The first time anyone encounters Travis McGee, he is ensconced in the Busted Flush, the ponderous old houseboat that he won in a poker game and moors in Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale. As he lounges, a lithe but athletic young lady is improbably working on her choreography in his “living room.” And just as improbably, that young lady sets Trav off on his first recorded adventure: One of her dancers, it seems, was due a kind of shady inheritance from her dead Dad, some kind of loot he stole in his Army days. Only Dad’s former cellmate—a scary, grinning fellow name of Junior Allen—came to “help” the widow and daughters, and found the hidden loot first. Would Trav consider giving her a hand getting some of it back? “I could afford to drift along for many months,” ruminates Trav. “But now Cathy had created the restlessness, the indignation, the beginnings of that shameful need to clamber aboard my spavined white steed, knock the rust off the armor, tilt the crooked old lance and shout huzzah.”
It’s important to note that Trav is not a PI, not a shamus. He often goes sleuthing in his 21 adventures. But what he does primarily is “recover” things that people have lost or had taken from them, things that are not recoverable by ordinary legal means—money, treasure, reputation. If something has monetary value, he takes 50% of the recovery. When he has enough money tucked away, he enjoys his retirement in installments. When he runs low, he goes back to work. In many of the stories he ends up working pro bono—as he does in Blue. Sometimes the only recovery is retribution, for friends who have been murdered (see Gray and Green).
Once mounted on his “spavined steed”—figuratively speaking—Trav heads to the small town in the Florida Keys where Junior Allen romanced Cathy and stole the inheritance out from under her. Amazingly, Allen has had the chutzpah to come back in a fancy, big cabin cruiser, jingling with money. He takes possession of an attractive divorcee named Lois Atkinson. He sexually uses her, abuses her, degrades her, and abandons her, leaving her emotionally ruined. Trav—in his first restoration of a shattered female—brings Lois slowly and delicately back among the living, and aboard the Busted Flush. And, with a little help from the lady, he goes after the monster—playing Beowulf to Junior’s Grendel.
Trav’s first order of business is to find out just what kind of treasure Junior Allen pried out of its hidey hole on Cathy’s family’s place. The trail leads him to a bluff, hearty Texas businessman who was a member of the dead father’s old WWII aircrew; and apparently part of the shady dealings. Here Trav commits his first big moral and legal transgression in Blue. When the hearty businessman stonewalls him, Trav knocks him cold, hauls him off to a motel room, strips him, ties him up, dumps him in the shower and scalds him with hot water. The businessman quickly tells how Cathy’s dad and crew had a smuggling operation during the war, converting their booty into gemstones that could be easily gotten back into the U.S. Trav at least has the decency to not enjoy this “interrogation,” but it’s not nice, not nice at all. This is torture, pure and simple.
After Trav has tracked down Junior Allen and set up the sting that’s going to relieve the grinning man of his treasure, Lois begs Trav not to do it: Have the police arrest Junior. She and Cathy (who set the adventure in motion and was beaten up by Junior earlier in the story) will testify against him for kidnapping, rape, assault. Junior will go down for a good many years. Trav, wanting to punish Junior in his own way, wanting to get at that treasure, says no and sets the operation in motion. Things go sour in a hurry, as Trav gets his lights punched out on Junior’s boat. When he wakes up, he manages to rescue Junior’s next intended victim—a pretty teenager—and swim ashore. That’s where he finds out that Lois had come looking for him and was taken by Junior. Trav mounts a one-man rescue operation, slays the monster and finds Lois below decks, beaten within an inch of her life—which ends a few days later.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine that Lois is stupid enough to walk up to Junior’s cruiser. Even if she has become Trav’s lover—in a tentative, iffy sort of way. (Neither of them seems sure that their brief affair is the best thing.) After all, this is a woman who was begging Trav to let the cops corral Junior Allen. Yet JDM forces her to come to the grinning monster one last time.
Junior Allen may have executed Lois Atkinson, but Trav condemned her—inadvertently, stupidly, from up on his spavined steed. Because his determination to punish and get the treasure back is so overpowering. Trav doesn’t explicitly address the fact that this unnecessary sacrifice was as much his doing as Junior Allen’s. But I like to think he knows.
I believe JDM took this option because it’s necessary for Trav to not merely be a hero, but a very flawed and morally ambiguous hero. This is how Trav goes beyond the run-of-the-mill, two-dimensional tough guys of 1960s paperback racks. He may be a character who always comes out on top—the guy you want on your side in a fight—but he takes moral and physical damage doing it. Think of an exhausted, battered soldier slogging off the battlefield, buddies dead in the mud behind him. Win or lose, this is no happy camper. He can feel the wear and tear.
Not a few Grendels are slain or wounded in these 21 suspenseful morality tales. But so too are good people who happen to be Trav’s allies. The series reveals the high cost of heroism to the hero and his circle. It’s a dangerous thing being close to Travis McGee.