Guest Post: Travis McGee & Safe Driving

miss-agnes

By Kevin Comer

Detroit has never even caught up with the 1923 Rolls, to say nothing of the ones of Miss Agnes’s vintage.

— grousing in The Turquoise Lament (1973)

McGee’s ride is no Bond car. Miss Agnes is introduced in the series inaugural, The Deep Blue Good-by (1964):

… I believe she is the only Rolls Royce in America which has been converted into a pickup truck. She is vintage 1936, and apparently some previous owner had some unlikely disaster happen to the upper half of her rear end and solved the problem in an implausible way. She is one of the big ones, and in spite of her brutal surgery retains the family knack of going eighty miles an hour all day long in a kind of ghastly silence. Some other idiot had her repainted a horrid electric blue. When I found her squatting, shame-faced , in the back row of a gigantic car lot, I bought her at once and named her after a teacher I had in the fourth grade whose hair was that same shade of blue.

Miss Agnes may cruise all day at 80, but it takes her a while to get up to speed and just as long to stop, as McGee explains in Pale Gray for Guilt (1968): 

My elderly Rolls pickup, Miss Agnes, was as agile as ever, which meant about 40 seconds from a dead stop to sixty miles an hour. And she had the same reluctance to come to a stop once she was humming along. So she and I were slowly becoming a highway hazard, the narrow shaves getting narrower…

A narrow shave in The Long Lavender Look (1970) proves a bit too much during a late night run down a Florida backroad when a semi-nude woman erupts from the roadside shrubbery:

I wasn’t prepared for the creature of the night that suddenly appeared out of the blackness, heading from left to right, at a headlong run. At eighty, you are covering about a hundred and twenty feet per second. She was perhaps sixty feet in front of the car when I first saw her. So half of one second later, when I last saw her, she was maybe ten inches from the flare of my front right fender, and that ten inches was the product of the first effect of my reaction time. Ten inches of living space instead of that bone-crunching, flesh-smashing thud which, once heard, lingers forever in the part of the mind where echoes live.

And I became very busy with Miss Agnes. She put her back end onto the left shoulder, and then onto the right shoulder. The swinging headlights showed me the road once in a while. I could not risk touching the brake. This was the desperate game of steering with the skid each time, and feeding her a morsel of gas for traction whenever she was coming back into alignment with the highway. I knew I had it whipped, and knew that each swing was less extreme.

Then a rear tire went and I lost her for good. The back end came around and there was a shriek of rubber, crashing of brush, a bright cracking explosion inside my skull, and I was vaguely aware of being underwater, disoriented, tangled in strange objects, and aware of the fact that it was not a very good place to be. I did not feel any alarm. Just a mild distaste, an irritation with my situation.

While McGee dispels suspicions of involvement in the murder of recently paroled Frank Baither, young Ron Hatch pounds out the dings with a rubber mallet, imports rare parts from a Miami dealer, and repaints Miss Agnes a more becoming shade of blue. In the end, she’s as good as new, but no more agile.

In Turquoise, Travis describes the upgrades he’s been compelled to make, despite the near sacrilege of such changes:

I felt that I had violated the integrity of the old Rolls by having her rebuilt to contemporary highway standards. Ever since I had dumped her into a drainage canal to avoid hitting a fleet-footed girl in the night, I had been upgrading all the hidden parts. Now she had the big engine lifted out of a 1972 Mark IV Continental that was totaled. Rebuilding the engine with both stock and custom power assists had meant a new gear train and a new rear end. Then she had more power than the suspension and the brakes could handle. So we installed a suspension out of the biggest Dodge pickup, along with power disc brakes all the way around. Of course I had to change to a twelve-volt system, and put in two heavy-duty batteries and a heavy-duty alternator. After several weird improvisations, we rigged a power steering system that worked well enough. There was enough extra horsepower to borrow some to run a really efficient air-conditioning system…

But unless I had either got rid of her or upped her performance, the traffic was going to kill me…

Fear of being killed in traffic causes McGee to become exasperated with DEA agent Scott Browder in The Lonely Silver Rain (1985):

Browder was a fast driver and not a good driver. He would get too close to a slow-moving vehicle before edging out to take a look down the highway. When he passed he cut in quickly even with nothing approaching and nothing bullying him from behind. The expert driver moves out into the passing lane when he is at least fifteen car lengths from the vehicle he is passing. Then he can move back without haste if it is not a good time to pass. Once by, he makes his angle of return to his lane as long and gradual as is consistent with what is ahead of and behind him. The good driver takes his foot off the gas when there is anything ahead he does not understand. We came to a place where big green branches had been cut and put in the oncoming lane. It was a warning. There was a disabled VW camper with branches in the road behind it as well, a hundred yards and more from the camper. Browder didn’t slow. As we approached at high speed he saw a tanker truck beginning to turn out to pass the camper. It was coming toward us. Browder accelerated and got as far to the right as he could. We brushed the jungle as we sped by the big high bumper of the tanker truck. Browder yelled curses. “Goddamn maniac truck driver!” he hollered.

I said, “You are a rotten driver.” This is like telling someone he has no sense of humor, or that he’s a poor judge of character.

Travis has no such concerns, however, when Meyer is behind the wheel in Cinnamon Skin (1982):

He said I had best not talk to him in the noon-time traffic. I soon saw what he meant. We came whining down the Eastex Parkway at sixty-four miles an hour, because that was the average speed of the dense stampede in which we were enclosed. It is a fact of highway life that each heavily traveled road establishes its own cadence. The great pack of candy-colored compacts, pickups , vans, delivery trucks, taxicabs, and miscellaneous wheeled junk flowed in formation, inches apart, through the gleam, stink, grinding roar, and squinty glitter of a July noontime, through a golden sunshine muted to brass by smog. What the traffic consultants seem unable to comprehend is that heavy traffic makes its own rules because nobody can nip in and pull anybody over to the side without setting up a shock wave that would scream tires and crumple fenders for a mile back down the road. California discovered this first. It is probably a more important discovery than est or redwood hot tubs…

Once you have the concept of the pack making the law, driving the urban interstates is simplified. You maintain just that distance from the vehicle ahead which will give you braking room yet will not invite a car from a neighbor lane to cut in. You pick the center lanes because some of the clowns leaving the big road on the right will start to slow down far too soon. You avoid the left lane when practical because when they have big trouble over there on the other side of the median strip, the jackass who comes bounding over across the strip usually totals somebody in the left lane. When you come up the access strip onto the big road, you make certain that you have reached the average speed of all the traffic before you edge into it. Keep looking way way ahead for trouble, and when you see it put on your flashing emergency lights immediately so that the clown behind you will realize you are soon going to have to start slowing down.

Meyer did well, hunched forward, hands gripping the wheel at ten o’clock and two o’clock.

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