I met Travis the first time we went to the Caribbean in 1999. My future father-in-law, Dale, introduced me to the beloved protagonist of twenty-one thriller crime novels. He had the whole series proudly displayed in a low, glass-front bookcase in the living room of his then bachelor pad. Two of the walls had built-in book shelves stuffed with more salt air smelling paperbacks– a small sample of one man’s dog-eared reading history.
We were taking a time out from the St. Thomas sun, leisurely reading in the house with cold drinks. I was halfway through his paperback copy of Deliverance– which read “Soon to be a major motion picture” on the cover– when Dale began a glowing review of the John D. MacDonald novels starring a ‘salvage expert’ from Florida.
I told him I had a copy of The Underground Man and thought it was great– read it twice.
“No, that’s Ross Macdonald,” he said, “The Lew Archer series.” I told him I was pretty sure John MacDonald wrote it. He smiled and started explaining the colors in the titles and a few of the plots and I knew I was mistaken. I had never read anything by JDM. I wondered what the big draw was but we started talking about Louis L’Amour and I forgot all about the exploits of Travis McGee.
Fast forward to early 2018 and I’ve read the first sixteen novels in as many months. By chapter three of the first book I was hooked and now I understand why the series is such a perennial favorite: nearly everyone who reads about Travis, wants to BE HIM. Resourceful, experienced, smart, flawed, tough, loyal, he gets the ladies and knows how to get shit done.
“Meet Travis McGee- Soldier of fortune, thinking man’s Robin Hood, a man who works just this side of the law to make a living stealing from thieves…” – Cover blurb from Nightmare in Pink (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1964)
He’s a boat bum who retrieves things for people with no where else to turn. His terms are simple: half of whatever he can salvage for the client. Fifty percent may seem like a high price to pay, but it’s better than the nothing they have right now. With help from his retired economist buddy, Meyer, he’s a one man A-Team battling land developers, con men, schemers and killers with intelligence and brute force.
Travis knows the American Dream and its scripted lifestyle is a bad joke so he opts out and lives aboard his houseboat, The Busted Flush, on the Florida coast. His idea for taking retirement on the installment plan is perfect for dealing with the bullshit and red tape of modern life. Work for a bit, retire for a while and repeat– only way to make sure you don’t get cheated out of your well-deserved golden years by the grim reaper.
The entire series kicks ass, but my favorite titles so far are: A Deadly Shade of Gold, Dress Her in Indigo, and Pale Gray for Guilt.
In Gold, Travis is hired to recover a set of Aztec statuettes, while Indigo has Travis and Meyer traveling to Oaxaca, Mexico to investigate the mysterious death of a rich man’s daughter. A Purple Place for Dying opens with a great twist and The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper ends with one of the best feel-good bad guy deaths ever.
Some people say crime and thriller fiction like this is the romance novel for guys– I’m okay with that. Reading about a modern knight-errant traveling around the continent righting wrongs, snatching cash, island hopping and drinking gin is great entertainment– and sometimes even romantic.
Save your comments about how novels like these aren’t real literature.
Here’s the thing: although he comes closer than most in the genre, I know MacDonald’s series didn’t win the Nobel Prize for literature. I’m reading it for the adventure, entertainment, and frankly, the escapism.
So save your comments about how novels like these aren’t real literature. I won’t hear you– I’ll be relaxing on the forward deck of The Busted Flush sipping a Plymouth on ice with Travis, Meyer and a few sun-kissed darlings.
*Huge thanks to Dale for the introduction to John D. and Mr. McGee nearly twenty years ago. Had I known what a treasure the series was I would’ve jumped into their lush and lurid paperback world sooner.
*Related resources: The John D. MacDonald biography, The Red Hot Typewriter. The comprehensive JDM blog, The Trap of Solid Gold. Another great blog, the JDM Homepage and The Busted Flush Facebook Group.