McGee Wannabes: Jeff Shelby’s Noah Braddock, Surfer Sleuth

killerswellYou could reasonably argue that our man Travis came out of a lineage of fictional tough guys that got its start in southern California. It was the stomping ground of two of the great originals of hard-boiled detective fiction—Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer.  Currently the redoubtable PI Elvis Cole does his sleuthing there, as does the peerless police detective Harry Bosch. It seems to me, though, that those two don’t much resemble Trav. Cole cracks wise Spenser-style while Bosch stews and ruminates over existential questions. And there’s not much in the way of semi-tropical heat in the dour post-WWII worlds occupied by Marlowe and Archer.

That’s not to say that authors don’t come along with California settings who try to capture the McGee vibe. A year and a half ago I wrote about Ron Ely’s efforts in that direction, with Santa Barbara tough guy Jake Sands. (That’s right, Ely the ex-Tarzan actor. Unfortunately, he wrote only two books in his promising series. It’s not easy, getting a genre fiction series established.) And this time around I’ll take a look at another southern California series. Jeff Shelby’s McGee wannabe is surfer sleuth Noah Braddock, who has had five outings so far.

One of the first impressions of Noah—who tells his tale in brisk, agile first person—is of a hero very comfortable in his own skin. While he may live to surf the beaches of San Diego, he likes nothing better than fighting the good fight, with lots of his own skin in the game. Just as Florida is a full-fledged character in most of the McGee yarns, San Diego and its environs are central to Noah’s story; he and the author clearly love the place, especially the surfing beaches. He has a sidekick who bears no resemblance to Meyer in look, style, or braininess—an even bigger surfer dude/tough guy called Carter. But Carter is as loyal and intrepid as they come and even takes a few bullets for his pal. There’s also a former girlfriend, a police detective, who’s in the cast.

The first book in the series, Killer Swell (2005), sees Noah take on a missing person case. Only this one is personal. The lost woman is his old high school girlfriend, Kate. He hasn’t seen her since they broke up toward the end of senior year, but he’s clearly carried the torch for her ever since. Her stuck-up, rich mother is the one who hires Noah; even though she hated him when he was dating her daughter. It turns out that Kate married a successful surgeon and they had what seemed a solid, prosperous marriage. Noah heads out to trace her known movements around San Diego before she disappeared. But his brief search ends tragically, when he finds Kate Crier in the trunk of a car, brutally murdered.

Bit by bit, Noah peels back the layers of deceit that had covered this supposedly golden girl. It turns out that she and her husband were both heroin addicts; though on and off. When Kate was pulled over by the police, they found dope in the car belonging to the husband. With a horrid deficit of chivalrousness, he let his wife take the very hard fall. And with that leverage, the DEA dragooned her into the investigation of a Mexican drug kingpin, for whom she ended up serving as a very unlikely mule. The natural conclusion is that the kingpin found out she was a traitor, had her killed, and stuffed into that trunk.

But when Noah—at great risk to life and limb—arranges a meet with said kingpin, the man delivers a surprise. Yes, he learned that Kate was collecting evidence for the DEA. And yes, he certainly would have killed her, given the chance. In his line of work, it would have been a professional necessity. But someone else got to Noah’s old flame before he did. He didn’t do it. And Noah believes him.

So, who killed Kate Crier and why?

In the meantime, Noah has to negotiate some secondary issues. He falls into the sack with Kate’s big sister, complicating his investigation. He also falls into the sack with the police detective, who needs him to stop interfering in her murder investigation. He has to deal with his friend and sidekick Carter, wounded in a shootout protecting Noah.

But, being stubborn and bent on vengeance, Noah bulls ahead and yet again almost gets himself killed, when he helps to take down the very unexpected murderer.

IMO, Killer Swell is more a straight PI mystery than something from McGee’s wheelhouse—despite some reviewers proclaiming Noah a new Trav. If McGee is a big turf ‘n’ surf dinner with a Boodles Martini, Noah Braddock is a akin to a nice beach-side hors d’oeuvre plate with an Amstel Light. There’s just not the substance and character that McGee brings to almost every situation he’s in. Noah, when it comes down to it, is kind of a superficial dude.

Don’t get me wrong. Shelby delivers a smooth, easy, entertaining read and I enjoyed it. If you’re in the market for a warm, semi-tropical crime story with a laid-back, free-spirit, first-person protagonist—and what reader of this blog isn’t?—you could do a lot worse.

While Shelby’s series is not bounteous, at five titles, it appears that he’s still adding to it. The most recent book was published just a year ago. The other four in the series are Wicked Break, Liquid Smoke, Drift Away, and Locked In. They’re all available as e-books.

Was One of the Blog’s Readers Actually in a McGee story?

One of the blog’s readers was in touch with me recently with a fascinating query. Lynn N. wanted some help trying to find a passage that she thinks is in one of the McGee tales. It’s of particular interest to her, because she believes it was inspired by her own encounter with a man who may have been JDM himself. Here’s what Lynn wrote me:
I was nineteen years old in 1965  and was working in San Francisco. As I was departing a bus on Market Street, right at the Del Webb Townhouse Inn, I looked over and saw a familiar face. I didn’t recognize the man immediately, but knew the face. So I waved, as it is rude (where I was raised) to ignore an acquaintance.  He was an older man, wearing a smashed up hat, and had a very penetrating gaze.
In later years I read a Travis McGee book and he mentioned a tall, good-looking girl, climbing off a bus, a white skirt foaming about her knees. “She smiled and waved at me, then danced off down the street, the sun following her.” ( I am paraphrasing the text I remember.)  I realized then that I must have seen Mr. McDonald. He was one of the first writers I’d ever encountered who liked tall women, and I certainly was in that category!
Sadly I don’t remember the name of that book, but I am hoping you can help me to find out which it is so I can get a copy.

So if anyone recognizes that passage, please leave a comment for Lynn. I’m eager to know the answer, too.



A New Key West Caper from Larry Shames


As you all know, I’m a huge fan of Larry Shames’s Key West Caper novels. And I thought I’d share the good news that he’s coming out with a new one later this month. It’s called One Strange Date and it’s available for presale on Amazon right now. If you buy it, it will upload to your Kindle on January 23. Here’s what Larry has to say about it, including a link to the Amazon page:

Hi Friends–

Happy new year! I hope 2017 is off to a great start for all of you.

I’m writing to let you know that my new Key West Caper—somehow or other I’ve made it to number 12!–has just become available for pre-order as an e-book. The release date is January 23, but you’d be doing me a big favor by ordering now, as pre-sales have a crucial impact on Amazon rankings, and Amazon rankings are what draws attention. The book will magically appear in your Kindle at midnight of the release date and you can be the first kid on your block to read it!

And review it? That would be very much appreciated…

Please note that ONLY the e-book can be pre-ordered. But in the next couple of weeks, a print edition and an audiobook (performed by the superb Jem Matzan) will also become available. I promise you I won’t be shy about sending reminders.

As ever, I thank you for your support and enthusiasm, and I wish you happy reading.


P. S. The paperback is now available for order through Amazon. Just click here.

Thirty Years Ago Today

imagesEarlier this year I noted JDM’s 100th birthday. Today, I thought I would call attention to another JDM anniversary: It was 30 years ago today that our favorite author died in a Milwaukee hospital, after a heart bypass procedure. Here’s the obit from the next day’s New York Times.

JDM went into St. Mary’s Hospital in September 1986 for his operation, developed pneumonia, and spent the last month of his life in a coma. The bypass was apparently sold to him as relatively low-risk of 5 to 8 percent. But afterwards his doctors alluded to JDM being higher risk because his heart disease was more severe, with regard to the arteries that had to be bypassed.

Gone at seventy years old—not that old. What a shame. To quote myself in a wishful mood (from my piece on Cinnamon), if he had lived: “Think! Another eight or ten adventures. Emerald and Fuschia. Jade and Maroon. Black and Ochre. Coral and Beige. Plum and Salmon.” But twenty-one McGees are still a treasure for the ages. Something for us to savor again and again and again.

The Other JDM: Deadly Welcome — Two Views

D. R.’s note: Walter Abbott recently wrote up a review of JDM’s Deadly Welcome. And it so happened that I had a review of my own that I wrote a few years ago. So, here are both of them. First, Walter’s view of the 1959 novel.

There are only twenty-one Travis McGee novels. So we all have to make do with substitutes – Randy Wayne White, Carl Hiasson, Charles Knief, Paul Levine. Then there are the other JDM stories and books that will do when one wants to space out re-reading the McGees.

It’s been a good many years since I systematically read all of JDM’s other works, but I still have them stacked in my bookcase, ready for use. Sometimes, you can see in them JDM’s ideas for the characters that are later fully developed in the McGee series.

welcome3Deadly Welcome, published in 1959, had two interesting main characters. The protagonist, Alex Doyle, is a Korean War vet working as a “investigator” for the US State Department.

That night, when he was ready for bed, he carefully inspected the stranger in the bathroom mirror. The sandy hair had been cropped short and the gray at the temples was now practically invisible. The eyes were a pale gray-blue. It was a long face, subtly stamped with the melancholy of lonely tasks. A big nose and stubborn shelving of jaw. A sallow facial structure that took a deep tan and kept it. Twisty scar at the left corner of the broad mouth. A flat, hard, rangy body, with big feet and knobbed wrists and big freckled hand.

The female lead is Betty Larkin.

She was a girl of a good size and considerable prettiness, and she came swinging toward him, moving well in her blue-jean shorts and sleeveless red blouse with white vertical stripes and battered blue topsiders. She had been endowed with a hefty wilderness of coarse blond-red hair, now sun-streaked. She was magnificently tanned, but it was the tan of unthinking habitual exposure rather than a pool-side contrivance of oils and careful estimates of basting time.

Betty, in contrast, seemed o handle herself in a way that, through long habit, seemed to negate her bounties, to underplay her charms. She seemed to have no body awareness, no iota of consciousness of self. So there was bluffness in the way she moved, an asexual indifference. It was a big lovely body, with good shoulders and strong breasts, delicately narrow waist, and long strong shapely legs. Yet when she had sat on the porch she had propped her heels on the railing just inside the screening, and crossed her ankles with neither coyness nor seemingly any awareness that she was good to look upon.

The story is set on the Florida Gulf Coast town of Ramona, south of Sarasota. Doyle was raised there, and was forced to enlist at eighteen after he was framed for a robbery he didn’t commit.

He has spent the past 15 years trying to forget Ramona and his early years there. Going back “home” is the last thing on his mind.

The Pentagon has other ideas for Doyle. They’ve “borrowed” him from State, and as he’s shown to be a clever, resourceful, and persevering fellow, they want him to go back and convince a medically discharged Air Force Colonel Crawford McGann to come back to work on a limited basis.

McGann, it seems, has been deemed to be nearly indispensible to the nation’s missile program. Remember, the story is set in 1959, the hottest part of the Cold War, and during the Space Race with the USSR.

McGann’s wife, Jenna, was Doyle’s very first love interest at age eighteen. And she’s been murdered, with the unsolved case weighing heavily on Col. McGann’s soul.

Doyle is reluctant, but is made an offer he can’t refuse.

Add to the mix Betty Larkin, the younger sister of Jenna. She had a crush on Doyle, back when Doyle and Jenna were briefly seeing each other.

There is the obligatory sadistic cracker sheriff’s deputy who runs that part of the county as he sees fit, and some local types who commiserate with Doyle about his railroading fifteen years ago.

So will our reluctant McGee-type character solve the murder and convince the colonel that his country needs him badly?

It’s a good effort from JDM, and Deadly Welcome will do quite well until it’s time for the next McGee.0309-deadly-welcome-381

D. R.:

John D. MacDonald is rarely in better form than when he occupies himself with the dark and dastardly doings of small-town Florida. These places—back in the ’50s and ’60s, when JDM wrote the vast majority of his novels—were still very much of the Old South. Forget the glitz and glamour of Florida’s tourist coasts. Forget shiny Ft. Lauderdale and Bahia Mar (home of Travis McGee). For JDM these little burgs were dicey places for outsiders, with racism right up front; with corruption and lust and violence always lurking just under a lazy, placid surface. JDM used variants of the setting in a few McGee adventures and in many of his one-off crime novels. Deadly Welcome (1959) is a solid example. Written in third person, this story has a few pre-echoes of McGee.

Alex Doyle grew up in a little coastal town called Ramona Beach, somewhere between Ft. Myers and Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. A “swamp cracker” (poor white trash), Doyle left town at eighteen—too late to see action in WWII. Framed for burglarizing a local store and arrested, he’d been given the choice of a trial and jail, or pleading guilty and a stint in the Army. He chose the latter. He went to college on the GI Bill and then served in the Korean War. By the time Ramona Beach heaves up again, he’s been working as an investigator for the State Department. And someone in the Pentagon needs him to return home for a vital confidential mission: Luring an ailing military scientist living in Ramona Beach out of retirement. Doyle’s history there is the perfect cover.

Of course, you can go home again, but it’s not always fun—especially since you left it 14 years earlier in utter disgrace. Doyle meets with puritan disapproval from some locals. And the deputy sheriff—a Barney Fife from hell, a stock JDM character—gives Doyle an unprovoked, brutal beating. He don’t want the convicted criminal t’ git all uppity, now he’s back in Ramona Beach. But some folks are happy to see the disgraced native son. Chief among them is Betty Larkin, co-owner of the town’s marina. Just a kid when Doyle left, she had had a huge crush on him. Her big sister Jenna—a “goer,” to use Monty Python parlance—had once done the dirty with Doyle, as well as with most every other young buck in town.

But some months prior to Doyle’s arrival, Jenna had been murdered. Coincidentally, she too had vamoosed, then returned home, with an improbable husband. As Doyle knew all too well from his Pentagon briefing, that husband was none other than Colonel Crawford M’Gann, the ailing scientist.

Doyle starts earnestly juggling several balls. Getting reacquainted with—and falling for—Betty, now a splendid, good-hearted young woman. Running the gantlet of the Colonel’s protective sister, in order to make a pitch for a return to duty. Staying out of reach of the toxic deputy. Investigating the unsolved murder of his old one-night stand, the lovely, randy Jenna. And digging through ancient history for the legendary lost treasure of the sisters’ deceased daddy.

Naturally, this concoction of lust and greed explodes in the final pages, as JDM brings together the key plot threads and weaves a dramatically violent conclusion.

Fans of Travis McGee may be a little disappointed in the slightly treacley, sentimental final pages. But you have to remember that this story first appeared (in a truncated version) in a popular women’s magazine of the ’50s—Cosmopolitan, of all places. And authors of popular fiction were required to follow a central dictum of the era: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes…” Well, you know the rest.

And even JDM was not exempted.


Resurrecting a Hero: Spenser Lives

Two or three years ago, there was a spate of discussion on this blog about fictional heroes who, for one reason or another, were given the chance to outlive their creators. Commenters and I talked about recent resurrections of this famous sleuth or that. I recall Poirot, Archie McNally, Philip Marlowe, as well as Chee and Leaphorn. Here’s the first post, with various comments. Here’s the second. Later on I wrote about Anne Hillerman’s take on her father’s stories. Of course, our discussions were with regard to Maynard MacDonald’s lack of interest in allowing anyone—even Steven King—to revive his father’s great fictional hero.

The reason I bring the subject up again is that I finally got around to reading the first of the new Spenser books by Ace Atkins. I know I’m pretty late to the game on this, and you’re all probably way ahead of me. But after Robert Parker died in 2010, I simply finished reading the last few Spensers that he wrote and figured that was that. I just sort of automatically assumed the new guy—handpicked by the Parker estate—wouldn’t quite nail it. Because, let’s face it, some authors-for-hire who tackle famous sleuths don’t get it right. It’s not easy, recreating those very special voices.

Ace Atkins’ first Spenser, Lullaby, crossed my path a few weeks ago purely by accident. I was out on a walk and, as is my wont, checked out a Little Library in the middle of our community garden. And there the book sat, ripe for the taking.

13269092The story has a bit of True Grit and Leon: The Professional to it, as Spenser is hired by a teenage girl of South Boston to track down who really murdered her mother several years before. The guy in the slammer, she insists, didn’t do it. Spenser takes the case and is soon up to his ears in a complicated criminal conspiracy that seems to involve the son of his old gangster nemesis, Joe Broz. Of course, Hawk is at Spenser’s side. And the very feisty girl complicates things by insisting on being in on the action.

(Considering that Spenser served in the Korean War, he’s in awfully good shape to be doing the tough-guy shtick c. 2012. He’d be about eighty. But despite Parker’s error in tagging him with that history—a lesson to series writers—we’re happy to look the other way because we love Spenser. I guess if Bart Simpson never ages, why should Spenser?)

As a good friend of mine might put it—when he gives his imprimatur to something he particularly approves of—this tale’s “as slick as snot on a doorknob.” Atkins has done as nearly a perfect continuation of a creator’s voice and style as I’ve ever seen. If I’d read Lullaby, say, ten years ago, I wouldn’t have had any reason to question that Robert Parker wrote it. And because of Atkins’ masterful writing chops, Spenser remains alive and kicking, and in hearty good health. Spenser is all here, full of his trademark wiseass-ery. And that is a wonderful thing: Robert Parker may have died, but Spenser lives.

I should note, though, that while the book collects predominantly five and four star reviews on Amazon—I gave it five—down in the scarcer two and one star reviews, many folks think Ace Atkins missed the boat and/or screwed the pooch.

lat_aceatkins050816_17160570_8colAce Atkins

Maynard MacDonald may own Travis McGee and all his father’s other literary properties. He clearly has some deeply held belief that McGee should never again be heard from, absent his dad. And he has every right to prohibit new McGee stories from being developed.

But the Parker estate and Ace Atkins make an awfully good case for at least attempting to resurrect Mr. McGee. You might reasonably argue that the prose that constitutes McGee is of a richer and more thoughtful weave than that which makes up Spenser. And you would have a good point there. Still, why not give it a shot?

As I wrote here a few years ago, the JDM estate could secretly audition a group of strong candidates and see how close they can get to the original’s quality. If no one’s good enough, well there you go. But if someone pulls it off, then why not pick a new color, haul the Busted Flush out of drydock, and set ol’ Trav loose on some new malefactor?

But even if Maynard MacDonald sticks to his guns and remains unpersuaded, there can always be hope that some day JDM’s grandchildren might feel differently.

McGee Wannabes: Bob Morris’s Zack Chasteen

A fictional tough guy who sets up shop as a McGee-type hero can operate in almost any semi-tropical clime, so long as it’s in the U.S. We’ve seen them in California and Hawaii, of course, and Alabama. But Florida has to be preferred. And any wannabe who works in the Sunshine State had better have a deep understanding of where they’re at, with an appreciation of Florida’s unique natural world.

Bob Morris’ Zack Chasteen is just such a McGee-like character. Born and bred in Florida—in what essentially is a coastal palm-tree nursery founded by his grandfather—Zack knows whereof he speaks when he editorializes (McGee-like) on how greedheads have f****d up his world. Like McGee, he was a pro footballer. He played with the Dolphins under Don Shula and before that played for Florida State. After football, he ran charter and fishing boats. But fate intervened and he was framed for a crime, ending up in a federal prison camp.

553098Chasteen’s first adventure, Bahamarama, leaps into action in the very first chapter. Just as Zack is released from prison, he walks out the gate to find two hoods waiting for him—insisting that he take a ride with them in their Escalade. Zack, of course, is reluctant to do so, as he’s expecting a lift from his wealthy girlfriend. And as nice is their ride is, he doesn’t think climbing up into the big black SUV is going to end well. The ex-footballer delivers them a thumping and makes his escape in the limo the girlfriend has sent for him.

It turns out that the drug gangster who framed Zack and got him sent to the federal pen  thinks he still has something of great value. Thus, the offer of a ride in the Escalade. But Zack has absolutely no idea what that something might be. Having escaped the gangster’s thugs once, he’s not so lucky the next time, when they catch up to him at the abandoned family palm nursery. But Zack escapes, killing one of the baddies in the process.

Now Zack wants nothing more than getting out of Dodge and back together with his magazine publisher girlfriend. Without his passport, he manages to get down to Harbour Island, in the Bahamas, where she’s supervising a big photo shoot. And though he sees her from a distance on the beach, he’s not able to connect with her just then. Ominously, she doesn’t turn up that evening or through the night, though she’s supposed to be expecting him. (There’s even a bottle of pricey champagne on melting ice in the hotel room when Zack gets there.) His hunt for her around Harbour Island is in vain. Our hero worries that she’s dumped him for the photographer on the shoot, her ex-fiancé. But the plot thickens considerably the next morning, when the fashion shooter turns up murdered.

Well, it turns out that girlfriend Barbara has been kidnapped, along with an English peer of the realm who lives on Harbour Island. Zack’s thought is that this is pressure coming down on him from the drug gangster who wants back that thing (or things) that he claims Zack has. Zack pursues a long—sometimes plodding—investigation of the kidnapping, with the help of the Harbour Island cop, his own sidekick Boggy, and various supernumeraries. And I don’t think it’s a spoiler here to say that what Zack initially thinks is one crime is in fact two quite unrelated crimes. Some bad luck, huh?

True, the drug gangster wants his McGuffin back and won’t hesitate to kill Zack to get it. But that bad-guy team turns out to have nothing to do with the kidnapping of Barbara and Lord Whatshisface. The kidnappers are a local crew who operate with a certain ham-handedness. So, as the book draws to a close, readers get to enjoy two concluding action set pieces—as Zack and his allies take down the kidnappers first and the drug thugs second.

As I alluded to above, Bahamarama does have a bit of a pacing problem, IMHO. Through the long center of the tale it drags a bit, as Zack plods through his investigative work. And what is one of the book’s strengths—its rich depiction of life on Harbour Island—also becomes one of its weaknesses, as it slows the tempo of the two interlocking (though we don’t know it yet) crime plots.

But in other respects, it’s a good, solid read. Most satisfyingly, Morris gives us a thoughtful, self-reflective hero very much in the McGee lineage. Zack Chasteen is someone it’s enjoyable to spend a few hours with, as he attempts to get his totally messed-up life back in order. He’s no Trav—who else is?—but he’s someone you’d like to know.

Bob Morris published Bahamarama in 2004. It was followed by four other Zack Chasteen novels: Jamaica Me Dead (2005); Bermuda Schwartz (2007); A Deadly Silver Sea (2008); and Baja Florida (2009). The books remain in print as e-books and are widely available in paper from used-book sellers. I contacted Morris through his website regarding any future Zack Chasteen novels, but have not heard back from him.

P.S. Just before the end of the year I got an e-mail from Bob, who says that a new Zach Chasteen book is coming up; though several non-fiction books are in the queue ahead of it. Here’s what he had to say:

Hey — Big apologies on my much delayed response. Been that kinda year.

Things go well, thanks. Working on several books through Story Farm, all nonfiction. Got a Zack novel on the back-burner that I hope to finish soon. I’ll let you know as it approaches the finish line. I appreciate your kind words re: McGee.We named our younger son Dashiell MacDonald Morris for a reason.
Thanks for getting in touch and thanks for reading my stuff.
Bob Morris