The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald

by Hugh Merrill

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

256 pages, 2000

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Color Me Disappointed

Reviewed by Tom Nolan


John Dann MacDonald, who was born in 1916 in Pennsylvania and died in 1986 in a Wisconsin hospital, after what was to have been routine bypass surgery, was a fiction-writing phenomenon.

An author whose career spanned a large chunk of modern publishing history, he began turning out stories for the post-World War II pulp magazines, became one of the first producers of 1950s "paperback originals" and in the 1970s made the transition to hardcover. MacDonald had impressive success in all of these fields. His Florida houseboat-dwelling series hero, Travis McGee -- a "salvage consultant" who's part unlicensed private detective, part vigilante, part amateur pop-sociologist and part "honest" scam artist (critic Anthony Boucher called McGee "sort of a jackal of good will") -- was introduced in The Deep Blue Goodbye (1964). By The Lonely Silver Rain (1984), in which he made his last appearance, McGee had endeared himself to readers and writers all over the world. John D. MacDonald wrote 70 novels and over 500 short stories. At the time of his death, he'd sold more than 70 million books.

Hugh Merrill, a journalism teacher at Georgia State University and the author of two previous books, conveys the essential outline of MacDonald's career in The Red Hot Typewriter, a brief but ambitiously-subtitled biography, which seems likely to prove somewhat disappointing both to knowledgeable MacDonald readers and to those not yet familiar with a writer of whose fiction Kurt Vonnegut once said: "To diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."

The facts are here: "Jack" MacDonald's background as the son of a stern and gloomy businessman in Utica, New York; his own early, unsatisfying attempts at a business career; his turn to fiction writing while serving while serving with the Office of Strategic Services (the Army espionage unit, precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) in Ceylon (the suggestion to take up pen and paper professionally was apparently his wife's -- she typed his first effort and got it published in the well-regarded magazine Story -- but MacDonald later took credit for the idea); his diligent productivity ("During his first four months as a writer," Merrill tells us, "he turned out more than 800,000 words and got a thousand rejection slips"; nonetheless, "From... 1945 until... 1949, more than a hundred of MacDonald's stories were published"); and his eventual, impressive triumph as a "brand-name" favorite.

Yet an interesting, dimensional and focused portrait of the subject fails to emerge. For all the quotations used and incidents cited, MacDonald never truly comes alive in these pages, at least for this reader.

Partly, it would seem, the problem stems from sources used -- and not used. Hugh Merrill draws extensively, if not exclusively, on MacDonald correspondence held at the University of Florida, supplemented with various newspaper and magazine pieces by and about MacDonald. No original interviews seem to have been done. This makes for a brief book of rather thin content. One yearns for the context, shadings, nuances, not to mention anecdotes, that other voices would have helped provide.

What material Merrill does have is presented in a sometimes careless manner.

One instance is his account of the unfortunate similarity between John D. MacDonald's byline and the pseudonym of "John Macdonald," used by California author Kenneth Millar for his first Lew Archer detective novel, The Moving Target, in 1949. This reviewer, having written a biography of Kenneth Millar (who soon changed that pseudonym, first to "John Ross Macdonald" and then to "Ross Macdonald," in order to distance himself professionally from John D. MacDonald), is especially sensitive to errors in this section; but any reader might be confused by Merrill's presentation.

Merrill has Millar earning a master's degree at the University of Michigan "in 1942" (correct), then asserts that "while he was away in the Navy," his wife, Margaret Millar, "began writing mystery novels," the first of which was "published in 1941." Actually, Margaret Millar wrote her first book, The Invisible Worm, while her husband was teaching high school in Kitchener, Ontario; he didn't join the U.S. Navy as a reserve officer until 1944. Merrill goes on to assert that "Millar wrote three detective novels on his own" (in reality, Millar wrote four books under his own name) before taking a pseudonym in order to end "confusion among mystery readers" who "wanted a Margaret Millar mystery and... ended up with one by Kenneth." Here Merrill perpetuates a myth regarding Millar's use of a pen name. In fact, Millar signed The Moving Target with the Macdonald pseudonym because publisher Alfred Knopf refused to buy the first Lew Archer book, claiming it was inferior to the two Kenneth Millar novels his company had already printed. Millar, wanting to keep his Knopf connection, told his agent to submit Target elsewhere, using the Macdonald pseudonym -- at which point Knopf said he would publish The Moving Target with the Macdonald byline.

Some of the sloppiness in The Red Hot Typewriter stems from Merrill's apparent reliance on John D. MacDonald's account of the incident -- I say "apparent," because it's unclear from this rather loosely annotated work just what material comes from which source; but even John D.'s version gets garbled. Merrill remarks on MacDonald's anger in 1955 at Cosmopolitan magazine's decision to banner a Millar-written "Lew Archer novel" on its cover as a "MacDonald" work -- whereas MacDonald himself (in his piece "Namesake," included in Inward Journey, the Ralph Sipper-edited tribute volume to Ross Macdonald, a piece quoted at length by Merrill but not found in his book's bibliography) correctly stated that "the novelette... had nothing to do with Lew Archer" -- which was partly the reason MacDonald was miffed.

