Thursday, July 14, 2011

John D. MacDonald: The Red and Gold - Two Early Travis McGee Novels

I read many Travis McGee novels as they came out in the early eighties including The Green Ripper,  Cinnamon Skin and the final McGee, The Lonely Silver Rain.

During that same era, I also read early titles from the local library or snagged from used shops. The Deep Blue Good-Bye, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying and Pale Gray for Guilt were among those I enjoyed.

Lately I've been reading the titles, and colors, I missed. I recently finished The Quick Red Fox and A Deadly Shade of Gold. The fourth and fifth entries in the series, they seem to mark an evolutionary turning point.

Red is a slim entry that embroils McGee in the search for embarrassing photos of movie star Lysa Dean. It's a quest that takes him from Florida on a cross-continental journey where he has to employ usual amounts of brawn and intellect.

In typical MacDonald fashion, the tale is balanced with character and humanity. Lysa Dean's sends an assistant, Dana Holtzer, to help McGee.

Dana is employed in order to fund care for her sick husband, and the story is as much about her emergence as a person as it is about McGee's core quest. It is not the best McGee, but it represents a MacDonald flourish that always elevates his work above genre expectations.

The Golden Mean
The edition of Gold I picked up is an early paperback printing from Fawcett and dubs it "a double-length adventure..." It's a slam bang adventure and has many twists, but it also seems MacDonald was moving it up a rung up in scope and theme.

As with most McGees, things start in Florida with the return to Fort Lauderdale of McGee's old friend Sam Taggart. Sam's acquired a gold Aztec idol from nefarious antiquities dealers.

We learn at the outset Sam broke the heart of McGee's friend Nora with his departure a few year's earlier, so his return is an emotional event. Before the emotional damage can be tackled, however, Sam is murdered.

McGee agrees to investigate for Nora and delves into the idol's origins before heading to Mexico where Sam worked before his return to Florida.

While Hercule Poirot might have picked up clues in conversations and accidental eavesdropping, McGee always has a tougher time of it. He has to scale secluded estate walls, battle guards and face attack dogs before he can hover by an eave to overhear pertinent data.

Before Gold's finished McGee has faced loss, his own descent in the underworld and brutal violence, though the novel's also deftly plotted and winds its way to a tight, clever wrap up. In contrast to Red, it focuses more on the toll McGee's world exacts from him.

As he did with many earlier novel, MacDonald proves he's digging much deeper than a standard men's adventure title. The books have a few dated references and attitudes, but overall they significant entries in the McGee series and significant pieces for consideration in the evolution of the detective story.

Further reading

Murder by 4: The Quick Red Fox by John D. MacDonald


Charles Gramlich said...

Oh these were such a treat. You're right, Deadly Shade of Gold made things more international in scope in the series, I think. I've read everyone in the series but wish I had more.

Sidney said...

Yeah, it would be fun to have more. There used to be a rumor that there was a novel with black in the title in which McGee died that was held back until after MacDonald's death, but I guess that would have come along by now.

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