McGee Wannabes: Ron Ely’s Santa Barbara Sleuth Jake Sands

August 29, 2015

Down in my basement I have stacks of way too many books that I will never read. Lately, I’ve been culling dozens of volumes and sallying forth into the hood to leave them in Little Free Libraries here and there. When I’m done, I hope to have cut the mass of tomes by half or two-thirds. What remains will be my essentials, including my collection of JDM titles—somewhere north of sixty now. Another, smaller collection is dedicated to various McGee Wannabes. I intended this late summer to write about Bob Morris or Charles Knief or John Lutz. But instead my eye settled on something a little more obscure.

Back in the mid-’90s an author named Ron Ely published two mystery novels with Simon & Schuster, featuring a sleuth named Jake Sands who operated in Santa Barbara, north of L.A. Oddly, there was never a third book—three-book contracts being customary for authors of debut series. The two whodunits by Ely were subsequently reissued in paperback by Worldwide Library. If the author’s name seems vaguely familiar, it means you’re of a certain vintage. Because Ron Ely is an actor best known as TV’s Tarzan in the mid-’60s. (He’s apparently acting again, after a long hiatus.) Here’s the young Ely in loincloth.


There’s plenty enough about Jake Sands to call him a McGee Wannabe. He’s kind of a salvage consultant, kind of a sleuth. He operates in a gorgeous, semi-tropical setting on the ocean. He’s tall and tough. His story is told in first-person and he has plenty of opinions (though not as many as Trav). He’s suffered terrible losses, including the murders of his wife and son. He doesn’t work a regular job. He’s tenacious and quickly bounces back from injuries and hard knocks. He has an old, eccentric friend with whom he talks things over. He doesn’t live on a boat, but he has a fancy condo right across from the beach, on top of the commercial building he owns. He sallies forth to avenge and find out the truth about dark matters.

In his second and final adventure, East Beach, Jake becomes entangled in a whodunit. As part of his daily rounds, he stops at the beach volleyball courts at East Beach, where he runs into a young woman named Julie who waitresses at a breakfast joint he’s fond of. They know each other slightly. They exchange some banter, even some flirting—it happens she looks awfully good in a bikini. And Jake encounters an Aussie volleyballer who appears to sense him as moving in on Julie, whom he seems to be claiming.

Well, as any young lady who becomes close to a Trav-like hero can tell you, it’s a dangerous place to be. And so it proves for Julie the waitress. Soon she turns up murdered. But who would want to kill such a nice, pretty girl? And why?

As a retired investigator and former military special ops guy, Jake determines that he’s going to get to the bottom of things, with Julie’s desolated parents as his informal clients. At about the same time, someone locally had bought a lottery ticket that would pay out 40 million smackers. And that winner, of course, was Julie—who had been picking the same six numbers for quite some time. The ticket isn’t in Julie’s effects, so the motive for murder becomes clear. Jake sets to sleuthing around the diner where she worked, her apartment, the store where she bought her lottery tickets, the night club where she hung out, the beach volleyball scene. It’s the latter locale that he focuses on, to the point of getting himself back in shape to play with the beach’s big boys. One of them is the Aussie, known to be strong and dangerous. He’s the one Ely wants us to focus on; though, of course, it’s not that simple.

From there Jake follows a Byzantine route to enlightenment, ID’ing a whole raft of suspects and accomplices—including some folks involved in drug smuggling—as the body count keeps mounting.

Jake has a couple of brushes with disaster along the way. First, a car sideswipes him in the street. An accident, a warning, or a failed murder attempt? And when he comes home late one night and stands out on his balcony, leaning on the rail, an interloper in black attacks him and heaves him over the edge. Fortunately for Jake, a canvas awning just above street level breaks his forty-foot fall. Of course, a couple of broken ribs do nothing to stop his campaign.

For the endgame, Jake finally corrals the murderer—who’s just made his last kills—and engages with him in brutal hand-to-hand combat in the dark, on an embankment over a railroad track. Just as he sent Jake over the edge, our killer goes over, too. As the bad guy lies paralyzed and helpless on the rails, Jake leaves him to the tender mercies of Julie’s father.

