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.