Underground Reading: Pale Gray for Guilt by John D. MacDonald

Pale Gray for Guilt 1968. 

Riots at the Democratic Convention.
Jackie Kennedy remarries.
Green Bay wins the Superbowl. 

Down in Florida, things are no calmer. 

In the ninth installment of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series, Travis gets involved in some spectacularly complicated financial chicanery. In an effort to out-con the con-men, Pale Gray for Guilt sees Travis' friend Meyer take the driver's seat.

The set-up is familiar to readers (especially those trying to do all 21 in a row). Travis has a friend who is falling to pieces - an old football buddy named Tush Bannon. By the time Travis can help, Tush is dead. Dead in mysterious circumstances. 

(Actually, not that mysterious - unless he was able to drop an engine block on his own head. Three times.)

With a little probing on behalf of the grieving widow (and not, for once, of the grieving widow), Travis finds two men to blame: a greedy local speculator and an imperious national businessman. The former, LaFrance, is trying desperately to put together a package of land to sell to the latter. So desperately, in fact, that he'll happily see Bannon dead to get his property. The big businessman, Santos, just doesn't care how the property comes together. Neither of them, oddly enough, are directly responsible for Bannon's death - but they did align to make his final years as miserable as possible.

Pale Grey for Guilt  Travis and Meyer decide pretty quickly that LaFrance and Santos only care about one thing: money. Travis sets up to screw LaFrance in a horrific land deal while Meyer plans an elaborate fraud using the stock exchange to nail Santos. (And, incidentally, any random pension funds that may get caught in the crossfire. Not their problem.) As MacDonald has shown in previous books (A Man of Affairs, for example), he's perfectly capable of writing a gripping business thriller. As he's also shown in previous books, he's never willing to commit solely on that front - like A Man of Affairs, Pale Gray for Guilt is a business thriller that concludes in a (spurious) action sequence.

Romantically, Travis spends the book with the gorgeous, goofy Puss Killian. Big, red-headed, vibrant and slightly bonkers, Puss proves Travis' equal in eatin', lovin' and connin' the bad guys. Travis falls head over heels for Puss - even committing to (eep) monogamy. With the possible exception of the ill-fated Nora (cloudy with a chance of boat parts), Travis has never been so smitten.

All the more comedic, when, as a classic Type 3, Puss heads for the hills. Travis walks into The Busted Flush, ready to knock boots with Puss (sorry), only to find a farewell note instead. It seems that the mysterious Puss has a) cancer and b) a husband. Deciding that life was way too short to spend it with her doting other half, Puss emptied the bank account and headed down to Florida to get laid. Travis obliged. But, after a few chats with Tush Bannon's grieving widow, Puss has realized that perhaps that was a little selfish of her. So she's back to her family. Toodles, xx, Puss.


Travis pretty gutted. A husband he could contend with. Hell, cancer he could contend with. But the combination of both is too much even for him. Heart-broken, he's condemned to return to his "solitary" existence.

Equally heart-breaking, Travis fails to score with the lovely young widow. Jan does agree to a "cruise" with Travis, but they are almost immediately interrupted by Freddy, the book's mandatory physical-violence villain (in case the stock market violence wasn't bloody enough for readers). Even after Freddy is disposed of, Jan's not in the mood. She confessed to Travis that she had him pegged from the start, "you were going to comfort the little widow woman" and that she "expected some of the gooey rationalizations of the chronic stud". Travis, for once, has no comment.

The exchange reinforces my high opinion of the author, if not his chosen protagonist. Travis is perpetually mumbling on about self-awareness, but is too stuck in his own self-pity to realize what impact he really has on the people around him. Mr MacDonald, however, seems all too aware of his creation's flaws and doesn't mind poking fun at him. Normally Meyer plays the role of ego-deflater, but it is nice to see that Jan has a deft hand with the needle as well.

Pale Gray for Guilt, despite its charmingly complex con/counter-con structure, is a little too routine - and a lot too long. The final third of the book is an anti-climax. After the con is done, there's no reason to keep on, except that MacDonald inserts a final, fisticuffs-based big-bad. We've already seen Travis avenge friends and comfort widows, Meyer's clever involvement aside, there's not much new in this volume.


*Puss returns (sort of) in a later volume, The Lonely Silver Rain. Like Lysa Dean, there's too much unfinished business.