McGee Wannabes: Charley Memminger’s Aloha, Lady Blue

One of the more recent Trav wannabes is Charley Memminger’s Stryker McBride. He’s a retired crime reporter who was shot by a crooked cop and earned himself a big legal settlement—with which he bought a $300k houseboat called the Travis McGee. (Memminger is nothing if not a McGee name-dropper. Trav is liberally mentioned in his promo material. He also occasionally lards his text with one of JDM’s color book titles; I caught a couple.)

And while Stryker may not be at the highest level of McGee wannabes—very few are—he’s an entertaining sleuth in a very attractive tropical setting. That would be Oahu and Memminger—a resident—knows all things Hawaiian, especially the history of organized crime. Thus, lots of backstory and info dump. But Memminger, an old newspaper hand, is a good storyteller, and all that history and culture doesn’t intrude too much on the tale. For this first book in the series it may even be necessary.

The plot revolves around Chinese/Hawaiian gangsters and nefarious activities that happened way back in the days after 12-7-41. A woman whom Stryker had the hots for in high school asks him to investigate the apparent drowning death of her grandfather in an improbable taro paddy in a very ritzy neighborhood. Only the death isn’t what it seemed. When a Hong Kong thug creams Stryker, he’s all in.

The plot is too Byzantine to try to reprise briefly, but it makes for an entertaining yarn—complete with crime lords, secret societies, biological weapons, marina life, sexy MEs, and intoxicating island atmosphere. I would enjoy reading more and hope that Memminger’s series outlives the initial two-book contract.

But I perhaps get ahead of myself. Almost two years after the first book appeared, there is still no sign of the second.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Urban Apocalypse

By Kevin Comer

In Nightmare in Pink (1964), Travis McGee shares two visions of urban apocalypse. He has gone to NYC at the request of a friend, Mike Gibson. Mike and Travis served together in Korea. Mike suffered devastating wounds and has been confined to a hospital, blind, unable to care for himself, and barely hanging onto life ever since. It could have been Trav. He and Mike had wagered for a 36 hour pass and Mike lost—big time.

Mike’s younger sister, Nina, lives in NYC. He’s worried about her. Nina’s fiancé, Howard Plummer, has been murdered and Mike senses she’s not telling him everything. He wants McGee to look into it. Travis can’t say no.

Seeking more information about the circumstances of the murder, Travis looks up the detective in charge of the investigation. The convincingly competent young Detective Sergeant Thomas Rassko explains that it looks like a mugging gone bad and he isn’t very sanguine about the prospects for solving the case. There just isn’t much to go on. Howard simply appears to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I thanked him for giving me so much time. I went out into the bright beautiful October day and walked slowly and thoughtfully back toward midtown. It was just past noon and the offices were beginning to flood the streets with a warm hurrying flow of girls. A burly man, in more of a hurry than I was, bumped into me and thrust me into a tall girl. They both whirled and snarled at me.

New York is where it is going to begin, I think. You can see it coming. The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts. Until locust population reaches a certain density, they all act like any grasshoppers. When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world. We’re nearing a critical point. One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. But this time they won’t snarl and go on. They will stop and stare and then leap at each others’ throats in a dreadful silence. The infection will spread outward from that point. Old ladies will crack skulls with their deadly handbags. Cars will plunge down the crowded sidewalks. Drivers will be torn out of their cars and stomped. It will spread to all the huge cities of the world, and by dawn of the next day there will be a horrid silence of sprawled bodies and tumbled vehicles, gutted buildings and a few wisps of smoke. And through that silence will prowl a few, a very few of the most powerful ones, ragged and bloody, slowly tracking each other down.

The horrific bleakness of this vision is far beyond the usual wry McGee musing. Dean Koontz and Stephen King are big fans of JDM and you can’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t find inspiration in this passage.

Or perhaps in this one I call “Planet of the Poodles.” McGee’s investigation expands to include Charlie Armister, the man whose inherited tens of millions Howard Plummer helped to manage. Charlie has been going through some changes. He had a breakdown and, following therapy at a private clinic, left his wife, choosing to share a midtown apartment with his attorney and secretary. Subsequently, Charlie’s money began being being moved around in a way that concerned the late Mr. Plummer. His suspicions aroused, McGee consults with old friend and NYC nabob, Constance Trimble Thatcher, who suggests it might be a good idea to talk to Charlie’s sister-in-law, Terry Drummond:

I discovered that Mrs. Drummond was in residence at the Plaza, but not in on this early Friday evening, so I took a taxi over to East 53rd. Nina was not home from the office. I whisked the soot off the wall by the entrance steps and sat and waited for her, and watched the office people bring their anxious dogs out. You could almost hear the dogs sigh as they reached the handiest pole. There was a preponderance of poodles.

