The Deep Blue Goodbye: A Travis McGee Novel, by John D. MacDonald

Regrettably few people read John D. MacDonald or his Travis McGee books. Given: they describe a different American era and can fall on the sexist side … though not as much as Mad Men would indicate for the times. When I was growing up there was at least one if not multiple copies of his color-coded books in drugstore book racks, twenty-one books between 1964 and 1984, This was the first.

McGee is pure iconoclast. He lives on a 52-foot houseboat (“The Busted Flush”) docked at slip-18, Bahia Mar marina in Ft. Lauderdale. He’s not all that fond of the world. He has multiple women in his life but has no interest in marriage. Most of all he’ll risk his life for a client and keep punching back. He’s not a classic detective. He describes himself as someone who reunites people with things they have been separated from. He takes a hefty share which allows him to not work the rest of the time. He’ll start hunting for work when the funds get low enough.

In this first book a client is pushed on him by a woman friend. Lois Atkinson has been beaten up physically and emotionally in her life. Her father was stationed in India during the war and managed to amass a small fortune. But he beat an officer to death when he returned to the US. Before he was captured and sentenced he managed to stash the loot in Key West, promising his family that they would celebrate those riches when he was released. The father shared a cell with a John Allen, a psychopath with a perpetual smile. Allen is released first and rushes to the Atkinson family alternately digging up parts of the yard and romancing Lois. When he finally finds the stash he dumps Lois and gets married to someone else. Lois would just like some of the treasure back.

McGee weans her off the bottle, feeds her, and goes searching for Allen. It’s a search that nearly kills McGee in a fight on a boat in a storm.

McGee is the narrator. He describes himself and his life mostly without apologies and narrates the failures as well as the successes.

MacDonald is a terse storyteller who influenced later writers like Stephen King and Carl Hiaasen and even won praise from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. He was a working writer’s writer who pumped out other mysteries along with science fiction and nonfiction. He died at age 70 in 1986. He was the writer who most often filled my mother’s shelves as she tore into books while forming a dent in the couch next to her coffee and cigarettes. He’s worth resurrecting through his work now and then for the treasure he was.