I’m three books into the Travis McGee series now, and overall I’m enjoying them as much as I’d hoped.
They’re quick reads, and the dialogue and action scenes are especially engaging. “Compulsively readable” is a phrase that gets used quite a bit in book reviews, but I honestly found these books to be exactly that. I can see why Travis McGee is an iconic fictional character.
Also, MacDonald is a master of narrative and pacing, so even when “nothing” is happening in the slower moments of the weaker installments, it’s hard to put them down. Amazingly, it’s actually easier to keep reading, to stay in the flow of the story, than it is to nitpick petty trivialities as you’re moving along. It’s an incredible achievement.
The first three novels in the series — “The Deep Blue Good-by,” “Nightmare in Pink,” and “A Purple Place For Dying”—- were all published in 1964, when MacDonald was 48-years-old. He was already a prestigious writer at that point, but the introduction of what would become his most renowned character, Travis “Originally supposedly called Dallas” McGee, cemented his place in the annals of American literature.
From Wikipedia: “The first three books in the Travis McGee series were published in quick succession, at the rate of one a month, a highly unusual publishing strategy. According to MacDonald, he had earlier written an introductory novel about McGee that he burned as being unsatisfactory. A longtime resident of Sarasota’s Siesta Key, MacDonald said he placed McGee on the opposite side of the state to protect his privacy in case the series became popular.”
Spoiler alert: It did.
McGee is a freelance “salvage consultant.” Basically, the main idea of the series is this: People come to him, usually referred by a friend or past client, when something has been stolen from them and they cannot go to the police. He gets it back, but he gets to keep half of what it’s worth. As he often tells people: Half of something is better than all of nothing. You don’t end up comig to McGee unless you’re desperate.
Intrigue, romance, hijinks and danger ensue. McGee is cool, smart, tough, handsome — and cynical in a worldly jaded way that makes his ongoing internal monologue (all the books are written in the first person) read like some of the best potential film noir voice over ever.
Famously, McGee lives on a 52-foot housebound, the Busted Flush (he won it in a poker game), which is usually docked at slip F-18 at Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I say famously, because that spot is actually a revered literary landmark now.
From Wikipedia: “When the U.S. organization Friends of Libraries U.S.A. decided to institute a series of literary landmark plaques analogous to historic landmark markers, the first to be installed was around what would be Slip F-18 in Bahia Mar, the anchorage of the Busted Flush. This was done in February 1987, less than a year after MacDonald’s death.”
Later, after the remodeling of the Bahia Mar Yachting Center in 2003, to replace fixed docks with floating docks since Slip F-18 was technically no more the plaque was reportedly remounted on a movable wooden base which is presently located inside the marina Dockmaster’s Office and Gift Shop.
I actually see a lot of similarities between McGee and Han Solo: his love of his unique ship, which he won in a card game; his true “good guy” nature, which is usually hidden beneath quips and cynicism, but coupled with a realistic professional “What’s in it for me?” mindset; and even his vaguely hinted at military background.
However, what I especially love about the series is that McGee’s never too cool or too tough to be believable. He messes up, he gets hurt. He’s not always the smartest guy in the room. Also, the villains are all realistic as well. We’re not talking about cartoonish James Bond bad guys here. McGee’s enemies are dangerous and smart, but they’re not Hannibal Lecter, you know? The real world is full of people just as evil as these characters. It grounds the action and intrigue in reality, which I really appreciate.
“The Deep Blue Good-by” is a masterpiece. I understand it doesn’t technically matter which order you read the McGee books in, but I recommend starting with this, the first one. It’s very nearly a flawless mystery/crime story and the perfect introduction to the character of McGee and the atmosphere of the series.
In it, McGee is introduced to a woman in trouble by a friend of his. The actual plot is somewhat similar to the film “Night of the Hunter,” one of my favorites. The client asks McGee’s help in retrieving something valuable (she actually doesn’t even know what it is that’s been taken) that her deceased father smuggled home during his military service overseas, something evidently very valuable. Well, Pop promptly messed up big and was sent to prison before he could cash in. Later, the woman’s husband, a smiling sociopath named Junior Allen, learned of the hidden loot while in military prison with her father and, upon his release, promptly beat feet to woo and marry his gullible cellmate’s daughter. He then finds the goods and makes off with them. The old man has since died in prison, so there’s no way to get him to spill. McGee thus begins hunting down Allen, who proves much more dangerous than expected.
I can’t recommend it highly enough.
“Nightmare in Pink” is not my favorite. I think it’s the weakest of the first three novels, in fact, a sentiment I’ve read expressed other places as well. MacDonald, I think, was still feeling out his character and deciding what this series would be all about. Thankfully, what it ended up being about was not this.
McGee is asked by an old military buddy to look into the murder of his little sister’s husband in New York City. And wouldn’t you know it, but there’s something rotten in the big apple? In the end, McGee uncovers a case of major corporate theft and some seriously dirty dealings at a mental asylum, where the baddies actually lock him up at one point. Long stretches of not much going on in his one, though the last third is fantastic. Ultimately, if you ask me, this one’s for completists only.
“A Purple Place For Dying” is fun and genuinely intriguing.
I spent most of the book being utterly unable to guess where things were headed. McGee treks to Nevada at the request of a woman who believes her much older husband, a longtime friend of her millionaire father, has stolen from her supposedly massive trust fund. She’s in love with a young professor and wants enough cash to run away with him. But her husband insists there isn’t any money left, and that she was in fact left much less than she thought by her father.
Then, before McGee is even sure he wants the job at all, during their initial meeting the woman is killed by a sniper right in front of him. But when he brings the cops out to the spot, the body is gone.
So is the young professor, in fact.
Somebody has gone to great lengths to make it look like the lovers have split together — but McGee knows better.
I enjoyed this one immensely.
More to follow, everyone. Thanks very much for reading.