5. A Deadly Shade of Gold

This 1965 paperback original was the most expansive and Byzantine tale in the McGee series up to this point—a dense and tricky tangle of plot and character. That’s not to say that there aren’t serious spasms of violence and a high body count. The narrator makes numerous philosophical digressions throughout the story, as well, commenting upon all manner of mid-’60s issues. By this time JDM has become more confident that his readers will hang in there as his rangy hero ruminates out loud. The future sidekick—the hairy, semi-retired, mono-nymic economist Meyer—puts in only a few brief appearances. JDM hasn’t yet concluded that Trav needs someone to round off some of his hard edges, someone to be his sounding board and boon companion throughout a storyline.

The tale starts with McGee enjoying one of his periodic bouts of retirement. An old friend named Sam Taggart phones after an absence of three years, with a recovery project in mind. During the conversation McGee delicately suggests the possibility of Taggart getting in touch with the woman he jilted when he lit out. McGee contacts Nora Gardino, owner of a deluxe women’s clothing store, who’s thrilled and not a little mortified at the prospect of seeing the man who might have been her husband.

When the two men meet, Taggart tells Trav about the little Mexican fishing village he’d lived in, Puerto Altamara; about the fortune he had and lost. It seems he came into a collection of 28 Pre-Columbian gold figurines worth $300,000 or more (several million in today’s dollars). He won’t share the details. All but one had been taken away from him and he knows that McGee is in the business of restoring lost property, among other things. But with the prospect of seeing his old fiancée—maybe even hooking up with her again—Taggart gives up on the notion of reclaiming his stolen 27 figurines. He decides to sell the last one. A man is coming soon to pick it up and pay out over twelve grand.

Nora and Trav drive to the fleabag motel Taggart is staying at. He insists she stay in Miss Agnes, his Rolls Royce pickup truck.

Personal digression here: Miss Agnes is one of two serial affectations that JDM adopted for the McGee series that drive me up the wall. That someone like McGee, who relies on relative anonymity for his livelihood and personal security, should drive such a flamboyant and ridiculous vehicle strains credulity. It’s pure self-indulgence on JDM’s part and rings like a sour note in a piano sonata. Would McGee have driven around in a clown car with bells clanging and lights flashing? Why couldn’t it have been a beloved old Ford or Chev pickup? JDM’s other annoying tic is the proclivity of almost every female whom McGee knows for more than a few minutes to call him “Darling.” I don’t buy that either. It’s the primary reason my wife isn’t all that fond of these books—another false and clangorous note. Rant concluded, and back to Trav and Nora at the motel.

The moment McGee walks into Taggart’s room a sharp metallic smell assaults his nostrils—coppery and pungent. The smell of copious fresh blood. His friend is lying in a sea of red, throat slashed. A little too late, McGee hears tidy footsteps on the cinder walk behind him. Nora sees her old lover before Trav can stop her. Needless to say, white knight McGee cares for the hysterical lady.

When the dust settles, the fiery Nora—so close to getting her man and her dream back—demands vengeance. And McGee, of course, is just the one to provide it. They need to find out more about the figurines and who might have been involved with them. First stop is an archeology professor, who educates McGee on these types of objects and provides the name of a Manhattan gallery that would know the market. At the gallery McGee, operating under the false flag of  “Sam Taggart,” hints that he might be in possession of 28 figurines. And would they be interested in them? One of the gallery owners shows McGee photos and among them he spies the figurine that Taggart had. Through various bits of chicanery—including bedding one of the gallery owners—McGee identifies his target: A Cuban exile named Carlos Menterez, who had bought some of figurines from the gallery. A Cuban friend tells him that Menterez was a crony of the old dictator Batista, “a murderous son of a bitch.” Then it’s time for McGee and Nora to head down to Puerto Altamara, Sam Taggart’s last known abode.