∗ ∗ ∗

I’m on record here noting that my favorite McGee Wannabes are Geoffrey Norman’s Morgan Hunt (four books) and Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford (at 22 books and counting). They come closest to the superb writing and storytelling that JDM brought to bear in the McGee adventures. Ron Ely’s two Jake Sands novels just aren’t in that league.

But, like other McGee fans, I can never get enough of books that aspire to telling Travis-like tales. If I see something with a tough-guy/sleuth hero who operates in a tropical climate and is a rugged individualist with lots of strong opinions and preferably tells his story in first-person… Well, I’ll give it a try. So I’m happy to have read these books.

I see that Ely hasn’t put out e-book or POD editions. If he’s reclaimed the rights, he ought to do so. And if he’s feeling particularly energetic, he ought to even consider reviving his Santa Barbara sleuth. I know that I would gladly buy Kindles of new Jake Sands stories.

P.S. Even though there are no e-book versions of Ely’s yarns, I just noticed (a few days after my original post) that Amazon has audio book versions read by Ely himself. You can listen to samples for free. As befits a seasoned actor, he does a really nice job. No idea if these are recent or older.


Jonathan Yardley on JDM & McGee

July 14, 2015

Just recently I decided it was time to excavate some of the stacks of papers that had accumulated in my office over the last year or two, and recycle what wasn’t needed anymore. The stuff was mostly edited hard copy and research from several of my novels. But squirreled away toward the bottom of a stack was a copy of a newspaper piece I printed off our work-group printer, back when I was cranking out verbiage in a Fortune 500 cube farm over a decade ago. I had already been a McGee acolyte for many years.

It was an article from the Washington Post, by Jonathan Yardley, the Post‘s Book Critic until his retirement last year. The piece was called “John D. MacDonald’s Lush Landscape of Crime,” and it provided one of the best brief overviews of JDM’s work that I’ve ever seen. It was written as a “Second Look” column, in which Yardley addressed a book he believed had deserved a new look-see. For this column, he picked Lemon, but addressed JDM and McGee at large. He talked about his discovery of JDM back in the ’70s.

“I mainlined a couple dozen of his novels, from early mysteries to McGees to Condominium itself. I was bowled over. This man whom I’d snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was — no other word will do — breathtaking.”

Yardley ultimately interviewed JDM for a feature story, and here’s a great quote from our favorite author:

“I just cannot read people like Leon Uris and James Michener. When you’ve covered one line, you can guess the next one. I like people who know the nuances of words, who know how to stick the right one in the right place. Sometimes you can laugh out loud at an exceptionally good phrase. I find it harder and harder to find fiction to read, because I either read it with dismay at how good it is or disgust at how bad it is. I do like the guys like John Cheever that have a sense of story, because, goddammit, you want to know what happens to somebody. You don’t want a lot of self-conscious little logjams thrown in your way.”

If any of you have a copy of Yardley’s story from a 1970s edition of the Miami Herald, let me know. I’d love to read it and write about it here.

You can read Yardley’s Post column by clicking here.

From Steve Scott’s Trap of Solid Gold: On Writing a Series Character

July 7, 2015

Four years ago I wrote a lengthy piece for this blog about the genesis of John D MacDonald’s most famous creation, Travis McGee. The primary research tool for that article — which I called “The Difficult Birth of Travis McGee” — was a 1964 essay MacDonald wrote for the magazine The Writer titled “How To Live With a Hero,” where he recalled the step by step process of creating the character and the series. Published in September of that year, “How To Live With a Hero” saw print only a few months after the first three McGee’s hit the stands and a month before the fourth entry arrived.

At that early point in the life of McGee it was too early to tell if MacDonald could sustain the series beyond the handful of titles he had published or had already written and were waiting in the wings. He was philosophical about the possibility of failure, claiming that after writing more than a million-and-a-quarter words of McGee at least he had “learned just that much more about my profession, learned skills and attitudes and solutions which will inevitably be valuable in other areas.” But, as we all know by now, McGee was a success beyond the imagination of both the writer himself and his publishers. The fact that we are still reading him, writing about him and waiting patiently while a major film version of one of the novels is produced, is a testament to that success. In my own case (which admittedly is not the best example) I can honestly state that I have completely lost track of the number of times I have re-read the series, but I think ten would be a conservative figure.

