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.

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One thought on “Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Urban Apocalypse

  1. Fine post, Kevin, and I always appreciate reading in JDM’s own words.

    Whips and jingles. Wonder where that term came from or since it’s JDM, perhaps it’s his creation?

    Out of the entire series, this is my least favorite.

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