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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I don't recall when I went on my tear through John D. McDonald's Travis McGee novels-- it was certainly over 20 years ago, and maybe more than that. I'm pretty sure I read most of them, but it is hard to tell by going over the list: one of the gimmicks was that they all had a color in the title, which would have been good branding as they came out, but now makes most of them sound more or less interchangeable. "Cinnamon Skin" is a distinctive title; "A Tan and Sandy Silence" not so much. At some point I decided that although the series was surprisingly progressive in some ways-- McDonald seems to have been an environmentalist of sorts-- it was also disturbingly misogynistic. I unloaded most of the books somewhere, and haven't really thought about Travis McGee in years. The other night though I was looking for something pulpy to lull myself to sleep and my hand fell upon "A Purple Place for Dying". Wikipedia says that it was the third book in the series, and that the first three were published one a month from March to May of 1964. Even though we don't know how it long it took to write them, that's an impressive pace. The set-up was pretty well established by the time McDonald got to this one: someone has lost something they want McGee to recover. His deal is that he will attempt to recover whatever it is, for 50% of its value. I can't recall if the person who hires him is always a woman, but in all of the McGee novels I can recall there is always a woman who McGee feels is in need of emotional repair. In a way that is striking all of the women in these books are evaluated by McGee in terms of how sexually attractive he finds them, although he doesn't have sex with all of them. A fair number of people die in these books, and a disproportionate number of them are women. This upsets McGee, although, unfortunately, he usually expresses this displeasure by pronouncing the death "a waste".

McGee's usual drink is a kind of martini that he makes by rinsing a chilled glass with sherry, which he dumps out,  then pours in Plymouth gin, but in "Purple" he drinks bourbon. At one point a character praises his taste in bourbon, but the brand is not mentioned. I have a feeling that once McGee switched  to martinis there was always plenty of Plymouth around in the McDonald household.  It is not uncommon for the women in these books to be involved with men that are older than they are-- this is convenient, because McGee is always older than the women are. In "Purple Place" the older husband is 58, and talks about how someday, when he is dead, his wife will have all his money. Since this codger is only three years older than I am I found this line of talk unrealistic, but I suppose in 1964 men in their mid-fifties were much older than me. In the earlier books McGee is a lone wolf, but later he has a sidekick, and still later some of the women that he has helped out in the earlier books appear as supporting characters. Usually they are still extremely attractive, and usually they have married. They do not seem to have gone on to careers, and sometimes they are brutally murdered. This makes McGee sad. Even though he is no longer having sex with these women it is a waste, because now nobody is.

For all that the books are well-plotted puzzles, with bad guys who are very bad and deserve everything they have coming. I guess my problem is that they date badly.  McDonald seems to have aspired to write something more literary than "Kiss Me Deadly"but what we are left with here in the 21st Century is a shelf of novels that have lapels like 1973.

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