Showing posts with label Travis McGee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travis McGee. Show all posts

22 February 2015

Songs of the South


by Dale C. Andrews
Please not yet. Those are the three eternal words. Please not yet.
                                                John D. MacDonald
                                                A Deadly Shade of Gold

       As usual the month of February finds me on the gulf shore of Alabama, making a good on a promise my wife and I made to ourselves back when we were still in the work-a-day world: once we retired February would never again find us in Washington, D.C. So we have again traveled south to a rental on the shore. Not the tropics, but also not the frozen east coast of the past several weeks.

Harper Lee
     Alabama is a sort of exciting place for anyone interested in literature to find themselves this February. Only a few weeks ago, and a scant 100 miles north, Harper Lee, the now 88 year old author of the American Classic To Kill a Mockingbird announced to a stunned world that, after 55 years of literary silence, this summer a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning story of Scout, Atticus and the travails of small town life in Alabama will be published.

       Whether we should feel some trepidation as we await the return of Atticus and Scout in the long-withheld Go Set a Watchman has already been the subject of numerous articles. Far be it from me to add another. But aside from such speculations concerning the ultimate merit of the Mockingbird sequel, an interesting sidelight to the pending publication of Harper Lee’s second novel is the reaction of the reading public, which had become resigned to Lee’s oft-articulated position that she would never publish a second work. This had been both accepted and hard to get over -- we had fallen in love with Mockingbird -- and Lee’s resolve to leave it at that had left us feeling a bit like a child allowed but one toy. The anticipation has been overwhelming with the possibility of another now on the horizon. 

Arthur Conan Doyle
       A writer’s decision to not follow up on a popular book, or to end a popular series of books, often invites a public outcry. Famously, Arthur Conan Doyle found himself unable, in the face of such clamor, to leave Sherlock Holmes sprawled at the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle (and now Lee) ultimately bent, in some degree, to the clamor. Doyle took up the pen again, and Lee's attorney discovered that previous manuscript. And just yesterday Arthur Conan Doyle had his own last laugh -- a similarly "lost" Sherlock Holmes story was discovered in an attic after lying there unnoticed for the past 111 years.

       But what happens when the series ends for reasons beyond the author’s ability to remedy; when the author is gone but nothing is left behind?  Since, as noted, I am gazing out toward the Gulf as I type, what could be more natural than to allow my gaze to linger off toward the east, where 17 miles away Florida beckons? And what is more “Florida” than John D. MacDonald and his iconic literary sidekick Travis McGee?

John D. MacDonald
       Okay, okay. I know there what you may be thinking. Does he intend to offer up as a premise a column that lumps Harper Lee -- a Pulitzer Prize winning (and beloved) artist -- with John D. MacDonald, the erstwhile paperback king who wrote almost 80 books over the course of a career that began in pulp fiction?  In a word:  Yep. But I'm not the only one who places MacDonald on a pretty high pedestal.  Back in 2003 Jonathan Yardley, literary critic for the Washington Post, went back to re-read MacDonald and came away incredulous, concluding that the body of work revealed the author as "one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period."  Yardley went on to explain:
This man whom I'd snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was -- no other word will do -- breathtaking.
       This is not the first time that I have offered up thoughts on MacDonald and McGee in this space. Unlike Harper Lee, who wrote but one book (now, two), John D. MacDonald (like Doyle) was prolific. He wrote almost 80 works of fiction and nonfiction, and 21 McGee novels before his sudden death in 1986. But he still left us hanging.  In the last of the Travis McGee series, The Lonely Silver Rain, McGee is confronted with several revelations (no further spoilers here!) but then, given MacDonald’s demise two years later, McGee’s fans are ultimately left to ponder where these revelations might have led.

       Like Harper Lee, whose sequel to Mockingbird was known by some friends to have existed, at least at one time, MacDonald, too, was rumored to have a final Travis McGee novel under lock and key.  I remember reading as much in a 1975 interview with MacDonald, and Stephen King has stated that before MacDonald's death he had discussed with King the backbone of what would be the final McGee adventure.  But all rumors of that final work, usually conjectured to bear the title A Black Border for McGee, were apparently baseless. MacDonald’s heirs have asserted that no such work exists, and have steadfastly refused all requests by other authors -- most notably one from Stephen King -- to continue (and properly end) the series. One caveat, here:  there is a little-known novel, The Black Squall, by Lori Stone, which sneaks around the heirs' prohibition by offering a final adventure clearly addressing what might have happened to Travis McGee and his friend Meyer, but doing so without ever using their actual names. But other than that, barring a Harper Lee, or Arthur Conan Doyle-like denouement -- a final work miraculously discovered -- that is it for McGee.

