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John D. MacDonald & Travis McGee Mysteries
John Dann MacDonald (1916 – 1986) was an American writer of novels and short stories.
MacDonald was a prolific author of crime and suspense novels, many of them set in his adopted home of Florida. His best-known works include the popular and critically acclaimed Travis McGee series, and his novel The Executioners, which was filmed twice as Cape Fear. In 1972, MacDonald was named a grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, and he won a 1980 U.S. National Book Award in the one-year category Mystery. Stephen King praised MacDonald as “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.” Kingsley Amis said, MacDonald “is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels.”
MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, where his father worked for Savage Arms. The family moved to Utica, New York in 1926, where his father became treasurer of the Utica branch of the Savage Arms Corporation. In 1934, MacDonald was sent to Europe for several weeks, which whetted his appetite for travel and for photography. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, but he dropped out during his sophomore year. MacDonald worked at menial jobs in New York City for a short time, then was admitted to Syracuse University, where he met his future wife, Dorothy Prentiss. They married in 1937, and he graduated from Syracuse the following year. In 1939, MacDonald received an MBA from Harvard University. He was later able to make good use of his education in business and economics by incorporating elaborate business swindles into the plots of several of his novels.
In 1940, MacDonald accepted a direct commission as a first lieutenant in the Army Ordnance Corps. During World War II, he served in the OSS in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. He was discharged in September 1945 as a lieutenant colonel.
MacDonald’s literary career began almost by accident. In 1945, while still in the Army, he wrote a short story and mailed it to his wife. She submitted it to Esquire magazine, which rejected it. She then sent it to Story magazine, which accepted it for $25, good money for that time. He learned of this just after his ship arrived in the United States. After his discharge, MacDonald spent four months writing short stories, generating some 800,000 words and losing 20 pounds (9.1 kg) while typing 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He received hundreds of rejection slips, but finally a $40 sale to the pulp magazine Dime Detective set his career in motion. He would eventually sell nearly 500 short stories to the detective, mystery, adventure, sports, Western, and science fiction magazines. Several times, MacDonald’s stories were the only ones in an issue of a magazine, but this was hidden by using pseudonyms.
As the boom in paperback novels expanded, MacDonald successfully made the jump to longer fiction with his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, published in 1950, by Fawcett Publications’ Gold Medal Books. Between 1953 and 1964, MacDonald specialized in crime thrillers, many of which are now considered masterpieces of the hardboiled genre. Most of these novels were published as paperback originals, although some were later republished in hardbound editions. Many, such as Dead Low Tide (1953) and Murder in the Wind (1956), were set in his adopted home of Florida, and were effective in suggesting a sinister aura lurking beneath the glittery surface of that state. Novels such as The Executioners (1957) (which was twice filmed as Cape Fear, first in 1962 and again in 1991) and One Monday We Killed Them All (1962) penetrated the minds of psychopathic killers. As MacDonald honed his craft, he developed his narrative “voice,” one of the most distinctive in the suspense fiction field.
MacDonald’s protagonists were often intelligent and introspective men, sometimes with a hard cynical streak. Travis McGee, the “salvage consultant” and “knight-errant,” was all of that. McGee made his living by recovering the loot from thefts and swindles, keeping half to finance his “retirement,” which he took in pieces as he went along. He first appeared in the 1964 novel The Deep Blue Good-by and was last seen in The Lonely Silver Rain in 1985. All titles in the 21-volume series include a color, a mnemonic device which was suggested by his publisher so that when harried travelers in airports looked to buy a book, they could at once see those MacDonald titles they had not yet read.
The McGee novels feature an ever-changing array of female companions, some particularly nasty villains, exotic locales in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and appearances by a sidekick known only as “Meyer,” an economist of international renown and a Ph.D. As Sherlock Holmes had his well-known address on Baker Street, McGee had his trademark lodgings on his 52-foot (16 m) houseboat, the Busted Flush, named for the poker hand that started the run of luck in which he won her. She is docked at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar marina, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
MacDonald died at age 70, on December 28, 1986, at St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from complications of an earlier heart bypass operation.
