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.

25 thoughts on “10. The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper

  1. as whacky as the Dormed angle is, Plain Brown Wrapper is one of the best, and one of the most beautifully paced crime stories i have ever seen. MacDonald was a machine. 21 McGees, and only a couple of clunkers in the lot. this definitely was not one of them.

    • I agree about JDM’s incredible batting average. I used to think Pink was one of the clunkers, but now I think it’s at least passable; I can read it and enjoy it. The one of the 21 that I positively hate, I haven’t written up yet. But when I do, I’ll lay into and see if you and any others agree/disagree.

      • unlike MacDonald and, i think, you, i never had much use for the first book. the one with blue in the title. it just didn’t move like the others. pink had its moments; the LSD sequence is completely horrifying. indigo was a bore. i loved all the others. One Fearful Yellow Eye had some problems with the crazy Nazi angle tacked on at the end, and Trav’s overlong monologue about his philosophy re women was one of MacDonald’s few embarrassments. but it’s so hideously entertaining a book, i may just crack it open for the eighth time and get lost in it.

        thanks for your essays. i love ’em.

      • Clem, thanks for the note and glad you enjoy my reviews. It’s been a blast doing them. I’m surprised you didn’t like Deep Blue Goodbye. I kind of think of it as the pilot episode; and far better than most pilots on the tube. It’s the almost-complete McGee package right from the get-go. The wounded damsel mended by Trav’s sexual healing. The dark doings in small town Florida. The grinning, scary, implacable villain. The McGee philosophizing. The action and violence. The fantasy life of the Busted Flush. Blue–along with Gray, Lavender, & Silver–are the top of the heap for me (Of course, we won’t see much of Meyer for a few more books. And it’s his addition that really closes the deal.) Re. the Nazi angle in Yellow, yes it’s wacky. But that book was written not too many years after Eichmann was caught and folks were still hunting around Argentina for Dr. Mengele. Improbable yes, impossible no. It’s a plot point that was in the air in those days.

      • i’ll have to read Blue again and see. maybe i was just having a bad day. i think my favorite is A Purple Place for Dying. that two-page description of the local community college is one of my favorite passages in the whole series. i also loved The Quick Red Fox.

  2. Reading The Deep Blue Goodbye, #1 in the series and just love it. I love it because it sets the stage for all the other books about who Travis McGee is, how he thinks about life and women and also, it’s a great storyline. Oh, I knew about the card game, of course, and how Trav got the Busted Flush, but had forgotten the particulars.

    This is my third go-around for the series but read Pink first because I had it on shelf, not Deep Blue. It occurred to me that if someone read it first, they may not pick up another because, I agree, it wasn’t one of the better books.

    This third time, believe I might enjoy it the most…looking that way.

    • Cathy, it’s funny that you mention not liking Pink so much. That was my reaction the first time I read it. And my wife emphatically didn’t like it; in fact, put her off McGee for a long time. But for my most recent read of Pink (for this blog 5years ago), I didn’t mind it so much. Maybe I’ve just mellowed a little bit. Still, it’s low ranking in the series. My current least fave will be revealed soon.

      • well, the McGee books weren’t high art or anything. Nightmare in Pink is a thriller. the LSD-in-the-sanitarium sequence is classic thriller stuff, the hero in an impossible predicament. it’s horrific. the description of life in Greenwich Village is very dated stuff, but i like the book. not one of the best, but most entertaining.

        i think Free Fall in Crimson was the best of the bunch.

      • Clem: The one with the air ballons was another of my not so favorites…the one where Trav finds the head in the sand, can’t recall title, my favorite, Tan, maybe? Will have to read them again. Can’t recall Crimson. Hate to read DR’s blog until I’ve read it but might take a peek!

        This time will do short review. When I read last time, did not know about Goodreads.

      • Hi DR:

        Yes, it is funny because my recent re-read, it didn’t bother me so much as the first time and second time I read it. Agree with you in that I’ve mellowed. Certianly understand your wife though.

        Still say, if people read #2 first, Pink, they may be tempted to not pick up another Trav for a while. As we know, he does move around to other areas but NYC second book? JDM should have waited a bit, I think and wish.

        BTW, the only picture (artwork) that I have ever seen of Travis is the cover of anthology…Dreadful Lemon, Copper, Crimson, Green and Tan. Travis with Busted Flush. Ever see another? Want to include in Blue Goodbye on Goodreads.

