My old college roomie from time to time cusses me out roundly for introducing him to the Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald. Like me, Mike was raised reading quality lit (he majored in classics, and teaches Greek and Latin), and we both came to popular literature — indeed, to the very idea of reading for fun — late in life. Like me, Mike was stunned by McGee and MacDonald — by the sheer quality, the go-to-hell abandoned narrative mastery (MacDonald rejoiced in digression, and his readers rejoiced with him, as he threw his storytelling loops out into the universe and then reeled them back in, fast or slow, inevitably to the story, always the story), by the settings, the crimes, the characters (some of the most chilling villains ever), the social commentary. The last McGee appeared in 1985.
Oh, hell. We’re not alone. Plug “Travis McGee” into Google, and you’ll get fan site after fan site, many of them excellent. (There’s a good one here.) John D. himself, the old master, died in 1986, shortly after completing the last McGee, The Lonely Silver Rain. MacDonald’s generation will be the last of the fiction writers who came up through what were called “the pulps,” cheap magazines of short genre fiction published in the early years of the twentieth century — this at a time when the major magazines of the day published lots of short fiction, too. Stephen King, now about 60, started via this route, too. But it simply isn’t there anymore, to the ultimate detriment of the craft of fiction. Magazines don’t publish short stories anymore. “Good” novels and short stories have largely devolved to brooding arty artifices. Some decent genre and popular fiction survives the corporate conglomolith known as book publishing today.
But nothing like McGee. Nothing. Of all that I have read in the crime and mystery genre, only Dick Francis’s Reflex comes close. And no writer but MacDonald stands up so well to repeated re-readings. I have read all the McGees so often that, in a favorite metaphor of MacDonald’s, I have been seated at the front row at the ballet, and smelled the sweat and dust stamped up from the costumes, and heard the grunts of effort that spoil the illusions of ease, so perfect from ten rows back. It doesn’t matter. The novels are still wonderful.
I have, somewhat by accident, been re-reading the last five McGees — our local library has these and only two or three others. In the final novels, McGee says his long goodbye to us, and MacDonald his own long goodbye to McGee. The author has, in ways probably not entirely accidental, begun to cut his character loose. It is instructive to see how it all works in these five books, the weakest of the 21 McGee novels.
THE EMPTY COPPER SEA (1978) starts the decline, with McGee investigating a familiar crime pattern. A hustling local businessman has disappeared after cashing out all his business and personal assets. Fraud is suspected, along with mid-life crisis. The man, one Hubble Lawless, along with his big-busted Norwegian mistress, never directly appears in the narrative. Typical MacDonald mastery here, Sophoclean mastery, as the offstage Lawless story gets told by people on — wife, business partners, disillusioned daughter, alcoholic former gofer, and so on.
At the last, a key psychological prop for all the McGee books also drops away, as McGee falls in love, and wants it to last forever — wants, in fact, to get married. McGee has lots of lovers throughout the series, lots of sexual partners — these books were written in the sexy sixties and seventies, mostly, and they are very sexy indeed. But he never gets to keep the girl, and never really expects that he will. Let McGee get the girl, and the whole fictional landscape changes — for the worse. In an important sense, MacDonald’s fictional decision here signals that he has given up.
THE GREEN RIPPER FOLLOWS, almost as though MacDonald realizes he has made a mistake. Gretel Howard, McGee’s inamorata, dies at the hands of a shadowy terrorist group, shot with a tiny pellet loaded with bio-poison. What develops — well, despite the usual astonishingly skillful narration, it’s best summarized in the kind of movie poster the plot might inspire: “THEY KILLED THE WOMAN HE LOVED AND TRANSFORMED HIM INTO A WEAPON OF LETHAL REVENGE!”
