D. R.’s note: Walter Abbott recently wrote up a review of JDM’s Deadly Welcome. And it so happened that I had a review of my own that I wrote a few years ago. So, here are both of them. First, Walter’s view of the 1959 novel.
There are only twenty-one Travis McGee novels. So we all have to make do with substitutes – Randy Wayne White, Carl Hiasson, Charles Knief, Paul Levine. Then there are the other JDM stories and books that will do when one wants to space out re-reading the McGees.
It’s been a good many years since I systematically read all of JDM’s other works, but I still have them stacked in my bookcase, ready for use. Sometimes, you can see in them JDM’s ideas for the characters that are later fully developed in the McGee series.
That night, when he was ready for bed, he carefully inspected the stranger in the bathroom mirror. The sandy hair had been cropped short and the gray at the temples was now practically invisible. The eyes were a pale gray-blue. It was a long face, subtly stamped with the melancholy of lonely tasks. A big nose and stubborn shelving of jaw. A sallow facial structure that took a deep tan and kept it. Twisty scar at the left corner of the broad mouth. A flat, hard, rangy body, with big feet and knobbed wrists and big freckled hand.
The female lead is Betty Larkin.
She was a girl of a good size and considerable prettiness, and she came swinging toward him, moving well in her blue-jean shorts and sleeveless red blouse with white vertical stripes and battered blue topsiders. She had been endowed with a hefty wilderness of coarse blond-red hair, now sun-streaked. She was magnificently tanned, but it was the tan of unthinking habitual exposure rather than a pool-side contrivance of oils and careful estimates of basting time.
Betty, in contrast, seemed o handle herself in a way that, through long habit, seemed to negate her bounties, to underplay her charms. She seemed to have no body awareness, no iota of consciousness of self. So there was bluffness in the way she moved, an asexual indifference. It was a big lovely body, with good shoulders and strong breasts, delicately narrow waist, and long strong shapely legs. Yet when she had sat on the porch she had propped her heels on the railing just inside the screening, and crossed her ankles with neither coyness nor seemingly any awareness that she was good to look upon.
The story is set on the Florida Gulf Coast town of Ramona, south of Sarasota. Doyle was raised there, and was forced to enlist at eighteen after he was framed for a robbery he didn’t commit.
He has spent the past 15 years trying to forget Ramona and his early years there. Going back “home” is the last thing on his mind.
The Pentagon has other ideas for Doyle. They’ve “borrowed” him from State, and as he’s shown to be a clever, resourceful, and persevering fellow, they want him to go back and convince a medically discharged Air Force Colonel Crawford McGann to come back to work on a limited basis.
McGann, it seems, has been deemed to be nearly indispensible to the nation’s missile program. Remember, the story is set in 1959, the hottest part of the Cold War, and during the Space Race with the USSR.
McGann’s wife, Jenna, was Doyle’s very first love interest at age eighteen. And she’s been murdered, with the unsolved case weighing heavily on Col. McGann’s soul.
Doyle is reluctant, but is made an offer he can’t refuse.
Add to the mix Betty Larkin, the younger sister of Jenna. She had a crush on Doyle, back when Doyle and Jenna were briefly seeing each other.
There is the obligatory sadistic cracker sheriff’s deputy who runs that part of the county as he sees fit, and some local types who commiserate with Doyle about his railroading fifteen years ago.
So will our reluctant McGee-type character solve the murder and convince the colonel that his country needs him badly?
John D. MacDonald is rarely in better form than when he occupies himself with the dark and dastardly doings of small-town Florida. These places—back in the ’50s and ’60s, when JDM wrote the vast majority of his novels—were still very much of the Old South. Forget the glitz and glamour of Florida’s tourist coasts. Forget shiny Ft. Lauderdale and Bahia Mar (home of Travis McGee). For JDM these little burgs were dicey places for outsiders, with racism right up front; with corruption and lust and violence always lurking just under a lazy, placid surface. JDM used variants of the setting in a few McGee adventures and in many of his one-off crime novels. Deadly Welcome (1959) is a solid example. Written in third person, this story has a few pre-echoes of McGee.
Alex Doyle grew up in a little coastal town called Ramona Beach, somewhere between Ft. Myers and Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. A “swamp cracker” (poor white trash), Doyle left town at eighteen—too late to see action in WWII. Framed for burglarizing a local store and arrested, he’d been given the choice of a trial and jail, or pleading guilty and a stint in the Army. He chose the latter. He went to college on the GI Bill and then served in the Korean War. By the time Ramona Beach heaves up again, he’s been working as an investigator for the State Department. And someone in the Pentagon needs him to return home for a vital confidential mission: Luring an ailing military scientist living in Ramona Beach out of retirement. Doyle’s history there is the perfect cover.
Of course, you can go home again, but it’s not always fun—especially since you left it 14 years earlier in utter disgrace. Doyle meets with puritan disapproval from some locals. And the deputy sheriff—a Barney Fife from hell, a stock JDM character—gives Doyle an unprovoked, brutal beating. He don’t want the convicted criminal t’ git all uppity, now he’s back in Ramona Beach. But some folks are happy to see the disgraced native son. Chief among them is Betty Larkin, co-owner of the town’s marina. Just a kid when Doyle left, she had had a huge crush on him. Her big sister Jenna—a “goer,” to use Monty Python parlance—had once done the dirty with Doyle, as well as with most every other young buck in town.
But some months prior to Doyle’s arrival, Jenna had been murdered. Coincidentally, she too had vamoosed, then returned home, with an improbable husband. As Doyle knew all too well from his Pentagon briefing, that husband was none other than Colonel Crawford M’Gann, the ailing scientist.
Doyle starts earnestly juggling several balls. Getting reacquainted with—and falling for—Betty, now a splendid, good-hearted young woman. Running the gantlet of the Colonel’s protective sister, in order to make a pitch for a return to duty. Staying out of reach of the toxic deputy. Investigating the unsolved murder of his old one-night stand, the lovely, randy Jenna. And digging through ancient history for the legendary lost treasure of the sisters’ deceased daddy.
Naturally, this concoction of lust and greed explodes in the final pages, as JDM brings together the key plot threads and weaves a dramatically violent conclusion.
Fans of Travis McGee may be a little disappointed in the slightly treacley, sentimental final pages. But you have to remember that this story first appeared (in a truncated version) in a popular women’s magazine of the ’50s—Cosmopolitan, of all places. And authors of popular fiction were required to follow a central dictum of the era: “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes…” Well, you know the rest.
And even JDM was not exempted.