229. Travis McGee’s Women

John D. MacDonald, who wrote the Travis McGee books, had a schtick he loved and did very well. McGee would make a meaningful aside, through internal monolog, of some event that advanced the story and put it in context. His musing about the plate spinner in Dress Her In Indigo was one of his best.

Here is a decidedly lesser instance, written for this post by me, not by J. D. McD.:

I knew a man who had a yard full of stray cats. He fed them, petted them, and adored them. At first he named them, but he kept losing them to coyotes, to hawks, or to automobiles. After a while, he could no longer remember his first ones; they had all become interchangeable. He still adored them, but he stopped missing them when they went away.

I gave you this, instead of quoting MacDonald himself, because it encapsulates the problem of women in men’s adventure fiction. If you want to see MacDonald’s writing, go to wikiquote. If reading those selections doesn’t send you scampering to the used book store, nothing will.

Make no mistake, women are a problem in books for men. Their treatment is a balancing act. They have to be there, they have to be sexy, and there has to be sex. It isn’t a genre for eunuchs.

Of course, there are fully sexist writers who have no problem with women. They parade them, penetrate them, then shoot them. I acknowledge that these writers exist, but they don’t exist in my world, and that is all I have to say about them.

At the other end of the continuum are the characters who are married or seem relatively sexless. Most of them are found in puzzle mysteries, where the protagonist’s relationship to those around him is primarily cerebral. Holmes is the prototype. Bony, the half-aborigine outback detective who is one of my current favorites, is married to a woman who is never seen. His relationship to the sexually attractive women he deals with is always avuncular.

For the rest of the genre, there have to be beautiful women and the hero has to have a sexual relationship with them, whether consummated or not. In keeping with the fast paced nature of such writing, there are likely to be more than one woman per book. Possibly several.

If the hero is a series character with say, twenty-one books, and he romances (heavily or lightly) two or three women per book, how can he keep track? And how can book twenty-one show him as anything but shallow and jaded? That’s the problem for the writer – and for the reader as well, if he reads multiple books from the series.

Romantic literature is about finding the one. Men’s adventure books, whether thriller, mystery, or spy novel, are partly about finding the one for right now. That’s a major difference in tone.

John D. MacDonald handled the balancing act quite well with Travis McGee. J. D. McD. was a methodical writer. Before he signed a contract to do the series, he wrote the first two McGee novels to see if he could live with the character. He tried to make sure that he had disposed of each novel’s woman by the last page. He (spoiler alert) killed off McGee’s first, at the end of The Deep Blue Goodbye. It wasn’t always that lethal, although it often was. Others left in other ways. Some got married (not to McGee), some went back to their husbands, or to whatever life they had temporarily escaped from. The one notable woman who stayed over into the following book was killed in the opening chapters, setting up a revenge motive. (see 49. The Green Ripper)

When McGee was with his women, he was protective, but distant, caring but manipulative; he was self-centered and self-serving. A self possessed loner with deep wounds, well hidden, would be the romantic cliche. Women loved him. At least the fictional women in his books did. A glance at Goodreads reviews will show that women readers weren’t always so enamored.

You could fantasize being him, but you wouldn’t want your real-life sister to meet up with him. Travis McGee was a partial model for what I wanted Ian Gunn to be in Raven’s Run, but also a model for what I didn’t want him to be.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s