"Travis McGee is the last of the great knights-errant: honorable, sensual, skillful, and tough. I canít think of anyone who has replaced him. I canít think of anyone who would dare"
-- Donald Westlake
Beach bum. Salvage consultant. Recoverer of misplaced goods. Ladies' man. Mender of broken hearts. Environmentalist. Crank. Amateur sex therapist. Former college football star. Decorated soldier. Connaiseur of gin. Man's man, and ladies' man. Cynical knight errant.
Colourful TRAVIS McGEE is taking his retirement on the installment plan, working when he needs to, and pretty much living life the way he damn well pleases. He lives on his "yacht," The Busted Flush, a 52-foot barge type houseboat with twin diesels, at the Fort Lauderdale marina, drives a bastardized 1936 Rolls-Royce he's converted into a pickup truck and painted a gawd-awful blue, eats and drinks well, and lives the good life, all financed by his job as a "salvage consultant."
What he actually does is recover missing or stolen goods for half their value, operating in the gray area between black and white, ocassionally accompanied by his best friend and next boat neighbor Meyer, a respected economist.
From his debut in 1964 with The Deep Blue Goodbye, to his final appearance in 1984's The Lonely Silver Rain, the tall, sandy-haired McGee appeared in twenty-one novels, each with a colour in the title, and remains one of the best, and most beloved private eyes of all time (even if he wasn't licensed, and at times acted more like Robin Hood than Philip Marlowe).
Although the books sold like hotcakes, they never quite made the jump successfully into another medium. A 1970 theatrical release, Darker Than Amber, based on the 1966 novel of the same name and featuring the suitably-chunky Rod Taylor as McGee, was disappointing. Taylor wasn't bad in the role, but the acting in the flick from some of the rest of the cast is so wooden you could get splinters in your eyes watching it too closely. Nice location shots, though, and the bad guy was genuinely creepy.
But a 1983 made-for-TV film, The Empty Copper Sea (and pilot for a potential series) was just wrong, wrong, wrong, no matter how you looked at it. Somnolent Magnum P.I./Marlboro Man-lookalike Sam Elliot wasn't even a half-good choice to play McGee, even if he could wake up. And substituting California for McGee's beloved Florida? A series was never developed from this sorry mess. Thank god.
The McGee books did, however, gave birth to a whole sub-genre of detective fiction -- the Florida adventurer. MacDonald's concerns over the ecological rape of Florida and his disgust for the greedy, corrupt forces that are drive it are reflected in Geoffrey Norman's Morgan Hunt, James Hall's Thorn, John Lutz's Carver and Carl Hiassen's crazed desparadoes and lost rescuers. It's there that the true spirit of MacDonald's tarnished, shambling beach bum knight lives on.
- One of the more enduring myths in the P.I. genre is that there is a final McGee, A Black Border for McGee, locked away somewhere. However, despite comments made by MacDonald himself, shortly before his death, both his widow and his publisher deny that any such book exists. But the final book in the series, The Lonely Silver Rain (1984), does have a rather elegiac feel to it, as if both MacDonald and McGee knew that their time was over. As George Pelecanos has pointed out, McGee was "the embodiment of (early 60s) male wish-fulfillment." That the series lasted so long is a testament not just to McGee's character, but to MacDonald's ability to tell a story, and captivate an audience.
- "Being an adult means accepting those situations where no action is possible."
-- Travis in The Green Ripper (1979)
- "Now, of course, having failed in every attempt to subdue the Glades by frontal attack, we are slowly killing it off by tapping the River of Grass. In the questionable name of progress, the state in its vast wisdom lets every two-bit developer divert the flow into drag-lined canals that give him 'waterfront' lots to sell. As far north as Corkscrew Swamp, virgin stands of ancient bald cypress are dying. All the area north of Copeland had been logged out, and will never come back. As the glades dry, the big fires come with increasing frequency. The ecology is changing with egret colonies dwindling, mullet getting scarce, mangrove dying of new diseases born of dryness."
