Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald

A Purple Place for Dying
In the third Travis McGee novel A Purple Place for Dying, McGee travels to an un-named state in the Southwest (likely New Mexico) to meet with the young wife of a local good ol' boy who has numerous business interests and holds all sorts of sway in the county. He is much older than his wife, and he was a friend and business partner of her father before he died. They were married after her father passed away a few years earlier.

The woman, Mona Yeoman, suspects that her husband, Jass, has bilked her out of most of the fortune her father left her when he died. McGee meets Mona Yeoman at the local airport and they drive out of town to a cabin she and her husband own. As they walk around outside the cabin and she explains the details of  how she wants McGee to help her, someone lines her up from a distance with a high-powered rifle and blows the back of her skull apart. The mystery begins.

The mystery also involves the man Mona Yeoman was having an affair with. His name is John Webb. He has disappeared, as has the corpse of Mona Yeoman. Upon reporting the murder of Mona to the local sheriff and then returning to the scene of the crime with him, McGee is stunned to see that her corpse is nowhere to be seen.

When McGee starts his own investigation, he meets Isobel Webb, the sister of John Webb, the man who is missing and now presumed dead. Isobel quickly becomes McGee's book-length challenge. The challenge is to try to uncover what makes this frigid woman tick. Yes, she's quite a beautiful woman, but she behaves like someone who has either experienced a bad relationship or no relationships at all. She dresses in a frumpy manner, and becomes haughty at any hint that a man is flirting with her. In lesser hands than MacDonald, this stereotype could quickly become cringe-worthy. Even so, it is a bit hard to wade through at times. Perhaps back in 1964 when the book was published, the notion was not so ridiculous that beautiful, prudish women needed a good seeing to so that they could behave the way women should behave.

Despite the absurdity of the frigid-woman stereotype, McGee and Isobel do engage in some entertaining scenes and dialogue. The character of Jass Yeoman is also explored to a reasonable degree. And there are some pretty good passages when things kick off and violence ensues. However, like the previous Travis McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink, the lack of insight into the people who have done the crimes is a serious weakness. As the book progresses, the mystery of who may have targeted Mona Yeoman and John Webb is relatively interesting. But after Jass Yeoman is subsequently murdered and it becomes clear that one of his illicit children and her half-brothers are behind the blundering attempt to ensure she is the only one in line for the inheritance, any tension that may have existed quickly dissipates. This is largely due to the fact that the characters that did the crimes are paper-thin caricatures.

As with the previous McGee novels, his cynical outlook on life and his numerous internal rants are what make the book worth reading. But while his views on women were previously quite entertaining if somewhat outdated and shamelessly chauvinistic, things take a nasty turn in A Purple Place for Dying. The constant comments about particular characters as well as women in general will definitely be a turn-off for some readers. Here are a few quotes from the book to demonstrate this. In this passage, McGee refers to Mona Yeoman, who is murdered in the first chapter:
So she was a big creamy bitch standing beside me in her tailored tight pants, and suddenly she was fallen cooling meat, and it was too damned fast.
About Isobel Webb:
Then it was the catalyst of things, of course. All of them. Night, death, fright, closeness, the security of the den. Male and female in the most primitive partnership of all. This was a twisted virgin, frightened by men, sex, pleasure, wanting—thinking it all of a conspiracy of evil against her. 
Later, McGee would seem to redeem himself somewhat in the eyes of modern feminists:
"Iz, if we get out of this. If I get you out of this. If you're ever in my arms again. Just one word will do it. Every time. No. That's all you have to say. No. And it stops. So don't say it as a nervous habit. Say it when you mean it. No. There's nothing wrong with my hearing."
But shortly after, McGee concludes his monologue on his honour code regarding women and negates some of that apparent chivalry:
"And you can say it any point you want, right up to the moment when we are, excuse the expression, coupled. From then on, it's Molly over the windmill."
In fact, a psychologist would probably have a field day analyzing the mind of John D. MacDonald vis-à-vis the words and actions of Travis McGee in A Purple Place for Dying. The height of the unpleasant attitudes towards women comes in the book's final pages when we find out the real motivation for murder by the illegitimate, half Mexican daughter of Jass Yeoman. You see, Yeoman had kept in touch with her, brought her into his home, and then decided to rape his own daughter. This information is delivered in a rather bland, matter-of-fact way, accompanied by one last caricature—this time of the woman who was raped—lunging at McGee like some kind of wild animal because he hints at this horrible information as a way to make her confess. Which she promptly does.

But this news about the rape (or perhaps many rapes over a period of time) really doesn't result in any negative comments from McGee towards Jass Yeoman. Throughout the book, McGee mentions that he really likes Jass. He's painted as a real man's man. And the rape revelation doesn't appear to change those feelings at all. In fact, McGee seems to have a hard-on for two male characters in the book: Jass Yeoman and the sheriff. Strange stuff.

I would still classify A Purple Place for Dying as well worth reading, if not for much of the writing, then at least as an exercise in seeing the progression of John D. MacDonald as a writer. The Travis McGee series has been widely praised, but the qualifier usually is that the quality of story telling improves greatly in subsequent novels.

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