01 Dec 2009
One Man Crime Wave
John D. MacDonald’s American Noirby Garry EmmonsTopics:
We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.
And so John D. MacDonald (MBA ’39) begins another book, with an opening line so deft it makes other writers want to give up and call it a career.
MacDonald tossed off lines like this over and over again (the young woman about to make a splash is, of course, beautiful, very much alive, and inconvenienced by the cement block wired to her leg). By the time he died in 1986, MacDonald had published nearly 500 short stories and 78 books, with sales in the tens of millions and translations into numerous languages. To many writers, critics, and fans, “JDM” lives on as an underappreciated master, a born storyteller who served up riveting, best-selling adventure tales that feature penetrating social commentary and sharp insights into human behavior. Pete Hamill called him “the best novelist in America,” and Kurt Vonnegut 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.”
To which MacDonald himself might have added, Not a bad day’s work for a guy who could never hold a job.
Born in 1916, John Dann MacDonald grew up in upstate New York with his father, a business executive, his mother, a homemaker, and a younger sister. When MacDonald was 12, he fell ill for many months with scarlet fever and mastoiditis. Confined to his home, he survived the boredom and loneliness by reading tales of adventure. “I entertained myself by exercise of imagination,” MacDonald recalled. He fantasized about being a writer, but as he later explained, “it was on the order of wishing I had been born a seal, or an otter. I worshipped writers but knew I could never be one.” Urged toward business by his stern, aloof father, MacDonald attended the Wharton School before completing his undergraduate studies as a business major at Syracuse University.
In March 1937, while he was a student at Syracuse, “a tall, willowy blonde” (as one biographer described her) walked into the restaurant where MacDonald was working as a waiter and sat down at his table. He was barely 21, and she, Dorothy Prentiss, 26, would become his lifelong partner. In January 1938, MacDonald graduated from Syracuse; he and Dorothy, now married, left immediately for HBS, where MacDonald began a special eighteen-month MBA program that same month. They lived off-campus at 48 Boylston Street (now JFK Street) in Harvard-owned Drayton Hall near what was then a grimy MTA subway train yard. From the apartment, it was a convenient walk across the Larz Anderson Bridge to the HBS campus. In the classroom, MacDonald was an average student. One course the School deemed important was Business Problem Analysis, which required frequent written reports; MacDonald earned only a Pass, the third grade below Distinction and High Pass. With his bookishness, intensified course load, and married life, his socializing was limited. At one point, Dorothy spent three weeks in the hospital and nearly died after prematurely delivering their only child, Johnny, now known as Maynard. (MacDonald’s father declined to help with the hospital bills, which added to the distance between them.) In later years, MacDonald’s ties to HBS and contacts with classmates, such as Robert S. McNamara, were few; he apparently did not return for reunions nor did he contribute to the Bulletin’s Class Notes. At graduation, MacDonald requested that his diploma be mailed to him.
From Cambridge, MacDonald moved his family back to upstate New York, where he worked as an insurance salesman and then as a repo man for a bank. He was soon fired from both jobs. He was outspoken and liked to be left alone: the right temperament for a writer, but not for a business career. One year after graduating from the world’s most prestigious business school, he found himself broke, in debt, unemployed, and with a family to support, “living in a dump over a hardware store with kerosene heat,” one biographer wrote. But the Army learned that MacDonald had done well in Industrial Procurement at HBS and offered him a job. He enlisted in 1940, and for the next three years he inspected and purchased military matériel at factories in upstate New York.
World War II carried MacDonald to India in 1943, and then to Burma, Ceylon, and China as an OSS ordnance officer. To pass the time, and since regular letters were heavily censored, he wrote a short story titled “Interlude in India” and sent it to Dorothy for her amusement. Unbeknownst to him, she sold it to the prestigious Story magazine for $25. When she told him, he began to think he could be a writer after all.
By 1945, America was ready to forget war and deprivation and get on with the good life. Hard work, ambition, blue skies, and smiling families — that was one image of postwar America. But to noir writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and MacDonald, now their star heir apparent, middle-class lifestyles and aspirations were flimsy cover for more primal human passions. For the “pulps,” the dozens of cheap magazines named for their poor-quality paper, writers contrived popular tales of greed, sex, violence, and adventure that appeared all the more sensational in a repressed and conformist society.
