Guest Post: Travis McGee & the TV Series

By Kevin Comer

Okay, I admit the title of this essay is somewhat deceptive. There never was a TV series based on Travis McGee. And T. McGee’s absence from the small screen was no accident.

JDM rebuffed several proposals—and the money attached—to create a Travis McGee television series. In a letter to his friend, comedian Dan Rowan, JDM recounts how one frustrated producer had spoken to his agent about “the difficulty of finding the right approach to a writer who doesn’t believe in television.”

JDM begged to differ. He believes in television, just not for McGee, he explains to Rowan: “I believe in it. One per cent of it is very very good …. And 99 per cent …is schlock. I just don’t want Trav to undergo that simplistifying (new word!!) change which the series tube requires, nor do I want the angle of approach wrenched this way and that when the ratings don’t move and everybody starts to get frightened and they start trying this and trying that.”

Even when the proposal for a series included serious money, JDM wouldn’t budge. In a letter to Harry Ackerman, a VP at Screen Gems—and “a rare bird [in Hollywood] …who actually reads books” according to JDM—he wrote: “I said [to a producer] that I would not sell [the television rights] for $10 million on a ten year spread. He looked at me as if I had turned into a Thing from the Great Swamp. Maybe it is quaint in these times not to give a damn about the big money. I just never have and never will.”

JDM didn’t dismiss every TV series as schlock. He enjoyed the Rockford Files (1974-1980). The series featured James Garner playing Jim Rockford, a private eye living in a rusty house trailer perched on blocks in a parking lot adjacent to a Malibu beach. JDM wrote in TV Guide: “…good tight dialogue, good pictorials, and a strong emotional evolvement keep the story afloat. And it is heartening to a book writer to note the success of the series that most nearly fulfills our scriveners’ standards.”

So JDM didn’t believe it would be impossible to build an acceptable TV series around McGee. He was primarily concerned with maintaining the value of Travis McGee in book form. His letter to Dan Rowan continues: “The McGee books are to keep me in boats and baubles during my declining years, and I have said to those who would have him on the TV screen that it isn’t very likely right now that any huge swarm of people would run to their favorite newsstand and snap up new novels featuring Ben Casey. Or Sgt. Bilko.”

There never was a TV series because JDM was determined to keep Travis McGee off the tube, not because Hollywood didn’t try. That’s okay with me. I just finished a two year project of watching all 123 Rockford episodes on Netflix and I’d never even be tempted to buy a Rockford book, if such a thing exists, while I would absolutely run to my local newsstand to snap up a new novel featuring Travis McGee.

Guest Post: The Other JDM – Border Town Girl

The Book that Should Have Been Called Linda

By Kevin Comer

I picked up JDM’s Border Town Girl because I thought it would provide an opportunity to leaven a review with facts about JDM’s association with Mexico and how it found its way into his fiction. You might recall Travis spends time in Mexico in A Deadly Shade of Gold, Dress Her in Indigo, Cinnamon Skin, and The Lonely Silver Rain. But I discovered Border Town Girl isn’t the right vehicle for revealing JDM’s Mexico. In fact, Border Town Girl isn’t what I expected it to be at all. Happily, in some ways, it is more than I expected. I’m beginning to wonder if I should ever start with a plan.

Border Town Girl, published by Gold Medal Books in 1956, is similar to an analog era 45 RPM Single. It has an A side and a B side. The book takes its title from the A side, which consists of a novella originally published as “Five-Star Fugitive”pseudonymously in the July 1950 issue of Dime Detective, but here re-titled “Border Town Girl.” This is one of the last pieces JDM did for the pulps and is true to its roots.

The bonus title on the B side is where I found unexpected gold: Pulpy “Border Town Girl” is followed by the equally long, sensational original novella, “Linda,” one of the best works of JDM’s pre-McGee fiction I’ve read so far.

The contrast between these two novellas is striking. Suppose, in a fit of whimsy, you bought an installment of the 1940s Michael Shayne film series starring the inimitable Lloyd Nolan on DVD and discovered, to your surprise, the Billy Wilder film noir classic Double Indemnity was included as a bonus. That’s sort of what “Border Town Girl” is like.

Which isn’t to say the novella “Border Town Girl”isn’t good fun, especially when you keep in mind that this story was first published in a magazine that cost a dime. The readers were certainly getting more than their money’s worth.

“Border Town Girl”features a man who’s hit rock bottom and a gangster moll—strangers to each other—who find themselves traveling their separate roads to redemption together. There are brutal fights, bloody murders, G-men, heroics, cars racing through the dark, and a slightly cheesy beast-in-the-night, double-dealing mob enforcer, who would be at home in a Dean Koontz novel. It’s a hard-boiled ripping yarn.

“Linda,” though, is an elegant noir-fiction tour de force. JDM shows us what he can do when everything clicks. This is a story where the character of the protagonist is central to the narrative, not the action.

Clueless, mild-mannered introvert, Paul Cowley, reveals himself as he tells us what’s been going on. His tale is colored by his retiring personality. Wishful thinking has generally made an idiot out of him where his wife is concerned. He practices little self-deceptions. He rationalizes. He turns a blind eye. At times, we readers get a little bit ahead of Paul. But when the shit hits the fan, we’re as shocked as he is.

For the past nine years, Paul has been married to his high school dream girl, Linda. A girl, he confesses, so out of his league that he’d have rather cut off his own hand than try to speak to her in high school. Years later, a week out of the army, he ran into her on the street and said hello.

She looked at me blankly. I told her who I was and how I’d been in high school with her. We went into a place and had coffee. Then I saw she didn’t look good at all…It was a pretty tragic story she told me.

…What had happened to her had just taken the heart out of her, and it made me feel bad to see the way she was. I guess what I did was pick her up and dust her off and put the heart back in her.

Savvy readers are pretty sure Paul heard a load of crap from Linda. Starry-eyed Paul heard only what he wants to hear.

Paul begins his tale by explaining that Linda began nagging him around the beginning of the year about taking their vacation in the fall. She wants to go to Florida with another couple, the Jeffries, whom they’ve been seeing a lot of since Christmas. Paul is reluctant. He’s made other plans, but hasn’t dared tell Linda since she’s gotten this bee in her bonnet about Florida. He’s concerned about money and, truth be told, he’d rather stay home altogether. He isn’t so sure about vacationing with the Jeffries, either.

We saw a lot of each other, but there was always a reserve. Nobody ever seemed to let their hair down all the way. Maybe some of that was my fault. I have two or three close friends, and a lot of people I just happen to know. I’ve always been quiet.

Paul also has well-founded concerns about other men. At first, big, handsome, successful Jeff Jeffries had gotten Paul’s antenna up, but he’d decided Jeff was on the up and up.

When you’re married to a woman like Linda, you develop a sort of sixth sense for those jokers who are on the make.

…I watched Jeff pretty closely, worrying a little bit, because if anybody had a chance of making out, that Jeff Jeffries certainly would. But I could see it was all right. They kidded around a lot, with him making a burlesque pass at her now and then, but I could see it was all in fun. And he was very loving with Stella, his wife, holding her hand whenever he could, and kissing her on the temple when they danced together at the club and that sort of thing.

Linda is a handful, especially for a guy like Paul. Arguing with her isn’t likely to change her mind. They don’t often see eye to eye. They don’t share the same values. Keeping her happy is a challenge. There are red flags everywhere.

Linda never thought or talked about money except when we didn’t have enough for something she wanted to do or wanted to buy, and then she had plenty to say.

It’s hard for a man to assess his own marriage. He cannot say if it is good or bad. Maybe no marriage is entirely good or bad. I know only that after that first year there was strain between us. Linda wanted a life that I didn’t want…We worked out a compromise. She lived my way, and when we could afford it, she would take a trip, usually to Chicago. That seemed to ease her nervous tension.

Sometimes out of irritation, she would say cruel things to me, calling me a nonentity, a zero, a statistic. But I understood, or thought I did. She is an earthy, hot-blooded woman, and our life was pretty quiet…

Paul had hoped the idea of going to Florida with the Jeffries would just blow over. But there’s no stopping Linda. She’ll get her way.

But Linda kept harping on it. Now, of course, I know why she kept after me the way she did. I know the horror that lived in the back of her mind all those months she was cooing and wheedling. Now that it’s too late, I can look back and see just how carefully it was all arranged.

I’m going to let you find out what happens on a lonely stretch of Florida beach on your own. Take it from me, Paul is going to have a hell of a time on this vacation.

JDM on the Creation of Travis McGee

In the course of his research about Travis McGee and his place in noir fiction, guest blogger Kevin Comer uncovered an engrossing article that JDM wrote for The Writer  just months after McGee took his first bow in May of 1964. JDM recounts the arduous process of getting to the McGee we know and love. What’s fascinating is that, at that point in time, the author didn’t know if his great series character would be a success.

