What writer does Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Lee Child and Carl Hiassen name as a major influence? If you answered Louisa May Alcott you would be wrong. In fact, John D. MacDonald has influenced generations of writers. Even his contemporaries such as Kurt Vonnegut admired his work.
MacDonald wrote at least 80 books, many of which were best sellers, but his greatest creation was the Travis McGee series. Each novel has a color in its title; The Girl In the Plain Brown Wrapper, A Tan and Sandy Silence, A Purple Place For Dying, The Quick Red Fox. MacDonald said that it was done as a mnemonic device to make sure readers did not accidentally buy the same book twice. There are 21 books in the Travis McGee series. the first one is The Deep Blue Goodbye.
If you have not read these novels I urge you to seek them out. It may be that MacDonald is not as well known to current readers because he refused to let these books (with a couple of exceptions) be made into movies or TV shows. Supposedly, there are plans afoot to change this.
MacDonald’s unforgettable character is Travis McGee, who lives on a houseboat, The Busted Flush, which he won in a poker game. Together with his friend, an economist named Myer (no last name, or is it no first name?) he retrieves stolen property, helps damsels in distress, and rights wrongs. Though he lives in Florida, the novels often take place in other locals. To be clear, these are not mysteries. There are no clues or suspects. These are suspense stories, filled with danger, beautiful women and villains who often turn out to be greedy businessmen. (Is that redundant?)
What sets these novels apart from other suspense series and have kept them in print for decades after John D.’s death, is the exceptional writing. MacDonald was a master at observing and commenting on modern life. He was writing about pollution and developers destroying Florida’s natural resources in the early 60’s, long before anyone had ever even heard the word ecology. MacDonald was also brilliant at writing characters. His people seem so real you feel as if you know them. His hero and the women in his life have real emotional depth, as do many of the other characters he encounters. And if that weren’t enough, MacDonald also knew how to tell a really exciting story, too.
In Travis McGee, you have a hero with a strong social conscience, who’s highly empathic, has an understanding of philosophy, morality, and if the situation called for it could protect himself in a fight. He’s a staunch defender of the downtrodden, the weak, the poor and the disenfranchised. He is unafraid to take on the powerful and corrupt forces that seek to destroy him or his friends. There’s a reason that people don’t just like McGee (and MacDonald); they love him.
If you’re new to the Travis McGee novels, give them a try. But don’t expect a noir, brooding hero ala, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Travis McGee is as bright as a sun-drenched Florida afternoon. But having said that, you will not be reading about a happy go lucky adventurer either. These stories are infused with an underlying sadness and existentialism about the human condition. Though it’s usually under the surface, Travis has seen and understands the fleetingness of life and the inevitability of death. He knows the evil that people are capable of, but also the healing power of love as well as the importance of friendship and loyalty. If you haven’t read these books in a while, consider picking one up again. It’s like spending a few hours with an old friend.