Underground Reading: The Lonely Silver Rain by John D MacDonald

The Lonely Silver RainIt has been a long ride, but, in 1985, the adventures of Travis McGee came to a close in The Lonely Silver Rain.

Like The Green Ripper, this is one of the few McGee novels that I had only read once - and my memories of it were less than glowing. It has been years, but all I could remember about Silver was the overwhelming sense of anxiety and, of course, the surprising reveal at the end. (Which, I'm sorry to say, will be inevitably spoiled during the course of the review.).

Also like The Green Ripper, I was failing to account for The Lonely Silver Rain being part of the series and only appraising it as a stand-alone mystery. If Green is the high-intensity, action-packed turning point in the series, Silver is the concluding challenge. 

The Green Ripper is the bit in "Con Air" where Nicholas Cage works his way through the plane, dramatic Ranger music playing, angry cons falling left and right as he finally unleashes his inner whoopass and saves the day. The Lonely Silver Rain is the final car chase in the same movie - speeding after John Malkovich on his stolen fire truck. After a plane crash, this may seem completely unnecessary, but as a character, Nick Cage needed the personal resolution of taking out the bad man and honourably reclaiming his place in society.

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Underground Reading: Cinnamon Skin by John D MacDonald

Cinnamon_Skin "There are no hundred percent heroes. Every man can be broken when things happen to him in a certain order, with a momentum and an intensity that awaken ancient fears in the back of his mind."

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.

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Underground Reading: Free Fall in Crimson by John D. MacDonald

5614729fd7a06c5f7142e010.L Move over, Nightmare in Pink, there's a new sheriff in town. Free Fall in Crimson (1981) may be the worst entry in the series to date. 

Travis is over the lengthy malaise that plagued him through the middle of the series, the catharsis of manslaughter has cleansed his emotional sinuses. Free Fall starts out almost like a franchise reboot: Travis is back on his boat like nothing happened, a client comes calling, he's off to save the day.

Except, unlike his previous adventures and misadventures, there's not much for Travis to hang his moral hook on in Free Fall. His client, Ron Easterland, is a (rich) (disaffected) artist who was disowned by his zillionaire father ages ago. But, due to a few complications in the will, he's still due to walk off with some money (which he swears he doesn't need). Unfortunately, due to a series of mysterious & convenient deaths, Dad died and all the money went to his wife from a previous marriage.

From the start, this feels a bit off. Travis is sorting out rich people problems for unlikable rich people. And, quickly, Travis becomes pretty unlikable himself.

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Underground Reading: The Green Ripper by John D. MacDonald

The_Green_Ripper 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.

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Underground Reading: The Empty Copper Sea by John D. MacDonald

The Empty Copper SeaAfter 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.

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Underground Reading: The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald

LemonThe sixteenth Travis McGee, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, starts off in familiar fashion. Carrie Milligan, an old friend (nudgity wink), drops by and slings a bundle of money into Travis' safe-keeping. She's a bit suspicious, but Travis trusts her (enough). When Carrie dies under mysterious circumstances, Travis is now bound by the Holy Trinity of McGeeism to investigate: dead woman, old friend & cold, hard cash.

With Meyer in tow, Travis heads up (down?) to Bayside, Florida, to see what exactly Carrie was mixed up in. He finds a seedy small town riddled with drugs, dodgy business and political corruption. Basically, the perfect place for him to get stuck in and do his thing.

Lemon defies its inauspicious name - it is one of the better Travis adventures. Part of this is MacDonald staying safely within his comfort zone. Travis is a) in Florida, b) in a small town, c) bucking the system and d) saving oppressed wimmenfolk. It also helps that Travis isn't spending the entire book with a bad case of the sulks as well. 

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Underground Reading: The Turquoise Lament by John D. MacDonald

The Turquoise Lament The Turqouise Lament (1973) is the fifteenth in the Travis McGee series from John D. MacDonald, and, so far, one of the best in the series. 

