Underground Reading: Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald

Nightmare in PinkNightmare in Pink (1964) is only Travis McGee's second adventure, but already John D. MacDonald is taking his most famous creation out of his comfort zone. 

Travis is a creature of his own little world - his boat, his docks, his beloved Florida waterways. Travis lives to sip good gin, stare intently at the ocean and shtup his needy sex-slaves - someplace with lots of sunshine. Not, say, New York.

Alas, in Nightmare in Pink, poor Travis is hauled far from port. Mike, Travis' army buddy, has a little sister in trouble. "Trouble" is McGee's watchword (more specifically, "desperate woman with no other recourse", but that's more a watch-phrase). Mike would take care of Nina's situation himself, but he's broken and blind - the result of an enemy attack that took place whilst Travis was off shagging hookers on leave. 

[I'm not making this up. Travis was, ahem, "wrapped in the thighs" of a geisha at the time that Mike was sustaining crippling injuries. Please keep note of this at the book's midway point, when he expounds mightily about cold-hearted whores and how he would never sink so low as to partake of one. Nice try, Trav.]

On wings of guilt & lust, Travis heads to New York to see what he can do for poor Nina.

It turns out that Nina has two problems. First, her fiance is dead, under mysterious circumstances. Second, she's just found ten thousand mysterious dollars stashed in her closet, presumably the work of said fiance. She's broken-hearted, upset, distraught and a little disturbed. As one would be by the situation. Having some tanned stranger show up at her doorstep doesn't help matters. Nina's a little rude to Travis: she's not so keen to accept the help of a random stranger.

Travis decides to shake things up. He tells Nina he's a greedy con man, here for the money, and maybe a little extra (hoo-HA!). He pockets the cash, mocks the dead fiance and even helps himself to the beer in her fridge. Nina, unsurprisingly, falls apart, so Travis does the logical thing and punches her. Fortunately, this is 1964, so it isn't aggravated assault: it is the MAGICAL FIST OF HEALING. Nursing her new bruises, Nina realizes that Travis is a godsend - if only he'd punched her earlier, all this would've been avoided.

Nightmare in Pink The sequence of events is easy to mock, but, in a bizarre way, it is internally consistent. Travis, as noted in the review of The Deep Blue Good-by, has a single modus operandi: he shakes things up. Fueled by MacDonald's impressive insight into the human psyche, Travis is able to get under the skin of any situation. Set up as the ultimate outsider, he parachutes in, topples over the apple cart, and makes everything "ok". He's Mary Poppins meets Godzilla. 

Following this logic, Travis did go about with the right intent - he knew Nina was wound up in her grief and assumed she needed something to "shake her out of it". Being a dick and slapping her around was, in his eyes, the right thing to do. Fortunately, it was in a world of MacDonald's creation, so it worked. Dramatically, in fact - despite his stated intentions to the contrary, Travis winds up spending the rest of the book shagging his best friend's little sister.

As much as Travis hates New York - the sterile hotels, the bitchy social elite, the swarming locusts of grumpy natives - he settles in with a will. It turns out that Nina's fiance was a white-hat after all: his old boss was being fleeced by a greedy lawyer, and Travis strikes out to right the situation.

Love him or hate him, Travis is always a factor - and the main problem with Nightmare in Pink (aside from McGee's impressively reprehensible behaviour with Nina) is that Travis is essentially a blundering non-entity. 

The investigation is strangely unbalanced. Travis meets all of the key players once. He does the legwork, finds some allies and makes a plan, only to have events taken completely out of his hands. Just as he's starting to get somewhere, he's drugged and hauled off to a mental asylum. From there, some predictable action sequences ensue: his Bond-villain antagonist monologues for a bit, then lets him escape. Travis is just sorting himself out when the Feds swoop in and fix everything. The reader concludes the book with the distinct impression that, had Travis stayed in Florida to begin with, everything would've been completely fine. Far better, in fact, as Travis kills four innocent people during his escape from the mental hospital.

From its ludicrous villainy (using experimental Soviet drugs to mind-control the business elite) to Travis McGee's reprehensible pseudo-psychology, Nightmare in Pink has always been one of my least favorite installments in the series (we've got a dozen or so more until we actually hit rock bottom). It has a certain schadenfreude status - watching Travis flounder in the big city is pretty enjoyable, despite his connections & his moxie - but it combines some of MacDonald's worst plotting with McGee's worst behaviour.


A final note for those tracking McGee's conquests: he spends most of the book shagging the insatiable Nina. She's a type 3*, in that she survives the book, only to dump McGee eventually in order to return to New York and pursue her career. McGee does, to give him credit, run the whole thing by Mike - who gasps from his deathbed that McGee should shag her rotten and not marry her. Charming. It is also worth noting that McGee didn't offer to fly back to New York with Nina - so much for true love. 

There's also one flashback to another type 3, in which a woman on the verge of separating from her husband joins McGee for a love cruise. After a few weeks of sun & shaggery, she returns to her marriage. 

*Travis has three types of women. 1 - those not worth a relationship because they're too easy. 2 - those that die tragically after finally achieving sexual fulfillment in his bed. 3 - those that cruelly abandon McGee to further their own ambitions, instead of spending the rest of their lives as a sun-drugged sex-slave on his boat.