In 1964 MacDonald copyrighted four (!) Travis McGee books. Either he was on a furious roll, or he had been sitting on them until he was satisfied with the concept.
This first story introduces McGee, Fort Lauderdale based salvager-of-lost-causes; his cruisable barge-style houseboat; the Bahia Mar Marina community; and "Miss Alice", his old Rolls Royce turned into a homemade pickup truck.
A spunky choreographer named Chookie makes her first appearance and will dance her way through the series here and there as a minor character.
There's a villain of a type we'll be seeing in several versions; a heartless predator who goes around corrupting the pubescent, seducing the lonely, raping and stealing from the vulnerable, and generally being a sexual and homocidal monster. All the heavy villains in these books get dispatched, usually by Travis, near the end of each story.
Although Travis doesn't get a serious romantic partner in this first book, he does the next best thing by supplying sexual therapy where it's needed. (Travis will be doing quite a bit of this kind of social work.)
Touched by Cathy Kerr, a simple back-woods woman who has been robbed of everything but her dignity, Travis agrees to try to recover her plundered inheritance. But first he needs to find out how her father managed to hustle his way into big money while flight-crewing around the Far East during WWII. And how the stash got smuggled in, where it was hidden, and how to get it back from the predator who tracked it down. This quest takes Travis off on a prowl among the Texas gaudy noveau riche, and also to Manhattan where he gets a crash course in the business of smuggling and fencing gemstones.
Any profession can turn toxic if the practitioners carry things way over the edge or put their expertise to venal ends. What are the worst things mental hospitals can do to their patients? What horrors can financial managers wreak upon their clients? Things get carried to surreal extremes here.
In the midst of the tale a new type of character makes an appearance - the rich bitch with a heart of brass-coated gold. Here she's called Terry Drummond, and, like others of the breed in future tales, she makes a serious effort to bag Travis for house-pet purposes.
McGee's old army buddy Mike went from the battlefield to permanent residency in a veterans' hospital. Travis's survivor-guilt forces him to agree to look into the strange death of Howard, the man Mike's sister Nina was about to marry. Travis investigates the sinister goings-on in the Manhattan financial institution where Howard was employed, discovers that inconvenient persons have been imprisoned in a mental facility, and learns more than he would like to know about the call girl business, .
Meyer, brilliant economist and man of perception, wisdom and knowledge, is briefly introduced. In future books this wonderful character will provide the author, himself a Harvard MBA, an opportunity to deliver fascinating facts and philosophies concerning local and world economies and other global subjects. Meyer will also unravel the financial flim-flammery taking place in some of the stories.
This book came out well before the TV series "Dallas" began, and may have been an inspiration for it.
McGee is summoned to Esmeralda, a (fictitious) place in the Southwest, where his rich haughty client gets shot dead before Travis has a chance to tell her "I don't take this kind of case". Her husband, Jass Yeoman, an empire-building, hell-raising, Texas-style patriarch can't understand why anyone would want to kill his restless young wife. Since McGee is available and passes Jass's manhood standards, they strike a deal to investigate the matter. Travis proceeds to get acquainted with the local feudal society from Sheriff's Department to ranch mansions to barrios. At the local college he encounters a female example of academic inbreeding, and she's such an annoying twit that we wonder why McGee even bothers to make the effort of getting her to shed her neuroses.
MacDonald apparently loathes the Hollywood scene, and he creates some characters to show us why. (A couple of times during the series Travis reels off a list of things he has no use for, and "actresses" are included.) There's a new character being added to McGee's Regulars, a photography wizard named Gabe Marchman who will be lending his expertise when Travis needs it.
It was every celebrity's worst nightmare - a blackmailer in possession of sensationally obscene pictures. So, Foxy redhaired movie star Lysa Dean sent her secretary to pursuade a reluctant McGee to solve her little problem. Accompanied by the frosty secretary, who was rapidly thawing in Travis's manly presence, they chase after clues in Big Sur, a New York ski resort, Hollywood, and Las Vegas. We are given some amusing observations about all these locales and their denizens.
MacDonald is at his masterful best here with atmosphere, plot, political intrigue, and hilarious dialog complete with with accents and attitude. This is the first of the Travis books which presage the drugs-and-corruption-in-Florida tone of the "Miami Vice" TV series, which debuted in 1982.