Travis McGee Novels
The Deep Blue Good-by (1964)
Note: Enter Travis McGee
Travis McGee is a self-described beach bum who won his houseboat in a card game. He’s also a knight-errant who’s wary of credit cards, retirement benefits, political parties, mortgages, and television. He only works when his cash runs out, and his rule is simple: He’ll help you find whatever was taken from you, as long as he can keep half.
McGee isn’t particularly strapped for cash, but how can anyone say no to Cathy, a sweet backwoods girl who’s been tortured repeatedly by her manipulative ex-boyfriend Junior Allen? What Travis isn’t anticipating is just how many women Junior has torn apart and left in his wake. Enter Junior’s latest victim, Lois Atkinson.
Frail and broken, Lois can barely get out of bed when Travis finds her, let alone keep herself alive. But Travis turns into Mother McGee, giving Lois new life as he looks for the ruthless man who steals women’s spirits and livelihoods. But he can’t guess how violent his quest is soon to become. He’ll learn the hard way that there must be casualties in this game of cat and mouse.
Nightmare in Pink (1964)
Note: A favour for a friend
Travis McGee’s permanent address is the Busted Flush, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale, and there isn’t a hell of a lot that compels him to leave it. Except maybe a call from an old army buddy who needs a favor. If it wasn’t for him, McGee might not be alive. For that kind of friend, Travis McGee will travel almost anywhere, even New York City. Especially when there’s a damsel in distress.
The damsel in question is his old friend’s kid sister, whose fiancé has just been murdered in what the authorities claim was a standard Manhattan mugging. But Nina knows better. Her soon-to-be husband had been digging around, finding scum and scandal at his real estate investment firm. And this scum will go to any lengths to make sure their secrets don’t get out.
Travis is determined to get to the bottom of things, but just as he’s closing in on the truth, he finds himself drugged and taken captive. If he’s being locked up in a mental institution with a steady stream of drugs siphoned into his body, how can Travis keep his promise to his old friend? More important, how can he get himself out alive?
A Purple Place for Dying (1964)
Note: Death of a client
Travis McGee’s taking his retirement in instalments while he’s still young enough to enjoy it. But sooner or later, his money runs out and he has to work. This time McGee’s lured out West to a strangely secretive meeting with a woman in trouble, in a place whose beauty hides some ugly, dangerous secrets.
Mona is in love with a poor, young college professor and married to a wealthy man whom she is convinced is stealing from her trust fund. So she does what any self-respecting girl would do: She hires someone to steal her money back so she can run away with the love of her life.
Travis isn’t sure he wants to help out until he sees Mona getting shot and killed out on the cliffs near her cabin. Now he’s a lead suspect in a plot to help her escape, and to clear his name, he needs to get to the bottom of things. But the murders just keep mounting, and for Travis, even working with Mona’s husband doesn’t seem to help matters. Will he be able to uncover the complex plot in time to save his own skin?
The Quick Red Fox (1964)
Note: Photos of a star
She’s the opposite of a damsel in distress: a famous movie star, very beautiful, very much in control of her life. She’s just made one little mistake and now she needs Travis McGee to set it right. The money is good and Travis’s funds are in need of replenishing. But that’s not the only reason he takes the case. There is the movie star’s assistant – efficient and reserved, with a sadness underneath that makes McGee feel he’d brave any danger to help her.
Sultry movie star Lysa Dean has gotten herself into a spot of blackmail, posing for naked photos while participating in a debauched party near Big Sur. If the pictures get out, Lysa’s engagement to her rich, strait laced fiancé doesn’t stand a chance. Enter Travis McGee, who’s agreed to put a stop to the extortion, working alongside Lysa’s assistant, Dana Holtzer.