Now determined to be a writer, MacDonald settled his family in Florida in 1949 and began spending eighty hours a week at the typewriter, keeping thirty short stories at a time out for consideration and ignoring hundreds of rejections. He was the purest sort of entrepreneur, fashioning something out of nothing more substantial than a typewriter, paper, and the ideas in his head. In 1950, the year he completed his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, he wrote, “Today as a writer, I am a small businessman in a highly competitive field, fabricating a product for sale in a buyers’ market, and required to establish my own merchandising and marketing procedures.” He had become a one-man enterprise.
In a 1980 Bulletin profile, MacDonald said about his HBS experience, “I learned that total ice-cold objectivity is unattainable. Each man has his own warps and biases. To think properly, one must be aware of these emotional hang-ups, and make allowances for them.
This was the lesson in business decisions and in all other decisions of living which has meant the most to me.”
By the 1950s, the pulps had given way to the new market in paperbacks. Accordingly, MacDonald began writing for this longer and more lucrative form. He turned his HBS management studies and his stateside Army procurement experiences into fodder for his fiction, casting young managers in manufacturing and industrial settings as his protagonists. But his focus was not on their business activities so much as on their warps, biases, emotional hang-ups, and “all other decisions of living” outside the workplace.
MacDonald once said that about 60 percent of his work was crime and suspense; the rest was about manners and mores. And so it was with these relatively peaceful 1950s books about the professional classes, even as he was also producing plenty of murder and mayhem in thrillers such as The Executioners (1957). Living with wives and young children in Middle American suburbia, his businessmen protagonists acquired the extroversion “necessary to be at home in a smiling rotarian world.” But like MacDonald, who admitted that he himself had done “miserably in the business world,” his characters understood that they were not suited nor bound for upper management. As the executive Johnny Maleska says in Clemmie (1958), “You’ve got to eat, sleep, live, and dream the work….I can’t keep that close a focus on attention and ambition. So I won’t get into the real gravy.” The mythology of business, Maleska continues, is that the “bright, clean, and industrious” will reach the top when, in reality, only a fortunate few ever do.
Perhaps this knowledge contributes to an unarticulated restlessness that afflicts these decent men (often Wharton, not HBS, grads). Perhaps it is the nature of the work itself, evermore automated and anonymous, exacerbated by an increasingly transient corporate lifestyle. Maybe it is a materialistic hollowness at the core of American life, or maybe it’s just men behaving badly. Whatever it is, and MacDonald suggests it is all of them, as a moralist, he is stern with his sinners.
But he is also stern with their circumstances. In MacDonald’s world, business — with its repetitive soullessness, automation, ceaseless drive for profit, and backstabbing corporate culture — contributes to the angst that drives these men to self-destruction. The “subourbon” game is always on: Fueled by ferocious drinking, malaise-afflicted husbands fall into forays, flings, and love affairs with willing women — ranging from unhappy neighbors to wild and crazy thrill seekers — that end up damaging or destroying their families and careers.
In The Deceivers (1958), telling the executive Carl Garrett that Carl’s disastrous affair was an expression of rebellion, his doctor says, “I tell you, Carl, nobody will ever be able to measure all the human misery that is the indirect result of the inescapable boredom and sense of purposelessness that derives from a civilization so mechanized and complicated that a man can no longer take pride and satisfaction in the one little fragment that is his part of the whole ball of wax.”
And if money is at the root of much evil, then business inevitably carries a taint. In MacDonald’s fiction, business is a kind of background menace in some stories, and a more central plot element in others. Of the 1950s morality books, for example, A Man of Affairs (1957) concludes with violence when the hero tries to save the family company, where he is an executive, from an outside takeover, while staying true to his values. Contrary Pleasure (1954) also deals with a family-owned business, a textile mill, and issues of whether or not to keep or sell the mill, protect the employees and community, and maintain or forfeit personal integrity. In these, and in his thrillers, MacDonald clearly prefers small and family-owned businesses to the often ruthless corporate entities he depicts as taking advantage of them.
