The Scarlet Ruse (1972) drags Travis McGee into the not-so-seedy world of postage stamps. Meyer's old friend Hersh is an expert dealer, collecting rarities for a half-dozen clients on a percentage basis. Business is good, but Hirsh is in a pickle.
It seems that the collection for one client, a Mr Frank Sprenger, has gone missing. Not only is Hirsh responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Sprenger's stamps, but Sprenger is the sort that might take Hirsh's ears and fingers as well. Don't trade stamps with the mob, people - it'll only backfire in the end.
At the start this is almost the McGee version of a traditional cozy. Travis invites himself over, sips tea with Hirsh and his employees, dispenses familial advice and, being Travis, starts shagging someone grossly inappropriate. Things, however, heat up. The latter half of the book involves a complicated "running away" sort of operation. Travis and his lady-lust zipping through the high seas, with a boat of irritated goons chasing after them.
The action isn't tacked on to the end of the book (a recurring issue with the series) - it is the book. At least, the second half. The primary disappointment is the lack of tension. At one point, Travis is holed up with one villain on the Busted Flush, awaiting a second villain (a sniper) to show up - probably with Meyer as a hostage. Yet, still, I'm stifling a yawn. (There is, however a moment of redemption when Travis dashes for his special secret hiding place, only to find that it isn't there...)
The entirety of Scarlet - both the cozy and the shootin' halves - is dominated by Travis's relationship with Mary Alice. Mary Alice is Hirsh's assistant. She's a big woman (Travis-sized!) with big appetites. She works out ferociously, water-skies recklessly, eats aggressively and shags... well, you can fill in the rest. Not the cerebral type (something pointed out repeatedly), but still someone that Travis can really fall head-over-heels in love with. Which, being Travis, he does.
[Spoilers a-coming] Unfortunately, as Travis eventually pieces together, Mary Alice is also the bad guy. She tells Travis that she's on the run from her villain husband - but neglects to mention that she's shacked up with her villain-brother-in-law (the aforementioned Frank Sprenger). Plus, Mary Alice has racked up a sizable body count of her own.
The moment of realisation is - uncharacteristically - poorly handled. Travis spends an entire chapter forming, quite literally, a bulleted list of accusations. MacDonald has written a hundred different ways of revealing whodunnit, and this may be the worst.
On the flip side, Travis's response to his realisation is brilliantly done. Poor McGee is trapped on the Busted Flush with a woman he no longer loves. More than that, he's repulsed by her. Due to the awkward situation, he can't even show it. All of a sudden, the honeymoon is over. She grates on his nerves. He can't perform in bed. Her voice gets more annoying, her mannerisms - once charming - now drive him up the wall. MacDonald may have fumbled the reveal, but his ability to depict a failing relationship is still wholly intact.
(Editor's note: Mary Alice is hard to categorize. She dies pretty horribly - so she's a 2, but Travis was very, very much done with her - so she's kind of a 1. Not unlike the unfortunate Lisa Dissat from A Tan and Sandy Silence, except, in this case, Travis does get involved. As there was a (wee) hope of redemption, I'm going to say that her untimely death precludes Travis' dumping her. Travis will shag his ex-girlfriends, but even he draws the line at necrophilia. She's a 2. )
Probably the best part of The Scarlet Ruse? The stamp collecting. John D. MacDonald is recognised for his character-building, but his talent at dramatising minutiae isn't something to be sneered at. The elderly Hirsh gives a spirited defense of the stamply arts, coupled with a few fascinating anecdotes about the trials and triumphs of collecting. Stamps aren't my cup of tea, but, like baseball and cowboys, they are something of a universal occurrence in North American Boyhood. The Scarlet Ruse stokes this tamped-down pre-adolescent glimmer of interest and makes something alien (and slightly trivial) absolutely fascinating. There's a whole genre of mysteries about collectors, rarities and expertise (normally, of course, in the book collecting world) - this book belongs amongst them.
Like several of its predecessors, The Scarlet Ruse ends with Travis in pretty poor shape. He's been beaten, betrayed and even a bit bewildered. (Not to mention be-punched-in-the-face). Fortunately, MacDonald rewards him with another of his ex-girlfriends for valuable recuperation. In this case, the long-departed Cathy Kerr. This is a strange pattern (it also happened in The Long Lavender Look).
Broadly speaking, if the first half of the Travis series was future-facing, the second half (so far) seems to spend a lot more time rehashing the past. Travis spends more time feeling out of sync and out of sorts - and, now, he's repeatedly winding up in the arms of old lovers. Perhaps a reflection of the series winding down? Both Scarlet and Lavender could easily have served as the "last" McGee books due to their nostalgic endings. Still, as The Scarlet Ruse is only a middling effort, I'm glad it isn't the final one.
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