“I am keeping an eye on McGee,” he wrote, “and checking up on his progress. What if he doesn’t make it out there? At least I shall be able to stop wondering if it was wise to attempt a series… No matter what I write from now on, McGee will, in one limited sense, be staring over my shoulder, pleasantly skeptical, waiting for the times when I try to make my fictional people do things inconsistent with their identities, and suddenly find them dragging their feet. His smile will be ironic.”

To view the PDF of “How to Live with A HERO” just click here: TW How to Live with a Hero

JDM’s article was originally published in The Writer in 1964 and was reprinted in the July 2008 issue. It’s offered here at no cost with the magazine’s permission. And thanks again to Kevin, for his McGee/noir posts and finding this little gem.

And be sure to check out The Writer website. It’s full of great information for writers and readers alike.

Reviving Defunct Fictional Heroes, Part 2

A while ago I wrote a little post about an FT article on literary estates reviving their defunct fictional characters. And I did a brief item on Anne Hillerman’s take on her dad’s great characters, Chee and Leaphorn.

One of the very biggest of such characters is about to enjoy a resurrection later this summer, and I came across an article about him in the Daily Mail (absolutely the best gossip source I know of). I’m speaking of Hercule Poirot, he of zee leetle gray cells. The author, Sophie Hannah, very sensibly sets the story early in the Belgian sleuth’s career.

I know that some readers here are fine with JDM’s estate forbidding McGee’s revival. But I have to admit that I wouldn’t mind it. Would it be hard to pull off? Would the first book have to meet a very high threshold? Sure, absolutely. But–if they found a very good writer–it would be worth a shot.

To read the Daily Mail piece on Poirot, just click here.

Guest Post: The Other JDM – Weep for Me

The noir fiction novel JDM wanted forgotten.

By Kevin Comer

Weep for Me, published by Gold Medal Books in 1951, was an early foray by JDM into noir fiction; a foray JDM so regretted that he opposed its reprinting, hoping it would “die quietly in the back of used paperback book nooks.” JDM summed up the reasons for his attitude in this way: “It’s really quite a bad book …imitation James M. Cain …with some gratuitous and unmotivated scenes.”

Noir fiction is a sub-genre of hard-boiled fiction. The protagonist is a perpetrator, suspect, or victim, who may be self-destructive or psychopathic. James M. Cain was one of the first to popularize the form with novels such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Double Indemnity (1943). The narrative arcs of the former and Weep for Me are more or less identical: Hitherto honest man meets bad, conniving woman; she’s so hot, he can’t help himself; things go from bad to worse.

In Weep for Me, the first person protagonist, Kyle Cameron, is a bank teller on the verge of marriage to his longtime sweetheart when he meets femme fatale Emily Rudolph, a new employee at First Citizens’ National Bank of Thrace, New York. From the moment he first hears Emily’s voice when phoning the accounting department, he is hooked and his self-destructive slide into crime begins.

Emily soon has Kyle wrapped around her little finger. He’s thrown over his fiancée and he and Emily are stealing money from the bank in a scheme that involves his ability to cash forged checks and her keeping the accounts. They know they can only get away with this for a short time and, after filling a suitcase with $250,000, they go on the lam. They have a plan to drive to Mexico City where Emily says she knows of a man who can get them to Argentina. Needless to say, things do not go as planned. Emily can’t be trusted, and they both have seriously underestimated the dangers they’ll face.

I found several positive reviews of this book, contradicting JDM’s own assessment, and as I read it there were times when I thought it was okay. The plot is decent, up until the ending. The story has its moments. But when I put the book down, I had to agree with JDM: This is not a good book. It’s an overheated melodrama with an atrocious ending, and at times the prose is as purple as a bruise.

JDM was no Dickens-like prodigy. He was a working writer, sitting at his typewriter all day, every day pounding out the work. In at least one interview, JDM stated he’d had “the chance to earn while learning.” There is ample evidence that JDM would have readily acknowledged that he was learning throughout his career and that he seldom considered himself entirely successful in achieving his goals for a specific story. In fact, Ed Gorman—author of the Sam McCain series among others, who interviewed JDM three times—recalls JDM telling him that he often thought of his books in terms of percentages. He’d been 70% successful with this one; 80% with that one.

When viewed from this perspective, even work like Weep for Me, that JDM deemed an utter failure and best forgotten, provides insight into JDM’s process and development as a writer. As we all know, his best writing was still ahead of him when Weep for Me was published.