MacDonald’s best known body of Work is the Travis McGee series of 21 books, each with a color in its title, beginning with The Deep Blue Good-By (1964) and ending with The Lonely Silver Rain (1985). McGee, the hero, often crosses lines to do what’s right, even if it’s not legal. In these novels, crime, violence, greed, sex, and psychopathic villains abound. The bad guys usually get their due, but innocent people almost always get hurt along the way. McGee, who lives in Fort Lauderdale aboard the Busted Flush, a houseboat that he won in a poker game, is six feet four, ruggedly handsome, good in a fight, savvy, emotionally intelligent, but by no means flawless or mistake-free. Unlike some of his hard-boiled fictional predecessors, he does not brood in a darkened downtown office; he relishes life and the natural world. He works only when he needs to as a “salvage consultant,” helping people in distress, defeating villains, and restoring ill-gotten gains to their rightful owners. He’s a man’s man and a magnet for the ladies, with whom he is chivalrous and honorable except when his urges get the better of him. He’s the unconventional individualist whose apartness gives him, and MacDonald, license to critique modern life, commentary that legions of readers enjoy as much as McGee’s wildly entertaining adventures.
McGee has a thoughtful, amiable buddy named Meyer, a brilliant “retired economist” who also lives aboard a boat, the John Maynard Keynes. Combining action and analysis, they are a formidable crime-fighting duo. In Pale Gray for Guilt (1968), Meyer carries out an intricate con to trick a wealthy bad guy into stock market losses that will benefit a widow whose struggling small-businessman husband was murdered because he was blocking a development backed by the rich villain. Indeed, in many of the McGee books, Travis acts as a righter of financial wrongs, achieving justice and repayment (or payback) in often unorthodox ways.
MacDonald always understood that America’s driving force, the profit motive, was a double-edged sword. In a newspaper column, he wrote, “No matter how much feeling of public obligation the executive staff of any corporation might possess, the corporate entity is involved in maximizing short and long run profit….The old yardstick is deadly but we cannot abandon it because it is what makes our society function. But it is turning our land, from sea to shining sea, into a sour jungle, noisy, dirty, gritty, and infinitely depressing.” In MacDonald’s fiction, that inherent tension is front and center when he depicts business and commerce as contributing to the downfall of individuals and the destruction of the natural and social environment. And for MacDonald the man, at times it got intensely personal.
In 1967, American Express began mistakenly accusing MacDonald (“Mr. F.M. MacDonald”) of tardy payments and billing him for purchases he never made. Frustrated, MacDonald finally sent AmEx a letter noting that he had sold several million books about a certain Travis McGee. MacDonald wrote, “I am now thinking of, in the next novel, gifting him McGee with an American Express Credit Card! It would make Poe’s bit about the pit and the pendulum look no more distressing than diaper rash.” The company canceled his card and warned merchants about his creditworthiness; MacDonald sued for $500,000 in damages.
More than the money, it was the principle of the thing. As MacDonald later wrote to his friend the comedian Dan Rowan, “They do not know what John D. Dingaling wants and it is so simple that they can’t understand it, or believe it. I want to know if a huge corporation can damage me with utter cynical impunity merely because it is big and I am small, and I want the Court to clarify this little point of citizenship rights, damages etc. in a computer-cold world.” The suit was eventually settled, with MacDonald agreeing not to use the credit card ploy in his work.
But in his 1977 novel, Condominium, which made the New York Times best-seller list for 27 weeks, he did take on another kind of business adversary, those he saw as laying waste to his beloved Sarasota and to Florida’s environment. In the novel, developers and builders, having recklessly destroyed habitat and cut corners on materials and safety, construct several high-rise condo buildings on a barrier island on Florida’s West Coast. As the book’s heroes had feared and warned, the island is overflooded by a hurricane of biblical proportions. The buildings collapse, many people die, all human habitation is buried under tons of sand, and civilization’s detritus bobs on the waves. Nature has restored order.
Within MacDonald, surely another storm was churning throughout his life, an inner conflict about the role and conduct of commerce. He recognized business as a fact of life but deplored its collateral damage. Business could be an impersonal force, like a hurricane. Or, in its extreme, it could be like his psychopathic monsters who destroyed people without compunction — answerable to no one and with its own amoral needs to fulfill. But perhaps most unsettling of all, as a writer, he lived off and needed this conflict: Business was grist for his pepper mill of noir.