       So aside from The Black Squall (which, I admit, I have not read) the many fans of Travis McGee have had to look elsewhere over the last thirty years for a fix. And that has sparked a bit of a literary cottage industry among authors seeking to re-capture, and then offer to the reading public, the essence of McGee. 

       So, pause with me here. What, at base, is the Travis McGee formula?  What do readers look for in a Travis McGee novel?  The series evolved over time, but viewed in its entirety it seems to me MacDonald's McGee adventures are comprised of the following base elements: 

The Busted Flush, as imagined
       First, the series is centered around an “off the grid” protagonist with an off-beat lifestyle and home. McGee is a self-described beach bum who occasionally comes out of his “installment” retirement to take cases as a “salvage consultant,” working for 50 percent of the value of the property recovered. He lives in his 52 foot cabin cruiser, The Busted Flush, won in a poker game. His detached and unburdened lifestyle, and his luxury to observe the world around him as an objective critic, captures the reader. He narrates his own stories with spot-on observations and critiques of the world in which we live. We, as readers, nod in agreement and become wannabes. 

       Second, there is the “best friend” buddy who provides an intellectual counterpoint, someone with whom the protagonist can spar during the course of the narrative. This companion must be colorful in his own right, intelligent, and equally detached, but must in some respects stand in independent contrast to the protagonist. McGee’s “buddy” is Meyer, an erstwhile economist, who lives on his nearby book-packed ship, initially The John Maynard Keynes, later (after The Keynes fails to survive an adventure) The Thorstein Veblen. 

     Third, the stories, at their heart, focus on the strengths, and the largely man-made weaknesses, of the state of Florida. Even when they do not take place there, each Travis McGee adventure displays a love of the natural Florida ecosystems, a disgruntled horror as to what is happening to them, and a matching disdain for those who are “developing” the state out of existence. A kind word is never said about a double wide, a condominium, a jet ski or a Hawaiian shirt.  As Florida author Carl Hiassen has written: "Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn. I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty." 

       Fourth, the adventures must be well written.  MacDonald often criticized what he viewed as "hack" writing, and his own works set a high bar with his clean and spare prose, his eye for detail, and his ear for dialog.  

       With these elements in mind, for those craving a Florida fix, or, more specifically, a Travis McGee fix, there are at least two series that work pretty hard to deliver: The Doc Ford series written by Randy Lee White, and the Thorn series written by James W. Hall. 

       Doc Ford, a retired NSA agent and marine biologist, has been the hero of 21 mysteries written by Randy Lee White, with a 22nd, Cuba Straits, due out this March. The similarities to the McGee stories are striking. Ford is decidedly “off the grid,” living in a stilt house above the water on the gulf coast of Florida and ostensibly making his living by peddling marine specimens to collectors and scientists. His best friend and sidekick (like Meyer, always referred to by a single name) is Tomlinson, a frequently stoned philosopher who lives nearby on a Morgan sailboat (also, in a direct nod to MacDonald, named The Thorstein Veblen).  And the Doc Ford stories invariably contain impassioned takes on the delicate Florida eco structure and the angry rants of a frustrated environmentalist protagonist as he witnesses what is happening to it. 

       Another take on the formula is James W. Hall’s series, featuring the loner Thorn. Thorn is also an environmentally-aware protagonist who lives in a Florida shack built above the water and makes his living tying fishing lures. He is an orphan and a maverick, and is usually aided by his (again, one-name) sidekick Sugarman, a Florida policeman (and, eventually, ex-policeman) who serves as Thorn's verbal sparring partner as they fight various injustices, including the abuses rendered to the Floridian land and sea. 

       Each of these series has its faithful followers, and each is well written. Randy Wayne White has authored over fifty books, fiction and non-fiction, under his own name and several aliases. James W. Hall is both a novelist and an accomplished poet. The reader expects well written prose from these gentlemen and the authors deliver. But having read most of White’s series and the first third of Hall’s, there is still something missing for a reader, such as myself, in search of Travis McGee. Maybe it is the fact that Doc Ford, and (I suspect) Randy Wayne White, at least for me, is a little too right wing for a steady diet. Maybe it’s the fact that entirely too many of the characters in Hall’s series end up dying, and in gratuitous ways unnecessary to the logical progression of the story. 

