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.’”