John D MacDonald was a well established author by 1964 when he began the Travis McGee series and he had a bit of a following among the book critics of the era. His most reliable champion was Anthony Boucher of the New York Times, whose Criminals at Large column almost always mentioned a new JDM title, beginning all the way back to 1953’s Dead Low Tide. Other pre-Travis fans included Clarence Petersen of the Chicago Tribune, James Sandoe of the New York Herald Tribune, and syndicated critic John R Breitlow.
When the first two McGee books were published Breitlow wrote a column where he showed both his familiarity and ignorance of MacDonald’s work, an unfortunately common affliction. Transcribed below, Breitlow astutely notes McGee’s similarity to previous JDM protagonists, but makes an erroneous generalization about the setting of the pre-McGee work (they were not “mainly” set on the east coast of Florida, or even in Florida itself) and ends with the most tiresome of all complaints about MacDonald, that he was “too good” to be writing such drivel and needed to work on more serious stuff. Had Breitlow never read books such as Slam the Big Door, The End of the Night, or A Key to the Suite?
This column appeared in papers nationwide and was transcribed from the Winona [Minnesota] Daily News. The headline read “New Hero Debuts in 2 Paperbacks”.
THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE and NIGHTMARE IN PINK, by John D. MacDonald. Gold Medal Books, 144 pages each, 40 cents each.
By JOHN R. BREITLOW
The world of John D. MacDonald is a limited but fascinating one. Located mainly on the east coast with Florida as its base of operations, it contains large numbers of motels, modern offices and high-rise apartments, plus a proponderance of expensive boats. It is peopled by very worldly individuals, being mainly virile heroes, sinister villains, and attractive heroines with a tendency to meet a violent end.
Few of MacDonald's works begin life in hard cover, but they are found in profusion on thousands of paperback stands. Although their specific ingredients vary in fascination and timely detail, their general pattern has a consistency not unlike the great "Chateau - bottled" wines of Bordeaux.
A literary connoisseur might object to such a comparison on the qualitative level with considerable justice, yet the comparison is apt. MacDonald fans who regularly invest small sums at the newsstands of bus depots, drug stores and hotel lobbies, know exactly what they are getting and tend to like it just that way, to judge from the volume of sales and regular appearance of new titles.
Over the years, there has been such a similarity in John D. MacDonald's heroes that he has now taken the logical step which will save him inventing a new name and background every three months - he has inaugurated a series, having settled upon the name and character of Travis McGee.
Anyone who has read more than two MacDonald books has already met McGee. He lives on a lavish houseboat which he won in a poker game. He makes a precarious living by robbing thieves for a 50 per cent commission in an aura of slightly tarnished knight-errantry. Experienced with fishpole, fists and charm, Travis McGee is generally admired by women and respected by men. Some might call him a bum and others might label him the product of his age. Both would be correct.
John D. MacDonald introduces Travis McGee to the paperback world in two volumes which appeared on newsstands almost simultaneously: The Deep Blue Good-by and Nightmare in Pink. While usually strong on titles, MacDonald appears this time to have submitted to a publisher's whim. The only apparent reason for these colorful allusions is to justify the books' front covers, tinted to match the otherwise obscure titles.
The Deep Blue Good-by finds McGee helping two pleasantly - formed highly dissimilar females who have suffered damage to both purse and pride at the hands of one Junior Allen, a sinister character with muscle, sex appeal, a large cruiser, and the hidden charm of an angered perverted cobra. The loot involves some precious stones smuggled out of the Orient in the Second World War.
This particular crusade confronts Sir T. McGee with a successful New York contractor, a Texas playboy heading for destruction, and a motley gathering of young people whose quest for kicks lands them in troubled West Indian waters. (MacDonald's opinion of the adolescent generation is even lower than they warrant, if that is possible.) Also up for consideration is the author's rather philosophical treatment of what might be called the “Bunny Syndrome," rather harsh but not unfriendly view of the modern playgirl.
Nightmare in Pink, the second of the Travis McGee series, removes the kindly boat bum from his marina and sends him to New York to help the younger sister of a permanently disabled Korean War buddy. McGee falls for the girl (MacDonald is rarely above allowing his heroes to tamper with his heroines) but for reasons unclear they decide to go separate ways.
Nightmare in Pink actually has some frightening aspects to its plot, which involves the use of neurological drugs and surgery to control some large family fortunes and eliminate anyone who stumbles onto the scheme. McGee himself barely avoids this fate and in making his escape from a "Rest Home" of fiendish design, inserts a schizoid drug into the staff coffee maker. The results would be funny, if the clinical detail wasn't quite so realistic.
These columns have previously lamented the fact that John D. MacDonald obviously chooses to grind out this sort of thing when he could be doing something better. We consider him a good writer, and wish he would hurry and make enough money from his paperback empire so that he could quit being a hack. Until that time, we will, like Ian Fleming proclaims on the cover of one of the first Travis McGee books, automatically read everything John D. MacDonald writes, Everyone, it would seem, has his weaknesses.