Sunday, October 03, 2004

Remembering John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee

By Oline H. Cogdill
Mystery Columnist

September 28, 2004

It's only a brass plaque, a little more than a foot long. But as Florida's literary landmarks go, the plate marking the fictional Slip F-18 at the Bahia Mar marina in Fort Lauderdale ranks up there with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' house in Cross Creek and the Zora Neale Hurston museum in Eatonville.

That the Rawlings and Hurston sites commemorate real people and Slip F-18 honors the fictional "salvage consultant" Travis McGee, the hero of 21 novels by author John D. MacDonald, doesn't take away from its value.

Slip F-18, where McGee parked his houseboat The Busted Flush, was named Florida's first Literary Landmark by the Friends of Libraries in 1987. On Saturday, the plaque, removed during renovation at Bahia Mar, will be rededicated beginning at 10:30 a.m.

Although it's been 40 years since MacDonald introduced his hero, the novels still are considered a touchstone of the genre. The Harvard-educated MacDonald wasn't the first to use a Florida setting in mysteries. But he was a pioneer in weaving in themes of the environment, uncontrolled development and social issues -- topics still explored by the ever-growing cadre of Florida mystery writers.

MacDonald and Travis McGee came to crime fiction when hard-boiled novels sorely needed rejuvenation. By 1964, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler had died. With a few exceptions, the genre had degenerated into parodies of itself with misogynistic writers such as Mickey Spillane or Ian Fleming wannabes.

Les Standiford, author of the Miami-based John Deal novels, began reading MacDonald while in college, "drawn by his captivating story lines, which always seemed to transcend the typical and the mundane among crime writing."

Besides the unusual plots, the combination of the unique character and the Florida setting makes these novels timeless. Unlike most detectives at the time, McGee didn't have an office but lived aboard The Busted Flush, a 52-foot houseboat that he won in a card game. He liked to say that he was taking his retirement on the installment plan, recovering missing or stolen items for half their value, working when he wanted.

"In Travis, [MacDonald] created a character who is part blue-collar philosopher, part man of action, part romantic hero and part self-critical modern man struggling with the gender wars and a world that is too much with us," said James W. Hall, author of the award-winning Thorn series and a past recipient of the John D. MacDonald Award for Excellence in Florida Mystery Fiction. "All that helped shaped my own idea of what a good hero is."

Florida state of mind

MacDonald also capitalized on an exotic setting. Today, the regional mystery, set in myriad landscapes from small towns to major cities across the world, is the norm. But during the first part of the 20th century, the settings for mystery fiction were generally limited to New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and a couple of English villages. The only exception was Florida.

But MacDonald didn't just use Florida as a backdrop for his crime fiction, he immersed his novels in the state's qualities. McGee did more than walk the beach or trawl the waterways; he attacked uncontrolled development, fought greedy land grabbers and targeted a growing drug trade. The character was so linked to the Sunshine State that when McGee made the occasional sojourn to Chicago or another city it seemed as if he still had sand in his shoes.

"I always admired MacDonald's sense of place, feeling like I knew South Florida even though I was reading about it in Philadelphia," said Jonathon King, Edgar Award-winning author of the Max Freeman mysteries.

"The values that distinguish John D. MacDonald's work -- a strong sense of story, the emotional involvement of his hero, and what MacD called `a bit of unobtrusive poetry' -- are the same things that I strive for every day when I sit down to write," said Kristy Montee, who writes as P.J. Parrish, author of the Louis Kincaid novels.

In the early 1960s, Florida "exerted a mighty pull upon the consciousness of the nation as a far-flung and exotic playground full of promise," added Standiford, director of the creative writing program at Florida International University.

MacDonald also saw how the state's promise could be corrupted, and brought a social conscience to his novels.

McGee "was Robin Hood in flip-flops out to save Sherwood Forest from developers," said Christine Kling, whose latest novel is Cross Current.

"He was railing against the destruction of the Everglades and the paving of wetlands before most Floridians knew what he was talking about," said Paul Levine, the second winner of the John D. MacDonald Award (the first was Elmore Leonard) and now a screenwriter. "Here's a proposed law: Require every new Floridian to read [him]."

Indeed, MacDonald gave such an environmental thrust to his novels that he often stopped the action. Fans seldom cared.

