A hardboiled adventurer complete with heart

December 9, 2018

“Too much damned yat-a-ta-yak,” said Travis McGee, John D. MacDonald’s hardboiled adventurer, using arch-familiarity to punctuate his usual thoughtful directness. Maybe MacDonald stole a lick from Tom Wolfe’s Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Or maybe it was just the time.


MacDonald served in South Asia during WWII, a gentleman and an officer by Act of Congress, a Harvard MBA who sent a story home to his wife. Mrs. M. sold it for 25 bucks—$355 now. Once stateside, MacDonald became a writing machine, minting detective stories at a rate of 200,000 words per month. He published under his own name, as well as Peter Reed, John Farrell, Scott O'Hara, Robert Henry, Harry Reiser, and John Lane. Some magazines were populated entirely by MacDonald stories.


MacDonald published 77 novels, six short-story collections, and five non-fiction books, with the 21-book Travis McGee series best known. McGee was a Florida boat bum, living on a luxurious houseboat he won in a poker game. He was 6’4”, a former pro-football player who took his retirement in installments between adventures retrieving stolen property for half its value. MacDonald made him a Korea vet in Nightmare in Pink, one of the first four novels, published in 1964, but 20 years later he had fought in a jungle war, one “we didn’t win.”


McGee drove a classic Rolls, converted to a pickup painted electric blue. He was a pipe smoker in the early novels, drank top-shelf gin, and played chess with economist sidekick, Meyer. MacDonald outlined the Travis McGee formula in The Deep Blue Goodbye. A friend cons McGee into helping a dancer who lost some unknown-but-valuable thing to a sexual predator.


McGee follows the predator’s trail, rescues another victim from alcohol and depression, learns that the treasure is a handful of gems the dancer’s father smuggled out of wartime Burma, and devises a strategy to pry them loose from the predator. McGee is seriously injured, the rescued woman dies, and most of the jewels wash into the sea. McGee does salvage some stones, and rescues yet another frail. The dancer nurses him back to health.


Salting the smarmy McGee stew are passages about the environment, race relations, or economics. In The Scarlet Ruse, Meyer explains that he met defrauded stamp dealer Hirsch Fedderman when Fedderman helped Meyer develop an economic indicator based on activity in markets for rare commodities. “I wanted the kind of warning they used to have in France. When the peasants started buying gold and hiding it, you knew the storms were coming.” “Are they coming, O Great Seer?”


“What do you think we are standing out in the middle of with neither spoon nor paddle?”


In the same passage:


[S]o divide everything into two hundred million equal parts. Everything in this country that is fabricated. Steel mills, speedboats, cross- country power lines, scalpels, watchbands, fish rods, ski poles, plywood, storage batteries, everything. Break it down into raw materials, then compute the power requirements and the fossil fuels needed to make everybody’s share in this country. Know what happens when you apply that formula to all the peoples of all the other nations of the world?


Any detective-novel protagonist is somebody’s existential hero. McGee takes it on the chin, the price for avoiding the grind that his readers live. More than once, McGee talks about his rusty armor, spavined steed, and bent lance, and more than once, he speaks wistfully of the job, retirement plan, and the family he’s foresworn. On the one hand, McGee enjoys luxury, freedom, and a lot of feminine company; on the other, he sees himself as lurking in the dark while everybody else is singing around the fire.


McGee’s “type” ran to “tall blondes with long legs and good shoulders,” but women were people to him, an attitude not common to the potboilers of the time. McGee’s lovers ran the gamut of stature and hair color, including one who described herself as having “freckles, straw hair, fat legs, and a big behinder.”


Sex in the McGee series was full frontal—“that...long, sliding, startling moment of penetration”—without being titillating. Only later you realized how frank a passage was, because MacDonald was so good at description, relationship, and what events meant to the characters.


A favorite MacDonald villain was the classic sociopath. “Superficially bright, evidently quite emotional, lots of charm, an impression of complete honesty and integrity. Then you know their willingness to take risks, their confidence they can get away with anything. They’re sly and they’re cruel. They never admit guilt.”


The final five novels, The Empty Copper Sea (1978), The Green Ripper (1979), Free Fall in Crimson (1981), Cinnamon Skin (1982), and The Lonely Silver Rain (1985), contained one long story arc that emphasized alienation and resolved on a hopeful note. Rain and Free Fall continue stories begun in The Quick Red Fox and Pale Gray for Guilt. These seven are the essential McGee.


MacDonald died of surgical complications in 1986.

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