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5 Best John D. MacDonald Books (2024)

Best John D. MacDonald BooksAn Icon

John D. MacDonald is an iconized writer of crime and suspense which mainly revolved around the problems of the United States and its citizens. And I want to make one thing very clear, I really mean it when I say he is an icon. With over seventy million books sold, he is one of the most successful writers of all time.

His work can roughly be split into two parts; before and after the famous Travis McGee series. He started writing as early as 1936, mainly dealing with characters modest in character and capability. However, this was completely turned upside down with the start of the Travis McGee series that I will be telling you all about in just a minute.

Jack of All Lives

Outside of his writing career, John MacDonald also earned a Master of Business Administration from Harvard University and served in the army during the Second World War as a first lieutenant of the Office of Strategic Services. He utilized his experience in these fields in his work as you will be able to see very clearly as I go through some of his notable works.     

Best John D. MacDonald Books

Travis McGee Series


MacDonald’s Legacy

We are starting our John D. MacDonald book list with his best series, Travis Mcgee. Before I actually get into the review, I want to ask you a question. When you think of a book series, how many books do you imagine making it up? For me, the usual range is about three to six books. MacDonald however, is apparently a very committed man and the Travis McGee series currently consists of twenty-one books!

Having said that, Travis McGee is without a doubt a character beloved by the author’s readers. If you are writing more than twenty books for a protagonist and they all are successes, you are surely getting something right. And do not let it fool you if you are looking up the series from a web page. Although the fame of the books has experienced a downfall, they are still classics adored by the likes of Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen.

The Man

So who is this Travis McGee? Well, he is a character that first appeared in 1964. By then, the author had made a name for himself with his previous books and short stories that were usually about protagonists who were not exactly the “spotlight people”. When Fawcett Books offered him to write a series about a kick-butt crime-solving hero, however, Travis McGee came to be along with the best books John D. Macdonald ever wrote.

To sum it up with just one word, Travis is the “man”. He is all that you think of when you imagine the stereotypical cool guy. He is basically almost perfect all around with his tall muscular body, square jaw, and calm-headed, unbothered attitude. He is both a veteran of the Korean War and a formal varsity football player. He also, of course, knows his way into a lady’s heart.

He lives off of his limited retirement until his late thirties when it eventually runs out and the badass Travis is forced to find a new job. He is skilled and physically capable enough to take on basically any job so he chooses to be a well-paying “salvage consultant” where his capabilities will be put to good use. The deal for hiring him is simple; he will get any stolen or immorally taken away possessions of yours and you will give half of it back to him as payment.

Saying What Needed to be Said

The thing that makes McGee stand out amid all the other clear-cut, Mary-Sue crime/mystery series protagonists is his narration. He puts on an opinionated and loud voice for his readers. There is no degree of uncertainty or doubt in the thoughts that he shares about the cases he is working on, the people he gets involved with, and most importantly, the state of the world during the times which had quite a few things that needed to be said but not enough people to put their heads out and say them.

Travis McGee was the best John D. MacDonald book series because it was important. You might not know this but in the time that the author wrote this series, the biggest worries of our day such as terrorism and climate change were things that were completely ignored. The signs were there but no one wanted to see or talk about them. Well, MacDonald did. He did it because of how much love he had for his people and humanity as a whole.

Three out of Twenty-One

Okay, enough chitchat. Besides all the impact the series had, the thing that makes Travis McGee what it is ultimately is the great stories told in the books. So let’s go over some of the best Travis McGee books in chronological order which will be; Pale Gray for Guilt (the ninth book), The Long Lavender Look (the twelfth book), and The Lonely Silver Rain (the twenty-first and last book).  

Corruption and Accusation

In Pale Gray for Guilt, the story revolves around the humble family-man Tush Bannon. A simple man who had lost a small amount of land that he owned to a group of rich and corrupt real estate people. The land he owned was in the middle of a five-hundred riverfront project that was just one step away from laying the foundations. When the planners of the project decided to steal this plot of land, Bannon had no option but to call McGee.

The twelfth book, The Long Lavender Look goes a little bit different from what the previous books in the series presented us with. McGee is used to finding trouble but this time, it’s the trouble that finds him and his best friend. As McGee and his economist partner Meyer ride through Cypress County, a woman jumping in front of them drives them right into a swamp. Everything goes downhill from that point on as they’re shot while walking to safety and arrested for potential murder.

Facing the Biggest Fear There is

The last one of John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee books in order, The Lonely Silver Rain is also accepted by the fans as the best John D. MacDonald book. As Travis accidentally gets right in the middle of a global cocaine train chain’s center while searching for a lost yacht, he faces the most formidable foes of his entire life. The worst part is, that they’re not after him because of business reasons but because they think he killed a cartel’s daughter.

It is not the war in Korea, not the almighty crime bosses that he faced, or the countless bullets shot at him that ever made him feel mortal but the experiences that he goes through in a subplot of the book. The Long Lavender Look gives us a McGee confronted by mortality. It can even be said that this is the main focus of the book itself instead of the plot. It’s an intended end for the series and it’s everything that it had to be.     

A Clear Window

Before finishing up, I want to state that the Travis McGee series was one of the clearest windows through which I could look into the 70s and 80s. It is also the greatest opportunity for those of you wanting to learn more about John D. MacDonald thanks to the commentations and declarations of ideas spanning through all twenty-one books. It might be a little intimidating to start reading a series this long, especially one this old, but I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Cape Fear


Inhumane and Disgusting

Through with the iconic Travis McGee series, I will now go over some of the most popular John D. MacDonald books starting with Cape Fear. It is another crime story but this time with a protagonist who is much closer to a regular man rather than the picture-perfect McGee. It is also very much different in terms of the crimes committed as it includes one of the most inhumane and even disgusting of them all. 

The best rated among all John D. MacDonald books, Cape Fear includes the unhinged monster Max Cady. Just released after serving a fourteen year long sentence for a proven case of rape, he is seeking revenge on the man who witnessed against him in court. The witness Sam Bowden is forced to deal with him on his own as the law falls short of protecting him. Little does he know, he does not need protection as much as his teenage daughter.

One of His Countless Masterpieces

Cape Fear is without a doubt a masterpiece. In this top rated book, John D. Macdonald shows the wonders he can do with character creation when he is free to do so. Both Sam Bowden and his wife are characters with whom you can feel real empathy towards. On top of that, Max Cady is sure to evoke some strong emotions in you both by himself and by his hate and malice filled interactions with Sam Bowden.



An Apartment of Scandals

Next up on our John D. MacDonald book reviews is Condominium which stands for a housing complex in which every condo is owned by different individuals. It is basically a heavily dramatized and humorous outlook on what usually goes on in a living area like these. It especially ties into the scandalous events that took place during the Florida real estate boom which was a time when the lives of people were completely ignored in turn for a profit.  

The story takes place in the Golden Sands condominium, a place to live your best life as well as a place built with all expenses spared. The author constantly switches from one resident to another and gives us glimpses into the secrets hidden inside the walls. This is a bold narrative choice that could make up for one of the best books by John D. MacDonald if only he connected the characters together, even if individually.  

Entertaining and Intriguing

I think Condominium is a piece that is aimed to entertain the reader rather than to be an impressive piece of literature. There is of course the attempt of drawing attention to the horrible things that happened in the past too. Still, though, none of these reasons are enough to put it in the best novels by John D. MacDonald category. It is obvious the book is way too comical to work with the author’s voice and style. 

A Bullet for Cinderella


Soldiers out of Luck

We are continuing our John D. MacDonald books ranked list with A Bullet for Cinderella. Despite being one of the earlier works by the author being released in 1955, it is one of the best selling John D. MacDonald books. It is the story of a fatally misfortunate military draft named Tal Howard who had been captured during his duty and held captive in a camp as a prisoner of war.

While wasting away his days locked without a righteous reason, Tal meets another prisoner with the name Timmy Warden. Timmy turns out to be a very troubled man who had both stolen from his brother and slept with his wife. He tells Tal the complete story of how it all went down and how he wants to make up for it once he is out. But just in case, he lets Tal in on where the stolen sixty thousand dollars are and how to find them.

A Man’s Search for Himself

Time passes on and Timmy passes away in the camp with all the guilt that he is carrying in his heart. When Tal is eventually rescued, he finds it hard to go back to the usual life and decides he will just find the hidden money and live an easy life. The finding the money part, however, proves to be anything but easy when he gets into the city of Hillston which is filled with dark secrets and another prison mate.  

At heart, the book is solely concerned with Tal Howard’s search to find what he wants to do with his life. War and prison are things that are enough to heavily traumatize even the strongest ones among us. The journey Tal takes is the perfect ground for him to process what he has gone through and discover all the ways that they changed him. This personal outlook is what makes it the best John D. MacDonald book for me.     

Dead Low Tide


So Close to Getting Away

The last one of the John D. MacDonald books I have in order is Dead Low Tide. It is another massively successful early work by the author as it is the best rated John D. MacDonald novel. It has many similarities to the works that I mentioned above including drawing inspiration from the twisted events of the Florida real estate boom and a psychopathic villain with no regard for anyone but themselves.

Andy McClintock is an office worker in a construction company located in Florida and an amateur fisherman. Right after his declaration of quitting his job is met with a promotion and higher pay, his boss is found murdered with a harpoon gun stolen from Andy’s garage. Things only get even trickier when the boss’s wife confesses to a non-existing affair with him. He has been set up in the evilest way possible and the worst is still yet to come.

Perfect Introduction

I suppose it’s safe to say that the best novels of John D. MacDonald are those written before the Travis McGee era. The book itself is an enjoyable and relatively short read that takes you on a ride with countless plot twists. The author also doesn’t hesitate to give the Florida Coast construction monopolies a piece of his mind and it feels good to see someone is finally speaking up. I’d say the book is a perfect introduction to MacDonald.

Final Thoughts


The amount of talent John D. MacDonald possessed is nothing short of noteworthy. His use of language was just brilliant and he could create a perfect story in just a few hundred pages. Couple that with all the interesting life experiences that he knitted into his works too. I would recommend everyone to read at least one book by him and I especially want to emphasize Americans to do so as his work is filled to the brim with the wisdom of the country.

Robert Hazley

Robert is a science fiction and fantasy geek. (He is also the best looking Ereads writer!) Besides reading and writing, he enjoys sports, cosplay, and good food (don't we all?). Currently works as an accountant (would you believe that?)