John D. MacDonald MacDonald, John D(ann) (Vol. 27) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John D(ann) MacDonald 1916–

American mystery and science fiction writer.

Among the most prolific and popular writers of detective fiction, MacDonald is also one of the most highly praised within this genre. Although his stories are formulaic, they are well-crafted, featuring artfully devised plots and a wide diversity of crimes and characters. Within the framework of solving mysteries, MacDonald has shown a deftness for capturing the local color of various American communities, especially of those in Florida, and his stories offer keen social criticism on environmental concerns, business and government corruption, and the artificiality of commercial culture.

MacDonald is best known for his Travis McGee series. McGee, a husky and virile "salvage expert," lives on a houseboat away from commercialized Florida, coming ashore only to aid victims of crime—in much the same manner as Robin Hood—for a fifty percent commission. McGee salvages both the material loss and the emotional state of his characters and then returns to his boat. Cinnamon Skin (1982), the most recent addition to the McGee series, is representative of MacDonald's successful blend of machismo, local color, and social criticism.

(See also CLC, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)

David A. Benjamin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Travis McGee] has the hint of meanness and suggestion of illegality that made Sam Spade such a fascinatingly ambiguous character; he has [Phillip] Marlowe's sense of self-directed irony, his striking physical presence, and though more open to sensual experience, he shares in main his moral outlook; and finally he has Lew Archer's sensitivity and interest in others, a willingness to get involved with people, probably more involved than Archer himself.

Yet if McGee's character relates in part to an illustrious tradition, much of his personality as well as the basic ingredients of the novels must be traced to MacDonald's earlier suspense novels. (pp. 29-30)

The basic plot of a McGee adventure usually begins with the interaction of a girl (either an old friend or friend of a friend or kin to one) in trouble, and a large sum of money (missing, stolen or buried). Travis swallows the bait and sets off on his mission of rescue, either by land (in Miss Agnes, his faithful Rolls pick-up truck), or by sea (in the Busted Flush, his elegant houseboat that he won in a poker game from a Brazilian playboy). Usually he is accompanied by Meyer, the hairy and brainy economist-cum-pal also living in quasi-retirement on a houseboat (in Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, Florida). Meyer rarely has a major role in the subsequent action (the major exception to this being The Long Lavender Look [1970] where his role is vital), serving instead as a useful convention, the idiosyncratic buddy, a bright Watson to McGee's earthy Holmes. McGee, like the Hemingway hero, is someone to whom things happen, and who also manages to make things happen. Once he has supplied sufficient pressure, the local scene explodes, and Travis then fits the pieces into the right slots. Usually the mystery-adventure involves a gang of con artists of one sort or another: smuggling, thievery, bamboozling, all types of chicanery. Rarely are we ever confronted with murder just for murder's sake: the profit motive is writ large in John D. MacDonald's world, as is only fitting of a novelist with an M.A. from the Harvard Business School.

Travis tracks down the gang through a tenacious process of elimination (usually literal); he somehow survives a grotesque assortment of killings and general mayhem, although his friends often aren't as lucky. The climax of the novels involves a ferocious mano-a-mano between Travis and the killer, invariably an upwardly mobile sadistic psychopath. In this struggle. Travis is almost killed, but recovers amazingly (lucky breaks seem to fall his way), gains the upper hand, relaxes (stupidly) and, then is attacked once again by his now totally crazed adversary, who gets a death grip on McGee, but never manages to consummate the act. Usually he ends up killing himself while trying to escape (thus saving...

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Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like the other McGee novels, The Empty Copper Sea is a Cook's tour of the shadier side of the Sunshine State. We meet its Sun Belt aristocracy of bankers, contractors, insurance agents and big-money operators, and its confused underclass of retirees in mobile homes and condos, drifters with dark tans and darker notions, and the restive, frustrated middle class. Most of all, we meet people who in one way or another are sticking it to other people….

[MacDonald's] is not a cheerful view of the world. Everywhere he turns he sees crooks, corruption, venality, selfishness, stupidity—above all, the conscienceless rich socking it to a defenseless society. The disappearance of Hub Lawless, the yachting businessman, sets off a chain of events that affects almost everyone in Timber Bay; the novel is really about "all the people who get hurt when somebody sets up a conspiracy to defraud."

