13. A Tan and Sandy Silence (Spoiler)

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.

 

 

 

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12. The Long Lavender Look

The twelfth of twenty-one Travis McGee tales, The Long Lavender Look finds our hero and his sidekick Meyer on their home turf in Florida. But instead of dark doings unfolding in the environs of Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, this yarn takes place in the backwater of Cypress County

McGee and Meyer are cruising home from a wedding they’ve attended, in Trav’s Rolls Royce “pickup,” Miss Agnes. It’s late at night on a two-lane road that bisects swamp and scrub land. In the blink of an eye, a scantily clad young woman darts out onto the road into the headlights. McGee slams the brakes and misses the dark-haired nymph by mere inches, then struggles to get the big Rolls back under control. He very nearly succeeds, but a tire blows and suddenly the two men find themselves upside down in a drainage canal, under water. Meyer hauls McGee out of the vehicle. Within minutes—as they hike back to the nearest outpost of “civilization”—some cracker drives by and takes a couple of potshots at them. Then the guy comes back and tries to persuade McGee and Meyer to come out for a palaver. But he’s calling after someone called “Orville” and “Hutch.” And with this fateful case of mistaken identity The Long Lavender Look chugs into gear.

When the two bedraggled, bug-bit friends turn up at Henry Perris’s service station ’round about dawn, the theme of mistaken identity continues—big time. Instead of being greeted as car-wreck victims in need of a recovery and tow, they’re arrested and held for the Sheriff of Cypress County on the charge of murder. It seems a local villain named Frank Baither has been brutally murdered and the two men are thought to be his former henchmen in a famous horse track robbery. Someone tortured Baither—recently out of the slammer—to find out where he stashed the cash. A scrap of paper found at the murder scene with McGee’s handwriting on it seals the deal, as far as Sheriff Hyzer’s concerned. Once in custody, Meyer gets the sap beat out of him by Deputy Lew Arnstead. Things are looking grim for the two residents of Bahia Mar until an attorney friend of McGee’s rides to the rescue. The murder scene evidence? Obviously a plant—something McGee tossed in the trash at the service station.

Meyer’s dispatched home for medical treatment, but Sheriff Hyzer requires McGee to stay. At loose ends in Cypress City, the big boat bum begins to nose around. First, he goes after Deputy Arnstead (who mangled Meyer), who is nowhere to be found. Seems the fellow started going bad months ago and may be hooked on speed. McGee touches base with the man’s mother and finds his stash of drugs and X-rated Polaroids. A buxom restaurant hostess who had a short and abusive relationship with Arnstead is McGee’s next stop. Her name is Betsy Kapp.

In one of the saddest sequences in the entire twenty-one adventures, Trav romances and romps Betsy with unseemly ease, the better to debrief her about Arnstead. He makes a brutal deconstruction of her earnest, eager romanticism and wannabe bravery—not to her face, but inside his own head. And maybe JDM is being true here. But it never struck me so forcefully in my other readings of Lavender that McGee’s disparagement of this basically decent woman is not merely heartbreaking but cruel. I’ll tell you, McGee can sometimes be an absolute SOB. It’s awfully hard to like him here.

After a night of rumpy-bumpy with Betsy in her cozy, frilly little love nest, McGee goes out to his car to discover the second set-up of his sojourn in Godamned Cypress County: The dead body of Deputy Arnstead, sprawled in the back seat, skull stove in. The two of them manage to dispose of the stiff, but would-be heroine Betsy stupidly ignores Trav’s directions and ventures beyond the safety of his motel room. And so the lady vanishes. That “long lavender look” memorably belongs to her.

As he peels away the layers of history and corruption, McGee discovers how rotten things truly are in Cypress County—despite the apparently virtuous Sheriff Hyzer. Arnstead’s collection of nudie Polaroids doesn’t depict his personal harem. Instead, it shows his string of semi-pro hookers. It’s his sample book. There are two other participants in the big casino heist besides Baither, Orville and Hutch—garage owner Henry Perris and his stepdaughter Lilo. It was Lilo—a pretty, randy, sinewy, sadistic little sexpot who was Arnstead’s enforcer with his whores—who dashed across Miss Agnes’s bow on that fateful late-night drive. Now remember how that scrap of paper with Trav’s scrawl turned up at the murder scene? And Henry Perris, garage owner, was in on the casino heist? Well now you begin to see the form of the frame-up. And the murder of Baither. And the vanishment of Orville and Hutch.

The fog especially begins to lift when McGee is “lured” by Lilo to a remote, rundown trailer home out in the woods on the pretext of some hard, sweaty horizontal dancing. Now of course Trav knows this black-hearted slut is about as trustworthy as a rattlesnake, but he plays along anyhow. And what ensues is one of JDM’s virtuoso set pieces of violence, bloodshed and doom—alone worth the price of admission to Lavender. After reading about the occurrence at the old trailer, you’ll never look at oyster knives the same way again.

One of my top-five fave McGees, Lavender may be the closest JDM ever gets to southern gothic. Because, after all, rural Florida—especially circa 1970—is in fact the deep south. This sinister tale could just as well have been set in Mississippi or Alabama or Louisiana. And it would make a brilliant southern noir up on the silver screen. I’d be delighted if this were the first new McGee movie instead of Blue. (Please, though, not Leonardo DiCaprio as Trav; a thousand times no. He’s a bit over the hill for Trav, but I see Liam Neeson as the Ft. Lauderdale boat bum…Saul Rubinek as Meyer…Ed Harris as Sheriff Kyzer…Megan Fox or Ali Larter as Lilo… Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?)

In Lavender JDM spins a tangled tale. And at times the dense skeins of plotting—both visible and invisible—make for a baffling read. But in the end, it all becomes clear. As for McGee, in the closing pages he is taken very near to death’s door, but happily survives in order to bestow upon us nine more adventures.

Excerpts from The Long Lavender Look:

[Meyer] turned and looked solemnly at me, puffy eyes staring out of the big yellow-blue-green-purple face. ‘Where is any man’s immunity from the unexpected, McGee? I could deny myself the pleasure of your friendship, and decrease the chance of the unexpected. But there is a case on record of a woman in her own bed being struck on the thigh by a bounding chunk of red hot iron, a meteorite that came whistling in from God only knows what corner of the galaxy. I value that night hike, Travis. And the way the dawn looked, and the feeling of being alive after being shot at. I am a grown-up, making choices. And sufficiently grown up to live with the choices I make. My face hurts and my head aches, and I would like to kill that side-burned fellow with anything I could lift. I feel outraged, humiliated, and very very tired. But I’m glad I came along.’”

I stood in the night, listening, and felt my nostrils widen. Another atavistic reflex, snuff the air for the drifting taint of the stalking carnivore, long after the noses have lost their sensitivity and cunning. Heart bumping under the stimulus of adrenalin, readying the muscles, blood, brain, for that explosive effort necessary for survival in a jungle of predators.

I remembered Meyer telling me that if I ever scored very very big, I had the natural tendency to turn into a one-hundred-percent bum. ‘And when you lose that last one percent,’ he said, ‘I might find you dreary. Sporadic monetary anxiety becomes you. It keeps you polite.’”