The Deep Blue Goodbye
John D MacDonald
John D MacDonald was one of the most influential writers of the P.I. sub-genre, and his Travis McGee character has remained one of crime fiction’s most enduringly popular sleuths - and one of the Hound's greatest crime fighters.
Travis McGee isn't particularly strapped for cash, but how can anyone say no to Cathy, a sweet 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.
As Travis hunts for the ruthless man who steals women's sensibilities and livelihoods, 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 . . .
The novel begins when McGee gets a request from a friend of his, choreographer/dancer Chookie McCall. She and her dance troupe have an act at a local club and she’s recently hired Catherine Kerr to join the troupe. McCall asks McGee to help Kerr find “something she’s lost,” and reluctantly, McGee agrees to at least meet with Kerr.
When he does, McGee finds that Kerr has a very sad story to tell. She’d been abandoned by her son Davie’s father, and even with sharing life’s expenses with her sister, it was hard to make ends meet. Then, the family got a visit from Junior Allen, who knew Kerr’s now-deceased father. He ingratiated himself with Kerr and before long they were a couple. Then, all of a sudden, Allen left town only to return a few months later and a lot richer. He then took up with another woman Lois Atkinson. Not long after that, Allen disappeared yet again. Kerr believes that Allen got all of his money from something he stole from her father, although she isn’t sure exactly what that might be. She knows Junior Allen is no good, but she does want what she thinks is rightfully hers.
After some thought, McGee agrees to try to track down Junior Allen and the money that he stole from Kerr. Bit by bit, McGee follows Allen’s trail. His discoveries lead him to believe that Kerr was right; Allen found something of great value on the family’s property, stole it and sold it in New York for quite a lot of money. As the story moves on, we find out what it was that Allen stole.
More than that, though, we learn about Allen’s character. He’s a harsh, abusive man, but knows enough about ingratiating himself with people that he’s been able to victimise more than one woman, including Catherine Kerr and Lois Atkinson. He’s also savvy enough to have discovered a secret that Catherine Kerr’s father kept and exploit it for his own benefit. He really is a classic “bad guy that it’s easy to hate.” McGee follows Allen’s trail from New York through Texas and back to Florida. By that time, Allen’s latched on to a new victim, so McGee has to plan carefully and think and act quickly if he’s going to stop Allen before it’s too late.
This novel has several of the hallmarks of the “hardboiled” detective novel. There’s an unflinching look at users and abusers, and there is violence, some of it against women. That said, though, this isn’t a gratuitous novel. It is, however, a story of some very unhappy characters. Several of them are down and out, and there’s a strong sense that life simply hasn’t been fair to them.
We really care about Catherine Kerr and Lois Atkinson. As McGee gets to know them, so does the reader. In both cases, we get a fascinating look at how an abuser can ingratiate himself with someone. At first glance, it’s easy to ask, “How could you mix yourself up with such a bad person?” As we get to know the characters, though, we see that the answer isn’t as simple as you might think. The other characters, such as Kerr’s sister Christine, and Chookie McCall, are also well-drawn and three-dimensional.
And then there’s Travis McGee, the self-described “salvage consultant.” In this novel, we don’t learn a lot of his backstory, but we do learn that he’s got some past secrets that form at least part of the reason he lives on a houseboat called The Busted Flush instead of in a “real” home. We also learn the story of how he acquired the boat and why it has that name.
McGee has a lot of sympathy for the down-and-out, and yet he’s not gullible. At several points in the story, for instance, he realises when people are hiding things and lying to him and calls those people out. He doesn’t believe everything he’s told, even by his client, and he’s not particularly trusting. That said, though, he doesn’t judge; he knows that people are complicated and do things for complicated reasons. He’s also very sympathetic to the “underdog,” and doesn’t like the thought of people being exploited. He’s philosophical and yet he can certainly take action when it’s necessary.
This novel is the first in the Travis McGee series and the reader gets a sense that there’s a lot to McGee’s character that will unfold as the series goes on. And so it proves to be. We also get a sense of place in this novel. Much of the novel takes place in South Florida, and we get a strong sense of that setting as the novel goes on. Travis McGee is a fisherman and a beachcomber besides being a “salvage consultant” and it’s hard to imagine him living anywhere else.
The Deep Blue Goodbye isn’t an optimistic novel. But it does reflect the dignity of the everyday person who’s been knocked down by life. It’s also an interesting mystery with complex characters, a solid pace and a unique kind of sleuth.
About John D MacDonald:
John D MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pa, and educated at the Universities of Pennsylvania, Syracuse and Harvard, where he took an MBA in 1939. During WW2, he rose to the rank of Colonel, and while serving in the Army and in the Far East, sent a short story to his wife for sale, successfully. After the war, he decided to try writing for a year, to see if he could make a living. Over 500 short stories and 70 novels resulted, including 21 Travis McGees.