Scott D. Parker
Come on. Are you kidding me? How good is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories?
Yeah, I know that many of y’all already know about McGee, have read all twenty-one of his novels, and have been a fan for decades. Not me. It was only two weeks ago when I reviewed THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY. Well, I’ve now read the next two in the series and boy, am I hooked.
Back in 1964, long-time pulp writer MacDonald decided to try his hand at a series character. McGee was the result. His publisher, Fawcett Gold Medal, decided to try something different: publish the first three novels a month apart and then the subsequent novels at a longer pace. The first book was published in March, NIGHTMARE IN PINK came out in April, and A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING in May. The fourth novel, THE QUICK RED FOX, also has a 1964 publication date, but I can’t find the month. Be that as it may, readers in 1964 saw four adventures of McGee. If they read those books like I’ve done, they’ve just devoured this new character.
NIGHTMARE finds McGee in New York. As a favor to an fellow Korean War veteran, McGee is looking into the death of the fiancé of the veteran’s sister, Nina. As a man who is decidedly not an official private detective, McGee has an interesting way of approaching what might be considered his cases. He’s the proverbial fly in the ointment. He is also the rescuer of lost things, mainly women. In this book, the ‘nightmare’ part is something I never saw coming: hallucinogenic drugs, administered without consent to McGee. Author MacDonald’s descriptions here are as trippy as anything I’ve read. Couple that with the sense of dread that washed over McGee when he realizes his predicament makes this entry downright horrifying.
PURPLE PLACE has McGee meeting a potential client in a fictitious town out in the Southwest. Mona Yeoman thinks her much-older husband has bilked her inheritance and she wants some so she and her new man, a professor, can get a divorce and run off together. No sooner does McGee beg off the job than Mona is shot in the back, dead before she hits the ground. By the time McGee escapes and brings back the sheriff, the body and all traces of the murder have vanished. In a brilliant bit of prose, McGee toys with the idea that he should just leave, but he and the reader both know he won’t.
Even before I read these three novels, I know McGee as a man who lived on a boat. Strange, then, that two of the first three books take places somewhere other than Florida. I preferred PURPLE PLACE over NIGHTMARE largely because the subject matter of NIGHTMARE made me uneasy. But I also enjoyed the relationships McGee made with the women. In books like these, there’s always a woman for the lead man to bed. But then there’s always the problem of commitment. The way MacDonald lets McGee out is actually pretty natural.
The way MacDonald writes these books is so fluid and captivating. The prose sucks me in with little effort. I’ve already dug out an old collection of short stories I bought years ago of some of MacDonald’s early pulp short stories. This man can write and I can read. And I aim to read more of McGee and MacDonald. They are a revelation to me.
So, long-time fans, what are your favorite Travis McGee and/or John D. MacDonald novels? And is there a good biography of MacDonald?