They begin by tracking down everyone associated with the lurid evening, and soon enough they’re led on a chase across the nation as murder after murder piles up. Further complicating matters, Travis and Dana’s relationship soon turns steamy. And just when he thinks he knows exactly where things are headed, one big twist shakes McGee’s life to the very foundation.
A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965)
Note: A simple matchmaking scheme?
When Travis McGee picks up the phone and hears a voice from his past, he can’t help it: He has to meddle. Especially when he has the chance to reunite Sam Taggart, a reckless, restless man like himself, with the woman who’s still waiting for him. But what begins as a simple matchmaking scheme soon becomes a bloody chase that takes McGee to Mexico, a beautiful country from which he hopes to return alive.
Deception. Betrayal. Heartbreak. When Sam left his girlfriend, Nora, and vanished from Fort Lauderdale, no one was surprised. But when he shows up three years later lying in a pool of his own blood, people start to ask questions. And his old friend Travis McGee is left to find answers.
But all he has to go on are a gold Aztec idol and a very angry ex-girlfriend. Is that enough to find his friend’s killer? And when the truth is as terrifying as this, does he really want answers after all?
Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965)
Note: No slob summer
Travis McGee is looking forward to a “slob summer,” spending his days as far away from danger as possible. But trouble has a way of finding him, no matter where he hides. An old friend, conned out of his life savings by his ex-wife, has tracked him down and is desperate for help. To get the money back and earn his usual fee, McGee will have to penetrate the Everglades – and the mind of a violently twisted grifter.
McGee has never seen a man so changed by one year of life. Arthur Wilkinson had been an amiable and decent young man looking to invest some of his considerable inheritance in a marina enterprise. Then a pretty blonde named Wilma Ferner showed up. She was soon Mrs. Wilkinson, and it took her only a year to leave Arthur bankrupt and broken.
But what starts out as a simple job turns into a dangerous situation when McGee comes face-to-face with a quick-thinking and quicker-fisted foe in the Florida swamps. Now Arthur’s fortune isn’t the only thing on the line: This job may mean McGee’s life.
Darker than Amber (1966)
Note: A woman drops by?
A fishing trip is anything but relaxing when Travis McGee is involved. As McGee and his friend Meyer settle down to some midnight casting, a woman falls into the water from the bridge above them. Her name is Evangeline, and the hints she gives about the events leading to her near drowning suggest a less than pristine past. But McGee has saved her, and now he wants to see her make a new life – even if it means confronting a gang of murderers that makes his blood run cold.
Evangeline may be the intended target in a complex scheme, but she’s no ordinary victim. Behind her darker than amber eyes is a woman who lures men onto her boat and robs them, throwing them overboard when she’s done with them. And now she’s enlisted the resistant Travis and Meyer to rescue her “savings” from her partners in crime.
When Evangeline winds up dead, McGee and Meyer must get involved. But the stakes are high – and Evangeline may not be the only casualty of her cruel game.
One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966)
Note: A little help for a friend
It only takes one word to get Travis McGee to leave the sunny deck of his houseboat in Ft. Lauderdale for the grey cold of Chicago. The word is help, and it’s uttered by Glory Geis, an old girlfriend of McGee’s and the pretty young widow of world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Fortner Geis. The trouble is, the good doctor converted his considerable estate into cash before he died. But where he stashed it, no one knows.
Although everyone from the IRS to Dr. Geis’s greedy grown children suspects that Glory is hiding the lost fortune, she hasn’t a clue as to its whereabouts. To prove her innocence, she must find the money and the culprits who stole it. Enter McGee, for one of the most challenging salvages of his career.
How do you extort $600,000 from a dying man? Someone must have done it very quietly and skillfully. While untangling the mess of Dr. Geis’s last days, McGee makes a startling discovery: Some folks would love nothing better than to bring down the whole family – by any means necessary. But McGee is starting to actually like a few members of the Geis clan – and he vows to bring the guilty to justice.
