Lee Child Introduces John D MacDonald
There are some authors in the world who could write a shopping list and it would make for interesting reading. So when one of these elite few, writes an introduction on why we should love a previously over-looked author Dead Good sits up and listens.
Lee Child is one of these elite few crime writing legends. John D. MacDonald is the author he’s introducing. Over to Lee:
‘Suspense fiction trades on surprising and unexpected twists. Like this one: a boy named John Dann MacDonald was born in 1916 in Sharon, Pennsylvania, into the kind of quiet and comfortable middle-class prosperity that became common in America forty or fifty years later, but which was still relatively rare early in the century. Sharon was a satellite town near Pittsburgh, dominated by precision metalworking, and John’s father was a mild-mannered and upstanding citizen with secure and prestigious salaried employment as a senior financial executive with a local manufacturer. Young John was called Jack as a child, and wore sailor suits, and grew up in a substantial suburban house on a tree-lined block. He read books, played with his dog, and teased his little sister and his cousin. When he was eighteen, his father funded a long European grand tour for him, advising him by letter “to make the best of it… to eat and function regularly… to be sure and attend a religious service at least once on each Sunday… to keep a record of your expenditures as a training for your college days.”
Safely returned, young Jack went on to two decent East Coast schools, and married a fellow student, and went to Harvard for an MBA, and volunteered for the army in 1940, and finished World War Two as a lieutenant colonel, after thoroughly satisfactory service as a serious, earnest, bespectacled, rear-echelon staff officer.
So what does such a fellow do next? Does he join General Motors? IBM? Work for the Pentagon?
In John D. MacDonald’s case, he becomes an impoverished writer of pulp fiction.
During his first four postwar months he lost twenty pounds by sitting at a table and hammering out 800,000 unsold words. Then in his fifth month he sold a story for twenty-five bucks. Then another for forty bucks, and eventually more than five hundred. Sometimes entire issues of pulp magazines were all his own work, disguised under dozens of different pen names. Then in 1950 he watched the contemporary boom in paperback novels, and jumped in with his first full-length work, which was followed by sixty-six more, including some really seminal crime fiction and one of history’s greatest suspense series.
Why? Why did a middle-class Harvard MBA with extensive corporate connections and a gold-plated recommendation from the army turn his back on everything apparently predestined, to sit at a battered table and type, with an anxious wife at his side? No one knows. He never explained. It’s a mystery.
But we can speculate. Perhaps he never wanted a quiet and comfortable middle-class life. Perhaps, after finding himself amid the chaos of war, he felt able to liberate himself from the crushing filial expectations he had previously followed so obediently. As an eighteen-year-old, it’s hard to say no to the father who just paid for a trip to Europe. Eleven years later, as a lieutenant colonel, it’s easier.
And we know from what he wrote that he felt he had something to say to the world. His early stuff was whatever put food on that battered table – detective stories, westerns, adventure stories, sports stories, and even some science fiction – but soon enough his long-form fiction began to develop some enduring and intertwined themes. From A Deadly Shade of Gold, a Travis McGee title: “The only thing in the world worth a damn is the strange, touching, pathetic, awesome nobility of the individual human spirit.” From the standalone thriller Where Is Janice Gantry?: “Somebody has to be tireless, or the fast-buck operators would asphalt the entire coast, fill every bay, and slay every living thing incapable of carrying a wallet.”
These two angles show up everywhere in his novels: The need to – maybe reluctantly, possibly even grumpily – stand up and be counted on behalf of the weak, helpless and downtrodden, which included people, animals, and what we now call the environment – which was in itself a very early and very prescient concern: Janice Gantry, for instance, predated Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring by a whole year.
But the good knight’s armor was always tarnished and rusted. The fight was never easy, and, one feels, never actually winnable. But it had to be waged. This strange, weary blend of nobility and cynicism is MacDonald’s signature emotion. Where did it come from? Not, presumably, the leafy block where he was raised in quiet and comfort. The war must have changed him, like it changed a generation and the world.’
Thanks to Lee Child for sharing with us the reasons he rates John D MacDonald’s books so highly. Try them out for yourself: