Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Visual Arts

August 24, 2014

By Kevin Comer

Despite a career in software development, I went to art school. I stopped doing art—except for home design and decorating—and started collecting long ago. My wife and I currently focus our interest on plein-air paintings of the countryside and coast near our home. I’ve noticed Travis McGee is something of an aficionado of the visual arts as well.

The first hints appear in Nightmare in Pink (1964). Travis is in the NYC apartment of commecial package designer, Nina Gibson. Nina is the sister of McGee’s tragically injured war buddy, Mike. Mike has asked Trav to check up on her following the murder of her fiancé:

Nina Gibson was clean but not neat. Great stacks of decorator and craft and design magazines. Shelves of presentation designs that never quite worked out. A huge drawing table with Luxo lamps clamped onto it, like big gray metal grasshoppers. Art books. Big action paintings, Klinelike, but without Kline’s sober weight and dignity…

“Kline” is Franz Kline, a New York based abstract expressionist painter—like Jackson Pollock—who was active during the 1940s and ’50s. Abstract Expressionism is sometimes called “Action Painting” because paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied. This is a pretty sophisticated, well-informed opinion T. McGee is uttering here.

Later in Pink, Travis is twiddling his thumbs waiting to talk to Terry Drummond, Charlie Armister’s sister-in-law. Nina’s murdered fiancé worked for Charlie. Extremely wealthy Charlie has been acting strangely of late and McGee is seeking insight into his behavior:

I picked through the magazines on the coffee table, and sat and leafed through one. There were some excellent color reproductions of three recent paintings by Tapies, work that had the burned, parched, textured, solemn, heartbreak look of his native Spain. I lusted to own one. I told myself I could bundle [Terry] into the sack and use her up, and she’d buy me one as a party favor.

“Tapies” is Antoni Tàpies i Puig, 1st Marquess of Tàpies, who began his career as a surrealist painter, but switched to mixed media in the early 1950s. He added clay and marble dust to his paint and used waste paper, string, and rags. No doubt creating works that “had the burned, parched, textured, solemn, heartbreak look of his native Spain.” Travis is no end of surprising when it comes to art appreciation.

One of the most surprising expressions of McGee’s insight into painting comes in One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966). Travis has flown to Chicago to investigate the mysterious disappearance of $600,000 from the estate of Dr. Fortner Geis. One of Travis’ broken birds, Glory Doyle, married Fort following a therapeutic interlude aboard the Flush. Fort has succumbed to a lengthy illness and the missing money means Glory is soon to be out of house and home.

His investigation brings Travis into contact with Fort’s 25-year-old artist daughter, Heidi. Heidi doesn’t know it yet, but she is going to benefit mightily from getting to know Travis McGee. But, things do not get off to a good start:

She came up and handed me my drink and stood beside me looking into the studio. “Please don’t ask me to explain my work.”

She had a rare talent for irritating me. So I said, “I doubt if you could, Mrs. Trumbill.”

With a cold smile as she turned toward me, she said, “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Sorry. I don’t think you know what you’re doing.”

“My dear man, abstract expressionism has been around so long that it…”

“That it gets imitated too much. You’ve got some color sense. You go too far in setting up weird composition. But that doesn’t mean you are setting problems or trying to solve them. It’s glib stuff, Heidi. It hasn’t got any bones. It hasn’t got any symbol values, any underlying feeling of weight or inevitability. It’s just sort of shock-pretty, and you certainly get some satisfaction out of doing it, but just don’t start taking it or yourself too seriously.”

Fury drained the color out of her face. She went striding away, whirled so quickly she slopped some of her sherry onto the living-room rug. “Just who the hell are you? My work sells! I’ve been in damned good juried shows. I’ve had some fantastic reviews.”

“I’m just a guy who buys a painting once in a while.”

“Then what could you possibly know about it? You jackasses learn a couple of stock words and voila! You’re a critic yet.”

“There’s nothing wrong with decoration, Heidi.”

“You will call me Mrs. Trumbill if you don’t mind.”

“I mind, Heidi. Your stuff will melt right into the wall after a week. Nobody will see it. That’s no disgrace. It’s decorative, but it ain’t art.”

“Get out of here!”

“You can call me Trav, or Travis.” There was a piece of paper on a table beside a lamp. I saw a pencil on the coffee table. I took the blank paper over and put it beside the pencil. “Just make me a sketch of that lamp and the window beyond it, girl, and I’ll go quietly.”

“Oh, you mean draw you a cow that looks like a cow?” she said with a poisonous and knowing smile.

“Go ahead. Funny, but everybody I can think of right off the top of the head could sure God draw a fat realistic cow if they ever happened to want to. Hans Hoffman, Kline, Marca-Relli, Guston, Solomon, Rivers, Picasso, Kandinsky, Motherwell, Pollock. And you know it, baby. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. You dabblers bug me. You want the applause without all the thousands of hours of labor learning how to draw, how to make brush strokes, learning all the things that give painting some bite and bones even when you don’t use any part of it. Go ahead, draw the lamp. Quick sketch. Prove I’m a jackass.”

Where on earth could Travis have picked up this more than passing understanding of mid-century art and the journey of the artist? Could it have been around the dinner table with Mrs. MacDonald?

Dorothy MacDonald graduated from the School of Fine Arts at Syracuse University in 1931. That fall, she began teaching art and French at the nearby Cazenovia Seminary. Cazenovia had been founded by members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, but was an academic, not a religious, institution and is now known as Cazenovia College. Dorothy could certainly have instructed McGee in the elements of fine art.

But so could some of JDM’s neighbors. In the autobiographical The House Guests (1964), JDM mentions Syd Solomon lives 10 minutes from his home on Point Crisp in Sarasota. McGee’s love interest Dana Holtzer, in The Quick Red Fox (1964), happens to admire a painting by Syd hanging in the lounge of the Busted Flush. Travis may have been buying direct from the artist.

Click here to watch a fascinating short video about Syd and his work. It might give you a sense of the milieu JDM and Dorothy inhabited in Sarasota; and an insight into McGee’s tastes in the visual arts.


Guest Post: Travis McGee & Big Data

August 8, 2014

By Kevin Comer

Travis McGee can seem remarkably prescient. To illustrate this point we need look no further than The Deep Blue Good-by (1964).

Blue is the first and definitive McGee novel. We’re introduced to—and seduced by—Travis McGee, the wry, amiable iconoclast, cultural critic, and unassimilated rebel, as JDM pithily puts it in “How to Live with a Hero” (The Writer, September 1964). Blue is very nearly the best McGee novel. It has everything—except Meyer.

McGee rescues his first injured bird, Lois Atkinson. He faces one of his most implacable foes in smiling Junior Allen. He is smart, tender, and tough. He makes costly mistakes. And all the while he amiably kvetches about modern times under a Florida sun shining on blue water, beaches, babes, and boats.

Departing Bahia Mar for a flight to NYC inspires Travis to ruminate on one particular necessity of modern times. A rumination that goes further than you might have anticipated. McGee is trying to discover what Junior Allen found hidden by Cathy Kerr’s father, Sergeant David Berry, in the marker at the end of the family driveway. He is leaving convalescing Lois aboard the Flush:

At the gangplank I kissed [Lois] like any commutation ticket husband, told her to take care of herself, scuttled toward Miss Agnes, slapping my hip pocket where the money and the credit cards were. The unemployed merit no credit cards. But I had a guarantor, a man for whom I had done a sticky and dangerous favor, a man whose name makes bank presidents spring to attention and hold their shallow breaths. The cards are handy, but I hate to use them. I always feel like a Thoreau armored with a Leica and a bird book. They are the little fingers of reality, reaching for your throat. A man with a credit card is in hock to his own image of himself.

But these are the last remaining years of choice. In the stainless nurseries of the future, the feds will work their way through all the squalling pinkness tattooing a combination tax number and credit number on one wrist, followed closely by the I.T. and T. team putting the permanent phone number, visaphone doubtless, on the other wrist. Die and your number goes back in the in the bank. It will be the first provable immortality the world has ever known.

Wow. Imagine—a government database containing everybody’s phone number.

I think it’s a safe bet that we’re hearing directly from JDM in this dystopian vision. He felt the world was changing, and not for the better. He wrote in the autobiographical The House Guests (1964): “As life gets ever more inconvenient, trashified, and irritating, it is possible to convince [those who don’t know any better] through electronic repetition…that everything is, in fact, getting better and better and better.” Those feelings came to a head a few years later when he went to war with AmEx over his credit card.

In late 1967, JDM disputed some charges on his AmEx bill. His complaint went unacknowledged and he received a letter stating he was in arrears. He replied:

“Whether or not my account is past due, sir, is a matter of interpretation. At least, I have had no such notifications from your establishment. And you have heard from me. Ah, yes, you have heard from me time and again, a detail which mayhaps the Great Machine overlooked when it upchucked my card in your “in” basket. I would be bedazzled, humble and grateful indeed if you would inspect the attached copies of certain documents and not only write me a prompt, personal, and thorough and thoughtful answer, but also unravel and eliminate the ancient , unadjusted, semi-corrected charge of $ 7.20 dating back, so help us all, to December of 1967.”

Unsurprisingly, this did not garner the requested prompt reply. Things moved more slowly back the late ‘60s. JDM waited six whole days before escalating:

“It must be a new age of efficiency there at Big Ex. No more fussing about with first, second, third notices. Send the final notice first! I think we can both safely agree that it would be distressing for both of us were the brute electronic equipment to start assessing delinquency fees before I even have a chance to get that prompt, personal, thorough and thoughtful answer you promised me.

“Of the 35 million copies of my thirty-odd books which have sold all over the world, several million have involved the adventures of a character I named Travis McGee. It is often very difficult to dream up brand new torments and handicaps for a fictional charater … I now realize I have been overlooking an affliction which even Mr. McGee might not be able to overcome. I am now thinking of, in the next novel, gifting him with an American Express Credit Card! It would make Poe’s bit about the pit and the pendulum look no more distressing than diaper rash.”

AmEx cancelled his card. He responded by suing for $600,000 in damages. In a letter to his friend, comedian Dan Rowan, he vented: “I want to know if a huge corporation can damage me with utter cynical impunity merely because it is big and I am small, and I want the Court to clarify this little point of citizenship rights, damages etc. in a computer-cold world.”

The suit was settled in 1969. JDM declared it a “Victory Claimed for Humans.”

I can’t help thinking JDM was being a bit obstreperous in all this. His reaction to a simple billing error was asymmetric to the offense given. The amounts involved were trivial. He was impatient. His correspondence didn’t need to be sarcastic. He could have phoned. But he was primed for this fight.

In October 1967, just months before he went ballistic, JDM published an article, “Everybody Knows Something Is Wrong,” ostensibly about the unassimilated McGee, in Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald. He wrote:

“McGee resents being processed, programmed, fed through the machinery by experts trained in handling people rather than persons. He knows that the dentist, the post office, the County, the IRS, the airline hostess, the librarian, the highway engineer, the supermarket, the city government, the census bureau, the banker, the advertising agent, the automobile agency, the hospital, and the mortician are all intent in using him as a statistic, as one atom in a manageable mass, then studying him, weighing him, measuring him, predicting his actions on some huge probability table. They use manuals and trade journals and computers and statistical methods and psychological testing devices to predict mass reaction, and handle mass demand on a totally impersonal and totally efficient basis. It irritates him to have society take away his face and dump him into the great hopper labeled Standard Operating Procedure. But don’t try to tell him that in a densely populated urban culture it has to be that way, that people must be turned into a commodity or we would have chaos. Don’t try to tell him that if the processors tried to measure the uniqueness of each human personality, the wonderful specialness, the delicious inconsistency of every one of us, all the memory banks would start smoking, the sorters would spew out a snowstorm of punch cards, and all the complex technology of our culture would grind to a sickening halt… He reserves the right to resent being sorted and graded on the basis of “sameness” rather than on the basis of uniqueness. It makes him feel degraded, and he reserves the right to do his little bit here and there to startle the processors out of their compulsion to flatten and deaden all human contact…”

Sadly, JDM may have won his battle, but—as everybody knows—not the war.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Rust Belt

July 28, 2014

By Kevin Comer

In 1925, JDM’s father, Eugene, accepted a job as treasurer with the Savage Arms Company in Utica, New York. This is where JDM lived — except brief sojourns at the University of Pennsylvania and in New York City — until 1938, when he departed for Harvard in pursuit of an MBA. When Eugene MacDonald moved his family to Utica, the city was at the center of a vibrant industrial region, and had been for a hundred years.

Utica is located in the Mohawk Valley on the shallowest part of the Mohawk River, which is easily forded. Untold generations of Native Americans had used the locale for trading. In 1773, European immigrants, attracted by the same advantages, established the settlement that would eventually come to be called Utica.

The first section of the Erie Canal, opened in 1819, connected Utica with Rome, New York. The canal reduced transportation costs between Lake Erie and New York City by 95%. Utica began to grow by leaps and bounds. An anonymous traveler noted that by 1829, Utica had become “a really beautiful place . . . [and Utica's State Street] in no respect inferior to Broadway in New York.”

The slow flow of the Mohawk was insufficient to drive the water powered industrial machinery of the era, but in 1836, the Chenango Canal linked Utica with Binghamton, creating a water route for coal from Northern Pennsylvania. The ready supply of coal allowed manufacturers to make use of the new steam technologies. Utica rapidly became a major hub of textile production. Tool and die manufacturing soon followed. In the early 20th Century, the fledgling electronics industry established operations there and Utica became known as the “Radio Capital of the World.” Waves of immigrants moved into the region, particularly Italians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Utica, and the surrounding region, prospered until the 1950s. Eventually, however, textile production migrated to the American South before leaving our shores entirely, and the electronics and tool and die industries moved to Asia. Utica and its neighbors began to wither. No longer the Radio Capital of the World, Utica became known as “The City that God Forgot.” In the 1980s, a humorous bumper sticker reading “Last One Out of Utica, Please Turn Out The Lights” began appearing on residents’ vehicles. Today, Utica is suffering the same fate as Detroit and a host of other Rust Belt cities.

In Cinnamon Skin (1982), Travis and Meyer travel to Utica in search of the sister of the man they believe is responsible for the death of Meyer’s niece, Norma. Sport fishing enthusiast Norma died when Meyer’s squatty cruiser, The John Maynard Keynes, was blown to smithereens passing the sea buoy outbound from Bahia Mar under the command of hired skipper Hack Jenkins. Initially, they believe Norma, her husband, and Hack are collateral damage in an attempted assassination of Meyer. Minutes after the explosion, the Fort Lauderdale Police received a phone call claiming Meyer has been the target of terrorist ire. Fortunately, Meyer was in Toronto and not aboard.

Meyer is still recovering from his devastating encounter with Dirty Bob in Free Fall in Crimson (1981) and now all of his possessions, as well as his only living relative, have gone to Davy Jones. He doesn’t even have a picture of Norma. The only photograph extant may be one taken from a passing boat moments before the Keynes was reduced to flotsam. A grainy copy has appeared in newspaper accounts of the tragedy. As a favor to his morose friend, Travis tracks down the woman, Mrs. Simmons Davis, who took the snapshot.

Speaking on the phone, Mrs. Davis explains she snapped the photo because “… she remembered being amused at the unusual name on the cruiser, The John Maynard Keynes; she knew that any mention of Keynesian economic theory tended to make her husband very cross.” She readily agrees to mail an 8 by 10 copy to McGee. Upon its arrival, Travis quickly discerns the figure they had assumed was Norma’s new husband, Evan Lawrence, was actually a hired mate named Pogo.

Now their effort to track down the man they knew as Evan Lawrence has brought Travis and Meyer to Utica. They’ve checked into an aged Howard Johnson’s and are enjoying the veal piccata at Grimaldi’s, a nearby restaurant located across the street from “…some sort of yellow-brick public housing project.” The drinks and meal have been excellent. Meyer is beginning to show signs of a renewed interest in life. McGee considers his fellow diners:

I looked around at the patrons of the restaurant and the bar. Politicos, many of them young. Lawyers and elected officials and appointees. Some with their wives or girls. It looked to me as if a lot of the city and county business might be transacted right here. They had a lot of energy, these Italianate young men, a feverish gregariousness. I wondered aloud why they seemed so frantic about having a good time.

Travis McGee’s best friend and sagacious economist, Meyer, offers a possible explanation:

Meyer studied the question and finally said, “It’s energy without a productive outlet, I think. Most of these Mohawk Valley cities are dying, have been for years: Albany, Troy, Amsterdam, Utica, Syracuse, Rome. And so they make an industry out of government. State office buildings in the decaying downtowns. A proliferation of committees, surveys, advisory boards, commissions, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, road departments, health care groups… thousands upon thousands of people making a reasonably good living working for city, county, state and federal governments in these dwindling cities, passing the same tax dollars back and forth. I think that man, by instinct, is productive. He wants to make something, a stone ax, a bigger cave, better arrows, whatever. But these bright and energetic men know in their hearts they are not making anything. They use every connection, every contact, every device to stay within reach of public monies. Working within an abstraction is just not a totally honorable way of life. Hence the air of jumpy joy, the backslaps ringing too loudly, compliments too extravagant, toasts too ornate, marriages too brief, lawsuits too long-drawn, obligatory forms too complex and too long. Their city has gone stale and as the light wanes, they dance.”

Following his service in India during WWII, JDM returned to Utica to begin his writing career. This was home, despite the bitterly cold winters and high cost of living that soon had him seeking sunnier, less expensive climes. His wife, Dorothy, wrote in a letter: “… New York state is our home, where our people are, and Piseco [Lake], and our roots, and … we don’t want to be outsiders the rest of our lives.”

Although JDM and Dorothy eventually settled permanently and happily in Florida, the couple never entirely broke their ties with the region. While serving in India, JDM sent home some money he won playing poker. Dorothy used the money to buy land on Piseco Lake, sixty miles northeast of Utica. In 1948, they began construction of a summer camp on the property. During the remaining decades of his life, JDM and Dorothy often spent their summers there.

50th Post: Geoffrey Norman’s Deep End & Blue Light

July 21, 2014

Blogger’s note: It was about six years ago that I started blogging on Travis McGee’s adventures. I finished with the 21st story last summer, but decided to keep the conversation going a while longer. Of course, guest blogger Kevin Comer has added a lot, as have all of you who have left comments. I’m continuing on with miscellaneous posts on any topics that might relate to McGee and JDM, such as this post on one of the best of the McGee wannabes. Also, I’d like to note that this is the blog’s 50th post.

A few months ago I wrote about Randy Wayne White and his McGee wannabe Doc Ford. Probably the most popular of the McGee-type heroes, Doc regularly appears on the bestseller lists. Many other authors have tried to play in JDM’s ballpark, as well. Here is another, one of the best.

Geoffrey Norman was (and is) a journalist and his hero is Morgan Hunt—Vietnam vet, convicted murderer, ex-con, and private investigator. The four Morgan Hunt books are Sweetwater Ranch, Blue Chipper, Deep End, and Blue Light. I’m going to write a little about the latter two.

Deep End isn’t the greatest mystery/suspense book ever, but I know of few other novels that ring the Travis McGee changes quite so faithfully. (The only two that might be as good or better are, IMO, White’s Captiva and Ten Thousand Islands.)

The set-up is this: A friend of Hunt’s, an ex-Navy SEAL, is in financial straits and has a seriously ill young son. He is unexpectedly the subject of a destructive Coast Guard inspection of his dive boat. There’s a chance the Coast Guard was tipped that Phil Garvey was smuggling drugs. Which is slander, totally unwarranted, as the guy’s a boy scout, perfectly clean. Hunt and his attorney employer, Nat Semmes, manage to identify the slanderer—a pissed-off dive student of Garvey’s who is suing him. An attorney himself, this guy gets his upbraiding and it costs him dearly.

The first time I read Deep End, back in ’99, I was thinking at this point in the story that this sure isn’t much of an adventure. The hero helps his friend avoid a nasty lawsuit and gets to show up a tin-pot Coast Guard officer. Is that all there is?

But then the tale takes a sharp turn, as Garvey gets pulled into some kind of treasure hunt—a way to fix his money troubles in a big hurry. This scheme turns out to have significant connections to Garvey’s troubles in the first part of the book.

Garvey goes missing and it’s time for Hunt to step up to a bout of big-time sleuthing—including some incredible deep-water dives. The stakes go up considerably and it becomes apparent that Garvey has gotten involved with some dangerous heavy hitters. Hunt is desperate to find and save his friend, and reunite him with his wife and sick kid. You will see a lot of our favorite knight in rusted armor in this first-person narrator. The lengths he goes to in his attempt to help the wife and kid are McGee-like in their generosity and passion. These qualities, and the Florida setting, make it a first-class McGee substitute.

Blue Light, though, isn’t really a McGee-type story. This is a straight P. I. plotline that Trav would never get involved in. But it’s very well written, a compelling read. Oddly enough, this fourth and final tale in the Morgan Hunt series was never published in the US–as far as I can tell–but it was issued in the UK.

In Blue Light—a reference to the look in Stonewall Jackson’s eyes in the midst of battle, or the gaze of any fanatic Southerner—Hunt is sent by Semmes to investigate allegations of rape against a sitting US senator. It’s not at all clear what Semmes’ interest in the case is, but Hunt works for him and begins turning over the rocks. First order of business is to find the woman that the politician supposedly attacked. When he does, Hunt becomes convinced that she’s telling the truth and that the senator is a secret, monstrous predator of young women. Hunt’s detecting across Florida and DC turns up more similar cases.

It turns out that Semmes’ interest in the case derives from his desire to be the special prosecutor of the senator, not his defense counsel. There are many twists and turns, until the final big one—which I won’t spoil here. But at the end I was feeling a little sad, as Hunt talked over the case with his girlfriend. Not because this was a great story. But because this was a series that deserved to keep going after book number four.

* * *

I think that after you read Deep End and Blue Light—and I do recommend hunting them down; Amazon carries used copies, as does Alibris—you’ll agree that Hunt is very much of the McGee lineage and character. More like McGee than most that I’ve come across.

More important than the plots are the moods and temperament of these books. Hunt, like McGee, is not exactly a loner, but a kind of heroic eccentric and iconoclast; it’s his way or the highway. He is a straight P. I., though, not a vague sort of “salvage consultant.” His many-roomed old house out under the live oaks on a meandering stream, built c. 1900 by a sea captain, is no Busted Flush. But it is definitely a character in the book—a fine HQ for Hunt’s adventures. The Panhandle is no Lauderdale, no Bahia Mar, but it is pure Florida nonetheless; a part of the Deep South unlike Trav’s east coast or Doc Ford’s west coast.

Likewise, Nat Semmes is no Meyer. But his intelligence and canniness and deep experience in the law make him a great partner for Hunt. The local gendarme, a former college football star named Tom Pine, is another fine ally. Hunt’s love life is more along the lines of Spenser than McGee. His ladylove is the Cajun woman Jessie Beaudreaux, and she is a regular presence throughout the books. (I hasten to add that she is a more substantial and interesting character than the insufferable Dr. Susan Silverman.) Though Hunt isn’t the passionate editorialist and philosopher that Trav is, he still offers plenty of commentary along the way.

So why are there only four Morgan Hunt books? I speculate that Geoffrey Norman got a four-book contract and the books didn’t sell enough for the US and UK publishers to warrant a contract renewal. In fact, a UK publisher printed the fourth book, while the US publisher bailed after three. If anyone knows otherwise, let me know.

What’s baffling is why Norman hasn’t at least indie-published these fine yarns on Kindle, Smashwords, Kobo, etc., as e-books; the job can be done for a few hundred bucks per title. I’d ask him myself, but I can’t find any way to contact him through his current gig at The Weekly Standard. If anyone knows the guy, and how to contact him, leave me a note in the comments below. I mean, maybe the books would sell well enough to revive the series. After all, the excellent Laurence Shames has indie-published his classic Key West mob satires as e-books. He published a new one last year and has plans for more.

Hey there, Geoffrey Norman, why don’t you get Morgan Hunt back in the game?



Will Christian Bale Be Travis McGee?

July 17, 2014

Didn’t see this one coming.

Although the deal is not yet sealed, according to Variety, it looks like Christian Bale is eager to sign on to play our beloved boat bum Travis McGee. Read the story here. James Mangold is officially The Deep Blue Good-by‘s director and worked with Bale on 3:10 from Yuma.

Though I think there are other actors more physically suited to play McGee (Brolin, Evans, Hemsworth were mentioned in my McGee 50th B-day post), Bale knows his way around an action movie. While I wasn’t a fan of Yuma, I’m a big admirer of Rescue Dawn. He had a little role in the Batman movies, too. And, of course, he’s a helluvanactor–a top top top A-lister who can do almost anything. The only thesp who seriously outranks him is Daniel Day Lewis, IMO, and I don’t see Lewis taking up residence on the Busted Flush.

So there you have it. What do y’all think?


A Toast to McGee

July 11, 2014


This past May was Travis McGee’s 50th birthday. The Deep Blue Good-by appeared as a paperback original about six months after JFK was assassinated. (In fact, JDM had intended to name his hero “Dallas,” but changed his mind after 11-22-63.)

My plan was to find a watering hole on the water somewhere around the Twin Cities in May, and there toast Travis’s 50th. Well, May was wet and cold; and June got away from us entirely. So, finally, earlier this week, I was able to coordinate schedules with Sue and two friends (one of whom is also a Travis fan). We decided on one of the area’s oldest waterside eateries, Lord Fletcher’s on Lake Minnetonka.

There turned out to be a couple of holes in our scheme, however, relating to the martinis we intended to toast with. First, Fletcher’s  pours neither Plymouth nor Boodles (see Kevin Comer’s excellent post just below). Second, they serve their  mixed drinks not in glass. So, you see above what we had to settle for–$9 Tanqueray martinis in plastic.

Obviously, there was no satisfying clink-clink-clink, as I said the toast: To Travis McGee, fifty more years at least! But it was a sincere and hearty toast, at approximately the right time in approximately the right place.

The post-toast McGee discussion focused mainly on who should play our knight in tarnished armor in the prospective movie. Liam Neeson, we decided, was a bit too old. I confessed to being partial to Josh Brolin. One friend rather liked Chris Evans and the other Chris Hemsworth. Sue had no opinions one way or another. We all agreed that DiCaprio dropping out was a good thing. Trav needs to be a big, robust guy.

If any of you regulars have raised a glass (hopefully not plastic) to our hero, be sure to leave a comment here on your toast to McGee.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & Gin

July 7, 2014

BoodlesBy Kevin Comer

Just as the recipe for the Vesper, James Bond’s signature martini, features Gordon’s gin, imported Plymouth gin was the essential—and nearly sole—ingredient in Travis McGee’s preferred adult beverage. That is until we learn early on in The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974) that the inexorable march of so-called progress has trampled upon one of Travis’ simple pleasures.

In Chapter 3 of Lemon, Travis lets us know something truly dreadful has happened. He and Meyer are aboard the Flush chugging northward up the Atlantic coast of Florida. An old friend, Carrie Mulligan, has been killed in an apparent roadside accident. Travis has his doubts. Two weeks before, a disheveled Carrie had shown up unexpectedly on his gangplank at four in the morning after a six-year absence. She asked him to hold $94,200 in cash for her, with instructions to send the money to her sister if she didn’t return to claim it. He’s to keep ten grand for his trouble. Near certain Carrie’s death was no accident, McGee and Meyer are on their way to the Westway Harbor marina in Bayside, Florida to investigate:

At drinking time I left Meyer at the wheel and went below and broke out the very last bottle of the Plymouth gin which had been bottled in the United Kingdom. All the others were bottled in the U.S. Gin People, it isnt the same. Its still a pretty good gin but it is not a superb, stingingly dry, and lovely gin. The sailor on the label no longer looks staunch and forthright , but merely hokey.

Wouldn’t you know it, another example of excellence spoiled by the self-defeating logic of modern commerce. Travis laments:

There is something self-destructive about Western technology and distribution. Whenever any consumer object is so excellent that it attracts a devoted following, some of the slide rule and computer types come in on their twinkle toes and take over the store, and in a trice they figure out just how far they can cut quality and still increase the market penetration. Their reasoning is that it is idiotic to make and sell a hundred thousand units of something and make a profit of thirty cents a unit, when you can increase advertising, sell five million units, and make a nickel profit a unit. Thus the very good things of the world go down the drain, from honest turkey to honest eggs to honest tomatoes. And gin.

 The bad news about Plymouth may be somewhat tempered for readers by the recipe for McGee’s favorite martini:

I put cracked ice in two sturdy glass mugs, dumped in some sherry and dumped it out again, filled with Plymouth gin, rubbed peel around the rims of mugs, squeezed oil onto surface of gin, threw peel away…

Thereafter, gin takes a back seat to murder and a very close call for Travis as he and Meyer track down Carrie’s killer. The prime ingredient of a great martini doesn’t come up again until Chapter 3 of The Empty Copper Sea (1978).

T. McGee and Meyer are in the hamlet of Timber Bay on the gulf coast of Florida. McGee has undertaken to salvage the reputation of Van Harder, a professional captain stripped of his papers for being in a drunken stupor when his boat ran aground and his employer was lost at sea. Van Harder claims he’s been done dirty and Travis is prone to believe him.

Our beloved duo is exploring Timber Bay when they stop at the Captain’s Galley—where the parking lot is full of local cars—for a bite to eat. No table is available, but the dark bar features captains’ chairs. They settle in and Travis orders drinks:

 …when I asked for the brand of gin we wanted the iced martinis made from, there was no confusion or hesitation. The young man in the sailor suit whipped the blue-labeled square bottle of Boodles out of the rack, poured generously, made us the driest of the dry, glacial and delicious.

