By the time he published his first Travis McGee adventure in 1964, John D. MacDonald (JDM) had written dozens of novels and scores of short stories. He populated them with relatively ordinary people who found themselves caught in terrible binds—ensnared by their own weaknesses or the traps that others set for them. Sex, power, greed, corruption, venality, egotism, hatred, heroism, selflessness, stupidity, nobility and evil itself course powerfully through JDM’s tales. Just as Georges Simenon—creator of the peerless Maigret series—understood what was ticking away beneath the carapace of the human skull, so did JDM. In fact, I would cast JDM as America’s own Simenon—with his deep insight into the psychology of people under extreme pressure.
So when Fawcett Books came to JDM in the early 1960s with the proposal to create a series based on a tough-guy, PI-type character, he was ready go. He had tested several McGee-like protagonists in earlier novels and wasn’t about to mimic the glib tough guys of less capable writers (e.g., the likes of Brett Halliday and Richard Prather, whom he replaced in the Fawcett stable); or those inscrutable literary shamuses Sam Spade (Hammett), Philip Marlowe (Chandler) and Lew Archer (Ross MacDonald). Travis McGee was about to raise the bar on crime fiction to its highest level ever. JDM’s 21 McGee stories would go beyond anything the hard-boiled fiction world had seen before, and serve as the template for the best detective/PI series of the 1970s and beyond—such as Spenser and V. I. Warshawski, Elvis Cole and Doc Ford. Not that any of those pretenders ever lived up to the boat bum from Ft. Lauderdale.
With philosopher/knight errant McGee, every case was personal. Whether he sortied out from the Busted Flush (his houseboat home) to defend or avenge a friend—or to undertake a salvage project for his fifty percent take—he brought with him his sense of justice. Righting the balance of things was always important to McGee.
For someone who perennially poked his nose into dangerous places, he had the complete toolkit: Crafty, muscular fighting skills; a sort of rough-hewn charm and sexiness; sharp instincts and reflexes; an intellect capable of untangling thorny problems; a sound understanding of human psychology; the classic hard-boiled PI conscience; the deceptiveness of a good con man; knowledge of the ways of commerce and politics; and an ability to recruit good people to the cause.
Above all, McGee brought a questing personal outlook. More insistently than almost any other protagonist in mystery and suspense, he shared his thoughts on the ways that the world was going—typically, to hell in a hand basket. (McGee died in 1986 with his creator, and I think he would be amazed that we aren’t more screwed up than we are at this point.) His ruminations on love, mortality and the fate of American society are some of the most heartfelt and insightful in all of genre fiction. Decades before most of us were aware of them, McGee reflected on our potential for environmental disaster and the inevitability of terrorism. He laid it all out for you, spoke it as he saw it, sometimes at excessive length. His 21 adventures constitute one of the under-appreciated treasures of 20th century American literature.
This blog will be my book-by-book personal take on a character and a writer who have become very important to me, ever since a mystery-writing teacher put me on to McGee 20 years ago. Every summer I read four or five McGees, usually in my backyard, sitting under the shade of a very old, very large elm. And however many times I’ve read Blue or Grey or Scarlet, I always treasure my time hanging with Trav and (in middle and later books) his sidekick Meyer. These entries will be partly book reports, partly my opinions on the best and worst of McGee. They may contain spoilers. But such revelations will be noted up front for McGee virgins who don’t want the beans spilled prematurely. Over the next four or five years I plan to write down my impressions of each book.
Happily, every one of the 21 McGees is still in print. You can get them new through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, or any retail bookstore. And because millions of copies of JDM’s books have adorned book racks since the 1950s, the McGees and his 50 other paperback novels are often available in used bookstores and online for far less than the usual eight-buck cost of a new paperback today. I found many of mine for a buck each, some for as low as 25 cents.
Do you need to begin at the beginning, with 1964’s The Deep Blue Good-By? I didn’t, the first time through. But if you’re methodical about such things, maybe it’s a good idea. I think it’s safe to say that if Blue strikes a chord with you, you’ll like what follows. Otherwise, my advice is to just pick a color—all McGee titles feature colors—from the early or middle books. That would include Blue, Pink, Purple, Red, Gold, Orange, Amber, Yellow, Gray, Brown, Indigo, Lavender, Tan or Scarlet. My particular favorites in that group are Blue, Gray and Lavender. Then sit down and be transported to the heart of the 1960s, to Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
D. R. Martin