Dappered Classics – The Read: The Travis McGee series

Dappered Classics – The Read: The Travis McGee series
The Travis McGee Novels by John D. MacDonald

Originally published 6/18/11.  Review by Dappered Arts and Culture Correspondent Ben Madeska.

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.

To call John MacDonald a paperback mystery writer is like describing Vonnegut as a sci-fi writer: it may strictly true, but it misses the point.  MacDonald was an extraordinary novelist and social critic, and wrote one of the great series of American fiction.  Travis McGee, hero through these 21 novels, is, as Carl Hiaasen put it, “everything a connoisseur of private-eye capers could want.”

Any of these books could easily be enjoyed as an undemanding distraction on a flight or a lazy Sunday afternoon.  They hit all the right notes of the genre: beautiful women, vicious villains, flawed but virtuous heroes, tight plotting, witty banter.  They also offer a healthy dose of escapism, with McGee being the classic man women want and men want to be, living a peripatetic lifestyle in South Florida on a houseboat won in a poker game.

But it doesn’t take long to see that MacDonald has pulled off something much more impressive: capturing a time, a place, and a people with pitch perfect descriptions and insights.  Like Philip Marlow on a fishing trip, McGee casts his cool eye on the scams, criminals, developers and general craziness of Florida in particular, and American culture at large.  He’s too cynical and outraged to buy into the hedonistic promises that surround him, but he’s too principled to give up on the world entirely – a knight errant in rusted armor, tilting at the windmills of the modern world.

You can probably get the whole series for less than a buck apiece.  They don’t have to be read strictly in order, but you might as well start with “The Deep Blue Good-by” and go from there.

“I do not function too well on emotional motivations.  I am wary of them.  And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.

“I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.”

– Travis McGee,  “The Deep Blue Good-By”

For previous editions of “The Read” see our archive.