In which we find a bromance at the heart of things.
By Kevin Comer
One essential trait of a hard-boiled protagonist is that he or she is a loner. By the time the final installment, The Lonely Silver Rain, is published, McGee is anything but a loner.
He lives in a community. He has created a loose family from friends and neighbors picked up along the way. He has discovered a vital relationship that he didn’t know he had.These connections, especially his friendship with Meyer, are critical to the pride of place we grant to McGee and his creator. Silver is an acceptable finale to the series, as much as we regret that it must be the end, because of the epilogue, which includes this passage:
We brought aboard pungent cauldrons of Meyer’s special Incomparable Chili, and enough icy beer to make the chili less lethal. How many of us are there? Twenty? Thirty? Let’s say a lot. Jim Ames and Betsy, The Thorners, Teneros, Arthur and Chook Wilkinson, the Mick and Carlie Hooper, Junebug, Lew, Roxy, Sue Sampson, Sandy, Johnny Dow, Briney, Frank and Gretch Payne, Miguel, the Marchmans, Marilee, Sam Dandie with two nieces, and a leavening of beach folks, and two dogs and a cat, dutifully ignoring each other.
We are here, and there is music and there are bad jokes, and so we are all a little bit longer in the tooth and have seen life go up, down, and sideways without any rhyme or reason anyone can determine. We laugh at old jokes because they are old and tired and familiar, and it is good to laugh.
I’m just discovering that this can still make me cry—proving that I, at least, am not hard-boiled. This passage, for me, says it all. But I know I’ve got more of a case to make.
McGee’s principle habitat is Bahia Mar. There is an active community of permanent residents, as well as folks just passing through. McGee participates in the life of the marina. Throughout the series we are introduced to many acquaintances, friends, and ex-girlfriends who have histories with McGee. A number of these folks are on board for that final party on the Busted Flush in Silver. Some, such as Arthur and Chook, were more than minor characters. McGee is no loner. He maintains his connections to people. Although it’s unusual for a hard-boiled thriller to contain so much from the protagonist’s life, this isn’t enough on its own to separate McGee from the genre.
The first few books of the series are quite similar to the sort of hard-boiled thriller JDM had been putting out for the previous decade-plus. There are definite similarities between Travis and characters like Sam Brice in Where is Janice Gantry?, Andy McClintock in Dead Low Tide, and even Cliff Bartells in The Brass Cupcake. They’re big, rugged, athletic, tough, competent, resourceful, and attractive to women. When facing danger, they’re on their own. Don’t get me wrong, this is great stuff.
But once the hirsute Meyer and his mildly mordant banter begin to creep toward center stage in A Deadly Shade of Gold, he quickly becomes an essential player—and McGee is no longer going it entirely alone.
Meyer enters the stage simply as a fellow resident of Bahia Mar. His “squatty little cruiser,”the John Maynard Keynes, is moored close to slip F-18 and he is sharing a friendly game of acey-deucy with McGee on the sun deck of the Busted Flush. Two books later in Darker than Amber, Meyer is promoted from friend and neighbor to full-fledged sidekick. McGee and Meyer are no longer simply hanging around the marina sharing wry cultural musings. Meyer is a full partner in planning and executing the takedown of a vicious gang of psychopaths preying on well-to-do, but not too well-to-do, men on cruise ships. From this point on, Meyer is an active participant in the series as McGee’s boon companion and sometime partner in the action—and, for me, the more Meyer in the story, the better.
Meyer’s involvement in McGee’s adventures is incidental to their relationship. There is no equivalent to Meyer for Spade, Marlowe, or Archer. The amusing, intellectual boon companion is not a device of the hard-boiled thriller. The reader doesn’t eagerly anticipate the urbane badinage between the protagonist and his egghead best friend.
Beginning with Meyer’s appearance in Gold, JDM gives us a portrait of a friendship: Two people who like hanging out with each other; who have grown close; who love each other. I don’t think JDM would takeissue with that assertion. Meyer is not just a partner. It’s a bromance. Something like a bro’version of Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man, the last novel of the author who started the whole hard-boiled business, Dashiell Hammett. Nick and Nora’s interaction is why we read the book and why we watch the movies. Who cares about the mystery?
How many readers were beginning to doubt that I could trace “the thread”from Hammett to MacDonald?
I find it interesting that both Hammett and MacDonald decided to introduce intimate companions for their protagonists. Were they feeling limited by the hard-boiled formula?
Whatever the reasons, the introduction of such a close companion expands the emotional canvas. Through their interactions, we relate to the characters more readily. They feel more real, more human. I believe this is why we develop the feelings we have for these characters. You can enjoy Spade, Marlowe, and Archer, but you don’t feel affection for them. Not the way we do for Nick and Nora – or McGee and Meyer.
At the end of Silver, the Flush is packed to the gunnels with treasured friends. Meyer is on the sun deck. Travis and his current girlfriend, Briney, have the following exchange while sharing a sun pad on the bow:
“What are all these people doing in our home, sweetheart?”she asks drowsily.
“We invited them all, every one”
Spade, Marlowe, and Archer are forever on their own. McGee is not, and if you’re not on your own, you’re not hard-boiled. It’s as simple as that.
Of course, I have a theory about how I would categorize McGee, but I’ve got to talk about the women and this is far too big a topic. It deserves its own post—or maybe more than one.