4. The Quick Red Fox

The fourth Travis McGee adventure takes the intrepid boat bum and tarnished white knight from one coast to another, and points in between. Florida…upstate New York…California…Vegas…Arizona. Think of it as a mid-1960s picaresque of sex, blackmail and violence.

This McGee project starts off as a straight recovery job. It seems that the eponymous fox—the exquisite, sexy movie star Lysa Dean—has gotten herself comprehensively photographed while participating in a multi-day, al fresco orgy somewhere in Big Sur. The actress paid the first round of blackmail and thought herself free of danger. Now a second series of demands has arrived and she needs to put a lid on it—or her impending marriage to a very wealthy but straight-laced fellow could go bye-bye. She’s tracked down McGee through an old mutual friend and sent her very capable aide Dana Holtzer to hire him. Trav’s assignment is to stop the blackmail and get back as much of her money as possible—but with Mrs. Holtzer in tow.

While at first Dana is a bit of a cold fish, she has good reason. Her son is institutionalized. Her epileptic husband was shot by a panicked policeman and is in a vegetative state. They’re a bit prickly with each other at first. But they work up a routine of playing a fictional suburban couple who affectionately snipe at one another. Over the course of the story, one thing leads to another and what had been a purely official relationship becomes—surprise, surprise—very much closer. Trav shows signs of falling hard for the lady, but, alas, something unpleasant befalls Dana in the home stretch. She doesn’t die, but her fondness for McGee does.

McGee and Dana begin their investigation by tracking down the fox’s fellow orgy participants. First on their docket is the deranged, nymphomaniac daughter of a famous architect, safely ensconced in a Florida facility for drunks and druggies. Then it’s on to the leonine ski pro with the fake German accent, busily impressing the chickies at a third-rate resort up in New York. McGee cuts him from his pack of admirers with the lie that Lysa Dean herself is waiting nearby—wanting more of what he provided in Big Sur. Believing speed is of the essence, Trav wallops the ersatz Kraut and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t spill everything he knows about the al fresco orgy. Trav, as usual, is unhappy about ambushing and torturing, but the ends justify the means. Here’s what he says when Dana asks why he does such things: “Maybe I like it. Maybe that’s what bothers me.”

But later, he describes a nightmare that assures that he’ll never really like it: “You can seldom guess what will exhaust you emotionally. That hulk of brave muscle had been a weak and pretentious child. In my dreams I heard him sob. Oh please don’t. Oh please. Oh please, mister.”

The trail next leads to the drunk girl’s brother, who had put her in the custody of an ocean-yachting couple who had been at the orgy—the M’Gruders, who have since divorced. Trav and Dana figure out the identity of the photographer who shot the infamous outdoor party, who himself was recently murdered. But someone’s still blackmailing Lysa Dean, and it isn’t the photographer’s dim-witted daughter. The trail eventually takes Trav and Dana to Vegas, to debrief the former Mrs. M’Gruder—who also has just gotten herself murdered. Someone is brutally, desperately brushing the trail clean, one murder at a time. Like a huge multi-colored neon arrow in the desert, all signs point inexorably toward Mr. M’Gruder, about to marry the girl of his dreams.

And that’s as much as I’ll say. Because in Quick Red Fox, JDM uncorks one of the niftiest curves in all 21 McGee adventures. It’s been several years since I’d read the book, and happily I’d forgotten JDM’s bit of legerdemain. (Don’t you love it when you forget the good twists in books you’re re-reading?) I went for it hook, line and sinker. When that zinger comes at you out of left field, you’re thinking: Holy cow! JDM’s bombshell practically gives me goose bumps. Again!

For those who are working through the McGee books, all the way from Blue to Silver, it’s worth noting that Red is not Lysa Dean’s only appearance. Recently I’d been thinking  that the fate that JDM reserved for the Hollywood diva, in her ultimate McGee adventure (Freefall in Crimson), was unreasonably cruel. But when she met with McGee to settle accounts at the end of Red—and tried to substitute a roll in the satin sheets for some of the money she owed, to stiff him and treat him like a rube—I was reminded that she at least partially deserves what she ultimately got.