MacDonald was a prolific author of crime and suspense novels, many of them set in his adopted home of Florida. One of the most successful American novelists of his time, MacDonald sold an estimated 70 million books in his career. His best-known works include the popular and critically acclaimed Travis McGee series, and his novel The Executioners, which was filmed as Cape Fear (1962) and remade in 1991. During 1972, MacDonald was named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, and he won a 1980 U.S. National Book Award in the one-year category Mystery. Stephen King praised MacDonald as "the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller." Kingsley Amis said, MacDonald "is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels."
MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, where his father worked for the Savage Arms Corporation. The family relocated to Utica, New York, during 1926, where his father became treasurer of the Utica office of Savage Arms. During 1934, MacDonald was sent to Europe for several weeks, which began a desire for travel and for photography.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, but he quit during his sophomore year. MacDonald worked at menial jobs in New York City for a brief time, then was admitted to Syracuse University, where he met his future wife, Dorothy Prentiss. They married during 1937, and he graduated from Syracuse University the next year.
During 1939, MacDonald received an MBA from Harvard University. He was later able to make good use of his education in business and economics by incorporating elaborate business swindles into the plots of several of his novels.
In 1940, MacDonald accepted a direct commission as a first lieutenant of the Army Ordnance Corps. During World War II, he served in the Office of Strategic Services in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations; this region featured in many of his earlier short stories and novels. He was discharged in September 1945 as a lieutenant colonel.
MacDonald's literary career began almost by accident. During 1945, while still in the Army, he wrote a short story and mailed it to his wife. She submitted it to the magazine Esquire, which rejected it. She then sent it to Story magazine, which accepted for $25. He learned of this just after his ship arrived in the United States.
After his discharge, MacDonald spent four months writing short stories, generating some 800,000 words and losing 20 pounds (9.1 kg) while typing 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He received hundreds of rejection slips, but finally made a $40 sale to the pulp magazine Dime Detective. He would eventually sell nearly 500 short stories to detective, mystery, adventure, sports, Western, and science fiction magazines. Several times, MacDonald's stories were the only ones in an issue of a magazine, but this was hidden by using pseudonyms.
As the boom in paperback novels expanded, MacDonald successfully made the change to longer fiction with his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, published during 1950, by Fawcett Publications' Gold Medal Books.
His science fiction included the stories "Cosmetics" in Astounding (1948) and "Common Denominator" in Galaxy Science Fiction (1951), and the three novels, Wine of the Dreamers (1951), Ballroom of the Skies (1952), and The Girl, the Gold Watch, & Everything (1962), which were collected as an omnibus edition named Time and Tomorrow (1980).
Between 1953 and 1964, MacDonald specialized in crime thrillers, mainly of the so-called "hardboiled" genre. Most of these novels were published as paperback originals, although some were later republished as hardbound editions. Many, such as Dead Low Tide (1953) and Murder in the Wind (1956), were set in his adopted home of Florida. Novels such as The Executioners (1957) (which was twice filmed as Cape Fear, first during 1962 and again during 1991) and One Monday We Killed Them All (1962) concerned psychopathic killers.
MacDonald is credited with being one of the earliest to write on the effect of real estate booms on the environment, and his novel A Flash Of Green (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962) is a good example of this. Many later Florida crime, detective and mystery writers, such as Paul Levine, Randy Wayne White, James Hall and Jonathon King, have followed suit.
MacDonald's protagonists were often intelligent and introspective men, sometimes also very cynical. Travis McGee, the "salvage consultant" and "knight-errant," was all of that. McGee made his living by recovering the loot from thefts and swindles, keeping half to finance his "retirement," which he took in segments as he went along. He first appeared in the 1964 novel The Deep Blue Good-by and starred in 21 novels through to the series' final release, 1985's The Lonely Silver Rain. All titles in the series include a color, a mnemonic device which was suggested by his publisher so that when harried travelers in airports looked to buy a book, they could at once see those MacDonald titles they had not yet read.
The McGee novels feature an ever-changing array of female companions, some particularly nasty villains, exotic locales in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and appearances by a sidekick known only as "Meyer," an economist of international renown and a Ph.D. As Sherlock Holmes had his well-known address on Baker Street, McGee had his lodgings on his 52-foot (16 m) houseboat, the Busted Flush, named for the poker hand that started the run of luck which enabled him to win the boat. She is docked at Slip F-18, marina Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Following complications of an earlier heart bypass operation, MacDonald slipped into a coma on December 10 and died at age 70, on December 28, 1986, in St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was survived by his wife Dorothy (1911-1989) and a son, Maynard.MacDonald's novel Soft Touch was the basis for the 1961 movie Man-Trap.
