If you enjoy current crime series (like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone books, for instance) and want to try something harder-edged, then the Travis McGee books are a great find. They’ve recently attracted Hollywood attention, and a film adaptation of The Deep Blue Goodby is on the way, so now is the perfect time to familiarise yourself with the original material.
Trav is the ultimate hard-boiled anti-hero born of the 1960s. He’s rough around the edges, a womaniser like Fleming’s Commander Bond, a real man’s man. He can be brutal and he can be appallingly chauvinist – but he’s also got a dependable moral code of his own and the guts to go through with every investigation. Don’t expect a happy ending on every occasion…
The Deep Blue Goodby is the first book in a series of 21 novels so is a natural place to start. Over the course of the series, McGee’s character develops in step with the social and political circumstances, so his early escapades are set in the hippie counter-culture of the late 1960s but he ends up resolving transgressions in an entirely different atmosphere in the 1980s. In the current editions you get an intro by Lee Child and a modern cover design which suggests that McGee is a hero in the Jack Reacher mold – far from it!
Usually, there’s a damsel in distress, and in the tradition of true American noir she is frequently an ambivalent femme fatale who delivers nothing but trouble wrapped in a queasily seductive ribbon. Establishing the pattern which follows in subsequent stories, McGee undertakes an investigation on behalf of an underdog, a client who can’t call on the normal forces of law and order. McGee is no licensed PI or by-the-rules detective. He’s a bad boy who resolves those murky issues where angels won’t muddy their wings. When the police can’t help you, McGee may take the case to recover the stolen goods – keeping half for himself as his price for doing business. This time around, he’s recovering an illicit smuggled fortune which has been ripped off by a psycho stone killer…
MacDonald’s writing is at times bleak, others harsh, frequently contemplative. In each McGee novel you get an old-fashioned pulp thriller with plenty of action, a dash of mystery and violence, combined with a cynical commentary on American society. There are moments when MacDonald’s gripes with ‘modern’ life get on my nerves – and his self-indulgent rants become more prominent as the series develops – but these interludes are more than balanced by his knife-sharp prose, oddball characters and seedy situations in the rank humidity of the Florida keys.
Political correctness hadn’t been invented when MacDonald wrote these stories so frequently the female characters are flim-flam one-dimensional cannon-fodder; tarts with a heart or disposable bed-bunnies. McGee solves problems with his fists and then creates a philosophy to support his contradictory inclinations. You can read The Deep Blue Goodby as a straightforward pulp-fiction investigation, or ponder a little deeper on the themes in which MacDonald dabbles.
And unlike many modern novels, the Travis McGee series are all bite-size books. They’re easy to read in a couple of days, not 500-page bloated behemoths. Quality – and quantity; an extensive, episodic overview of the evolution of American culture, dressed up as detective stories.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Deep Blue Goodby is available as a paperback or ebook at Amazon