“In all emotional conflicts the thing you find hardest to do is the thing you should do.” —Meyer’s Law
Pale Gray for Guilt holds a special place in my heart because it’s both the first John D. MacDonald (JDM) and the first Travis McGee book I ever read.
It was 1989. I’d been taking a mystery-writing course from a novelist named H. Edward Hunsburger. (Nice guy, good teacher. I lost touch with him shortly thereafter, and have since learned that he was murdered in 2011—dying of head injuries sustained in a mugging.) One time my wife and I had him over for supper. He asked me who my favorite mystery writers were. I mentioned Robert Parker, Ross MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett. Ed noted my interest in hard-boiled PI stories and cagily asked: “Ever read John D. MacDonald?” Nope, I said, never heard of him. Ed was appalled—in a joshing way. And he proceeded to tell me that JDM’s Travis McGee was the apogee…the summit…the paragon…the best of the best of the first-person crime yarns. And then told me why. A few weeks later I randomly plucked Gray off the shelf at Barnes & Noble. I read it on a trip and was utterly beguiled. Thus began my Travis McGee quest.
Gray (1968) remains one of my favorites from among the 21. It has all the elements that compel the Ft. Lauderdale boat bum to bring his best game. It’s set close to Slip F-18, in the world of coastal Florida, amidst the machinations of rapacious real estate developers and crooked pols. A good friend—Tush Bannon, who played pro football with Trav—dies horribly in mysterious circumstances. The lovely young widow and kiddies need rescuing. Puss Killian is one of the three most important women in McGee’s entire fictional life. Even though she’s keeping important secrets from him—he’s not even sure her name is real—McGee is head over heels for her. For the second time, McGee’s best friend Meyer plays an important role. Above all, Gray casts McGee as the avenging angel. If you like a great first-person crime story, it doesn’t get much better than this.
In the early going, Trav connects with ol’ Tush at his little marina/motel. The business is dying, relations with his wife Jan are strained. Later, at a chance meeting, Tush tells Trav how the local authorities are trying hard to push him out—to free up his piece of a parcel for some unknown property development. When Trav goes again to the little marina, it’s deserted. A phone service man on the site informs him that Tush went and killed hisself by dropping an engine block on his own head. Which an unofficial autopsy later shows to have been a miracle of sorts—as Tush seems to have lifted and dropped the engine three times.
Jan had left her husband and didn’t know about his death. After McGee and Puss find her, and let her vent her grief, they begin probing the power structure of Shawana County. Jan legally reclaims the marina property the bad guys thought they had possession of. Then she promptly sells it to Trav. As their attorney says: “Son, we sure God rammed a crooked stick into the hornet’s nest and stirred it up.” Next Trav rams the stick in a little deeper by making a rich offer to another landowner with a larger piece of land. Meyer (the economist) is recruited to design and set up a con for the guy at the top of the food chain, a wheeler-dealer named Santo. And the main local operator, Preston LaFrance, is drawn out of his cover. He seems honestly distraught that Bannon went and smashed himself to jelly.
At this juncture, McGee sustains a kick in the gut. One morning he wakes up to find that Puss has vamoosed, leaving only a sad, affectionate note and a warning that he won’t be able to trace her. Trav is utterly deflated and baffled. But for now there’s still vengeance to be exacted.
McGee sets his hooks into Santo with Meyer’s stock scam, involving an obscure equity that seems foolproof but is in fact rotten. Simultaneously McGee sets up Preston LaFrance with a parallel scam that works a treat. When the conned businessman appears at the Busted Flush, spitting and fuming, McGee has the pleasure of explaining why he’s relieved him of a hundred grand—payback for Tush Bannon. LaFrance is mystified: Bannon was a nobody, a nonentity waiting to be run over. Santo gets a similar slap in the face—literal a well as figurative. Trav may even have put the oily operator on the slippery slope to financial failure.
While Meyer clearly has the makings of a great con artist—as McGee observed in Amber—the whole operation takes him to places he’s not accustomed to, not comfortable with. In an uncharacteristic outburst he suggests a solution to LaFrance for his situation: Suicide. “…it was like changing your step to squash the bug not flat, just a little squash so he can crawl a little bit, slow, leaking his juices,” he reflects after the man has left, surprised at his new-found capacity for vitriol. “McGee, my friend, I am ashamed of that kind of anger.” Even as Meyer sticks with McGee for nearly another 18 years, there will be yet darker places he’s taken by this friendship. And readers will puzzle over JDM’s ruthless treatment of the retired economist in one of the later adventures.
But all of this, of course, begs the question: Who killed Tush Bannon and why? The murder was not really necessary. In typical fashion, JDM brings the accidental killer charging out the shadows, nearly taking out McGee and the widow Jan. Once again, proximity to Trav proves a very dangerous thing for one of the story’s innocents. But, of course, the boat bum’s ingenuity and grit save the day. With a huge assist from the lady.
And what about Puss? Why did she ditch McGee?
Near the end of the novel, a letter arrives from her, explaining her decision. “You see my dear,” Puss writes, “about six months before you met me on the beach…they took a little monster out of my head, maybe as big as an English walnut almost, and with three stumpy little legs like a spider. Half a spider. And the men in white dug around in my head to try to find every little morsel of the beast, because he turned out to be the bad kind… No treatments possible…” It turns out Puss has a husband whom she loves just a little bit more than McGee, and it was he she needed to be with.
“Of course I’m scared,” she concludes. “It’s real black out there and it lasts a long time. But I have no remorses, no regrets because I left when I had to… Don’t do any brooding, because if I can try to be a grownup, you ought to be able to take a stab at it. Here’s what you do, Trav my darling. Find yourself a gaudy random gorgeous grasshopper wench, and lay aboard the Plymouth [Gin] and the provisions, and go fun-timing and sun-timing up and down the lovely bays. Find one of good appetite and no thought of it being for keeps, and romp the lass sweetly and completely, and now and again, when she is asleep and you are awake, and your arms are around her and you are sleeping like spoons, with her head tucked under you ugly chin, pretend it is… Puss, who loved you.”
Puss’s elegy cuts deep into Trav’s thick, scarred-up hide. She doesn’t want him with her in her hour of darkest despair, because he is not entirely solid, not entirely reliable—as her husband is. That at least is how she perceives it. It is a haunting, bittersweet moment, and one of the few places in the entire chronicle where Trav is raw and open and in pain. Here you are apt to ask: Is his dream lifestyle really worth it? One is even tempted to shed a tear for McGee.
At the outset Trav ruminates over Jan Bannon’s dislike of him and imagines what she would say: “Prove yourself to me, McGee. But you can’t…because you aren’t housebroken. Your life isn’t real. You drift around and you have your fun and games.”
McGee in his heyday was the subject of envy for millions of male readers. I mean… No wife? No boss? A parade of attractive, bikinied young ladies? Taking your retirement in installments? Living on a houseboat on the sunny, beautiful east Florida coast? Charging to the rescue time and again? What’s not to love? But maybe in Gray JDM is simply making a morality tale of the aspects of McGee that Jan Bannon found wanting: This is not real! This kind of life—even if you pull it off—comes with big costs.
One final note: Puss Killian is not quite done with Travis McGee. But I’m not going to tell you when or where or why or how. You deserve to have the pleasure of discovering that on your own.