From Steve Scott’s Trap of Solid Gold: On the Background of Travis McGee Part II

October 19, 2015

Last week I posted John D MacDonald’s remarks, made after a reading of the paper “Travis McGee as Traditional Hero,” at the first John D MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detection in November 1978. Written by Erling B. Holtsmark of the University of Iowa, the paper opined that McGee was a descendant of a long line of ancient, Indo-European heroic types, a monster slayer who rescues maidens, eradicates the corruption and corrupt monsters that besiege the community, and wins the treasure. MacDonald eventually wrote a longer and more thought-out response which was published, not in the Journal of Popular Culture as originally intended, but in the inaugural issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection. As before, the author provides lots of interesting details on the genesis of the series and its two main characters.

Though I have had a certain amount of exposure to the classics, I certainly did not try to adapt ancient patterns to my contemporary fellow. It just came out that way. And maybe, for those ancient tellers of tales, it just came out that way too. Maybe we are dealing with a Jungian concept of the symbols mankind must have in his fireside tales of heroism.

I will try to explain as honestly as I can, how the characteristics of the McGee stories, as underlined by Holtsmark, came to be.

During the first few books of the series, there was no Meyer. As I began to work ever harder to try to obviate the need for endless internal monologues on the part of McGee, I began to realize that there had to be some middle ground between achieving all exposition through show rather than tell, and achieving it through all tell. I invented Meyer out of fragments in the vast scrap basket in the back of my head, vowing that I would not have a clown on scene, nor would I have someone dependent upon McGee emotionally, financially or socially.

I worked with Meyer, throwing away paragraphs and pages and chapters until he finally emerged, nodding in hirsute satisfaction, little wise blue eyes gleaming with ironic amusement, amused at himself and at my efforts, proclaiming like the bottle genie that he had been there all along, waiting for someone to perform the magic spell of rubbing the right words together.

Holtsmark tells us that the classical hero is a loner. Be that as it may, it is also a neat solution to the problem of a diversity of plot and situation. If one is enmeshing a hero in but one adventure, then it would not matter were he encumbered by wife, kiddies, tax consultant, bowling team and his very own Siamese twin. But to lug the whole emotional-personal environment along into further events involves more arrangement and manipulation than all that baggage is worth. I added Meyer only because the problems of tugging him along into the ensuing dramas was an effort overbalanced by his usefulness in establishing atmosphere and physical detail through dialogue.

We can find analogies in the television theater. Gunsmoke depicted Marshall Dillon as the classic hero, tough, moral, laconic and fearsome. Even with his retinue –Kitty, Doc, Chester (long ago) etc.– he was the loner, often roving far. There was always the hint that long ago he had been a more pure loner, unencumbered by town and badge, or by the hints of a liaison with Miss Kitty. There, in a kind of outdoor theater, the world was brought in as evil people, and presented to the classic hero through the words and actions of his retinue, begging violent solution.

That long-departed series The Fugitive is a purer example of the loner as hero, seeking his own absolution, smiting evil along the way.

Without attempting an impertinence, my guess is that those tellers of tales about “Odysseus, Herakles, Philoctetes, Ajax and scores of others” were solving plot problems by making their heroes loners. And when he is a loner, he must have standards of behavior variant from the norms of his culture, otherwise the evil he goes out to correct would have already been taken care of by society.

As to the next characteristic, that of the lack of information about McGee’s early years, I must confess that here I was guided by instinct rather than guile. It just did not feel right to me to be specific about McGee’s early years, family, education and so on. If I were forced to conjecture about my probable reasons for this reluctance, I would have to say that by giving him a specific background, I would have thus related him in time and space to a very small percentage of the populace. This way, he could have been brought up in your development, gone to your schools, served in your battalion, dated your sister-long before life sent him off at an ever-diverging angle from the rest of us. There are the hints of the war service, the brief pro ball episode as a tight end, death of a brother. If we do not know the specifics in detail, then we can fill in our own. I am careful to also keep the physical image just a bit blurred, so that except for dimension, you can fill in your own ideas of him.

Curiously enough, when Otto Penzler was compiling a collection of biographies of detective heroes written by their creators, I thought about it for a long time and then said I did not want to do it. I suspect he was somewhat miffed, but I feel my instincts were right. Too much depiction would corrode the magic.

The next characteristic, the strong erotic element shared with the ancient heroes, is once again related to making a plot compelling. The constant reader is going to know, subliminally, that no matter how grievously I endanger McGee, he will survive-at least until I do a book with black in the title. The reader does not know whether or not a person for whom McGee has formed a strong attachment will survive. When there is nothing to lose, there is no menace. McGee’s emotional attachment must be to someone who can capture the reader’s fancy as well as McGee’s. The casual roll in the hay, though it would not in our age especially devalue the damsel, would not elevate her to the status of object of great value either.

The hero must always be deeply, emotionally, tragically involved, or the novel of suspense becomes merely a string of set scenes of a meaningless violence. If the hero’s motivations in a story are trivial, interest sags. The kind of strong motivation depends on the structure of the series. I have forfeited the chance in the McGee structure to have him struggling to avoid imprisonment for life for something he didn’t do, or to regain a lost reputation, or to save his blood relatives from disaster, or to recover his own courage, or to save his own soul. So it must always be a threat of ugly disaster for himself and for those he holds near and dear, close friends or lady loves. The element of sensuality must depend upon the mores of the culture in which the hero appears. In times gone by the same effect might have been attained by his having been given a fragile scarf to tie to his lance before going into combat.

