent quality. Stephen King praised MacDonald as "the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller."[2] Kingsley Amis said MacDonald "is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels."[3]

Early life[edit]

MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, where his father, Eugene Macdonald, worked for the Savage Arms Corporation. The family relocated to Utica, New York in 1926, his father becoming treasurer of the Utica office of Savage Arms. In 1934, MacDonald was sent to Europe for several weeks, which began a desire for travel and for photography.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, but he quit during his sophomore year. MacDonald worked at menial jobs in New York City, then was admitted to Syracuse University, where he met his future wife, Dorothy Prentiss. They married in 1937, and he graduated from Syracuse University the next year. The couple had one son.

In 1939, MacDonald received an MBA from Harvard University. MacDonald later used his education in business and economics in crafting his fiction. Several of his novels are either set in the business world or involve shady financial or real estate deals. When Travis McGee must unravel such schemes, he often seeks advice from his friend Meyer, a renowned economist.

In 1940, MacDonald accepted a direct commission as a first lieutenant of the Army Ordnance Corps. During World War II, he served in the Office of Strategic Services in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations; this region featured in many of his earlier short stories and novels. He was discharged in September 1945 as a lieutenant colonel. In 1949, he moved his family to Florida, eventually settling in Sarasota.

Writing career[edit]

Early pulp stories[edit]

MacDonald's first published short story, "G-Robot," appeared in the July 1936 Double Action Gang magazine.[4]

After his discharge from the army, MacDonald spent four months writing short stories, generating some 800,000 words and losing 20 pounds (9.1 kg) while typing 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He received hundreds of rejection slips, but "Cash on the Coffin!" appeared in the May 1946 pulp magazine Detective Tales.[5] He would eventually sell nearly 500 short stories to detective, mystery, adventure, sports, Western, and science fiction magazines.[6] MacDonald was so prolific he sometimes wrote all the stories in particular magazine issues, through under various pseudonyms. Between 1946 and 1951, in addition to publishing over 200 short stories under his own name, MacDonald published stories as Peter Reed, John Farrell (sometimes John Wade Farrell), Scott O'Hara, Robert Henry, Harry Reiser, and John Lane. These pseudonyms were all retired by the end of 1951, and MacDonald thereafter published all his work under his real name.

Hardboiled thrillers[edit]

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

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

Between 1953 and 1964, MacDonald specialized in crime thrillers, mainly of the so-called "hardboiled" genre. Most of these novels were published as paperback originals, although some were later republished as hardbound editions. Many, such as Dead Low Tide (1953) and Murder in the Wind (1956), were set in his adopted home of Florida. Novels such as The Executioners (1957) (which was twice filmed as Cape Fear, first in 1962 and again in 1991), The End of the Night (1960) and One Monday We Killed Them All (1962) concerned psychopathic killers. Occasionally, he moved out of the crime lane to try his hand at suburban domestic drama, as in Contrary Pleasure (1954) and The Deceivers (1958).

MacDonald is credited with being one of the earliest to write on the effect of real estate booms on the environment, and his novel A Flash Of Green (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962) is a good example of this. Many later Florida crime, detective and mystery writers, such as Paul Levine, Randy Wayne White, Carl Hiaasen, James Hall and Jonathon King, have followed suit.

Travis McGee[edit]

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

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


Following complications of coronary artery bypass surgery, MacDonald slipped into a coma on December 10, 1986. He died at the age of seventy, on December 28, in St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.[7] He is buried in Milwaukee, at Holy Cross Cemetery and Mausoleum.[8] He was survived by his wife Dorothy (1911-1989) and a son, Maynard.

Media adaptations[edit]


Various writers have acknowledged MacDonald's work, including Carl Hiaasen in an introduction to a 1990s edition of The Deep Blue Good-by: "Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn. I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty." Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., wrote another memorable tribute: "To diggers a thousand years from now . . . the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."

Most current Floridian mystery writers acknowledge a debt to MacDonald, including Randy Wayne White, James Hall, Les Standiford, Jonathon King and Tim Dorsey.[11] Lawrence Block's New York fictional hero, Matthew Scudder, is a character who makes his living doing just what McGee does—favors for friends who have no other recourse, then taking his share.

