Trailer Porn: No Pets Allowed

Underground Reading: Bright Orange for the Shroud by John D. MacDonald

Bright Orange for the ShroudBright Orange for the Shroud (1965) is the sixth adventure for Travis McGee. It starts in a similar fashion to A Deadly Shade of Gold. Travis is just getting comfortable with one of his partial retirements when, whammo, an old friend in bad shape shows up on Travis' floating doorstep. Guilt (and the promise of some filthy lucre) entice Travis into getting involved in another seedy reclamation job.

In this case, the beleaguered friend is Arthur. Arthur's a nice guy. Always laughs at jokes. Always volunteers to do the beer run. Always makes sure that the ladies are walked home (and never makes a pass at them). Arthur also has a quarter million in the bank, so it is no surprise that he becomes the target of An Evil Woman, Wilma.

Wilma, despite her comedy name, is a MacDonald archetype. The ultra-feminine, ultra-composed female that all the other women hate and all the men can't resist. Throughout the course of the book she's compared to a viper, a scorpion and a spider. She uses sex as a weapon and overpowers her captive slave-men with the sheer force of her womaninity. 

Arthur doesn't stand a chance (Travis, bravely, points out that he was able to resist her, because he is filled with liquid awesome). Wilma marries him, steals him from his friends and hands him over to a sinister group of evil land merchants, who bleed him dry. (She also does many other terrible things, such as force him to shave her legs.)

Wilma and her evil friends have apparently done this trick repeatedly. Wilma partners with a talented con man, assisted by some local talent, to find a wealthy target. The group then fleece their victim dry. Wilma rushes off, gets an Alabama divorce, and returns for fresh meat. (She's done this 14 times, we've learned. 14!)

Arthur may not have his metaphorical man-parts, but he does have Travis. Travis was willing to write off Arthur's inheritance, but the idea of a man-eater roaming free is too much for Travis to bear. The two of them, with Chookie (the dancer who Travis rejected way back in Deep Blue Good-by) in tow, head off to out-con the con ring. In the pre-Internet days, before you could make your penis grow with the application of miracle pills (freely available! buy now! herbal viagra!), you had to get your confidence back by shagging a dancer. This is the gospel truth. Fortunately for Arthur, Chookie was at hand.

Bright Orange for the Shroud  There are a couple of minor villains involved - a failing local lawyer and a spectacularly sinister con man amongst them - but the real baddie is Boone "Boo" Waxwell. Boo is another MacDonald archetype, and, like Wilma, probably a character that JDM could write in his sleep (in many novels, I suspect he has). Boo is Wilma's masculine analogue: a primal and predatory man who lives to hunt, fight and screw. He lives out in the Everglades, in a timeless (and messy) man-nest. Boo shags his underage neighbor, beats up her father, ruins his expensive new car and occasionally robs naive businessmen like Arthur.

Chookie puts it into words when she points out that Boo is essentially Travis gone wrong. While Travis takes part time work to save damsels and uplift the downfallen, Boo is a mercenary evil, out to corrupt virgins and kick orphans. (He also cheats in a fight, which is kind of like Travis being "tricky", but EVIL.) 

Although Travis and his team work something like a con to get Arthur's money back, the real conflict is between Travis and Boo. Travis is smarter, Boo is more cunning. Boo is quicker, Travis is stronger. The inevitable climactic battle between the two is, so far, the best in the series. The two frequently change possession of the upper hand - trading hostages, strategies and blows until Boo, finally, falls defeated. (Further spoiler: He falls defeated... onto a mangrove stump, managing to impale himself messily. Eeeew.) 

Bright Orange for the Shroud is also, remarkably, the first book without any bedroom gymnastics for Mr McGee. Being that this series of reviews is increasingly transforming into adolescent voyeurism, that doesn't give me a lot to work with. Travis has one, brief, historical encounter - a Hawaiian woman (one of two identical twins) (behave!), named Mary Lo. Mary Lo stands in contrast to Wilma as a good-old-fashioned hottie who shags for pleasure, and not for EVIL. Mary Lo is a classic type 1 - Travis is happy to romp about with her to reaffirm his joy in humanity, etc. etc, but that's where the relationship ends. (MacDonald, morbidly, kills Mary Lo off in another, random flashback. Later in the book, Chookie, out of left field, reminds everyone that Mary Lo was stabbed to death by a serial killer. If Travis hadn't already forgotten her, this would almost be enough to make her a type 3 as well.)

Aside from some slightly spurious (and dated) pop psychology about what makes the sexes tick, Bright Orange for the Shroud is a middling-to-good entry in the series. Travis is an entertaining con man and the bad guys, if JDM archetypes, are still engrossing and detailed characters. Once the reader can accept that Wilma is a paranoid misogynistic fantasy, she's a pretty entertaining baddie. Boo is equally as lopsided, giving some sense of impartiality, if not credibility. The climax, surprisingly tense, is reminiscent of some of MacDonald's best one-offs, including the celebrated The Executions (Cape Fear).