A few weeks ago I realized I missed the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of my favorite authors. John D. MacDonald, author of the Travis McGee series, would have turned 100 on July 24, 2016.
Once I was reminded that he was born 100 years ago, I recalled that he only lived a few months after his 70th birthday. He passed just a few days after Christmas 30 years ago on December 28, 1986. That is why I waited until now to do this tribute.
John D. MacDonald was a prolific author. Along with the 21 Travis McGee tales, he wrote over 40 novels, mostly suspense but also science fiction, and over 300 short stories between the end of World War II and his death. He also was the author of a couple of non-fiction books including “No Deadly Drug”, the murder trials of Dr. Carl Coppolino for the killing of his anestheologist wife, Dr. Carmen Coppolino with F. Lee Bailey as Coppolino’s lawyer.
He influenced many other authors in including Stephen King who said, “(He was) the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.”
I remember the first time I was introduced to John D. MacDonald. Shortly after my high school graduation, I picked up the paperback edition of Stephen King’s “‘Salem’s Lot”. Sure I had heard of King; the movie Carrie was a recent release, but after reading “‘Salem’s Lot” I wanted to read more. In the fall King’s volume of early short stories, “Night Shift”, was released in paperback and I quickly picked up a copy. The foreword was written by MacDonald.
I thought, if he likes the work of King, he is an author I want to read as well. I found a copy of one of his Travis McGee books. If memory recalls correctly it was, “The Dreadful Lemon Sky”. From there I was hooked, hooked on Travis McGee and John D. MacDonald.
In the early 80’s I had a job that allowed me to travel throughout Maryland. I discovered quite a few used book stores in those travels. I started picking up MacDonald novels, as well as Rex Stout and his Nero Wolfe series and anything by Ed McBain. Along with McBain’s 87th Precinct and Matthew Hope, I also looked forward to any new releases by MacDonald.
Also it didn’t take me long to pick up just about every paperback original by MacDonald. Very few if any were 1st editions. Most were in 4th, 5th and later printings.
Since I was born in 1958 and most of MacDonald’s short stories were published in magazines in the late 40’s/early 50’, I was a bit disappointed that I missed them. MacDonald himself helped with that when he put out his first volume of “The Good Old Stuff” followed by a second volume. In the next several years some of his stories were published in anthologies. So I also have a good collection of his short stories. In my collection is all of his books, except one a movie novelization of I Could Go On Singing, and many of his stories
I have read all in my collection, some more than once. With all of his output there is no way I can say I have a favorite. While I love his Travis McGee series, I have often thought of how I could create a character like McGee, I would say that some of his non-series books I liked even more.
In 1950 his first book length story “The Brass Cupcake” was published, as a paperback original. It was a time that paperbacks began a boom. He was one of the best authors of that generation, often publishing four novels a year. I believe that nearly all should be called classics. MacDonald should be part of every American Literature program.
Most of his novels published in the 50’s and 60’s were paperback originals. Although there were a few hardcover novels of his published. One hardcover work was 1958’s “The Executioners,”. It is one of his best known and bestselling novels and has been adapted twice as a major motion picture as “Cape Fear.”
Many of the stories take place in Florida and paint a picture of how life was in the 1950s and 60s. They give an image that depicts the way people talked and acted during those decades in the South. It’s a time without social media and the availability of instant communication. A period where everyone lived “off the grid”, since the grid was just starting to come into existence.
Often I think back on a Travis McGee’s thought from 1982 in Cinnamon Skin:
“Soon the bosses of the microcomputer revolution will sell us preprogrammed units for each household which will provide entertainment, print out news, purvey mail-order goods, pay bill, balance accounts, keep track of expenses and compute taxes. But by then the future managers will be over the far side of the thickets, dealing with bubble memory, machines that design machines, projects so esoteric our pedestrian’s minds can’t comprehend them. It will be the biggest revolution of all, bigger than the wheel, bigger than Franklin’s kite. Bigger than paper towels”
I have often wondered why MacDonald and his writings aren’t better known. To me they should be. But like many things, if they aren’t being discussed they fall into times remembered. I fell into that myself, which is why I missed the anniversary of Mr. MacDonald’s birth.
For me that was a big mistake and as we come to the 30th anniversary of his death, I will return to reading his words. Where shall I begin? At the beginning, with “The Brass Cupcake”.
And I would suggest that if you see a John D. MacDonald book at a yard sale, or on sale anywhere, buy it. I would highly encourage you to read it to rediscover a master story teller.
Many of his novels, the Travis McGee series is the easiest to be found since many are still in print today, can be found on eBay. And the best place to begin the Travis McGee series is also at the beginning with the first printed Travis McGee story, “The Deep Blue Goodbye”.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr once said of MacDonald “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.” My hope is that his works are rediscovered to be read and discussed during those next thousand years and beyond.
Visit Amazon.com’s John D. MacDonald Page http://amzn.to/2gZo0TA