The Green Ripper (1979) is the 18th novel in the Travis McGee series, and, interestingly, the only one to win a major award (the National Book Award). As with the other books in the series, this wasn't my first reading of The Green Ripper. But, unusually, this is one of the two Travis McGee books that I'd only read once before (the other is The Lonely Silver Rain).
As you might suspect, it means I wasn't particularly charmed by Green the first time around. And, indeed, I approached it with a certain amount of trepidation. My memories of Green were a book that was a) unusually action-focused, b) wildly out of character and c) incredibly gloomy. And, upon revisiting the book, I discovered that all three of those memories were correct.
That said, it is because of those attributes that The Green Ripper is such a success. What I had missed the first time around was Green's importance as part of the continuing series. On its own, it is a grim action novel. However, when taken in sequence with the rest of the books, The Green Ripper is a moment of dramatic catharsis. Given the immense popularity of the series, the shock and awe of the events in Green must have really been striking at the time. While I don't think Green will ever stand be able to stand alone as exceptional, it does put the book's award in a certain amount of context.
The Green Ripper actually begins with Travis in a rare bubble of happiness. He's joyously shacked up with Gretel (from The Empty Copper Sea) and even talking about certain sort of permanence to their relationship. Her work is good. His work is good. Life is sweet.
Naturally, something awful has to happen. And, sure enough, it does. Gretel falls victim to a mysterious and brutal form of fever - departing this world as a gibbering wreck. Travis, in-between bouts of complete insanity, manages to piece together that the fever was no accident. For some reason, his beloved Gretel has been poisoned.
The mystery aspect of The Green Ripper is very quickly resolved. Travis links Gretel's death to a bizarre cult, way out west in California. Putting his affairs in order, his final step is leaving a note for Meyer. As well as practical instructions, Travis admits that he's felt off for some time - there's something wrong with him, and he'll either sort himself out or die in the effort. This isn't just a melodramatic gesture, it is a dramatic departure from the way that Travis normally approaches his job. He doesn't doubt the fact that he'll succeed (Travis never doubts that he's going to succeed), but, for the first time, Travis doesn't expect to come back. This is a fundamental shift in how he approaches life.
Committed to his revenge, Travis swims through the rest of the novel in a dream-like state. He finds and joins the sinister cult, and then, in an unreal fashion, commits himself to their bloody extermination. Although Travis has previous shown that he views violence as a resource, he's never actually thrown himself into bloody slaughter like he does in The Green Ripper. He insinuates himself into the cult, breaks bread with them, and then systematically annihilates each and every member.
MacDonald, protecting his protagonist, makes the cult as sinister as possible. They're religious nutcases, they're criminals, they're even terrorists. If Travis doesn't act, innocent women and children will die. Etc. Etc. But even with all that moral fluffing, the violence that Travis inflicts is deliberately shocking - especially to the readers that have been following him intimately for two thousand pages. McGee is having his long-delayed breakdown and the results are apocalyptic.
The Green Ripper receives some credit for its early depiction of the horrors of domestic terrorism, but, like the Nazis in One Fearful Yellow Eye, the "labels" applied to the villains are merely window-dressing. McGee's discovery of a SMERSH-like uber-terrorist association on American soil isn't some sort of pre-9/11 prophesy - it is just goofy. The real conflict in The Green Ripper is within the main character, and, unlike the external villains, there's nothing silly about it. Travis has always held himself back, but now, with the acceptance that he has nothing to live for, whatever inner barriers he had are long gone. This is the "roguish" Travis gone fully outside the boundaries of society. Like his terrorist foes, he's sacrificed his humanity in order to accomplish a "higher purpose". (Alas, I can't take credit for this disconcerting parallel - the author pretty much shoves it down the reader's throat).
The Green Ripper is an unusual and powerful book. It is the first book in the series that absolutely cannot stand on its own. Without being immersed in the status quo of Travis McGee, the upheaval in his routine falls on deaf ears. But for the readers that have become absorbed in McGee's philosophical, introverted little world, the revelations of The Green Ripper are simply amazing. The opportunity to re-read and re-appraise The Green Ripper has, so far, been one of the great rewards of this little project.
[Editor's note: This is the 18th in The Endless Rainbow Snark, an attempt to read and review every book in the Travis McGee series.]