While retracing the wanderings of a murdered friend, Travis gets involved with the antique treasures business; Cuban refugees and their feverish anti-Castro plottings; high-and-low-life in a (fictitious) Mexican fishing port; and extreme Hollywood-style decadence. He also gets into, and out of, the clutches of a rich, beautiful and formidable jet setter who is looking for a replacement for her previous arm-ornament.
A blinded-by-love bridegroom named Arthur Wilkinson got mercilessly picked clean by his new wife and her accomplices. This was accomplished through more-or-less-legal real estate investment legerdemain. After seeing how callously this sweet, helplessly naive, overbred preppy got turned into buzzard-meat, Travis decides to go after the villains and get back the money. Arthur's former girlfriend, Chookie, is signed-on to repair poor Arthur's broken spirit while aiding the investigation.
There's quite a lineup of slimy characters - a terrifying seducer-rapist redneck, the no-mercy con artist wife, a desperately-hungry lawyer, and a troupe of well-rehearsed swindlers.
This is the darkest of the McGee stories, with meaner characters, less hilarity, and none of Travis's usual sexual interludes.
At story's start a live woman gets thrown off a bridge, wired to a block of cement, and it's a miracle that Travis and Meyer are able to dive in and save her. Turns out she's been involved in deadly doings involving lonely males on cruise boats, and her sinister employers have decided she is no longer an asset to their enterprise. Travis and Meyer assume various identities, insert themselves into the middle of things, and run a couple cons of their own.
MacDonald's wife was an artist, and this story contains observations and opinions that could only come from an insider.
Nobody in his right mind wants to go to Chicago in December, least of all a Florida beach bum. However, an old girlfriend has a problem - after her wealthy doctor husband died, it was discovered the estate had been drained, and by the good man himself! Travis gets to hang out in the Chicago art scene with hilarious results, and takes on the project of unblocking Heidi, a painter with artistic and sexual hangups. Along the way we learn something about LSD overdoses and auto body repairs. We also have descriptions of the quality of water in Lake Michigan, the air over Chicago, and other observations on how things are going to hell in the Windy City.
It is part of the Travis formula that he damn near gets killed in each book. This time we can see it coming all too clearly. Travis and Heidi heedlessly and needlessly walk right into trouble, and it takes some far-fetched nick-of-time outside intervention to rescue them. (MacDonald usually wraps things up with more finesse.)
Listen while Meyer explains how to rig stock prices for profit or revenge. Watch local political sleazemeisters in their maneuvers. Follow along as real estate wheeler-dealers go through their manipulations.
Tush and Janine Bannon were being hounded out of the marina business they worked so hard to build. Seems the local powers have their own plans for the property, and when Tush is found dead of what surely must have been a suicide, that seemed to finish the matter. McGee thought it was murder and decided to get involved.
In another story line, Travis has found Puss Killian, his all-time favorite love and soul-mate, only to have her leave him and send a heartbreaking letter explaining why.
One of the pleasures of writing in the far-fetched action genre must be the opportunity to take fictional revenge against whatever and whomever you want. Just as long as you include that little disclaimer "...any resemblance to persons living or dead...". MacDonald had a thing about crooked developers, and in this book he gets to literally stop a project dead.
Helena Pearson Trescott, a fondly remembered lovely lady of great class, died leaving a message and a $25,000 check for Travis. He decides to honor her request and look into the mystery of why one of her daughters was acting demented and suicidal. In the process, he discovers crooked real estate dealings and a strange form of medical malfeasance. There's a very clever ploy involving hiding a victim's body, with the collusion of the police. The purpose is to get the murderer bewildered about the missing corpse enough to make revealing mistakes.
Travis and Meyer go to Mexico to find out what kind of a life the dead daughter of a friend of Meyer's had been having down there with her dropped-out friends. The search takes them to Oaxaca where a hellish version of a hippie underculture has taken root.
The book contains some truly poignant instances of generation-gap family disfunctionality. There's some much-needed levity in the form of a rich dragonlady who keeps trying to drag Travis off to her palacio.
In Cypress County, where swampland joins ranchland, Sheriff Hyzer is diligently keeping the backwoods lawless trash under control. (If there were a Redneck Anti-Defamation League, this book would put MacDonald on their enemies list.) When McGee and Meyer run off a lonely road in the middle of the night, they look good to the Sheriff for the murder that took place right about there and right about that time.
