Tag Archives: John D. MacDonald

John D. MacDonald over at BlackGate.com

MacDonald_TigerYesterday, July 24th, marked the 100th anniversary of John MacD’s birth (and it was also my twelfth wedding anniversary. Fortunately, I remembered both occasions!).

You can search John’s name here at AlmostHolmes and find several posts I’ve written about my favorite author. For today’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ post over at BlackGate.com, I talk about JDM, and delve a bit into one of my favorite short stories, “The Trap of Solid Gold.”

Please head on over. And if the mood strikes you, leave a comment. That shows there’s some interest in the post topic. I work for free, so I don’t think they’ll be cutting me loose just yet, but it’s good to see discussions going on about the posts.

And if you’ve (shudder) never read any of MacDonald’s work, I truly believe that you’re missing out on one of the finest writers of the twentieth century. In any genre. He was just that good.


John D MacDonald – Insightful Author

ImageOne of the reasons I enjoy reading John D. MacDonald is because he was a fantastic social commentator: long before it became common in mainstream fiction. You got to thinking while reading a MacDonald book. The following is from A Man of Affairs:

“You see, he’s in the most cynical and potentially dangerous business in the world. Telling people what to think and what to believe. It has been frightening me ever since I’ve been in it, which isn’t long. Its’ the power that frightens me. There’s more power in Manhattan, more power over the human mind, than in any city since the dawn of time.

Just suppose, Sam, that every public relations firm, every advertising agency, and every press agent and every columnist joined in a concerted effort, a coordinated effort to convince the nation that…oh, say that everybody is entitled to one homicide a year. They’d sell it, Sam. They’d sell it big. And it would sure cut hell out of the population.”

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John D. MacDonald – ‘The selling of a politician’s self’ from Judge Me Not

MacDonald was a social commentator (critic, really) without peer among paperback fictioneers. This, from Judge Me Not:Image

“The moralists talk about right and wrong, Mark.”

“It isn’t that simple. A man enters public life and he tells himself that he will do good. He will be effective and the people will benefit. It is idealism of a respectable variety. And then he discovers that he must make certain compromises in order to achieve the good. Like a man who build a house. To afford the roof, he must order cheaper windows. To afford a fireplace, he must skimp on the foundation. The house no longer satisfies him as much as it did, but he tells himself that without the short cuts, there would be no house at all.

“But in public life, each compromise makes the next compromise easier, and each move toward good makes the next move more difficult. It is a miserable equation to live with. Yet the man goes on, and he tells himself that if you take the total good, and subtract the total evil, the net result is good. He drifts along, clutching the illusion, until one day he adds it up and he discovers that evil outbalances good. And he never knows the precise point where the balance changed, nor does he know which specific compromise was the wrong one.”

THAT is  a keen look into human nature. I received my Masters in Public Administration 1991. I had started working in the public sector in 1989 and have now been in the public and nonprofit world for twenty-five straight years. I have seen people who know better, or who should know better, make these compromises, I still see it today and I will keep seeing it until I retire from public service. What MacDonald wrote in 1951 is still true in 2014.

I myself talked about this concept in a missive I wrote regarding resisting temptation:

The man at work does not plan to cover up a crime. But he knows that his boss doesn’t like being told certain types of things.  He sees something wrong. Not illegal, but not right. His workplace environment encourages people to see gray instead of black and white. And  black and white means wrong and right.

So he just ignores it. The devil whispers in his ear “It’s a little thing. Just go along and it’s all good. Nobody likes a trouble maker.” Well, it is a little more ‘not right’ the next time. But it is still something that could make his work life uncomfortable, so he doesn’t say anything.

Another little step. A few more steps down the line and the inspectors find that a law or regulation has been broken. It is not something that sends people to jail, but it does  require an investigation and some explanation. And the man cannot quite put into words why he never told anybody his concerns about what was going on.

Hey: my writing has something in common with John MacDonald!!!!

I recall this being at the heart of Robert Ludlum’s Trevayne, which he wrote while immersed in the disillusionment of Watergate. Trivia: that book came out under Ludlum’s pen name, Jonathan Ryder.

Judge Me Not is about a couple of honest men trying to clean up a corrupt town. It’s an updated (for the nineteen fifties) version of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (a must read). Much of the book still feels current: sad to say, including the sex trafficking. I think it’s in the top half of his library.

A Mickey Spillane Parody by John D. MacDonald

ImageJohn D. MacDonald’s first novel was a somewhat hard boiled tale, The Brass Cupcake. He wrote it for the pulps but his agent, Joe Shaw (former Black Mask editor), saw an opportunity to make more money and submitted it to Fawcett as a Gold Medal Original. They took it and MacDonald would become the cornerstone of Gold Medal’s mystery/thriller line (just as Louis L’Amour was for their westerns).

MacDonald was appealing to the Mickey Spillane crowd with this book. As an acknowledgement to Spillane, he sent the following parody to Dick Carroll, his editor at Gold Medal Books:

It was one of those afternoons when the greasy sunshine flooded Third Avenue like a men’s room with a broken john. She came out of the alley lapping at her juicy red lips with her pointed spicy tongue.

I shouldered her out of the way and blew the smoke off of the end of the rod. He lay there in the alley and he was dead. I don’t know why I did it but I aimed at him and blew off the other half of his greasy skull. It was a dirty world full of dirty people and I was sick of it. I felt the crazy anger welling up in me. He lay there in the alley and he was dead. She rubbed her thorax against me. I blasted his teeth out through the back of his neck.

Pat shouldered her out of the way. He was picking his greasy teeth with a broken match. A smart cop, that Pat.

“I knew you was going to go kill crazy again, Mike. This has got to stop.”

I knew it couldn’t stop. Not while there were people left in the world. Dirty people in a dirty world. I had to kill all that I could. Even if they lifted my license. He lay there in the greasy alley in the greasy Third Avenue sunshine and he was dead and I was glad I’d shot his greasy skull apart.

“Mike, Mike,” she gasped, stabbing her tongue into my ear. It tickled.

I fingered her haunch, then shoved her away hard. She looked at me with those wide, spicy hot eyes.

“You haven’t fooled me a bit,” I rasped. Then I laughed. My laugh sounded like two Buicks rubbing together.

She knew what I meant. She said, “Look what I can give you, Mike.” She unlatched her Maidenform.

I looked at it. I felt the sadness, the regret. But the anger was there. Pat sucked on the greasy match. He turned his head. He was a good cop.

The first shot nailed her against the alley wall. While she was slipping, her eyes still pleading with me, I wrote my initials across her gut with hot lead. It was tricky shooting.

Pat sighed. He said, “Mike, the D.A.’ll have something to say about this.”

“Screw the D.A.,” I said. My voice sounded like a lead nickel in a stone jukebox.

We walked out of the alley, down through the soggy sunshine. Somehow, I felt very tired.

I don’t mind watching the Stacy Keach Mike Hammer television series, but I find Spillane unreadable, so I find this to be a pretty amusing parody.

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.