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

TravisToastv1

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.

Travis McGee & Me E-book for Free

May 29, 2014

I want to let regular readers of the blog know that I’m giving away free Kindle copies of the e-book version of my McGee blog posts. That covers all 21 McGee adventures, plus an introduction. These pieces are quick overviews of the stories, with my commentary added. If you want an academic treatise or in-depth analysis, you’ll have to look elsewhere. I’ve had several people tell me that they enjoy having a handy McGee reference like this. This offer will last through the end of June. So if you’re interested, act soon.

For your Kindle copy of Travis McGee & Me, contact me by e-mail right here. Or you can leave a comment with your e-mail address.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & the TV Series

May 26, 2014

By Kevin Comer

Okay, I admit the title of this essay is somewhat deceptive. There never was a TV series based on Travis McGee. And T. McGee’s absence from the small screen was no accident.

JDM rebuffed several proposals—and the money attached—to create a Travis McGee television series. In a letter to his friend, comedian Dan Rowan, JDM recounts how one frustrated producer had spoken to his agent about “the difficulty of finding the right approach to a writer who doesn’t believe in television.”

JDM begged to differ. He believes in television, just not for McGee, he explains to Rowan: “I believe in it. One per cent of it is very very good …. And 99 per cent …is schlock. I just don’t want Trav to undergo that simplistifying (new word!!) change which the series tube requires, nor do I want the angle of approach wrenched this way and that when the ratings don’t move and everybody starts to get frightened and they start trying this and trying that.”

Even when the proposal for a series included serious money, JDM wouldn’t budge. In a letter to Harry Ackerman, a VP at Screen Gems—and “a rare bird [in Hollywood] …who actually reads books” according to JDM—he wrote: “I said [to a producer] that I would not sell [the television rights] for $10 million on a ten year spread. He looked at me as if I had turned into a Thing from the Great Swamp. Maybe it is quaint in these times not to give a damn about the big money. I just never have and never will.”

JDM didn’t dismiss every TV series as schlock. He enjoyed the Rockford Files (1974-1980). The series featured James Garner playing Jim Rockford, a private eye living in a rusty house trailer perched on blocks in a parking lot adjacent to a Malibu beach. JDM wrote in TV Guide: “…good tight dialogue, good pictorials, and a strong emotional evolvement keep the story afloat. And it is heartening to a book writer to note the success of the series that most nearly fulfills our scriveners’ standards.”

So JDM didn’t believe it would be impossible to build an acceptable TV series around McGee. He was primarily concerned with maintaining the value of Travis McGee in book form. His letter to Dan Rowan continues: “The McGee books are to keep me in boats and baubles during my declining years, and I have said to those who would have him on the TV screen that it isn’t very likely right now that any huge swarm of people would run to their favorite newsstand and snap up new novels featuring Ben Casey. Or Sgt. Bilko.”

There never was a TV series because JDM was determined to keep Travis McGee off the tube, not because Hollywood didn’t try. That’s okay with me. I just finished a two year project of watching all 123 Rockford episodes on Netflix and I’d never even be tempted to buy a Rockford book, if such a thing exists, while I would absolutely run to my local newsstand to snap up a new novel featuring Travis McGee.

Guest Post: The Other JDM – Border Town Girl

May 19, 2014

The Book that Should Have Been Called Linda

By Kevin Comer

I picked up JDM’s Border Town Girl because I thought it would provide an opportunity to leaven a review with facts about JDM’s association with Mexico and how it found its way into his fiction. You might recall Travis spends time in Mexico in A Deadly Shade of Gold, Dress Her in Indigo, Cinnamon Skin, and The Lonely Silver Rain. But I discovered Border Town Girl isn’t the right vehicle for revealing JDM’s Mexico. In fact, Border Town Girl isn’t what I expected it to be at all. Happily, in some ways, it is more than I expected. I’m beginning to wonder if I should ever start with a plan.

Border Town Girl, published by Gold Medal Books in 1956, is similar to an analog era 45 RPM Single. It has an A side and a B side. The book takes its title from the A side, which consists of a novella originally published as “Five-Star Fugitive”pseudonymously in the July 1950 issue of Dime Detective, but here re-titled “Border Town Girl.” This is one of the last pieces JDM did for the pulps and is true to its roots.

The bonus title on the B side is where I found unexpected gold: Pulpy “Border Town Girl” is followed by the equally long, sensational original novella, “Linda,” one of the best works of JDM’s pre-McGee fiction I’ve read so far.

