|Portrayed by||Rod Taylor, Sam Elliott|
Travis McGee is a fictional character, created by prolific American mystery writer John D. MacDonald. Unlike most detectives in crime fiction, McGee is neither a police officer nor a licensed private investigator; instead, he is a self-described "salvage consultant" who recovers others' property for a fee. McGee appeared in 21 novels, from The Deep Blue Good-by in 1964 to The Lonely Silver Rain in 1984. In 1980, the McGee novel The Green Ripper won the National Book Award.
Travis McGee lives on a custom-made 52-foot barge-type houseboat dubbed The Busted Flush (after the poker hand, in memory of the game in which he won it), docked at Slip F-18 at Bahia Mar Marina, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A self-described "beach bum" who takes his retirement "in installments", he prefers to take on new cases only when the spare cash (besides a reserve fund) in a hidden safe in the Flush runs low. McGee also owns a custom vintage Rolls-Royce that had been converted into a pickup truck long before he bought it, and painted "a horrid electric blue" by the same hand that did the conversion. McGee named it Miss Agnes, after one of his elementary school teachers whose hair was the same shade.
McGee's business card reads "Salvage Consultant", and most business comes by word of mouth. His clients are usually people who have been deprived of something important and/or valuable (typically by unscrupulous or illegal means) and have no way to regain it lawfully. McGee's usual fee is half the value of the item (if recovered) with McGee risking expenses, and those who object to such a seemingly high fee are reminded that getting back half of something is better than owning all of nothing. Although the missing items are often tangible (e.g., rare stamps, jewels, etc.), in several books McGee is asked to locate a missing person; in one, the stolen property is a client's reputation. In several instances, he shows a marked propensity to exact revenge, usually for the ill-treatment or death of one of his few real friends.
Physically, McGee is a tall, tanned, sandy-haired man with pale grey eyes. Several books hint (or explicitly state) that he is a U.S. Army  veteran of the Korean War. However, later books are less precise about exactly when he served. In The Green Ripper, one of the later novels, there are implications that his military service was during the Vietnam War rather than Korea. In The Lonely Silver Rain he visits a bank safe-deposit box in which he keeps a few precious keepsakes including photos of his father, mother, and brother, "all long dead," and he mentions that the box also contains his Silver Star, Purple Heart, and honorable discharge certificate, all awarded by the U.S. Army to "Sergeant McGee". He also has a daughter named Jean, unknown to him until she reveals herself in "The Lonely Silver Rain" as the result of a long-ago love affair. He was a stand-out college football player (at tight end) but says in A Deadly Shade of Gold that he never played professional football due to a knee injury. However, in The Turquoise Lament he admits to a sports-trivia fan that he played professional football for a couple of seasons before his knees were wrecked in a tackle by an opponent from the Detroit Lions.
Despite his age, he retains the quickness and agility of a professional athlete. He stands 6'4" (1.95 m) tall and, although deceptively unimposing at his "fighting weight" of 205 lbs. (93 kg), he is much stronger than he looks, with thick wrists and long arms; occasionally, a more perspicacious adversary notes these features when deciding whether to tangle with him. McGee purposely cultivates an image of being uncoordinated, shambling, and clumsy, but has superb reflexes and muscle memory. He has a 33-inch waist, wears a size 46 long jacket, and a shirt with a 17½" neck and 34" arms. McGee often discusses his fitness regimen, usually in terms of regaining his fitness after a lazy period: swimming and sprinting are frequently mentioned. At one time he was a pipe smoker, but eventually gave it up in order to maintain his physical fitness. As a martial art strategy, he often covers his face and blocks punches with his arms and elbows to lull and tire his opponent while studying that opponent's fighting style. In the final novel, McGee is described as practicing the Chinese art of T'ai chi ch'uan.
McGee's early life and family are deliberately left undeveloped; among the few explicit mentions of family are a memory of attending a Chicago parade with his father as a boy, and a brother with whom he planned to go into business after his military service. The brother was apparently swindled out of his savings in a scam involving a woman and a male accomplice and committed suicide; it is strongly hinted that Travis subsequently killed the woman and her partner. McGee's ethnicity is Irish-American; his father's first name is never given, but his mother's maiden name is given as Mary Catherine Devlin.
While McGee notes in Free Fall in Crimson (1981) he has "cut a wide swath through a wall of female flesh", he is honest and cynical enough to understand what this says about himself. This is a part of his introspective nature that frequently appears throughout the series, with observations about society around him, with particular notice paid to the changing Florida environment. McGee's cynical image of himself, some variation of which appears in every book in the series, is as a knight in rusty armor with a broken lance and swaybacked steed, fighting for what he fears are outdated or unrealistic ideals. In his romantic view of the world, he bears a resemblance to Robert B. Parker's Spenser.
