14. The Scarlet Ruse

The Scarlet Ruse (1973) gets under way in the arcane world of high-stakes philately—stamp collecting. In fact, this might just be the most esoteric professional setting in the entire McGee canon. A friend of Meyer’s, Hirsh Fedderman, has a stamp shop in Miami. And he has a big problem that he’d like McGee to address.

The old man’s primary business is putting together investment-grade stamp collections for individuals looking to diversify their assets. But into this musty little precinct of Eden has come a serpent. Somehow, some way, someone has switched out the better part of a $400,000 investment collection—beautiful, valuable, pristine specimens—for junk and garbage. What’s there now is worth only a few tens of thousands. On most occasions there were three people in the bank vault where the switch could have taken place. Fedderman. His assistant, Mary Alice McDermit. And the client, Frank Sprenger. One other time Fedderman’s other employee, Jane Lawson , filled in for Mary Alice. It certainly wasn’t the old man. Sprenger never even touched the stamps or the portfolio they were in. Of course, Mary Alice—a loyal, beloved employee and stamp fanatic—is outraged when McGee even suggests her connivance. The upstanding Jane seems equally unlikely to have committed the theft. But clearly one of the women did it. Which one?

The set-up becomes clearer when McGee talks to an old friend with deep ties to Miami mobsters. Sprenger, it turns out, is the guy who makes sure that all the criminal groups in town get their fair share of the action. (Miami, like Vegas, was “neutral” ground for organized-crime families from other cities, and agreements were made between them. At least according to JDM.) It seems, therefore, that Sprenger has arranged to double his money—keeping the very valuable stamps as well as getting restitution from Fedderman for their “loss.” McGee has to figure out how the scam went down, and protect the old stamp dealer from financial and physical harm.

Somehow Sprenger catches wind of McGee’s interest in his stamp collection and sends two of his guys to try to buy McGee—to hire the big boat bum to investigate on his behalf. They make it clear that should McGee refuse the fee, it will be taken to mean that he’s in on the scam. McGee takes the money, but later persuades the dangerous Sprenger to lay off him. This connection proves to be vital.

Things take a nastier turn, though, when Jane Lawson turns up murdered. Her death could signify that she had the $400k stamp collection and someone took it from her. Or that she knew who’d done the job and was shut up in order to protect the real malefactor.

As McGee begins to put together the puzzle pieces, he devises a complicated plan—a master ruse—to draw out and trap Sprenger. It involves sending out Meyer (who is a helluva friend to put himself in such jeopardy) to bait the steely gangster; and setting up a theatrical scene to hell and gone out by an obscure mangrove island. The Busted Flush is to look abandoned; Trav’s little runabout, the Muñequita, is partly sunk; a faux corpse is arranged in a rubber dinghy with a big red floppy hat on its “head”; and his companion is tucked away out of sight. Trav has everything all planned out, down to a t. That is, until one of Sprenger’s sniper rounds shatters the mirror that covers the hidey-hole upon which McGee’s whole strategy depends. Things, of course, go down the crapper in a big hurry. And Trav—as he often does—sustains serious damage. He ends up recuperating under the tender ministrations of a dear old friend from his very first adventure—in fact, McGee Client Number 1.

(Haven’t you ever wondered, reading a McGee adventure or watching some action hero show, how these fictional heroes can sustain the breakage that they do and keep on heading back for more? I sure do. I’d love to have an ER doc go through the wounds and injuries of McGee and give an assessment: Does this guy have anything to do with what the human body is really capable of enduring and bouncing back from?)

JDM shows his hand earlier in this book than usual. But in the interest of helping you enjoy a little bit of suspense, I’ve resisted revealing very much. What I find most enjoyable about Scarlet is how someone as canny and smart as McGee can still be snowed by a clever operator. It’s fascinating to be there later on, in his head, as he deconstructs how he made mistaken assumptions and barged off in wrong directions, just as we did. How he was played like a Stradivarius.

McGee is very bright, very strong and very lucky, but Superman he ain’t. And that’s one of the big reasons why we love him.

Here are some choice quotations from The Scarlet Ruse:

“Good old Meyer. He can put a fly into any kind of ointment, a mouse in every birthday cake, a cloud over every picnic. Not out of spite. Now out of contrition or messianic zeal. But out of a happy, single-minded pursuit of truth. He is not to blame that the truth seems to have the smell of decay and an acrid taste these days. He points out that forty thousand particles per cubic centimeter of air over Miami is now called a clear day. He is not complaining about particulate matter. He is merely bemused by the change in standards.”

“It is humiliating, when you should know better, to become victim of the timeless story of the little brown dog running across the freight yard, crossing all the railroad tracks until a switch engine nipped off the end of his tail between wheel and rail. The little dog yelped, and he spun so quickly to check himself out that the next wheel chopped through his little brown neck. The moral is, of course, never lose your head over a piece of tail.”

“I am apart. Always I have seen around me all the games and parades of life and have always envied the players and the marchers. I watch the cards they play and feel in my belly the hollowness as the big drums go by, and I smile and shrug and say, Who needs games? Who wants parades? The world seems to be masses of smiling people who hug each other and sway back and forth in front of a fire and sing old songs and laugh into each other’s faces, all truth and trust. And I kneel at the edge of the woods, too far off to feel the heat of the fire. Everything seems to come to me in some kind of secondhand way which I cannot describe. Am I not meat and tears, bone and fears, just as they? Yet when most deeply touched, I seem, too often, to respond with smirk or sneer, another page in my immense catalog  of remorses. I seem forever on the edge of expressing the inexpressible, touching what has never been touched, but I cannot reach through the veil of apartness. I am living without being truly alive. I can love without loving. When I am in the midst of friends, when there is laughter, closeness, empathy, warmth, sometimes I can look at myself from a little way off and think that they do not really know who is with them there, what strangeness is there beside them, trying to be something else… Once, just deep enough into the cup to be articulate about subjective things, I tried to tell Meyer all this. I shall never forget the strange expression on his face. ‘But we are all like that!’ he said. ‘That’s the way it is. For everyone in the world. Didn’t you know?’”

“The first part of anything is usually easy.”



1 thought on “14. The Scarlet Ruse

  1. I’ve been working my way through the canon (rereading these books for the first time since I was in college, mumphy-umph years ago) and I was struck by the sense that, in the middle section of this one, McDonald seems to have taken a route through psychic real estate staked out by Jim Thompson. Two people tied uneasily together in a confined space, with one realizing only gradually that the other is far more monstrous than expected… yeah, it’s Thompson territory, but MacDonald does it really well.

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