Showing posts with label Travis McGee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travis McGee. Show all posts

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-√†-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.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Book Review: Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald

Nightmare in Pink
In the second Travis McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink, McGee heads to New York at the request of one his former war buddies. The friend, now bed-ridden and close to death because of a war injury, asks McGee to help out his sister, Nina Gibson, whose fiancé was recently killed in a mugging gone bad. After the requisite swooning of a number of females at his feet, McGee does some digging and unearths a muddled (muddled that is, in terms of what the reader ever finds out about it) scheme involving a real-estate investment firm being fleeced of millions of dollars. The boyfriend worked at the firm and started having suspicions of his own, and his curiosity appears to have cost him his life.

The first-person, detective-novel trope rears its head and McGee is captured just as he starts to uncover the details behind the scam that left his friend's sister (she quickly becomes McGee's love interest) with a dead boyfriend and an envelope full of ten thousand dollars that he, the boyfriend, had finagled as part of his own snooping around. McGee and Nina aren't sure whether the dead boyfriend was himself part of the scheme as evidenced by the envelope full of money, though McGee soon determines that he had hoped to use the money as proof of the bad intentions of his colleagues at the real-estate investment firm.

John D. MacDonald's tight writing and the relentless cynical observations of McGee really make this book worth reading. However, there is little suspense in the book, either in individual scenes or in the overall arc of the plot. As mentioned, the reader never gets any real idea how the multi-million dollar scam, apparently planned and executed by a handful of people over a period of years, is pulled off. Details like that aren't always necessary in a well-written crime novel. But the lack of anything beyond a cursory glimpse of the bad guys involved in the fraud also detracts from the book. We get plenty of second-hand comments about some of nasties who are part of the plot, and then one brief passage in which one of the masterminds encounters McGee after he, McGee, has been drugged and held against his will at a bizarre mental institution. But it simply isn't enough to engender much hatred in readers or to fuel the inevitable revenge scene.

Yet, there still are many enjoyable passages throughout. That inevitable revenge scene does come about, although there is little imagination involved when McGee gets an opening and is able to initiate his escape from the mental institution. Sure, the psychedelic drugs McGee dumps into a coffee urn in the hospital's cafeteria do result in some bizarrely entertaining results, but as McGee himself laments numerous times, the only people who suffer are innocent hospital staff.

It's fairly easy to believe that MacDonald constructed the character of McGee partly as a parody of the playboy fantasy of easy women who readily offer themselves up or only need a solid right hook to make them contrite for their manipulative ways while simultaneously turning them on. So only the most frustrated and deluded readers will take this kind of dialogue seriously:
"So let's call it a draw. I'm an acceptable stud, and from the neck down you're Miss Universe. And if there was ever any reason to go to bed, we'd probably find each other reasonably competent. But I came here to talk about Charlie." 
McGee delivers the above lines to a woman minutes after meeting her. Of course, despite the absurdity of such encounters, they can be entertaining. And MacDonald recognizes the unbelievable fantasy-world, male-female interactions he creates and offsets them with McGee's own self-deprecating analysis of himself and his usual pessimistic take on everything, especially modern relationships.

And for readers who love a noirish, bleak take on life, McGee's running commentary about the state of the world and how he loathes so much of it, is one of the best parts of the book. For example, this passage is just one of many random observations McGee makes as he starts his investigation in New York:
New York is where it is going to begin, I think. You can see it coming. The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts. Until the locust population reaches a certain density they all act like any grasshoppers. When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world. We're nearing the critical point. One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. But this time they won't snarl and go on. They will stop and stare and then leap at each other's throats in a dreadful silence. The infection will spread outward from that point. 
After McGee's escape from the mental institution, the bad-guy scheme falls apart and the perpetrators are caught, though readers are never witness to any of the details. As the book draws to a close, McGee's friend—Nina's brother—passes away after an operation. All that remains is for McGee to take Nina back to Florida for some therapy aboard his boat, the Busted Flush. He hammers the emotional pain out of her and she achieves the appropriate Zen state of recovery, bids farewell to her saviour and returns to the real world.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Book Review: The Deep Blue Good-by: by John D. MacDonald

The Deep Blue Good-byThe Deep Blue Good-by was the first of 21 Travis McGee novels by the late, great John D. MacDonald.

McGee is a nihilistic, misanthropic loner who lives on his boat, The Busted Flush, which is docked in a marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He has largely dropped out of mainstream life and only works when he runs low on cash.

In the opening chapter of The Deep Blue Good-by, a female character queries McGee about what he does for a living, rephrasing a "job description" McGee had apparently offered up earlier:

"You said if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you just...live on that until it starts to run out. Is that the way it is, really?"

McGee accepts this version and thus the reader has an idea of what kind of character they are being presented. He is a sort of private eye, but not exactly. However, like most of the well known hard-boiled private eye novels, this McGee story is a morality play. And like most of the hard cases who came before him in the pulp fiction world, behind the tough talking, fearless forays into dangerous situations, McGee is also someone who genuinely cares about the people he tries to help.

It’s almost as if MacDonald fashioned McGee as a combination of the hardened crime novel detective and the sensitive new age man who was gaining prominence at the time (The Deep Blue Good-by was published in 1964). The typical sleuth/lothario, McGee comes across his share of attractive and troubled tarts. He rebuffs some, sleeps with a few, and feels regret at leading others on.

Through it all, McGee riffs on various things he loathes about the modern world. In The Deep Blue Good-by, a recurring theme is the women he deals with and the limited opportunities they have in life. In one classic rant, McGee muses:

"The scene is reputed to be acrawl with adorably amoral bunnies to whom sex is a pleasant social favor. The new culture. And they are indeed present and available, in exhaustive quantity, but there is a curious tastelessness about them. A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of much value to anyone else. They become a pretty little convenience, like a guest towel.”

These philosophical asides (and later in the series, conversations with a character named Meyer) became one of the trademarks of the McGee novels. They are one of the aspects that fans of the novels like the most but probably one reason the books were never successfully adapted to the big screen.

The book is written in the first person using simple, lean sentences that move the action forward. The plot is almost secondary here. McGee’s observations, monologues, and dialogue with other characters are the driving force behind the story. Not that there isn’t any plot or action.

McGee tracks down the nasty piece of work who has abused and cheated the two main female characters. While McGee is a nuanced individual who doubts himself and doesn't always play by the rules, the villain is pure evil. The action builds to a brutal showdown in which all does not end in a pat, satisfying way.

A taut, sparsely written novel that is the first in the classic Travis McGee series.