John D. MacDonald

This article is about an American author. For the British surgeon, see John Denis Macdonald.
John D. MacDonald
Born (1916-07-24)July 24, 1916
Sharon, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died December 28, 1986(1986-12-28) (aged 70)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
Occupation Novelist, short story writer
Nationality American
Period 1945–1986
Genre Detective fiction

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

MacDonald was a prolific author of crime and suspense novels, many of them set in his adopted home of Florida. His best-known works include the popular and critically acclaimed Travis McGee series, and his novel The Executioners, which was filmed twice as Cape Fear in 1962 and again in 1991. In 1972, MacDonald was named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, and he won a 1980 U.S. National Book Award in the one-year category Mystery.[1] Stephen King[2] praised MacDonald as "the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller." 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

MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, where his father worked for Savage Arms. The family moved to Utica, New York, in 1926, where his father became treasurer of the Utica branch of the Savage Arms Corporation. In 1934, MacDonald was sent to Europe for several weeks, which whetted his appetite for travel and for photography.

After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, but he dropped out during his sophomore year. MacDonald worked at menial jobs in New York City for a short time, then was admitted to Syracuse University, where he met his future wife, Dorothy Prentiss. They married in 1937, and he graduated from Syracuse the following year.

In 1939, MacDonald received an MBA from Harvard University. He was later able to make good use of his education in business and economics by incorporating elaborate business swindles into the plots of several of his novels.

In 1940, MacDonald accepted a direct commission as a first lieutenant in the Army Ordnance Corps. During World War II, he served in the OSS in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. He was discharged in September 1945 as a lieutenant colonel.

Writing career

Early pulp story

MacDonald's literary career began almost by accident. In 1945, while still in the Army, he wrote a short story and mailed it to his wife. She submitted it to Esquire magazine, which rejected it. She then sent it to Story magazine, which accepted for $25, good money for that time. He learned of this just after his ship arrived in the United States.

After his discharge, 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 finally a $40 sale to the pulp magazine Dime Detective set his career in motion. He would eventually sell nearly 500 short stories to the detective, mystery, adventure, sports, Western, and science fiction magazines.[4] Several times, MacDonald's stories were the only ones in an issue of a magazine, but this was hidden by using pseudonyms.

Hardboiled thrillers

As the boom in paperback novels expanded, MacDonald successfully made the jump 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 in Time and Tomorrow (1980).

Between 1953 and 1964, MacDonald specialized in crime thrillers, many of which are now considered masterpieces of the hardboiled genre. Most of these novels were published as paperback originals, although some were later republished in hardbound editions. Many, such as Dead Low Tide (1953) and Murder in the Wind (1956), were set in his adopted home of Florida, and were effective in suggesting a sinister aura lurking beneath the glittery surface of that state. Novels such as The Executioners (1957) (which was twice filmed as Cape Fear, first in 1962 and again in 1991) and One Monday We Killed Them All (1962) penetrated the minds of psychopathic killers. As MacDonald honed his craft, he developed his narrative "voice," one of the most distinctive in the suspense fiction field.

He is credited with writing about the effect of the building boom 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, James Hall and Jonathon King, have followed suit.

Travis McGee

MacDonald's protagonists were often intelligent and introspective men, sometimes with a hard cynical streak. 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 pieces as he went along. He first appeared in the 1964 novel The Deep Blue Good-by and was last seen in The Lonely Silver Rain in 1985. All titles in the 21-volume 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 trademark lodgings on his 52-foot (16 m) houseboat, the Busted Flush, named for the poker hand that started the run of luck in which he won her. She is docked at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar marina, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.


MacDonald died at age 70, on December 28, 1986, at St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from complications of an earlier heart bypass operation.[5]

Media adaptations


Various writers have acknowledged the trail that MacDonald and McGee blazed, 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 of the current crop of Florida-based mystery writers acknowledge a debt to MacDonald, including Randy Wayne White, James Hall, Les Standiford, Jonathon King and Tim Dorsey.[6] Lawrence Block's New York-based 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 cut.

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."

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 recent 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 move 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 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 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,[7] 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."

Writer/lyricist/musician Jimmy Buffett tips his hat to MacDonald in the songs "Prince Of Tides" on 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 novels

Main article: Travis McGee

Non-series novels (excluding science fiction)


Short story collections

Science fiction

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. "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-08. (With essay by Glen David Gold from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  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. Jonathan Yardley, "John D. MacDonald's Lush Landscape of Crime", Washington Post, Nov. 11, 2003
  5. Fraser, C. Gerald (1986-12-29). "John D. Macdonald, Novelist, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-06.
  6. Mystery Readers International: Florida Mysteries, Volume 15, No. 4, Winter 1999-2000
  7. "Nathaniel Philbrick: By the Book". The New York Times Book Review. 2016-05-29. Retrieved 2016-05-31.


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