His 1957 novel The Executioners was filmed during 1962 as Cape Fear featuring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. Martin Scorsese directed the 1991 remake of Cape Fear starring Robert DeNiro and Nick Nolte.
The novel Cry Hard, Cry Fast was adapted as a two-part episode of the television series Run for Your Life during November 1967.
A 1970 movie adaptation of the novel 'Darker Than Amber was directed by Robert Clouse from a screenplay by MacDonald and Ed Waters. It featured Rod Taylor as the main series character: Travis McGee
The novella Linda was filmed twice for television, during 1973 (with Stella Stevens in the title role) and during 1993 (with Virginia Madsen).
The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything was adapted for a 1980 TV movie. It resulted in a 1981 sequel, The Girl, the Gold Watch and Dynamite.
The 1980 TV movie Condominium, based on MacDonald's novel, featured Dan Haggerty and Barbara Eden.
Sam Elliott played Travis McGee in the TV movie of The Empty Copper Sea, titled Travis McGee (1983). It relocated McGee to California, eliminating the Florida locales basic to the novel.
The 1984 movie A Flash of Green featured Ed Harris. Victor Nuñez, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie, was nominated for Grand Jury Prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival.
Various writers have acknowledged MacDonald's work, including Carl Hiaasen in an introduction to a 1990s edition of The Deep Blue Good-by: "Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn. I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty." Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., wrote another memorable tribute: "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."
Most current Florida-based mystery writers acknowledge a debt to MacDonald, including Randy Wayne White, James Hall, Les Standiford, Jonathon King and Tim Dorsey. Lawrence Block's New York-based fictional hero, Matthew Scudder, is a character who makes his living doing just what McGee does—favors for friends who have no other recourse, then taking his share.
Homage to MacDonald was evident in the 1981-88 CBS-TV series Simon & Simon with scenes showing Rick Simon's boat docked at Slip F-18 in San Diego.
Stephen King stated in the book Faces of Fear: "John D. MacDonald has written a novel called The End of the Night which I would argue is one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. It ranks with Death of a Salesman, it ranks with An American Tragedy." He also dedicated the novella The Sun Dog to MacDonald, writing, "I miss you, old friend...and you were right about the tigers."
The science fiction writer Spider Robinson has made it clear that he is also among MacDonald's admirers. The bartender in Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, Mike Callahan, is married to Lady Sally McGee, whose last name is almost certainly a tribute to Travis. In a recent sequel to the Callahan's series, Callahan's Key, a group of regulars from the former saloon decide they've had enough of Long Island, so they relocate to Key West, Florida, in a colorful caravan of modified school buses. On their way to Key West, they stop at a marina near Fort Lauderdale specifically to visit Slip F-18 (where Busted Flush was usually moored) and meet a local who was the prototype for McGee's sidekick Meyer. The slip is empty, with a small plaque mentioning Busted Flush.
The popular mystery writer Dean Koontz has also acknowledged in an interview with Bookreporter.com's Marlene Taylor that MacDonald is "(His) favorite author of all time... I've read everything he wrote four or five times." His character Odd Thomas in Odd Apocalypse finds himself in the 1920s, and worries about being stuck in a world with no penicillin, no polio vaccine, no Teflon cookware, no John D MacDonald novels.."
In a May 2016 New York Times interview, Nathaniel Philbrick—author of In The Heart Of The Sea and Mayflower—said: "I recently discovered John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. Every time I finish one of those slender books, I tell myself it’s time to take a break and return to the pile on the night stand but then find myself deep into another McGee novel. Before there were Lee Child and Carl Hiaasen, there was MacDonald — as prescient and verbally precise as anyone writing today can possibly hope to be."
Writer/lyricist/musician Jimmy Buffett respectfully alludes to MacDonald in the songs "Prince Of Tides" of the album "Hot Water" and "Incommunicado" on "Coconut Telegraph".
Winners of the John D. MacDonald Award for Excellence in Florida Fiction, presented by the JDM Bibliophile, include James W. Hall, Elmore Leonard, Paul Levine, and Charles Willeford.