10. The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper

The tenth Travis McGee adventure, The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968), finds him going to bat for a recently deceased friend. Helena Pearson Trescott’s first husband had been murdered aboard his boat in the early 1960s, not far from where McGee moored the Busted Flush, at Bahia Mar marina in Ft. Lauderdale. He helped the widow and her two daughters in the days after the murder. Later he briefly became Helena’s lover on a sailboat cruise. (Though it’s now  politically incorrect, this was standard procedure for McGee—as a sexual healer of emotionally and physically wounded ladies.)

Flash forward several years. Cancer has taken the lady. McGee arrives back from a salvage expedition to find a letter from her attorney, which contains a check and a note from Helena herself, written just days before her death. Her older daughter, it seems, has suffered some kind of terrible mental breakdown after a miscarriage. Her memory is gone, she’s become child-like. She’s suicidal, self-destructive. Her husband and kid sister care for her around the clock. Things don’t smell right to the dying woman. She asks her old friend and lover—whom she knows deals with mysterious circumstances as a “salvage consultant”—to pay a visit and check things out. As a last and very personal favor.

Under the guise of tracking down Helena’s old boat, McGee journeys to the Florida town where she died and where her sick daughter Maureen lives with her husband, Tom Pike. Tom’s a property developer and big man around town. Bit by bit McGee’s antennae begin to quiver at all that’s going down.

Maureen’s symptoms have baffled all the experts. She’s attempted suicide several times, by different means; which is very unusual. The doctor who’d been treating her has unaccountably committed suicide himself. The doctor’s ex-nurse and boyfriend attempt to intimidate McGee, but of course fail. They’re on a campaign to investigate the doctor’s death and prove he didn’t kill himself. McGee—naturally—ends up sleeping with the attractive young nurse. Who herself is murdered the next day. Pike is having an affair with a neighbor woman. A lot of people have a lot of money tied up in Tom’s projects. A political bully boy and agent provocateur is ranging through the landscape, somehow involved. McGee himself is suspected of killing the nurse.

McGee does here what he does so well in other adventures: He prods and pokes at other characters, as well as the local power structures. He pressurizes the situation so that unknown individuals begin to push back—sometimes in dangerous ways—revealing that there’s more here than meets the eye. It’s not hard to figure out the villain. Not because the gears and wheels are all that visible, but because of who would logically want to put the demented woman out of action for good.

The convoluted plot doesn’t clarify until the end. When revealed, the mechanisms the bad guys relied on to achieve their ends seem rather complicated and improbable. Even for McGee, some ruminations overstay their welcome. One long paean to the mechanics of sexual intercourse, for example, rather takes the joy—not to mention the emotion—out of this usually enjoyable activity. (The passage is not explicit, just dreary and depressing and overwrought.)

Nevertheless, the main point of reading a McGee story is not the plot. It’s to spend some hours inside the head of that rangy boat bum and knight errant who quite a few millions of male readers earnestly wished they could have been. Female readers of McGee, it’s been said, wished they could be with him. Brown is one of the weaker books in the series, but any McGee fancier will of course want to read it.

As with any McGee, the title is no mere metaphor. The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper becomes literal in the course of the action—a queasy, unpleasant image that ranks with titles such as The Long Lavender Look and One Fearful Yellow Eye.