Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Rust Belt

By Kevin Comer

In 1925, JDM’s father, Eugene, accepted a job as treasurer with the Savage Arms Company in Utica, New York. This is where JDM lived — except brief sojourns at the University of Pennsylvania and in New York City — until 1938, when he departed for Harvard in pursuit of an MBA. When Eugene MacDonald moved his family to Utica, the city was at the center of a vibrant industrial region, and had been for a hundred years.

Utica is located in the Mohawk Valley on the shallowest part of the Mohawk River, which is easily forded. Untold generations of Native Americans had used the locale for trading. In 1773, European immigrants, attracted by the same advantages, established the settlement that would eventually come to be called Utica.

The first section of the Erie Canal, opened in 1819, connected Utica with Rome, New York. The canal reduced transportation costs between Lake Erie and New York City by 95%. Utica began to grow by leaps and bounds. An anonymous traveler noted that by 1829, Utica had become “a really beautiful place . . . [and Utica’s State Street] in no respect inferior to Broadway in New York.”

The slow flow of the Mohawk was insufficient to drive the water powered industrial machinery of the era, but in 1836, the Chenango Canal linked Utica with Binghamton, creating a water route for coal from Northern Pennsylvania. The ready supply of coal allowed manufacturers to make use of the new steam technologies. Utica rapidly became a major hub of textile production. Tool and die manufacturing soon followed. In the early 20th Century, the fledgling electronics industry established operations there and Utica became known as the “Radio Capital of the World.” Waves of immigrants moved into the region, particularly Italians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Utica, and the surrounding region, prospered until the 1950s. Eventually, however, textile production migrated to the American South before leaving our shores entirely, and the electronics and tool and die industries moved to Asia. Utica and its neighbors began to wither. No longer the Radio Capital of the World, Utica became known as “The City that God Forgot.” In the 1980s, a humorous bumper sticker reading “Last One Out of Utica, Please Turn Out The Lights” began appearing on residents’ vehicles. Today, Utica is suffering the same fate as Detroit and a host of other Rust Belt cities.

In Cinnamon Skin (1982), Travis and Meyer travel to Utica in search of the sister of the man they believe is responsible for the death of Meyer’s niece, Norma. Sport fishing enthusiast Norma died when Meyer’s squatty cruiser, The John Maynard Keynes, was blown to smithereens passing the sea buoy outbound from Bahia Mar under the command of hired skipper Hack Jenkins. Initially, they believe Norma, her husband, and Hack are collateral damage in an attempted assassination of Meyer. Minutes after the explosion, the Fort Lauderdale Police received a phone call claiming Meyer has been the target of terrorist ire. Fortunately, Meyer was in Toronto and not aboard.

Meyer is still recovering from his devastating encounter with Dirty Bob in Free Fall in Crimson (1981) and now all of his possessions, as well as his only living relative, have gone to Davy Jones. He doesn’t even have a picture of Norma. The only photograph extant may be one taken from a passing boat moments before the Keynes was reduced to flotsam. A grainy copy has appeared in newspaper accounts of the tragedy. As a favor to his morose friend, Travis tracks down the woman, Mrs. Simmons Davis, who took the snapshot.

Speaking on the phone, Mrs. Davis explains she snapped the photo because “… she remembered being amused at the unusual name on the cruiser, The John Maynard Keynes; she knew that any mention of Keynesian economic theory tended to make her husband very cross.” She readily agrees to mail an 8 by 10 copy to McGee. Upon its arrival, Travis quickly discerns the figure they had assumed was Norma’s new husband, Evan Lawrence, was actually a hired mate named Pogo.

Now their effort to track down the man they knew as Evan Lawrence has brought Travis and Meyer to Utica. They’ve checked into an aged Howard Johnson’s and are enjoying the veal piccata at Grimaldi’s, a nearby restaurant located across the street from “…some sort of yellow-brick public housing project.” The drinks and meal have been excellent. Meyer is beginning to show signs of a renewed interest in life. McGee considers his fellow diners:

I looked around at the patrons of the restaurant and the bar. Politicos, many of them young. Lawyers and elected officials and appointees. Some with their wives or girls. It looked to me as if a lot of the city and county business might be transacted right here. They had a lot of energy, these Italianate young men, a feverish gregariousness. I wondered aloud why they seemed so frantic about having a good time.

Travis McGee’s best friend and sagacious economist, Meyer, offers a possible explanation:

Meyer studied the question and finally said, “It’s energy without a productive outlet, I think. Most of these Mohawk Valley cities are dying, have been for years: Albany, Troy, Amsterdam, Utica, Syracuse, Rome. And so they make an industry out of government. State office buildings in the decaying downtowns. A proliferation of committees, surveys, advisory boards, commissions, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, road departments, health care groups… thousands upon thousands of people making a reasonably good living working for city, county, state and federal governments in these dwindling cities, passing the same tax dollars back and forth. I think that man, by instinct, is productive. He wants to make something, a stone ax, a bigger cave, better arrows, whatever. But these bright and energetic men know in their hearts they are not making anything. They use every connection, every contact, every device to stay within reach of public monies. Working within an abstraction is just not a totally honorable way of life. Hence the air of jumpy joy, the backslaps ringing too loudly, compliments too extravagant, toasts too ornate, marriages too brief, lawsuits too long-drawn, obligatory forms too complex and too long. Their city has gone stale and as the light wanes, they dance.”

Following his service in India during WWII, JDM returned to Utica to begin his writing career. This was home, despite the bitterly cold winters and high cost of living that soon had him seeking sunnier, less expensive climes. His wife, Dorothy, wrote in a letter: “… New York state is our home, where our people are, and Piseco [Lake], and our roots, and … we don’t want to be outsiders the rest of our lives.”

Although JDM and Dorothy eventually settled permanently and happily in Florida, the couple never entirely broke their ties with the region. While serving in India, JDM sent home some money he won playing poker. Dorothy used the money to buy land on Piseco Lake, sixty miles northeast of Utica. In 1948, they began construction of a summer camp on the property. During the remaining decades of his life, JDM and Dorothy often spent their summers there.

50th Post: Geoffrey Norman’s Deep End & Blue Light

Blogger’s note: It was about six years ago that I started blogging on Travis McGee’s adventures. I finished with the 21st story last summer, but decided to keep the conversation going a while longer. Of course, guest blogger Kevin Comer has added a lot, as have all of you who have left comments. I’m continuing on with miscellaneous posts on any topics that might relate to McGee and JDM, such as this post on one of the best of the McGee wannabes. Also, I’d like to note that this is the blog’s 50th post.

A few months ago I wrote about Randy Wayne White and his McGee wannabe Doc Ford. Probably the most popular of the McGee-type heroes, Doc regularly appears on the bestseller lists. Many other authors have tried to play in JDM’s ballpark, as well. Here is another, one of the best.

Geoffrey Norman was (and is) a journalist and his hero is Morgan Hunt—Vietnam vet, convicted murderer, ex-con, and private investigator. The four Morgan Hunt books are Sweetwater Ranch, Blue Chipper, Deep End, and Blue Light. I’m going to write a little about the latter two.

Deep End isn’t the greatest mystery/suspense book ever, but I know of few other novels that ring the Travis McGee changes quite so faithfully. (The only two that might be as good or better are, IMO, White’s Captiva and Ten Thousand Islands.)

The set-up is this: A friend of Hunt’s, an ex-Navy SEAL, is in financial straits and has a seriously ill young son. He is unexpectedly the subject of a destructive Coast Guard inspection of his dive boat. There’s a chance the Coast Guard was tipped that Phil Garvey was smuggling drugs. Which is slander, totally unwarranted, as the guy’s a boy scout, perfectly clean. Hunt and his attorney employer, Nat Semmes, manage to identify the slanderer—a pissed-off dive student of Garvey’s who is suing him. An attorney himself, this guy gets his upbraiding and it costs him dearly.

The first time I read Deep End, back in ’99, I was thinking at this point in the story that this sure isn’t much of an adventure. The hero helps his friend avoid a nasty lawsuit and gets to show up a tin-pot Coast Guard officer. Is that all there is?

But then the tale takes a sharp turn, as Garvey gets pulled into some kind of treasure hunt—a way to fix his money troubles in a big hurry. This scheme turns out to have significant connections to Garvey’s troubles in the first part of the book.

