A Tan and Sandy Silence finds McGee in an odd, somnambulistic mood and Meyer uncharacteristically peevish. Something in the way of ennui is crawling around under their skins. They’re both pondering existential matters. Not the impending threat of incoming hostilities; neither man seems engaged in any kind of professional or personal struggle at this particular moment c. 1971. But both of them don’t very much seem to like where they are. The carefree life at Bahia Mar—where most of us would love to be—is seeming a bit empty.
McGee is engaged in a relationship with a wealthy British widow who’s in the market for a long-term male companion—handy arm candy, as she marches deeper into middle age. There’s nothing the least bit wrong with Jillian Brent-Archer. She’s attractive, smart, affectionate, great in the sack, owns a terrific sailboat and wants to spend her money having a good time with McGee—cruising, partying, making love. What’s not to like about that? Well, Trav, gnarly knight errant, finds a life at Jilly’s beck and call—however kindly and subtle the lady may be—to be oddly queasying. The very good deal that it would be is not a deal he can accede to. He cannot yet think of a life without the bent lance and rusty armor.
Into the midst of this miasma barges the boorish, unwelcome husband of one of McGee’s old flames. It seems Mary Broll three months earlier discovered her husband Harry pretty much in flagrente and skipped town. Harry—knowing his wife’s fondness for ol’ Trav—figures that ol’ Trav’ll know where to find her. It’s not that Harry’s doesn’t have some feelings for the missus, but he mostly needs her signature on an important financial instrument for a property development he’s working on. Thing is, Trav has no idea where Mary is. Really and truly. But Harry doesn’t believe him. Harry thinks the big boat bum is holding out on him and pulls a gun and starts shooting. The owner of the Flush just barely averts a nasty outcome. It’s not clear which depresses him more. That this fool of a philanderer would actually pull the trigger. Or that he, Travis McGee, the supposed professional tough guy, didn’t handle himself very professionally. He wonders if he’s getting soft, if he’s losing his edge.
Now McGee needs to know the story. So he and Meyer don their detective hats and track down where Mary Broll has gone to ground: A deluxe resort on the island of Grenada. But when Trav makes his way there, he discovers that the woman in the guest house occupied by “Mary Broll” is, in fact, not Mary Broll. On seeing the imposter, Trav intones: “My heart had turned heavy, and there was a taste of sickness in my throat. But you have to be certain, terribly certain. Like a biopsy. Make absolutely sure of the malignancy. Because the surgery is radical.” Trav puts on his scrubs and picks up his scalpel. As soon as he separates “Mary” from her momentary toy boy, he begins operating, to get the story of what really happened.
“Mary” is actually Lisa Dissat, the cookie with whom Harry Broll was found by the real Mary. She and her cousin Paul Dissat entangled Harry in a sex and money scheme that involved the murder of his wife. After all, the real Mary was never going to sign the financial document that Harry needed, after Paul arranged for her to discover Harry’s affair. So Harry was stuck with Paul and Lisa, come hell or high water.
Lisa would play the real Mary’s role for some months off in sunny Grenada, be in touch with real Mary’s best friend back home to establish “viability,” scam the bank, forge the signature on the document, and get the money to Harry. Faux Mary would arrange a bogus swimming fatality for the long-dead real Mary—body vanished, food for fishes. The new widower would find himself taken to the cleaners by the rapacious Paul…and possibly murdered himself, since he knows who his killed wife.
Trav intends merely to rattle the cages of Lisa and Harry, but spare their lives. For the lethal Paul he lays plans for one McGee Retribution Special. But he is indeed a bit slow and complacent—as Meyer feared at the beginning of the story. Sensing another predator circling his prey, Paul ambushes Trav and very nearly finishes the boat bum for good. Miraculously, he escapes by sea (one of his niftiest and luckiest ever), but for a time he’s damaged goods.
Trav has another close encounter with Paul—this time with Meyer also in jeopardy. And yet again—surprise, surprise—he just barely avoids doom. But for the forced jollity of the very last pages, Tan ends in the kind of dour rumination that opened it. Here McGee makes a kind of uneasy peace with who and what he is. He will remain true to himself. For better or worse
Excerpts from A Tan and Sandy Silence:
“I’m overdue. That’s what Meyer says, and that’s what my gut says in a slow cold coil of tingling viscera. Overdue, and scared, and not ready for the end of it yet. The old bullfighters who have known the famous rings and famous breeds despise the little country corridas, because they know that if they do not quit, that is where they will die—and the bull that hooks their steaming guts out onto the sand will be a poor animal without class or distinction or style.”
“She had deftly pushed a lot of my buttons. She had worked on proximity, touch, forthright invitation. She had talked in areas that accentuated sexual awareness. She smelled good, felt good, kept her voice furry and intimate. I knew she wasn’t being made wanton and reckless by my fabulous magnetism. We were moving toward an association, possibly profitable. For maximum leverage within that association of two, she wanted to put that weapon to work which had profited her in the past, probably in every relationship except the one with her cousin.”
“It was a good rip [tide] that carried me way out and put me into a sea current that seemed to be taking me due north at a hell of a pace, increasing speed the further out I got. The water was warm, and the sky was squinty bright, and I was gently lifted and dropped in the swell. It had been a good way to live, and given a choice of dying, it was as good as any that came to mind. I wanted to stay aware of the act of dying as long as I could… When it is the last sensation left, there is a hunger to use all of it up, just to see what it is like at the very end, if it is peace or panic.”
“I have an addiction. I’m hooked on the smell, taste, and feel of the nearness of death and on the way I feel when I make my move to keep it from happening. If I knew I could keep it from happening, there’d be no taste to it at all.”