A Purple Place for Dying is the last tale in JDM’s original Travis McGee trilogy—three game-changing crime novels that came out in May and June of 1964. While the debut volume (Blue) is a vivid, visceral annunciation of a very different kind of hero and the second (Pink) a queasy but memorable anomaly (IMHO unlike any other in the series), Purple shows JDM settling down, beginning to ride the groove that would propel him through two-plus decades of McGee. Pretty much a straight-ahead murder mystery, Purple features a McGee who’s more comfortable in his skin and in his voice, and who presides over a brisk, propulsive and enjoyable adventure.
Once again, McGee is lured away from Florida. But this time he doesn’t do a favor for a friend—as in the first two books. He’s considering a prospective job. Buxom, blonde Mona Yeoman is sure that her wealthy old husband has plundered the trust fund her father set up for her. And she wants McGee—the salvage expert—to help her get some of it back. She’s in love with a young college professor and that money would finance their escape. McGee has flown out west to meet with her, on her dime. He’s inclined to say, “No thanks,” and head home. But something happens that convinces him to stick around.
He and Mona are standing at the edge of a cliff outside her cabin—in Arizona, unless I miss my guess—just talking. He hears something “like the sound of burying a hatchet into a soft and rotten stump.” Mona collapses, instantly dead. Then comes the “distant ringing bark of a heavy rifle, a ka-rang, echoing in the still rock hills of the windless day.” McGee evades the sniper, gets to a dusty diner on a desert road and summons help. When he and the Sheriff get back to the cabin, Mona’s body has vanished, the cliff edge swept clean. And McGee is pegged as part of a plot to help the happy couple make their getaway. In fact, a pair meeting the general description of Mona and her boyfriend flew out of a nearby airport. No one believes Trav when he declares that Mona Yeoman was murdered.
The professor/boyfriend’s sister doesn’t believe, until she accompanies McGee to that airport to recover her brother’s abandoned car. McGee talks to a stewardess who saw that couple on their flight, and determines that they couldn’t have been the real missing couple. Then the police report comes in: A speck of lung tissue was found at the cliff edge, matching Mona’s blood type. The conspiracy actually happened and it was murder cold-blooded and carefully planned. And though it might make sense to head back to Slip F-18, McGee’s dander is up.
The Lauderdale beach bum makes an alliance of mutual interest with Mona’s husband, Jass Yeoman. Jass is one of those proverbial big frogs in a small pond—a longtime shaker and mover in the desert community. In the old days, he and Mona’s daddy had been best friends, womanizers, and hell-raisers, as they built their business empires. (It is said that Jass sired scads of half-Mexican bastards all over the countryside.) When Mona’s daddy died, Jass became her guardian. He claims he married her when she was grown-up because they properly fell in love. He admits that he did plunder Mona’s trust fund to save his own financial skin. In fact, the IRS is building a big case against him.
Safely in Jass’s employ—and thus safe from the Sheriff’s jail threats for illegal detecting—Trav sallies forth after the killer(s). Along the way he finds and fingers the fake Mona from the airport…interviews Mona’s Mexican maidservant…kills a knife-wielding assassin trying to eviscerate Jass…learns about the discovery of the professor’s body…saves the sister from suicide. He arranges to meet Jass again, but the new widower has something else to keep himself busy: A gruesome dance of death by strychnine. Not least, McGee and the professor’s sister have a nearly fatal interlude in a “purple place for dying.”
Since this is a pure whodunit—rather than a recovery or revenge story—I’ll say no more. No reason to spoil your fun. But I will say that JDM has concocted a solid little thriller with some nice twists and turns. Purple is also notable for containing the first mention of McGee’s future sidekick, counselor and best friend, the semi-retired economist with but a single name—Meyer.
I’ll close with a couple of McGee’s bons mots from Purple, which are so central to the character and help account for the envy felt by male readers who dreamed of lives like his.
• “I work when the money gets low. Otherwise I enjoy my retirement… I’m taking it in installments, while I’m young enough to enjoy it. I am commonly known as a beach bum. I live on a houseboat. I live as well as I want to live, but sometimes I have to go to work. Reluctantly.”
• “…I thought I had crawled back into my own skin, beach-bum McGee, the big chopped-up, loose-jointed, pale-eyed, wire-haired, walnut-hided rebel—unregimented, unprogrammed, unimpressed.”