Underground Reading: A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald

A Purple Place for DyingA Purple Place for Dying (1964) is Travis McGee's third adventure and the best so far. 

After the discomfort of New York in Nightmare for Pink, Travis has left the big city for the small town. Although he's still not back in Florida (the location is sort of a geographically-ambiguous analogue for Texas), Travis is much more comfortable someplace where he gets to do his own driving. 

For once, I agree with him. 

Not above the driving, but I'm a sucker for a corrupt-small-town mystery. A dozen of MacDonald's best stand-alones are set in this genre, in the vein of Hammett's Glass Key or Jim Thompson's Killer Inside Me. It makes a great set-up for a timeless one-man-against-the-world storyline, and, as we well know, Travis loves to be that one man.

A Purple Place for Dying is also the best mystery in the series to date.

Travis is summoned out by Mona Yeoman, a haughty blond with a nice bottom. She thinks her much-older husband, Jasper, has stolen her trust fund. Normally, she'd forgive him, but she's keen to run off with a local professor, and a struggling academic can't fund her lavish lifestyle. Travis regards the whole situation with a healthy disgust, but then, out of the blue, a sniper's bullet takes Mona out.

Travis, to his credit, acknowledges that he likes Mona more dead than alive. Any lingering qualms about taking her (posthumous) case soon disappear - exactly when Mona's body does. Someone is trying to cover up her death and make it look like she's flown off with her professor boyfriend. Why? How? And, of course, whodunnit?

A Purple Place for Dying The book is actually a proper mystery. MacDonald mixes subtle clues with ostentatious red herrings to make the final reveal (or series of reveals) immensely rewarding for the reader. For the first time in ages, I had to skim back and figure out how the detective put everything together. The mandatory villainous monologue gave me the "why", but I couldn't figure out a few of the leaps Travis made. In hindsight, they became obvious. You win this round, McGee.

Mystery aside, Travis still spends most of the book blithely stumbling around, rubbing people the wrong way. The local sheriff, immediately spotting Travis' tendency to be a walking time bomb, contemplates throwing him out, but realizing his value as bait, deputizes Travis instead. Unlike Nightmare, in which McGee spends most of the book looking down his nose at "moral inferiors", A Purple Place for Dying features a cast of genuinely morally ambiguous characters around which even Travis has a hard time wrapping his judgmental tentacles. 

The aforementioned sheriff, for example, is very good at his job - even McGee acknowledges this. But the two of them just don't get along, probably because the sheriff is good at his job, whilst McGee is an annoying amateur. The sheriff is also keen on a post-office life - maybe something in an administrative capacity at one of the thriving local businesses. McGee notes this, but also refuses to condemn him for it - he's a good cop, despite his mixed motive.

The most complex relationship is between Travis and Jasper. Travis quickly learns that a) Jasper stole all Mona's money (and then some) and b) Jasper is a damn sight more likable than Mona ever was. Try as he might, Travis can't hold Jasper responsible for Mona's death and, after a bit of dick-measuring, the two become friends and partners in the investigation. 

A Purple Place for Dying-1 On the other end of the spectrum, Travis has a dirt-simple relationship with Isobel Webb, the grieving sister of Mona's professor boyfriend. Isobel has a hard time accepting that her brother is probably dead. She has a harder time accepting that her brother probably had sex a lot. Why? Because she's frigid

Isobel's super-smart, super-pretty and super-repressed, busy spending her life "learning things" and "taking care of her useless brother". That lush body of hers wasn't made for a classroom - it was made for lovin'! Travis, helpfully, recites this litany to Isobel no less than four times - often discussing her faults in front of her and with other men (the sheriff, her lawyer...). Travis and Isobel have no chemistry, and their relationship, such as it is, is based entirely on Travis lecturing her on her many flaws. Still, as a type 3, Isobel invariably dumps him, so she must have been fairly smart after all...

Even the afterthought of a romance can't take the shine off of A Purple Place for Dying. After gasping for air in New York, Travis and MacDonald are both back in their element in the book's small-town setting and the cast of mysterious and enticing characters. From the twist beginning to the surprising ending, this is a well-composed mystery with a rewarding payoff.