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February 15, 2009

All in on the Busted Flush

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — inky @ 4:09 pm

Recently I finished one of those casual reading projects I had, reading the entire Travis McGee series, by John D. MacDonald. I picked up the first one a couple years ago on Christopher Tate’s recommendation. I tagged it as “fine, would read again” but not good enough to make serious effort to find more. Then I stumbled on the second one a year or so ago, and now here I am some months later finishing the last, number twenty-one.

The Travis McGee series is sort of a triangulation between two other series I’m fond of, James Bond and Fletch (and, incidentally, neither of these two are particularly like their movie adaptations, so if that’s your main experience with them, pretend you don’t have any). Like Fletch, Travis McGee is a wise-cracking dude who does well with the ladies because he likes them (novels-Bond does well with the ladies because he dislikes them), and like Fletch the books generally have lots of authorial musing about modern society (and like Fletch’s author, MacDonald hates liberals and hippies). But the Travis McGee books have more action and death than the Fletch books, and they’re also like the Bond books in that the exotic scenery is part of the appeal of the books (even if some of the time the scenery is just exotic because MacDonald is giving us Florida like we haven’t seen it before). Stakes-wise the McGee books end up in between the two sources: they’re usually bigger than a single murder, but smaller than a conspiracy to hold the world hostage — say, they might be about a drug-smuggling operation or corporate embezzlement.

Anyway, so twenty-one books is a hell of a lot. This is about as much as the Fletch and Bond series combined, and when you write that many, some grinding becomes inevitable. Like, ok, we accept as readers that the main protagonist is never going to settle down in a stable relationship. But there’s only so many ways as an author you can sabotage that — killing the leading ladies off, giving them amnesia, having them fall in love with somebody else, getting new jobs out of state, getting psychologically traumatized, and so on. Eventually you’re sort of covering your eyes as soon as things start looking happy because it’s only a matter of time. Very occasionally they survive this book, but that’s even worse, because they’re bound to bite it by chapter three in the next book.

This in turn leads to some weirdness in how McGee’s character is presented. Like, he loves and loses a lot of women, and he kills a lot of people, usually because of the loving or the losing. So how world-weary are you supposed to write him, as an author? Like somebody who’s seen a dozen of his true loves die and killed twice or three times as many “bad guys”, or like somebody who the average reader can relate to? MacDonald even wants to have a character arc, in some books. Yeah, it’s always “McGee is depressed by the state of the world and thinking about giving up, but then realizes there’s still something worth fighting for”, but still, it’s hard to figure out to write that when it’s the sixth time and you’re thinking McGee should have really made up his mind for good on the question by now.

The effect of this is to give some meta-storyline for the series, but it’s a pretty grim one. If you read through all the books, what you end up with is the story of a guy being ground down by time. Yeah, the books are full of temporary recoveries, but if you plot the thing, the overall trend is inevitably downward. This is weird because the books are full of McGee helping people, saving people, and fixing things; and yet he never seems to get anything permanent out of it. I guess this is just dramatic convention to let you run the whole series — if you made new permanent relationships each book, after twenty books your series would be a boat hull entirely covered in barnacles — but it gives the whole thing a depressing tinge.

I guess I shouldn’t make it sound like McGee carries nothing from book to book. He has a good and amusing friend who appears extensively in the latter two-thirds of the series, and occasionally we’ll get guest appearances from people from earlier books (most notably in the last book). And I shouldn’t make it sound like I didn’t like the books, because I did. It’s just, geez, at some point you have to start feeling sorry for the character, subject to all this suffering purely for our amusement. Maybe MacDonald should have ended the series earlier and given him some peace.

If you want to start reading the series, the first (The Deep Blue Goodbye) is a perfectly fine place to start. Other good ones include The Quick Red Fox (good love interest, despite its heavy-handed ending), A Deadly Shade of Gold (the most Bond-y of the series), and The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (just overall very solid). Oh, and did I mention MacDonald also had to come up with twenty-one titles with a different color in each? ’cause he did.

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