I don’t remember when I read my first Travis McGee novel. It was either while I was in the Navy or shortly after I got out. All I remember is how I got hooked on the things, inhaling them one after the other until I’d read them all. I don’t know what grabbed me the most. There was the Busted Flush, his lumbering houseboat won in a poker game. His habit of taking his retirement in “installments”, only working when his funds started running low. There was the job he worked when that happened, one he made up himself, a “salvage consultant”. He’d help people get things that they’d lost back, keeping half for himself after expenses. There was the steady stream of women. Of course, there was the main character himself, Travis McGee. Competent. Smart. Cunning. Honest. Savage when he needed to be. A man in full. All the things I wanted to be when I was in my early twenties and didn’t think I was.
And then, you had the writing. MacDonald had a way with words, and he wasn’t afraid to use it. Let’s take a taste:
I am wary of a lot of things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny. I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.
- The Deep Blue Good-by (1965)
Note how that’s constructed. In that long first sentence, we’re lulled by a laundry list of mundanity, and then in the next, a punchy, alliterative wake-up call to an almost poetic statement on what McGee thinks of it all. Freakin’ genius.
The books were short, TDBG weighs in at about 74K words, and reflect a time when you could slip a paperback comfortably in your back pocket. There were a lot of them, twenty-one, each with a title that features a color. That last was a trick MacDonald’s publisher came up with to serve as a theme for travelers looking to pick up one of his books before boarding a plane. It worked on me.
A little while back, when Bookbub ran a promotion on TDBG for two bucks, I picked it up. I wondered whether my love for this series was a thing of nostalgia or if it was based on its quality. I wasn’t disappointed.
In The Deep Blue Good-by, Travis sets out to help a woman done wrong. It’s a good story, with a premise simple enough to sum up in a single sentence. Catherine Kerr gets robbed of a sizable inheritance in the form of smuggled gemstones by a smooth-talkin’ smilin’ man by the name of Junior Allen, and Travis sets out to get it back. The complexity comes when Travis gets on Junior’s trail and learns just what kind of man he’s dealing with. Junior’s a bad man. Hardened by prison and with a taste for destroying women, leaving them broken in his wake. He’s an adversary tailor-made for this “knight errant in a suit of rusted armor with a broken lance and swaybacked steed”.
It’s important to remember, however, that this is an adult novel of the mid-sixties. I wonder how this work would be received by someone who grew up without the frame of reference someone from my day has. One complaint I’ve seen frequently in online reviews is with his depiction of women. I fear that today’s millennial SJW crowd would be triggered into a state of apoplexy by the women in the novel. These aren’t women who can karate-chop their way through a problem. In fact, they’re little more than lambs being led to Junior Allen’s slaughterhouse. That’s not to say that they’re weak. Just that they’re possessed of a different kind of strength, one that our time lamentably fails to acknowledge.
In the end, this is a knight in not-so-shiny armor story. McGee is a Quixotic character fighting for what he fears are outdated or unrealistic ideals. The lines are clear, however. There are damsels in distress, and Travis does not flinch from the fight. That’s what this series is all about.