Underground Reading: The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper by John D. MacDonald
Thursday, September 23, 2010
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968), the tenth Travis McGee adventure, starts with a now-familiar hook. Or, more impressively, a combination of familiar hooks. Travis gets an appeal from an old friend... who happens to be an ex-girlfriend... who happens to be dead.
Any one of the above would have been enough to drag Travis out of his "retirement" and into battle, but the combination of the three? Well, she had him at hello.
This time, Travis is summoned from his Florida den to sort out a crazy girl.
(From the Liber McGeetorum: Draw three circles in the ground, fill them with gin, strip to your underwear and recite three times that your marriage is failing - Travis will appear in a puff of sweat-scented smoke.)
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper is another good mystery - if slightly marred by some pseudoscientific mummery.
Maureen and her sister, Bridget ("Biddy" - shudder) are the daughters of Travis' old friend, Helena. Travis met initially her when he helped her out her husband. He re-met her when, whilst she was in mourning, he love-cruised her around the Caribbean. Helena is a bit older than Travis (who is admirably ageless in MacDonald's work). Travis doesn't mind (although he does mention it an awful lot). Helen, however, eventually got over it and went home. (Type 3).
Still, their frisson left some sort of lasting impression for, on her deathbed, Helen wrote Travis to come help out her daughter. Maureen has a suicide problem. After tragically losing her unborn child, she's tried to kill herself four times - in four different ways. Biddy and Maureen's husband, Tom, are doing everything they can, but Maureen is just getting worse and worse.
Travis, god bless his cotton socks, actually does some proper old-fashioned investigation. Figuring that this is all a little too dodgy to be true, he pokes around, finds some old crimes, and then pokes around some more. He pays informants, asks questions, looks for clues and actually, gosh darn it, behaves like a real detective! Improbably, his relationship with the police is good as well - Travis informally partners with a smart local cop, to the benefit of both parties.
Travis scrounges up a whole nest of naughtiness - the now-traditional land fraud, some old murders, a corrupt local official and about six different affairs. As a cherry on top, someone has the audacity to kill a woman just after Travis has slept with her. Poor Penny - Travis didn't even like her very much, but she was drunk & angry with her boyfriend, so she didn't really stand a chance. Travis is initially pretty keen to see her out the door - but once she's stabbed through the neck, he finds it easy to slip into the role of avenging angel. (Try as she might to hit Type 2 status, Penny's a Type 1).
Avenging angel or not, Travis hits his stride in this one - deftly piecing together a very complex plot. Shamefully, the "smoking gun" turns out to be a bit of magical pseudoscientific nonsense, straight out of a Bond movie, but despite its improbable existence, Travis sniffs it out as well.
Moreover, and in stark contrast to several of the previous books, the ending is perfect. Against all odds, Mr MacDonald resists the urge to end the mystery with a punch-out. Rather, at the proper 95% mark - nigh on where a book's climax ought to occur - McGee and his policeman do clever sleuthy things, have a bit of a dark moment, then solve a crime.
Nor, in a frosty hell moment, does the book end with McGee feeling forlorn and abandoned. He actually winds up with the right woman - Janice. "Right" in this context means "adultery", but that's still better than winding up with one of the grieving daughters (he comes close, but makes the right call).
Probably the most telling aspect of The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper is that I've avoided spoilers in my review. For a 30 year old book, that's a sign of respect. It may even be my recommendation as a point of entry into the series (dodgy sexual politics caveated, as usual)... but we'll have to see what the next eleven have to offer.