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Discussions and Reviews by Thomas Itty
If you’ve never read a Travis McGee story, I envy you. There are 21 exciting novels in the series, written by John D. MacDonald, waiting for you to discover. I wish I could erase them from my memory and read the whole series again!. Every one of them, from the “The Deep Blue Good-Bye” published in 1964 to the final novel, “The Lonely Silver Rain,” published in 1984, is a masterpiece of mystery, adventure, and dare I say, literature. All the books have the name of a color in the title. I don’t know if it was the intention of the author, but it certainly makes it easy to remember if you’ve read a book or not. The title and colors are also always connected literally or metaphorically to the story. I read my first McGee book, “The Dreadful Lemon Sky, which is actually the 16th book in chronological order, as a teenager. Unfortunately, I could read only a few more of the series for several years because they weren't easily available in Bangalore, where I lived. I finished reading the rest of the books only after coming to the US. I have paperbacks of most of them now in the garage and attic of our house. Some were bought at various airports, while others I got for a dollar at The Book Barn (a Mecca for people who love browsing through used books) about 75-miles from our home in Westchester County, NY.
“The Deep Blue Good-Bye,” is the first book in the series and a reader's introduction to Travis McGee. JDM wastes no time in getting us fully acquainted with him. The third line of the book gives us his address “Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale, Florida.” To many lovers of mystery fiction, it is the second most recognizable fictional address — after 221B Baker St., London, U.K. McGee lives aboard the Busted Flush, a houseboat that he won in a poker game from a millionaire. The third page of the novel gives us a description of his stated occupation of “salvage consultant” by way of Chookie McCall, his dancer friend.
“If X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half.”
With this brief introduction, we are thrown right into the story. Chookie has a friend Cathy Kerr who needs help in recovering something that she believes was stolen from her. After a bit of convincing, Travis agrees to help. Cathy comes over and tells her story. She believes, her father, Sargent David Berry, had hidden something of great value (that he had illicitly obtained during WWII from India and China and smuggled in) somewhere in their home. Unfortunately, he kills a man in a drunken fight immediately after returning from the war and is sent away to Leavenworth Prison on a life-sentence before he can cash in his treasure. There he meets a fellow prisoner named Junior Allen who suspects the existence of the treasure from hints he picks up while talking to Berry. Once Allen does his time, he looks Cathy up… woos her… moves into the house she shares with her sister… locates the treasure stealthily… and then discards her after brutally abusing her sexually for several weeks. After listening to her story, Travis agrees to help Cathy for his usual 50% finder‘s feed plus expenses (both of which would only be collected if the stolen property was recovered). The reader begins to understand that McGee is not in it just for the money and adventure but also has a chivalric need to defend damsels in distress. This is an ongoing theme in all the novels.
A Miss Agnes lookalike
The third chapter introduces the reader to Miss Agnes, McGee’s vintage 1936 Rolls Royce. It has been converted to a pickup truck by a previous owner and repainted a “horrid electric blue.” McGee has named is after an old grade-school teacher whose hair had a similar color. Miss Agnes and the Busted Flush are regular fixtures in all the books. However, the only recurring character, except for McGee, in the series is Meyer, his friend and sidekick (who is also an internationally known and respected economist, chess player and Buddha-like-serene, intellectual). Meyer isn’t in this novel and doesn’t make his appearance until the fourth book, “A Deadly Shade Of Gold.”
Spoiler alert: click here to skip ahead…
Travis begins his investigation by going along with Cathy to her home in the Florida Keys where he searches the property and talks to the locals of the town about Junior Allen. He discovers that, after dumping Cathy, Allen had taken up with, her neighbor Mrs. Lois Atkinson, a young, well-bred and well-to-do widow. Travis goes to visit her in her house and finds her in a state of emotional and physical collapse. It appears that Allen had been brutally abusing her as well, sexually and in other ways, for several months. He even took her along unwillingly on his expensive boat (no doubt bought with the money he stole from Cathy) on several ocean trips as his sex slave along with Fancha, a Haitian prostitute. When Travis finds Lois, she is an alcoholic, suffering from malnutrition and extreme trauma. He decides to stay with her in her house and nurse her back to health, as well as find out more about Junior Allen and the treasure he stole from Cathy’s house.