Travis hops out to Hawaii at the request of an old friend. Or, more precisely, the nubile daughter of an old friend. Ted Llewellen was a treasure hunter (a successful one) and, more importantly, someone that saved McGee's life (in a bar fight!). So when his daughter, Pidge (an unfortunate nickname), gives Travis a ring, McGee jumps a plane and heads out.

Pidge is worried that she's going crazy. She's hearing things, seeing things and having weird delusions that her husband (a big genial fellow named Howie) is trying to kill her. She's now living on her own until she can figure out what's going wrong. 

Travis solves things in his typical way: he does some cursory snooping and then shags Pidge rotten. (Lying to Howie the entire time, of course.) His preliminary investigations (snicker, chortle) reveal that nothing is wrong - in fact, that Pidge is a classic case of bottled-up anxieties. Doctor McGee gives her his patented injection (couldn't resist), pats her on the bottom and flies back to Florida.

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Underground Reading: The Scarlet Ruse by John D. MacDonald

The Scarlet Ruse and Two Others The Scarlet Ruse (1972) drags Travis McGee into the not-so-seedy world of postage stamps. Meyer's old friend Hersh is an expert dealer, collecting rarities for a half-dozen clients on a percentage basis. Business is good, but Hirsh is in a pickle.

It seems that the collection for one client, a Mr Frank Sprenger, has gone missing. Not only is Hirsh responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Sprenger's stamps, but Sprenger is the sort that might take Hirsh's ears and fingers as well. Don't trade stamps with the mob, people - it'll only backfire in the end.

At the start this is almost the McGee version of a traditional cozy. Travis invites himself over, sips tea with Hirsh and his employees, dispenses familial advice and, being Travis, starts shagging someone grossly inappropriate. Things, however, heat up. The latter half of the book involves a complicated "running away" sort of operation. Travis and his lady-lust zipping through the high seas, with a boat of irritated goons chasing after them.

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Underground Reading: A Tan and Sandy Silence by John D. MacDonald

A Tan and Sandy Silence The 13th McGee takes up right where its predecessor stops: with Travis caught in the midst of a funk.

Travis is in one of his longer relationships, an extended fling with Lady Gillian Brent-Archer. A vastly wealthy, ageless widow, Lady Gillian is pushing Travis to quit his nomadic life and join her in the islands. Travis, starting to worry about his own mortality, is tempted - but he's crippled with the fear of being a "kept man" .

The whole situation adds up to a grumpy Travis. He's fairly rude to Lady Gillian, grumpy with Meyer and, frankly, a little off his game. When an old acquaintance, Harry Broll, shows up and starts shooting at Travis, our hero is left with a real case of self-doubt. Not only did Broll show up for no reason (searching for a wife that Travis hasn't seen in years), but McGee's Spidey-Sense normally warns him before he enters a situation in which he's about to be shot at.

He's old. He's slowing down. He can't trust his instincts. And some rich widow wants to kidnap him for a life of luxury. Poor Travis.

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Underground Reading: The Long Lavender Look by John D. MacDonald

The Long Lavender Look Travis McGee and his patient friend Meyer are poodling down the road after a friend's wedding. They've gotten a little lost, but are now making good time through the Everglades. All of a sudden, a naked woman (beautiful, of course), sprints across the road. Travis has lightning reflexes (especially with nude hotties involved) and avoids hitting her - but at the cost of putting his beloved car into a ditch.

Confused, damp and in the middle of nowhere, Travis and Meyer spend all night hiking back to the nearest small town (and occasionally dodging bullets). Once there, things really start to get weird...

The Long Lavender Look (the 12th in the series by John D. MacDonald) has all the optimal elements from previous Travis McGee books, but fails to combine them. There's a small town setting (my favorite), a happy absence of "luscious and/or dead female client" (thank god) and even a bit of proper mystery (huzzah!). But, for many reasons, it never comes together. 

If anything, The Long Lavender Look is a complete reverse of my expectations. Despite the elements above, the bulk of the story is a dull. But the twist ending - including the now-predictable-over-the-top action sequence - is one of the book's few virtues.

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