3. A Purple Place for Dying

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.”


2. Nightmare in Pink

Nightmare indeed.

Of all the dark places that Travis McGee went to in his 21 adventures, there are few darker or grimmer than this descent into madness and despair.

McGee begins this story by doing a big favor for an old Army buddy who’s blind, crippled from his war wounds, and not likely to live much longer. It seems this friend has a little sister whose fiancé has been murdered under suspicious circumstances. Would Trav check things out, make sure the kid’s safe? Shake her up, if you need to, he tells McGee.

Trav leaves the Busted Flush behind and heads north to Manhattan. The young man Nina Gibson was going to marry had worked in a real estate investment firm owned by an old-money businessman called Charles Armister. The future husband believed that financial shenanigans were going on at the company, which had been selling properties for a year or two—millions of dollars worth of properties. The young man was subsequently murdered in an apparent street mugging, but Nina doesn’t believe that’s why he was killed. Trav restrains himself briefly—feeling prospectively guilty about betraying his ol’ buddy Mike—but soon is having an affair with the young lady.

With the help of a wealthy friend, Trav connects with Charlie Armister’s sister-in-law. Charlie, it seems, has gone off the rails—left his wife, isolated himself, become quite the randy, unrepressed personality after a lifetime of stodginess. She suggests ways for Trav to get closer to the situation. He cases the Armister digs and makes a run at the executive assistant. More ominously, he tries to penetrate the Armister operation by getting close to a high-end hooker who was known to service the newly horny Mr. Armister. As our blundering hero later observes, he’s in way over his head: “I had wandered into the Armister situation with all the jaunty confidence of a myopic mouse looking for a piece of cheese in the cobra cage.”

The cobra’s bite isn’t merely a mickey slipped to him by the high-end hooker. It’s far nastier, a powerful hallucinogenic that makes him go crazy in a very public place. He ends up in a mental institution operated by a medical researcher bought and paid for by Charlie’s attorney, Baynard Mulligan.

For McGee, it’s the mother of all nightmares—an unknowable period of constant drugging and dreadful, disgusting hallucinations that resemble nothing so much as the darkest and foulest of LSD trips. When his insulted mind is allowed to bubble up into a semblance of rationality, Mulligan appears before him to gloat about his scheme to plunder the Armister millions. The whole thing revolved around rendering Charlie Armister as pliable as possible. So the millionaire was drugged, deposited in the asylum, and—a true horror—lobotomized. Thus neutered, the now slow-witted, happy Charlie was easily convinced to leave his wife and family, become roomies with Mulligan, start bonking the chickies, sign legal documents unfailingly, and neglect to notice the plundering of his fortune. Nina’s fiancé was headed in that direction, but ironically was murdered in an actual botched mugging. Mulligan would never have been so ham-handed as to kill the man outright. He has similar plans for Trav—a little cut of the gray matter and say hi to the life of a good-natured dimwit working in a Jersey shoe factory.

Things are looking very bad indeed, when JDM works up a simple deus ex machina: Someone forgets to give Trav his dose, and the rangy boat bum bubbles up again into something like rationality. He manages to get loose, kills an attendant, then purloins a few vials of the head-warping drug and dumps them in the cafeteria coffee machine. Things go to hell at the asylum in a big hurry, with four people dying and dozens of others damaged by the hallucinogenic. You would assume they weren’t all part of the conspiracy. (As I observed in my notes on The Deep Blue Good-By, people who come within Trav’s sphere of influence can get hurt or killed. It’s not a nice place to be.) Needless to say, Mulligan’s plot is effectively shut down.

Ultimately Trav—still suffering from effects of the drug—learns from authorities that the baddies have all had their comeuppances. Trav pockets a nice check from Mrs. Armister—happy to have her transformed husband back. Sadly, Nina’s brother dies after surgery. “They said the words and put him in the ground,” said Trav, “and I took the pale and hollow-eyed and silent girl down to Lauderdale, to Slip F-18,  Bahia Mar, and installed her aboard the Busted Flush…” After a brief idyll—each restoring the other—the boat bum and the kid sister say farewell.

When I first read Pink many years ago, I felt that it was a dreadful kind of fever dream; for a time my least favorite McGee (now displaced by Crimson, on which more later). I think what disappointed me about it was its lack of a humid Florida setting (McGee’s natural habitat)…its glowering, dark depiction of a 1960s Manhattan that doesn’t jive with my image of the place…a truly grim, nauseating modus operandi for the villain of the piece…a maladroit, unmasterful McGee who is little more than a bull in a china shop (or mouse in a cobra cage).

I can tolerate Pink more easily now. Why? Because JDM—more so than with Blue—is telling us that McGee isn’t going to be your typical fictional tough guy/hero. (“Typical” for the preceding era, at any rate.) He’s going to be flawed and clumsy. He wins in the end and dispenses with the villains, but there is often collateral damage. The boat bum from Lauderdale is a very imperfect protagonist for a harsh modern world that was taking shape within a year of JFK’s murder. McGee is a new creature in genre fiction and you better get used to him.