Dress Her in Indigo represents the half-way point of the Travis McGee adventures. Eleven down, ten to go—plus an eccentric little item that I’ll also be writing about.
This time around McGee is enlisted by his brainiac sidekick, the semi-retired economist known only as Meyer. It seems a banker friend of Meyer’s has lost his only child, a daughter, down Mexico way, circa 1969. As in, deceased, defunct, dead. The young woman had fled south of the border with a group of hippies. It seems that she accidentally drove herself over the edge of a treacherous mountain road. Ailing Old Dad doesn’t suspect anything untoward, but merely wants to know how his little girl—for whom he never seemed to have enough time when she was alive—spent her final months. Quite simply: Was she happy?
Trav and Meyer fly down to Oaxaca to answer this question. They begin to root around the hippie expatriate community. Some of the kids knew Bix Bowie, but didn’t know her well. The group of young people who came south with her—largely on her dime—had a shadowy reputation. In fact, may have dabbled in drug trafficking. One them, Rocko, was a dangerous sort. Hardly a flower child at all. In fact, a kind of predator of hippies.
Trav and Meyer connect with the retired American theater designer whose car Bix drove over that mountain cliff. Under duress, he reveals what he knows about Bix and his ominous dealings with Rocko. Trav gets more than he bargained for from another source of intelligence—a well-preserved member of the lesser British nobility who is an avid, rapacious nymphomaniac. (Apologies to modern sensibilities here, but JDM did his share of pandering to 1960s chauvinism. This stuff was still in the air then. But he was, to his credit, more enlightened than many of his fellow pulp novelists of that era. He was no misogynist, à la Richard Prather and Mickey Spillane. It took Robert Parker’s Spenser to make the first significant move away from that sensibility—a monogamous gumshoe, no less, loyal for 35 years to the maddeningly ideal Susan Silverman.) Trav and Meyer repeatedly bump into an American father searching for his missing daughter. Not least, there’s the wealthy, mysterious Frenchwoman with whom Bix stayed in her final days.
As the two Floridians peel back the layers of Bix’s life in Oaxaca, the facts of the case become more and more sordid and depressing. The group was indeed into the drug trade, attempting to smuggle heroin into the States. The precious Bix had become a helpless, filthy druggie, prematurely aged. Passed around among the men of the group as an item of sexual utility. Sold to Mexican field workers for a few pesos a time. Surviving members of the nasty little tribe are brutally murdered—presumably at the hand of Rocko. The presumptive villain of the piece stays frustratingly out of reach for much of the story.
To take this account very much further would spoil the surprises. But I think I can start to make certain generalizations about Indigo that won’t ruin the story for those who read it. And it’s time, again, to start expressing my opinions.
What the book clearly intends to do is depict what JDM—a member of the parent generation of the late ’60s—believes is a decadent and dangerous youth movement. He does not like hippies, not one little bit. He is very keen indeed to show the dark side of the lifestyle, through his mouthpiece Trav. This is a “big daddy” figure expressing his extreme disapprobation: Nothing good can come from this. Not every hippie depicted in Indigo is a depraved druggie, but even the best of them are painted as fools who are playing with fire.
In a sense, this is JDM at his most judgmental. And that would be very judgmental indeed: See what happens with you if you mess with these drugs and disconnection with normal culture and this lack of social responsibility. You end up a burned-out, brutalized addict who drives off a mountain road in Mexico.
And, it turns out, JDM/McGee very much hates something else in Indigo. Something JDM/McGee has hated before. It too is another visceral loathing of the 1960s big daddy.
I well understand that every McGee yarn—like every mystery/suspense written by every novelist—is about somehow making things right vis à vis the victim(s). It is about people—innocent or not—who are in extremis or murdered. Events and situations are necessarily unnaturally grim, in each and every story. Otherwise, why read them? Most of literature would be gone if jeopardy and doom weren’t at its core.
But in Indigo—one of the most dismal tales in the McGee canon—I think JDM goes over the top. I think it’s the work of a very cranky middle-aged man who’s pissed off at the freedom and political contrariness of his son’s generation. It’s the reflexive detestation of late-1960s political protesters that I saw in my own father, a member of the so-called “greatest generation.” It galled him that vast numbers of teenagers and young adults were questioning what the U.S. government was disastrously undertaking in Vietnam. Never mind that history has proved them correct. Beyond politics, the long hair galled him. The dope galled him. The weird clothes galled him. The music galled him. The lack of respect galled him. Just as I imagine it all galled JDM.
Despite some worthy McGee perquisites, I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Indigo. My three readings may be enough.
I have to remind myself, though, to put Indigo in perspective. It’s one of two books out of a series of twenty-one that I don’t care for. Pretty good batting average, I’d say. That second dud will appear here sooner or later. But next year I start with one of my favorites, number 12, The Long Lavender Look. McGee returns to the Busted Flush and dark doings in backwater Florida—back home, where he’s at his best.