Fast forward to 1983 and McGee was as established as any series hero could be, at least for one in print. Beginning with entry number 15 (Turquoise) the books were published in hardcover and beginning with 16 they unfailingly appeared in the Best Seller lists of the day. Number 20 had appeared the year before and the author had signed a contract to write two more titles in the series. (Of course he only wrote one more before he died. For the few bits of information known about that final, never-written, McGee, see my piece titled A Black Border for McGee.) In August a college professor who was writing an article about private detectives wrote MacDonald, asking the author what it was about the type of character in general, and McGee in particular, that made it interesting for MacDonald to continue writing these books. A month later JDM answered him and his response was printed in the JDM Bibliophile.

First, I think it important to note that there are perhaps thirty published attempts at a continuing series hero for every one that manages to endure. The ones that endure meet certain ancient prerequisites for the mythic hero. One must not know too much about his past. Just a hint here and there of past deeds of greatness. He must be an honorable man without being a prig, moral without pretense to sainthood, brave without being a damned fool. And he must be in opposition to the authority of his times. A loner. Most of all he should be likeable, with the ability to scoff at his own pretensions.

The writers most likely to stumble upon that useful pattern are the ones reasonably well educated who consciously or unconsciously borrow from the writings about the mythic heroes of the past. People of all times have much the same tastes in heroes.

Now to take it from the reader’s point of view – the reader brings to the reading of a new book about his friend a whole fabric of past association. He knows the man. He does not have to work his way very warily into a book, wondering if he is going to like this new dude, if the man is going to do the right things at the right time. If he wins too big, the hero is too heroic. If he loses too much, he is depressing. Even in the anticipation of the events which have not yet unfolded in the new book, the reader has a sense of familiarity with what will probably happen – not the specifics, but the general outline of trial, error and conflict.

Now back to the writer’s point of view. I have done twenty books about Travis McGee and I am under contract to do two more. If there will be any more after twenty-two, I do not know. It is restricting and difficult to work in the first-person mode. One cannot cheat. Everything must be seen, appraised, evaluated through the eyes of McGee. This keeps the writer out of the hearts and minds of the other characters. As a novelist I get a great deal more creative satisfaction out of doing such novels as Condominium, The Last One Left, The End of the Night, Slam the Big Door and the upcoming One More Sunday, which Knopf will publish in May.

The second distressful aspect of writing the McGee books is the chore of maintaining freshness while dealing with a fairly rigid structure. One is involved in a folk dance which must necessarily be concerned with a limited number of ingredients. They must be arranged in a way which is genuinely fresh, not a simulated freshness. In other words, I must enjoy what I am writing, and not give an imitation of enjoyment.

On the other side of the ledger, I like McGee and I like Meyer, and I have spent more time with them than I have with any other friend I know. Consequently, when I try to force them to do and to say things that are not within their characters as they have been drawn, then they turn puppety, and the structure of the book sags. I know in my gut when this is happening and so I have to then go back and identify the place or places where I pushed them into uncharacteristic behavior, and scrap everything that happened after that deviation, then give them a chance to act like themselves-which they are ever anxious to do.

If I force them into contrivance, they not only disappoint me by making my book sag, they disappoint the reader. “What the hell happened to McGee?” they ask in angry letters.

I believe that series characters, after three or four successful books founder because the author becomes restive working within that framework and tries to alter the basic structure – the way 007 was screwed up by a change of viewpoint in one of the later books. Some writers try to add new components that do not belong in the genre – political opinions, science fiction and fantasy, lady or tiger endings. One or two bummers and you are out of business, just like the movies.

It would be less than honest to leave out the money part. The money part of a successful series is nice. It enables me to live in the style to which Travis McGee is accustomed. But, beyond sustenance, I have never written for money alone. I have written to please myself, and would keep on doing it even if there were no markets left at all. The only change would be that I would probably do less of McGee and more of the multi-viewpoint novel. Aiming at the money is the primary way of creating a weak book.

If you haven’t yet visited The Trap of Solid Gold—the best JDM blog online—get over there now. Just click here.

Deep Blue Good-by Film in Deep Trouble: Fate Uncertain with Bale Bailing

April 27, 2015

I was just skimming through the Collider blog earlier this afternoon, when I spotted their story on big trouble with the Blue movie that was to have started filming in the next month. The production will not be going forward at this time.

