Sunday 5 March 2017

Introducing John D. MacDonald

I'm looking forward to writing a series of posts about one of my favourite writers of all time. 

He's scandalously forgotten now, but in his heyday John Dann MacDonald (1916-1986) sold tens of millions of books and was omnipresent on the paperback racks.

McDonald's métier was crime or suspense fiction. But he also wrote powerful human dramas, highly effective humour and some outstanding science fiction. 

Sometimes he combined these genres (The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything is science fiction humour, and it's smashing). He even wrote a charming book about his cats.

But crime was his main thing. And he was impressively prolific. One book about MacDonald and his writing has the highly appropriate title The Red Hot Typewriter. You may want to check it out. Written by Hugh Merrill, it's a readable and useful introduction to MacDonald. 
Unfortunately it's also annoyingly error-prone. For instance, Merrill declares that the short story 'Looie Follows Me' (he calls it 'Louie Follows Me') is "about big-city gangsters." In fact it's a touching tale of small children in a rural setting.

A more solidly reliable book is simply called John D. MacDonald and it's by David Geherin. 

But the most painless introduction to this fine writer is the excellent BBC Radio 4 program 21 Shades of Noir. Available indefinitely online, you can listen to it while jogging, driving, or riding to work on public transport.

It's hosted by Lee Child, another big fan of MacDonald and himself a colossally successful crime writer — he's the creator of the Jack Reacher series. Child is to be applauded for his support and enthusiasm. Largely thanks to his efforts MacDonald's reputation is being recovered from obscurity.

Unfortunately, this has also led to MacDonald's Travis McGee novels being meretriciously repackaged to look like Jack Reacher adventures. I think this is a mistake, since the appeal of the two series are very different.

Travis McGee is MacDonald's immortal character, created in 1963, after decades of resisting his publisher imploring him for a series. McGee ushered in the third great phase of MacDonald's career, which began as a short-story-writing machine for the pulp magazines  in the 1940s and then segued into a star novelist of the paperback originals in the 1950s.

John D. MacDonald started writing just as the careers of the three great giants of American crime fiction — Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain — were drawing to a close. 

Of these three, MacDonald is closest to Cain in that his plots often involved ordinary people who are swept to destruction by currents of greed or lust. Whereas Hammett and Chandler tended to write about the professionals who came along and picked up the pieces afterwards.

In terms of his prose style, MacDonald doesn't really resemble any of these three. And in fact, by the time he hits his stride in the 1950s he was better than any of them in his sheer ability to use language. MacDonald's prose was a shrewd blend of brilliant description, acute observation, cynical humour and what he called "unobtrusive poetry".

The quality of his writing was unprecedented in the crime field, and pretty much in American literature at large. (Though if he had no clear predecessors, he had a least one very distinguished successor — Thomas Harris shows the emphatic and beneficial influence of MacDonald throughout his work.)

If MacDonald had a flaw it was in moments of  over-sentimentality — something which Hammett, Chandler and Cain were very unlikely to succumb to. MacDonald also tended to over-write, sometimes embarrassingly so, when devising erotic-romantic scenes.

But by the late 1960s even these minor flaws had fallen away and left him as the great American storyteller at the top of his game... for another twenty years.

It will be my pleasure in the weeks to come to guide you through some of the highlights of his long and dazzling career. 

(Image credits: The shot of John D. at the typewriter is from Thrilling Detective. The Geherin cover is from Pinterest. The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper, a lovely Bob McGinnis cover for this late McGee reprint, is from Good Reads. The McGee omnibus with the Jack Reacher style cover is from Penguin Books. The Red Hot Typewriter is from Amazon UK. Deadly Welcome is from Facsimile Dustjackets. The House Guests is from ABE Books. The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything is from John D. MacDonald covers.)


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  2. I'll be interested to see those future posts. I've read a few of his Travis McGee books, which are not really my preferred thing but the early ones are a window in time to 1960s Florida which is interesting in and of itself.
    Will you be watching any of the movie or TV adaptations as you go through the books?

    1. Hey James, thank you for reading — and commenting. Personally, I like the McGees, but they are far from the only thing to discuss in MacDonald's canon. It hadn't occurred to me to check out the film and TV adaptations, but it's a cool idea. MacDonald didn't have much luck in this area (though some of the one-off TV adaptations, for example for the Alfred Hitchcock TV show are said to be good). His finest hour on film would, I guess, be Cape Fear. With my preference running to the Scorsese version.

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