Pale Gray for Guilt (1968)
Note: A real pussycat
Travis McGee’s old football buddy Tush Bannon is resisting pressure to sell off his floundering motel and marina to a group of influential movers and shakers. Then he’s found dead. For a big man, Tush was a pussycat: devoted to his wife and three kids and always optimistic about his business – even when things were at their worst. So even though his death is ruled a suicide, McGee suspects murder . . and a vile conspiracy.
Tush Bannon was in the wrong spot at the wrong time. His measly plot of land just so happened to sit right in the middle of a rich parcel of five hundred riverfront acres that big-money real estate interests decided they simply must have.
It didn’t matter that Tush was a nice guy with a family, or that he never knew he was dealing with a criminal element. They squashed him like a bug and walked away, counting their change. But one thing they never counted on: the gentle giant had a not-so-gentle friend in Travis McGee. And now he’s going to make them pay.
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968)
Note: A matter of suicide
He had done a big favor for her husband, then for the lady herself. Now she’s dead, and Travis McGee finds that Helena Pearson Trescott had one last request of him: to find out why her beautiful daughter Maureen keeps trying to kill herself. But what can a devil-may-care beach bum do for a young troubled mind?
McGee makes his way to the prosperous town of Fort Courtney, Florida, where he realizes pretty quickly that something’s just not right. Not only has Maureen’s doctor killed herself, but a string of murders and suicides are piling up – and no one seems to have any answers.
Just when it seems that things can’t get any stranger, McGee becomes the lead suspect in the murder of a local nurse. As if Maureen didn’t have enough problems, the man on a mission to save her will have to save himself first – before time runs out.
Dress Her in Indigo (1969)
Note: Another favour for a friend
Travis McGee could never deny his old friend anything. So before Meyer even says please, McGee agrees to accompany him to Mexico to reconstruct the last mysterious months of a young woman’s life – on a fat expense account provided by the father who has lost touch with her. They think she’s fallen in with the usual post-teenage misfits and rebels. What they find is stranger, kinkier, and far more deadly.
All Meyer’s friend wants to know is whether his daughter was happy before she died in a car accident south of the border. But when McGee and Meyer step foot in the hippie enclave in Oaxaca that had become Bix Bowie’s last refuge, they get more than they bargained for.
Not only had Bix made a whole group of dangerous, loathsome friends, but she was also mixed up in trafficking heroin into the United States. By the time she died, she was a shell of her former self. And the more McGee looks into things, the less accidental Bix’s death starts to seem.
The Long Lavender Look (1970)
Note: A girl in his headlights
A lovely young thing, wearing little more than a determined look, streaks out of the darkness and into Travis McGee’s headlights. McGee hits the brakes, misses the fleeing soul by inches, and lands upside down in ten feet of water – and right into the heart of a violent mystery.
McGee and his old friend Meyer are cruising along on their way back from a wedding when the girl darts in front of their car. They manage to emerge from the wreckage and are limping along the deserted Florida road when someone comes by in an old truck and takes a couple of shots at them. So much for Southern hospitality. McGee and Meyer head to a service station to regroup, but are there arrested and charged with murder.
It turns out a local thug has just been killed, and the lead suspects are Meyer and McGee. Someone’s obviously out to get them – and in this Twilight Zone they’ve found themselves in, they must gather their resources to fight for their lives against a deeply corrupt system.
A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971)
Note: An unexpected guest
Travis McGee is unnerved when he receives an unexpected guest – real estate developer Harry Broll, who is convinced that McGee is hiding his missing wife. Angry and jealous, Harry gets off a shot before McGee can wrestle his gun away. The thing is, McGee hasn’t seen or heard from Mary Broll in three years, and it isn’t like her to keep troubles to herself – if she’s alive to tell them.
McGee is a heartbeat away from crisis. He’s getting older, Lady Jillian Brent-Archer is trying to make him settle down, and he’s just been shot without fair warning. Nervous that he’s losing his touch, McGee decides to get Harry off his case and prove he’s still in top form all in one fell swoop.
