A weekend Blue Skunk "feature" will be a revision of an old post. I'm calling this BFTP: Blast from the Past. Original post February 26, 2007. On a holiday visit last month I found my entire collection of Travis McGee novels in my aunt's attic. Trips to the used book store just won't be as thrilling.
One of my more literate buddies and I were having supper a few weeks ago when the discussion veered from “lies about women” to “books we like.” Come to think about it, those may be the only things we ever talk about. Anyway, we tried to remember what specific book got us hooked on a particular genre. Kiddie books don’t count.
I can safely say that Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel started my infatuation with science fiction. Tolkien’s hobbits lead to a brief flirtation with fantasy novels. I remember Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage and Mary Renault’s The King Must Die as my first dalliances with historical fiction – an affair that continues to this day. And of course, Fleming’s Bond stories created this fan of international espionage.
But I read two detective novels for every one book of another genre. And it was John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee who set me down this path. No pantywaist Hardy Boy or tea-sipping Marple or cerebral Holmes, this McGee. He describes himself as:
I was an artifact, genus boat bum, a pale-eyed, shambling, gangling, knuckly man, without enough unscarred hide left to make a decent lampshade. Watchful appraiser of the sandy-rumped beach ladies. Creaking knight errant, yawning at the thought of the next dragon. They don't make grails the way they used to. The Green Ripper, p 46.
McGee set the mold for my favorite detectives. Smart, absolutely, but also unafraid of violence when needed and unafraid to buck the establishment when necessary. And always adhering to a personal moral code that detests bullies and protects the innocent. Knight errant, indeed.
I re-read a couple McGee mysteries just recently and McDonald’s writing has held up. McGee’s relationship with women won’t pass any political correctness tests today, but I love how the women he encounters can speak in complete, compound, even complex sentences that add up to whole paragraphs:
She wrenched around to face me, her mouth stretched into ugliness. "And what the hell do you know about relationships? Symbiotic! Limited contact with reality! How could you even pretend to recognize the intellectual position? Oh, you have your lousy little vanity, Mr. McGee. You have a shrewd, quick mind, and little tag ends of wry attitudes, and a short of deliberate irony, served up as if you were holding it on a tray. And you have the nerve to patronize me! You have all your snappy little answers to everything, but when they ask the wrong questions, you always have fists or kicking or fake superior laughter. You are a physical man, but in the best sense of being a man, you are not one-tenth the man my brother was. " Her eyes went wild and dazed. "Was," she repeated softly/ She had sunk the barb herself, and chunked it deep, and she writhed on it. A Purple Place for Dying, p. 71
McGee’s life was one I’ve always envied. Life onboard the houseboat The Busted Flush. Working only enough to take his retirement a small piece at a time. Beautiful women going in and out of his life. A true friend and Watson in next door neighbor Meyers. The life, I suppose, we all dream about but would probably detest were we actually in it. No children or grandchildren in McGee’s world as I remember.
I am always searching for other detectives of the McGee school – smart, violent and principled. As Bill Ott suggests in his February "Rousing Reads" column in American Libraries, Lee Child’s hero Jack Reacher comes close. Earl Swagger (Stephen Hunter), Dave Robicheaux (James Lee Burke), Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly), and even Gabriel Allon (Daniel Silva) honor the type.
It’s my hope that authors keep cranking out these tough guys that can use brains, bullets and fists. Any suggestions to expand my list? What book hooked you on a genre?