This is the most desperate breed there is. They are just a little too bright for the servile role of dogdom. So their loneliness is a little more excruciating, their welcomes more frantic, their desire to please a little more intense. They seem to think that if they could just do everything right, they wouldn’t have to be locked up in the silence—pacing, sleeping, brooding, enduring the swollen bladder. That’s what they try to talk about. One day there will appear a super-poodle, one almost as bright as the most stupid alley cat, and he will figure it out. He will suddenly realize that his loneliness is merely a by-product of his being used to ease the loneliness of his Owner. He’ll tell the others. He’ll leave messages. And some dark night they’ll all start chewing throats.

Pink is replete with drug-fueled nightmares, but Travis was not hallucinating when he had these visions of urban apocalypse. As I’ve previously established, it is difficult to delineate a sharp line between McGee and JDM. They aren’t entirely separate beings. Travis can be a medium for the thoughts and concerns of JDM. In the case of these dark reflections, T. McGee could be channelling JDM’s urban anxieties.

In a letter to his attorney, Don Farber, who had suggested dinner during an upcoming trip to NYC, JDM confessed his nerves couldn’t handle it. He wrote:

“Look, my good friend, I must herewith pledge you to a kind of secrecy that falls quite outside the client-attorney relationship. Perhaps I am being a bit stalwart about it, but I would far rather maintain the big stalwart image and depend upon a lot of shifty foot-work than come out with the truth of the matter. So here is the truth … The New York scene, for many and obvious reasons, places a large strain upon me, but I do not respond to it as I should. For several years now it has been imperative that I use up my days there in the necessary ways, run them into the cocktail hour, and then quit all socializing scenes. I have to refill the lamps. Otherwise I arrive at an unpleasant condition called (by me) the Whips and Jingles. The medics call it latent acute anxiety syndrome, and it is nothing I can talk or reason myself out of. And, believe me, nothing I want to take the risk of arousing. It cuts a trip damn short. So be a good fellow and have a daytime drink with me, and keep my dreary little secret from those whom I wish to think I am impregnable, insurmountable, and indefatigable.”

Were I to receive a letter like this, I might suspect an elaborate excuse was being made. However, Travis’ visions of urban apocalypse in Pink suggest perhaps JDM really did get the whips and jingles in the urban jungle. It seems plausible to me. My daughter lives in Los Angeles.

The Trap of Solid Gold

It’s been gratifying that Travis McGee & Me is well into its seventh year and now pops up on the first Google page for any search for “Travis McGee.” But there are a couple of other McGee blogs out there that any fans of the Bahia Mar boat bum ought to check out, as well. I’m sure some of you know about them, but for those who don’t, here’s the info:

Cal Branche’s JDM Homepage is the gold standard and has been for a long time.

But not too long ago I stumbled across another that may be the most comprehensive JDM/McGee website out there. And it only operated for two years!

The Trap of Solid Gold was created by Steve Scott in late 2009 and terminated in late 2011. Over that period Steve put out over 250 blog posts on JDM, his novels, and his stories. I’ve only scratched the surface of Steve’s blog, but I can tell you that there’s a treasure trove of info in here for JDM fans. The very last post is about JDM’s last hospital stay in Milwaukee in 1986–touching and very sad.

The Trap of Solid Gold is an impressive achievement, and I can understand why, after all that work, Steve had perhaps had enough. I believe the reason he stopped was attributed to family responsibilities.

If any of you know of any other cool JDM and/or McGee blogs, leave a comment.

Update 10-2-14: Just in the past few weeks Steve Scott has revived his JDM blog and is now open for business once again. Be sure to check it out.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & Tennis

By Kevin Comer

I know tennis. I’m a player and serious student of the game. I watch hundreds of hours of Tennis Channel and ESPN2 throughout the year. My wife and I go to Indian Wells in Southern California every spring to see the top international players perform. I’m a Federer guy; she likes Rafa. We both love Agnieska Radwanska, although we’d be happy to see the women’s game evolving as quickly as the men’s. Tennis has never been better and it gets better every year.

From the perspective of it takes one to know one, I can tell you with some certainty: JDM played tennis and was a student of the game. I know this because he gave Travis McGee a knowledgable eye.

In Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965), Travis is helping his friend, Arthur Wilkerson, recover his net worth from a gang of grifters when he grifts his own way into the strangely named Royal Palm Bath Club. He’s looking for Vivian and Crane Watts. He spies a soused Crane playing cards, and heads for the tennis courts in search of Vivian. He finds her on the brink of defeat to a young man who, he reckons, is ten years younger than her maybe twenty-nine. The match has drawn a small crowd. Joining the throng, McGee observes of Vivian:

As with all natural athletes, she had an economy of motion which created its own grace.

This is true of all athletes, but tennis players especially. A tennis player has to move like a jungle cat, with the jungle cat’s ability to land on their feet, balanced and ready to spring or swing.

McGee admires Viv’s footwork:

Her brown and solid legs had a good spring, bringing her back into a balanced readiness after each stroke, the way a good boxer moves.