Travis soon realizes that Allen is no mere opportunist. He is also a psychopath and rapist who can’t resist his impulses to sexually abuse women violently… especially respectable women who look down on him or think they are better than him. After finding Cathy’s father’s hidden treasure, instead of fleeing as most crooks would do, Allen sticks around to abuse Cathy and Lois just for fun. He takes great pleasure in stripping away the self-respect of women like Lois and Cathy and turning them into his sex slaves who will demean themselves for him and do his every bidding. With each new victim, he seems to be raising the bar on his depravity. Travis has no doubt that Allen’s next prey will be even more innocent and unsuspecting… and that the torture will be more horrific… and it will end with the brutal murder of the victim.
He takes Lois back with him to the Busted Flush and leaves her there to recuperate further while he continues his investigation. Lois remembers that during one of their trips to sea with the Haitian prostitute she had seen Junior Allen drop a blue marble on the deck accidentally. When Fancha mischievously picks it up, puts it in her mouth, and jumps overboard, Allen brings out a gun and shoots into the water until she comes back on board. He then drags her by her hair and beats her mercilessly. This makes Travis realize that Sargent David Berry had probably converted all his illegal gains into blue gems (hence the title), smuggled it into the country, and hidden them in his house. His instincts are confirmed when he visits two of the Sargent’s old crew members and questions them about Berry’s war-time activities.
He tracks Junior Allen through his boat the Play Pen and finds out that he now hangs out with a group of young students who call him “Dads.” McGee befriends a couple of them and gets himself invited to Allen’s boat. He meets Allen and the rest of the group. He finds out that they are all going on a ocean trip soon at Dads invitation. Travis tries to get himself invited as well but Allen tells him there isn’t enough room…
"Some instinct made him wary of me. I would look toward him and see those little blue eyes studying me over that wide smile. He was a big old tom watching benignly as the mice cavorted. He didn’t want another cat at the party. There wasn’t enough for two."
While he is with the group, Travis also realizes what Allen is after — and who his next victim will be! One of the young girls in the group is Patty Devlan, a bespectacled, innocent girl who likes to clown around and looks like a gawky teenager. She is with her boyfriend, Pete, who has been trying in vain to sleep with her. McGee knows that Allen will find a way to stop Pete from going on the cruise… or even kill him once they are out at sea… and then make the two other girls into willing participants in Patty’s rape and degradation – like he did to Lois with Fancha.
"Pete and Patty came aboard. And within minutes I knew what Junior Allen was after. At first glance Patty was unattractive, an impression derived from the gawkiness and the glasses. They kidded her coarsely about getting sick, and she responded by clowning. The clowning was her defense. Her breasts were high and immature and sharp against the fabric of her blouse. Her legs were long and pale and lovely. There was a colt grace about her, a loveliness of gray eyes behind the heavy lenses, a ripe warm sensitivity of mouth. She was Lois, years ago, and in a different social strata. She was wasted on the lout dullness of side-burned Pete. She was fresh and fragile and vulnerable. She was the obvious victim, and once he had the quartet where they could not escape him, it would require no great effort to turn the other three into accomplices. They were coarsened already. They would help Junior Allen teach their funny clown-girl the facts of life, help him take her down into nightmare where, finally, her clowning would do her no good at all."
This sets up the story for the final part of the novel where Travis takes on Junior Allen. He comes up with a clever plan to get Allen to reveal where he hid the rest of the gems on the boat. However, Allen is very strong, capable, crafty, ruthless... and has a few tricks of his own up his sleeve as well. Read the book to find out the rest…
Travis McGee has been called “a shining knight in tarnished armor” and as "one of the great knights-errant of 20th century fiction." He investigates crimes, but he does not have a badge or license to back him up. He always works alone, except for his friend Meyer who sometimes lends him emotional and cerebral help. Physically, McGee is 6ft 3” tall and weighs about 205 lbs. with thick wrists and big knuckles. Except for his height, he is also rather plain and nondescript. Here's a self-description for "The Deep Blue Good-Bye."
“I have one of those useful faces. Tanned American. Bright eyes and white teeth shining amid a broad brown reliable bony visage. The proper folk-hero crinkle at the corners of the eyes, and the bashful appealing smile, when needed. I have been told that when I have been aroused in violent directions I can look like something from an unused corner of hell, but I wouldn’t know about that. My mirror consistently reflects that folksy image of the young project engineer who flung the bridge across the river in spite of overwhelming odds, up to and including the poisoned arrow in his heroic shoulder."
