The Kitschies: 2010 Open for Submissions

Underground Reading: Free Fall in Crimson by John D. MacDonald

5614729fd7a06c5f7142e010.L Move over, Nightmare in Pink, there's a new sheriff in town. Free Fall in Crimson (1981) may be the worst entry in the series to date. 

Travis is over the lengthy malaise that plagued him through the middle of the series, the catharsis of manslaughter has cleansed his emotional sinuses. Free Fall starts out almost like a franchise reboot: Travis is back on his boat like nothing happened, a client comes calling, he's off to save the day.

Except, unlike his previous adventures and misadventures, there's not much for Travis to hang his moral hook on in Free Fall. His client, Ron Easterland, is a (rich) (disaffected) artist who was disowned by his zillionaire father ages ago. But, due to a few complications in the will, he's still due to walk off with some money (which he swears he doesn't need). Unfortunately, due to a series of mysterious & convenient deaths, Dad died and all the money went to his wife from a previous marriage.

From the start, this feels a bit off. Travis is sorting out rich people problems for unlikable rich people. And, quickly, Travis becomes pretty unlikable himself.

As he does a little backtracking through the dead man's life, Travis hops into bed with Annie Renzetti, his former secretary/mistress. Travis happens to be there when Miss Renzetti gets her heart broken by her flame (this is all a bit Gossip Girl) and skillfully maneuvers himself into position to pick up the pieces.

Pic Travis does his normal shtick of half-hearted investigation - this time leading him into the underground culture of the biker community. MacDonald, like with his handling of other communities, is pretty nonjudgemental. Travis unearths some weekend bikers, some ordinary folk, some well-meaning types... and then also some proper freaks. Mind you, Travis' behaviour isn't exemplary either (he refers to someone as "faggy", which is both horrific and unusually out of character). As the pieces fall together in the traditional McGee way, Travis beats up a few bikers, inadvertently connects himself to a drug-smuggling operation and then chases the trail out west, to Hollywood.

Travis' stint in the land of the silver screen is a brief one, but it is long enough for him to reconnect with Lysa Dean. Dean is the foxy movie star who hired Travis for The Quick Red Fox. Dean did her damndest to hop into bed with Travis, but he rejected her for various complicated reasons that had to do with him being a jackass. Now that he's back in LA, they meet again, and spent several chapters sniffing around one another like horny minks. Travis is giving the matter some serious consideration, but then (for no apparent reason) starts going through her bedroom drawers. After finding her vibrator, Travis feels strangely inadequate (not kidding) and hops a plane to the next plot point.

That random interlude resolved, this strangely-bloated adventure takes Travis to the midwest. The crazy ex-wife who inherited all the money is making a movie about hot air balloons with her sleazy writer-director-producer boyfriend. The movie is shaping up to be pretty awful and, when Travis shows up, most of the cinematic production seems to be taking place in the form of underage porn movies involving girls from the local town. Travis is weirdly withdrawn from the entire mess - he's quite literally surrounded by drugs, rape, porn and violence - but neither does nor says a thing. When the entire set collapses (literally) in flames, Travis sails off in a balloon.... later interviewed by the police, he eschews any involvement, claiming observer status. Presumably disgusted, the cops send him packing.

The climax is equally twisted. As is the usual routine, there's a Big Bad that manages to sneak through to the very end. Travis tries to warn his friends, but the Big Bad still picks them off one by one (including Lysa Dean, who, rather unfairly, meets a grisly end). The ultimate concluding battle? It involves Meyer being taken hostage whilst Travis hides behind two hired guns. Again, McGee is stuck in a purely observational role. The Travis from the early books would never have hid behind rented biker muscle - especially with his friends in danger. But in the bizarro world of Free Fall, McGee seems perfectly content to let events unfold without his interference. 

Although his choice of language is reprehensible (and his treatment of Miss Dean is pretty sketchy), Free Fall in Crimson isn't unlikable because of what Travis does - it is because of what he doesn't do. For all of his (many) sins and flaws, Travis is ultimately a man of action. Watching this so-called knight errant stand idly by while innocents are hurt around him is simply depressing. Whether this is a conscious sign of the times or just a midlife crisis, Travis needs to get his act together.

(For the record, since he doesn't have anything to do with Lysa, his only lady love is Annie Renzetti - who seems to carry over to the next book. Hope she's got life insurance.)

(This is the 19th review in The Endless Rainbow Snark, a quest to read all the Travis McGee books in order.)