McGee’s search for Mary takes him to Grenada, where he’s soon tangling with con artists and terrifying French killers, not to mention a slew of mixed motives. No longer wallowing in self-pity, McGee has more pressing concerns – like saving his own skin.
The Scarlet Ruse (1972)
Note: A misplaced collection
Travis McGee’s getting lazy. Drinking Boodles on the Busted Flush has become a full-time job. But when he hears that six figures’ worth of rare stamps have wandered off, McGee finds himself back in the salvage business. To deliver on this case, McGee will have to be suspicious of everyone he meets – because what he’s looking for is property of the mob.
Hirsh Fedderman has misplaced an extremely valuable commodity: the stamp collection of mobster Frank Sprenger. Assessed at around four hundred thousand dollars, these are no ordinary stamps, and Sprenger’s no ordinary collector: He’s liable to break some fingers if he doesn’t get what he’s owed.
Lucky for Hirsh, he’s got a friend in Travis McGee. Soon McGee is hot on the trail of the missing collection – not to mention hot for a voluptuous stamp expert by the name of Mary Alice. Only it’s not McGee’s heart that’s in danger. He soon realizes that he’s run afoul of a vicious syndicate, and neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night will keep them from collecting McGee’s head.
The Turquoise Lament (1973)
Note: A favour in Hawaii
Funny thing about favors. Sometimes they come back to haunt you. And Travis McGee owes his friend a big one for saving his life once upon a time. Now the friend’s daughter, Linda “Pidge” Lewellen, needs help five time zones away in Hawaii before she sails off into the deep blue with a cold-blooded killer: her husband.
When treasure hunter Ted Lewellen saved his life in a bar fight, McGee could never have thought he’d end up paying his rescuer back in such a way. But years later he finds himself headed to Hawaii at Ted’s request to find out whether Pidge’s husband really is trying to kill her, or if she’s just losing her mind.
Of course, once McGee arrives he can’t help but give in to his baser instincts, and as his affair with Pidge gets underway, he can’t find a single thing wrong. McGee chalks up Pidge’s paranoia to simple anxiety, gives her a pep talk, and leaves for home blissfully happy. It’s not until he’s back in Lauderdale that he realizes he may have overlooked a clue or two. And Pidge might be in very serious danger.
The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974)
Note: The big deposit
Around four in the morning, Travis McGee is jarred awake by a breathless ghost from his past: an old flame who needs a place to stash a package full of cash. What’s in it for McGee? Ten grand and no questions asked. Two weeks later, she’s dead.
Carolyn Milligan was only aboard McGee’s boat for one night. She came to drop off a hundred grand for safekeeping. What Carrie really needed was someone to keep her safe. She said she’d be back in a month. Instead Carrie is killed in a dubious roadside accident. Now McGee is left with a fortune – and a nagging conscience.
So McGee takes a trip to the seedy little town of Bayside, Florida, to look into Carrie’s life before she showed up on his boat. What McGee finds only pushes him further into the corrupt world of drugs and blood that Carrie was trying to escape. McGee is used to high stakes, but when the bodies start piling up, even he may be in over his head.
The Empty Copper Sea (1978)
Note: A dead man is alive
Asking for help is something a proud man like Van Harder would never do. So when he shows up at the Busted Flush, Travis McGee knows that he must be the man’s last resort. What Harder wants salvaged is his reputation. After a long career as a seaman, he was piloting a boat the night his employer fell overboard. Harder is certain he’s been set up, but to help him, McGee must prove that a dead man is actually alive.
The fateful ride started with Harder at the helm of Hubbard Lawless’s luxury cruiser. It ends with him coming to, fuzzy and disoriented, and Hub lost to the water. Now everyone is saying that Harder got drunk, passed out, and is negligent in his boss’s death. The thing is, Van’s not a drinker . . . at least, not anymore.
Who would want to frame the good captain, and to what end? Dead or alive, Lawless is worth a lot of money. People are always eager to get a piece of that action – including some, as McGee soon finds, who are willing to take a piece out of anyone who gets in their way.