 From now on, it’s Boodles for McGee.

I have a theory about McGee and gin. I don’t know about you, but I wonder why Travis insists on gin, much less a particular brand of gin. Wouldn’t beer be a more appropriate drink for a self-described beach bum? Why not chardonnay? Or triple malt scotch? Could it be that JDM was one of those “Gin People” Travis addresses in his Lemon lament?

I like to keep Travis McGee and JDM separate in my mind; two closely related, but quite independent, beings. Of course, it isn’t like that at all. T. McGee is the product of JDM’s design. He touches on the character design in “How to Live with a Hero,” his article describing the birth of the series that appeared in the September 1964 issue of The Writer. He informs readers: “I made [Travis McGee] an iconoclast, a critic of the cheapening aspects of his culture, an unassimilated rebel in an increasingly structured society. I gave him a light, wry, amiable touch…”

But McGee can never be wholly separate from JDM. Travis is like a chimera, an organism made up of a mixture of genetically distinct cells. Some of those cells are aspects of JDM’s character design and others are like the epithelial cells CSI technicians are always finding on the murder weapon in the ubiquitous television police procedurals, bits of JDM that have flaked off and stuck to McGee.

Gin might be one of those bits. JDM was no stranger to the pleasures of an alcoholic beverage. In 1952, he began a decades long custom of attending regular Friday gatherings of Sarasota’s not insignificant—male—writers colony, where they would have lunch and spend the afternoon telling stories, playing liars poker, and drinking. Drinking was part of the writing lifestyle in Sarasota. In fact during the week, writers seeking company would hang large “drinking flags”outside their homes to encourage drop-in guests. Reportedly, JDM, who spent his workdays diligently punishing the keys of his typewriter, was one of the few who did not engage in this practice.

Nonetheless, drinking played a large enough role in JDM’s lifestyle that in 1958 he considered giving up alcohol altogether. His sister was a full blown alcoholic and middle-aged JDM wondered if it wouldn’t be better for his own health to take a break for a couple of years.

He began by quitting entirely for a few months. Then he decided an occasional drink would be okay, if he was more than 50 miles from home. He stuck to that rule for a while, but eventually jettisoned the distance requirement, concluding only his home would be off-limits. It wasn’t long before he dropped rules all together. He later wrote: “Had I decided I still couldn’t handle it after the two years schedule was over, I would have quit forever.”

Based on Travis’ enthusiasm for Plymouth and Boodles and his dismay at the decline in quality when Plymouth began being produced in the U.S., I posit that a taste for imported premium gin might be a trait that isn’t merely an aspect of character design, but a reflection of the JDM’s own preferences. I’d be willing to bet that sometime between 1974 and 1978, Plymouth was replaced by Boodles in JDM’s own liquor cabinet and when he fixed himself a drink, he “put cracked ice in [the glass], dumped in some sherry and dumped it out again, filled with [Plymouth/Boodles] gin, rubbed peel around the [rim of the glass], squeezed oil onto surface of gin, threw peel away…”

There is probably some terribly imposing and intellectual term for trying to identify those bits of JDM that are mingled in McGee’s genome. I don’t know what that term might be. I just call it fun.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Silver Screen

June 23, 2014

By Kevin Comer

Before I began my metamorphosis into a world-class John D. MacDonald scholar, I wasn’t aware of Travis McGee having appeared on the silver screen. Although I’m still merely a scholarly pupa, I’ve learned two movies have been based on McGee novels. Darker than Amber was made into a theatrical film released in 1970. And The Empty Copper Sea was the basis for a 1983 TV movie. I also know why I was unaware of the existence of either film.

The 1970 film adaptation of Darker than Amber was intended to be the first in a series bringing the McGee novels to the big screen. The hope was to build a franchise like Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had done with Ian Fleming’s James Bond canon. A new film was to be released every eighteen months. The only problem was Darker than Amber, the film, was a complete flop. As a result, a second film was never made and, to his relief, the movie rights reverted to JDM.

Although JDM had been cautiously optimistic about the prospects for the film version of Darker than Amber, he said of the final product: “[it] was feral, cheap, rotten, gratuitously meretricious, shallow, and embarrassing.” I watched Darker than Amber on YouTube. I’m not sure it was cheap. If you’d like to judge for yourself, click here.

The film stars Rod Taylor as McGee and Theodore Bikel as Meyer. JDM was pleased with the casting. He said of Rod Taylor: “I like the guy. He has a face that looks lived in, and he projects a masculinity that can glaze the young female eye at seventy paces. But what matters to me is that he understands what McGee is all about—the anti-hero, tender and tough, with many chinks in the armor.” And he declared: “…Bikel is Meyer, a large hairy gentle watchful thoughtful man.”

JDM wasn’t as keen on the script. After reading the initial version presented to him, he rewrote the first 40 pages and sent it back. One of the problems was the depiction of Meyer. JDM, critiquing the script in a letter to his friend, comedian Dan Rowan, complained: “For example, they turned Meyer into a fat clown, clumsy and dumb. Degrade a man’s closest friend and you do not enhance him by comparison—you only degrade him too.” After some effort, JDM was able to get the script revised more or less to his satisfaction. Any lingering concerns he may have harbored were reportedly met with assurances that film is a director’s medium and everything would be fine.

JDM did get excited, especially after spending some time on set. He was impressed with how effectively the furious activity swirling around him was being managed. He compared it to watching a crack battalion in operation.

He particularly delighted in seeing the Busted Flush. He commented in a letter to his publisher: “It is very very weird to invent a big houseboat in your mind, write about it in eleven books, and suddenly walk onto a dock and come upon it in the flesh, so to speak. Big and solid and fast. And that bathtub aboard is exactly what you think it would be …”

So JDM was chagrined and bitterly disappointed when Darker than Amber hit the screen. He told an interviewer: “If I had it to do over again I would never let Mr. McGee out of my hand. Not for a movie, not for television. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t even sell stereopticon rights to McGee.” Unfortunately, JDM had to do it over again.

