/Mysteries with a bonus

Mysteries with a bonus

From Shaman’s Rock

By Jim Poling Sr.

We tend to think of global warming and climate change as some new development, It’s not. There have been warnings about it going back many decades.

You find the warnings in the oddest places. I’m reading John D, MacDonald’s A Fearful Yellow Eye, his eighth novel in the Travis McGee crime series, and find this passage:

“I could smell a sourness in the wind. I remembered that it blew across a dying lake. For a hundred years the cities had dumped their wastes and corruptions and acids into it, and now suddenly everyone was aghast that it should have the impertinence to start dying like Lake Erie.”

It continues: 

“The ecology was broken, the renewing forces at last overwhelmed. 

“When the sea begins to stink, man better have some fresh green planets to colonize, because this one is going to be used up.”

A mystery novel is an unusual place to find strong environmental statements. But MacDonald was a very vocal activist who often slipped environmental comments into his mysteries. He wrote the Fear Yellow Eye criticism of the environment back in 1966, long before most people got onto the Save the Environment campaign.

Much of MacDonald’s environmental activism was directed at his adopted state of Florida. He fought dredge-and-fill projects, schemes to change the Everglades and was involved in stopping construction of a huge airport in what is now Florida’s Big Cypress Preserve.

Florida is the home of Travis McGee, MacDonald’s fictional beach bum salvage consultant who recovers property for people who have had it taken from them by illegal or unscrupulous means. 

“I’m a high-level Robin Hood,” he says in one book. “I steal from thieves.”

McGee appears in 21 of MacDonald’s novels and has plenty to say about how overdevelopment is ruining our landscapes, especially in Florida. 

In one book he notes: “The rivers and the swamps are dying, the birds are dying, the fish are dying. They’re paving the whole state. And the people who give a damn can’t be heard.”

“The air used to smell like orange blossoms,” MacDonald wrote in 1979. “Now when the wind is right, it smells like a robot’s armpit.”

MacDonald has a lot of say about a lot of things, including the greed and corruption that leads people into making bad decisions. But he doesn’t let his (and McGee’s) views on the environment, or society’s wrongs, get in the way of his mysteries. 

His McGee is a hard-boiled investigator with a football player’s physique that he uses to get himself out of tough situations. 

He’s also a thinking man’s investigator – a knight in slightly tarnished armour who has a timeless sense of honour and obligation.  

He doesn’t like the world he sees around him and has retired to his houseboat The Busted Flush, which he won in a poker game. He comes out of retirement when he needs money, charging a fee of 50-per-cent of the value of whatever he recovers.

MacDonald began the McGee series with The Deep Blue Good-By in 1964, partly as a way of calling attention to the ruining of Florida’s natural areas by overdevelopment. He followed that with three more McGee mysteries in the same year.

Fawcett Publications, the American publisher of the paperback McGee mysteries, used to say that it had 32 million McGee books in print. Each title contained a colour to help readers remember which ones they had read.

Good fiction contains important messages, many of which tell us about life. Rarely, however, does crime fiction do this.

MacDonald’s McGee books are not just straight ahead mysteries that get solved.  They are mystery fiction with something more – observations about the things McGee sees around him. Things that he doesn’t like and believes are not good for society. 

Other authors and literary critics have credited the McGee series as helping to create a genre of Florida-based fiction based on ecological and social problems brought on by the huge numbers of people moving there. 

Stephen King, one of the world’s most popular authors, has praised MacDonald as “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.”