John D. MacDonald – Better Than the Rest

JMD_Desk“With sufficient funds to cover four months’ living expenses, he set out and wrote at an incredible pace, providing eight hundred thousand words. Writing for a wide variety of magazines, he kept more than thirty stories in the mail constantly, not giving up on a story until it had been rejected by at least ten markets.

In the process he accumulated almost a thousand rejection slips after five months of effort. During this period, MacDonald worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, literally learning his craft and gaining the experience of a decade as he went along, which was important for a man who made no serious attempt to write until he was thirty.” – Martin H. Greenberg in the introduction to ‘Other Times, Other Worlds.’

That is how John D. MacDonald, thirty years old, fresh out of the military in 1946 and with JDM  letterone published short story (which he actually sent to his wife in a letter: she submitted it to a magazine) learned the craft of fiction writing.

Some quotes about MacDonald:

“…the great entertainer of our age and a mesmerizing storyteller” – Stephen King

“My favorite novelist of all time.” – Dean Koontz

“…remains one of my idols.” – Donald Westlake

“…one of the great sagas in American fiction.” – Robert B Parker (on the Travis McGee series)

MacDonald_ExecutionersThere are a lot more. MacDonald began writing for the pulps, transitioned to original paperbacks as the pulps died out and ended up a hardcover best seller with an enduring character, Travis McGee.

In 1957, MacDonald wrote The Executioners. Published in hardback, it garnered the critical reviews that had bypassed MacDonald for a decade. It was even a book club alternate selection. But one reader made all the difference.

Gregory Peck, one of the country’s biggest movie stars, read the book, liked it and put together a deal to star in a film version. Robert Mitchum played one of the all time screen villains in Cape Fear; so named because the final confrontation was moved from the novel’s farmhouse to a houseboat on the Cape Fear River. It was remade under the same name in 1991 with Nick Nolte in Peck’s role and seriously disturbing Robert DeNiro as the bad guy.

The Executioners moved MacDonald up a rung on the critical respectability ladder. A few years later, because Richard Prather switched publishing companies, Travis McGee was born. I’ll talk about that in another post soon.

MacDonald wrote a LOT of short stories in those earlier years and many of the best were included in two collections: The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff. They are well worth a read.

MacDonald_GantryNext up we’ll look at the origins of Travis McGee (know why his first name was changed from Dallas? You soon will) and the book that served as an unintentional test run. Leonardo DiCaprio is currently trying to get a McGee movie made (two prior efforts starred Rod Taylor and Sam Eliot). MacDonald’s crime thrillers and McGee tales certainly offer much for Hollywood.

MacDonald is best known for McGee, and some folks know his books were the basis of movies like Cape Fear and Condominium. While some are better than others, you won’t go wrong picking up The Brass Cupcake, A Flash of Green, One More Sunday, The Damned or any of a couple dozen other MacDonald books. He’s that good.

John D. MacDonald is no relation to Ross MacDonald, author of the Lew Archer private eye series. The latter’s real name is Kenneth Millar and he borrowed from his father’s name, John MacDonald Millar. He chose John Ross MacDonald, but his name showed as John MacDonald on the first Archer book, The Moving Target. Relations were strained between the two authors for many years.

2 thoughts on “John D. MacDonald – Better Than the Rest

  1. Bob Byrne Post author

    So, after doing some research on MacDonald for my recent posts about him, I decided to take a Holmes/Pons break and re-read some John MacD. I dusted off “The Drowner” and settled in. Not his best novel, but still pretty good, I once again am reminded what a writer the guy was. The man can tell a story with all of the right words. Just an exceptional fiction writer.


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