Thursday, November 05, 2009

Brendan DuBois on John D. MacDonald

A Different Take on John D. MacDonald


Brendan DuBois

The postings and writings about John D. MacDonald on Ed Gorman’s blog got me thinking about my own memories of this famed grandmaster.

One of the most embarrassing details about me being a mystery author is just how ill-informed I am about the field, especially when I first started out. I sold my first short story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine back in 1985 and knew nothing --- zip, zero, nada --- about mystery fiction. So I immediately began a crash course in reading the greats in the field.

At the time, I recalled seeing John D. MacDonald’s works in the bookstore, library, and listed on the New York Times’ bestseller list, so along with Robert B. Parker and Ed McBain, that’s where I started. The first John D. MacDonald book I read was one in the Travis McGee series, “The Green Ripper.” All right, it was number 18 in the series, but being the callow youth at the time --- I’m still callow but no longer youthful --- I remember it had a great cover, showing a man in monk robes, with an Uzi submachine gun slung over his shoulder.

I read the book in less than two days, loved the rip-roaring action and skilled writing, and noticed the listing for the other Travis McGee series. Thanks to a well-stocked town library, began reading the books in order, starting, of course, with “The Deep Blue Goodbye.” My, that was a fun couple of years, devouring all the Travis McGee books, as well as a number of his stand-alone thrillers, and his two collections of mystery short fiction.

One of my goals starting out was to meet this master in person, but this was never to happen. As a relatively new member of the Mystery Writers of America, I saw in the MWA newsletter one day in 1986 that he was ill and was a patient at a hospital in Milwaukee. I sent him a get well card, and learned a bit later that he died there on December 28, 1986.

A few years later, in the early 1990’s, I found myself in Florida with my wife Mona, near Ft. Lauderdale, and there was no question in my mind: we had to make a pilgrimage to the Bahia Mar marina and the famous slip F-18, where the “Busted Flush” had been moored for so many books.

Now, this was before the age of the Internet and Google, so I had no idea of what to expect… and I have to admit, as I drove into this area of Ft. Lauderdale, I was disappointed. It was so built up with condos, restaurants, high rises… and the traffic! I recall reading in some of the McGee books of how he would amble back from the beach to the “Busted Flush,” but based what I saw, poor old Travis would have had to used his football skills to race across all those busy lanes of traffic without getting run down.

Still, even with the built-up nature of Ft. Lauderdale, I did get a thrill of excitement when I saw the sign for Bahia Mar. After navigating past a grumpy traffic guard who didn’t know anything about John D. MacDonald or Travis McGee, we parked our rental car and walked into the marina store, which carried boat supplies, ropes, anchors and outdoor clothing. There, we met an older gentleman --- and damn me for not remembering his name --- who was proud of the marina’s connection with John D. MacDonald. He showed me a glass bookcase that had some of the McGee novels, some fanzines about John D. MacDonald, and a small framed painting of what the “Busted Flush” ---- McGee’s houseboat --- actually looked like. And no doubt seeing my fanboy reaction, he gave me a small print of the painting, which is one of my prized possessions.

Then we went out to the slips, and found a plaque commemorating slip F-18, which, alas, doesn’t actually exist due to their numbering technique. Still, there it was, and we took lots of photos, and before we left, I bought a Bahia Mar cap.

Later that year, no doubt partially inspired by this visit, I began writing my first detective novel --- “Dead Sand” --- and in doing so, I paid a slight homage to John D. MacDonald by ensuring all of my detective novels have a beach theme to the title, since they all take place in and around the tiny New Hampshire seacoast: Dead Sand, Black Tide, Shattered Shell, Killer Waves, Buried Dreams, Primary Storm, and the novel I’m currently working on, Barren Cove. Like the color scheme in MacDonald’s own works, I wanted to differentiate my detective novels from my stand-alone thrillers, such as “Resurrection Day” and “Twilight.”

And in another little homage, in the author’s photo published in Dead Sand and Black Tide, I’m wearing my Bahia Mar cap.

Alas, though, times and reading habits change. John D. MacDonald, who was such a publishing force in the 1970’s and 1980’s, is mostly forgotten now. I still have my collection of MacDonald novels, and still have my Bahia Mar cap. And a few years ago, once again, I found myself in Ft. Lauderdale, and I made my way back to Bahia Mar.

It was all different. The Bahia Mar marina was no longer a marina; it was a “yachting center.” The original marina store --- with its boating supplies, clothing and other goods --- was gone. In its place was a high-end gift shop, selling pricey gear with a generic Bahia Mar logo on it. Nobody in the shop had heard of John D. MacDonald, and the glass bookcase with the prized MacDonald books and artifacts was gone as well.

And in a few minutes, disappointed, so was I.

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Evan Lewis said...

A great story, but sad. What the world needs now is a John D. MacDonald Preservation Society.

Frank Loose said...

Thanks for sharing that story, Brenden, and thank you Ed for printing it. I have quite fond memories of reading the McGee series and talking about them with a friend who was also addicted to JDM's boat bum hero. Back in the 90's (i think it was then) i took advantage of Fawcett's nice reprints to reread all the McGee books in order of publication. It was great fun. An interesting thing occurred, too; the books i had remembered being my favorite were no longer the best in the series, replaced by others that i had originally thought less highly of. Time and aging does indeed change our perspectives and opinions.

Unknown said...

Great Post. I started reading JDM so long ago that I don't even remember exactly when. Many of us old guys have fond memories of his work and the effect his novels had on us. Now, he's almost forgotten. Hard to believe.

Deb said...

I wonder whatever became of the glass bookcase and the MacDonald artifacts? Their loss seems symbolic of the loss of recognition for MacDonald.

Judi Rohrig said...

Thanks for those wonderful memories. I, too, am thankful for the gift of JDM's words, and I, too, stumbled upon his genius too late to meet him. For several years, JohnD's fans kept things going through the JDMBibliophile, a regular subscription-based publication published through the University of South Florida and spearheaded by Dr. Ed Hirshberg. I had the honor of attending the 7th John D. MacDonald Conference in Sarasota in 1999. Our group took the evening boat ride where we watched for the flash of green just offshore from JohnD's Siesta Key home. Now, though the boat still runs for those sunset cruises, there's no mention of JohnD or his home. Ed's gone, but Cal Branche does the most in keeping all things JDM alive through his website ( Plus, there's the newly reorganized collection of JohnD's at the University of Florida at Gainesville ( I don't feel JohnD's works have fallen on hard times. I like to think he's just waiting to be rediscovered. So far, all the truly gifted writers I've met can readily name their favorite JDM book or story. Frankly, I thank Dean Koontz for helping me discover JohnD. See? Keep nudging those new writers, guys. Make them open GREEN RIPPER or LAST ONE LEFT or SOFT TOUCH or END OF THE NIGHT. JohnD's words will take them the rest of the way.

Bob said...

Thanks for this lovely hommage to John D.