Garvey goes missing and it’s time for Hunt to step up to a bout of big-time sleuthing—including some incredible deep-water dives. The stakes go up considerably and it becomes apparent that Garvey has gotten involved with some dangerous heavy hitters. Hunt is desperate to find and save his friend, and reunite him with his wife and sick kid. You will see a lot of our favorite knight in rusted armor in this first-person narrator. The lengths he goes to in his attempt to help the wife and kid are McGee-like in their generosity and passion. These qualities, and the Florida setting, make it a first-class McGee substitute.

Blue Light, though, isn’t really a McGee-type story. This is a straight P. I. plotline that Trav would never get involved in. But it’s very well written, a compelling read. Oddly enough, this fourth and final tale in the Morgan Hunt series was never published in the US–as far as I can tell–but it was issued in the UK.

In Blue Light—a reference to the look in Stonewall Jackson’s eyes in the midst of battle, or the gaze of any fanatic Southerner—Hunt is sent by Semmes to investigate allegations of rape against a sitting US senator. It’s not at all clear what Semmes’ interest in the case is, but Hunt works for him and begins turning over the rocks. First order of business is to find the woman that the politician supposedly attacked. When he does, Hunt becomes convinced that she’s telling the truth and that the senator is a secret, monstrous predator of young women. Hunt’s detecting across Florida and DC turns up more similar cases.

It turns out that Semmes’ interest in the case derives from his desire to be the special prosecutor of the senator, not his defense counsel. There are many twists and turns, until the final big one—which I won’t spoil here. But at the end I was feeling a little sad, as Hunt talked over the case with his girlfriend. Not because this was a great story. But because this was a series that deserved to keep going after book number four.

* * *

I think that after you read Deep End and Blue Light—and I do recommend hunting them down; Amazon carries used copies, as does Alibris—you’ll agree that Hunt is very much of the McGee lineage and character. More like McGee than most that I’ve come across.

More important than the plots are the moods and temperament of these books. Hunt, like McGee, is not exactly a loner, but a kind of heroic eccentric and iconoclast; it’s his way or the highway. He is a straight P. I., though, not a vague sort of “salvage consultant.” His many-roomed old house out under the live oaks on a meandering stream, built c. 1900 by a sea captain, is no Busted Flush. But it is definitely a character in the book—a fine HQ for Hunt’s adventures. The Panhandle is no Lauderdale, no Bahia Mar, but it is pure Florida nonetheless; a part of the Deep South unlike Trav’s east coast or Doc Ford’s west coast.

Likewise, Nat Semmes is no Meyer. But his intelligence and canniness and deep experience in the law make him a great partner for Hunt. The local gendarme, a former college football star named Tom Pine, is another fine ally. Hunt’s love life is more along the lines of Spenser than McGee. His ladylove is the Cajun woman Jessie Beaudreaux, and she is a regular presence throughout the books. (I hasten to add that she is a more substantial and interesting character than the insufferable Dr. Susan Silverman.) Though Hunt isn’t the passionate editorialist and philosopher that Trav is, he still offers plenty of commentary along the way.

So why are there only four Morgan Hunt books? I speculate that Geoffrey Norman got a four-book contract and the books didn’t sell enough for the US and UK publishers to warrant a contract renewal. In fact, a UK publisher printed the fourth book, while the US publisher bailed after three. If anyone knows otherwise, let me know.

What’s baffling is why Norman hasn’t at least indie-published these fine yarns on Kindle, Smashwords, Kobo, etc., as e-books; the job can be done for a few hundred bucks per title. I’d ask him myself, but I can’t find any way to contact him through his current gig at The Weekly Standard. If anyone knows the guy, and how to contact him, leave me a note in the comments below. I mean, maybe the books would sell well enough to revive the series. After all, the excellent Laurence Shames has indie-published his classic Key West mob satires as e-books. He published a new one last year and has plans for more.

Hey there, Geoffrey Norman, why don’t you get Morgan Hunt back in the game?



Will Christian Bale Be Travis McGee?

Didn’t see this one coming.

Although the deal is not yet sealed, according to Variety, it looks like Christian Bale is eager to sign on to play our beloved boat bum Travis McGee. Read the story here. James Mangold is officially The Deep Blue Good-by‘s director and worked with Bale on 3:10 from Yuma.