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

Stephen King stated in the book Faces of Fear: "John D. MacDonald has written a novel called The End of the Night which I would argue is one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. It ranks with Death of a Salesman, it ranks with An American Tragedy." He also dedicated the novella The Sun Dog to MacDonald, writing, "I miss you, old friend...and you were right about the tigers," and began the novel Finders Keepers with "Thinking about John D. MacDonald."

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

The popular mystery writer Dean Koontz has also acknowledged in an interview with's Marlene Taylor that MacDonald is his "favorite author of all time... I've read everything he wrote four or five times." His character Odd Thomas in Odd Apocalypse finds himself in the 1920s, and worries about being stuck "in a world with no penicillin, no polio vaccine, no Teflon cookware, no John D. MacDonald novels".

In a May 2016 New York Times interview,[12] Nathaniel Philbrick—author of In the Heart of the Sea and Mayflower—said: "I recently discovered John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. Every time I finish one of those slender books, I tell myself it’s time to take a break and return to the pile on the night stand but then find myself deep into another McGee novel. Before there were Lee Child and Carl Hiaasen, there was MacDonald — as prescient and verbally precise as anyone writing today can possibly hope to be."

Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett respectfully alludes to MacDonald in the songs "Prince Of Tides" of the album Hot Water and "Incommunicado" on Coconut Telegraph.

Winners of the John D. MacDonald Award for Excellence in Florida Fiction, presented by the JDM Bibliophile, include James W. Hall, Elmore Leonard, Paul Levine, and Charles Willeford.


Travis McGee series[edit]

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

  • (1950) The Brass Cupcake
  • (1951) Murder for the Bride
  • (1951) Judge Me Not
  • (1951) Weep for Me
  • (1952) The Damned
  • (1953) Dead Low Tide
  • (1953) The Neon Jungle
  • (1953) Cancel All Our Vows
  • (1954) All These Condemned
  • (1954) Area of Suspicion
  • (1954) Contrary Pleasure
  • (1955) A Bullet for Cinderella (reprinted as On the Make)
  • (1956) Cry Hard, Cry Fast
  • (1956) April Evil
  • (1956) Border Town Girl (reprinted as Five Star Fugitive)/ Linda
  • (1956) Murder in the Wind (reprinted as Hurricane)
  • (1956) You Live Once (reprinted as You Kill Me)
  • (1957) Death Trap
  • (1957) The Price of Murder
  • (1957) The Empty Trap
  • (1957) A Man of Affairs
  • (1958) The Deceivers
  • (1958) Clemmie
  • (1958) The Executioners (reprinted as Cape Fear)
  • (1958) Soft Touch
  • (1959) Deadly Welcome
  • (1959) The Beach Girls
  • (1959) Please Write for Details
  • (1959) The Crossroads
  • (1960) Slam the Big Door
  • (1960) The Only Girl in the Game
  • (1960) The End of the Night
  • (1961) Where is Janice Gantry?
  • (1961) One Monday We Killed Them All
  • (1962) A Key to the Suite
  • (1962) A Flash of Green
  • (1963) I Could Go On Singing (screenplay novelization)
  • (1963) On the Run
  • (1963) The Drowner
  • (1966) The Last One Left
  • (1977) Condominium
  • (1984) One More Sunday
  • (1986) Barrier Island


  • (1959) The Lethal Sex (an anthology of mystery stories by women, edited by MacDonald)

Short story collections[edit]

