You were one of the first men I ever felt guilty about loving. Or maybe it was Travis McGee, your hero, a hunk who actually comes equipped with a heart and brains. When The Deep Blue Good-by, your first Travis McGee mystery, hit the drugstore racks in 1964, I was two years out of Vassar where I’d majored in English and become something of a literary snob. I was teaching English to high school kids, so during the day I shepherded my students through Shakespeare, Dickens, and Hawthorne. But at night at the Laundromat I read Trav. Your paperbacks, with their lurid rainbow of titles were pulp fiction, the adult equivalent of the comic books I’d been forbidden to read as a kid or the smuggled-in True Confessions magazines I’d devoured by flashlight beneath the covers at camp. I castigated myself for loving Trav, but love him I did.
It wasn’t just his good looks, strength, and ability to deal with bad guys and boats that hooked me. Travis is brainy and articulate. He philosophizes about the state of the world, and his colloquial musings reveal intelligence, knowledge, sophistication, and foresight. His loyal sidekick Meyer is smart and savvy too. It was Meyer I had in mind decades later when I began writing The Bel Barrett Mystery Series and dreamed up Bel’s husband Sol. Like Meyer, Sol is a portly economist with a knack for bailing out his trouble prone cohort.
So McGee chooses men friends wisely, but that’s not all. He almost always goes for women who are strong, smart, and brave, and the real gems are also kind and compassionate. I love it that the adjective that Travis uses most frequently to modify the noun women is happy
He likes happy women!
In 1964 I was also ready for a new look at Florida. In ninth grade I’d learned it was the home of a boy who had to shoot his pet fawn, and my tears had blurred his surroundings. Even before that I’d been to Miami Beach once with my great aunt and cousin. I remembered only that iconic sliver of sand lined with hotels. But Trav’s Florida is Fort Lauderdale, the Everglades, the Keys, and lots of other towns, cities, marinas and marshes I’d never thought about.
You made me want to go back to Florida, and I persuaded my husband that we should visit the Keys. When we got to our motel on Islamorada, I felt as if I’d been there before because, of course, thanks to you, I had. I pictured Trav’s houseboat, The Busted Flush, in every marina we passed and wondered what deadly scams were behind the signs of development already pockmarking the islets. I also wondered if I’d ever live in a place I loved enough to write about the way you wrote about Florida.
Then in the late Seventies I moved back to my native New Jersey, to Hoboken. I fell in love with that mile square miracle of a town, once considered a weed in the Garden State, itself the butt of too many bad jokes. When in the Nineties I set The Bel Barrett Mystery Series there, I consciously tried to make Northeastern New Jersey matter to my readers the way you made Florida matter to me.
In 2003, my second husband and I moved to the Puget Sound area of Washington State where for two more years I continued to chronicle Bel’s adventures in New Jersey. On a flight to Fort Lauderdale to visit family, I reread The Scarlet Ruse. Inside the back cover is a bio your son Maynard wrote mentioning that you grew up in Utica, New York and moved to Florida only after you returned from WWII. You too were a transplant! This biographical factoid reminded me that a good writer can learn to know and love a place by writing about it. I began researching a historical mystery set in Seattle’s Jewish community during the Gold Rush and in 1965.
Thank you for helping me, another transplant, write my way to taking root here.