7. Darker than Amber

Travis McGee and his best friend Meyer are innocently fishing for snook late at night, beneath a bridge in the Florida Keys. Above them, there’s a squeal of brakes and suddenly a very surprising package comes hurtling down into the inky black water—a woman, bound and wired up to a cement block. Reflexively, the knight in tarnished armor tosses aside his tackle and dives in. He manages to find her in the submarine darkness but has a hell of a time detaching her from the cement block. He needs air. But he knows that if he goes back up for a breath, she’ll truly sleep with the fishes. With a nearly superhuman effort, McGee untangles the wire and hauls the semi-conscious victim back up to the surface.

McGee and Meyer bring her back to the Busted Flush for recuperation. It turns out she’s a hooker by the name of Vangie (short for Evangeline), who’s been involved with a group of homicidal grifters. Their stock in trade is targeting single, middle-aged men of minor means—enough to be worth targeting, but not enough to motivate heirs and cops and squadrons of attorneys. With her not insubstantial charms, Vangie and others like her lure the men off on Caribbean cruises, and set them up for a strong mickey finn and an eternal voyage in the briny deep. And nobody much misses them. Vangie felt sorry for one of the targets and tipped him off, sealing her own fate. The exotically lovely and part-Hawaiian Vangie attempts to get in McGee’s boxer shorts, but Trav understands how toxic this young woman is. Thus rejected, but thankful for her salvation, she heads out into the night to recover the nest egg she left behind.

Naturally, things don’t turn out well for pretty little Vangie, back in the snake pit where she hid her loot: A news report turns up about a woman fitting her description who was smashed nearly to bits by a hit-and-run driver. So violently, in fact, that her body was thrown up and off the second story of a nearby building. Trav views the body—identifiable most especially by a very beautiful eye that was “darker than amber.” Motivated by the peculiarly McGee-ian thirst for retribution and treasure, our hero sallies forth with Meyer. Starting with random clues left behind by Vangie, he manages to find her hoard of folding money. But one of her former colleagues—a quick, brutal muscleman called Griff—is on watch. He cuts Trav’s escape short, and hauls him out onto a remote area of beach for extermination and burial. But Griff gets sloppy and misses the little “airweight” revolver that Trav has secreted away. And before you can say “hey presto,” it’s Griff who’s laying face down in a shallow grave in the sand.

Now McGee and Meyer set to work to bring down the whole repulsive enterprise. They figure out which steamer line the murder teams operate on, then book themselves onto the final voyage of the season—joining the ship in mid-cruise. Getting it all set up is a complicated. But from the moment Trav cuts off the murder team’s bimbo from her killer/partner—positioning himself as her new “protector” and future lover—it goes pretty much like clockwork. He gets her to write a full confession, while promising her a great new career with him. He relieves the partner of all his money, after a sharp, nasty struggle. An actress who’s a dead ringer for Vangie awaits the ship at the dock—and utterly freaks out the killer, who’s sure that she’s dead. He goes on a rampage and very nearly gets to the actress playing the defunct hooker. But not quite. Finally, Trav ties a bow around the bimbo and delivers her to the cops.

Taken purely as a suspense yarn, Amber is a brisk, tidy, exciting piece of work; not one of the best in the series, but perfectly entertaining. JDM, after all, gives us a fine gang of truly vile villains and a concise, propulsive plotline—with first-rate detective work—that carries the reader right along. But the most significant thing about Amber isn’t JDM’s storytelling chops. It’s the very important sea change in the series that helps to broaden and enrich the McGee experience: Meyer’s promotion from bit player to full-blown co-star.

JDM explicitly understood that after six solo adventures his Don Quixote urgently needed a Sancho Panza. Trav’s pronouncements and observations are the main attraction, of course, but they’ve become a little too strident and dogmatic. From now on, Meyer becomes the sounding board—and occasional conscience—that a violent (if well intentioned) man such as McGee needs to not go off the rails. He softens McGee’s hard edges. While virtually every other significant character in the remaining 14 books is basically ephemeral—touching McGee for a time, then vanishing into obscurity or death—Meyer remains a constant for our knight in rusty armor, through every manner of triumph and tragedy. Meyer rights his course, when needed. Meyer the professor provides insights into matters social, commercial and economic. Meyer grounds him in everyday decency. The hairy, semi-retired economist listens as only a very, very good friend can.

For my money, Meyer is quite simply the Watson of American crime fiction. Short of McGee himself, he’s JDM’s greatest creation.

Here’s how McGee describes his friend:
You can watch the Meyer Magic at work and not know how it’s done. He has the size and pelt of the average Adirondack black bear. He can walk a beach, go into any bar, cross any playground, and acquire people the way blue serge picks up lint, and the new friends believe they have known him forever. Perhaps it is because he actually listens, and actually cares, and can make you feel as if his day would have been worthless, an absolute nothing, had he not had the miraculous good fortune of meeting you. He asks you the questions you want to be asked, so you can let go with the answers that take the tensions out of your inner gears and springs. It is not an artifice. He could have been one of the great con artists of all time. Or one of the great psychiatrists. Or the founder of a new religion. Meyerism.