        Thanks for this…love the site, as you know and have let others know about it.


      • Cathy, I know that picture from the anthology cover. But they also put little head shots of Trav on older Fawcett paperbacks. Very small pix, but I can scan and send them to you, if you like…

  3. DR: If it’s not too much trouble, I would love to have it…honestly, the pix on the anthology cover did not seem like Travis to me. Would love to see another and if I like it better will substitute it for one there. Also, need to put your blog link in the review if you don’t mind.

    Love your blog, as you know.

    Thanks so much, Cathy

    • Clem, never thought of Harrison, but yeh, I can see that. Maybe not now.

      In my review on Goodreads, someone suggested Travis was a mysogynist. I almost had a kitten…anything but. Opinions…I can take them, sure, and wasn’t too offened but really?

      • I’ve often thought that Liam Neeson might embody McGee, though he’s getting a bit old now. A generation ago, Nick Nolte. Hopefully those rumors about Di Caprio doing the role have died off. Good actor, but not right for Trav. Re. misogyny… McGee would be a bit of a dinosaur now, but he was way ahead of his time in terms of attitudes towards women. It was a short hop from him to monogamous Spenser.

      • i’ve heard that MacDonald did everything he could to keep these books from getting turned into films. i wonder if even the best cast actor and the best screenplay imaginable would have anything to contribute. these books are basically movies already. same kind of entertainment. maybe any kind of McGee movie would be like a Beatles reunion, were they all still alive. better to leave well enough alone?

  4. Hummm, something to think about. Honestly, I don’t feel strongly either way. I guess a movie, if done right, could/would be good, maybe not. But if they did, could not see Di Caprio as Travis for sure.

    Have to agree with DR, Liam and especially Nolte, in his day, would have been great. Maybe Hugh Jackman, but after seeing clips of Les Misrerables…maybe not.

    I’m still shaking my head about that fellow saying he was a misogynist. He wasn’t a virgin as we know but hating women, far from it.

    He was like you said DR, ahead of his time at the time JDM wrote the books. Recalling Spenser before Susan, he messed around. hard to recall much though of his love life in the earlier books.

    Loving the conversation guys, thanks. Now going to read what you said, DR, on Amber. See if I can remember why that reader (woman) said some negative things about “my guy” Travis!

  5. Rod Taylor played McGee in the only McGee movie, Darker than Amber (1970). JDM wanted Steve McQueen or Vic Morrow. Sam Ellott played McGee in a TV movie of The Empty Copper Sea (1983), which was apparently pretty awful. (info courtesy wikipedia)

  6. liked The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper a lot for two reasons that occur right at the beginning.

    First, the story of McGee’s first encounter with Mick Pearson and family, particularly the mad dash across “the stream” with Meyer was exciting and finely told (though I admit McGee’s sexual healing routine is a bit much at times). Those events took place five years prior, which, according to my McGee chronology, is before the events in The Deep Blue Good-by by about a year or two, which is interesting. I always love the hints McDonald drops from time to time about McGee’s non-novel adventures. And I like the fact that Meyer was around back then.

    Second, I liked the actual marine salvage story. It would be fun to read an entire McGee adventure about an actual marine salvage job or treasure hunt like the one recounted in The Turquoise Lament.

    Anyway, great site.

    • Thanks, Hilts, and glad you enjoy the blog. Be sure to check out Steve Scott’s Trap of Solid Gold — now there’s a real McGee/JDM scholar.

      Interestingly, Brown was the first McGee review I wrote, a year before I started the blog. Don’t know what possessed me, but I had to put my thoughts down on paper and do the schtik I used to do as a newspaper book reviewer. I didn’t post it, of course, until about three years later.

    • Hi D.R. February 11, 2013 was the first time I posted here. How about that!

      You hit the nail on the head with your thoughts and words about Brown. It’s just slightly above Pink in my book. As I may mentioned, this is my third read and enjoying the series now more than ever.

      Glad you wrote your thoughts down, then later entered them here! I’ve spent many an enjoyable time here, D. R., so thanks!

  7. Clem…I think it’s great that people have different opinions of the same thing. I had to laugh when I read your comment right after mine. 😀

  8. Third time through the series,with the exception of a few of the books.
    Really enjoy checking the blog upon completion of each book.
    As an aside,I’m in the distinct minority when it comes to Sam Elliot’s portrayal.
    Terrible move adaptation though..

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