Apparently, Christian Bale recently sustained a knee injury that will make filming of the action-oriented suspense tale impossible. Re. Travis McGee, Bale is out and unlikely to return to the film. Efforts have been made to replace him, but with no success.

Here’s what The Hollywood Reporter said:

“The Deep Blue Goodbye project has been in development since the late 1990s, with Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass among those slated to direct. Leonardo DiCaprio was at one point set to star and is one of the producers. With years of development invested, Fox is not likely to bid adieu to Goodbye for good.

“Sources say the studio and producers at Chernin Entertainment as well as Appian Way tried to salvage the project by quickly finding another lead. Brad Pitt was among those approached but could not do it, thus leading to the painful decision to cut bait.”

You can read the article here.

Talk about a star-crossed project. One begins to wonder if we’ll ever see our man Trav up on the silver screen.

From Steve Scott’s Trap of Solid Gold: A McGee Chronology

April 10, 2015

My introduction to the works of John D MacDonald occurred back in the early 1970’s when a friend of mine insisted that I read a book he had just finished and found enthralling. It was April Evil and it began for me a long love affair with the author’s writing. I was aware that MacDonald had a series character with at least fifteen titles and decided to tackle them next. I read them in the order they had been published, and when I finished I started on the “stand alone” novels, beginning at the beginning and carefully obeying the proper publication order (which was not easy then) until I had finished the appropriately titled The Last One Left. I’m that kind of reader and I suspect there are many of you out there who are similarly afflicted.

But just as my presumed order of the stand alone novels was probably in error, so too was my reading of the Travis McGee books, at least in relation to the world and timelines established within the works themselves. We readers presume that McGee’s adventures in, say,  Mexico (Gold) took place before his dangerous stay in Naples (Orange) because Gold was published before Orange. But that is not necessarily the case. Peppered throughout all of the McGee books are dates and clues in the form of references to other events that date these adventures within their own little world. And, in the early novels at least, the chronology is much different than the publication order. It took the painstaking work of a Travis McGee fan named Allan D Pratt to get it all right and place the stories in their proper order. Using identifiable dates used in the books and references to various characters and real-world events, Pratt put together a new chronology, complete with the timelines within each novel, placing them in a new and unique context. He published his work in the Spring 1980 issue The Armchair Detective and called it “The Chronology of the Travis McGee Novels.”

Pratt presumed that it was quite likely that MacDonald had his own chronology, constructed “to avoid trapping himself in contradictions,” and that does seem quite likely. But since the author never revealed this working aid and, in fact, never mentioned having invented one, it fell on Pratt to go through each of the novels and, using all of the calendars from the 1940’s through 1980, specifically date each of them, not only when they took place but when each one began and ended. His one assumption in the dating of these books was that the action in any of them could not have begun after the novel’s actual copyright date. Only a handful of them end in a year following the copyright.

To read the rest of Steve’s post, just click here.

McGee Movie News: Clues from IMDb

March 25, 2015

As any serious movie fan knows, the IMDb website is where you go to glean info on what actors, directors, screenwriters, and other cinema pros are up to. My wife Sue just checked out the IMDb listing for The Deep Blue Good-by, and came up with several new items.

The first, biggest news is that Meyer has tentatively been cast. Peter Dinklage apparently has the role.

But Meyer, you protest, is not in The Deep Blue Good-by, is he?

Nope, he is not. He doesn’t make a major supporting appearance for another five or six books. Which suggests that the first McGee novel is about to be Hollywoodized. To this hardcore McGee fan, this is a little discouraging.

On the plus side, IMDb refers to World War II treasure. If there’s WWII loot in the story, it means Cathy Kerr’s dad and the villain Junior Allen were WWII vets. Which hints that the film is being shot as a period story—in the mid-1960s. That would be good.

The other interesting bit of news in this listing is that the film is in pre-production for release in 2016. That suggests a pretty quick turnover.

Of course, my tea-leaf reading could be totally wrong on all these points. I welcome your interpretations.

To do your own tea-leaf reading at IMDb, just click here.