       But lets face it: criticism is easy. And, by the same token, concocting a riveting tale and telling the tale as well as MacDonald, by contrast, is hard.  It takes a real hand to pull off a Florida series that can be read as a steady diet.  I can’t even do that with Carl Hiaasen's novels. When I have read a few I feel the need to come up for air.  These books, and other Florida capers, are fine as far as they go, but they still pale when compared to the works of John D. MacDonald, in the words of Stephen King “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.” 

The last Travis McGee novel
        It looks like those of us who wondered what ever happened to Scout and Atticus will get our answer this summer, fifty five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. And now we also have a new Sherlock Holmes story, thanks to that lost Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript.  MacDonald’s fans, of course, arguably have little to grouse about by contrast. The available MacDonald library is far greater than Harper Lee's two books, and McGee, on his own, weighs in with 21 installments. But, still, that has not stopped fans from wishing, and from searching out and then gobbling up similar Florida adventures.    

       For fans of these authors it is not so much how many books were written as it is facing the prospect that there will be no more.  It is that prospect that leaves us overjoyed at the unexpected promise of Go Set a Watchman or that final Sherlock Holmes story, and despairing over the fact that McGee's tale is apparently done.  The response of many of us to the fact that it is all over is a rift on McDonald’s three eternal words:

       “Please, not yet.”

24 September 2014

Lee Child's Personal


by David Edgerley Gates

PERSONAL is the nineteenth Jack Reacher book in the series, and Lee Child doesn't need my help to sell it. It opened at #1 on most national lists the first week it was out, and week two, it's still there.

This post isn't about promoting the book, which happens to be a knockout - Lee certainly hasn't lost his chops, and Jack keeps getting deeper as a character - but about P.O.V.



PERSONAL is told, appropriately, in first-person. This isn't a departure for the Reacher books, but more commonly, they've been told in the third. In other words, Jack is observedand doesn't share his confidences. This is true of thirteen books, so far. It's interesting to me why you'd decide to shift gears. Lee uses the first-person in KILLING FLOOR, PERSUADER, THE ENEMY, GONE TOMORROW, THE AFFAIR, and this book. Oh, you might think, work with the change-up pitch to keep yourself on your toes and avoid getting stale, or to keep your readers invested, over the course of a long and successful run of novels, but it seems to me there's a more calculated narrative choice involved.

Reacher's never been entirely generic - unlike, say, Travis McGee. John MacDonald, famously, never wanted to do a series character, but he got talked into it. McGee has his quirks, but he remains a flat character, until you get to THE GREEN RIPPER, and he steps outside of himself, the formula no longer able to contain him. The dynamic for Reacher, even at the beginning, allows for more expansion and contraction. Lee Child himself has said that he meant from the get-go to write books that would be accessible, and commercial, and that Reacher was a conscious construct, designed - not market-researched, but a means to an end.

He turns out to be more. This is something that happens, and not always by accident. There are other examples. We might start out to write one story, and then find it gets away from us, or a walk-on part suddenly takes center stage, and completely unexpected. But in Reacher's case, Lee Child might have intended a sort of empty vessel, a hero you could inhabit with your own devices and desires, and what he wound up with was somebody whose own devices and desires overtook the original template. 


Which brings us back to choosing a voice. In each of the books where Jack himself is speaking, he invites our confidence, and we become complicit. This is, I think, most true of THE ENEMY and THE AFFAIR, which take place in the past, when Jack is still active military. One of my favorite lines, in all of the books, is a throwaway, from THE ENEMY, a seemingly casual remark. Reacher's gone to Germany, and they're outside some big U.S. Army armor base, Baumholder or the like. In the early morning fog, they hear the tanks coming back from a live-fire exercise. The sound of tank treads on pavement, the sound of the 20th century, Reacher thinks to himself, the Wehrmachtthe Soviets putting down the Budapest revolt. One of the rare instances where Reacher is reflective. It's a very telling detail. Jack's not your average lifer.

Also, in THE ENEMY, we get to meet not just Jack's brother Joe, but their mom, with her own past history in the French resistance, something neither of the boys know about. Lee revisits this in PERSONAL. The real zinger in the book, for my money, isn't ninety pages in, with the Russian (no spoilers), but a hundred pages in, the scene afterwards, at Pere Lachaise cemetery, where Jack visits his mother's grave. This is the entire argument for using first-person. We hear Jack's thoughts. We see him revealed.

Vulnerability isn't the first word that comes to mind, with Reacher. Far from it. He's kind of a force of nature, a guy without visible weakness. Big, and certain. Nobody you want to mess with. People do, and live to regret it - or don't. Live, anyway. A hard guy, and unsentimental. A guy you believe in. A guy you want on your side.


