In The Spotlight: John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye

Hello, All,

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


Filed under John D. MacDonald, The Deep Blue Goodbye

26 responses to “In The Spotlight: John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye

  1. Travis McGee is definitely an intriguing character. He’s a sleuth you can’t help but like. Great spotlight as usual, Margot. Always enjoy these.

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Why, thank you :-). Travis McGee is definitely someone I’d want on my side if I’d been cheated. He always helps the “underdog,” and I do like his character. If you haven’t tried MacDonald I recommend him.

  2. Margot: The Travis McGee series is my favourite mystery series. It is so rare to find a real tough guy who is also a thinker. At the same time he is flawed. From the first book he is unable to maintain a serious relationship with a woman. Finally, McGee is all American. I cannot see him as any other nationality.

    • Bill – It is rare, isn’t it? MacDonald created an unusual character in that McGee is a bit of a philosopher, but he can also be a man of quick action when it’s needed. It’s interesting, too, that you mention his relationships with women. He does have trouble maintaining a long-term relationship with a woman, but he recognises that weakness in himself and at one point of course, he does finally marry. He’s an interesting character on a lot of levels and yes, he is most definitely American.

  3. I have read a hard-boiled or a semi-hard-boiled for a while now…and I’ve always enjoyed MacDonald’s books. I’ll put this one on the TBR list. Thanks!

    • Elizabeth – I know what you mean; there are some sub-genres I haven’t read for a while, too. I hope you’ll like this one. It’s classic MacDonald, I think.

  4. I’ve spurned hardboiled detectives of old because my mother read them and I thought they were awful as a teen. I didn’t even realize this was set in the Keys which I love. It’s high time I read this to find out what my teen self was too stubborn to learn.

    • Barbara – Oh, I’ve done the same thing myself – refused to read something as a younger person and then re-discovered it later. What I like about this series is that it’s a well-crafted series with a thinking kind of protagonist.

  5. I haven’t read it but the setting is interesting and I’m on the lookout for new reads because of the International book challenge. Thanks for the review.

  6. I haven’t read any JD MacDonald for years and years, but I think Travis McGee was concerned about the environment and corrupt developers ruining Florida long before it became fashionable.

    • Norman – You’ve got quite a well-taken point. Although it’s not a major element in The Deep Blue Goodbye, McGee does worry about what he sees happening to Florida as a result of developers and other corporate types. And as you say, MacDonald used McGee to make those points a long time before it was fashionable.

  7. Patti Abbott

    I remember waiting fervently for each color to appear. Have seldom had quite that anticipation again.

  8. Like so many others, I looked forward to John D. MacDonald’s next Travis McGee book. I also remember reading his correspondence with one of the guys who did Laugh In. They were friends, and then the friendship went south, at least somewhat. I found those interesting too.

    • Joe – I have to agree; MacDonald was such a talented writer! And in my opinion, his work was consistently good over time, and that’s saying something. Thanks, too, for mentioning that interesting bit of MacDonald’s personal life. I didn’t know that about him and it’s always interesting to get that perspective on a writer.

  9. John D. MacDonald created a very durable character in Travis McGee. The series stayed at a very high quality level until it tailed off at the end (THE GREEN RIPPER is the weakest book in the series).

    • George – You’re not alone in thinking The Green Ripper wasn’t MacDonald’s best. Still, I agree completely that the series was, for the most part, a consistently solid series.

  10. Michael Stamm

    For my money, NIGHTMARE IN PINK is the weakest McGee, but GREEN RIPPER isn’t one of the best. (I can’t help wondering if Parker’s appalling A CATSKILL EAGLE was his attempt to tell the same kind of story with Spenser, but from an exceedingly dubious moral standpoint.) I’ve liked every MacDonald I’ve read to one degree or another (though I haven’t read my umpteenth-generation photocopy of WEEP FOR ME–one of two titles JDM would never allow to be reprinted–yet).

    • Michael – In my opinion, that’s one thing that made MacDonald a standout. Even his weakest effort is heaps better than many people’s best. Agreed that not all of his novels are truly great and memorable; I don’t know of a lot of people who could do that anyway. But as a whole, he was one of those authors whose work was a cut above.
      Interesting question about A Catskill Eagle…I don’t have the factual answer, of course, but it raises an intriguing possibility. And I would to have a look at Weep For Me. I’ve not read that, either.

  11. I read them all years ago and in 2009 decided to re-read them in order. I read this one and Nightmare in Pink, then Purple Place for Dying and A Deadly Shade of Gold, one right after the other. Then it was too much too fast so I stopped. Time to pick up where I left off. Next up is Bright Orange for the Shroud. I don’t remember a thing about it.

    • Richard – I’ve done that too, actually – plunged into a series and then had to stop. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about re-reading Bright Orange for the Shroud

  12. Charles Rolls

    Can you tell me in which book he first mentions his love of Plymouth Gin?

  13. And MacDonald takes chances. His descriptions of, and explanations for, the way Junior Allen makes both Cathy Kerr and Lois Atkinson essentially his willing, nymphomaniac sex slaves will make every self respecting academic feminist in the world scream in protest. And he scalds George Brell with 180 degree water to get information out of him, so surely the sadist charge is awaiting somewhere.

    • You make some interesting points, Elizabeth. MacDonald does take some chances, both here and in other books. It’s to his credit as a writer that he pushes those limits, so to speak, and still keeps the quality of writing and plot strong. He certainly doesn’t shy away from all sorts of ‘risky’ characters.

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