However, unlike other fictional detectives such as Raymond Chandler's jaded and world-weary Philip Marlowe, McGee clings to what is important to him: his senses of honor, obligation, and outrage. In a classic commentary in Bright Orange for the Shroud, McGee muses,
Now, of course, having failed in every attempt to subdue the Glades by frontal attack, we are slowly killing it off by tapping the River of Grass. In the questionable name of progress, the state in its vast wisdom lets every two-bit developer divert the flow into drag-lined canals that give him "waterfront" lots to sell. As far north as Corkscrew Swamp, virgin stands of ancient bald cypress are dying. All the area north of Copeland had been logged out, and will never come back. As the glades dry, the big fires come with increasing frequency. The ecology is changing with egret colonies dwindling, mullet getting scarce, mangrove dying of new diseases born of dryness.
This was in a paperback originally published in 1965 when the general public was still not conversant with the concept of environmentalism.
McGee does have a sidekick of sorts, in his best friend Meyer, an internationally known and respected economist who lives on a cabin cruiser of his own near McGee's at Bahia Mar, the John Maynard Keynes, and later, after the Keynes is blown up, aboard its replacement, the Thorstein Veblen. There has been some confusion as to whether "Meyer" is a given name or surname, but it is clear in The Green Ripper when McGee and Meyer are in the hotel room with two federal agents. They refer to him twice as Dr. Meyer and at the second, he says, "Just Meyer, please." In Pale Gray for Guilt, Meyer presents a business card giving his name as "G. Ludweg Meyer", and a letter of introduction beginning "My Dear Ludweg". Whether these are his real names or not is obscured by both items being instruments in an elaborate financial con game. Both Meyer's boats are jammed full of books and treatises, ranging far beyond simple economic theory. For instance, Meyer is a chess aficionado and amateur psychologist. Meyer serves as McGee's anchor when McGee's own inner compass seems to be skewed, as well as providing the formal education that the street-smart McGee lacks. Meyer has been known to participate in McGee's campaigns on occasion and has come close to being killed more than once as a result. His cover is usually some sort of academic, though at times he has also played a stockbroker or an entomologist.
Some world-weariness does eventually creep into McGee's character, perhaps because the 1960s Florida in which he originated no longer exists. The only direct indications of his age ever given are comments that he had served in the Korean War, and until the 1980s he seems ageless. He does at one point refer to having a "birthday ending in zero", which could mean that he was born in 1930. But as the story progresses, minor recurring characters began to drop away and it becomes apparent that McGee himself is getting older, along with his creator. In later novels such as The Green Ripper and Free Fall in Crimson, there is a sense of desperation that the violence in the world is too senseless to be explained and will never end. Much of that dissipates with the ending of The Lonely Silver Rain, which became the final volume when MacDonald died in 1986. (Reports of another final McGee novel, possibly narrated by Meyer, titled A Black Border for McGee and to be published posthumously, have never been confirmed.)
About the Travis McGee novels
When MacDonald created the character, he was to be called Dallas McGee, after the city, but after the Kennedy assassination he decided that name had too many negative connotations. He was searching for a first name for McGee when a friend suggested that he look at the names of the many Air Force bases in California. MacDonald's attention was caught by Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, and so he named his character Travis.
Beginning with The Deep Blue Good-By, released in March 1964, each of the twenty-one novels featuring Travis McGee has a title that incorporates a color. The first three books in the Travis McGee series were published in quick succession, at the rate of one a month, a highly unusual publishing strategy. According to MacDonald, he had earlier written an introductory novel about McGee that he burned as being unsatisfactory. A longtime resident of Sarasota's Siesta Key, MacDonald said he placed McGee on the opposite side of the state to protect his privacy in case the series became popular.
McGee has been called the first great modern Florida adventurer, preceding characters and situations that appeared in novels by authors such as Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, James W. Hall, and Les Standiford. Hiaasen specifically acknowledged his debt in an introduction he wrote for a new edition of The Deep Blue Good-By in 1994, commenting that even though MacDonald was now eight years gone, he believed McGee was still around, probably sipping gin on the deck of the Busted Flush and pondering whatever it was that Florida had become or was becoming. Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett expressed similar sentiments in the lyrics of the song "Incommunicado". In Salem's Lot by Stephen King, County Sheriff Homer McCaslin berates author Ben Mears' writing. McCaslin tells him to write "Like the guy who writes those Travis McGee stories".
Several of the science fiction novels and stories of author Spider Robinson also contain references to Travis McGee. McGee has also been linked to the Wold Newton family described in Phillip Jose Farmer's Tarzan Alive, and included on a genealogical chart in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.
The U.S. Library of Congress's "Center for the Book" commissioned a short work by MacDonald. The resulting essay, "Reading for Survival", is a conversation between McGee and Meyer on the importance of reading. The 26-page essay was released in a limited edition of 5,000 copies and was available for a small contribution to the Center for the Book.
- The Deep Blue Good-by (1964)
- Nightmare in Pink (1964)
- A Purple Place for Dying (1964)
- The Quick Red Fox (1964)
- A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965)
- Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965)
- Darker than Amber (1966)
- One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966)
- Pale Gray for Guilt (1968)
- The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968)
- Dress Her in Indigo (1969)
- The Long Lavender Look (1970)
- A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971)
- The Scarlet Ruse (1972)
- The Turquoise Lament (1973)
- The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974)
- The Empty Copper Sea (1978)
- The Green Ripper (1979)
- Free Fall in Crimson (1981)
- Cinnamon Skin (1982)
- The Lonely Silver Rain (1984)
In addition, the 1966 MacDonald novel The Last One Left carries the author's inscription, "I dedicate this novel to TRAVIS McGEE, who lent invaluable support and encouragement." With much of the action occurring in the boat cruising world of southeastern Florida, it is similar to some of the McGee stories. The book also mentions the Muñequita, a small runabout that McGee later buys in Pale Gray for Guilt.
It has been rumored for years that MacDonald was planning a 22nd book to be titled A Black Border for McGee about the death of his famous character and told from the point of view of his friend Meyer. The MacDonald family has steadfastly denied the rumors and has consistently and vigorously refused offers from other authors to continue the series, feeling that no one could properly capture the tone and voice of MacDonald and McGee.
In 2001 a writer by the name of Lori Stone published a novel entitled The Black Squall about a young woman named Jean Pearson (who may or may not be McGee's daughter Jean Killian, introduced in The Lonely Silver Rain). Jean travels to Florida to arrange the funeral for her father and "uncle," who died in a boating accident and whose descriptions resemble those of McGee and Meyer. She visits her father's "50-something foot" houseboat, and the descriptions of it stongly resemble those of the Busted Flush detailed in the McGee novels. She never calls either her father or "uncle" (or their boats) by name, and gets around the issue of replicating McGee's "voice" by making the narrator an entire new character; and she neatly skirts the issue of Jean's last name by her having been briefly married and then widowed.
Travis McGee has twice been translated to cinema and television; Rod Taylor played McGee in Darker Than Amber (1970), and Sam Elliott played him in the television movie of The Empty Copper Sea, titled Travis McGee (1983). The latter relocates McGee in California, eliminating the Florida locales central to the novels. In addition, Elliott kept his trademark brushy mustache, thoroughly distancing himself from the clean-shaven, brush cut look McGee maintains in the books.
In 1967, author MacDonald refused permission for a television series about Travis McGee and his cases, feeling people would stop reading the novels were Travis McGee regularly on television. Comedian Dan Rowan, a friend of MacDonald's, had expressed interest in playing the role of Travis McGee, but nothing ever materialized.
Robert Petkoff provided the voice of Travis McGee in the majority of the CURRENT audio book versions of the novels. The prior abridged series from Random House audio featured Darren McGavin in all but two, Darker than Amber and Cinnamon Skin, which were read by Kevin Conway.
According to the Internet Movie Database, a film version of The Deep Blue Good-by, directed by Oliver Stone with Leonardo DiCaprio as Travis McGee, was in development with a tentative release date of 2011 or 2012. In April 2010, it was announced that the film's title was changed to Travis McGee. In April 2011, it was announced that Paul Greengrass was interested in directing the film. As of February 2014, this has not materialized and the film remains listed as In development.
When the U.S. organization Friends of Libraries U.S.A. decided to institute a series of literary landmark plaques analogous to historic landmark markers, the first to be installed was around what would be Slip F-18 in Bahia Mar, the anchorage of the Busted Flush. This was done in February 1987, less than a year after MacDonald's death.
After the remodeling of the Bahia Mar Yachting Center in 2003 to replace fixed docks with floating docks, there no longer existed a Slip F-18. The plaque was remounted on a movable wooden base, which is presently located inside the marina Dockmaster's Office and Gift Shop.
- The Lonely Silver Rain, p. 224.
- Demarest, Michael (October 15, 1979). "Books: The Mid-Life Surge of McGee" (a review of The Green Ripper). TIME.
- Cassuto, Leonard. Hard-boiled sentimentality: the secret history of American crime stories (Columbia University Press, 2009), p.170; MacDonald, John D. "How to Live With a Hero", The Writer (Combat Publishing, Waukesha, WI), 7/2008, pp.22-23.
- John D. MacDonald. "Reading for Survival".
- Travis McGee at the Internet Movie Database
- An F block of floating yacht slips exists but no F-18. Indeed the boats along the F line clearly belong to multi-millionaires. The Dockmaster's Office, at the western end of the Bahia Mar Yachting Center, also serves as the marina store and business center. It is at 801 Seabreeze Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316. Literary Landmarks factsheet