South of the border, McGee learns relatively quickly that Taggart had worked as a charter boat captain and was not much missed. McGee connects with a young hooker who was Taggart’s girlfriend until he moved into the big, guarded house of one Senor Garcia. She fills him in. After a time ol’ Sam took up with the American blonde who lived in Garcia’s house. But some kind of trouble happened up there on the hill and Sam had to escape. McGee gets Nora to shout “Buenos dias!” to a guard behind the house’s gate. The man answers with a Cuban accent and McGee begins to zero in on “Senor Garcia.”

McGee stages a middle-of-the-night reconnaissance on the “Garcia” compound. Along the way, he spies someone in a bed whose name is Carlos, totally crippled and dumb from a major stroke—Menterez.  It so happens that a young American woman is working for the Cuban gangster. By means of a note from Nora hinting at a common interest in one “ST,” the couple manage to lure the woman out of Menterez’s compound, then hijack her to a spot out in the jungle. Trav ties her up to a tree, dismisses Nora and goes to work.

Almah Hichin, Taggart’s blonde, eventually spills the information that McGee and Nora need, without recourse to actual torture. A rich American had lusted for Menterez’s collection of Pre-Columbian figurines, but Menterez refused to sell. The American sent one of the Cuban’s old enemies down to intimidate him and later attempt to kill him. Almah and Menterez recruited Taggart and another man to murder Menterez’s enemy and crew. Only when they get onto their boat, do they discover there’s also a woman—who needs murdering as well, being the only witness. Having killed this innocent woman, Taggart put himself in the crosshairs of Cuban revenge. When Menterez refused to pay Taggart for the crime, the boat captain purloined his figurines and headed for the hills.

From this point onward, A Deadly Shade of Gold explodes with retribution and violence—as JDM slashes away at the almost-Gordian knot of a plot he’s constructed, by way of deconstruction. Taggart, ostensible good guy, turned out to have been not so good and got the ending he’d earned. Everyone else who deserves death gets it, as well, from Taggart’s fellow murderer to the rich American who set the whole bloody mess in motion. But one of the good guys who doesn’t deserve to die, does, if inadvertently. The body count eventually goes north of a dozen. McGee ends up with a nearly fatal gunshot wound—after a particularly brutal and incendiary night in a Los Angeles mansion. No one gets out of this story unscathed. Except Meyer, who didn’t have much to do with it in the first place.

Reading Gold is rather like groping through a jungle maze—dark, sodden, rent by unseen screeching and roaring…with bullets whizzing by and mantraps opening up beneath the feet…with many confusing and scary turnings in all different directions.

I confess that Gold isn’t one of my favorite McGees, because unlike its four predecessors, it contains its share of wasted motion. It’s simply not as lean, propulsive and compelling—which I take as the highest virtues for mystery and suspense novels. Nevertheless, this tough slog from unrequited revenge to horrified enlightenment is a must for any JDM fan. For a more casual reader—who may not care to read all 21 adventures, in or out of order—there are other McGee yarns that would take precedence.

Carrying on in the tradition of some of my other blog posts, here’s a trademark McGee editorial from A Deadly Shade of Gold.  After McGee threatens to torture Almah, he releases her and takes her back into town:

“She slid in [the car], wary and apologetic and self-effacing. As I started up, I told myself that something would have broken her sooner or later. She would have come up against something that couldn’t be teased, cajoled or seduced. The ones with no give, the ones with the clear little porcelain hearts shatter. And in the shattering, some chips and splinters are lost, so that when, with great care, they are mended, the little fracture lines show. Did she, for God’s sake, think she was going to be immune forever? The blackness is always a half step behind you, hand raised to touch you on the shoulder… Little golden girls cannot stay ignorant forever. But when you break a pretty thing, even if it is a cheap pretty thing, something does go out of the world. Something died in that clearing. And she would never fit together as well again.”

Trav on TV’s political bloviators, in words that could be written today:

“There are a lot of them running loose these days, I thought, fattening themselves on the sick business of whipping up such fear and confusion that they turn decent men against their decent neighbors in this sad game of think-alike.”