In 1979, JDM was informed his estate contained a time bomb in the form of an inheritance tax liability. Due to the previous sale, he was told, if he didn’t sell the movie rights to the McGee novels, the IRS would assign a value of $8 million to the rights for each and every book when it came time to pay his death duties. JDM protested, but as they say, nothing is as certain as death and taxes. So he quickly sold the movie rights to Warner Bros. and the studio eventually decided to make a TV movie based on The Empty Copper Sea, starring Sam Elliot as McGee.

However, some minor changes were necessary: The studio thought Travis McGee would make a better title than The Empty Copper Sea; Los Angeles would make a better home base than Fort Lauderdale; a sailboat called Bequia would make a better floating home than a houseboat called the Busted Flush; and, most shocking to me, McGee would sport a mustache that would be at home on a walrus, a creature unknown in the tropics.

Despite this unthinkable degree of sacrilege, the 1983 movie apparently got decent ratings and could have been the basis for a series of TV movies if Sam Elliot hadn’t had other commitments by the time the studio made up its mind to move forward. JDM commented about the whole business: “I have never met or talked to any studio people, but they must really be congenital incompetents. I should never have peddled McGee ….”

I’ve searched high and low for Travis McGee. At this time, it is not on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or Warner Archive Instant. It’s not even on YouTube. It does not appear to be available on DVD either. I’m sure it would only upset me, so it is probably just as well.

The movie rights to McGee are still out there. Recently, there’ve been reports that Deep Blue Good-by is in pre-production. Leonardo DiCaprio was slated to star as McGee, but dropped out. Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, has written the latest draft script. James Mangold (Wolverine) “is in negotiations” to direct. DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, Chernin Entertainment, and Amy Robinson are involved in producing.

In many things I practice what I call “expectation management.” In regard to the possibility of Blue becoming a (possibly good) movie, I’m managing my expectations, despite the big names attached.

In my opinion, even good film adaptations are very rarely as good as the books they’re based upon. It could be argued that satisfactorily translating a complex first person protagonist like Travis McGee to celluloid is impossible given the story-telling limitations of film. As a reader, you always know what McGee is thinking. Even in a fight, you see the world through his eyes, you’re never observing him from afar. And then there’s those studio people.


The Other JDM: Where Is Janice Gantry?

June 12, 2014

Whenever you run across a JDM novel with a first-person narration that was written prior to 1964, it’s tempting to speculate whether or not this particular protagonist was one of the prototypes for Travis McGee. That’s certainly the case with Where Is Janice Gantry? (1961). In many ways, the pre-echoes of McGee are fairly strong in this novel.

Sam Brice is a husky ex-pro football player. (Check.) He’s living in Florida. (Check.) An ex-girlfriend is in deep trouble, having vanished under mysterious circumstances. (Check.) He’s determined to get to the bottom of things. (Check.) He has a touchy relationship with the local law. (Check.) He has a brainy pal off whom he bounces ideas. (Check.) He sweeps a gorgeous lady right off her feet. (Check.) He’s pretty darned canny and physically capable, even when he’s bound hand and foot with wire and about to be sent to the bottom of the Caribbean. (Check.) He has a nose for shady characters and crooked plots. (Check.)

Where Is Janice Gantry? jumps off the line of scrimmage when an escaped convict from the local area arrives at Sam’s shack up off the beach. He figures the ex-footballer might be sympathetic and wouldn’t turn him in. Sam lets him recuperate then drops him off in town. Out of curiosity, he stays to see what the escapee is up to. The fellow makes a phone call and by and by along comes someone to pick him up—Sam’s old girlfriend, Janice “Sis” Gantry. Sam tries to follow them but runs afoul of a militant (and dangerously competent) version of Barney Fife. That’s the last anyone sees of Sis.

Sam and his brainy pal think the whole affair has something to do with the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Weber living a comfortable, isolated life in a big house near the beach—the very same house burglarized two years earlier by the escaped con. Sam connives to meet the lady of the house on the beach, but happens to encounter her sister instead.

The sister, Peggy, is providentially a gorgeous amalgam of Sam’s ex-wife and Sis. Of course, love at first sight ensues and the two of them become allies in figuring out what Peggy’s sister and “husband” are up to. Through some canny and very dangerous detecting work the pair figure out that Peggy’s “brother-in-law” and some hired thugs probably killed Sis and the escaped convict. Why? It seems “Mr. Weber” paid for his retirement by blackmailing powerful politicians up north, while blackmailing his own “wife” with information that would put her in the electric chair. The lovestruck ex-con was attempting to liberate the woman. Both he and Sis ended up sleeping with the fishes.

With a bit of the clumsiness redolent of the early Travis McGee, Sam Brice stupidly sends Peggy back into the lion’s den and stumbles in there himself. Soon, the two of them and the drunken sister are heading out to sea bound and gagged. The boat will be scuttled, prisoners and all, the bad guys will vanish, and no one will be the wiser. Of course, in the meantime, the thugs have “a fate worse than death” planned for the lovely Peggy. But Sam snaps his wire binding, knocks out Peggy’s would-be ravisher not a moment too soon, and they leap into the waves.

But Sam, in the end, is definitively no Trav.

Would Trav run a little insurance adjusting business? Would Trav propose marriage? Would Trav travel north to get vetted by the bride’s family? Would Trav actually get hitched? Would Trav lovingly caress Peggy’s baby bump and wonder dreamily about their little one’s aquatic proclivities?

Heaven forbid!

Nonetheless, Sam Brice surely was part of the R&D JDM unintentionally did for Travis McGee. And for that we should be grateful.



Guest Post: Travis McGee & Higher Education

June 2, 2014

By Kevin Comer

In 1964 JDM could not have imagined the reality of 2014, any more than I can imagine how things will be in 2064. JDM would never have imagined the cost of college rivaling that of a modest suburban house. Nor would he in the midst of the post-war boom have foreseen hordes of debt-shackled kids emerging, one way or another, from American colleges into a blasted landscape of opportunity. It is likely JDM never heard the phrases: Outsourcing, technological displacement, or STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics).