Other material in The Red Hot Typewriter is handled in a manner that may leave the reader muttering out loud.

One chapter has as its premise that John D. MacDonald experienced in the late 1960s what Merrill terms "a malady that affects men of a certain age. Some call it male menopause. Others speak of a midlife crisis. But the rock-and-roll singer Jerry Lee Lewis... called it 'middle-aged-crazy.' And as he approached his sixth decade, John D. MacDonald was as middle-aged-crazy as they come." As evidence of this claim, Merrill offers a letter written by MacDonald on behalf of a woman whose business reputation he felt had been slandered by gossips at a cocktail party; MacDonald hinted the woman might be upset enough to sue and suggested apologies were in order. "Maybe striking out to help a woman scorned doesn't seem crazy," Merrill admits (misusing perhaps the word "scorned" -- might "maligned" be more apt?); but he mocks MacDonald's behavior as being "like a parody" of his hero Travis McGee's: "It was as if McGee's job of saving damsels in distress had been assumed by his creator."

Ah, but there's more "evidence" of the author's menopausal behavior: MacDonald next fends off (or does he?) perceived advances by the female member of a married couple with whom he and his wife are friends. And then, John D. MacDonald, "in the voice of the most vitriolic Puritan preacher," writes a letter to his sister in 1969 "that makes Cotton Mather seem gentle," bluntly calling her a "self-destructive drinker" and warning her, "You need help" (which he offers to give). This too is called "middle-aged-crazy," though a few decades later it might be termed "tough love." When Merrill later recounts this sister's death in 1974 from cirrhosis ("The alcohol got her"), there's no acknowledgment that MacDonald's "vitriolic" letter of six years earlier, however brutal, might have been justified.

Undoubtedly, John D. MacDonald had his faults and a person's flaws and failings must be included in a serious examination of a life. But the instances Merrill presents of his subject's alleged shortcomings seem scant and skewed.

Also askew are various incidental judgments made throughout the book. Merrill sometimes makes his case for MacDonald as an important genre writer at the unfair expense of other authors. "It was easy to be the champion of women if you wrote hard-boiled detective stories," he states. "All you had to do was like them. Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade used them and threw them away. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe hated them..." This seems an oversimplification of Spade's behavior in The Maltese Falcon; and while Marlowe may have hated women who didn't meet his moral standards, that still left a lot of females for him to moon over ("There are blondes ...").

More importantly, Merrill doesn't really do justice to MacDonald's own body of work, in the sense of evoking it with the sort of excited appreciation that might make a reader want to explore or rediscover the 21 McGee books and John D.'s other novels. The chapter on the creation of Travis McGee, which ought (one would think) to be a lovingly-crafted centerpiece, seems no more animated than any other section. Again, all the facts are here: how paperback publisher Fawcett's editor, Knox Burger, appalled at losing Richard Prather and his popular "Shell Scott" character, urged MacDonald to create a series hero to replace Prather's; how MacDonald's new hero had his genesis in an earlier character (Sam Brice) in a 1961 MacDonald novel, Where Is Janice Gantry?; how and why the series' color-coded title scheme was hatched; how McGee's Christian name at first was meant to be "Dallas," until President John Kennedy's assassination in that Texas city prompted a change (with an Air Force base providing the substitute); how MacDonald peppered the McGee narratives with Trav's digressions on modern society; and how MacDonald wrote three entire McGee books before the series was launched. But the prose relating these facts seems flat, with any inherent excitement ignored or squandered.

In one late chapter about MacDonald's battles with developers intent on erecting towering structures in his beloved Sarasota, Florida (battles which found their fictional way into his best-selling novel Condominium), the biography comes to belated life, sparked by MacDonald's feisty stance and acts. Here the subject's own experience is related to his creative work in vivid and specific fashion:

[MacDonald] was nostalgic for the Florida he came to in the late forties ... After World War II the nomadic plutocrats moved farther south to the Caribbean and left Florida to people seeking tawdry fun, a tacky life on the beach and its neon environs, where they wore a patch of cloth, a quart of suntan oil, and a dazed smile. It was a low-rent paradise of sorts until Disney moved in and pulled the tourists away from the beaches to the flat swamps of Orlando.

Then Florida became a subtropical nirvana for the beneficiaries of Social Security who left Ohio and Michigan in their Airstream trailers, driving down Interstate 75 to live in pink and lavender and chartreuse subdivisions and stare at their mailboxes in anticipation of a government check, quarterly dividends, or their own death certificate. When MacDonald wrote The Brass Cupcake in 1950, the villains were the amateur gigolos ...

But with the coming of grown men in mouse suits and the never-ending stream of elderly "snowbirds" who left the chilly north to take advantage of Florida's warmth and the absence of a state inheritance tax, the enemy changed. He wore a three-piece suit now, not tropical-patterned bathing trunks. And he was not a chiseler looking for a rich and willing dame. He was a real estate developer.

MacDonald knew the type... The suit of rusting armor came out of the closet again. The battle was joined.

Would that The Red Hot Typewriter had given off more such sparks.   | September 2000


Tom Nolan is a contributing editor of January Magazine and the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography (Scribner).