After pursuading the Sheriff to let them out, Travis starts investigating and joins up with a perky waitress who uses Doris Day for a role model (not Travis's favorite female style). There are so many corpses and so many villans that it is hard to keep track of it all. At the finale, while mending from his inevitable close-call, he is comforted by Heidi - the artist from Chicago of a few stories back.
We are instructed in the deadly skill of knife throwing, and learn how some lawmen earn extra money by setting up and running prostitution rings.
We get a revealing and disturbing bottom-up view of the tourism economy
in Caribbean countries. There's also some interesting stuff here about the
business of "condo-dam-nization". (For a very thorough look at
the Florida condo business, from developers to realtors to the retired folks
who live in these things, read MacDonald's CONDOMINIUM
an excellent tale which was huge bestseller.)
Mary Dillon Broll had once been close to Travis, and now the jerk she married shows up, shooting off his gun and his mouth, demanding to know the whereabouts of his missing wife. He wants her back, and he also needs her signature on a real estate deal. Meyer gets involved and unravels some multiple-layered financial schemes. Travis, suspecting the worst, follows Mary's trail to the island of Grenada where he runs into more trouble than any normal mortal could realistically survive. The main villan is a psychosexual fiend lurking around, making sudden appearances, and leaving a trail of dead bodies and damaged women.
The second plot line involves a very determined and well-preserved rich widow named Lady Jillian, who likes to pick and choose from among the local beach hunks, and can't comprehend that "no" is Travis's answer. .
Have you ever wanted to learn about the stamp trading business? Neither did Travis, but it turns out to be quite interesting. Hirsh Fedderman, a stamp dealer friend of Meyer's, has a strange problem; someone has switched a lot of good merchandise for garbage, and no one can figure out how. The raided collection belongs to an important underworld figure, adding another dimension of awkwardness to the situation.
We meet a new member of the McGee Regulars in Willy Nucci, a sardonically amusing hotelman with good connections in low places. Whenever Travis needs to find out something about the the local underworld and their methods, Willy is his reluctant tutor. There's also a Columbo-style cop named Goodbread who's not as dumb and lazy as he puts on.
Mary Alice, Hirsh's loyal employee, is just Travis's type - six foot tall and awesomely athletic. McGee is smitten until he figures out why he shouldn't be. While recovering from the kind of serious pounding he gets near the end of most of these stories, Travis is lovingly nursed back to life by old friend Cathy Kerr, whom he helped in THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE.
This is the first Travis McGee published in hardback, and MacDonald covers lots of new ground here. Travis goes diving for sunken treasure in the Bay of La Paz, takes a quick trip to Honolulu, and ends up in Pago Pago to foil a murder.
Photographer Gabe Marchman uncovers some shocking evidence, and Meyer makes astute analytical contributions.
The author gets a chance to hold forth about the various effects of air conditioning, and warn about the growing prevalance of oceanic pollution.
Travis, that 6'4" physical fellow, preferred women who were about six feet tall and good outdoors as well as in. This time around it's handsome Cindy Birdsong, owner of a marina in the (fictitious) Florida gulf city of Bayside, who's determined to carry on after her husband's suspicious death.
A woman from the past appears and gives Travis $94,000 of unexplained money to hold for her, plus $10,000 for himself. She gets killed in an unlikely "accident", and Travis and Meyer set out to find out why. The quest leads them through the marijuana smuggling industry and into a swinging singles subculture (MacDonald is very good at observing subcultures).
Our villain is Fast Freddy, an up-and-coming young lawyer with slick moves and a serious sexual exploitation hobby. Undeterred by Freddy's gamey reputation, the local downtown operators who have strip-mining and real estate development in mind, are fashioning a political career for him. There is also an amusing example of the cynical cop genre in Captain Harry Max Scorf, walking the tightrope between professionalism and political reality.
The prolific output is slipping - MacDonald let three years go by before coming out with this one.
Travis and Meyer go to a (fictitious) town on Florida's West Coast where a local entrepreneur has vanished in an alleged drowning accident. The captain of the boat is a proud and decent guy who got wrongfully blamed for the accident and hires Travis to get his name cleared. Travis and Meyer haul out some fake documents and pass themselves off as real estate development types, all set to do big things for this lovely community you folks have got here. With that act, they have no problem charming their way into the local establishment. While prowling around for information, they come upon several layers of surprises.
