Wednesday, January 09, 2008

John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By

John D. MacDonald's 'The Deep Blue Good-By' (1964)I was aware of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, but had never picked one up until someone recently recommended him to me as an author I would like. I knew the books were set in Florida. That and the brightly-colored paperbacks had caused me to associate MacDonald with Carl Hiassen (a good, but not great mystery writer). I knew McGee was one of those irreverent, cynical types who populate a lot of hard-boiled fiction, although I wasn’t sure if he was a detective or what. I also had read somewhere the story of the houseboat on which McGee lives, called the Busted Flush.

Finally a week or so ago I picked up The Deep Blue Good-By (1964), the first of 21 novels by MacDonald featuring McGee. Was immediately struck by the confident, engaging voice of the protagonist, and particularly liked the way McGee smoothly inserts within his narration of the plot insightful meditations on the human condition. As one sometimes finds in the better hard-boiled novels, The Deep Blue Good-By not only keeps you turning the pages, but encourages you to step back and reflect on your own existence and its meaning.

In The Biggest Game in Town, professional poker player Jack Straus talks about his desire “to stay outside the system and to use his talents to enjoy life while he could.” The same could be said of McGee, a self-described “salvage consultant” or independent contractor who can be hired to perform jobs others deem too dangerous or unsavory. A female companion tries to explain McGee’s profession early in The Deep Blue Good-By: “if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you [McGee] come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and you keep half.”

McGee calls that description “reasonably accurate,” adding that “this is a complex culture,” and “the more intricate our society gets, the more semi-legal ways to steal” arise. Isn’t crystal clear whether he’s referring to his own trade or that of some of his clients (or their enemies).

The plot of this first McGee novel has him being hired by a widow to track down an illicit treasure her husband, a WWII soldier, had smuggled back to the States just prior to being imprisoned for a murder. The trail eventually leads McGee to the evil Junior Allen, a man who had earlier met the now-deceased husband in prison, learned about the treasure, and deceitfully made off with it after an abusive affair with the widow.

The plot is complicated, though not as hopelessly dense as your average Chandler. And, as I mentioned, the relation of events are neatly arranged around McGee’s smart reflections on modern life. McGee is a bachelor, and from the looks of things a desirable one to nearly all of the women he encounters. However, MacDonald doesn’t descend to Spillane-like misogyny, and in fact has his protagonist arguing the case for women more than once in the novel. As McGee puts it early on, “a woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of very much value to anyone else.”

Descriptions of characters’ physical traits are also well-crafted and memorable. Even the description of a random Florida house exudes a certain flair, such as the “unsympathetic” domicile McGee visits early in the novel, the “surgical coldness” of which gives it “the look of places where the blood has been recently washed away.”

There are other readily quotable lines, many of which have connotations which might be applied to poker, such as when McGee notes “when you stalk game it is nice to know what it eats and where it drinks and where it beds down, and if it has any particularly nasty habits, like circling back and pursuing the pursuer.” Or late in the novel when, as he sets his sights on Junior Allen -- a cagey adversary for whom he has little respect -- McGee reflects “there is as much danger in overestimating as in underestimating the quality of the opposition.”

The most direct poker connection, though, concerns the 52-foot houseboat docked in a slip at the Bahia Mar marina in Fort Lauderdale that McGee calls home.

“I acquired it in a private poker session in Palm Beach, a continuous thirty hours of intense effort” explains McGee. He tells of a five card stud hand early in the session where he had the 2c in the hole and 2h3h7hTh showing. Three players remained, including McGee. “I was looking at a pair of eights, and the other player paired on his last card. Fours. Fours checked to the eights and I was in the middle, and bet pot limit, six hundred. Pair of eights sat there and thought too long. He decided I wasn’t trying to buy one,” and folded.

The fellow with the fours then considered the situation. As it happens, “pair of fours was actually two pair,” but “he came to the same reluctant conclusion” and folded as well. “I pulled the pot in, collapsed my winning hand and tossed it to the dealer, but that hole card somehow caught against my finger and flipped over. The black deuce. And I knew that from then on they would remember that busted flush and they would pay the price for my good hands.” The session becomes increasingly lucrative for McGee, finally resulting in his winning the houseboat which he necessarily christens the Busted Flush.

Glad to have gotten the recommendation. (Thanks, Tim.) The Deep Blue Good-By is certainly much better than any of the Hiassen novels I’ve read. And it definitely deserves a place on the Hard-Boiled Poker bookshelf.

Now if only I can find space for the other twenty McGee novels.



Blogger Rapido said...

I realize this is coming from out of the blue, but my recommendation is to read JDM's first Travis McGee - The Deep Blue Good-By, written in 1964, and then read his last - The Lonely Silver Rain, which was written shortly before he died in 1986.

It doesn't get any better than that.

3/15/2012 10:06 PM  

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