From Steve Scott’s Trap of Solid Gold: Muñequita

March 25, 2015

Blogger’s Note: This week we’re on a theme of McGee transportation. A couple of days ago Kevin Comer wrote about Trav’s unique wheels: that Rolls Royce pickup, Miss Agnes. Today, we’re talking about Muñequita, McGee’s little runabout. Steve Scott, of the superb Trap of Solid Gold blog, was kind enough to let me repost the opening of his piece on Muñequita. You can read the whole thing by clicking the link at the bottom.

Once John D MacDonald began writing the Travis McGee novels in 1964 he went on to produce eight of them over a period of three years before publishing another stand-alone novel. That book was The Last One Left, a terrific hardcover suspense tale that spanned 369 pages and which featured a dedication to a fictional character: Travis McGee, of course. (“I dedicate this novel to Travis McGee who lent invaluable support and encouragement.”) But that dedication wasn’t the only connection to the Fort Lauderdale salvage expert. Readers of the novel in 1967 wouldn’t know it for another year, but a prominent character in the book eventually makes its way into the McGee canon with the very next installment, Pale Gray for Guilt. That character was a boat, named Muñequita, which is Spanish for Little Doll. It went on to become a semi-regular feature of the series.


Readers first meet Muñequita early in The Last One Left, and it is not under good circumstances. The 22-foot T-Craft is adrift in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida. From the author’s description it is obviously a special craft.

Under considerably more power this same T-Craft hull design had won some savage ocean races. Fiberglass, teak, aluminum, stainless steel, plastic, perhaps ten thousand dollars for such a special plaything. With the twin Chrysler-Volvo inboard, outboards, 120 horsepower each, she could scat at forty-seven miles an hour, the deep Vee hull slicing through the chop, the wake flat… With her fuel capacity increased by the two saddle tanks to over eighty gallons, at her cruising speed of thirty-two miles an hour, the engines turning at 4500 rpm, her maximum range was almost three hundred miles, without safety factor… She had been bought on whim and loaded with extras — convertible top… searchlight, rod holders, windshield wipers, bow rails, anchor chocks, electric horn, screens, a transistorized Pearce-Simpson ship-to-shore radio tucked under the Teleflex instrument panel, pedestal helmsman’s seats, two bunks and a head fitted into the small area forward…  The graceful hull was a medium Nassau  blue, her topsides white with just enough trace of smoke blue to cut the sunglare… She had lifted and dipped and danced her way with an agile grace which matched her name. Muñequita. Little Doll.

I’m giving nothing away by revealing that the owner of the Muñequita in The Last One Left does not survive. And that’s where Travis comes in.

To read the rest of Steve’s post—and to sample other JDM and McGee treasures in the Trap—just click here.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & Safe Driving

March 23, 2015


By Kevin Comer

Detroit has never even caught up with the 1923 Rolls, to say nothing of the ones of Miss Agnes’s vintage.

— grousing in The Turquoise Lament (1973)

McGee’s ride is no Bond car. Miss Agnes is introduced in the series inaugural, The Deep Blue Good-by (1964):

… I believe she is the only Rolls Royce in America which has been converted into a pickup truck. She is vintage 1936, and apparently some previous owner had some unlikely disaster happen to the upper half of her rear end and solved the problem in an implausible way. She is one of the big ones, and in spite of her brutal surgery retains the family knack of going eighty miles an hour all day long in a kind of ghastly silence. Some other idiot had her repainted a horrid electric blue. When I found her squatting, shame-faced , in the back row of a gigantic car lot, I bought her at once and named her after a teacher I had in the fourth grade whose hair was that same shade of blue.

Miss Agnes may cruise all day at 80, but it takes her a while to get up to speed and just as long to stop, as McGee explains in Pale Gray for Guilt (1968): 

My elderly Rolls pickup, Miss Agnes, was as agile as ever, which meant about 40 seconds from a dead stop to sixty miles an hour. And she had the same reluctance to come to a stop once she was humming along. So she and I were slowly becoming a highway hazard, the narrow shaves getting narrower…

A narrow shave in The Long Lavender Look (1970) proves a bit too much during a late night run down a Florida backroad when a semi-nude woman erupts from the roadside shrubbery:

I wasn’t prepared for the creature of the night that suddenly appeared out of the blackness, heading from left to right, at a headlong run. At eighty, you are covering about a hundred and twenty feet per second. She was perhaps sixty feet in front of the car when I first saw her. So half of one second later, when I last saw her, she was maybe ten inches from the flare of my front right fender, and that ten inches was the product of the first effect of my reaction time. Ten inches of living space instead of that bone-crunching, flesh-smashing thud which, once heard, lingers forever in the part of the mind where echoes live.