When MacDonald died in 1986 from complications following heart surgery, a distinctive American voice was silenced, and the torrent of words, opinions, columns, stories, and books, an output embracing all manner of subjects and genres, finally came to an end. But MacDonald’s legacy remains, and he would doubtless be the first to say he had a great run. As for the right words to sum up his career, not surprisingly, MacDonald himself probably says it best. Once asked how he’d like his epitaph to read, he replied:
He hung around quite a while, entertained the folk, and was stopped quick and clean when the right time came.
From the JDM file
“Dear Mr. MacDonald, Would you please send me Travis McGee?…. I have read all the books you wrote and I am desperate because there are no more….I am distributing your books here in Europe, and everybody is deserting everybody because nobody will sleep with anybody when they have a new book of yours.”
(Marlene Dietrich, 1975)
The World According to Travis McGee
“Far off on the north-south highways there was the insect sound of the fast moving trucks, whining toward warehouses, laden with emergency rush orders of plastic animals, roach tablets, eye shadow, ashtrays, toilet brushes, pottery crocodiles, and all the other items essential to a constantly growing GNP.”
(The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974)
“Who am I to keep from putting my shoulder to the wheel? Why am I not thinking about an estate and how to protect it? Gad, woman, I could be writing a million dollars a year in life insurance. I should be pulling a big oar in the flagship of life. Maybe it isn’t too late yet! Find the little woman, and go for the whole bit. Kiwanis, P.T.A., fund drives, cookouts, a clean desk, and vote the straight ticket, yessiree bob.”
(The Deep Blue Good-By, 1964)
“This was not some pretty little girl, coyly flirtatious, delicately stimulated. This was the mature female of the species, vivid, handsome and strong, demanding that all the life and need within her be matched.”
(The Quick Red Fox, 1964)
“Their billions of tons of excreted pollutants wither the leaves on the trees and sicken the livestock. We hate our cars, Detroit….They are expensive, murderous junk, and they manage to look glassily contemptuous of the people who own them.”
(Pale Gray for Guilt, 1968)
“This is a complex culture. The more intricate our society gets, the more semi-legal ways to steal.”
(The Deep Blue Good-By, 1964)
“A man with a credit card is in hock to his own image of himself.”
(The Deep Blue Good-By, 1964)
“Think, dammit! Like the little signs IBM used to distribute before they suddenly realized that if it were ever obeyed, if men everywhere really began to Think, the first thing they would do would be to take a sledge and open up the computers.”
(The Scarlet Ruse, 1973)
Father and Son
“A defining feature of my father’s nature was a passion for justice. It was almost child-like in its purity and intenseness. It must have been tremendously satisfying for him to create a world where the bad guys really did have awful things happen to them. Travis McGee was his white knight, and my father was a white knight, too.”
(Maynard MacDonald, 2009)
JDM and HBS
“I have volunteered to give help and advice and do some field work in the selection of a vastly increased enrollment of blacks in the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration…to take the talented black business entrepreneurs who, regardless of education, are making a good track record in their own business….They have earned the right to the advanced training. The problem is to find the way to make it possible for them to receive what they have earned.” (1969)
“Incidentally, an old Hahvahd business acquaintance of mine was bugging me for a long time about how I ought to forsake this primitive village insofar as tax and accounting and real estate advice is concerned, and turn all over to the Boston Company where he is a large wheel. So I finally told him how things are being handled and he was gracious enough to say that when he had the time he might come down and learn some useful things from the savages.” (1971)
(A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald 1967–1974, 1986)
JDM on the Production Cycle
“Carl Garrett liked to leave the main offices and walk over to one of the production areas and climb to the catwalk and lean on the rail and look down at the acres of movement and activity, and amuse himself with insane conjecturings. Would it not be nice if, parallel to this building, there were another building where the neat shipping cartons were unpacked and the clever fabrications went through uninspection, disassembly — were torn back down and reformed into the basic rods and sheets and coils and blocks which were then sent back to be run through again? Of course the personnel in this building would know nothing of what transpired in the neighboring building. It would be a closed circuit, endlessly efficient. Or, on the other hand, let them know what was being done. A few, a very few, might wonder what the hell it was all about, but the rest of them would shrug and go ahead with the job and draw their pay and bitch to the shop steward about coffee breaks and work standards and seniority and how come I got moved over onto the damn grinder and they give that Rayzek bitch my place on the bench and when are they going to do something about that john that’s running over so it’s like a lake in there anyhow?”
(The Deceivers, 1958)