I have no idea what JDM might think of our current national circumstances or what his prescriptions might be. But JDM has left us clues to how he might feel about the state of higher education in America in 2014. The evidence suggests he’d think things were still heading in entirely the wrong direction.

JDM would strongly disagree with the popular proposition that the purpose of higher education is to land a better paying job. Way back in 1964, he already felt colleges were putting too much emphasis on preparing students to enter the work force. We’ll find evidence in the pages of A Purple Place for Dying (1964).

A Purple Place for Dying puts McGee somewhere in the American Southwest, when his prospective client is suddenly blown away in mid-sentence by a distant sniper as she’s trying to convince Travis to recover money she claims her estranged husband has stolen from her trust fund. A shaken and mortally offended McGee resolves to find her killer, and his ensuing investigation takes him to State Western University, a brand new institution of higher learning recently extruded onto the desert wastes.

Arriving on the sprawling campus, McGee surveys the crowds of students scurrying across the black acres of parking lots and along sun-bright walkways coursing through the immature landscaping separating the hulking concrete structures of SWU, and offers us this critical observation:

…They all seemed to have an urgency about them, that strained harried trimester look. It would cram them through sooner, and feed them out into the corporations and the tract houses, breeding and hurrying, organized for all the time and money budgets, binary systems, recreation funds, taxi transports, group adjustments, tenure, constructive hobbies. They were being structured to life on the run, and by the time they would become what is now known as senior citizens, they could fit nicely into planned communities where recreation is scheduled on such a tight and competitive basis that they could continue to run, plan, organize, until, falling at last into silence, the grief-therapist would gather them in, rosy their cheeks, close the box and lower them to the only rest they had ever known.

It is all functional, of course. But it is like what we have done to chickens. Forced growth under optimum conditions, so that in eight weeks they are ready for the mechanical picker…

 It isn’t particularly surprising to hear this sort of opinion voiced by semi-professional rebel and rat-race dropout, Travis McGee. But we might be a little surprised when McGee continues:

Education is something which should be apart from the necessities of earning a living, not a tool therefor. It needs contemplation, fallow periods, the measured and guided study of the history of mans reiteration of the most agonizing question of all: Why? Today the good ones, the ones who want to ask why, find no one around with any interest in answering the question, so they drop out, because theirs is the type of mind which becomes monstrously bored at the trade-school concept. A devoted technician is seldom an educated man. He can be a useful man, a contented man, a busy man. But he has no more sense of the mystery and wonder and paradox of existence than does one of those chickens fattening itself for the mechanical plucking, freezing and packaging.

Holy smokes! McGee declares flat out that an education even partially geared to earning a living is merely a “trade school concept”. And he isn’t overly impressed by people with marketable technical skills, either.

I know of no factor in McGee’s back story to account for his harsh opinion concerning college providing the sort of practical skills upon which careers are built that contribute to society’s goal of achieving optimum aggregate demand. Maybe this is simply justified pushback at the expectations of Keynesian macroeconomists—Meyer was not yet in the picture—but I suspect McGee may have been subtly influenced by the mind of his creator.

It seems JDM shared Travis’opinion that the unstated goal of the American educational establishment is to “…feed [consumers] out into the corporations and the tract houses, breeding and hurrying, organized for all the time and money budgets…” During an interview on the radio program Library Edition, long after A Purple Place for Dying was published, JDM had this to say:

Right now the schools are raising a good batch of consumers and maybe thats what theyre there for. These people, they can find their way around supermarkets and they can find their way around showrooms … they know how to run their credit cards.

Despite an undergraduate degree in business and MBA from Harvard, JDM was a committed champion of a rigorous liberal arts education. He demonstrated that commitment in 1969 when he joined the board of trustees of New College, a tiny elite liberal arts college located in the town where he lived—Sarasota, Florida. He sold autographed copies of his work to help fund the school. He served briefly as executive director and taught creative writing for a time. JDM explained the goal of a liberal arts education in a letter to Albert Mittal, a young fan with whom he conducted an 11-year correspondence:

I am a trustee of New College …which has become in eight years one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the country. I have been deeply involved with it, and have come around to an elitist attitude re education. Of 600 of the brightest young people in the country, we can provide the resources for one out of fifty to hone his own mind to an edge of sharpness he could not achieve by himself … The brain is a muscle in the sense that the more demanding use made of it, the better it functionsWe can turn out one out of fifty. It is a waste.

 JDM’s elucidation of the value of reading to the listening audience of Library Edition reflects his liberal arts priorities:

[Readers] stand in the middle of a landscape that were familiar with. We know about those great swamps and marshes which are all of the religions and philosophies and all of the psychological identifications of whats going on in the bottom of mans mind Lets say there are rivers running through our landscape. Those would be the arts, literature, painting, all of the things that you learn from books that sharpen and enhance your mind …A nonreader is somebody standing there in a blindfold. They dont see the history of anythingThey dont know what the world is like, because they havent read what history is, what geography is. They dont know Lima [Peru] from lima [bean].

 It shouldn’t escape anyone’s notice that there are no STEM tributaries flowing through the geography of JDM’s mind. He is concerned with human expression; the inner life; things of the spirit. Concerns that stand in stark contrast to job prospects.

JDM clearly felt the broader educational establishment had been falling down on the job for a long time. This concern leaks through to McGee again in A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965). Explaining his handling of reporters, Travis informs us:

…news accounts of almost anything make sense to all ages up to the age of twelve. If one wishes to enjoy newspapers, it is wise to halt all intellectual development right at that age. The schools are doing their level best to achieve this goal. For the first time in history it is possible to earn doctorates in obscure professional techniques without upsetting the standard of a twelve-year-old basic intellect.

It seems pretty clear that JDM and McGee would be none too pleased to find the sky-high cost of college justified as an investment in a career in 2014. They could conclude there are loads of young people attending college who might be better served by actual trade schools. Given their proclivities, I bet they’d wonder whose interest is really being served by the current state of affairs. I can hear Meyer advising, “Follow the money.”

But what do I know? I’m a technician.


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