After a four year break, John D. MacDonald returned to his Travis McGee series in 1978, with The Empty Copper Sea. The seventeenth instalment in the series returns to the grim and moody Travis, a familiar figure from several of the preceding books.
In Copper, Travis is defending the honor of an old friend. Van Harder is a salty sea captain type - after a wild youth, he's settled into his role of grizzled and weary boat captain. Van Harder was happily making a living as the private captain for Hub Lawless, playboy businessman and local potentate. When Hub falls overboard during a night of partying on his boat, Van Harder is blamed for being drunk at the wheel. Van Harder doesn't have much, but he has his pride - and what's left of his reputation is ruined by these accusations.
Further swallowing his pride, the salty old captain comes to Travis, hat in hand, to ask for help. Travis can't say no to an old friend (and in his romantic heart, he rates salty old captains right up there with wide-eyed young virgins). A-questing he doth go.
It doesn't take much for Travis to spot that the whole situation is completely rotten. Lawless wasn't doing nearly as well as everyone thought. In fact, the man was in the process of milking his bank accounts. And by dying under said "mysterious circumstances", he left his family with a cool $2 million in life insurance. To add further spice to the mix, Hub's foxy Scandinavian architect side-lady seems to have disappeared as well. Oh, and how about those photos of Hub in Mexico? Hmm.
McGee's role escalates with his curiosity (and his libido). Initially in it to preserve the honor of Van Harder, he quickly finds new motivation in a tall drink of water named Gretel. Her brother, Hub's former best friend, has gone crazy following Hub's disappearance. Gretel's there to take care of him. And as far as Travis is concerned, he's there to take care of Gretel.
McGee goes through most of the book in a particularly manic-depressive way. Something about Hub's betrayal of his family and community really grates on the fragile McGee psyche and gives him the sulks. He over-indulges with both wine and women (including a bar's piano player, a classic type 1) and then really wallows in self-loathing afterwards. But then, with Gretel on the scene, he turns into a giggling schoolboy - floating on air and listening to the birds sing. This is a man heading for a nervous breakdown.
Gretel deserves a little extra attention. She's a tall, leggy wonder-girl, sacrificing her somewhat-career to take care of her useless brother. She's got all the hallmarks of one of McGee's favorites: she's athletic, natural and even loves to eat. More surprisingly, she actually survives until the end of the book (no Nazi rapists or anything!). She is, for now at least, completely unclassifiable in the taxonomy of McGee's ladyfriends.
The Empty Copper Sea was turned into in a movie in 1983, featuring Sam Elliott as Travis. By all accounts, it was a disaster, but I can understand why this was the book they chose. Although not the most brilliant mystery, it has a few unpredictable twists and turns and a TV-tidy ending. And although not the most brilliant characters, everyone in the book's cast fulfills their role adequately. The book's main flaw - Travis' emotional schizophrenia - could be easily excised in a move to the screen. There's nothing terrific to distinguish it, but, then, most of the great Travis material would undoubtedly turn into unwatchable atmospheric fluff if filmed. This is a pedestrian McGee, neither exceptionally good nor bad (nor, sadly, memorable).
[Editor's note: This is the 17th in The Endless Rainbow Snark, my own heroic quest to read and review every book in the series.]