April 2005

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Pulp Fiction, Hard Cases and the Travis McGee Retirement Plan

“Travis McGee’s still in Cedar Key. That’s what old John Macdonald said.”
- Jimmy Buffett, Incommunicado

I admit it. I’m on the Travis McGee retirement plan. I read once in a battered pulp paperback about a beach bum who subscribed to his own peculiar philosophy that retirement could be taken not all at the end as an old man but as early and as often as fortune allowed. In short, our days are numbered and not to be wasted battering away at some tedious task for damned fools. It’s not a prosperous life but you get to spend a lot of time in the sun.

Travis McGee, an errant detective created in 1964 by John D. MacDonald was, like Steve McQueen, a genuine icon of American cool. If the British archetype for the so-called “men’s novel” was James Bond, than Travis was the gold standard for the American crime novel. Where Fleming’s technology-minded Bond was rooted in detailed spy novels that pointed to the future, McGee was firmly gripped in the mechanics of the past, a bull-headed adventurer with his own firm beliefs and behavior. Fleming himself was a fan, telling an interviewer once, “I automatically buy every John D. MacDonald book as it comes out and not even his invention of a serial character, with all the dangers I personally know so well, will deter me from continuing to do so.”

McGee wasn’t even a proper detective but a self-contained “salvage consultant,” meaning he went after lost property with quick wits and a hard skull and kept whatever he recovered for half its value. Even after one book, though, you realize that he’s far less in the Richard Stark “bad-guy-as-hero” family as the “tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold” range. He likes women, dogs, good gin and has, for the most part, a sound mind and body. No, he doesn’t always fight fair but he does fight for the right reasons.

“No matter how many times you do it, how many times you pretend to be someone you aren’t and you get the goodhearted cooperation of some trusting person, you feel a little bit soiled. There is no smart-ass pleasure to be gained from misleading the innocent,” says McGee in Cinnamon Skin.

To be fair, though, it’s probably best to keep the books in their proper social context. McGee has as much in common as Hefner or as Bond where women are concerned. There’s a hell of a lot of sex in the series and McGee’s female companions often conveniently pop off or come to their senses before anything resembling an actual relationship comes to bear. I’ve head that one mystery store in New York even used to hold an annual “Travis McGee Always the Bridesmaid Never the Bride Award” in honor of the latest murdered female companion to a male series character.

Yes, it’s an embodiment of sixties and seventies male fantasy life, sure. McGee lives on a houseboat, the famous Busted Flush named after its acquisition in a $30,000 poker game. Equip one anachronistic adventurer with one eloquent best friend in Meyer, a crisp glass of Boodles on ice, a bunch of very human villains and a relentless series of warm and willing female companions, and stir.

McGee starred in twenty-one novels from the first, The Deep Blue Goodbye, to his poignant final bow in 1984’s The Lonely Silver Rain. That’s a career, by anyone’s standards. The books sold well, as genre fiction that people pick up airports and drugstores invariably do. McDonald died not long after publishing the last book in the series. There a rumor that a final book, maybe narrated by Meyer and possibly titled A Black Border For McGee, exists in a file cabinet somewhere in Sarasota, but it’s probably just wishful thinking, regrettably.

Although they fell out of fashion for several years, MacDonald’s books have recently been unearthed with a new introduction by Carl Hiaasen (Striptease) by Ballantine’s Fawcett Crest imprint. MacDonald was writing about Florida’s development and environmental problems decades before writers like Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey and James Hall started poking into Miami politicians and swamp crazies. In fact, if it weren’t for John D. MacDonald, the whole canon of Florida eccentric detective fiction (not to mention the whole Parrothead lifestyle) would never have come to pass and we’d all be reading about Alabama or Nashville or somewhere right now.

McGee was originally published under by the famous Gold Medal books, home to many of America’s hardboiled detectives. Although MacDonald’s reprints are under Ballantine, I like to think that MacDonald would have approved of the new Hard Case Crime line of pulp-style paperbacks. Novelists Charles Ardai and Max Phillips have revived an inspired mix of lost crime books from a whole line of MacDonald’s contemporaries and authors I’m sure he influenced. So far the series holds right up Vintage Crime and other suitable murderous houses.

Hard Case has been doing good work. I’m always happy to see Larry Block’s back catalogue back in print and the editors at Hard Case has managed to dig up Grifter’s Game from the celebrated New York writer. Other authors in the series include Donald Westlake, who writes the Parker novels under the aforementioned Richard Stark pseudonym; Max Allan Collins, who is riding the success of the Road To Perdition; Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason; and David Dodge, who wrote To Catch a Thief. They have kick-ass covers, too. Robert McGinnis, who created the original James Bond posters for the Sean Connery films, is one of the painters chosen to recreate the visceral sixties style of these old dime novels.

Hard Case has even managed to land Stephen King, who has composed an entirely new book for the line, The Colorado Kid, to be published in October. Following the story of two newspapermen and their investigation into a death in Maine, King says his new book is, “more bleu than outright noir,” it should fall comfortably into Hard Case’s two-fisted tradition.

Fortune smiles today and life is short. Take the day off. Go play in the sun.