McGee is not a philosopher — based on his occupation, brutal methods, and the interactions he has with the other characters in the novels — but by writing in the first person, JDM has created an outlet for his own insightful ruminations on the environment, urban decay, counter culture, sex, love, mortality and more… Some readers may find these independent philosophical musings a bit incongruous. However, to me they are the best parts of the novels and must surely be the inspiration for other fictional philosopher-heroes that have followed, like Spenser, Jack Reacher and Dave Robicheaux.
Here’s are a few lines from “The Deep Blue Good-Bye.”
“Bugs would eat the wax. Chaw the old canvas. And one day there will be a mutation, and we will have new ones that can digest concrete, dissolve steel and suck up the acid puddles, fatten on magic plastics, lick their slow way through glass. Then the cities will tumble and man will be chased back into the sea from which he came...”
“The scene is reputed to be acrawl with adorably amoral bunnies to whom sex is a pleasant social favor. The new culture. And they are indeed present and available, in exhausting quantity but there is a curious tastelessness about them. A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of very much value to anyone else. They become a pretty little convenience, like a guest towel. And the cute little things they say, and their dainty little squeals of pleasure and release are as contrived as the embroidered initials on the guest towels. Only a women of pride, complexity and emotional tension is genuinely worth the act of love.”
“But these are the last remaining years of choice. In the stainless nurseries of the future, the feds will work their way through all the squalling pinkness tattooing a combination tax number and credit number on one wrist, followed closely by the I.T. and T. team putting the permanent phone number, visaphone doubtless, on the other wrist. Die and your number goes back in the bank. It will be the first provable immortality the world has ever known.”
Travis McGee is an interesting protagonist and one of the great heroes of American hard-boiled fiction. He is featured on almost every page of the books in the series, but the author also creates other memorable characters that jump out at you, even if they are given very little page time. Junior Allen is a terrific villain and you really get a good idea of his depravity… Lois is the tragic heroine, if there is one in this story, and the reader can almost picture her and the life she lived before and after her ordeal… Cathy’s father’s two wartime co-pilots despite their brief interactions with McGee leave an vivid picture in the mind of the reader... and even the fence, Harry, in his brief appearance is unforgettable…
The Travis McGee series is what John D. MacDonald is best known for — but he has also written scores of other stand-alone novels (in a variety of genres including crime, westerns and even science fiction), as well as short stories and non-fiction. His 1957 novel The Executioners was made into the movie Cape Fear in 1962 and remade in 1991. Before he became an author, JDM attended the Wharton School and received an MBA from Harvard. He was also a first lieutenant in the Army Ordnance Core during WWII in the China-Burma-India theatre of operations. His real-life knowledge of economics and finance, as well as his experiences in the army gives his narrator a voice that is authentic.
It is surprising that only a handful of JDM’s books have been made into movies or TV shows — considering how exciting and cinematic they all are. The concluding two chapters of "The Deep Blue Good-Bye" are action-packed and would make a great ending for a movie. However, other than for Cape Fear (with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum) and the remake (with Robert DeNero and Nick Nolte) directed by Martin Scorsese, there have been only a handful of screen adaptations of JDM books. Only two Travis McGee books have been made into movies — Darker Than Amber in 1970 (with Rod Taylor playing McGee), and The Empty Copper Sea in 1983 (with Sam Elliott playing Travis). Neither was very successful — although I think Elliott certainly looked the part in his younger days. JDM has said that his choice would be Steve McQueen in the role of McGee. There was talk of Leonardo DeCaprio taking on the role a few years ago which didn’t materialize… and more recently, Christian Bale was supposed to play McGee but that project was shelved after the actor had an accident and broke his leg.
I, for one, would love to watch a well-made TV serial of the Travis McGee series someday soon. Somebody make it happen… please!
John D. MacDonald
AUGUST 20, 2020
THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE:
HELLO TRAVIS McGEE!
by John D. MacDonald
Book Review by Thomas Itty
THE TRAVIS McGEE SERIES:
Still from From The Empty Copper Sea (1983)