Though I think there are other actors more physically suited to play McGee (Brolin, Evans, Hemsworth were mentioned in my McGee 50th B-day post), Bale knows his way around an action movie. While I wasn’t a fan of Yuma, I’m a big admirer of Rescue Dawn. He had a little role in the Batman movies, too. And, of course, he’s a helluvanactor–a top top top A-lister who can do almost anything. The only thesp who seriously outranks him is Daniel Day Lewis, IMO, and I don’t see Lewis taking up residence on the Busted Flush.

So there you have it. What do y’all think?


A Toast to McGee


This past May was Travis McGee’s 50th birthday. The Deep Blue Good-by appeared as a paperback original about six months after JFK was assassinated. (In fact, JDM had intended to name his hero “Dallas,” but changed his mind after 11-22-63.)

My plan was to find a watering hole on the water somewhere around the Twin Cities in May, and there toast Travis’s 50th. Well, May was wet and cold; and June got away from us entirely. So, finally, earlier this week, I was able to coordinate schedules with Sue and two friends (one of whom is also a Travis fan). We decided on one of the area’s oldest waterside eateries, Lord Fletcher’s on Lake Minnetonka.

There turned out to be a couple of holes in our scheme, however, relating to the martinis we intended to toast with. First, Fletcher’s  pours neither Plymouth nor Boodles (see Kevin Comer’s excellent post just below). Second, they serve their  mixed drinks not in glass. So, you see above what we had to settle for–$9 Tanqueray martinis in plastic.

Obviously, there was no satisfying clink-clink-clink, as I said the toast: To Travis McGee, fifty more years at least! But it was a sincere and hearty toast, at approximately the right time in approximately the right place.

The post-toast McGee discussion focused mainly on who should play our knight in tarnished armor in the prospective movie. Liam Neeson, we decided, was a bit too old. I confessed to being partial to Josh Brolin. One friend rather liked Chris Evans and the other Chris Hemsworth. Sue had no opinions one way or another. We all agreed that DiCaprio dropping out was a good thing. Trav needs to be a big, robust guy.

If any of you regulars have raised a glass (hopefully not plastic) to our hero, be sure to leave a comment here on your toast to McGee.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & Gin

BoodlesBy Kevin Comer

Just as the recipe for the Vesper, James Bond’s signature martini, features Gordon’s gin, imported Plymouth gin was the essential—and nearly sole—ingredient in Travis McGee’s preferred adult beverage. That is until we learn early on in The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974) that the inexorable march of so-called progress has trampled upon one of Travis’ simple pleasures.

In Chapter 3 of Lemon, Travis lets us know something truly dreadful has happened. He and Meyer are aboard the Flush chugging northward up the Atlantic coast of Florida. An old friend, Carrie Mulligan, has been killed in an apparent roadside accident. Travis has his doubts. Two weeks before, a disheveled Carrie had shown up unexpectedly on his gangplank at four in the morning after a six-year absence. She asked him to hold $94,200 in cash for her, with instructions to send the money to her sister if she didn’t return to claim it. He’s to keep ten grand for his trouble. Near certain Carrie’s death was no accident, McGee and Meyer are on their way to the Westway Harbor marina in Bayside, Florida to investigate:

At drinking time I left Meyer at the wheel and went below and broke out the very last bottle of the Plymouth gin which had been bottled in the United Kingdom. All the others were bottled in the U.S. Gin People, it isnt the same. Its still a pretty good gin but it is not a superb, stingingly dry, and lovely gin. The sailor on the label no longer looks staunch and forthright , but merely hokey.

Wouldn’t you know it, another example of excellence spoiled by the self-defeating logic of modern commerce. Travis laments:

There is something self-destructive about Western technology and distribution. Whenever any consumer object is so excellent that it attracts a devoted following, some of the slide rule and computer types come in on their twinkle toes and take over the store, and in a trice they figure out just how far they can cut quality and still increase the market penetration. Their reasoning is that it is idiotic to make and sell a hundred thousand units of something and make a profit of thirty cents a unit, when you can increase advertising, sell five million units, and make a nickel profit a unit. Thus the very good things of the world go down the drain, from honest turkey to honest eggs to honest tomatoes. And gin.

