With those opening words - perhaps the best in the entire series - the reader is catapulted into the dark world of Cinnamon Skin (1982). The twentieth Travis McGee adventure is a rare return to the structure of the early books in the series, but, this time, with an unusual twist: it isn't all about Travis.
It is no secret that I find Travis to be unusually self-absorbed. It is part of his... well... "charm" is a strong word... "literary appeal" might be a more accurate phrase. Unfortunately for the great scoundrel, whilst he was lazily observing the mystery in Free Fall in Crimson, terrible things happened to his friend Meyer.
Meyer is the great leveller: a genuinely lovable character both within the book and to the reader. He's intelligent, harmless, astute and furry. His unrelenting generosity serves as the perfect foil to Travis' ceaseless self-obsession.
Cinnamon Skin begins in a state of nervous tension. Travis is still in a relationship with Annie Renzetti, although she's making noises about putting her "career" over her "beach-bum boyfriend who doesn't want to commit". Meyer is incredibly shaken up about the conclusion of Free Fall. Essentially, Travis didn't clue Meyer in to the fact that he had a small legion of biker assassins on-side, so as events unfolded, Meyer felt that a) he had betrayed Travis and b) was certainly going to die. As the opening quote states, that'll break a man.
In-between half-heartedly sorting out his own relationship issues, Travis tries to prod Meyer back to his normal, vibrant self. Everything fails until, horrifically, Meyer's niece (his sole remaining relative) and nephew are blown up in a terrorist attack - one seemingly aimed at Meyer. Where the gentle(ish) affection of Travis has failed, the clarion call to action has succeeded: Meyer is Unleashed.
Happy to ditch the softly-softly crap, Travis locks, loads and joins Meyer on the warpath. What follows is a very traditional Travis McGee scavenger hunt. The baddie is identified pretty rapidly (Evan, the nephew, is a bad, bad egg), but Meyer insists on really knowing him inside out before (presumably) turning him inside out. The two amigos bounce around the wilds of Texas, digging further and further into Evan's life until they strike the golden truth. Once they've fully understand his dickishness (and he's fully dickish), they pack off to Mexico to wrap things up for good.
Concluding an adventure in Mexico is familiar ground for the series. As with previous episodes, MacDonald paints Mexico as a county with a thin veneer of imported civilisation - painted on top of a deep, restless well of native culture. Except when he stumbles, this doesn't come across as patronizing (just slightly imperialist). In Cinnamon Skin, for example, MacDonald paints the historical glories of the Mayans with a broad brush - and talks lovingly about the brilliant indigienous culture, growingly increasingly dull with the influx of cheap American condo salesmen. Still, when it comes down to it - if you want to kill someone in a JDM and have no questions afterwards, it needs to happen in a) the Everglades or b) Mexico.
Even the dramatic conclusion - the mandatory mano-y-mano between Travis and an equally hyper-masculine enemy - is traditional fare. Except, again, we have the intervention of Meyer. Travis is happily trudging through the jungle, beautiful woman by his side, machete at his hip - ready to fight against the odds against a sinister foe. And there's Meyer, stumbling beside him with a comedy shotgun and an ill-fitting baseball cap. And there's Meyer again, while Travis is pinned down under fire, saving the day...
Although Cinnamon Skin connects to the previous books in surface details (the source of Meyer's issues, Travis' soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend), it mostly feels like a pleasant throwback to Travis' earlier, more self-contained adventures. Meyer, long suffering in Travis' shadow, needed an adventure of his own and it is fun to watch him solve "people problems" that would have otherwise swamped the shag-or-smack McGee. Travis doesn't leave empty-handed, of course - following Annie's inevitable departure (type 3!), he's left to the tender mercies of Barbara, the incongruously-named Mayan beauty. (She's also sticking around at the end of the book, so only time will tell if she's still there for the inevitable break-up and/or explosion at the beginning of The Lonely Silver Rain.)
(This is the 20th review in The Endless Rainbow Snark, a quest to read all the Travis McGee books in order.)