John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, an Essay of Book Covers

John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, an Essay in Book Cover Art 

John D. MacDonald (JDM) was one of the best-selling writers working in crime and mystery fiction in post-World War 2 America. He wrote short stories for the pulps and when those markets began failing, he wrote novels for the revolutionary paperback publisher Fawcett Gold Medal. His first, The Brass Cupcake, appeared in 1950 and in the following decade he had a succession of powerful standalone novels including, The Damned (Gold Medal, 1952), Dead Low Tide (Gold Medal, 1953), Cry Hard, Cry Fast (Popular Library, 1955), and The Drowner (Gold Medal, 1963). 
      In 1964 JDM’s most iconic character – and his only series character – the boat bum and salvage expert Travis McGee appeared in The Deep Blue Good-by, published as a paperback original by Gold Medal. McGee appeared in 21 novels between 1964 and 1984. Each of the McGee adventures featured a color – pink, amber, indigo, lavender – in the title and each book sold in the millions. Below is a chronological listing, by publishing date, of every book with the cover art of four different editions. The publisher of the first edition and publication date are next to the titles and the first paragraph for each is below the title.

1.       The Deep Blue Good-by [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1964]

“Home is where the privacy is. Draw all the opaque curtains, button the hatches, and with the whispering drone of the air conditioning masking all the sounds of the outside world, you are no longer cheek to jowl with the random activities aboard the neighbor craft. You could be in a rocket beyond Venus, or under the icecap.”


2.       Nightmare in Pink [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1964]


“She worked on the twentieth floor, for one of those self-important little companies which design packages for things. I arrived at five, as arranged, and sent my name in, and she came out into the little reception area, wearing a smock to prove that she did her stint at the old drawing board.”

3.       A Purple Place for Dying [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1964]


“She took the corner too fast, and it was definitely not much of a road. She drifted it through the corner on the gravel, with one hell of a drop at our left, and then there was a big rock slide where the road should have been. She stomped hard and the drift turned into a rough sideways skid, and I hunched low expecting the white Alpine to trip and roll. But we skidded all the way to the rock and stopped with inches to spare and a great big three feet between the rear end and the drop-off. The skid had killed the engine.


4.       The Quick Red Fox [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1964]


“A big noisy wind out of the northeast, full of a February chill, herded the tourists off the afternoon beach, driving them to cover, complaining bitterly. It picked up gray slabs of the Atlantic and smacked them down on the public beach across the windshields of the traffic, came into the cramped acres of docks and boat basin, snapped the burgees and hoooo in the spider-webs of rigging and tuna towers. Fort Lauderdale was a dead loss for the tourists that Saturday afternoon. They would have been more comfortable back in Scranton.”

5.       A Deadly Shade of Gold [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1965]


“A smear of fresh blood has a metallic smell. It smells like freshly sheared copper. It is a clean and impersonal smell, quite astonishing the first time you smell it. It changes quickly, to a fetid, fudgier smell, as the cells die and thicken.”

6.       Bright Orange for the Shroud [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1965]


“Another season was ending. The mid-May sun had a tropic sting against my bare shoulders. Sweat ran into my eyes. I had discovered an ugly little pocket of dry rot in the windshield corner of the panel of the topside controls on my houseboat, and after trying not to think about it for a week, I had dug out the tools, picked up some pieces of prime mahogany, and excised the area of infection with a saber saw.”

7.       Darker than Amber [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1966]


“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.”

8.       One Fearful Yellow Eye [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1966]


“Around and around we went, like circling through wads of lint in a dirty pocket. We’d been in that high blue up yonder where it was a bright cold clear December afternoon, and then we had to go down into that guck, as it was the intention of the airline and the airplane driver to put down at O’Hare.”

9.       Pale Gray for Guilt [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1968]


“The next to last time I saw Tush Bannon alive was the very same day I had that new little boat running the way I wanted it to run, after about six weeks of fitzing around with it.”

10.   The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1968]


“After I heard that Helena Pearson had died on Thursday, the third day of October, I had no trouble reconstructing the immediate past.”

