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Bookends: The book that launched the Travis McGee series is a great beginning November 27, 2014

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: The book that launched the Travis McGee series is a great beginning

By Dan Davidson

June 4, 2014

– 938 words –


The Deep Blue Good-ByDeep Blue Goodbye

By John D. MacDonald

Random House Trade Paperbacks

240 pages



Brilliance Audio Unabridged reading

Narrated by Robert Petkoff

6 hrs


First published in 1964, The Deep Blue Good-by is the first of what would grow to be 21 novels telling the tales of Travis McGee. They would come to be known as the “colour novels”, as each one featured a colour in the title and in the garish, paperback covers of the original Fawcett editions. They span 20 years, the last one appearing in 1984, two years before MacDonald died at the age of 70.

MacDonald is revered by other writers as one of the greats. He is praised by writers of horror, science fiction, thriller and mystery fiction. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Sue Grafton, Mary Higgins Clark, Jonathan Kellerman, Donald Westlake, Robert B. Parker, Spider Robinson, Karl Hiaasen, Ed McBain, and Kurt Vonnegut are among those who have sung his praises.

The McGee books are not exactly mysteries, though they sound like noir detective stories, with their somewhat cynical first person narration. They are more like thrillers. McGee would eventually come to call himself a salvage consultant, perhaps taking the idea from the fact that he lived on a 52 foot barge style houseboat which was usually to be found moored at Slip F-18 at Bahia Mar Marina, Fort Lauderdale.

He called his home The Busted Flush, because he won it in a poker game that featured that hand of cards. I knew this from the later books (I have eight of them) but I had never heard the story first hand.

McGee works when he needs money and when his attention is caught by a client’s story. His deal is that he will recover whatever it is the client has lost, will take his expenses off the top of the value and split the recovery 50/50 with the client. The price is steep because he is the agent of last resort for this sort of thing and the only hope the client has of every seeing any value.

When not on a case McGee says he is taking his retirement in installments. He is in the midst of one of those when a dancer (Chookie McCall) with whom he is friendly introduces him to one of her girls, Catherine Kerr, a woman who has been bilked by a man named Junior Allen. He has stolen all the illegally gotten gems that her father managed to accumulate during the Second World War while serving in the Far East.

A good portion of the story is the detective work of tracking down people connected to his client’s father and piecing together enough different stories to figure out just what it is he needs to find. While much of the book is set in Florida, there are side trips to New York and Texas.

Allen turns out to be the nastiest of individuals, one who will ruin good people just because he can. He has an uncanny animalistic power over women and uses it to degrade them. Once he has money he moves in on a wealthy divorcee, Lois Atkinson, and nearly destroys her. McGee learns of this during the latter stages of his initial investigation. He finds the woman in a pitiable state, physically, mentally and emotionally and nurses her back to health.

While he is absolutely the whitest of knights during this whole process, the pair of them do eventually fall for each other. It seems to be something more than transference and counter-transference.

By that time his original reason for getting involved in this affair is nearly forgotten, only to be rejuvenated when Allen happens upon his original client and puts her in the hospital.

From that point, McGee begins to develop a fairly complicated plot to insinuate himself into Allen’s latest circle of friends and seek an opportunity to find and recover the swag. While he intends to do this without having an actual physical confrontation with the villain, the plan goes awry and McGee ends up involved in a high seas battle off the Florida coast, with the lives of two women at stake and his own in peril.

McGee has an active and observant mind, and blesses us with all sorts of observations about the people he meets and the social settings in which he finds them. A lot of this has a sort of noir poetry to it. Some commentators don’t enjoy this aspect of McDonald’s style, but I like it.

McGee can be cruel and vicious in his pursuit of information, and there’s a detailed description of an interrogation using a nasty technique in a shower. While he is athletic and powerful, as is shown several times in the story, he is not unbeatable, and the gorilla-like power of Junior Allen defeats him more than once as the story moves to the climax.

There’s certainly no question that McGee is sexist by today’s standards, but this story takes place in 1964. He values women as individuals and they respond to that in him. When you compare him to the James Bond novels that were being written around the same time, he’s practically a feminist.

I listened to Robert Petkoff’s excellent reading of this book on my way to the recent North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway and found a few other MacDonald fans to discuss it with while I was there. I will definitely pick up the next in the series for some other long drive.










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