  • (1966) End of the Tiger and Other Stories
  • (1971) S*E*V*E*N
  • (1982) The Good Old Stuff – A collection of select pulp magazine short stories from the beginning of his career, with technology and pop culture references frequently updated to bring the stories into the 1980s
    • "Murder for Money" – Detective Tales, April 1952 as "All That Blood Money Can Buy"
    • "Death Writes the Answer" – New Detective Magazine, May 1950 as "This One Will Kill You"
    • "Miranda" – Fifteen Mystery Stories, October 1950
    • "They Let Me Live" – Doc Savage Magazine, July–August 1947
    • "Breathe No More" – Detective Tales, May 1950 as "Breathe No More, My Lovely"
    • "Some Hidden Grave" – Detective Tales, September 1950 as "The Lady is a Corpse"
    • "A Time for Dying" – New Detective Magazine, September 1948 as "Tune In on Station Homicide"
    • "Noose for a Tigress" – Dime Detective, August 1952
    • "Murder in Mind" – Mystery Book Magazine, Winter 1949
    • "Check Out at Dawn" – Detective Tales, May 1950 as "Night Watch"
    • "She Cannot Die" – Doc Savage Magazine, May–June 1948 as "The Tin Suitcase"
    • "Dead on the Pin" – Mystery Book Magazine, Summer 1950
    • "A Trap for the Careless" – Detective Tales, March 1950
  • (1983) Two
  • (1984) More Good Old Stuff
    • Deadly Damsel ("Killing All Men!", Black Mask, March 1949)
    • State Police Report That... ("You'll Never Escape", Dime Detective, May 1949)
    • Death for Sale ("My Mission Is Murder", Dime Detective, November 1947)
    • A Corpse in His Dreams (Mystery Book Magazine, Spring 1949)
    • I Accuse Myself ("The Scarred Hand", Doc Savage, November 1946)
    • A Place to Live ("Oh, Give Me a Hearse!", Dime Detective, October 1947)
    • Neighborly Interest ("Killers’ Nest", Detective Tales, February 1949)
    • The Night Is Over ("You've Got to Be Cold", The Shadow, April–May 1947)
    • Secret Stain ("Heritage of Hate", Black Mask, July 1949)
    • Even up the Odds (Detective Story Magazine, January 1948)
    • Verdict ("Three's a Shroud", New Detective, January 1949)
    • The High Gray Walls of Hate ("The High Walls of Hate", Dime Detective, February 1948)
    • Unmarried Widow ("A Corpse-Maker Goes Courting", Dime Detective, July 1949)
    • You Remember Jeanie (Crack Detective, May 1949)
  • (1987) The Annex and Other Stories – A very limited edition of 350 printed in Finland containing MacDonald's favorite short stories[13]

Science fiction[edit]

MacDonald's 1952 novel Ballroom of the Skies was reprinted in Two Complete Science-Adventure Books in 1953, but no paperback edition appeared until 1968.



  1. ^ Merrill, Hugh (2000). The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Minotaur. ISBN 978-0-312-20905-6.
  2. ^ King, Stephen. On Writing (Hodder and Stoughton, 2000, ISBN 0-340-76996-3)
  3. ^ Amis, Kingsley (1971). "A New James Bond". What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 69. ISBN 9780151958603.
  4. ^ Chomko, Mike. "100 Years of Pulp Fictioneer John D. MacDonald". Pulpfest. Retrieved February 23, 2020.
  5. ^ Chomko, Mike. "100 Years of Pulp Fictioneer John D. MacDonald". Pulpfest. Retrieved February 23, 2020.
  6. ^ Jonathan Yardley, "John D. MacDonald's Lush Landscape of Crime", Washington Post, Nov. 11, 2003
  7. ^ Fraser, C. Gerald (December 29, 1986). "John D. Macdonald, Novelist, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved May 6, 2010.
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Television Scout: Carnegie Hall Hour Called Borge at His Very Best; Best Bets". The Pittsburgh Press. January 2, 1964. Retrieved August 9, 2021.
  10. ^ Stephen Vagg, Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood, Bear Manor Media 2010
  11. ^ Mystery Readers International: Florida Mysteries, Volume 15, No. 4, Winter 1999-2000
  12. ^ "Nathaniel Philbrick: By the Book". The New York Times Book Review. May 29, 2016. Retrieved May 31, 2016.
  13. ^ Scott, Steve (October 20, 2014). "The Trap of Solid Gold: "The Annex"". The Trap of Solid Gold. Retrieved January 5, 2017.

External links[edit]