11.   Dress Her in Indigo [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1969]


“On that early afternoon in late August, Meyer and I walked through the canvas tunnel at Miami International and boarded a big bird belonging to Aeronaves de Mexico for the straight shot to Mexico City. We were going first class because it was all a private and personal and saddening mission at the behest of a very sick and fairly rich man.”

12.   The Long Lavender Look [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1970]


“Late April. Ten o’clock at night. Hustling south on Florida 112 through the eastern section of Cypress County, about twenty miles from the intersection of 112 and the Tamiami Trail.”

13.   A Tan and Sandy Silence [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1971]


“The socket wrench slipped, and I skinned yet another knuckle. Meyer stood blocking out a sizable piece of the deep blue sky. He stared down into the bilge and said, ‘Very inventive and very fluent. Nice mental images, Travis. Imagine one frail little bilge pump performing such an extraordinary act upon itself! But you began to repeat yourself toward the end.’”


14.   The Scarlet Ruse [Fawcett Gold Medal, 1972]


“After seven years of bickering and fussing, the Fort Lauderdale city fathers, on a hot Tuesday in late August, killed off a life style and turned me into a vagrant.”

15.   The Turquoise Lament [Lippincott 1973]


“The place Pidge had borrowed was a studio apartment on the eleventh floor of the Kaiulani Towers on Hobron Lane, about a hundred yards to the left off Ala Moana Boulevard on the way toward downtown Honolulu.


16.   The Dreadful Lemon Sky [Lippincott 1974]


“I was in deep sleep, alone aboard my houseboat, alone in the half acre of bed, alone in a sweaty dream chase, fear, and monstrous predators. A shot rang off steel bars. Another. I came bursting up out of sleep to hear the secretive sound of the little bell which rings at my bedside when anyone steps aboard the Busted Flush. It was almost four in the morning.”

17.   The Empty Copper Sea [Lippincott 1978]


“Suddenly everything starts to snap, rip, and fall out, to leak and squeal and give final gasps. Then you bend to it, or you go live ashore like a sane person.”

18.   The Green Ripper [Lippincott 1979]


“Meyer came aboard the Busted Flush on a dark, wet, windy Friday afternoon in early December. I had not seen him in nearly two months. He looked worn and tired, and he had faded to an indoor pallor. He shucked his rain jacket and sat heavily in the biggest chair and said he wouldn’t mind at all if I offered him maybe a little bourbon, one rock, a dollop of water.”


19.   Free Fall in Crimson [Harper, 1981]


“We talked past midnight, sat in the deck chairs on the sun deck of the Busted Flush with the starry April sky overhead, talked quietly, and listened to the night. Creak and sigh of hulls, slap of small waves against pilings, muted motor noises of the fans and generators and pumps aboard the work boats and the play toys.”

20.   Cinnamon Skin [Harper, 1982]


“Every man can be broken when things happen to him in a certain order, with a momentum and an intensity that awaken ancient fears in the back of his mind. He knows what he must do, but suddenly the body will not obey the mind. Panic becomes like and unbearably shrill sound.”

21.   The Lonely Silver Rain [Knopf, 1984]


“Once upon a time I was very lucky and located a sixty-five-foot hijacked motor sailor in a matter of days, after the authorities had been looking for months. When I heard through the grapevine that Billy Ingraham wanted to see me, it was easy to guess he hoped I could work the same miracle with his stolen Sundowner, a custom cruiser he’d had built in a Jacksonville yard. It had been missing for three months.”

My favorite Travis McGee title is The Green Ripper. What’s yours?


Go to Amazon to browse the Travis McGee adventures


  1. My favorite is also "The Green Ripper".

    1. For me, The Green Ripper is the most personal (for Travis McGee and for the reader, too) of the books, which is why I like it so much.

  2. Such a great piece, Ben. Love how you can see the different covers evolve as the years pass. The 1960s first editions all have that weird bust of Travis...

    1. Thanks, I had fun putting the post together. I think the bust of Travis is pretty funny, too. It has a stodgy look about it, or maybe it's simply the type of old-fashioned image that has lost some of its power over the years.


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