1. Life & Culture

Born 100 years ago, mystery writer John D. MacDonald foresaw the risks facing Florida's beauty

John D. MacDonald, in an undated photo, sits on the porch of his home in Sarasota.
John D. MacDonald, in an undated photo, sits on the porch of his home in Sarasota.
Published Jun. 28, 2016

I read a lot of paperback thrillers, especially in the summer. Sometimes I think it's because of something in my DNA.

My grandfather was hooked on Perry Mason, both the TV show and the books by Erle Stanley Gardner. My mother couldn't get enough of Agatha Christie. Growing up, I jumped from Encyclopedia Brown to Sherlock Holmes to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

I used to ride the bus to school, my nose buried so deeply in books such as Ax by Ed McBain that I barely noticed the horrified reactions their lurid covers got from the other kids.

Then, one day, my chain-smoking great-aunt took a drag on her unfiltered Camel and drawled, "I think you're ready for Travis McGee."

She handed me a well-thumbed paperback. On its cover was a topless woman, seen from the back. I was 14, so I gulped and said, "Yes, ma'am, I believe you're right!"

She gave me three books about McGee, a Fort Lauderdale boat bum/salvage consultant who was catnip to women and a magnet for trouble. That was my introduction to McGee's creator, Sarasota writer John D. MacDonald, who was born 100 years ago this month.

Sarasota is holding events all year to celebrate MacDonald, who cranked out an astonishing 76 novels and dozens of short stories. He's worth celebrating because, as I learned, there was a lot more to The Deep Blue Goodbye and its sequels than the ample pulchritude on the covers.

Unlike the other mysteries I'd read, these books were set in Florida, my home state. It had never occurred to me that a place that seemed so sunny could be full of shadowy characters and dark motives.

In the McGee books and many of his other novels, MacDonald wrote about Florida's beauty, the appeal of nature and the risks of ruining it. He had an MBA, so he knew how business worked, how conscienceless and corrupt it could be, how it could turn a gorgeous public resource like a waterfront into a lifeless ruin for private profit.

The more I read, the more fascinated I became. MacDonald's books weren't just straight-ahead puzzle mysteries like my grandfather's Perry Mason books. This author digressed. He quipped. He had a lot to say about a lot of things — particularly about the greed and carelessness driving the bad decisions being made about my state. He reveled in irony when he saw it.

What he had to say was a revelation to teenage me. I'd spent lots of time hunting and fishing with my dad, as well as camping and canoeing with my Boy Scout troop. Until I read MacDonald, I didn't realize that the places I'd enjoyed visiting might someday be turned into cul-de-sacs and convenience stores, or that such changes might not be for the best.

MacDonald and his wife and child arrived in Clearwater in 1949 and two years later they settled in Sarasota for good. They lived on the water. MacDonald enjoyed boating and fishing. He loved watching what he called "the armada of pelicans" wheeling above the waves. In a panther paw print, he saw evidence that wilderness had not yet been wiped out.

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Over the years, he became an extremely vocal environmental activist, battling dredge-and-fill projects that would disrupt Sarasota Bay. He smuggled some of those arguments into his thriller plots starting with 1953's Dead Low Tide.

Modern-day Florida thriller writer Tim Dorsey calls him "Florida's Nostradamus. He was writing about protecting our environment long before we knew it was an issue."

Author Jim Harrison called MacDonald's novel A Flash of Green — featuring a crooked county commissioner pushing a ruinous dredge-and-fill project — America's first ecological novel. It was published in 1962, the same year as Rachel Carson's nonfiction blockbuster Silent Spring.

Over and over, MacDonald warned Floridians about "the fast buck artists." He wrote in 1961's Where Is Janice Gantry? that they would "asphalt the entire coast, fill every bay and slay every living thing incapable of carrying a wallet."

His masterpiece was Condominium, published in 1977. In it — as in Jesus' parable — foolish men built upon the sand. They get their comeuppance when a Category 5 hurricane storms ashore. That book should be required reading for everyone in Florida.

MacDonald wrote that book, by the way, after losing a battle to keep a condominium from being built in his waterfront neighborhood. His house is now for sale, and instead of being turned into a writers' retreat (as happened with Jack Kerouac's Orlando home) it may be torn down to make room for a condominium.

MacDonald would be furious, but he would relish the only-in-Florida irony.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.


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