As John D. MacDonald freely admitted on many occasions, Travis McGee was his mouthpiece for the expression of opinions on a wide range of issues. MacDonald was a mature writer when he created McGee in 1964, so he knew how to create the detective as a full-fledged character interacting in complex ways with other characters. Although MacDonald showed that he could cleverly manipulate detective story plots, he always emphasized the significance of themes and characterization. He was not overly concerned with the whodunit form or with the mysteries the detective solves, but instead stressed the detective’s moral nature and intelligence. How McGee goes about his job is at least as important as his discovery and apprehension of the murderers he pursues.
Because McGee is always the first-person narrator of the novels, his consciousness is of paramount interest. He works for himself and the people who hire him. He owns and lives on a boat, The Busted Flush, named in memory of a winning hand in a poker game. McGee had been losing hand after hand and then finally won one by bluffing a flush. His luck turned, and he won enough to take possession of the boat. The name of the boat points to the basic situation in which McGee usually finds himself. Fate usually deals him what looks like a losing hand, but somehow he manages to pull out or “salvage” something of value.
McGee is no unmarked hero. Indeed, the McGee series is remarkable for the many wounds and broken bones the detective suffers. He has been shot in the head and has endured all manner of injuries to his face, his ribs, and his legs. He is a rugged six feet, four inches tall and weighs more than two hundred pounds (although his opponents often mistake him for being a good twenty pounds lighter). McGee always manages to escape with his life because of his mental and physical agility. He can duck and dance away from blows, and he can fall out of a hot-air balloon from a height of about four stories, landing so that only his knee needs surgery. Yet he recognizes that no matter how good he is, sooner or later he will be nailed. One of the finer pleasures of the McGee series is reading his analyses of fights, his calculations as to when to take blows on his forearms and elbows and when to penetrate his opponent’s defense.
Bright Orange for the Shroud
McGee never comes away from any of his cases with a clean victory. Sometimes one of his clients dies. Many times innocent people who get in the way of McGee’s investigations die. For example, McGee understands that to catch up with Boone Waxwell in Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965), he has to use a woman whom Waxwell is stalking as bait. McGee’s timing is off, however, and Waxwell snatches the woman and rapes her before McGee’s plan of entrapment gets under way. Characteristically, the vicious Waxwell eventually manages to impale himself in a way that is just retribution for the many women he has violated. A rough, crude sort of justice—a kind of symmetry—does operate in the McGee novels, but it is at the expense of the guilty and the innocent alike.
Waxwell is also a particularly good example of MacDonald’s deftness at creating complex characters. Waxwell talks like an easygoing country boy. He does not seem particularly bright. Yet McGee finds that this is a facade, that Waxwell hides his cunning, murderous nature with a mild-mannered, good-natured style. Knowing this, and even after being warned, McGee still underestimates Waxwell.
Free Fall in Crimson
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Travis McGee series is his patient piecing together of plots and human characters. In Free Fall in Crimson (1981), a terminally ill millionaire is...
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