 The bad news about Plymouth may be somewhat tempered for readers by the recipe for McGee’s favorite martini:

I put cracked ice in two sturdy glass mugs, dumped in some sherry and dumped it out again, filled with Plymouth gin, rubbed peel around the rims of mugs, squeezed oil onto surface of gin, threw peel away…

Thereafter, gin takes a back seat to murder and a very close call for Travis as he and Meyer track down Carrie’s killer. The prime ingredient of a great martini doesn’t come up again until Chapter 3 of The Empty Copper Sea (1978).

T. McGee and Meyer are in the hamlet of Timber Bay on the gulf coast of Florida. McGee has undertaken to salvage the reputation of Van Harder, a professional captain stripped of his papers for being in a drunken stupor when his boat ran aground and his employer was lost at sea. Van Harder claims he’s been done dirty and Travis is prone to believe him.

Our beloved duo is exploring Timber Bay when they stop at the Captain’s Galley—where the parking lot is full of local cars—for a bite to eat. No table is available, but the dark bar features captains’ chairs. They settle in and Travis orders drinks:

 …when I asked for the brand of gin we wanted the iced martinis made from, there was no confusion or hesitation. The young man in the sailor suit whipped the blue-labeled square bottle of Boodles out of the rack, poured generously, made us the driest of the dry, glacial and delicious.

 From now on, it’s Boodles for McGee.

I have a theory about McGee and gin. I don’t know about you, but I wonder why Travis insists on gin, much less a particular brand of gin. Wouldn’t beer be a more appropriate drink for a self-described beach bum? Why not chardonnay? Or triple malt scotch? Could it be that JDM was one of those “Gin People” Travis addresses in his Lemon lament?

I like to keep Travis McGee and JDM separate in my mind; two closely related, but quite independent, beings. Of course, it isn’t like that at all. T. McGee is the product of JDM’s design. He touches on the character design in “How to Live with a Hero,” his article describing the birth of the series that appeared in the September 1964 issue of The Writer. He informs readers: “I made [Travis McGee] an iconoclast, a critic of the cheapening aspects of his culture, an unassimilated rebel in an increasingly structured society. I gave him a light, wry, amiable touch…”

But McGee can never be wholly separate from JDM. Travis is like a chimera, an organism made up of a mixture of genetically distinct cells. Some of those cells are aspects of JDM’s character design and others are like the epithelial cells CSI technicians are always finding on the murder weapon in the ubiquitous television police procedurals, bits of JDM that have flaked off and stuck to McGee.

Gin might be one of those bits. JDM was no stranger to the pleasures of an alcoholic beverage. In 1952, he began a decades long custom of attending regular Friday gatherings of Sarasota’s not insignificant—male—writers colony, where they would have lunch and spend the afternoon telling stories, playing liars poker, and drinking. Drinking was part of the writing lifestyle in Sarasota. In fact during the week, writers seeking company would hang large “drinking flags”outside their homes to encourage drop-in guests. Reportedly, JDM, who spent his workdays diligently punishing the keys of his typewriter, was one of the few who did not engage in this practice.

Nonetheless, drinking played a large enough role in JDM’s lifestyle that in 1958 he considered giving up alcohol altogether. His sister was a full blown alcoholic and middle-aged JDM wondered if it wouldn’t be better for his own health to take a break for a couple of years.

He began by quitting entirely for a few months. Then he decided an occasional drink would be okay, if he was more than 50 miles from home. He stuck to that rule for a while, but eventually jettisoned the distance requirement, concluding only his home would be off-limits. It wasn’t long before he dropped rules all together. He later wrote: “Had I decided I still couldn’t handle it after the two years schedule was over, I would have quit forever.”

Based on Travis’ enthusiasm for Plymouth and Boodles and his dismay at the decline in quality when Plymouth began being produced in the U.S., I posit that a taste for imported premium gin might be a trait that isn’t merely an aspect of character design, but a reflection of the JDM’s own preferences. I’d be willing to bet that sometime between 1974 and 1978, Plymouth was replaced by Boodles in JDM’s own liquor cabinet and when he fixed himself a drink, he “put cracked ice in [the glass], dumped in some sherry and dumped it out again, filled with [Plymouth/Boodles] gin, rubbed peel around the [rim of the glass], squeezed oil onto surface of gin, threw peel away…”

There is probably some terribly imposing and intellectual term for trying to identify those bits of JDM that are mingled in McGee’s genome. I don’t know what that term might be. I just call it fun.