And I became very busy with Miss Agnes. She put her back end onto the left shoulder, and then onto the right shoulder. The swinging headlights showed me the road once in a while. I could not risk touching the brake. This was the desperate game of steering with the skid each time, and feeding her a morsel of gas for traction whenever she was coming back into alignment with the highway. I knew I had it whipped, and knew that each swing was less extreme.

Then a rear tire went and I lost her for good. The back end came around and there was a shriek of rubber, crashing of brush, a bright cracking explosion inside my skull, and I was vaguely aware of being underwater, disoriented, tangled in strange objects, and aware of the fact that it was not a very good place to be. I did not feel any alarm. Just a mild distaste, an irritation with my situation.

While McGee dispels suspicions of involvement in the murder of recently paroled Frank Baither, young Ron Hatch pounds out the dings with a rubber mallet, imports rare parts from a Miami dealer, and repaints Miss Agnes a more becoming shade of blue. In the end, she’s as good as new, but no more agile.

In Turquoise, Travis describes the upgrades he’s been compelled to make, despite the near sacrilege of such changes:

I felt that I had violated the integrity of the old Rolls by having her rebuilt to contemporary highway standards. Ever since I had dumped her into a drainage canal to avoid hitting a fleet-footed girl in the night, I had been upgrading all the hidden parts. Now she had the big engine lifted out of a 1972 Mark IV Continental that was totaled. Rebuilding the engine with both stock and custom power assists had meant a new gear train and a new rear end. Then she had more power than the suspension and the brakes could handle. So we installed a suspension out of the biggest Dodge pickup, along with power disc brakes all the way around. Of course I had to change to a twelve-volt system, and put in two heavy-duty batteries and a heavy-duty alternator. After several weird improvisations, we rigged a power steering system that worked well enough. There was enough extra horsepower to borrow some to run a really efficient air-conditioning system…

But unless I had either got rid of her or upped her performance, the traffic was going to kill me…

Fear of being killed in traffic causes McGee to become exasperated with DEA agent Scott Browder in The Lonely Silver Rain (1985):

Browder was a fast driver and not a good driver. He would get too close to a slow-moving vehicle before edging out to take a look down the highway. When he passed he cut in quickly even with nothing approaching and nothing bullying him from behind. The expert driver moves out into the passing lane when he is at least fifteen car lengths from the vehicle he is passing. Then he can move back without haste if it is not a good time to pass. Once by, he makes his angle of return to his lane as long and gradual as is consistent with what is ahead of and behind him. The good driver takes his foot off the gas when there is anything ahead he does not understand. We came to a place where big green branches had been cut and put in the oncoming lane. It was a warning. There was a disabled VW camper with branches in the road behind it as well, a hundred yards and more from the camper. Browder didn’t slow. As we approached at high speed he saw a tanker truck beginning to turn out to pass the camper. It was coming toward us. Browder accelerated and got as far to the right as he could. We brushed the jungle as we sped by the big high bumper of the tanker truck. Browder yelled curses. “Goddamn maniac truck driver!” he hollered.

I said, “You are a rotten driver.” This is like telling someone he has no sense of humor, or that he’s a poor judge of character.

Travis has no such concerns, however, when Meyer is behind the wheel in Cinnamon Skin (1982):

He said I had best not talk to him in the noon-time traffic. I soon saw what he meant. We came whining down the Eastex Parkway at sixty-four miles an hour, because that was the average speed of the dense stampede in which we were enclosed. It is a fact of highway life that each heavily traveled road establishes its own cadence. The great pack of candy-colored compacts, pickups , vans, delivery trucks, taxicabs, and miscellaneous wheeled junk flowed in formation, inches apart, through the gleam, stink, grinding roar, and squinty glitter of a July noontime, through a golden sunshine muted to brass by smog. What the traffic consultants seem unable to comprehend is that heavy traffic makes its own rules because nobody can nip in and pull anybody over to the side without setting up a shock wave that would scream tires and crumple fenders for a mile back down the road. California discovered this first. It is probably a more important discovery than est or redwood hot tubs…

