Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Deep Blue Goodbye by John D. MacDonald

Location: Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and the Keys
This is one of my North American selections for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

Travis McGee lives on a houseboat named the Busted Flush and calls himself a salvage consultant. His friend Chookie McCall describes his job:
You said if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back and keep half.
Chookie asks McGee to talk to one of her girls, Cathy Kerr, a dancer in a group she runs. Cathy came to fort Lauderdale after a man named Junior Allen worked his way into her life and stole something valuable hidden by her father before he was sent to prison. After Junior abused her, stole from her, and left her humiliated in the street, Cathy came to Fort Lauderdale to earn money for the family. One night after a few drinks she let her story slip to Chookie who thought of McGee's profession. McGee tries to resist but decides that he has to help Cathy and begins to check out Junior. Junior is always smiling but underneath McGee sees a sadistic psychopath who enjoys breaking women. Along the way Travis finds another of Junior's victims, Lois, a woman wrecked nearly beyond repair. He is determined to restore what was stolen from Cathy; help Lois find her self-respect and will to live; and bring down Junior.

The Deep Blue Goodbye was published in 1964 and is the first book in the Travis McGee series. In Cracking the Hard-Boiled Detective: A Critical History from the 1920s to the Present, Lewis D. Moore identifies Travis McGee as the first detective (he is a P.I. even if it isn't an official title)) in the Transitional Period (1964-1977) marking a shift in direction from the Early Period (1927-1955) that took us into the Modern Period (1979-present). Among the changes begun with Travis McGee is the theme of sexuality. Sexual relationships are an important part of the stories and McGee is deeply marked by his relationships.

Remember that the first Travis McGee story was published in 1964. McGee has a paternalistic attitude toward women that might make modern readers more than a little uncomfortable. Watch some episodes of Mad Men on AMC to see this attitude on screen. He doesn't have a problem with women who show wear as long as they have dignity. The physical imperfections of women he doesn't approve of are described in minute detail.

McGee is a white knight with the need to rescue and protect. He recognizes that part of himself and is ironic in that recognition. Once he decides to help Cathy he thinks to himself:
But now Cathy had created the restlessness, the indignation, the beginning of that shameful need to clamber aboard my spavined white steed, knock the rust off the armor, tilt the crooked old lance and shout huzzah.

Note the use of the word "indignation." McGee is morally offended by injustice and has to restore balance.

MacDonald also made McGee highly introspective. There are long passages where McGee considers the debased state of society and his place in it. Macdonald was concerned with environmentalism and he used McGee to vent. A lot of it might seem ponderous and pretentious today but MacDonald could really write. Look at the way he describes a house:
It was one of those Florida houses I find unsympathetic, all block tile, glass, terrazzo, aluminum. They have a surgical coldness. Each one seems to be merely some complex corridor arrangement, a going-through place, an entrance built that was never constructed. When you pause in these rooms, you have the feeling that you are waiting. You feel that a door will open and you will be summoned and horrid things will happen to you before they let you go. You cannot mark these houses with any homely flavor of living. When they are emptied after occupancy, they have the look of places where the blood has recently been washed away.

Later in the series, MacDonald gives McGee a friend/partner, Meyer, an economist who lives on a nearby boat. Meyer isn't a "Watson." Moore (see above) quotes Edgar W. Hirschberg who observes of Meyer:
But his most important function is as an additional brain. Sometimes he is a sounding board, off which Travis can bounce his ideas or hypotheses. Often he is the voice of reason and sense in instances when McGee may be carried away by his passions or resentments.

In twenty-one novels, MacDonald created one of the most enduring series characters in crime fiction and a model for many of our modern crime writers. The stories are still readable and I recommend them not only for the good writing and storyteling but also for their place in the history of crime fiction.

I read that Leonardo DiCaprio has signed on to play Travis McGee in a film adaptation of The Deep Blue Goodbye. Since I am able to accept Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes it would be hypocritical to squawk and I am curious to see how it works out.