May 20, 2014

Chicks Dig Houseboats ... Apparently: a review of John D. MacDonald's "The Deep Blue Good-By"

The Deep Blue Good-By

by John D. MacDonald

Gold Medal Books (1964)

144 pages

Gin-soaked philosophy is fine--in moderation--but it can wear a little thin after a while. The hero of John D. MacDonald's invention, Travis McGee, lives aboard a houseboat that he won in a card game. He's a vagabond with a vigilante's heart and a propensity for spouting his worldview at nearly every turn. Some just plainspoken common sense, the rest is an embittered cynicism that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But, hey, everyone has their faults.

I scrounged up this novel while on a sixties pulp kick earlier in the year, and considering the author is the man behind Cape Fear, I figured this would be a good one to pick up. Heck, this is the first of twenty-one Travis McGee novels for crying out loud, so MacDonald must have been doing something right.

Turns out Travis gets by hiring out his services to people who have lost one thing or another and want it back. Travis finds what they want and keeps a cut for himself. I think it's referred to as "salvage consulting" in the novel. In The Deep Blue Good-By", Travis is coaxed by one of his lovely lady friends, a dancer with nothing better to do than luxuriate aboard his cozy houseboat between gigs, to help out a gal she knows who's been done wrong by one mean hombre named Junior Allen. Travis isn't terribly convinced, even with the promise of a payday, but when he meets the utterly pathetic creature for himself, he's drawn to find the bastard who ruined her and reclaim what he can of the money Junior stole.

The story has its share of twists and turns along the way, but it never felt terribly suspenseful and ultimately very predictable. Travis had a mission and a gameplan, and then he did it. No big surprises that he couldn't really handle and no real peril that wasn't overcome in quick fashion. Now, I haven't read a Jack Reacher novel--yet--but I wouldn't be surprised to find out Travis McGee served as a bit of a template or inspiration for Lee Child's own iconic ass-kicker. But, while I may have found Jack Reacher to be a likable enough character in the movie adaptation I saw, Travis McGee can be detestable at times in his attitude towards the world, and especially the women who pass through his life. He's got a meanstreak underneath all his too-cool-for-school bravado, and might even be a sociopath by today's standards.

The Deep Blue Good-By wound up a fun distraction for an evening, but if the other twenty novels in the series are just like it, I'm not so sure I'll be able to endure more than a couple more of them before I grow weary of Travis McGee.


  1. Great post, Gef. I've read three Travis books and so far they're all similar. If you haven't read any of his standalone novels give them a chance. APRIL EVIL, ONE MONDAY WE KILLED THEM ALL, and THE DAMNED. The last one is more of a character study, not much on suspense, but it's a neat book.

  2. Thanks, Lee. I believe I have a couple of those on my Goodreads watch list.

    I figure I'll probably delve into Jim Thompson's work next before revisiting MacDonald.

  3. Cool. I've only read THE NOTHING MAN by Thompson, and it was okay, but I've heard it's a lot different than most of his work. I'm going to grab THE KILLER INSIDE ME, and POPULATION 1280 soon. Look forward to hearing what you think of his work, man.