Like boxing, tennis is played on the balls of the feet, with knees slightly flexed. Remaining balanced is essential. A good player has a kind of bounce in rhythm with the ball, always landing perched on their toes in readiness to react to the next shot just like Vivian. If you’d like to see an example of great footwork in a female player, watch rising star Simona Halep.

Travis next turns his attention to Vivian’s opponent:

The boy was a scrambler, going after everything, returning shots it didnt seem plausible he could reach, lobbing them high enough to give him time to get back for the smash, and preventing her from coming up to the net to put them away.

The kid on the other side of the net is quick and gets to every ball, but he is also playing a good tactical defense. When he is driven off the court, he hits the ball back high and deep to buy himself time to recover to a defensive position and to keep Vivian from establishing positional advantage in her forecourt. When it comes to defending, nobody has ever been better than Rafael Nadal.

Travis asks a fellow onlooker for the score:

“Six-three to Viv, then seven-five to Dave. Now hes got her nine-eight.”

JDM tells a quite story with this score line. This is a battle. Viv crushed Dave in the first set–breaking his serve twice –but after losing serve in the last game of the first set, Dave’s slowly closed the gap as Viv has tired. Viv first faltered at 5 all in the 2nd set, allowing Dave to take the set by holding serve in game 12. Viv regrouped and stayed tough, but now Dave is serving for the match after she lost her service again at 8 all in the 3rd and deciding set.

In 1965, there was no tie-break rule. All sets had to be won by 2 or more games. The seven point tie-breaker was introduced at the US Open in 1970. Since then, a tie-breaker is played whenever the score reaches 6 games all, except when playing a deciding set at the Wimbledon, French Open, and Australian Open tournaments. At Wimbledon in 2010, John Isner won his first round match against Nicolas Mahut with a score of 70-68 in the 5th set. The match took 3 days.

McGee describes each point of the final game:

He had a big serve and she waited well back, handled it firmly, moved to center court and drove his ground stroke right back at his ankles. He aced her, on his next serve. Then on the next serve he tried to come to the net and she made a beautiful passing shot. Her return of his next serve floated and he let it go out by six inches. He took the advantage on another service ace. At match point, she again tried the passing shot as he moved up quickly, but the ball slapped the tape and, to the accompaniment of a concerted partisan groan, fell into her court.

Sadly, the tight contest ends with an error. Although Viv got up 15-30, Dave’s serve is just too much for her this deep in the match. She only gets two of six serves back in play. But the reaction of the crowd tells us a lot about poor, doomed Vivian Watts.

In The Empty Copper Sea (1978), Travis watches another tennis match on the courts adjacent to the hotel where he and Meyer are ensconced as they attempt to clear professional skipper Van Harder of negligence in the death of his employer.

In the nearest one, two girls in pastel tennis dresses engaged in deadly combat. They looked to be about fifteen. The one on the right, a blonde in pale salmon, had a lovely style, drifting with dance steps to the right place, setting, stroking, following through. The one on the left, in pale aqua, was shorter and stockier, with cropped dark curly hair. She was a scrambler. She was often out of position. She made improbable saves. She went to the net when she shouldnt have but managed to guess right a lot of times about where the passing shot should be. When she hit it on the wood , it tended to drop in. She tried for shots that were beyond her abilities—long-range drop shots, topspin lobs—and made them pay off just often enough. She was sweaty and grim. She fell and bounded up. They had a gallery of about a dozen people. One point went on and on and on. Had it been a faster surface, the little dark-haired one couldnt have beaten the blonde. Finally she went racing to the net after an angled return of second serve. The blonde whipped it right at her, apparently trying to drive it right through her. But in desperate reflex she got the racket in the way. The ball turned the racket and rebounded, touched the tape, and fell in for the point, and the people clapped and whistled.

We still call it hitting the wood when the ball hits the frame, even though wood racquets vanished from the game in the early 1980s. Today racquets are made of space age composite materials. They’re lighter, stronger, and the head sizes are larger. When the legendary Björn Borg attempted to return to professional tennis in the early 1990s, after retiring from the game in 1982, he was still playing with his trademark wooden racquet. He didn’t win a match.

Beyond these descriptions of tennis contests, there are frequent references to tennis and the attributes of tennis players throughout the series. For instance, the villain in A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971) is a “superior tennis player [whose] … shapely, powerful legs with their long muscle structure … had kept their spring and bounce through the long sets of tennis.” And the attorney for Meyer’s murdered niece in Cinnamon Skin (1982) has “the tendoned forearms of the tennis buff.” My own right forearm is considerably larger than the left.

Clearly, JDM understood the game. He couldn’t have described those matches as cogently as he does without playing and thinking about tennis. His grasp of tennis isn’t all that surprising. He moved to Sarasota, Florida in 1949 at the age of 33, and exposure to serious tennis would have been darn near inescapable. Florida, along with California, has always been a hot bed of the game. Many significant players, such as Chris Evert, have come out of Florida. Even today, most professional players who live and train in the U.S. are to be found in Florida. The state has the right weather—and tax policies.