The Green Ripper (1979)
Note: True love for McGee?
Travis McGee has known his share of beautiful girls, but true love always passed him by – until Gretel. Life aboard the Busted Flush has never been so sweet. But suddenly, Gretel dies of an unidentified illness – or so he’s told. Convinced that the woman who stole his heart has been murdered, McGee finds himself pursuing a less-than-noble cause: revenge.
McGee has lost not only the love of his life but also his last hope for stability. Soon grief turns to blinding rage. So when he finds the people responsible for Gretel’s death, McGee goes off the rails – and off the grid, three thousand miles from home.
McGee emerges in the California woods as Tom McGraw, a fisherman looking for his long-lost daughter. This mysterious newcomer starts knocking off targets one by one. But as he pursues his single-minded crusade for justice, he becomes more and more unhinged. McGee has spent his life saving other people, but now he’ll need to find the strength to save himself – before he loses his mind.
Free Fall in Crimson (1981)
Note: Rich, mean and dead
He was rich, mean, and slowly succumbing to cancer – until someone hastened the inevitable by beating him to death at a Florida truck stop. Now Ellis Esterland’s son wants Travis McGee to find out who killed his estranged father. The why seems obvious: Esterland’s multimillion-dollar estate.
Though he had been reassured that he would receive a substantial inheritance, Ron Esterland was disowned by his wealthy father years ago. But upon dear old Dad’s conveniently timed murder, the family fortune winds up in the hands of Ellis’s ex-wife instead.
The quest to recover Ron’s money takes McGee from Hollywood to the Midwest, where he confronts prostitution rings and drug deals gone wrong. In the haze of violence surrounding him, McGee starts to lose sight of who he really is. But one thing remains crystal clear: McGee is on the trail of a killer conjured from his worst nightmares.
Cinnamon Skin (1982)
Note: A hot honeymoon
In the Florida Keys, a houseboat explodes in a giant white flash, instantly killing the honeymooners onboard. Travis McGee’s best friend, Meyer, loses not only his home and every single thing in it but his last living relative. Now he wants answers. And he and McGee plan to get them – or die trying.
If Travis McGee hadn’t arranged a lecture tour for his friend, Meyer would be dead. As it was, Meyer lent the John Maynard Keynes to his just-married niece, Norma, and her husband, Evan, hoping to give them the perfect honeymoon. Instead: tragedy. When a group of Colombian terrorists take responsibility for the brutal act, Meyer and McGee travel to Mexico to seek justice. Or payback.
Once south of the border, Meyer and McGee discover many things: Evan’s seedy past, a beautiful local named Barbara, a lethal drug cartel, and, perhaps, even Meyer’s long lost courage. But does Meyer, always content in McGee’s shadow, have what it takes to avenge the killing of the person he loved most?
The Lonely Silver Rain (1984)
Note: A missing yacht
Travis McGee has luck to thank for his reputation as a first-rate salvager of stolen boats. Now Billy Ingraham, a self-made tycoon, is betting that McGee can locate his $700,000 custom cruiser. McGee isn’t so sure. He knows all too well the dangerous link between Florida boatjackings and the drug trade, and he’s vowed never to swim with the sharks – but if he wants to keep his head (AKA finances) above water, swim he will.
Even though McGee doesn’t feel like sticking out his neck for this case, Billy’s wife, Millis, convinces him to step up to the challenge. Sort of. After a pilot friend leads him to the stolen vessel, McGee immediately regrets not going with his gut. The yacht is no longer an ordinary boat. It’s a slaughterhouse.
After witnessing the sordid scene, McGee realizes he’s knee-deep in the white-hot center of an international cocaine ring. In the midst of this terrifying ordeal and an affair with a very dangerous woman, McGee is shocked by the return of a secret from his past. Over the years, McGee has recovered many wrecks – now he’ll need to salvage his own life.