The contrast between these two novellas is striking. Suppose, in a fit of whimsy, you bought an installment of the 1940s Michael Shayne film series starring the inimitable Lloyd Nolan on DVD and discovered, to your surprise, the Billy Wilder film noir classic Double Indemnity was included as a bonus. That’s sort of what “Border Town Girl” is like.

Which isn’t to say the novella “Border Town Girl”isn’t good fun, especially when you keep in mind that this story was first published in a magazine that cost a dime. The readers were certainly getting more than their money’s worth.

“Border Town Girl”features a man who’s hit rock bottom and a gangster moll—strangers to each other—who find themselves traveling their separate roads to redemption together. There are brutal fights, bloody murders, G-men, heroics, cars racing through the dark, and a slightly cheesy beast-in-the-night, double-dealing mob enforcer, who would be at home in a Dean Koontz novel. It’s a hard-boiled ripping yarn.

“Linda,” though, is an elegant noir-fiction tour de force. JDM shows us what he can do when everything clicks. This is a story where the character of the protagonist is central to the narrative, not the action.

Clueless, mild-mannered introvert, Paul Cowley, reveals himself as he tells us what’s been going on. His tale is colored by his retiring personality. Wishful thinking has generally made an idiot out of him where his wife is concerned. He practices little self-deceptions. He rationalizes. He turns a blind eye. At times, we readers get a little bit ahead of Paul. But when the shit hits the fan, we’re as shocked as he is.

For the past nine years, Paul has been married to his high school dream girl, Linda. A girl, he confesses, so out of his league that he’d have rather cut off his own hand than try to speak to her in high school. Years later, a week out of the army, he ran into her on the street and said hello.

She looked at me blankly. I told her who I was and how I’d been in high school with her. We went into a place and had coffee. Then I saw she didn’t look good at all…It was a pretty tragic story she told me.

…What had happened to her had just taken the heart out of her, and it made me feel bad to see the way she was. I guess what I did was pick her up and dust her off and put the heart back in her.

Savvy readers are pretty sure Paul heard a load of crap from Linda. Starry-eyed Paul heard only what he wants to hear.

Paul begins his tale by explaining that Linda began nagging him around the beginning of the year about taking their vacation in the fall. She wants to go to Florida with another couple, the Jeffries, whom they’ve been seeing a lot of since Christmas. Paul is reluctant. He’s made other plans, but hasn’t dared tell Linda since she’s gotten this bee in her bonnet about Florida. He’s concerned about money and, truth be told, he’d rather stay home altogether. He isn’t so sure about vacationing with the Jeffries, either.

We saw a lot of each other, but there was always a reserve. Nobody ever seemed to let their hair down all the way. Maybe some of that was my fault. I have two or three close friends, and a lot of people I just happen to know. I’ve always been quiet.

Paul also has well-founded concerns about other men. At first, big, handsome, successful Jeff Jeffries had gotten Paul’s antenna up, but he’d decided Jeff was on the up and up.

When you’re married to a woman like Linda, you develop a sort of sixth sense for those jokers who are on the make.

…I watched Jeff pretty closely, worrying a little bit, because if anybody had a chance of making out, that Jeff Jeffries certainly would. But I could see it was all right. They kidded around a lot, with him making a burlesque pass at her now and then, but I could see it was all in fun. And he was very loving with Stella, his wife, holding her hand whenever he could, and kissing her on the temple when they danced together at the club and that sort of thing.

Linda is a handful, especially for a guy like Paul. Arguing with her isn’t likely to change her mind. They don’t often see eye to eye. They don’t share the same values. Keeping her happy is a challenge. There are red flags everywhere.

Linda never thought or talked about money except when we didn’t have enough for something she wanted to do or wanted to buy, and then she had plenty to say.

It’s hard for a man to assess his own marriage. He cannot say if it is good or bad. Maybe no marriage is entirely good or bad. I know only that after that first year there was strain between us. Linda wanted a life that I didn’t want…We worked out a compromise. She lived my way, and when we could afford it, she would take a trip, usually to Chicago. That seemed to ease her nervous tension.

Sometimes out of irritation, she would say cruel things to me, calling me a nonentity, a zero, a statistic. But I understood, or thought I did. She is an earthy, hot-blooded woman, and our life was pretty quiet…

Paul had hoped the idea of going to Florida with the Jeffries would just blow over. But there’s no stopping Linda. She’ll get her way.

But Linda kept harping on it. Now, of course, I know why she kept after me the way she did. I know the horror that lived in the back of her mind all those months she was cooing and wheedling. Now that it’s too late, I can look back and see just how carefully it was all arranged.

I’m going to let you find out what happens on a lonely stretch of Florida beach on your own. Take it from me, Paul is going to have a hell of a time on this vacation.


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