Whenever you run across a JDM novel with a first-person narration that was written prior to 1964, it’s tempting to speculate whether or not this particular protagonist was one of the prototypes for Travis McGee. That’s certainly the case with Where Is Janice Gantry? (1961). In many ways, the pre-echoes of McGee are fairly strong in this novel.
Sam Brice is a husky ex-pro football player. (Check.) He’s living in Florida. (Check.) An ex-girlfriend is in deep trouble, having vanished under mysterious circumstances. (Check.) He’s determined to get to the bottom of things. (Check.) He has a touchy relationship with the local law. (Check.) He has a brainy pal off whom he bounces ideas. (Check.) He sweeps a gorgeous lady right off her feet. (Check.) He’s pretty darned canny and physically capable, even when he’s bound hand and foot with wire and about to be sent to the bottom of the Caribbean. (Check.) He has a nose for shady characters and crooked plots. (Check.)
Where Is Janice Gantry? jumps off the line of scrimmage when an escaped convict from the local area arrives at Sam’s shack up off the beach. He figures the ex-footballer might be sympathetic and wouldn’t turn him in. Sam lets him recuperate then drops him off in town. Out of curiosity, he stays to see what the escapee is up to. The fellow makes a phone call and by and by along comes someone to pick him up—Sam’s old girlfriend, Janice “Sis” Gantry. Sam tries to follow them but runs afoul of a militant (and dangerously competent) version of Barney Fife. That’s the last anyone sees of Sis.
Sam and his brainy pal think the whole affair has something to do with the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Weber living a comfortable, isolated life in a big house near the beach—the very same house burglarized two years earlier by the escaped con. Sam connives to meet the lady of the house on the beach, but happens to encounter her sister instead.
The sister, Peggy, is providentially a gorgeous amalgam of Sam’s ex-wife and Sis. Of course, love at first sight ensues and the two of them become allies in figuring out what Peggy’s sister and “husband” are up to. Through some canny and very dangerous detecting work the pair figure out that Peggy’s “brother-in-law” and some hired thugs probably killed Sis and the escaped convict. Why? It seems “Mr. Weber” paid for his retirement by blackmailing powerful politicians up north, while blackmailing his own “wife” with information that would put her in the electric chair. The lovestruck ex-con was attempting to liberate the woman. Both he and Sis ended up sleeping with the fishes.
With a bit of the clumsiness redolent of the early Travis McGee, Sam Brice stupidly sends Peggy back into the lion’s den and stumbles in there himself. Soon, the two of them and the drunken sister are heading out to sea bound and gagged. The boat will be scuttled, prisoners and all, the bad guys will vanish, and no one will be the wiser. Of course, in the meantime, the thugs have “a fate worse than death” planned for the lovely Peggy. But Sam snaps his wire binding, knocks out Peggy’s would-be ravisher not a moment too soon, and they leap into the waves.
But Sam, in the end, is definitively no Trav.
Would Trav run a little insurance adjusting business? Would Trav propose marriage? Would Trav travel north to get vetted by the bride’s family? Would Trav actually get hitched? Would Trav lovingly caress Peggy’s baby bump and wonder dreamily about their little one’s aquatic proclivities?
Nonetheless, Sam Brice surely was part of the R&D JDM unintentionally did for Travis McGee. And for that we should be grateful.