The fifth aspect, which Holtsmark covers in some detail, is the necessity of having a monster handy, a Junior Allen or a Boone Waxwell or a Paul Dissat. Here we deal with one of my own beliefs, that there exists in the world a kind of evil which defies the Freudian explanations of the psychologists, and the environmental explanations of the sociologists. It is an evil existing for the sake of itself, for the sake of the satisfactions of its own exercise. In our real world we have, for example, a two hundred and thirty pound teenager who roams the streets, mugging children for the pleasure of gouging out their eyes. For me it is less satisfying to say that this is the action of a sad, limited, tormented, unbalanced child than it is to see that this is a primordial blackness reaching up again through a dark and vulnerable soul, showing us all the horror that has always been with mankind, frustrating all rational analyses.

I admit to the primitive and superstitious aspects of my belief. But it does make it easier for me to depict a villainy that is without mercy or scruple, that grows strong through its own pursuit of evil, that is as heartstopping as the sudden breaking of the glass of the bedroom window a little before dawn. Blackness for its own sake is ever more difficult to deal with than quirks and neuroses.

This paper intrigued me and will continue to do so, while at the same time it has made me a little bit edgy. I do not want to give McGee the flavor of being contrived within a pattern laid down in pre-history. If he does work some subliminal magic in creating reader response, that is all to the good. But he has become a person. When I try to manipulate him, to take him outside his established patterns of thought and behavior, the book in process falls apart. In the past he has had no specific protest. He has just stood there. From now on, I suppose, he will shake his head and say, “John, that is not the way an ancient hero would act.”

From Steve Scott’s Trap of Solid Gold: On the Background of Travis McGee Part I

October 12, 2015

Back in 1978 Ed Hirshberg, a University of South Florida English professor and editor of the JDM Bibliophile, arranged the first ever Conference on the Works of John D MacDonald. It took place in November in Tampa and was, primarily, a one day affair preceded by an evening of cocktails and dinner. (Plymouth Gin was served.) Scholarly papers on both the works of JDM as well as other mystery writers were read by their authors and commented on by the guest of honor, none other than John D MacDonald himself. MacDonald’s comments were off-the-cuff, as he had not read or heard the papers prior to their presentation at the conference, and the intention was to have him eventually produce more lengthy and thoughtful responses in writing and have them published, along with the papers themselves, in a future issue of the Journal of  Popular Culture.

One of the papers, titled “Travis McGee as Traditional Hero,” and written by Erling B. Holtsmark of the University of Iowa, postulated the idea that McGee was a descendant of a long line of ancient, Indo-European heroic types, a monster slayer who rescues maidens, eradicates the corruption and corrupt monsters that besiege the community, and wins the treasure. The paper was interesting not just for what Holtsmark had written, but for MacDonald’s responses, which reveal how he began the series with a full biography of the hero, how he developed the character of Meyer, and how he turned down a request to publish McGee’s bio in Otto Penzler’s 1977 The Private Lives of Private Eyes: Spies, Crime Fighters and Other Good Guys.

Below are MacDonald’s initial comments made after the reading. Next week I’ll post his long, written response that appeared a year later.

What was to me the most interesting thing about that paper was that it illuminated something to me that had been puzzling me a bit. When I first started the series I had a pretty well organized biography of McGee, from early childhood, family relationships, even to the occupations of his grandparents on both sides, where he grew up, where he went to school; also the emotional and psychic trauma of his early years. I had intended to imbed these biographical facts here and there in the books as the series proceeded.

As I went on, I found a reluctance to do that, which I did not understand. I just didn’t know why I felt so reluctant. So I didn’t do it. It sort of came to a head last year when Otto Penzler wrote to me and he said that I’m putting together a book; all of these people are going to write a biography of their protagonists. So-and-so is going to do so-and-so, and so on. We want you to do a biography of McGee. I dug out my old records on that and looked them over and I would have had to turn it from outline form into a sort of an essay. I wrote back and I said, “I don’t want to do this.” He wrote back and said, “Everybody’s doing it. Why not? Why the reluctance?” And I said, “I don’t know why I’m reluctant, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I think people should use their own imagination to try to figure out in their minds what the background of this contemporary American character is.”

When I read Mr. Holtsmark’s paper, it was sort of a justification of my reluctance. Then I began to wonder, “How about these people who were devising initially these classic heroes of the past? I wonder if they had the same reluctance to go into the background of their people?” My classical education is very spotty. I was in the Wharton School of Finance and in Business Administration at Syracuse University and then took a Master’s from Harvard Business School. So when I should have been studying classical heroes and monsters I was studying double-entry book-keeping and what insurance companies can do to you and for you. I don’t know whether that particular aspect of it has been studied before, but it just intrigued me.

Why should there be a reluctance for me to tell the readers what my knowledge of the background of McGee is? I just don’t know. But I begin to see, through that paper, a sort of possible justification for it.

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.


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