-- Travis in Bright Orange for a Shroud (1965)
- "Commercially speaking, there has never been a smarter creation than Travis McGee. He is the embodiment of male wish-fulfillment. No nine-to-five job, lives by his own set of rules, resides on a houseboat, drinks but is not a drunk, tall, handsome, good with his fists but not a bully, etc. All of the women McGee sleeps with are built like centerfolds, and, more importantly, most of them conveniently kick before that bothersome issue of commitment comes to the forefront (one mystery store in New York actually has an annual Travis McGee Always the Bridesmaid Never the Bride Award in honor of the latest murdered female companion to a male series character). So McGee is the man we--okay, most of us--would like to see when we look in the mirror. And, yeah, I love the books. I even named my old dog, Travis, after McGee."
The McGee books are early 60s timepieces (the hero's Hefner-like, paternal attitude towards women) in the same way that Spillane's books represent a certain kind of attitude (paranoid, racist, homophobic) from the 50s. Think of them on one hand as social records, and try not to judge them from the perspective of our more "enlightened" present. When a modern writer tries to approximate that attitude in a period book (for the sake of his own street-cred or to maintain a rep of cool) is when the issue becomes more complicated and problematic."
-- George Pelecanos, author of Right As Rain, on Rara Avis, April 2001
- "... possibly 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."
-- Carl Hiaasen ponders McGee's current whereabouts
- "One of the great sagas in American fiction."
-- Robert B. Parker
- "To diggers a thousand years from now...the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."
-- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
- "Travis McGee had the right idea. Retirement days should be taken early and often."
-- J. Michael Blue, in his novel Justified Crimes
- DARKER THAN AMBER...Buy this video
(1970, National General)
Based on the novel by John D. MacDonald
Screenplay by Ed Waters
Directed by Robert Clouse
Starring Rod Taylor as TRAVIS McGEE
and Theodore Bikel as Meyer
Also starring Suzy Kendall, Oswaldo Calvo, Jane Russell
- THE EMPTY COPPER SEA
(aka "Travis McGee: The Empty Copper Sea")
Based on The Empty Copper Sea by John D. MacDonald
Screenplay by Sterling Silliphant
Directed by Andrew V. McLaglin
Starring Sam Elliot as TRAVIS McGEE
Also starring Gene Evans, Katharine Ross, Vera Miles, Amy Madigan, Richard Farnsworth, Geoffrey Lewis
ALSO OF INTEREST
- "Green Gravy for the Blush" (March 1971, EQMM; Travis McGee parody by Jon Breen )
- The Official Travis McGee Quiz Book (1984; by John Brogan, intro by JDM)..Buy this book
- The World According to Travis McGee (2001, by R. Ackroyd)..Buy this book
Long-time MacDonald fan Steve Scott (he assisted Walter and Jean Shine on their second edition of their definitive MacDonald bibliography) has created a truly great blog, featuring in-depth analysis of all all the novels and many of the short stories, plus a great selection of the author's views on writing and other authors.
Another fan site, and a lot of fun. As well as the book-by-book breakdown, and a collection of quotes, there's also a selection of Boat Bum Cuisine, complete with recipes for such treats as Meyer's Memorable Chili and McGee's Special Martini.
Tom Dooley's personable, personal essay on why he wants to be Travis McGee (like, don't we all?). It serves as a perfect intro to the beloved beach bum PI. There's an outline of the character and an enlightening passage from Free Fall in Crimson.
Let's face it -- the dude got around.
This site's entry on Lori Stone's detective hero, who may or may not be McGee's long-lost lovechild. The allusions fall like the lonely silver rain....
The literary descendants of our man Trav.
- According to Captain Morgan (of the now-defunct McGee Newsgroup), who looked through some of the prices in Yachting magazine back in 1988, a boat like the Busted Flush could easily run to half a million or more, depending on the amenities and adjusted for 1998 dollars. Anyone out there have any idea what it would be worth today?
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Bluefox808 for the multiple words to the wise. And Tom Malone for having sharper eyes than me. The first Plymouth's on me, guys.