6. Bright Orange for the Shroud

The sixth book in the McGee series is one of the stronger entries—propulsive and elemental. Trav’s mission is to recover the quarter-million (and not a little of the personal dignity) brutally taken from an acquaintance of his. Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965) reinforces my view that McGee is at his best when he doesn’t stray too far from his moorings at Bahia Mar in Ft. Lauderdale. As entertaining and readable as his out-of-state wanderings can be—I’m thinking Purple, Red, and Yellow in particular—his adventures tramping about the swamps and bikinied-girl beaches and corrupt property developments of Florida are by far the truest and richest expressions of what our knight in dented, tarnished armor is really about.

It’s sometime in the mid-’60s. McGee is working on the Busted Flush, his big old barge of a houseboat. He’s planning on having himself what he calls a “slob summer”—a season of indolence, partying and cruising among the islands. He hears someone calling his name, “a tall, frail, sallow-looking fellow in a wrinkled tan suit too big for him.” He realizes it’s Arthur Wilkinson, who used to hang out on the margins of Trav’s bunch. Arthur’s been transformed into a desiccated, sickly stick of a man. He promptly collapses and McGee—not entirely enthusiastically—takes him in. Arthur’s old girlfriend was Chookie McCall, the second character to ever appear in a McGee story and the first woman (in Blue). Arthur dumped her for a petite blonde bombshell and she is understandably disinclined to nurse him back to health. But McGee persuades her to look in on poor, malnourished Arthur and the mothering reflex kicks in.

It turns out the instrument of Arthur’s near-destruction was the blonde bombshell. Wilma Ferners Wilkinson had the frightening capacity to activate that ZING-ZING-ZING reflex of nearly any heterosexual male who crossed her path. He whom she put in her cross-hairs was in for a very wild ride and a very hard crash. (Even the vaunted Alabama Tiger, he of the notorious perpetual floating house party, fell afoul of her charms.) The women in Trav’s circle—more perceptive than the men, of course—could smell “predator” all over Wilma. A scorpion disguised as a junebug.

After she married Arthur, she herded him away from his friends in Lauderdale to Florida’s Gulf Coast. She started burning through his small fortune at a ferocious rate and urged him to buy options in a land development that was “very exclusive.” We can quadruple our money, she gushes. And without lotsa money, how can his sweet little Wilma continue to be happy? Arthur courted the “developers” and they were “persuaded” to let him in. (Sound familiar? It’s the Bernie Madoff “exclusivity” gambit.) He signs a dense, barely legal multi-page contract, which requires him to pony up several more times, basically stripping him down to his skivvies. After a trip out of town, he returns to discover that his wife has vamoosed, just like his money. After finding her shacked up with one of the “developers,” rough ol’ Boone “Boo” Waxwell, Arthur realizes how comprehensively he’s been conned. Boo beats the bejesus out of him and he spends some months wandering in the wilderness, before turning up at McGee’s gangplank.

McGee’s plan is to con the con artists. He, Arthur and Chook take the Flush over to Florida’s west coast, where Wilma et al. were last operating. He cozies up to the faux developers’ lawyer, gently hauling the bait of an even grander con past the shyster’s eager nose. Then he goes after Boo—JDM’s nastiest piece of work since Blue’s Junior Allen. His intention is to entice Boo into the reverse con. But by the time Trav’s finished with him, including one of JDM’s niftiest dustups, he has a queasy feeling that the wily, muscular, violent swamp-dweller is nothing to trifle with. Moreover, while visiting Boo’s place the knockabout knight errant notices lots of expensive toys that Boo couldn’t have afforded on his own cut of the Wilkinson con. Trav’s conclusion: Boo used, then killed Wilma and tucked her away in the Everglades mud, appropriating her loot and that of another grifter. The trick will be luring him away from his lair, so that Trav can find the money. Help for that job looks to come from another quarter—from the lawyer’s wife, in whom Boo has shown unwholesome interest. But Boo is two steps ahead of Trav. Naturally, all bloody hell breaks loose.

Trav doesn’t quite dodge a bullet. The lawyer and his wife have a very, VERY bad evening indeed. Arthur is obliged to call upon reserves of courage he didn’t know he had. Trav makes sure that the law develops a profound interest in putting ol’ Boo out of commission. A decent portion of Arthur’s money is redeemed. And it seems that Trav, Chook and Arthur have earned a happy ending.

But as is often the case in the closing acts of these adventures, the Grendel of the moment lurches out of the shadows for one more go at McGee’s Beowulf. And with a little help from Chookie and Mother Nature, the monster takes his final bow.

Orange is a dramatic change from its immediate predecessor, the somewhat prolix and overwrought A Deadly Shade of Gold. It’s lean. It’s mean. It’s as slick as snot on a doorknob and compelling as a punch in the gut. JDM wastes few motions and his editorializing via Trav isn’t overdone.

While there are other Florida-set McGees I enjoy more (Blue, Gray, Lavender, Copper, and Silver most particularly), Orange does proud to the series. If you’re a McGee neophyte and Orange should cross your path. Don’t hesitate. Pick it up and spend some time with Trav, Chook and ol’ Boo.

Some bons mots from Bright Orange for the Shroud:

“…I had settled for a variation of the lush life, bumming along the golden strand until funds sagged too low, then venturing forth to clip the clip artists, wresting the stolen meat—legally stolen, usually—out of the bandit jowls, then splitting the salvage down the middle with the victim…”

“A friend is someone to whom you can say any jackass thing that enters your mind. With acquaintances, you are forever aware of their slightly unreal image of you, and to keep them content, you edit yourself to fit.”

“Waxwell had good wads of muscle on his shoulders. His waist had thickened and was beginning to soften. In posture, expression, impact, he had that stud look, that curiously theatrical blend of brutality and irony. Bogart, Mitchum, Gable, Flynn—the same flavor was there, a seedy, indolent brutality, a wisdom of the flesh. Women, sensing exactly what he was, and knowing how casually they would be used, would yet accept him, saying yes on a basis so primitive they could neither identify it nor resist it.”