I don't think, though, that you believe in Jack Reacher simply because he's an unstoppable force. I think what Lee Child has done, in the course of the books, is to pull off a real hat-trick. You get used to Reacher in some diner by the side of the highway, hoping he's going to get a decent cup of java, or head-butting some asshole cop who gets in his face, just being Jack. What takes you off-guard is the occasional, and sudden, moment of clarity. He assesses the background, his immediate environment, the threat potential, how not? What makes Jack different, what gives him depth, isn't that he examines himself. He doesn't. But he knows who he is.

You could say this is one in a long line. Spade, or Marlowe, Lew Archer. Spenser, and Travis McGee. Kinsey Milhone, for that matter. Lone wolves, who stake out their turf, and make it their own. I beg to differ. Reacher is somehow on another plane. I don't know how to explain it to myself. Not even Bob Lee Swagger - and I bow to none in my admiration for Steve Hunter - but Lee's done something else. He's reinvented the character, he owns Jack Reacher. he speaks with his voice.

We identify with our characters. I do with mine. Lee seems to have actually inhabited Jack. This is a gift, or a kind of magic. I think it's astonishing. We don't all manage it. Not even. Lee got a gift. It wasn't handed to him, by any means, but we take it when the tray is passed.



12 February 2013

Gone South (with Travis McGee)


by Dale C. Andrews
Sunset, Gulf Shores Alabama

    Just like last year, this month finds my wife and me transplanted from Washington, D.C. to the sunny south.  February, despite those limited number of days, is clearly the longest month in the year when spent in North Eastern climes, a fact that Boston has recently seen underscored.

    It always seemed to me that whoever made February the month with the fewest days was on to something.  Better still, it should have had 21 days – allow it three weeks and no more.  Then slip that extra week into June where it would be  appreciated instead of cursed.

    Anyway, when Pat and I retired back in 2009 we vowed to never spend February in the District of Columbia.  That is why on this “Shrove Tuesday” (or “Fat Tuesday,” as it is more popularly referred to) we find ourselves ensconced in a rented condo unit on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. 

John D. MacDonald
    As in the past I try to keep my every-other-Tuesday from becoming a travelogue simply because I am away from home.  But I also try to find inspiration in locale, and that is particularly easy to do as I look out onto the Gulf and think one state (and one shore) to the left.  What first got me thinking about the Florida Atlantic shore this year was an article by Jonathon Yardley that appeared in the Washington Post back on January 13 reporting (joyously) that virtually the entire John D. MacDonald library is being re-issued this year.  This includes all 21 of MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, each of which is being offered by Random House in brand new, handsome trade-paperback editions. 

    Two weeks ago in my article on Francis Nevin’s new Ellery Queen work The Art of Detection I quoted Mike Nevin’s observation that as a general matter “when the author dies, the work dies.”  In a similar vein, Jonathan Yardley’s article in the Washington Post noted that while
[t]he McGee novels have remained in print in mass-market editions . . .  most of the other books by this prodigiously proficient writer long ago vanished. . . .  To be sure, some characters in suspense fiction have long outlived their creators – think Lord Peter Wimsey, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Philip Marlowe – but mostly they just fade away, a fate that surely seemed in store for Travis McGee.

What a shame that would have been.  Kurt Vonnegut once predicted that  “[t]o diggers a thousand years from now . . . the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.”

    And what has been the catalyst for this MacDonald (and McGee) revival, saving us (at least in the near term) from such excavation?  Well, according to Random House it is (counter-intuitively) the blooming e-book market.  The anticipated new appetite for e-book versions of the McDonald library is projected to be strong enough to propel new issues of e-books and paper versions as well.  So this rising tide appears to be enough to lift all boats.

    And that happily  includes the Busted Flush.  For any of you unfamiliar with the series, the Busted Flush was Travis McGee’s 52 foot houseboat, on which he resided at Slip F-18 in the Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  The ship’s name is derived from the poker hand that allowed McGee to win the Busted Flush from its previous unnamed owner.

    And Travis McGee?  Well, McGee advertises himself as a “salvage consultant.”  He recovers otherwise hopelessly lost property for a fee of one-half the value.  As McGee explains it in The Deep Blue Good-by, the first volume in the series, “I like to work on pretty good sized [projects].  Expenses are heavy.  And then I can take another piece of my retirement.  Instead of retiring at sixty, I’m taking it in chunks as I go along.”  As McGee also explains, there is always a need for the services he offers.  We live, McGee notes, in “a complex culture . . . .  The more intricate our society gets, the more semi-legal ways there are to steal.”  His simple role is putting things back to right.

