Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. John D. MacDonald was one of the most influential writers of the P.I. sub-genre, and his Travis McGee character has remained one of crime fiction’s most enduringly popular sleuths. I’ve been remiss in not profiling any of MacDonald’s work until now, but that’s about to change. Today let’s take a closer look at how it all began, with The Deep Blue Goodbye.
The novel begins when McGee gets a request from a friend of his, choreographer/dancer Chookie McCall. She and her dance troupe have an act at a local club and she’s recently hired Catherine Kerr to join the troupe. McCall asks McGee to help Kerr find “something she’s lost,” and reluctantly, McGee agrees to at least meet with Kerr.
When he does, McGee finds that Kerr has a very sad story to tell. She’d been abandoned by her son Davie’s father, and even with sharing life’s expenses with her sister, it was hard to make ends meet. Then, the family got a visit from Junior Allen, who knew Kerr’s now-deceased father. He ingratiated himself with Kerr and before long they were a couple. Then, all of a sudden, Allen left town only to return a few months later and a lot richer. He then took up with another woman Lois Atkinson. Not long after that, Allen disappeared yet again. Kerr believes that Allen got all of his money from something he stole from her father, although she isn’t sure exactly what that might be. She knows Junior Allen is no good, but she does want what she thinks is rightfully hers.
After some thought, McGee agrees to try to track down Junior Allen and the money that he stole from Kerr. Bit by bit, McGee follows Allen’s trail. His discoveries lead him to believe that Kerr was right; Allen found something of great value on the family’s property, stole it and sold it in New York for quite a lot of money. As the story moves on, we find out what it was that Allen stole.
More than that, though, we learn about Allen’s character. He’s a harsh, abusive man, but knows enough about ingratiating himself with people that he’s been able to victimise more than one woman, including Catherine Kerr and Lois Atkinson. He’s also savvy enough to have discovered a secret that Catherine Kerr’s father kept and exploit it for his own benefit. He really is a classic “bad guy that it’s easy to hate.” McGee follows Allen’s trail from New York through Texas and back to Florida. By that time, Allen’s latched on to a new victim, so McGee has to plan carefully and think and act quickly if he’s going to stop Allen before it’s too late. Along the way, McGee, Kerr and Atkinson learn that Allen is a very dangerous enemy.
This novel has several of the hallmarks of the “hardboiled” detective novel. There’s an unflinching look at users and abusers, and there is violence, some of it against women. That said, though, this isn’t a gratuitous novel. It is, however, a story of some very unhappy characters. Several of them are down and out, and there’s a strong sense that life simply hasn’t been fair to them. McGee recovers most of what Kerr lost and is able to return it to her. So in that sense the novel has a positive ending and we do get a sense that justice has been served. And yet, it isn’t a very happy ending. For McGee and for Kerr, life will go on, and some good things do come out of the story. But too much is lost to really call it a novel where things turn out right, so to speak.
Another important element in this story is the set of characters. We really care about Catherine Kerr and Lois Atkinson. As McGee gets to know them, so does the reader. In both cases, we get a fascinating look at how an abuser can ingratiate himself with someone. At first glance, it’s easy to ask, “How could you mix yourself up with such a bad person?” As we get to know the characters, though, we see that the answer isn’t as simple as you might think. The other characters, such as Kerr’s sister Christine, and Chookie McCall, are also well-drawn and three-dimensional.
And then there’s Travis McGee, the self-described “salvage consultant.” In this novel, we don’t learn a lot of his backstory, but we do learn that he’s got some past secrets that form at least part of the reason he lives on a houseboat called The Busted Flush instead of in a “real” home. We also learn the story of how he acquired the boat and why it has that name.
McGee has a lot of sympathy for the down-and-out, and yet he’s not gullible. At several points in the story, for instance, he realises when people are hiding things and lying to him and calls those people out. He doesn’t believe everything he’s told, even by his client, and he’s not particularly trusting. That said, though, he doesn’t judge; he knows that people are complicated and do things for complicated reasons. He’s also very sympathetic to the “underdog,” and doesn’t like the thought of people being exploited. He’s philosophical and yet he can certainly take action when it’s necessary. This novel is the first in the Travis McGee series and the reader gets a sense that there’s a lot to McGee’s character that will unfold as the series goes on. And so it proves to be.
We also get a sense of place in this novel. Much of the novel takes place in South Florida, and we get a strong sense of that setting as the novel goes on:
“Cathy Kerr sat primly beside me on the genuine leather of old Miss Agnes as we drifted swiftly down through Perrine and Naranja and Florida City, then through Key Largo, Rock Harbor, Tavernier and across another bridge onto Candle Key. Her eagerness to see her child was evident when she pointed out the side road to me and, a hundred yards down the side road, the rock columns marking the entrance to the narrow driveway that led back to the old frame bay-front house. It was of black cypress and hard pine, a sagging weathered old slattern leaning comfortably on her pilings, ready to endure the hurricane winds that would flatten glossier structures.”
Travis McGee is a fisherman and a beachcomber besides being a “salvage consultant” and it’s hard to imagine him living anywhere else.
The Deep Blue Goodbye isn’t an optimistic novel. But it does reflect the dignity of the everyday person who’s been knocked down by life. It’s also an interesting mystery with complex characters, a solid pace and a unique kind of sleuth. But what’s your view? Have you read The Deep Blue Goodbye? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 16 January/Tuesday 17 January – Garnethill – Denise Mina
Monday 23 January/Tuesday 24 January – Bad Move – Linwood Barclay
Monday 30 January/Tuesday 31 January – Death of a Cad – M.C. Beaton