John D. MacDonald…and Me

John D. MacDonald

This is the 100th anniversary year of the birth of John D. MacDonald, Florida’s favorite novelist. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune (JDM’s hometown paper) asked a bunch of writers — Stephen King, Lee Child, Jeff Deaver, Dennis Lehane, Heather Graham, among others — to write short articles describing how MacDonald influenced them. Oh, the paper asked me, too. Here’s my piece.

By Paul Levine

“There are no hundred percent heroes.”Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald

It’s flat-out the best opening line in fiction. You can have your “best of times, worst of times.” You can have your “all happy families are alike,” and you can “call me Ishmael,” for all I care. I’ll take John D. MacDonald’s world-weary opening from 1982’s “Cinnamon Skin,” the penultimate Travis McGee novel. The deceptively simple sentence is not merely juicy bait to hook the reader. It encapsulates in six words – SIX WORDS! – the essence of character and the promise of the plot to come.

Cinnamon Skin, John D. MacDonald

The Travis McGee adventure “Cinnamon Skin,” by John D. MacDonald

I never would have become a writer if not for “beach-bum McGee, the big chopped-up, loose-jointed, pale-eyed, wire-haired, walnut-hided rebel…unregimented, unprogrammed, unimpressed.” JDM’s “knight errant” is a man of honor, protector of the weak, nemesis of the corrupt. And yet, he is flawed. He can lose a fight and lose his way, though never straying far from his moral center.

What a blueprint for a fictional hero!

In 1988, I attended the Key West Literary Seminar, which honored MacDonald, who had died two years earlier. His widow, Dorothy, was there to accept the award. We chatted. I told her I was a trial lawyer in Miami and was writing a novel. Told her, too, that my protagonist, “ex-football player, ex-public-defender, ex-a-lot-of-things” Jake Lassiter, owed a lot to Travis McGee. She’d probably heard similar tales at numerous cocktail parties. But she was polite and said she would enjoy reading the book, should it ever see the light of day. Two years later, To Speak for the Dead was published, and I sent a signed copy to her home in Sarasota.

Weeks went by. Then months. No reply.

Late in 1990, I received a fax from Maynard MacDonald, Dorothy and John’s son, who lived in New Zealand. He explained that his mother had passed away the previous year, and he found the book when sorting through her possessions. He had read it. Said he liked the Jake Lassiter character, the mystery, and the Miami setting. And thought his father and mother would have enjoyed the book, too. I was moved and gratified and simultaneously sorry for his loss.

I went on to write nineteen more novels. I titled one of them, The Deep Blue Alibi, an homage to John D. Macdonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By. One of the proudest moments in my life came in the mid-1990’s, when I was awarded the John D. MacDonald Award for Florida Fiction.

John D. MacDonald award winners

Elmore Leonard (right) and Paul Levine, first two winners of the John D. MacDonald Florida Fiction Award.

I recently came across Maynard MacDonald’s fax in an old file. It had been printed on that antiquated thermal paper, and the type had disappeared. Fortunately, John D. MacDonald’s words remain bold in my memory. Profound. Witty. Wise.

“We are all comical, touching, slapstick animals, walking on our hind legs, trying to make it a noble journey from womb to tomb, and the people who can’t see it all that way bore the hell out of me.”

If that doesn’t make you want to be a writer, nothing will.

Paul Levine

Paul Levine

PAUL LEVINE has won the John D. MacDonald fiction award and was nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, Shamus and James Thurber prizes. He wrote 20 episodes of the CBS military drama “JAG” and co-created the Supreme Court drama “First Monday” starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. “To Speak for the Dead,” an international bestseller featuring lawyer Jake Lassiter, was his first novel. He is also the author of the “Solomon vs. Lord” series. "Bum Luck" is his newest novel. A graduate of Penn State and the University of Miami School of Law, he divides his time between Santa Barbara, CA and Miami, FL.
Paul Levine
Paul Levine