Once you have the concept of the pack making the law, driving the urban interstates is simplified. You maintain just that distance from the vehicle ahead which will give you braking room yet will not invite a car from a neighbor lane to cut in. You pick the center lanes because some of the clowns leaving the big road on the right will start to slow down far too soon. You avoid the left lane when practical because when they have big trouble over there on the other side of the median strip, the jackass who comes bounding over across the strip usually totals somebody in the left lane. When you come up the access strip onto the big road, you make certain that you have reached the average speed of all the traffic before you edge into it. Keep looking way way ahead for trouble, and when you see it put on your flashing emergency lights immediately so that the clown behind you will realize you are soon going to have to start slowing down.

Meyer did well, hunched forward, hands gripping the wheel at ten o’clock and two o’clock.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & the War on Drugs

March 9, 2015


By Kevin Comer

I said I didn’t mind, so she got a saved butt out of a little box in the nightstand drawer, good for five deep drags, well spaced, then pressed it out and came back down to me with that sad, sweet, oriental tang on her breath.

— Billie Jean Bailey tokes up in The Empty Copper Sea (1978)

Travis McGee is no prude when it comes to recreational drug use. This is probably to be expected. It’s likely you couldn’t be berthed downwind of the Alabama Tiger’s permanent floating house party aboard the ‘Bama Gal without often being treated to the sweet scent of Mary Jane in the ‘60s and ‘70s. McGee tells us exactly where he stands in regard to marijuana in The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974) when Meyer asks him outright: “… Do you disapprove of a person using the weed?”

“Me? I think people should do whatever they want to do, provided they go to the trouble of informing themselves first of any possible problems. Once they know, then they can solve their own risk-reward ratios. Suppose somebody proved it does some kind of permanent damage. Okay. So the user has to figure it out if there is any point in his remaining in optimum condition for a minimum kind of existence. For me, it was relaxing, in a way, the couple of times I’ve had enough to feel it. But it gave me the giggles, warped my time sense, and made things too bright and hard-edged. Also it bent dimensions somehow. Buildings leaned just a little bit the wrong way. Rooms were not perfectly oblong any more. It’s a kind of sensual relaxation, but it gave me the uneasy feeling somebody could come up behind me and kill me and I would die distantly amused instead of scared witless.”

McGee seems to have suffered from the paranoia often experienced by the occasional pot smoker. His drug of choice will remain expensive imported gin, which presumably did not effect temporal or spacial perception, nor lead to fits of giggling. Nonetheless, he takes his typical libertarian stance with regard to behavior and responsibility.

Travis McGee was much more concerned about the unintended consequences of society’s punitive response to the recreational use of drugs other than alcohol. We first become aware of these concerns in Dress Her in Indigo (1969). Seated comfortably in first class on a flight bound for Mexico City, Travis studies the dossiers prepared by T. Harlen Bowie’s investigators for each of Bix Bowie’s companions on her ill-fated trip to Mexico and discovers one of them had narrowly escaped conviction for marijuana possession due to a break in the chain of evidence. Travis reflects on the actions of the judge:

And that, of course , is the tragic flaw in the narcotics laws— that possession of marijuana is a felony. Regardless of whether it is as harmless as some believe, or as evil and vicious as others believe, savage and uncompromising law is bad law, and the good and humane judge will jump at any technicality that will keep him from imposing a penalty so barbaric and so cruel. The self-righteous pillars of church and society demand that “the drug traffic be stamped out” and think that making possession a felony will do the trick. Their ignorance of the roots of the drug traffic is as extensive as their ignorance of the law.

Let’s say a kid in Florida, a college kid eighteen years old, is picked up with a couple of joints on him. He is convicted of possession, which is an automatic felony, and given a suspended sentence. What has he lost? The judge who imposes sentence knows the kid has lost the right to vote, the right right to own a gun, the right to run for public office. He can never become a doctor, dentist, C.P.A., engineer, lawyer, architect, realtor, osteopath, physical therapist, private detective, pharmacist, school teacher, barber, funeral director, masseur, or stock broker. He can never get any job where he has to be bonded or licensed. He can’t work for the city, county, or federal governments . He can’t get into West Point, Annapolis, or the Air Force Academy. He can enlist in the military, but will be denied his choice of service, and probably be assigned to a labor battalion.

