Studying the Masters of Detective Fiction II – John D. MacDonald

This post is the second in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

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Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 2 – John D. MacDonald

Just the name of his fabled character, Travis McGee, starts your imagination working overtime to picture this man. McGee was the opposite of Sherlock Holmes as described in my earlier post on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was more of a playboy who lived on a houseboat, bedded beautiful women, and took half of the profit from stolen goods that he recovered.

MacDonald himself was a well-educated man a degree from Syracuse University, my hometown, and an Ivy League MBA. He then entered World War II as a first lieutenant in the army.

MacDonald’s literary career started by happenstance. While away in the war, he mailed a short story to his wife who submitted it to Esquire Magazine and it was rejected. She then submitted it to Story Magazine and they accepted it for $25. When MacDonald found out about it upon his return, he spent the next four months cranking out 800,000 words of short stories and losing 20 pounds.

His eventual sale of a story to Dime Magazine was the first of nearly 500 stories to various magazines, some of which would fill an entire issue with only his stories under various names.

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MacDonald’s career flourished during the period from 1953 to 1964 during which he almost single-handedly crafted the hard-boiled detective genre.  His signature character, Travis McGee, made his debut in 1964 in the novel The Deep Blue Goodbye. This swaggering Florida figure who lived on a houseboat named the Busted Flush was the prototype for many private eyes that came after him like Jim Rockford, Thomas Magnum, and others.

MacDonald wrote 21 McGee stories over the next 21 years with every title containing a color within it.  Like Sherlock Holmes, McGee had an educated sidekick on some of his books named Meyer who was an economist and Ph.D. Most of the McGee stories took place in Florida.

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MacDonald’s most famous film adaptation was from the Novel, The Executioners, which became the movie, Cape Fear which premiered in 1962 and was remade in 1991.

As I look at my own work, I see some unintended similarities. I have written private eye novels that take place in Florida. My detective lives in a trailer instead of a houseboat. He also has an educated attorney as a sidekick. I say that these similarities are unintended as I read my first John D. MacDonald book after I wrote my first novel. I must have had this blueprint internalized before I began my writing from adaptations of MacDonald’s model.

I have read many of Mr. MacDonald’s books since the first. You can see his prowess as a writer grow continuously throughout his works. I can now claim him as a role model due to the quality and prolific nature of his work.

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