That may explain why, apart from the pure entertainment he provides, MacDonald has such a large and loyal following: under all the cynicism and violence, the cheap sex and the plastic motels, there is a strong streak of compassion. He cares far more about the victim than the villian. He would also doubtless argue, as the surprising conclusion of The Empty Copper Sea attests, that we are all victims. Whatever the case, what matters is that without any pretensions he has serious things to say, and he says them uncommonly well.

Jonathan Yardley, "Travis Triumphs Again," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), September 10, 1978, p. E3.

John Casey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Cinnamon Skin" is as good as, or perhaps even a little better than, the standard Travis McGee.

In this quest McGee and his eccentric economist friend Meyer are attempting to track down a man who has had several identities and several consorts whom he has killed. Bluebeard, in a word. The quest is, as it should be, the chief pleasure in a McGee mystery, but Mr. MacDonald also has a reporter's ear for odd facts and arresting tones of voice. McGee and Meyer get people talking about their work, and we hear good on-the-job briefings from a geologist, a real-estate tycoon, a farm-equipment salesman, a cafe waitress, a west-Texas police sergeant and others.

For those John D. MacDonald fans who stay the course, there is an additional element—an autumnal wistfulness in the maverick McGee. His current ladylove, whom we meet in the beginning, opts for a promotion in her career that takes her away from Florida and McGee. He muses about what it would have been like to have children. He sighs about the despoiling that has occurred in Florida (he used to be angrier that it was happening).

But the essential elements of the series remain: The bad guy operates not only out of greed but out of sexual villainy. Many of Mr. MacDonald's villains have a dangerous power over women, to which the reader, along with McGee, is a sometime voyeur. The brute can make them cry for more, as if he has an instinct for that...

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David Geherin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The two most obvious statements that can be made about John D. MacDonald as a writer are, one, that he is prolific (sixty-three novels and hundreds of short stories to date) and, two, that he is immensely popular (at least twenty-six of his titles have sold more than a million copies each). While popularity is certainly no assurance of quality, neither is it necessarily evidence of inferior work. What is readily apparent to any reader of MacDonald's novels is that he is a writer of great versatility and talent whose high standards have combined with high productivity to produce a significant body of outstanding fiction.

Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, has become as famous an address as Sherlock's Holmes's 221b Baker Street flat or Nero Wolfe's West 35th Street brownstone…. Travis McGee has joined the small but select company of fictional characters who manage to transcend the boundaries of the books in which they appear. However, thanks to MacDonald's care in creating a character with substance as well as stature, McGee has also become an effective spokesman for public and private themes. An endlessly fascinating man, his growth, development, and faithful adherence to principles of moral behavior in an increasingly amoral world are sources of continuing interest. Equally important, he serves as a prism through which MacDonald is able to reflect his own views and opinions on dozens of issues of contemporary relevance. Whether assailing the venality and corruption he sees around him, bemoaning the regrettable decline in the quality of much of our contemporary culture, or deploring the shameless assaults on the environment, McGee has become an impassioned commentator on the way we live today—a feature that elevates his exciting adventures to a level of seriousness beyond mere escapist entertainment.

In an impressive body of fiction, which comprises considerably more than the Travis McGee novels, MacDonald has shown that writing for a mass-market audience (most of his books have first appeared as paperback originals) and adhering to the general patterns of genre fiction—activities that some would dismiss as second-rate—are in his case no impediments to the creation of first-rate work. His widespread popularity attests to the fact that he knows how to entertain his readers, but even a cursory examination of the novels themselves shows that he also has important things to say about contemporary America, and that he says them uncommonly well. Combining readability with serious intentions, MacDonald enjoys the enviable status of a writer who appeals both to those readers who claim they never read mysteries and to the legions of devoted fans who do. (pp. vii-viii)

MacDonald is a gifted storyteller…. Neither as byzantine as Ross Macdonald's nor as loose and desultory as Raymond Chandler's, MacDonald's plots are well-woven, artfully constructed arrangements of action sequences. They are neither needlessly complex nor do they exist simply to obscure the identity of the villain until the final chapter. A master at creating and sustaining mystery, suspense, tension, and drama, MacDonald understands all the tricks of readability; turning the pages in one of his novels is always a pleasure, never a duty. And although each of the McGee books adheres to the general outlines of a simple recurring pattern—McGee is roused from The Busted Flush to retrieve or restore some valuable item for a person in distress, usually a woman, and then retires to his boat again at the completion of his mission—MacDonald is skillful enough to avoid duplicating situations. Finally, his plots generate enough narrative energy to keep the reader moving at a brisk pace throughout the books, yet are flexible enough to...

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