    What made these novels such great reads?  Well, principally the taut writing and prolific imagination of John D. MacDonald.  The books follow a formula, but a pretty wild one.  All the reader really knows is that the hero, our friend Travis, will prevail and will still be around by the last page.  This is also true of his sidekick, Meyer, an economist who lives (first) on his neighboring ship the John Maynard Keynes and later on the successor vessel, the Thorstein Veblen.  But aside from those two compadres, all bets are off, and virtually every other character struts and frets the pages in danger of extinction.   

    The success of the series also rests on the likeable shoulders of the characters MacDonald created.  Some writers leave their central character to the imagination of the readers (Ellery Queen, for example, unraveled mysteries for decades virtually un-described; Bill Pronzini’s hero doesn’t even have a name.)  By contrast, we know a huge amount about Travis McGee, including what he looks like and how he thinks..

    McGee, we are told, is a shambling brown beach bum with a 33-inch waist, who wears a size 46 long jacket, and a shirt with a 17½" neck and 34" arms.  He is likely to rail against anyone abusing the fragile ecosystem of his beloved Florida, and he wears his views on his shirt sleeve.  MacDonald, writing for the first-person narrator McGee, describes our hero’s views as follows in The Deep Blue Good-by:
 I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other 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.
. . . .
I am also wary of all earnestness.
We get the picture.

    The Travis McGee series spanned 21 volumes, beginning in 1964 with The Deep Blue Good-by and ending in 1985 with The Lonely Silver Rain.  Each volume sported its own color.

     Rumors persisted for years that a final volume, usually titled A Black Border for McGee, had been completed and that the book would kill off McGee.  MacDonald himself alluded to the volume in several interviews, saying that it would be published following his own death.  Almost certainly no such volume was ever written, and McDonald stated in later years that he would never kill off McGee since this would create a brooding ending hanging over the heads of new readers discovering the series.  We do know, according to letters written by McDonald to Mickey Spillane and to Stephen King that at the time of MacDonald's death following heart surgery in 1986 he had completed four chapters of what was to have been the 22nd Travis McGee adventure.  MacDonald also said that the story would be in two parts, spanning twenty years, and that it would end with with McGee still very much alive but slipping the lines off the pier and moving the Busted Flush to new moorings.  The completed chapters alluded to by MacDonald have never been found.

    Since MacDonald’s death in 1986 various offers to otherwise end the series, including one from Stephen King, have been rejected by MacDonald’s heirs.  Just last year MacDonald’s son Maynard explained this decision to leave the series at the 21 volumes written by MacDonald:
[T]he offers to extend my father's work have run from a tacky, blatant, commercial knock-off to a respectful, professional postscript to his work by a true friend [i.e., King]. And between those extremes there have been many well-crafted manuscripts that were done with warm regard and sincere admiration for my old man.
As these offers and manuscripts continued, and the enthusiasm from Random House snowballed, I was forced to finally define and face my own personal resistance to the idea of a sequel.
Given that I am not immune to the money, why refuse?
It is because I have never seen a really good imitation, be it art, literature, or music, that carries that poignant echo of the original artist- as a man. Even if the work itself is excellent, there is an inevitable flatness on that most intimate level, the level where the artist reveals himself.
To me, a work of art is a souvenir of the artist. It is a reflection of his inner and outer experience. It represents who he is and where he has got to at that moment of his life. In this sense, the creative process defies copying. I enjoy my father's work immensely. Part of him is still there, present on each page. Trying to echo that by imitating it is like trying to paint like Van Gogh by cutting off an ear. It also strikes me as a question of fairness. The dead cannot answer back and I feel it is presumptuous and disrespectful to play with their work.
    As someone whose published mystery output consists solely of pastiches I have some perhaps understandable quibbles with Maynard’s view.  But hey, it’s not my decision.  So while we can expect no new McGees, we, in any event, will soon have new editions of all 21 existing McGee novels.  As for what might have eventually happened to McGee, we are left to our own musings and those of others, including Carl Hiaasen:
Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale
[P]ossibly the old houseboat is tied there still; McGee on deck, tending to fresh bruises, sipping his Boodles; watching the sun slide from the sky over Las Olas Boulevard.  Anyway, that's what I want to believe. If he's gone, I prefer not to know.
Welcome back, McGee!