It is too rough. It slams too many doors. It effectively destroys the kid’s life. It is too harsh a penalty for a little faddist experimentation. The judge knows it. So he looks for any out, and then nothing at all happens to the kid. Too many times harsh law ends up being, in effect, no law at all. All automatic felony laws are, without exception, bad law, from the Sullivan Act in New York State, to the hit and run in California . They destroy the wisdom and discretion of the Court, and defeat the purposes they are meant to serve.

Although McGee refers to faddish experimentation, the dark side of drug use figures prominently in the plot of Indigo. He and Meyer discover a wide swath of destruction and degradation involving heroin, pharmaceuticals, and cannabis in Mexico. This is often the case in the series. In Copper, PCP is destroying lives in Timber Bay. In The Lonely Silver Rain (1985), brash undercover DEA agent Scott Browder is motivated by a teenage daughter in a vegetative state from an overdose. A reader would not come away convinced JDM thought drug use benign.

As the market for recreational drugs exploded, Florida became a major conduit for product from Latin America and the Caribbean. Initially, many of those involved in the drug trade were amateurs attracted by the chance to make a quick buck. There was an air of romance not even T. McGee is entirely immune to: In Lemon, he recalls his thinking when acquaintance Boo Brodey tried recruiting him into the trade:

…If you make it with grass, you find out that hash and coke are more portable and profitable. You kid yourself into the next step, and by the time they pick you up, your picture in the paper looks like some kind of degenerate, fangs and all. And all you can say is, gee, the other guys were doing it too.

If I were really going to do it, I would refit the Muñequita for long-range work. Tune her for lowest gas consumption and put in bigger tanks. She’s already braced to bang through seas most runabouts can’t handle. Then I would …

Whoa, McGee. There is larceny in every heart, and you have more than your share. So forget how far it is across the Yucatan Straits, leaving from Key West.

However as the drug trade matures, it becomes a $70B a year business controlled by ruthless organized crime rings. In Silver—published 30 years ago—Travis runs afoul of these forces when his discovery of the bodies of three young drug runners on a stolen yacht results in his being marked for death. In his effort to escape the crosshairs, McGee unleashes a violent gang war. As the bodies pile up, he’s following the action in the newspapers when Meyer brings a NYT op-ed written by a former employee of the DEA to his attention, which says in part:

“A vast and deadly infrastructure provides it [cocaine] — from the plucking of the leaves of the highland bushes to the tiny gold straw that sucks a line into the delicate nostril of a mayor’s mistress in Oregon and makes her eyes sparkle. Within the present context, nothing can stop it. The losses of officialdom are within the limits, say, of spoilage in the vegetable business. It has been brought in by drone aircraft, radio-controlled. It has been brought in by one-man submarine. It has been shot ashore by slingshot from freighters docking at Tampa. Even were importation to be punished by death it would still go on, because the lifetime wages of a laborer can be carried in a single pocket.

“The only possible solution to this deadly trade is to ignore it. Legalize it along with marijuana. Then the infrastructure will sag and collapse. It will no longer be fashionable. Street dealers will no longer hustle new customers on high school sidewalks. And men won’t die in the squalid massacres we have seen recently in southeast Florida.

“But maybe it is too late for legalization. The bureaucracy of detection and control has a huge national payroll. Florida’s economy is as dependent on Lady Caine as it is on cattle or fishing. Legalization will be fought bitterly by politicians who will say that to do so will imperil our children. Are they not now imperiled?”

McGee Movie News: Rosamund Pike Onboard the Flush?

February 28, 2015

News of the prospective McGee movie, The Deep Blue Good-by, has been nonexistent for many a long month. But in the last few days, word comes that Rosamund Pike—fresh from an Oscar nomination for Gone Girl—is circling the new film. It’s not clear whether she’s going to take on Cathy or Lois. It’s also apparent that Christian Bale continues to be the man for McGee.



You can read the story here.


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