Sunbelt Baroque; How John D. MacDonald invented a subgenre that's no longer his own
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 February 2016)

In the late 1980s Tim Dorsey, a young newspaperman at the Tampa Tribune, noticed something remarkable happening to popular literature in Florida. Writing crime novels had suddenly become popular, and readers were buying them. "It was like a switch was thrown," Dorsey recalled later. And in a twinkling, meaning two or three years, "the Florida author sub-genre" was born.

Carl Hiaasen's debut novel, Tourist Season, was among the first titles. Soon other authors appeared - James W. Hall, Edna Buchanan, Randy Wayne White, and half a dozen more. Dorsey, growing up in Florida, had often wondered about his state's sense of identity. It was not southern, not northern.

When he studied these books he decided that all the branches of this family tree grew from a single trunk, John D. MacDonald, who died in 1986 after writing 21 novels about a charming and funny Floridian named Travis McGee. Confirming his status as fan, Dorsey visited Bahia Mar Marina, Fort Lauderdale, where Travis parked his fictional houseboat and where (in the real world) the marina has kept his boat's place, Slip F-18, empty in his honour.

For crime writers, Florida is a target-rich environment. Drug dealers take pride in sourcing Latin American product. Boom-and-bust phases in real estate attract property speculators peddling dubious deals. Dorsey calls it a modern Wild West, subtropical in a romantic and glamorous way, the old west with palm trees.

Dorsey decided to join this movement and he's now a full-time author with 18 novels published, most them bearing names that vaguely evoke Florida: Triggerfish Twist, Gator A-Go-Go, Electric Barracuda.

His first novel, Florida Roadkill, became so popular that Dorsey wrote Florida Roadkill: A Survival Guide, his travel companion to the novel. This year Dorsey has been given the annual Florida Mystery Writers Award. He's now part of the Florida literary style sometimes called Sunbelt Baroque, in which every aspect of Florida is wildly exaggerated for comic effect.

The father of this literary movement, MacDonald, made his reputation with a crimenovel hero who has no official reason to solve crimes. Travis McGee is neither cop nor PI nor prosecutor. He's a "salvage consultant" who finds lost riches and gets part of their value as his fee. Crime just happens to be part of what he encounters. Travis, without wife or permanent girlfriend, keeps running into lovely women with big money problems and tragic sexual histories. Until events frustrate his plans, he usually decides that what each woman requires is a serious romance with a serious man, i.e., Travis.

The dialogue in MacDonald's books still seems fresh. I've always cherished the way his people speak in euphemisms when they try to inject a touch of helpful therapy. A crook, explaining his wayward career, says "I've got substance issues. This is not the arc I mapped out for my life."

MacDonald also set the template for Florida crime novels in a more obvious way. Travis (and of course MacDonald) was permanently furious about the environmental degradation of Florida, a natural paradise vandalized by unbridled commerce. MacDonald, like most of the writers following him, loved Florida but hated what Floridian developers and politicians had done to it. A reader of a Travis McGee book can never avoid a lecture on the corruption of Florida planning.

"We get 38 million tourists a year and the rivers and swamps are dying," Travis says. "The birds are dying, the fish are dying. They're paving the whole state."

When he looks around he decides Florida is "second rate, flashy and cheap, tacky and noisy." The water supply is failing, developers are moving in on the marshlands, commercial fishermen are an endangered species.

But Florida people, far from resenting the way Mac-Donald condemns their failure, embrace him as if he were their poet laureate. The city of Sarasota especially loves him as a local hero because he lived in nearby Siesta Key from 1952 till his death in 1986.

He was born in July, 1916, so Sarasota is celebrating his centennial with great enthusiasm. At a downtown library last week an intensely engaged crowd showed up to listen as two writers who knew him sang his praises and a scholar (who may be the world's leading MacDonald expert) took us through his career, from the 500 stories he wrote for pulp magazines right up to the great best-selling days of Travis McGee.

That was the opening of a seven-months-long series of events that will include screenings, discussions and an article about him every weekend in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, culminating in huge birthday celebration in July.

Stephen King wrote the first piece, noting he's one of many writers following in MacDonald's footsteps. "I make it my business to read a pair every year, one Travis McGee and one stand-alone. They refresh me, and they still teach me." A delightful thought for a 100th birthday.

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