Me and Travis McGee

There was a great article over the weekend about John D. MacDonald and his best-known alter ego, Travis McGee, in the Weekend WSJ. Leonard Cassutto’s piece is, sadly, behind a firewall, but thanks to some industrious spies, I’ll have the full text after the jump (till I get some sort of C&D order, that is.) We’ll start here:

As Americans debate their retirement options, they
should look to the example of private investigator Travis McGee. The
immortal creation of crime novelist John D. MacDonald, McGee would
"retire" after each payday until the money ran out, on the theory that
it’s better to enjoy your golden years in installments while you’re

It’s been 20 years since MacDonald, who died in 1986
at the age of 70, wrote the last of his 21 Travis McGee novels. But the
books all remain in print and, what’s more, eminently relevant. Musing
on global problems while solving local ones, McGee was a meditative
action hero who offered opinions on war, drugs, race relations,
corruption, and other issues of both yesterday and today. The prescient
social vision of the McGee series continues to shape contemporary crime

McGee lives aboard a houseboat called The Busted Flush
in a bohemian dockside community in Fort Lauderdale. He drives a Rolls
Royce that has been converted into a pickup truck, drinks Plymouth gin,
and loves women, lots of them. McGee describes himself as a "salvage
consultant," not a professional private detective (he keeps half of
what he recovers). He takes jobs on spec or, more often, to do favors
for his friends. But these ventures quickly turn into conflicts with
ruthlessly corrupt businessmen and sadistic killers.

The criminals in the McGee novels remain startlingly
current. Through his repeated explorations of murderers who love
meanness and cruelty for their own sake, MacDonald outlined the
character type of the modern fictional serial killer. Indeed,
MacDonald’s villains stand as the godfathers of Hannibal Lecter and his
epigone. Yet this literary innovation has gone largely uncredited.

The villains in the McGee series uphold MacDonald’s
conviction that pure malevolence can walk the earth in human form.
Against the therapeutic grain of his times, MacDonald believed, as he
wrote in the literary journal "Clues," in "a kind of evil which defies
the Freudian explanations of the psychologists, and the environmental
explanations of the sociologists." This type of evil appears repeatedly
in MacDonald’s books in the form of Nazi torturers, sadistic
scientists, truncheon-loving policemen, and hired killers who delight
in their work.

The accountant-turned-murderer in "A Tan and Sandy
Silence" (1971), for example, tortures his victims for the information
needed to complete a complex swindle, but loves inflicting pain so much
that he decides to use his extorted gains to finance a new vocation as
a recreational sadist.

But MacDonald wasn’t just interested in monstrous
killers. More than any other crime writer before him, he focused on the
details of corrupt business practices. In "Pale Gray for Guilt" (1968),
McGee uncovers the workings of a greedy developer who first ruins a
friend of McGee’s and then has him murdered. With the help of Meyer,
the economist who lives on the houseboat next door, McGee devises a
complex con that combines an apparent real-estate flip with an
invitation to what looks like a foolproof insider trading scheme. The
crooked financier falls for it, and MacDonald renders McGee’s revenge
in meticulous financial detail.

MacDonald’s focus on the business scene was no
accident. He held a Harvard MBA, and probably would have made a career
in business but for his espionage work during World War II. Because his
letters were censored, he wrote short stories home instead. His wife
sold one and, spurred by this surprise success, MacDonald decided he
would be a writer.

Initially living on his army discharge pay, MacDonald
wrote hundreds of stories and received as many rejections until he
learned his trade — all in a matter of months. This harsh
apprenticeship gave MacDonald a clear-eyed professionalism which he
never lost. He had already written 43 books when, in 1964, he
introduced Travis McGee in "The Deep Blue Goodbye," branding the series
by putting the name of a different color in each title.

Ever industrious, and thinking like an entrepreneur as
well as an artist, MacDonald wrote the first three McGee books ahead to
build up an inventory. Fawcett published them a month apart to give the
series a running start.

Always aware of the bottom line, MacDonald continued
to write for the paperback market long after he could have gained
greater cachet — but fewer royalties — by publishing in hardcover.
That way, he didn’t have to share the proceeds from a sale of paperback
rights with a hardcover publishing house. MacDonald carefully explored
the tax law affecting professional writers, and even wrote a financial
advice pamphlet that he gave out for free to his "fellow ink-stained
wretches." By the early ’70s, the McGee series had brought MacDonald
considerable financial rewards.

Unlike McGee, MacDonald planned his financial future
carefully. He left an estate worth over $9 million — and a lot of
valuable copyrights. He also left an enduring legacy of artistic
achievement in a genre whose practitioners are usually forgotten before
the ink dries on their last books.

I’m not sure why, but I love that MacDonald was fluent in tax law and tried to help other writers on the financial advice side. Because it’s tricky and strange, and lord knows we could all use the help we can get….