Crimezine Investigates John D. MacDonald and the Red Hot Typewriter

Posted: March 5, 2013 in Crime Fiction Books
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John D MacDonald at work

John D MacDonald at work

John D. Macdonald is a crime writing legend. His work has received effusive praise from just about every major league crime writer you would care to mention. You would perhaps expect Jonno Kellerman, Donny Westlake, and Ed Mc Bain to be fans, but he has also been described as “the great entertainer of our age,” by Steven King and as “a better writer than Saul Bellow” by literary pooh-bah Kingsley Amis. High praise indeed.

So what’s all the fuss about Crimeziners? JDM is known for two things, his creation of Travis McGee and the 1957 novel The Executioners, which spawned the Cape Fear movies—the 1962 original that starred Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum and the 1991 Scorsese remake, starring Robert De Niro and baby-faced Juliette Lewis.

JDM is one of the most prolific crime writers of all time, his career began in the late ’40’s after he got discharged from the Office of Strategic Services, where he became a Lieutenant Colonel, and saw action in the Far East. On discharge from the army he began obsessively submitting stories to pulp magazines. He wrote all kinds of fiction, Mystery, Crime, Science fiction and Westerns.

MacDonald, so legend has it, wrote 800,000 words during his first four months, as a pulp writer, receiving hundreds of rejection slips in the process. Finally he earned a $40 paycheck from Dime Detective magazine and he never looked back. His career rapidly expanded into the then popular world of paperback originals and his first Crime read, The Brass Cupcake was published in 1950 by Gold Medal books.

After writing dozens of pre McGee pulp paperbacks, with varying degrees of success, JDM was being needled by fellow author and drinking buddy MacKinlay Kantor, who bet him $50 he couldn’t write a “real book”. JDM took the bet and the result was crime classic The Executioners, a tale of terror and revenge in small town suburbia. After the novels success, Kantor, a loud-mouthed bigot who commonly referred to civil rights legend Martin Luther King as, “Martin Luther Coon” tried to welch on the bet, but eventually paid up.

The creation of Travis McGee came about by a similar twist of fate, when pulp hack Richard Prather, creator of hard-boiled detective Shell Scott left Gold Medal books for Pocket books. JDM was asked to step into the breech, with a series character. The result was Dallas McGee, or Travis, as he was quickly renamed after the 1963 slaying of JFK in Dallas Texas. MacKinlay Kantor suggested that JDM name his new character after an Air force base. Travis California was the winning candidate.

The color coded Travis McGee novels kicked off with The Deep Blue Goodbye and rapidly became JDM’s main writing focus. He wrote 21 McGee’s one of which Darker than Amber was turned into a lackluster Hollywood movie starring Rod Taylor.

Red Hot Typewriter The Life and Times of John D MacDonald, is the biographical testament to the JDM legend, by Hugh Merrill. There are many wonderful anecdotal stories regarding JDM’s career trajectory in this book that will appeal to pulp freaks and crime writing compulsives everywhere. When compared to other biographies however, such as the excellent Tom Nolan book on JDM contemporary Ross MacDonald, it seems rather lightweight.

While many of the facts are good, there are no solid interviews with people who knew JDM—there is also an over reliance on JDM’s correspondence, and although we learn that Stephen King and Elmore Leonard were close friends, we never find out what they, or anyone else, actually thought of the man.

From the evidence on offer here, JDM comes across as something of a whiner, over precious with his work, controlling, and distrusting of [perhaps with some justification] Hollywood. But more disturbingly JDM’s substantial credentials as an environmentalist are outlined in the shape of his NIMBY protests, when developers announce plans to build an apartment complex next to his home.

In addition, this book credits JDM has having feminist attitudes. But anyone who has encountered the early McGee books will surely know that our Trav’s attitudes to “the fairer sex” are sandwiched somewhere between the lyricism of Van Halen front man David Lee Roth, and the comedic dribblings of Brit ‘funnyman’ Benny Hill. A sign of the sexist times no doubt, but JDM was a caring, thinking individual, and made substantial progress on the portrayal of women characters as the McGee series developed sadly this biography does not discuss this.

Mr. Merrill expects much of his readers—there is precious little detail concerning the plotlines of the McGee books, and little or no criticism of their content, good or bad, which is something of a frustration for the aspirational crime reader. It is also frustrating that the bibliography is in alphabetical order, which is of little use to anyone who wants to read the books in sequential order.

JDM had a heart attack in 1970. The McGee novels he wrote subsequent to this were more philosophical and introspective in nature. It is perhaps to these novels, that reviewers are referring, when they talk of JDM’s greatness.

The last great run of McGee novels started with 1972’s A Tan and Sandy Silence and concluded with The Lonely Silver Rain in 1985. So check ’em out Crimeziners, and we will see you in Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, slip F-18 on a boat called The Busted Flush—for the uninitiated, McGee won the boat in a card game—the plumbing is fine.


  1. This is a fine, comprehensive essay. I especially appreciate the links to the Author’s papers, and the detailed description of each novel in the series. Very well done, and a useful resource. Thanks.

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