So Ripper becomes important in the series only insofar as it introduces elements of McGee’s decline. First, it departs from the usual McGee crime investigation, the intersection of sociopathy and fraud in which MacDonald moved with such sure-footed ability. MacDonald writes convincingly of terrorism from the law enforcement point of view, but close up to the perps themselves, he can’t quite carry it off. It’s just not his meat. And the reader must consistently push away an embarrassed feeling of disbelief that MacDonald would put McGee in a situation so wildly improbable.
Second, Ripper represents the final imposition of the heavy-handed Malthusian — even Erlichian — worldview so long present in the McGee novels as ironic background. At the beginning, McGee’s friend Meyer the economist, just returned from a two-month conference in Zurich, announces that the world is doomed to anarchic ruin through the collapse of world currencies in, at most, 12 years — this in 1980. To be fair, that late in the Carter administration, things looked bad to a lot of people. But the depressing worldview continues through the remaining three McGees — not just ironic detachment, depression.
I STARTED THIS BLITZ OF MCGEE re-reading with Free Fall in Crimson (1981), and had the feeling for the longest time that I had never read it. The plot, based on a stretched-to-the-limit timed murder of a tycoon, never really hangs together. And MacDonald sends McGee off in pursuit of villains — a spacey filmmaker, biker gangs — with which John D. simply is not comfortable. People like these have appeared before in the McGee canon as figures of satire and fun, but have not played major roles. Here, stage front, these types simply do not work. The book ends with a sickening humiliation of McGee’s friend Meyer, pointless except as illustration of the depressive climate hanging over the final long McGee goodbye.
A boat explosion kicks off the action in Cinnamon Skin — the venerable John Maynard Keynes, McGee pal Meyer’s squatty little cabin cruiser, loaded down with books and incomprehensible academic journals. Meyer has loaned the cruiser to his niece and her new husband. New husband has in fact engineered the explosion and his own apparent demise, and McGee and Meyer must backtrack this genial dissembler, unraveling a serial killer of a type familiar in the McGee genre (see for example The Turquoise Lament, 1974). This territory MacDonald handles superbly, and Meyer expunges his demons in finding and confronting the bad guy. This is almost classic McGee. If you had never read anything from the mid-season period, 17 books long, from 1964 through 1975, you would find Cinnamon Skin enchanting. By comparison, it’s pale.
Implicitly, MacDonald has had to deal with McGee’s age for a long, long time. We never really know that age, though internal clues tell us. McGee was a sergeant in a paratrooper unit in the Korean War, so in The Deep Blue Goodbye, in 1964, he was probably 33 or 34. But we are never really told in so many words. “One of those birthdays with a zero at the end of it,” is about as close as McGee gets to acknowledging age — that, and the gradual dropping away of former lifetime habits. By the end, McGee no longer smokes even his beloved occasional pipes, and his exercise has been reduced to Tai Chi and swimming.
By Cinnamon Skin, our “aging beach bum” has become all too real as just that, with his two generations out of step tastes for Edye Gorme and Cole Porter and Ruby Braff. The books have acquired a tone not quite elegiac, because there has never been enough faith here for that. Hence, depression, sometimes subtle, sometimes less so.
AND ON TO THE LONELY SILVER RAIN, which has no plot at all, which gets all wound up in the cocaine trade, pointlessly, another crime area where MacDonald shows himself out of sorts and out of form, and in which a gorgeous custom motor cruiser gets trashed by trashy kids who themselves get trashed and trashed ultimately in a horrible multiple murder. Here is McGee lost, getting into bed with a woman he doesn’t even like much, stimulating a gang war in South Florida, and all to save his own hide. And at the very end, he is surprised by a young lady who tells him she is his daughter, mothered by one Puss Killian, one of McGee’s lost girls of the golden era. This allows MacDonald to have Travis pull out Puss’s goodbye letter to McGee almost as though to say to us readers, “See? See how wonderful I used to be?” Because this letter, read into the narrative word for word, glows like a jeweled artifact of what came long ago.
So read the first 17 books, and marvel. And if you’re in love with the books by then, as I expect you will be, read the last five. But don’t expect too much. All told, it’s been enough, and we should be grateful.