John D. MacDonald

10 April 2021

Anything by John D. MacDonald is worth looking at. From the 1950s through the
1980s he wrote a huge numbers of books, primarily in the 'thriller' category,
but also wrote a bit of science fiction. I occasionally run across one of his
stories in an old pulp magazine, written before he became a successful novelist.
One of these departures 'The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything', became a
fairly entertaining TV movie in the early 1980s with the charming duo of
Robert Hays (Airplane!) and Pam Dawber (ahem).

But his greatest success was in writing crime fiction, and his best known work
was the Travis McGee series of about 20 (21 I believe) about an unlicensed
private detective who recovers stolen property for people who have no legal
recourse, in return for half of what he recovers. Naturally there are a lot
of nasty and dangerous characters and rather tense (if only occasionally
slightly improbable) situations. Perhaps the most unnerving of all comes at
the end of 'Free Fall in Crimson', one of the later entries.

"The End of the Night" is one of his most memorable works (for me anyway) is
quite unnerving, is the opening chapter (sort of a pro-epilogue which we find
describes the aftermath of what follows). It deals with the execution of four
young adults who went on a killing spree (the book was published in 1971, when
such things were relatively unusual). The casual way in which the prison
guard describes participating in the executions of three young men and a young
woman in the electric chair manages to be almost as disturbing as the crimes
themselves. 'One Monday We Killed Them All' is in a similar vein, about a
sheriff's deputy whose brother-in-law, a murderous ex-con, has come to live
with him and his wife.

A number of his books have been adapted to film, the most notable being 'The
Executioners' filmed as 'Cape Fear' (twice, in 1960 and 1991) and one of the
Travis McGee books. The McGee book 'The Empty Copper Sea' was made into a TV
movie entitled simply 'Travis McGee', and as much as I like Sam Elliott, it
wasn't that good. An earlier McGee adaptation (Darker than Amber) was made
in 1970 and was a financial failure, which is perhaps why there was never a
Travis McGee series. I suspect MacDonald's writing is somewhat too cerebral
for film audiences, especially television viewers. But the books contain a
number of memorable (usually for being terrifying) characters such as Junior
Allen in 'The Deep Blue Goodbye' and Dirty Bob Grizzel in 'Free Fall in Crimson'.
The McGee stories (all written in the first person) immediately capture the
readers's attention and stopping is occasioned either by finishing the book or
needing to sleep.

(Let me gratuitiously anger a few people at this point by suggesting that the
reason that epic science fictions such as Frank Herbert's 'Dune' have failed
(commercially at least) as films - there is simply an intellectual leap which
most (easily more than half and probably more) film and especially television
audiences are unable or unwilling to make. Those serious SF works that are
successful, such as Robert Heinlein's 'The Puppet Masters' and 'Starship
Troopers' had do be 'dumbed down' to action flicks to succeed in that market.
Most, if not all, of the considerable of wisdom in Heinlein's work was lost.)

MacDonald seems to know something about a great many subjects. Of course
boats figure prominently into the Travis McGee stories (he lives on one), but
guns are also appear frequently, with generally accurate discussion of
technical details. I can not judge his knowledge of things like rare stamps,
jewels, or Mexican jungles, so I must leave that to those who can. McDonald
does seem to know a lot about a lot of things.

Given that the Travis McGee books were written mostly in the 1960s and 1970s
(the last being published in 1985), they hold up remarkably well, much as such
works as the 'Dirty Harry' films of the 1970s and 1980s. Probably because
like most astute observers of humanity, he depicted characteristics and
behavior of people, good and bad, which do not change with time.