After discovering the amazing Louis L’Amour through watching Westerns, I fell back into my love of crime fiction, but managed to find a series that was adapted and features my new favourite actor.
This time, it’s the Travis McGee books by renowned thriller writer John D. MacDonald.
Another recent find I learned about through my newfound love of Sam Elliott movies, MacDonald’s droll seafaring sleuth appealed to me for a number of reasons.
For one, Travis McGee, known as Trav, lives on a barge called the Busted Flush. That’s an amazing name, and I’ve always wanted to live on a boat myself, so the series immediately caught my eye.
Also, the character is witty in the hardboiled manner, and clearly modelled on classic pulp fiction detectives such as Philip Marlowe.
Elliott plays him in a film named Travis McGee, and there was also an earlier film adaptation featuring Rod Taylor.
I’ve only seen Elliott in Travis McGee, and it’s safe to say that, while a good watch, the film does nothing to prepare you for the incredible wit and dry worldliness of the books. These novels are full of insightfulness and deep descriptions of the baseness of the human condition.
MacDonald, the author of this intensely gripping series of books, was already a prolific thriller writer before he created McGee, but the creation cemented his reputation as a creator of innovative detective stories.
The series protagonist, McGee is a bit different from traditional private eyes, but in many other ways he’s also incredibly similar.
Unlike many hardboiled private detectives, he doesn’t really style himself as such. Instead, he views himself as a ‘salvage expert’, who will find whatever you’ve lost in return for half of it.
He calls himself retired, stating that instead of retiring at 60 like others, he’s taking his retirement in chunks. He works when he needs money, then he takes some time off until he starts running low on funds.
While all this might make him sound like a glorified beach hippy, he’s as fast-talking, hard-hitting and generally unconventional as any other hardboiled private sleuth.
He’s also a smooth talker who’s great with women, and who frequently finds himself entangled with questionable ladies. When it comes to violence, McGee isn’t afraid to use it and is handy with his fists, but he has a moral compass like many hardboiled private eyes, which often leads him into questionable situations.
So, if you’re looking for a crime fiction series that offers something a little bit different, then MacDonald’s Travis McGee series could be the perfect choice for you.
Many of the newer editions of these books, which were first published throughout the 1960s to the 1980s, come with an introduction by Lee Child, so there’s even more of an incentive to read them.
There are more than 20 novels featuring Travis McGee, each one including a different colour in the title. All of them show the detective uncovering a new and more ingenious case, with a cast of phenomenal, often oddball characters.
These books are often overlooked by hardboiled crime fiction fans, who focus on the traditional names. If you’re looking to check out this series, then here are my top five picks.
5. The Dreadful Lemon Sky: In the early hours of a perfectly ordinary morning, Travis McGee is awoken by an old girlfriend with a favour to ask. She requests that McGee stashes her suitcase, which is filled with $100,000 dollars of suspicious cash. She asks him to keep it safe for two weeks, and to send it to her sister if she’s not back by then to collect it. In return for this simple favour, McGee can keep $10,000, which is less than his usual fee of half the loot, but the job is much simpler than his normal commissions. He reluctantly takes on the role, and after two weeks he goes snooping around to see why his friend still hasn’t returned to collect her case of cash. He learns that she’s died in what’s described as an accident, but McGee isn’t so sure. Feeling upset about his friend’s death, the sleuth sets out to uncover who staged the accident and is led into the seedy underbelly of organised crime. MacDonald keeps the reader guessing throughout this novel, which is why I enjoyed it so much.
4. The Empty Copper Sea: A wealthy businessman disappears off his luxury boat, and the accident is blamed on the vessel’s captain. He’s believed to have fallen overboard and drowned, and as the captain is accused of being drunk in charge of the cruiser when his employer went over the side. Van Harder, the captain of the boat, is a proud man who wants his reputation restored to him. He’s convinced that his boss is alive and well, and has gone into exile in Mexico to hide his unscrupulous business dealings and ill-gotten gains. Harder goes to his old pal Travis McGee, and asks him to help him prove that the accident wasn’t his fault and that his boss faked his own death. Seeking to prove his friend to be a capable seaman, McGee goes off in search of the missing man, and soon uncovers a tale of deception, deceit and devious financial dealings. This is the book that was the basis of the TV movie Travis McGee, which starred the iconic Sam Elliott, with the location moved from Florida to California. The film doesn’t do the book justice; while Elliott makes an excellent smooth-talking sleuth, he doesn’t quite embody the deceptive beach bum energy of the real McGee. The character is supposed to disarm women and adversaries with his deep tan and languorous demeanour. Once they’re suitably disarmed, he is able to extract their deepest secrets. Elliott is too much the hero to play McGee, and the script lacks the dry edge that MacDonald uses in all his books. Don’t let that put you off from reading The Empty Copper Sea: it’s a truly spectacular story that any hardboiled detective fiction fan will enjoy.
3. A Deadly Shade Of Gold: When an old friend of McGee’s drops by and asks to see him, they agree to meet at the man’s motel room. When the private eye arrives, he’s greeted by the sight of his pal’s murdered corpse. All that’s left behind is his old friend’s vengeful girlfriend and ancient Aztec idol that leads to a lot of trouble. This is the first book in the series to feature the enigmatic playboy economist Meyer, who features in later novels as McGee’s friend who often helps him to recover valuable items for his clients. This novel takes the reader from the Florida beaches where he lives on his houseboat to the expatriate society in Mexico as he searches for other icons in the series.
2. A Nightmare In Pink: Like all good hardboiled private detectives, Travis McGee was in the army. When the sister of an old friend from his days in service, who got injured when he stayed behind while McGee was on leave, comes to him for help, the professional finder feels compelled to assist her. Her fiancé has been murdered in what the police claim was a normal mugging, but she suspects differently. The murdered man was digging in some unsavoury places and seemed to have uncovered a scandal at his real estate firm, and a lot of money has gone missing. Just as McGee is getting nearer the truth, he’s sedated and trapped in a mental hospital. MacDonald keeps the thrills coming in this fast-paced and innovative thriller, which goes from simple search to gripping crime thriller in just a few short chapters.
1. The Deep Blue Goodbye: As I’ve said over and again, the first book in a series is always a great place to start. In this case, The Deep Blue Goodbye is an amazing place to begin, and makes for a perfect introduction to Travis McGee, beech bum extraordinaire, and his unique way of life. He’s got Miss Agnes, which might be the only Rolls Royce in the world to have been made into a pickup truck. He’s also got the Busted Flush, and his whirlwind life on board her. When his dancer friend, Chookie, introduces him to a friend who’s been raped and had an unknown treasure stolen from her by a two-bit smooth-talking conman, he sets out to recover the treasure. Quickly, McGee discovers the depths of the conman’s depravity, and his sense of morality kicks in and he begins a desperate, nationwide search for this rapist turned thief.