THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE (1964) ***½
by John D. MacDonald
First published In Great Britain by Robert Hale, 1965
This edition published by Orion, 2002, 200pp (195pp)
Blurb: Travis McGee is a self-described beach bum who won his houseboat in a card game. He’s also a knight-errant who’s wary of credit cards, retirement benefits, political parties, mortgages, and television. He only works when his cash runs out, and his rule is simple: He’ll help you find whatever was taken from you, as long as he can keep half. McGee isn’t particularly strapped for cash, but how can anyone say no to Cathy, a sweet backwoods 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. Enter Junior’s latest victim, Lois Atkinson. Frail and broken, Lois can barely get out of bed when Travis finds her, let alone keep herself alive. But Travis turns into Mother McGee, giving Lois new life as he looks for the ruthless man who steals women’s spirits and livelihoods. But 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.
This is the first of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels and also the first of his books I have read. My only previous experience of Travis McGee being via the 1972 film Darker Than Amber, which was based on MacDonald’s seventh book in the series and I remember it being a pretty good movie. The Deep Blue Goodbye was first published in 1964 and in both title and the actions of its hero the book has echoes of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. McGee takes it upon himself to take into his care a psychologically damaged woman dependant on alcohol and resolve to put things right. The opening chapters in which McGee lives in the house with Lois Atkinson are reminiscent of Philip Marlowe and his obligation to the writer Roger Wade in Chandler’s masterpiece. McGee, however, blows much more hot and cold in his temperament and has less of Marlowe’s world-weary cynicism.
The plot unfolds as McGee looks to trap his target, the sadistic Junior Allen. McGee is a hero looking to right wrongs and as such is quite traditional. He manages his own time and is in control of his own destiny as he picks and chooses who he decides to help. He balances his need for income with his moral obligations to his clients. His relationships with women in the book are largely manipulative and whilst the character grows close to Lois, he also maintains a detached emotional involvement. This makes McGee’s character more complex and also more interesting. The book’s finale is both exciting and surprising and, as was customary for the day, its relatively short page count makes for a quick and entertaining read. MacDonald wrote 21 Travis McGee novels and the book left me wanting to revisit the character to see how the series developed.