4 September 2011: Influences — John D. MacDonald

Posted: September 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

Ever wonder where the character Thomas Magnum came from? Well, I do. And I have a theory. Hold that thought.

John D. MacDonald was one of the old-school original pulp fiction masters. A World War II veteran, he started writing in 1945 and sold his first story for the grand sum of $25. That launched him on a writing jag that sold about 500 stories to pulp mags like Dime Detective and magazines from nearly every genre. In all, he wrote nearly 50 novels. Several of his novels were turned into money, including The Executioners, which was adapted as the twice-made Cape Fear, and A Flash of Green (which starred a very young Ed Harris)

But he struck gold with Travis McGee, the lovable beach bum protagonist in 21 novels. McGee was a self-styled “salvage consultant.” He found hard-to-find things for people who, for whatever reason, didn’t want a lot of attention and had a lot of money to spend to get them back. McGee’s policy was simple: no questions and 50 percent of the worth of whatever he was salvaging.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, McGee may sound similar to several other “action hero” novel characters — he was a babe magnet, lived alone, knew how to mix a drink and use his fists and, seemingly, knew no fear. But McGee, through the mesmerizing storytelling of MacDonald was much more than that. Something of a philosophizer (and a romantic), McGee was introspective and a realist. He surrounded himself not with people who fed his ego or amplified his skills (Dirk Pitt, I’m talking to you) but those who enhanced his life with their presence.

The Travis McGee novels all had a similar theme, of course. McGee’s client was always shady and usually involved in some sort of financial scam that was intricate enough to make you pay attention as a reader (an uncommon feature of most pulp fiction), there was usually a woman involved (isn’t there always) and he often relied on the help of his best friend, Meyer.

An underlying theme in all of MacDonald’s book was ahead of its time, considering he wrote many books in the 1960s — how man’s insatiable greed was destroying the resources and beauty of the American landscape. His Condominium, published in 1985, with it story of overdevelopment on unsuitable land in south Florida (and in the potential path of hurricanes) seems almost prescient today.

I first ran across a MacDonald novel in 1987, during a summer stretch at Marine Corps Air Station New River. The book was “Barrier Island,” a story about a land developer who has a scheme to grab a bunch of government money by selling lots on an island off the Mississippi coast — even though he knows the island can never be developed.  I was impressed by the writing and the very real characters.

Months later, while on a Navy ship deployed for six months, I noticed MacDonald’s name on several books in the ship’s store. I bought my first Travis McGee novel and was hooked. Thus began a quest to buy all 21, which took years, considering that by the 1990s most were out of print. Reading another McGee story started out as a great way to pass the time, but the more I read, the more I realized that MacDonald was an exceptional writer. A master storyteller who used words very efficiently. He was the first writer I read that made me think, “I want to write like that.” MacDonald was my original motivation for writing a novel-length story, and Travis McGee became the standard by which I tried to create characters.

Now, back to Magnum. It’s only a theory, but “Thomas Magnum” — “Travis McGee.” Same initials. McGee is a bachelor who lives on a houseboat, has barely visible means of support, is constantly in trouble, yet remains likable and keeps his integrity intact. Magnum is a bachelor who lives near the water, has barely visible means of support, is constantly in trouble, yet remains likable and keeps his integrity intact. It’s just a theory, but it seems like I’m not the only one influenced by John D. MacDonald.

P.S. More difficult that finding the McGee novels was trying to figure out the order they were released. Part of MacDonald’s skill was to write each novel as a stand-alone story, yet tie it to a previous one — but you didn’t have to read them in order to enjoy them. But, just in case, here they are in chronological order:

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