In some of these stories Travis has an encounter with a Wrong Woman and then with a Right Woman. The trick is to disentangle the wrong one without doing her any damage. Here, a smitten lounge pianist thinks Travis is the answer to her romantic fantasies until he encourages her to think he's actually a louse. Meanwhile, he falls seriously for a tall, stalwart, athletic beauty named Gretel Howard.
This book predated the first Rambo movie (1982). Read it and see if you think it had anything to do with inspiring the movie series. Like those movies, it features guerrilla action and commando tactics, and carries far-fetched heroics to the point of surrealism.
Travis was ready to settle down permanently with Gretel Howard (from THE EMPTY COPPER SEA) when she died under strange circumstances. Her death may have something to do with a creepy religious cult in Northern California, and that cult might be involved in sinister international intrigue. Filled with fury and grief, Travis goes to Ukiah, locates the camp, and bumbles into the well-guarded compound as a harmless good ole boy lookin' for his runaway daughter. After poking around and finding out what has been going on within the organization, he destroys the place with a firestorm of military-style vengeance.
Motorcycle gangs, hot-air balloons, moviemaking, pornography taping - this story combines a lot of outlandish elements. Travis enlists the help of movie star Lysa Dean, who played lead in THE QUICK RED FOX, to help him infiltrate a movie company on location in Iowa. Police Lt. Goodbread, the deceptively dumb-looking cop in THE SCARLET RUSE, makes a brief and helpful appearance.
The villain this time is Dirty Bob, an outlaw biker who got lucky in show business, then got unlucky after Travis uncovers Bob's dirty sideline. Bob runs around working off his fury by murdering anyone who's crossed him, and Travis, of course, is next on the list. Meyer gets in harm's way as Bob's hostage, and has his psychological manhood gutted right out of him.
Travis is smitten with Annie Renzetti, manager of a fancy Gulf Coast hotel. They get a promising relationship going, in spite of the fact that she's only 5'2 instead of the amazon size Travis favors.
Things were getting quite serious between Travis and Annie Renzetti until she opted for upwardly-mobile yuppiehood in chain-hotel management instead of sharing McGee's floating unstructured lifestyle. Meanwhile, Meyer continues to be a broken man after his terrifying encounter with the homicidal biker Dirty Bob in FREE FALL IN CRIMSON.
Travis needs to distract himself from the Annie situation. And, since he feels responsible for Meyer's condition, he hopes having them take on a successful project together will restore Meyer's confidence. So they go hunting a predatory serial killer whose specialty is loving, looting, and killing his female victims. They go to Texas and retrace the suspect's history and ever-changing identities and eventually track the guy to Cancun. With the help of a lovely Mayan senorita, she of the "cinnamon skin", they spring a trap in the jungle. The villain gets his due, Meyer gets his confidence back, and McGee gets to bring home his stunning new ladyfriend.
John D. MacDonald died in the year following this book. There's such a poignant feeling here of farewell and closure that one is sure he had to have meant this to be the final episode in the saga.
We aren't told what happened to the cinnamon-skinned senorita in the elapsed three years since the previous tale, but some other threads have gotten tied-off. Travis's neighbor, The Alabama Tiger, is now in the Big Marina In The Sky and his nonstop party has ended. Willy Nucci, McGee's pipeline to the underworld, is dying but not before passing along good information and a comely nurse. A lot of the Bahia Mar oldtimers have moved on, and the recent crops of beach bunnies are speaking a different generational language. All this leaves McGee feeling like a time-warped relic.
If Travis, a Korean War vet, were aging in real time he had to have been in his mid-fifties in this story. If the process were slowed, in the manner of comic strips and TV serials, he might be fortyish. (The later books in the series play down the age-placing background clues.) The book ends with a heart-touching big surprise that brings one element full-circle.
Now, on to the plot. Billy Ingraham, just about the only real estate developer in the whole series who's honorable and likeable, wants McGee to find his stolen 52-foot yacht. With the help of Meyer's inspired idea for arial photography all around the Florida coast, McGee locates the boat and discovers three violated and rotting bodies along with evidence of drug running. The South American drug lord family of one of the victims is out for blood and vengence, and their local business partners figure McGee will make a handy sacrificial object. Travis has to go about getting his name off the hit list while he's finding out who killed the folks on the boat. All hell breaks loose near the end, and the guilty rapist-murderer is discovered and dealt with appropriately and profitably.