|The legend is that John D. MacDonald began writing fiction as a WWII GI so he could send something meaningful to his wife by censored mail. She submitted his detective stories to magazines, and began his career.|
MacDonald was a "writing machine" who cranked out over fifty books, and innumerable short stories. His prose is a little florid, but it's readable with few mechanical problems.
Example: "Hefty Salvation Army Lassies in their wagon-train bonnets dingle-dangled spare change into their kettles, and fat foam Santas were affixed to the palm boles and light standards, high enough to keep the kids from yanking their foam feet off." That was from Pale Gray for Guilt, of the Travis McGee series, told in first person by Travis McGee, who is prone to describing skies as full of "smutch" and machines as going "pockety-wock." The cutesiness is usually ironic.
As an informant MacDonald was only middling reliable. It's pretty obvious he knew about LSD from the inside, but he confused Monet and Manet, and I haven't been able to find online evidence of a real Dormed sleep machine -- an electronic gadget that keeps the girl in Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper -- in half an hour of searching.
MacDonald's series character Travis McGee regarded women as real humans. Interetingly, at a time when Playboy was serializing James Bond, McGee had little use for Playboy, key clubs, or Hugh Hefner. Still, sex was "full-frontal."
"But her breathing changed and she pushed her hips so close she could not fail to notice what all the thought of ice and pain had failed to quell.
"She sat up abruptly and unbuttoned her blouse and took it off. She kept her eyes shut as though unwilling to watch what she was doing. She made a mouth, as the French say, a mouth of resignation and self contempt. She knelt, put her thumbs inside the waist elastic of the baggy white slacks and peeled them down, rolled back an kicked them off. She had worn nothing under either the blouse or the slacks. Her body was elegant, sleek as fire-warm silk and ivory, with a deceptive flavor of immaturity about it, the nipples small and pink, the pubic hair a sofft sooty smudge."
McGee longs for love, but rejects a life of punch cards, pension plans, and decimal-fraction-sized families, preferring his chosen occupation of "Ke-Ho-Tay" in tin-can armor, with broken lance and spavined steed. This is a problem for a series character, and -- somebody told me -- McGee's conquests in twenty-one books was in the fifties. Lois was murdered, Pidge jilted our hero, Dana went back into her shell, Puss disappeared (we find out in another novel that she died), Annie preferred her career, and so on.
Liberal MacDonald's homophobia seems quaint, slanderous and exploitive forty years after Stonewall. Desk clerk's stifle yawns behind dainty fists, and "the butch" live in "colonies" where they guard their "brides" from "true males," dispensing beatings "stevedores would be proud of."
Travis McGee is a Florida boat bum, who lives aboard a fifty foot sybaritic houseboat he won playing poker. The loser's friends led him away before he could write an IOU with his Brazilian mistress as collateral.
McGee makes his living retrieving things stolen legally, and taking half the value as fee. He does not expect to live to great age -- when he would be less capable of enjoying himself anyway -- so takes his retirement in installments.
MacDonald created McGee as a kind of depressed hero, tall, strong, handsome -- if scarred and shopworn -- a former paratrooper and professional running back, who lives life on his own terms, but describes himself as living outside the light and warmth cast by the fire, unable to take part in our songs and laughter. It's a kind of fantasy fulfillment and moral caution to his readers, mostly WWII and Korea vets or their contemporaries, educated, a pipe smokers, Democrats, libertarians, cynics, thinking of themselves a s men's men, but supporting lives of dinner at the club with wife and kids.
The typical Travis McGee novel begins with McGee taking his ease after making a big score. An old friend, girlfriend, or somebody he owes big makes a claim on his attention. The loss is seldom something that fits with his fee structure, and it's been taken by a sociopath, someone who has no empathy for other people, who imagines we are all as empty as himself.
McGee starts looking into the case, randomly stirring things up. (In several of the books, McGee needs information from a tertiary character who is not forthcoming. McGee tortures the informant, feeling soiled afterwards. Fortunately MacDonald abandoned this device after the early novels.) He meets the villain, sort of an evil Travis McGee, alerting the villain to his presence. As McGee is set to steal the prize back, the villain attacks him, injuring him seriously before McGee can dispatch him.
Every hero needs a sidekick, and McGees is a gentle, charismatic, semi-retired economist, named Meyer. McGee is not in every book. In spite of being highly moral, Meyer discovers a taste and talent for being a con man. Because of his economics contacts and curriculum vitae, Meyer can often take the con to very high levels.
The thing that distinguishes the Travis McGee novels from other mystery thrillers, is McGee's soliloquizing about Florida, the environment, human dignity, and -- quoting Meyer -- economics.
In 1973's The Scarlet Ruse, Meyer is telling McGee how he met the defrauded stamp dealer Hirsch Fedderman. Fedderman had helped Meyer develop an economic indicator based on the activity in markets for rare commodities like stamps.
"I wanted the kind of warning they used to have in France. When the peasants started buying gold and hiding it, you knew the storms were coming."
"Are they coming, O Great Seer?"
"What do you think we are standing out in the middle of with neither spoon nor paddle?"
Later in the same book:
"...so divide everything into two hundred million equal parts. Everything in theis country that is fabricated. Steel mills, speedboats, cross-country power lines, scalpels, watchbands, fish rods, ski poles, plywood, storage batteries, everything. Break it down into raw materials, then compute the power requirements and the fossil fuels needed to make everybody's share in this country. Know what happens when you apply that formula to all the peoples of all the other nations of the world?
"You come up against a bleak fact, Travis. there is not enough material on and in the planet to ever give them what we're used to. The emerging nations are not going to emerge -- not into our pattern at least. Not ever. We've bagged it all. Technology won't come up with a way to crowd the Yangtze River with Munequitas." (The Munequita -- "Little Doll" -- is McGee's twin engine speedboat, behind which he is towing his latest romantic interest, and the sociopathic villain of the book.)