John D. MacDonald is one of the most iconic figures in the history of American literature, but in a strangely invisible way.
He sold some 70 million books in a career that straddled the middle of the so-called American Century (he was publishing from 1945 to 1986) and pioneered the use of a consistent “title theme” in a series, which is still pervasive in today’s mystery/thriller genres, in his towering masterwork: the Travis McGee books (subsequent examples include Sue Grafton’s “alphabet series,” Janet Ivanovich’s “number series,” and James Patterson’s Alex Cross books’ use of nursery rhymes).
The McGee books use colors:
1. The Deep Blue Good-by (1964)
2. Nightmare in Pink (1964)
3. A Purple Place for Dying (1964)
4. The Quick Red Fox (1964)
5. A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965)
6. Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965)
7. Darker than Amber (1966)
8. One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966)
9. Pale Gray for Guilt (1968)
10. The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968)
11. Dress Her in Indigo (1969)
12. The Long Lavender Look (1970)
13. A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971)
14. The Scarlet Ruse (1972)
15. The Turquoise Lament (1973)
16. The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974)
17. The Empty Copper Sea (1978)
18. The Green Ripper (1979)
19. Free Fall in Crimson (1981)
20. Cinnamon Skin (1982)
21. The Lonely Silver Rain (1984)
Admittedly, MacDonald is perhaps even better known as the man behind “The Executioners” (later turned into an excellent film, twice, as “Cape Fear”) and several other standout standalone novels (including 1977’s “Condominium,” which holds up as just as socially relevant today as when it was first published).
Yet, for all this success and prolific output, MacDonald’s legacy is bereft of the cult of personality that so often forms around similar seminal writers of the era. My bookworm buddies, many much better read than myself, are at best vaguely familiar with the man. But why?
Some of this, I believe, can no doubt be chalked up to the critical indifference to mystery/thriller novels in MacDonald’s day (an attitude which some say continues — though certainly to a much lesser degree).
Also, there have been comparably few film adaptations of his work (“Cape Fear” being, obviously, a huge exception). In fact, I’m aware of less than 10 films based on MacDonald’s oeuvre (more on them and the surprisingly controversial McGee movies in a later post).
Imagine the difference it would have made to Stephen King’s visibility if De Palma’s “Carrie” had not come out — or if it had, and it had not been such a masterpiece — just two years after the book was published. The second King adaptation came just a few years later — and it was Kubrick’s “The Shining”! His status as an icon was fixed early on. How much did the “Fight Club” film do for Chuck Palahniuk as a pop culture figure, or “Gone Girl” for Gillian Flynn? Were those books successful on their own? Of course. Would the books still have been excellent and important works? Yes. But would those authors themselves be so well known? I submit they would not.
Additionally, MacDonald is unique in that I’m aware of no other writer that is so wildly and often praised by other writers.
Check out the back of some of the McGee books and you’ll find gushing blurbs from Jonathan Kellerman (who called the series “among the finest works of fiction ever penned by an American author”) Dean Koontz, John Saul, Kurt Vonnegut, Mary Higgins Clark, Stephen King, Donald Westlake and Sue Grafton, among others.
In the 1982 edition of his nonfiction writing guide “How to Write Best Selling Fiction,” Koontz has a chapter — “Read, Read, Read” — wherein he lists and summarizes the importance of authors he says have “defined popular fiction.”
The MacDonald section, one of the chapter’s longest, in part reads thusly:
“The one and only … Personally, I would even go so far as to say that he is the best American writer of his generation, or that at least there is no one better, and I would not stand alone in making that assessment, either … I know of no other writer more universally admired by other writers than is John D. MacDonald. Even the academic-literary crowd admits a sort of shamed-faced fascination with MacDonald’s fiction … [He] is one of the few living American writers about whom I would say, unequivocally ‘He will be widely read a hundred years from now.’”
Now, this blog series is certainly not going to do much for improving MacDonald’s status among younger readers today — and that’s OK. It’s mostly for me (and, I guess, you since you’re still here) that I’m doing this.
I began reading the McGee books on the first day of spring and hope to be done by the first day of fall, if not sooner. I’ll be posting here every two or three books with summaries and thoughts, as well as intermittently with related ideas (the McGee movies, my ideal cast/crew for a better McGee movie, facts about MacDonald himself, etc.), so check back regularly.
I bought all 21 books in used bookstores around Seattle and Portland over the course of the last year or so, including most notably Backstreet Beat on Bainbridge Island, William James Bookseller in Port Townsend, Tacoma Book Center and, of course, Powell’s Books in Portand.
Also, this project has two primary sources of inspiration I should note up front:
1. Will Errickson, author of the amazing Too Much Horror Fiction blog (toomuchhorrorfiction.blogspot.com), whose smart, fun writing style and thorough research has long been a source of great enjoyment for me.
2. Raymond Gendreau, owner/operator of the aforementioned Backstreet Beat, who was a teacher of mine when I was enrolled at the Art Institute of Seattle (RIP) and once told me about a great summer he spent reading the McGee books while commuting on the Bainbridge-Seattle ferry.
Thanks again for reading, everybody.