1. The Deep Blue Good-By (Spoiler Alert)

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.

Introduction: Say Hello to Travis McGee

By the time he published his first Travis McGee adventure in 1964, John D. MacDonald (JDM) had written dozens of novels and scores of short stories. He populated them with relatively ordinary people who found themselves caught in terrible binds—ensnared by their own weaknesses or the traps that others set for them. Sex, power, greed, corruption, venality, egotism, hatred, heroism, selflessness, stupidity, nobility and evil itself course powerfully through JDM’s tales. Just as Georges Simenon—creator of the peerless Maigret series—understood what was ticking away beneath the carapace of the human skull, so did JDM. In fact, I would cast JDM as America’s own Simenon—with his deep insight into the psychology of people under extreme pressure.

So when Fawcett Books came to JDM in the early 1960s with the proposal to create a series based on a tough-guy, PI-type character, he was ready go. He had tested several McGee-like protagonists in earlier novels and wasn’t about to mimic the glib tough guys of less capable writers (e.g., the likes of Brett Halliday and Richard Prather, whom he replaced in the Fawcett stable); or those inscrutable literary shamuses Sam Spade (Hammett), Philip Marlowe (Chandler) and Lew Archer (Ross MacDonald). Travis McGee was about to raise the bar on crime fiction to its highest level ever. JDM’s 21 McGee stories would go beyond anything the hard-boiled fiction world had seen before, and serve as the template for the best detective/PI series of the 1970s and beyond—such as Spenser and V. I. Warshawski, Elvis Cole and Doc Ford. Not that any of those pretenders ever lived up to the boat bum from Ft. Lauderdale.

With philosopher/knight errant McGee, every case was personal. Whether he sortied out from the Busted Flush (his houseboat home) to defend or avenge a friend—or to undertake a salvage project for his fifty percent take—he brought with him his sense of justice. Righting the balance of things was always important to McGee.

For someone who perennially poked his nose into dangerous places, he had the complete toolkit: Crafty, muscular fighting skills; a sort of rough-hewn charm and sexiness; sharp instincts and reflexes; an intellect capable of untangling thorny problems; a sound understanding of human psychology; the classic hard-boiled PI conscience; the deceptiveness of a good con man; knowledge of the ways of commerce and politics; and an ability to recruit good people to the cause.

Above all, McGee brought a questing personal outlook. More insistently than almost any other protagonist in mystery and suspense, he shared his thoughts on the ways that the world was going—typically, to hell in a hand basket. (McGee died in 1986 with his creator, and I think he would be amazed that we aren’t more screwed up than we are at this point.) His ruminations on love, mortality and the fate of American society are some of the most heartfelt and insightful in all of genre fiction. Decades before most of us were aware of them, McGee reflected on our potential for environmental disaster and the inevitability of terrorism. He laid it all out for you, spoke it as he saw it, sometimes at excessive length. His 21 adventures constitute one of the under-appreciated treasures of 20th century American literature.

This blog will be my book-by-book personal take on a character and a writer who have become very important to me, ever since a mystery-writing teacher put me on to McGee 20 years ago. Every summer I read four or five McGees, usually in my backyard, sitting under the shade of a very old, very large elm. And however many times I’ve read Blue or Grey or Scarlet, I always treasure my time hanging with Trav and (in middle and later books) his sidekick Meyer. These entries will be partly book reports, partly my opinions on the best and worst of McGee. They may contain spoilers. But such revelations will be noted up front for McGee virgins who don’t want the beans spilled prematurely. Over the next four or five years I plan to write down my impressions of each book.

Happily, every one of the 21 McGees is still in print. You can get them new through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, or any retail bookstore. And because millions of copies of JDM’s books have adorned book racks since the 1950s, the McGees and his 50 other paperback novels are often available in used bookstores and online for far less than the usual eight-buck cost of a new paperback today. I found many of mine for a buck each, some for as low as 25 cents.

Do you need to begin at the beginning, with 1964’s The Deep Blue Good-By? I didn’t, the first time through. But if you’re methodical about such things, maybe it’s a good idea. I think it’s safe to say that if Blue strikes a chord with you, you’ll like what follows. Otherwise, my advice is to just pick a color—all McGee titles feature colors—from the early or middle books. That would include Blue, Pink, Purple, Red, Gold, Orange, Amber, Yellow, Gray, Brown, Indigo, Lavender, Tan or Scarlet. My particular favorites in that group are Blue, Gray and Lavender. Then sit down and be transported to the heart of the 1960s, to Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

D. R. Martin