"The plots mattered less to me than Travis' rants," said Kling. "I love the voice MacDonald created and I could listen to Travis McGee decrying the overdevelopment of South Florida, the modern world's dependence on credit cards or young women's beliefs that beauty was their salvation forever. McGee spoke to the part in all of us that would love to escape to the islands, to slow life down, to find the real value in human beings."

A voracious reader

Travis McGee made John Dann MacDonald a household name, but the author had already published more than 40 novels before he created his famous boat bum. Before he died in 1986, MacDonald had about 70 books and more than 500 short stories published.

MacDonald was born on July 24, 1916, in Pennsylvania to a homemaker and an alcoholic father who became a top executive at a firearms company. MacDonald became a voracious reader at age 12 when he was bedridden for a year with a bout of mastoiditis and scarlet fever. "I entertained myself by exercise of imagination," he wrote, according to Hugh Merrill's biography The Red Hot Typewriter.

A good student, MacDonald eventually earned his master's degree in business from Harvard, though he had always wanted to be a writer. "I worshipped writers but knew I could never be one," he said, according to Merrill.

After a series of failed jobs including stints as an insurance salesman and a repo man, MacDonald joined the Army in 1940. By this time, he was married and a father. Although stationed in India in the Office of Strategic Services -- which later became the Central Intelligence Agency -- MacDonald was no spy. He was deskbound, depressed, often ill; the work was "mindless." He began to write short stories, which would not be censored as were letters. To surprise him, his wife began sending these stories off to magazines. Many were rejected but Interlude in India sold to the well-respected Story Magazine for $25. He didn't find out he was a published writer until he was discharged.

After his discharge, MacDonald began writing furiously, receiving by his estimate a thousand rejections. But a few stories sold, especially to pulp magazines, the 20th century's version of the dime novel. MacDonald's scores of mystery, sports, science fiction and western short stories appeared in almost every pulp magazine between 1947 and 1952. He was so prolific that he often used pseudonyms.

Then came Fawcett Gold Medal Books, which wanted to dominate the original paperback novel market. MacDonald became one of the publisher's stable of new writers. His first novel, The Brass Cupcake, was published in 1950 and would set a trend for MacDonald's work. This tale of an insurance investigator is set in Florida, where the MacDonalds had lived since 1949, and is full of digressions about the state and society. His first breakthrough novel was 1958's The Executioners, which has been filmed twice as Cape Fear. He had written more than 40 novels when his publisher asked him to create a series character.

Colorful titles

In 1962, he began working on McGee, whom he once described as "the anti-hero, tough and tender, with many chinks in the armor."

McGee's first name was originally Dallas, which the author changed after Kennedy was assassinated. He chose Travis after an Air Force base in California. MacDonald lived in Sarasota, where he often wrote columns for the local newspaper, but placed his character in Fort Lauderdale because he thought the character might become popular. "I certainly did not want my privacy compromised by having him live over here," MacDonald is quoted in Merrill's biography.

Travis McGee's debut The Deep Blue Good-By was followed by three other novels, all published in 1964. Each McGee novel has a color in the title, though MacDonald never used "white" or "black." While MacDonald wrote other novels, nonfiction and even comedy skits, he continued the series the rest of his life. The last McGee novel, The Lonely Silver Rain, was published in 1984, two years before MacDonald's death at age 70. There have often been rumors that an unpublished MacDonald manuscript with the word "black" in the title exists, but the author's estate has always denied this.

The McGee novels, which were filmed twice and were the inspiration for a line of McGee shirts launched in 1969, have never been out of print and continue to be steady sellers.

"MacDonald is not just a Florida classic, he is truly an American classic," said Joanne Sinchuk, owner of Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore in Delray Beach. Sinchuk nominated The Deep Blue Good-By for the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century, edited by Jim Huang.

MacDonald continues to speak to mystery fans, but he has a special niche for Florida readers and writers.

Author Carl Hiaasen wrote about his affection for the character for an introduction to the novels' reprints during the 1990s.

"Quite possibly the old houseboat is tied there still; McGee on deck, tending a few fresh bruises, sipping his Boodles, and watching the summer sun slide from the sky over Las Olas Boulevard. Anyway, that's what I want to believe. If he's really gone, I prefer not to know."

Oline Cogdill can be reached at
Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Remembering John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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