Patti Abbott has been experimenting with a one-author feature for Friday's "Forgotten" Books, such as the recent Donald E. Westlake day. This time, she conducted a poll to see which author people were most interested in featuring and John D. MacDonald (1916-1986) came up the winner.
MacDonald, author of over 70 novels, is best remembered for the books featuring Florida-based private eye Travis McGee, who the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley called "one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period." MacDonald himself admitted he enjoyed the detective genre because it gave him a captive audience for his favorite parts of the books, the asides. He said, "I can have the hero hanging on a ledge with somebody pounding on his knuckles with a hammer, and I can go off and make a comment on something in the world that's bugging me, and when I come back, the readers will still be there."
The prolific author actually got his start writing short stories. While he was in the Army in 1945, he sent a short story home to his wife, who promptly typed it up and submitted it to Story magazine. The editors bought it for $25, thus giving MacDonald the idea that he could make a career as a writer. He told Ed Gorman in an interview that after leaving the Army, "I wrote eight hundred thousand words of short stories in those four months, tried to keep thirty of them in the mail at all times, slept about six hours a night and lost twenty pounds."
He eventually sold over six hundred stories to a variety of magazines in a variety of genres, from mystery to sports, to sci-fi, to westerns, to romances. Some of the publications his stories appeared in included crime pulps like Dime Detective and Black Mask, but he was also published in higher-profile glossy 'zines like Esquire, Playboy and Cosmopolitan. His stories were also included in various anthologies and in collections including:
End of the Tiger and Other Stories (1966)
Other Times, Other Worlds (1978)
The Good Old Stuff (1982)
More Good Old Stuff (1984)
The 1984 collection, More Good Old Stuff, contains 14 of MacDonald's earlier stories from the pulp mystery/detective magazines of the late 1940s. They include "Deadly Damsel," the story of a professional widow (who has wed and murdered five husbands) and an amateur con man who get fatally tangled in a web of their own devising, from which we get lines like these:
"Death gave her a feeling of power that she bore with her wherever she went. She looked at the dull, tidy little lives of the women in the small cities in which she lived, and she felt like a goddess. She could write all manner of things on the black slate of life, and then, with one gesture, wipe the slate clean and begin all over again. New words, new love, new tenderness and a new manner of death... It was good to kill men..."
Or there's "Death for Sale," about a hired killer with a broken soul who stalks a French Nazi-collaborator to a New Orleans restaurant, where hunter and quarry suddenly trade places. MacDonald wrote in the Foreword that he was "tempted to clean up some of the very stilted dialogue" and change the gimmick at the end of this story, but it would "be unfair to excise the warts to make myself look better than I was."
MacDonald was almost apologetic in his Foreword about how dated some of the stories were (he updated some minor details because of that), but as he also said, "The events of these stories are in a past so recent they could just as well have been written today. And that is a portion of my intent, to show how little the world really changes." Those words could almost serve as a summary of these early stories; although they lack the polish and the more intense, well constructed plots that were to come, the nugget of great storytelling that marks the author's work is all there and changed very little over time, but just got better.