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Author Lee Child on John D MacDonald

In a 2016 BBC Radio 4 programme, Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series recommends the Travis McGee series written by John D MacDonald...
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Five weeks ago the BBC launched its ‘new and improved’ Sounds app. It hasn’t been very well received, which shouldn't be particularly surprising when you consider there are lots of things you can no longer do with it, such as browsing radio schedules or bookmarking future programmes. It’s also desperately clunky to use.

It’s geared towards the young, because apparently the BBC needs to do more to ‘reach’ young people. I’m not entirely sure how the Sounds app will achieve this. It maybe looks a bit sexier but otherwise it just tries to ‘do what it says on the tin’ – but doesn’t do it very well.

I wanted to listen to an interview with Lee Child which someone told me had been broadcast on Radio 5 recently. I still haven’t found that but the Sounds search facility instead offered ’21 Shades of Noir: Lee Child on John D MacDonald’ – a Radio 4 programme from October 2016. What the hell I thought, I’d listen to that. And I’m glad I did.

This was Lee Child talking about an American author called John D MacDonald who, between 1964 and 1985, wrote a series of 21 mystery novels featuring a character called Travis McGee. The books are great favourites of Lee Child’s and, it seems, of many other mystery writers too.

In fact, in the programme, Child admits Jack Reacher bears a lot of similarities to Travis McGee; and that the series has inspired his own writing. Child describes McGee as a “Florida boat-bum, who works as a so-called salvage consultant. But only when his funds run low.” And towards the end of the programme adds: “McGee still has one foot in the Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade camp, and one foot out of it. Reacher has taken both feet out of it. Reacher is completely free. Reacher is Travis McGee without a job.”

It’s always interesting to hear what inspires the writers you enjoy, but this programme was particularly intriguing because I’d never heard of John D MacDonald before. If the series is as promising as it sounds then I have 21 books to enjoy. (Hurrah!)

The back story
MacDonald sounds an interesting character too. Born into a wealthy American family he went to Harvard and then travelled extensively in Europe before the outbreak of WW2. He had a distinguished war record, ending up as a Lieutenant Colonel in Intelligence. But after the war, instead of choosing any run-of-the-mill career, he became a writer of mystery novels, or ‘pulp fiction’.

During the programme Child talks to other authors, including Lawrence Block and Susan Isaacs, and to Otto Penzler, CEO of MysteriousPress.com and the owner of New York’s Mysterious Bookshop, who actually knew John D MacDonald. Obviously it’s not surprising that the people who are interviewed rate John D MacDonald as highly as Lee Child does. All agree the stories are terrific but say there’s more to them than that. For example, Lee Child highlights MacDonald’s prescience on environmental issues, and Susan Isaacs talks about his fears about technology and rampant consumerism.

An early marketeer
Otto Penzler explains that John D had an MBA from Harvard and understood marketing and how to promote his books. In branding terms, for example, the Travis McGee series all have colours in their title, from The Deep Blue Goodbye in 1964 to The Lonely Silver Rain in 1985. And Penzler also describes how MacDonald cultivated his readers. He would, it seems, take down the name and address of any fan who wrote to him. Then, when a new book was due to appear, he’d employ a secretary to send each of them a letter with a flyer about the book. The everlasting importance of the mailing list!

Child recognises that some people may feel uncomfortable with some of the language and attitudes expressed in the books. But as he points out, it’s not fair to judge books and authors just because they don’t reflect today’s notions of proper behaviour and language. We must accept that the Travis McGee books were written more than 50 years ago and they talk about real people at that time.

Lee Child says the series "never lets you down and has no weak spots". And if Travis McGee was a man of his time, the same could be said of Jack Reacher.

Child adds: “The appeal of Reacher these days is that everybody’s life is so constricted, and so full of commitment and responsibility. In fact, modern life is what John D MacDonald warned us about. What life would become. What I’ve done about it is just make up a guy who doesn’t participate, which has proved very appealing to people. They’d love to live like that. Just like, I guess, we’d have loved to live like Travis McGee, with half a nod towards realism. ‘Yeah, we do need some money, so we’ll work when we run low but other than that we’ll just chill.’”

So… potentially 21 books to read in the Travis McGee series, and a further 46 other novels too! None of them are going to be that easy to track down in hard copy so downloading is probably the way to go. I plan to start the Travis McGee series at the beginning, and just hope I enjoy them as much as Lee Child does.

P.S. Sharp-eyed readers visiting Fantastic Fiction to check out these books will notice that many of the Travis McGee covers proclaim that Lee Child has written the Introduction...