The Washington Post reported that John MacDonald was dead at seventy the other day. Three score and ten may be the biblical span of a man's years, but it was not long enough for MacDonald. The good don't always die young, but their deaths are always causes for mourning no matter what the age, and so it is with John. He began his career in the penny a word pulps of the forties. Then, he wrote science fiction, mysteries, whatever would bring home a dollar. The quality of his yeoman work earned him entrance to the slicks, Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. Like any author eager to make the long jump from beans to hamburgers, he jumped at his new markets and never looked back. From there, he made the difficult transition from short fiction to novels. Although he was extremely successful and prolific, most of his work in the fifties and early sixties, including his two science fiction novels, Ballroom of the Skies and Wine of the Dreamers and his one fantasy novel, The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything have been, for the most part, forgotten. They were good enough to be successful, not good enough to stand out from the many other science fiction and fantasy tales of thirty years ago.
Then, in 1964, he wrote a novel called The Deep Blue Good-by in which he introduced a man named Travis McGee who lived on a houseboat, the Busted Flush, at Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Travis was in the salvage business, for half of whatever it was worth to you, he'd go out and reclaim what you had lost. McGee found this business proposal lucrative enough, half a loaf being better than none, that MacDonald was able to find enough material for 21 novels of his adventures. Books which took John from hamburgers to steaks and a measure of fame.
Longevity is no sign of quality in the book business, series with names like Mutant Vietnam Veterans From Hell keep the 2nd line publishing houses in business after all. The Travis McGee books have nothing in common with these though. McGee is as tough a hero as ever was found in the adventure/thriller racks, but although his origins may have been in the base dirt of many another serial hero, he rose above his field to join the exalted company of Nero Wolfe and Sherlock Holmes. Travis is that rare fictional tough man with a realistic human side. How many other fictional sleuths do we see working off the pounds of idleness? McGee's like to be the he man of adventure fiction, but he's all too mortal. He's sentimental and moody, a sucker for homeless kittens and lost causes. As he often laments, he continues to put on his rusty armour, pick up his battered lance and go jousting with dragons, even when it is clear that the dragon population keeps growing from year to year. We become cynics as we grow older all too often, and the stainless heroes which entertained us in our younger days lose their attraction, but there is still something in us which thrills to the image of someone trying to defend the right. In MacDonald's hands, McGee was a hero living in a world, all too recognizable our own, striving to uplift the down trodden and protect the helpless. McGee doesn't always succeed, and all too often it feels as if he's lost more than he gains, but the effort is made and reader comes away caring far more than for any mere cardboard character. After all, these days its hard to find nobility anywhere, and if its found between the pages of a paperback novel then perhaps it's only slightly less valuable than in the real world. As for me, I'll take my heroes where I find them, even in the humid, worn byways of an overdeveloped Florida. Where evil doesn't wear the designer faces of Miami Vice and McGee stands with friends against the petty, but deadly schemes of real estate sharks and small town hoodlums. If you'd like to meet Travis, I'd recommend The Empty Copper Sea, Darker Than Amber, or The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper. You've already met his world.
I'd like to have met John, but I'll not have the chance now. One hopes though that somewhere beyond this earth of ours, there's a boat slip in a Ft. Lauderdale, free of students on spring break and venal condominium builders, where a party's being held for a creator and his creation, hosted by the greater author of all.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols