by John Macdonald
Travis McGee, a self-employed retriever of stolen items, doesn’t need a new project when a young dancer, Cathy Kerr, comes to his houseboat for help.
She needs to find a man named Junior Allen, who had been in prison with her father. Her father came back from World War II with something valuable that he never revealed to his family. He promised them they’d never need to worry about money once he got out of prison.
Unfortunately, he died in prison, telling Junior Allen just enough to send him to Candle Key to searching out the family.
Once there, Allen ingratiated himself, got romantically involved with Cathy and asked question after question about her father’s life and activities. Then one day, he vanished.
When next seen, Allen has an expensive new boat, fancy clothes and is keeping company with a wealthy local woman.
Cathy’s theory is that her father hid the valuable on their place, which Allen found and stole.
All Travis has to do is to find the missing man and get back the unknown valuable.
Travis is a charming character who lives on a 52-foot barge-type houseboat he won in a card game. When he isn’t on his bicycle, he’s driving a 1936 Rolls Royce that was converted into a pickup truck after some catastrophe ruined its rear quarters.
He’s worked for himself since his twenties, and avoids the rat race at all costs. He is well compensated for his often dangerous work. Between jobs, he enjoys his “retirement,” leisure, sunshine and the attentions of assorted ladies.
Travis has a sensitivity and empathy that most macho characters — Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, for example — lack. He has a Don Quixote-like drive to protect the weak and helpless. He never loses touch with an individual’s power to fight for something better in life.
MacDonald’s colorful, literary writing is a joy to read. He describes driving “past an endless wink and sputter of neon” in the city. As a late afternoon storm moves in, he writes, “The world darkened, turned to a poisonous green . . . Rose-colored lightning webbed down. Water bounced knee high, silver in the green premature dusk . . .”
He describes young, unskilled fast-food waitresses weaving dreams of love as living in “the slums of the heart.” He describes another waitress, Deeleen, who is losing the bloom of desirability by too many trips to the storeroom with her manager, as being as “immunized to tenderness as a whore at a clinic.”
In all, MacDonald wrote 21 Travis McGee novels, beginning with The Deep Blue Goodbye in 1964 and ending with The Lonely Silver Rain in 1985, a year before he died. Each features a color in the title. This book is followed by Nightmare in Pink and A Purple Place for Dying, for example. The books take place in the 1960s. Today, some 50 plus years after the first was written, they read like period pieces. Even so, Travis’s code of ethics, his courage and inventiveness in returning some form of justice to a jaded and unfair world remain fresh.
The Author: John D. MacDonald (1916 – 1986)
John D. MacDonald was a prolific writer of crime and suspense novels, who sold and estimated 70 million books during his career. His admirers included authors Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Kingsley Amis, Dean Koontz and Carl Hiaasen.
MacDonald earned a master’s of business administration from Harvard University in 1939 and then accepted a direct commission as a first lieutenant in the Army Ordnance Corps in 1940.
During the war, he served in the Office of Strategic Services in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. He was discharged as a lieutenant colonel in 1945.
He immediately started writing, regularly putting in 14 hours a day. He eventually started selling short stories, frequently under pseudonyms. His first novel was The Brass Cupcake, published in 1950s. He also wrote science fiction, but between 1953 and 1964 focused on hard-boiled crime thrillers.
A number of his stories were made into films, including The Executioners, which was made into “Cape Fear” in 1962 and again in 1991.
MacDonald was named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America in 1972 and won a 1980 U. S. National Book Award. He died of complications from a heart bypass operation in 1986.
Note: Do not confuse John MacDonald with Ross Macdonald, an American-Canadian writer of hard-boiled crime novels featuring private detective Lew Archer in Southern California. Ross Macdonald was a pseudonym for Kenneth Millar.