Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Busted Flush

Over on Dan Moran's blog, the Travis McGee series of novels, by the late, great pulp writer John D. MacDonald came up, and it brought back a raft of great memories.

McGee was a boat-bum who won a half-million dollar houseboat in a poker game, hence the name of the craft -- The Busted Flush -- and who did several things: he helped out damsels in distress, usually recovering something of great value for which he kept a big chunk; he gave bad guys their just desserts; and he took his retirement in installments. He was a freelance detective who drove a Rolls Royce cut down into a pickup truck, and who hung out with a world-class economist, Dr. Meyer (Just 'Meyer,' please.) who had a boat just down the way from McGee's at the Fort Lauderdale marina. Slip F-18, if I recall correctly.

McGee drank hard, fought hard, and got laid a lot, and boy, did I want to be him when I was sixteen, which was when I started reading the novels. They were short, full of action, and all had a color in the title:

The Deep Blue Good-by
Nightmare in Pink
A Purple Place for Dying
The Quick Red Fox
A Deadly Shade of Gold
Bright Orange for the Shroud
Darker than Amber
One Fearful Yellow Eye
Pale Gray for Guilt
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper
The Long Lavender Look
A Tan and Sandy Silence
Dress Her in Indigo
The Scarlet Ruse
The Turquoise Lament
The Dreadful Lemon Sky
The Empty Copper Sea
The Green Ripper
Free Fall in Crimson
Cinnamon Skin
The Lonely Silver Rain

When the adventures started, McGee seemed to be a veteran of either WWII or Korea; later, he aged, but slowly, and his status as an ex-GI became more nebulous -- he was a vet, but the war in which he fought was not named, so as to keep him younger, I think, to attract more readers. Along the way, he gave up smoking his pipe, drank less and less gin, and even got into tai chi.

In the last few books, the villains were getting more and more psychotic, and I think MacDonald was getting tired of the series, but I still looked forward to each new installment.

People tried a few times to make movies or a TV series about ole Trav, but none of them ever took off.

John Dann MacDonald died three days after Christmas, 1986, complications due to cardiac surgery, after a very prolific career -- hundreds of stories, scores of novels, including twenty-one in the McGee series, movie and TV stuff. (Cape Fear was based on one of his books.) He was the literary father of Florida writers like Carl Hiassen and James Hall, and everybody from Stephen King to Spider Robinson salutes MacDonald. He was one of the few guys who came out of the pulp days and stayed popular right to the end.

He was a big influence on my writing, and I exchanged a couple of letters with him when my first novel came out, sent him a copy, so I could tell him so. He was polite, but I don't think he was all that impressed. I put an acknowledgment into one of my Matador novels thanking him in public a few months before he died -- I hope he had a chance to see that, but I don't know.

When he passed away, I wrote the obituary for the local paper, and shortly thereafter, I corresponded for a while with Dan Rowan, who had been friends with MacDonald for years. There was even a book done from their letters to each other. (They had a falling out and didn't speak for a time, but got that straightened out before MacDonald passed away. Rowan -- whom you might recall from Laugh-in, with Dick Martin -- had retired to Florida, and died a few months after MacDonald, in September of 1987.)

The late Theodore Sturgeon lived for a time in Springfield, Oregon, and once, when my collaborator Michael Reaves and I were visiting him, we went to a bookstore. The latest Travis McGee novel was just out, and I bought it. Sturgeon said, "I don't believe he ever wrote a bad book." Which was a pretty good epitaph for a writer who wrote so many of them.

Asked what he'd like on his tombstone, MacDonald said:

"He hung around quite a while, entertained the folk, and was stopped quick and clean when the right time came."

You could do worse than that for an epitaph, too, and that's pretty much how it went, too.


Dan Moran said...

It does say in a few of the books Travis fought in Korea.

My favorite all-time tv series is the Rockford Files. Rockford owed a lot to McGee, IMO. Every now and again, watching the 1st season DVD of Rockford, I feel like I've been dropped into the middle of one of the McGee novels. So it's not 100% true that there was never a successful adaptation, if you choose to look at it that way.

There's an really old man named "McGee" in my novel "The Last Dancer." No one ever uses his first name. (And in another novel in that series, a lawyer named Beth Davenport. That's a coincidence.)

Steve Perry said...

I wrote an SF mystery novel set on a wheelworld, THe Digital Effect, and the protaognist's name was Gil Sivart. He build micro-models of distaster ships.

Drop the "l" and put an "m" up front, turn the last name around ...

Travis McGee and Derek Flint, those were the guys I wanted to be at seventeen ...

Sean Fagan said...

Have you seen the USA show Burn Notice? The feel might be somewhat similar -- at least, it reminds me quite a bit of some of The Rockford Files. (And I hadn't realized that until I read your message and thought about it.)

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, I was always a Rockford fan. Pretty much will watch anything James Garner is in, going back to Maverick.

Loved his turn with Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, and Gene Hackman in "Twilight," and as Wyatt Earp with Bruce Willis, in "Sunset."

Also way back, Garner did "Marlow," which was Bruce Lee's first American movie role, as Winslow Wong, the kung-fu hit man. There is a scene in which Garner describes what happened to Wong to the guy who sent him that is priceless.

I haven't seen "Burn Notice," on the promos for it.

McDaniel said...

Great to see the interest in MacDonald still exists.
Like most of the writer comments, he is the THE major influence on my fiction writing.